Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Berryman's 100th Birthday


The poet John Berryman would have been 100 years old this Saturday. Here’s a poem I wrote about visiting the site of his suicide. 



Washington Avenue Bridge

to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless”
—John Berryman

Here, we stand
facing north
and leaning forward—
the railing halving us
and preventing us
from tilting out
as Berryman did,
shocked and fainting
falling through
that January cold
to the bank below
frozen hard as stone
that early into the new year.

Now, it’s June
and we have made our way
from Arthur Avenue
from the house he left that morning,
from that last meal,
that last drink,
that last written word
on that last X’ed-out sheet of paper—
to this place,
following his short via crucis,
keeping and pausing at each station
where he stumbled
or wavered
or looked back the way he came
to this two-tiered goal,
to this place
where whatever martyrdom
he planned for himself awaited him—
a throat not cut after all,
no gush of blood
to bring on the final resolve to tip out
into the air
and attempt flight.

Here are the foot spaces,
where he last touched ground
before the fall,
where he grasped the rail,
swaying out.
We kneel and touch the pavement
and grasp what he grasped
and gaze at what he gazed at last
through those frosted-over lenses.

We do it the way pilgrims do
in Chimayó or Široki Brijeg,
touching whatever has been made holy
by the violent witness
the saint made in blood.

We are pilgrims
because he was who he was
to us and to all that we
have carried with us all this way—
to this ledge, to this railing,
to this sweep of earth and river
beneath us
that makes us dizzy
and faint and unwilling
to attempt
like him
to fly.


From Crow, copyright (c) 2012 by Jamie Parsley.


John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet who, on January 7, 1972, jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At the time of his death, he was living at 33 Arthur Avenue in southeast Minneapolis. Chimayó is a popular pilgrimage site in northern New Mexico. Šokori Brijeg is the site in the former Yugoslavia where forty-three Roman Catholic Franciscan priests and brothers were murdered by Communist Partisans on February 18, 1945

Sunday, October 19, 2014

19 Pentecost

October 19, 2014

Matthew 22.15-22

+ Last week, in our Gospel reading, I was blunt—and honest—with you. I told you then that I did not like the parable we were told by Jesus.

It was a difficult story that, by today’s standards, would’ve been torn to  pieces by critics.

But if we’re patient in our faithful listening to these Gospel stories, we can almost bet that for every one story we might not like—like last week’s story—there will be one that we really get.

Today, is one of those Gospel readings. I like this Gospel reading.  In it we find Jesus being confronted by the Herodians and the Pharisees, both whom are enemies of each other, but for this brief moment, they are ganging up on Jesus.

I love it when Jesus and the Pharisees go head-to-head. Actually, I feel kind of sorry for the Pharisees. They think they’re really smart and clever, but they’re really not.  They begin with a compliment of course.  Yes, that’s the way to begin.  They know: a compliment will truly throw off the person you are about to trap.

But Jesus is too smart for them of course.  He turns their question back on them. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks about the coin. He asks about a coin he, if you notice, does not carry.  Nor does it seem he ever touches it.

As we know, Roman coins were ritually unclean in the Jewish culture.  The emperor Caesar was viewed as a god, and that made them unclean to good, pious Jews. Using the coin as his reference, he lets the Pharisees have it.

Give to God’s what is God’s, he says. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Simple enough.

It seems he is making a clear distinction between the religious and the secular to some extent, which is speaks loud and clear to us during this election time.  He seems to making that distinction between God and government.

But…not really. The real point he is making here can be found when we put it all in perspective.  Jesus and every good, loyal Jewish male there on that day was required to pray a prayer every day.  Jesus no doubt prayed that prayer that morning, as did every devout Jewish male (and no doubt many Jewish females) that day.

The prayer is a simple prayer. It’s called the Shema

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The Shema is, of course, the summary of the Law.  But it is a summary of all belief for a Jew. It essentially renders to God, what is God’s.  But if you listen closely to what the Shema says, you realize: Jesus’ statement really isn’t an either/or statement.  

He’s simply saying that once what is God’s is rendered to God, there is nothing else.  There are no other options for those of us who are God’s people.  For those who love God with all their heart, all their soul and all their might, there is nothing else.  Rendering anything to Caesar’s is simply not an option. For us, it is a matter of realizing we don’t have the option of turning our Christianity on and off.  We are always followers of Jesus, in everything we do.  Everything we do and say begins and ends in following Jesus.  We don’t have the option of being a Christian when it suits us and being secular when it doesn’t.  We are a follower of Jesus all the time—in everything we do and every aspect of our lives.  And it is important to remind ourselves of this.

On Friday, one of the great bishops of the Episcopal. Bishop Tom Shaw, former Bishop of
Massachusetts, died. Bishop Shaw was, in addition to being a Bishop, a member of an Episcopal religious order, The Society of St. John the Evangelist. Both James and I are members of the Fellowship of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

In the Rule of the SSJE, there is a wonderful chapter on what they call “Eucharistic living.” It’s one of my favorite chapters in the Rule.  As laid out in the Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Eucharistic living is, in a sense, living out the Eucharist we celebrate here on Sunday in everything we do.  It means we carry this Eucharist with us long after we have walked away from this altar.  It means that, in being fed, we too then go out and share and feed.

Being a follower of Jesus means that we live the Bread of Jesus and the wine of his blood. It is not easy to live Eucharistically. Because by doing so, we are rendering the things that are God’s to God.   And rendering the things that are God’s to God is not easy.

It is much, much easier to render the things to Caesar that are Caesar’s.  It is easy to let the establishment stay established. It is easy to be chameleons to some extent, to change ourselves to suit whatever situation may arise so that we can quietly fade into the background, or so we can hold on, for a moment, to the control we have worked to maintain.

But for us, who follow Jesus, doing so is a sell-out. It truly is a turning away from Jesus and all he stands for. It is, essentially, a way in which we turn our Christianity on and off like a switch to suit our own personal needs.  It is hard to be a Christian in every aspect of our lives.  It hard to love God in all things.  It is hard to love our neighbors in all things.  It is hard, very often to love even ourselves in all things.

But that is what it means to render to God the things that are God’s.  It means giving to God all that is God’s.  

And we belong to God.  We are the conduits of that all-loving, all-accepting God.  We are the bearers of that radical, all-powerful love of God.

So let us truly render to God what is God’s.  Let us live out our lives eucharistically.  Let us live fully the Bread we eat at this altar, sharing what we are nourished on here with everyone.  Let us fully share this wine we drink here at this altar, quenching the thirst of all those we encounter in our lives.  And with Christ dwelling within us in this way, let us be that radical Presence of love and acceptance to all those we encounter.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

18 Pentecost

October 12, 2014


Isaiah 25.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

+ I did a wedding last night. Now, weddings, for the most part, for me anyway, can be wonderful and great, or truly a cross to bear. Last night’s was one of the good ones.  The bride was a long-time friend of mine. The banquet afterward was probably the closest I’ll ever get to doing a big, Catholic, Stearns County German wedding. It was truly a party. With polka, even!

But I gotta say, I thought a lot about this Gospel reading for today, last night. It’s just such a pointless story isn’t it? I know, I shouldn’t be saying that about a parable. But, to be honest, I just don’t like it. The structure is so off.  If this was a short story in one of my writing workshops, it would’ve been torn apart and reassembled. There’s almost nothing, at face value, worth redeeming.

But, let’s not throw it out yet.  Let’s not completely abandon this story just because we find it unpleasant.

(If you find this unpleasant, wait until my book of short stories is published…)

First of all, it definitely seems that Matthew definitely has an agenda in this story. Obviously Matthew is directing this at the Jews. And when we see it from that perspective, it kind of starts making a bit of sense.

The first guests, as we discover, are the nation of Israel. The first slaves represent the prophets, who were also beaten up and killed for trying to tell them what God wanted.
The second slaves are the apostles. And, if you notice, the second group of people are very different than the first group. They’re the Church.

At this point, “everyone” has been invited. “Everyone” is an important clue to this story. “Everyone” means everyone.

So, what Matthew is trying to have Jesus tell us is that Israel ignored God’s message, and as a result, the Kingdom was given to others. That’s certainly what we’ve been hearing in our Gospel readings lately. The Kingdom can—and has been—given to others

So, we have these slaves going out and inviting everyone. The apostles were called by Jesus to do just that. They were called to invite everyone—not just the elite. Not just the best guests. Everyone.

That’s great. That’s wonderful.

What happens next is the real pivot here.  The second coming essentially happens. The King arrives. Now, that sounds great. We’re all looking forward to the Second Coming. We’re all looking forward to the King arriving.

But wait…. It’s not all pleasant and beautiful. Why? Because someone gets thrown out. This poor guy who isn’t wearing a wedding robe gets thrown out.

What? That’s not what we want for this story. If everyone gets invited, who cares if someone is wearing a robe or not? Now it sounds terrible to us.

But, but, but… Let’s keep it in the context of its time.  At that time, not wearing the wedding robe that was provided to the guests was an insult. It was essentially a way of saying that, Yes, I’m here at the wedding, yes I’m going to eat and drink, but I’m not really going to participate. I’m going to get what I need out of this, but when I do, I’m gone. I’m not really going to make a commitment to this feast. I’m going to be a bad guest.

And this is the real gist of this story.

Now, the good thing about this is that, it’s all about choice. We have a choice. We choose to go. We choose to be a good guest or a bad guest. God did not make us into mindless robots, after all.

But there are ramifications to what we choose.  My motto for life, as you know is: the chickens always come home to roost.

The fact is, by not wearing the robe, we’re not really present. We’re saying no to the King.  For us, it’s kind of the same here. We can be here. We can sit here in our pews. Or up there in the presider’s place. But we don’t have to be a part of it all. We can be obstinate. We can cross our arms and critique everything about the sermon or the liturgy or the music or the way the altar is set up, etc.  We can close our minds and hearts and be bitter and complain. We can nitpick or backbite or stomp our heels because we don’t like it.  We’ve all known those kind of people in the church.  I’ve done it myself.

Or we can be a part of it all. And not just here, in church on Sunday. As we know, it’s a lot more than just church on Sunday that makes us Christians—that makes us good or bad Christians. Ultimately, it is about what we do out there. If we are jerks to people, if we are close-minded, if we judgmental, if we’re sexists and homophobic and mean-spirited, then we’re not really doing a good job as Christians. If we refuse to love, we’re refusing the wedding robe.

The fact is, everyone is invited to the banquet. I say it again and again. We’re all invited. And it really isn’t that hard to get in. But sometimes it is really hard to be a good guest at the banquet. Sometimes, we really just don’t want to participate. Sometimes it’s just easier to cross our arms and pout in the corner.  Sometimes it’s easier to not love and respect others.  Because, we’ve so often not been loved and not respected by others.  And that’s our choice to react like that.

But it’s not what is expected of us. We’ve been invited to the banquet! We should be glad! We should be excited. We should don that wedding robe and do whatever else needs to be done to be a good guest. Because, it’s not fun being all by one’s self on the outside of the party, looking in at everyone who’s there.

And that’s where we put ourselves.  That’s where we often go to pout and feel bad about ourselves.

Luckily our God, who truly does love us, who truly does want us at the banquet, never lets us stay out there—outside the party—for long. The invitation from our God keeps coming. And we have many opportunities to put on that wedding robe and rejoin the banquet.  That’s all the bad guests had to do to rejoin the party.

So, let us put on the wedding robe. Let us not cast ourselves off into the exterior.  Let us not alienate ourselves with our bitterness and anger.  But let us join the banquet in love. Let us heed the invitation. Let us celebrate, and be joyful and be glad. That’s what our Host wants from us.  

And when we do, we can truly echo those words we hear today from Isaiah:
“This is our God, the one for we have waited…Let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

17 Pentecost


Matthew 21.33-46

October 5, 2014

+ This is not a question you are asked very often. Or probably EVER. But…what are you zealous for? No, not jealous. Zealous. For what do you have zeal?

I know. Yes, some of us have real zeal for sports. Or for political causes.

I, as some of you know, have real zeal for music—for alternative from the 1990s, especially. Oh, and for poetry. Oh, and God, of course.

But zeal is a word we don’t use too often anymore. And, at least in this part of the country, we are, for the most part, uncomfortable with zeal. 

Now to be fair, being zealous, of course, is not a bad thing by any means.  

This morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that keeps us on our toes.  It may even make us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves.  Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today.  These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want.  And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them.  It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts. The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging.

At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God.  The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus.  The Vineyard is symbolic of the Kingdom.  And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus.  From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder.

But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together.  It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable.  As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit.  It isn’t a story that we want to emulate.  I HOPE none of us want to emulate it. But again, Jesus DOES twist this story around for us.

The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers.  We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions in our heart. Not because we inherently bad.  But because we sometimes can be just as resolute.  We can sometimes be just that zealous. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want.

We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we might occasionally ride roughshod over others.  And when we do so, we find that we are not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing.  We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom.  We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God.  But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us.  It can be given to others.  Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose.  Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes the changes in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope.  It can also make us zealots.  It can make us fanatics.  And this world is too full of fanatics.  ISIS is a good example of fanatics in this world.

This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear Jesus today tell us teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far.  If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return.  And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us.

For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians, we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures.  But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable.  It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it.

As I have said, again and again, it is not just about any ONE of us, as individuals.  It is about us as a whole. If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us.

If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level.  If we take the parable of the vineyard workers and apply it honestly to ourselves, we find it does speak to us in a very hard way.

Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us.  It should move and motivate us.  We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst.  But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers.  It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God, and not on all the little nitpicky, peripheral stuff.  A story like this prevents us, hopefully, from becoming mindless zealots.  What does it allow and commend is passion.  What it does tell us is that we should be excited for the Kingdom. True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes.

It makes us restless.  It frustrates us.  True zeal also energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst.  

This is what Jesus is telling us again and again.  He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world.  He is telling is, very clearly, that is it not just about any ONE of us.  It is not about our own personal agendas.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst.  And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love.  Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self.

This is what Jesus preached. That is the path Jesus is leading us on.  This is the path we walk as we follow after him.  And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, let us follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal.  Let us set out to do the work we have to do as workers in the vineyard with love in our heart and love in our actions.  And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”