So, 6 months ago tomorrow
(Nov. 1), I stopped drinking alcohol. As noble as it might sound, it wasn't.
For almost four years I had been having my fair share of stomach
issues--ulcers, severely upset stomach, a kind of "broken glass"
feeling in the pit of my stomach. The "broken glass" feeling, over
time, got worse and worse. Finally 6 months ago, I ended up sick
for three days. It was only then that I fully realized that I was
getting sick due to alcohol. My doctor and others said that it is entirely
possible that some people can develop (or simply ignore the fact that they
have) an allergy of some sort to alcohol. My doctor then said to me:
"Listen, you don't need it. If it's causing you to feel this way, just
give it up." It made absolute sense. What surprised me most was
how easy it was to actually give up. Certainly, it has not caused me to
sacrifice any aspect my social life: I
still love going out to my favorite places. I still love my vintage bar
wear. I still love hosting parties and being with my friends at bars.
But by far the most important part of it
all is that, with my vegan lifestyle, I have never, ever felt better. I honestly
don't think I even felt this good even in my 20s.
“This is my
commandment, that you love one another
as I have loved
The feast of Bl. James Hannington and Companions
Members and Friends of St. Stephen’s,
might know, Bishop Michael Smith, in the November issue of The Sheaf, issued a letter regarding the topic of same-sex marriage
rites in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. His letter in full follows this
letter. I invite you to prayerfully and respectfully read his letter.
reactions of the members of St. Stephen’s to his letter may no doubt vary. Some
may feel anger or frustration. Others may agree with Bishop Smith’s opinion.
In the recent
past, I have purposely not responded to this issue because I, like many of you,
have been waiting patiently for Bishop Smith to make a comprehensive statement
regarding his making provision for same-sex marriage rites in the Diocese. On at
least one occasion I attempted a conversation with Bishop Smith regarding this
issue; no doubt, he already assumed where I stood on this matter.
priest of St. Stephen’s, it is not my duty to tell the people of our
congregation what they should or should not do. I can only encourage. I can only
walk beside you. And I, of course, will support any decision you make as a congregation.
I can also share my own insights with you.
Smith’s letter was not a surprise to me, although I will admit that I was disappointed
that Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) was the only option offered
to the Diocese.
letter does now draw a very clear and distinctive line in the sand. He makes
clear (and rightfully so) that this matter is no longer an issue of polity, nor
is it an issue of loyalty—either to the Diocese or to the Bishop. It is now a very clear issue of
conscience. Bishop Smith’s final statement makes this clear:
Each of us one day will be called upon to give an account before
God for what we have done or not done during this life, as we stand before the
“great judgment seat of Christ.” At this time in our history, I am keenly aware
of the scriptural warning of the letter of James: “Not many of you should
become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater
strictness” (James 3:1)
entirely with this statement. Each one of us WILL one day be called to give an
account before God for what we have done or not done during this life. I, for
one, am not willing to stand before “the great judgement seat of Christ” and
say that I stood by quietly while people continued to be excluded and marginalized
from the Church or given second (or third)-class treatment. For me, my goal as
a follower of Jesus has always been to live out his command:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as
yourself.” (Luke 10.27).
Episcopalian, I take very seriously those vows we make from the Baptismal
Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 305):
“Will you seek and serve
Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice
and peace among allpeople,
and respect the dignity of every humanbeing?”
In my opinion, the issue of full and equal acceptance of all people in
this Church and to its rites is an issue
of justice. This is an issue of respecting the dignity of every human being.
This is an issue of living out Christ’s command to love one another as God loves
Stephen’s has, from its very beginning in 1956, been a congregation that has
worked hard to be a place of radical hospitality and acceptance. That mission
of all-accepting love has been vital in the lives of countless people who have
found with us a place of solace and sanctuary. We have consistently welcomed the
alienated, the shunned, the marginalized and the discarded. For us, this is
what it means to be Christians in this day and age. For us, this is what it
means to make the Kingdom of God a reality in this world. And we will continue
to do this in the most radical ways. To
do less would be to be untrue to our calling as followers of Jesus.
is now in our court. How we proceed will be of the utmost importance. My hope
is that we will do so intentionally and prayerfully, allowing God’s Holy Spirit
to be with us and guide us
our decision may be as a congregation, these next weeks and months will be a
time for discernment and introspection. I ask that we proceed in a spirit of
grace and humility. I pray that we will allow the Holy Spirit to continue to
work in our midst, and that we allow God’s all-powerful love to reign.
that in mind, I caution us from any temptation to demonize Bishop Smith or
anyone else who shares a similar position. Our ministry of love and full-acceptance
extends to our relationship with them as well. They are not our enemies; rather
they are our sisters and brothers in Christ, and we must continue to see them
as such. The command from Christ to love all as God loves us extends, of
course, to them as well.
that in mind, we must now accept the fact that the line, as I previously said, has
now been clearly drawn. We have been given an opportunity to weigh our options
and to proceed in our following of Christ.
do we proceed? First, I ask you to read Bishop Smith’s letter with an open mind
ask you to share your opinions with me, or with our Senior Warden, Leo Wilking,
Junior Warden, Catherine McMullen or with any of our vestry members. Your opinion is vital in how we proceed as a
all, I ask for your prayers. Pray for the grace and wisdom to move forward.
Pray for those individuals in our congregation who are most directly affected
by these issues and who are, in this moment, feeling pain and discouragement as
a result of this division. Pray that we can, in all integrity, make wise
decisions, avoiding all malice and ill-will as we do so.
that you pray for Bishop Smith and for all our sisters and brothers in Christ in
the Diocese of North Dakota at this time. Please pray also for Bishop Michael
Curry, who will be consecrated as the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
on November 1. Pray for the leadership of our Church.
especially pray for our congregation of St. Stephen’s. We ask that the Holy
Spirit will be present with each of us as we discern our future together, as we
strive to continue to do the ministry we have been called to do, and as we
follow Jesus where he leads. Please pray for our Senior and Junior Wardens, as well
as our Vestry as they weigh the option placed before them and proceed
please do pray for me. Know each of you remain, as always, in my prayers as
well. It is a true joy for me to be your priest.
Bishop Michael Smith’s Letter from the November issue of The
Friends in Christ:
letter in the July-August issue of The Sheaf included the reasons why I cannot
in good conscience authorize the trial rite of Same Sex Marriage for the
the enabling resolution for the rite gave authority to the Diocesan Bishop to
make such a decision, it also included the directive that the Diocesan Bishop
“will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to
have access to these liturgies.”
concluded a process of consultation seeking the advice of those clergy who are
responsible for solemnizing marriages about what course of action I should
take. As one might imagine, our clergy are quite a diverse lot in terms of their
views on same sex marriage: some are conscience-bound to uphold the traditional
teaching of the church on marriage between a man and a woman; others hope to
solemnize same sex marriages; still others do not believe the new rites are
biblical marriage, but think a blessing of some kind is in order. (This last
option is no longer possible, according to General Convention, for those who
live in civil jurisdictions where same sex marriage is legal.) It is good for
us to remember that theological diversity is honored in the Episcopal Church
and “no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in
any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her
theological objection to or support for [same sex marriage.]”
consulting widely with the diocesan priests-in-charge, I have decided to offer
Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO)4 to those congregations requesting
it. According to the provisions of DEPO, if the priest-in-charge and two-thirds
of the members of a vestry ask me, I will appoint another bishop to provide
oversight for the three-yea rperiod between General Conventions.
to what some have understood, DEPO has nothing to do with a congregation’s
relationship with the other congregations of the diocese. Rather, it has to do
with the congregation’s relationship with the bishop. A congregation receiving
delegated episcopal pastoral oversight would still remain active in the life of
the diocese. My office would pay for an annual visit by the DEPO bishop.
course of these months of consultation, I have been reminded by some that the
traditional view of marriage I hold is a “minority” one in the Episcopal
Church. This may be true, as it is for other declining churches of Western
secular cultures, but the fact remains that the traditional view of marriage
between one man and one woman for life remains the teaching of our own Book of
Common Prayer, as well as the teaching of the
majority of the Anglican Communion, and global Christianity in general. Just
weeks ago, the primates of the Global South, representing the majority of
We grieved one more time at the unilateral decisions taken
by the last General Convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA to
redefine marriage and to accept same-sex marriages (Resolutions A036 and A054).
We see these latest resolutions as a clear departure from not only the accepted
traditional teaching of the Anglican Communion, but also from that of the one
Holy, Universal, and Apostolic
Church, which upholds the scriptural view of marriage
between one man and one woman. (Lambeth Resolution 1:10, 1998.)6
us one day will be called upon to give an account before God for what we have
done or not done during this life, as we stand before the “great judgment seat
of Christ.” At this time in our history, I am keenly aware of the scriptural
warning of the letter of James: “Not many of you should become teachers … for
you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
May the Lord have mercy on all of us whose responsibility it is to teach the
+ This past week in our Deacons’
class, our prospective deacons got an intellectual workout. After starting out
nice and easy for a few weeks, I sort of cracked the knuckles on them. They got
the start of boot camp last Tuesday night. We went through a very hectic, very
intense hands-on liturgical class. We went through all the vestments and the
meaning of the vestments, we went through the Mass and what the Deacon’s responsibilities
were and then we had an instructed Mass that was, for me anyway, lots of fun.
But, poor Jessica and John! You should be praying for them! On Tuesday
night they got to see a side of me few people see. Yes, I know.
You see before you, on Sunday morning, this nice, mild-mannered
vegan teetotaler pacifist priest and poet. But underneath this calm, Zen-like exterior,
lurks a true drill sergeant. And they got to see it.
I had warned them about it. So had Deacon Charlotte Robbins from the
Cathedral who spoke to the class a few weeks ago (I helped train her deacon’s
class many years ago when I was at the Cathedral. I ended up having a bit of a
reputation for my drill sergeant ways then when I told the clergy there that
they had to start wearing black shoes every time they vested. Now before you
think I was being a jerk: it was not uncommon before that for vested clergy to
be wearing sandals, sneakers or even bare feet. I wasn’t too popular after that
little bit of cracking the whip. But they looked professional after that). But
I don’t think any of them thought I could be, of all things, a drill sergeant.
Oh, how wrong they were. At
one point, poor Jessica, in a moment of exhaustion, exclaimed, “Oh, fer sure!” They
ended up getting a semester’s worth of intense, solidly Anglo-Catholic
liturgical theology and training in a few hours. That class left them, let’s say, a bit
bleary-eyed in the end. They kind of
wearily limped out of the church on Tuesday night after class.
Which is good. We all need that kind of situation and discipline on
occasion. One of the important things we discussed when talking liturgy and the
worship of the Church was how essential prayer life is for any of us who are ministers
in the Church. Without a solid foundation of personal prayer, all that we do in
church on Sundays is without a solid base.
You heard me say, last week, that those of who are ordained are
not the only ministers of the Church. All of us who have been baptized are
ministers of the Church. And for our ministry to be effective, we need to have
a strong and very solid prayer life to support that ministry.
I, of course, highly encouraged our diaconal students—as I do you
on occasion—to begin praying the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer
from the Book of Common Prayer every day as the first foundation. From the
offices and from the Mass, our prayer life as followers of Jesus flourish. Now
for many of us, the Daily Offices are not something we can fit into our busy
But, no matter how busy our lives are, we must always have a
strong foundation of prayer. And that prayer life can be very simple. Simple
little prayers throughout the day are sometimes, by far, the most effective prayers.
I have been reading a wonderful book on prayer by a member of
Anglican religious order (yes, there are religious orders in the Anglican
Church) the Society of St. Francis, by the name of Br. Ramon. This book of his was lovely. It was called Praying the Jesus Prayer Together.
The Jesus Prayer, for those of you who might not know, is a prayer
very popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, it is kind of the “Gem” of the
Eastern Church. We’ll talk about the actual Jesus prayer in just a moment. First, let’s take a look at where the Jesus
Prayer came from.
This morning, in our Gospel, we find the
kernel from which the Jesus Prayer arises. And I really enjoy our Gospel
reading this morning. It is a story that
at first seems to be leading us in one direction, then something else happens. We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of
course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of
Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense
that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of
Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we also find of course that
he is blind.
Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going
to happen. We know where this story is
going. We know Bartemaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see. But
the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we
will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little
prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel like a
wonderful little treasure.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
It’s beautiful! It’s perfect! This prayer is essentially the basis for the
popular Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church and Br. Ramon’s wonderful book.
At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple. But, obviously, according to our Gospel for
today, the prayer is important. Jesus
does what he is asked. He has mercy on
this man and heals him.
So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how
to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer. Jesus occasionally gives us
advice in the gospels on how we should pray. The first one that probably comes to mind
probably is the Lord’s prayer, the Our Father. But today we find a prayer very different than
the Lord’s prayer.
The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge
and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against
us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.
The prayer we hear this morning cuts right
to the very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our
very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart. The words
of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray
all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray. Here it is, summed up for us.
More often than not, our prayers are simple, one word prayers. And
the one word prayer we probably pray more than anything—I do it anyway—is:
“Please!” I pray so often. Or
sometimes it’s: “please, please, please!”
Poor God! Having to listen to that prayer all the time. The one word prayer I should be praying more
than anything is:
But the Jesus prayer definitely comes from that kind of heart-felt
prayer. Here are the words we long to
use in those prayers without words.
“Jesus, have mercy on me!”
Or, in the more Anglo-Catholic tradition, you will find written on
gravestones stones and elsewhere,
Now the actual Jesus Prayer is only
slightly more expanded. The Jesus Prayer
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God [or Son of
the living God], have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Or slight variations of those words.
The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same. In the
Eastern Church, the “Jesus Prayer” it is also called “the prayer of the heart.”
That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the
heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer
would be the words of our heart. The
fact that it is so simple is what makes the Jesus prayer so popular. Anyone can memorize it and anyone pray it with
true meaning. It is a prayer we can
repeat to ourselves over and over again. In fact, it is a prayer that demands
to be repeated. It’s almost impossible not to repeat it. And it’s not as though
we are mindlessly babbling on for sake of “saying our prayers.”
What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless
as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and
addresses our very own limitations. It
is essentially the ceaseless prayer that should be going within us all the
time. It is the prayer of absolute humility.
“Have mercy on me.”
Or, going back to our discussion about one word prayers, the one
word from this prayer we would be praying is “mercy.”
“Have mercy on me.”
We are humans, with all the limitations and shortcomings that
entails. But rather than groaning about
it and bewailing our misfortune, in this prayer we are able to acknowledge it
and to simply offer it up. Like
Bartimeaus, we can simply bring it before God, release it, and then walk away
There is no room for haughtiness when
praying this prayer. The person we are
when we pray it is who we really are. When
all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in
and takes over for us.
This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we
“present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—the
Jesus prayer—such a popular prayer for so many. And this prayer does not even
have to be about us. We can use this
prayer when praying for others. How easy
it is to simply pray:
Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.
It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple
words can pack such a wallop. We don’t
have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and
petitioning God. We simply need to open
our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very
similar to the words of the Jesus prayer.
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”
So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is
in our heart. Let us open ourselves
completely and humbly to God. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of
our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that
causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not
see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time. Like Bartemaeus,
we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking
through into our lives. And when that
blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too
will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow Jesus on the way.
I was very honored to read with these wonderful poets last night at the Museum of Art at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. (from left to right, Madelyn Camrud, Dale Jacobson, Heidi Czerwiec, Dave Solheim, Denise Lajimodiere, Jamie Parsley, Debra Marquartt
+ Well, we can close the book on another Diocesan Convention. Yes,
yesterday, Leo Wilking, John Baird, Sandy Holbrook, Donna Clark, William
Weightman and Gin Templeton, and me, were in Bismarck, doing what we sometimes do
best—representing St. Stephen’s.
Compared to some, it was a very
quiet, very uneventful convention. One might even say it was a bit…boring.
I was expecting…I don’t know. Something.
But no. Not that I’m complaining, mind
you. Give me this kind of convention any day over some of the conventions I’ve
been to in the past.
Let me tell you, I’ve seen some
difficult conventions. Conventions in which there has been bickering, in which
there was arguing, and, of course, when there was much jockeying for positions.
This, as we all know, is sometimes what
the Church is, whether we like it or not. And such behavior is nothing new.
In our Gospel reading for today, we
also see some jockeying for position. I
think we can all somewhat relate to this story. We have all had our own Jameses
and Johns. We’ve all had them as
co-workers, or fellow students, or simply fellow parishioners. I’ve definitely known some priests like
They are the ones who—while we
quietly labor, quietly do our duties—they sort of weasel their way up the
ladder. They jockey for position. They are the ones who try to get a better place
in line by butting in front of everyone else. They are the ones who drive us—who work and
sacrifice and try to do the good thing—they drive us crazy.
Or maybe…and maybe none of us want to
admit it …maybe, they are the ones that we relate to the most in this morning’s
Gospel. Maybe we are ourselves at times are the James and the Johns. Maybe we ourselves are the Sons or Daughters
Whatever the case may be, the fact
is James and John are really missing out. Like some of the other apostles, they just
don’t get it. They don’t quite
understand what Jesus is getting at when he is talking about the last being
first. They don’t understand him when he
says that we are called to serve and not be served. They just don’t understand that simple virtue
of humility. Their view of
Christianity—their view of where they stand in relation to Jesus—is a constant
jockeying for position. And many of us
to this day feel the same way in our own lives, in our work and in our faith
There are many people who look to
the Church in this way. For many people in the Church, the Church is simply a place that is here to serve them.
They feel that Christianity is all about being served by the Church.
Guess what? I hate to break the news
to you. It is not. The Church is not here to serve those of us who are in the
Church. It is our duty as followers of Jesus, as members of the Church, to
What today’s Gospel shows us is that
Jesus is calling us to something much bigger than we probably fully understand.
I think a lot of us—even those of us who
come to church every Sunday—sometimes look at Christianity as a somewhat
quaint, peace-loving religion. We dress
up, we come to church on Sunday, we sing hymns, we hear about God’s love, we
receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine, and then we go home and…and we don’t think
about it again until the next week.
But the Christianity of Jesus is not
soft. It is not just a whitewashed, quaint religion. The Christianity of Jesus, as we hopefully
have all figured out here at St. Stephen’s, is a radical faith. It is a faith that challenges—that makes us
uncomfortable when we get comfortable, that riles us when we have become
complacent. It is a faith that works
well here in church, on Sunday morning, but also should motivate us to get up
from these pews and go out into the world and live out the faith we have
learned here by serving others. And it is this fact that many of us
might find a bit frightening.
Like James and John, we all want to
gain heaven. We all want a nice place
beside Jesus in that world-to-come. I
want that place!
But few of us want to live out our
faith in all that do and say right now. And even fewer of us are ready to be
servants—to be slaves for others. We don’t always want to serve the lowliest
among us. We don’t want to suffer like
Jesus suffered. We don’t want to taste
from the same cup of anguish that Jesus drank from on the night before he was
murdered. And we sure don’t want to be humble sometimes.
I will admit, I am in that boat a
lot. I sometimes don’t want to be a
servant or slave to others. I don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. And although I might try—and not always that
hard—I am not so good at being humble sometimes.
But we all, I think, at least here
at St. Stephen’s, are trying. We all
making the effort in some way. As
followers of Jesus, we are reminded that we are called truly to be servants to
each other and especially to those who need to be served. We are asked as followers to do something
uncomfortable. We are asked to take a
long, hard look at the world around us and to recognize the fact that there are
people living in need in our midst. And
we are called to serve them. And in those moments when we ourselves may need to
be served, many of us have discovered that serving others is sometimes the best
antidote for that need.
What we cannot do is ignore those in
need. When I ignore those in need, when
I don’t serve, when I don’t stand up against injustice—I am made very aware
that in that moment, I am not following Jesus. If I don’t do those things, but I still stand
up here and call myself a Christian, then I have truly become a “Son of
Thunder.” And, for most of us, that is exactly what it sounds like when we want
the benefits of our faith, without making the sacrifices of our faith. In those instances, we truly do sound like a
low, distant thunder.
We cannot bulldoze our way into
heaven by riding roughshod over those we should be serving along the way. For
us, as followers of Jesus, our job is simply to love God and love our neighbor
as yourselves—and when we do, in our lives, in our work, in the way we perceive
the world around us, then a natural humility will come over us. In those moments, we do recognize that God is
in control. Not us. What is more humbling than that realization in
our lives? We are not in control of anything ultimately!
Again, here is another example of
this radical Christianity. It carries
through in how we serve each other. Christians are not expected to bring anyone
to God through an arrogant attitude. We
are not expected to come charging into people’s lives, making them tremble
before us in fear. We are not expected
to thump our Bibles and wave the Words of Jesus before people in a desperate
attempt to win souls for God. We aren’t
forcing God on anyone, nor should we. In
doing so, we dominate people. We coerce
them into believing.
But if we simply serve those Jesus
calls us to serve, with love and charity and humility, sometimes that says more
than any Sunday sermon or curbside rant.
Think of the words Jesus could use. He could use, “power” to mean “dominance,” or
“oppression” or “force.”
But he doesn’t. Rather, Jesus uses the words “serve” and
Certainly we are given plenty of
“power” as Christians. In our baptism, we
are given power—but this power we are given is the power to die in Christ and
to be raised into a new life with Christ. That is what we celebrate every time we
celebrate a Baptism and renew our baptismal vows. That is what we celebrate when we think back
to what happened at our own baptisms. We
celebrate and we live out in our lives this power—this power that we are dead
to our former selves and alive—alive in a powerful and amazing way—with Christ.
Baptism empowers us—it makes us
something more than we were before—but not in the way we think of as
empowering. It empowers us by making us
true servants to each other. It is not a
strength that overpowers others. It is
rather a strength rather that empowers us to serve each other and God. It strengthens us to bear the anguish and
despair of this life. It strengthens us
to persevere and to live our lives fully in Christ.
In all of this, Jesus is telling us
that we are to be servants—servants not only to God, but to each other as well.
I, as a priest, who stands here at this
altar at each celebration of the Eucharist —I am not the only one called to be
a minister of God. We are all called to
be ministers of God. By our very
baptism, by the Eucharist we share at this altar each Sunday, we are called by
God to serve each other.
We are not here on Sunday morning to
be served—to be waited upon, to be lavished with gifts. We are here to serve. And it is this sense of service that we must
take with us out of here into the world.
James and John eventually figured
this out. They went on from that day and
served Jesus in the world. Eventually ,
they would both die for Jesus as martyrs—as very witnesses to Christ by their
So, for those of us who get angry at
the sons of thunder in our lives—let us be patient. For those of who recognize ourselves as a son
or daughter of thunder—just relax. God
always finds a way to break through our barriers—if we let God. It is this breaking through, after all, that
makes our Christianity so radical.
So, let us serve God. Let us serve each other in whatever ways God
leads us to serve. By the very fact that we are baptized and fed with Jesus’
Body and Blood, we live out our service in the world. And when we do, we just may find that the
thunder we hear is the thunder not of arrogance or pride, but rather the
thunder of the kingdom of God breaking through into our midst.
Check me out tonight on Prairie Pulse” at 7:30 pm on Prairie
Public Television. I’ll be talking about the new book, “The Downstairs Tenant,”
as well as “Fargo, 1957,” my vocations as poet and priest, St. Stephen’s and
the “Prairie Gothic” genre.
Guess who’s gonna be on the radio today? I guess I am. I didn’t
even know until it about five minutes ago when a parishioner heard that I was
going to be on today. This is a preview of Friday night’s TV appearance.
+ I have to admit. As
Episcopalians—as liturgical Christians—we have advantages and disadvantages. And,
depending on where you stand, our lectionary—our assigned scripture readings
for Sunday morning, is either an advantage or a disadvantage. I, as the Priest,
or anyone who preaches here does not just get to randomly pick whatever
scripture they want on a given Sunday. There
are assigned readings. And we have no real choice in those readings.
So, the congregation sometimes has
to sit through readings that are sometimes not readings we might want to hear
for a particular Sunday morning. And let me tell you, sometimes those
scriptures are not easy to preach.
Today, we get the full range of scriptures.
We first of all get this beautiful poetic gem in our reading from the Hebrew
scriptures. I love the prophet Amos.
“Seek good and not evil,” he tells us
“that you may live.
And so the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be with you…
hate evil and love good,
and establish justice at the gate…”
Beautiful! That could be the motto
for us here at St. Stephen’s.
Our reading from Hebrews also is
“Let us therefore approach the
throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to
help in time of need.”
I could preach a couple sermons just
on that one alone. Again, that also could be a motto for us here.
But then…then! Our Gospel reading
for today. Did you listen closely to
this morning’s Gospel? Were you
uncomfortable with it? I was uncomfortable
with it. We should be uncomfortable. We
all should be uncomfortable when we hear it.
Jesus is, quite simply, telling it
like it is. That’s not always a good
thing. It is a disturbing message—at
least, on the surface. I stress that: on
He makes three hard-hitting points.
First, he tells the rich man who
calls Jesus “good” to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.
Second, he compares wealthy people
getting into heaven to a camel going through the eye of a needle—a great image
really when you think about it.
Finally, he tells his disciples that
only those who give up their families and their possessions will gain heaven,
summarizing it in that all-too-famous maxim: “the first will be last and the
last will be first.”
For those who have—who have
possessions, who have loved ones, who have nice cars and houses and bank
accounts and investments,--these words of Jesus should disturb us and should
make us look long and hard at what we have and, more importantly, why we have
But…is Jesus really telling us we
should give up these things give us security? Does it mean that we should rid
ourselves of those things? Should we
really sell our cars and our houses, empty out our bank accounts and our
savings and give all of that money to the poor? Does it mean, we should turn our backs on our
families, on our spouses and partners, on our children and our parents? Does it mean that we should go poor and naked
into the world?
Well, we need to look at it a little
more rationally. Because, when Jesus talks about “riches” and giving up our
loved ones, he’s not really talking what he seems to be talking about.
Do you remember the Gospel from last
week, in which he was talking about Moses and the Law and divorce? Now, that
was a difficult scripture as well. He was saying that if one gets a divorce and
remarries, they are committing adultery.
I had an uncle who was divorced and
remarried, who heard that scripture in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Fargo in
the 1970s. He got up and left the church and never stepped foot in a church
again in his life. I wish I could’ve told him then, what I’m
going to say right now.
When Jesus talks of these things,
he’s not really talking about what we think he talking about.
In today’s Gospel, he’s not really
talking about the securities we have built up for ourselves. What Jesus is talking in today’s Gospel is
about attachments. Or more specifically,
unhealthy attachments. Having “things”
in and of themselves are, for the most part, fine, as long as we are not
attached to them in an unhealthy way.
Jesus knew full well that we need
certain things to help us live our lives. But being attached to those “things” is a
problem. It is our attachments in this
life that bind us—that tie us down and prevent us from growing, from moving
closer to God and to one another. Unhealthy
attachments are what Jesus is getting at here. And this is why we should be disturbed by this
Let’s face, at times, we’re all
attached to some things we have. We are
attached to our cars and our homes. We
are attached to our televisions and computers and our telephones.
And, even in our relationships, we
have formed unhealthy attachments as well. Co-dependence in a relationship is a prime
example of that unhealthy kind of attachment that develops between people. We see co-dependent relationships that are
violent or abusive or manipulative. People,
in a sense, become attached to each other and simply cannot see what life can
be like outside of that relationship.
And as much as we love our children,
we all know that there comes a point when we have to let them go. We have to
break whatever attachments we have to them so they can live their lives fully.
It is seems to be part of our nature
to form unhealthy relationships with others and with things at times. Especially in this day and age, we hear so
often of people who are afraid to be alone.
So many people are out there looking
for that “the right one”—as though this one person is going to bring unending
happiness and contentment to one’s life. Some people might even be attached to the idea of a relationship, rather than the
relationship itself. We’ve all known
people like that—people who are afraid because they are getting too old to
settle down and still haven’t found that right person in their lives. It seems
almost as though their lives revolve around finding this ideal person when, in
fact, no one can live up that ideal.
See, attachments start taking on the
feeling of a heavy baggage after so long. They do get in the way. They weigh us down and they ultimately make
our life a burden. And they come between us and our relationship God and our
service to others.
The question we need to ask
ourselves in response to this morning’s Gospel is this: if Jesus came to us
today and told us to abandon our attachments—whatever it is in our own lives
that might separate us from God—what would it be? And could we do it? Because Jesus is telling us to do that again
What the Gospel for today hopefully
shows us is that we need to be aware of our attachments. We need to be aware of anything in our lives
that separates us from God. Jesus today is
preparing us for the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God and
still be attached to those unhealthy things in our lives.
The message is clear—don’t allow
your unhealthy attachments to come between God and you. Don’t allow anything to come between God and you.
If Jesus came to us here and now and
asked us to give up those attachments in our lives, most of us couldn’t to do
it. I don’t think I could do it. And when we realize that, we suddenly realize
how hard it is to gain heaven. It truly
is like a camel passing through the eye of the needle.
For us, in this moment, this might
be a reason to despair. But we really
don’t need to. We just need to be honest. Honest with ourselves. And honest
Yes, we have attachments. But we
need to understand that our attachments are only, in the end, temporary. They
will pass away. But our relationship with God is eternal. This is what Jesus is getting at in today’s
So, we can enjoy those “things” we
have. We can take pleasure in them. But we need to recognize them for what they
are. They are only temporary joys. They come into in our lives and they will go
out of our lives, like clouds. All those
things we hold dear, will pass away from us.
Let us cling instead, to God and to
the healthy bonds that we’ve formed with God and with our loved ones—with our
spouses or partners, our children, our family and our friends. Let us serve those whom we are called to
service. And let us serve them fully and completely, without hindrance. Let make the attempt to see that what we have
is temporary. Let us be prepared to shed
every attachment we have if we need to. And
when the day comes when Jesus calls us by name, we can simply run forward and
follow him wherever he leads us.
+ It is a true honor for me to be here this morning, to be a
part of this service in which we remember and celebrate this wonderful person,
Renee Alsop. When my dear friend, Fr. Mark, asked me to preach a few days he
ago, he said to me,
“because of your long relationship with the Alsop family, it
will be a moment of grace.”
It is a true grace moment in my life. I’ve always defined
grace as one of things God gives us that we don’t ask or even anticipate. And
for me, this has been one of those moments.
In fact, I’ve had many grace moments in relation to the
Alsop family. The first funeral I ever participated in, back when I was
studying to be a priest, was right here at Gethsemane Cathedral, at the funeral
for Renee’s mother-in-law, Louise, back in 1999. I knew Renee’s, father-in-law,
John, as well. I brought Holy Communion and would greet him when he was living
at Waterford (now known as Touchmark), and I participated in his funeral as
Of course, a true grace moment in my life was officiating at
the wedding of Andy and Jessica. I, strangely enough, knew Jessica for many
years before as well, even before I knew the Alsops.
And of course, I had the truly wonderful honor of baptizing
Maddie just a few years ago.
So, yes, these have been grace moments in my life.
But, today, I will admit. This is a confession. I do not
want to be here. I do not want here to be here, preaching the funeral sermon
for Renee Alsop.
When a mutual friend of ours told me on Sunday that Renee
had passed, I have to admit that my reaction was not the reaction you would expect
from a priest, nor from a Christian, for that matter. My reaction was actually,
I have to admit, kind infantile. I said,
“You have got to be kidding me! This is so unfair!”
How, I wondered, did this person who was so full life, so
full of vitality, all of a sudden, not be here with us anymore? It is unfair. No doubt many of us feel that
way this morning. And that’s all right to feel that way. It’s honest.
Let’s face it: Renee had many years of life and love ahead
of her. She had years to travel, to spend with her family. There was so much
So, yes, it is horribly unfair. But, for those of us who
live by faith, who, like Renee, knew that life is more than just this life, we have great consolation
this morning. We simply need to shift our perspective, to see things
differently. All that we loved and will
miss about Renee—all that life and vitality and love—none of that is gone. None
of that is lost. Renee and all that she was to us is now in a place beyond this
sadness and loss, beyond the many tears that we will shed. She is in a place of light and unending life
and joy. And we will see her again. We will experience that love and joy with her
again. And this time, it will not end.
That is our consolation on this day, even in the midst of the
seeming unfairness of all this. I love that one of the scriptures we heard this
morning was from the Wisdom of Solomon. I love this scripture. There is truly
some great wisdom here. And when we hear these words, they really do speak to
us in our sadness over Renee.
“In the eyes of the foolish,” we hear Solomon sayd, “[our loved
one] seemed to have died,
and their departure to be a disaster.”
There is truth in that. Even for those us who might not consider
ourselves “foolish,” the death of our loved ones does seem like disaster at
Solomon goes on, “and their going from us [seems] to be their
but[…] they are at peace…their hope is full of immortality.”
For Renee, and for all of us who have faith, our hope this
morning is full of immortality. We know that death is not eternal, but that our
life in God is eternal.
Solomon goes on, and his words are not only about our loved
ones who have died, but is also spoken to us who are left behind as well:
“Those who trust in [God] will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with [God] in love,
because grace and mercy are upon [God’s] holy ones.”
“Grace and mercy are upon God’s holy ones.”
That grace and mercy
is, of course, upon Renee in this moment. But that grace and mercy is upon each
and every one of this morning. And with that grace and mercy upon us, we know
we have the strength to move forward, to go on.
At this end of this service, you will hear these very
powerful and amazing words:
“All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make
our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
“Alleluia” is a word that encompasses all our faith and hope
and mercy. It is a joyous word, that we can say even when everyone tells us we should
despair. We have been embraced today by God’s grace and mercy. And because we
have, we have faith to go on from the grave. We have the strength, and dare I
say even the defiance, to say, in the face of what seems to be loss and death, “Alleluia!”
Even here, now, even in our sadness, even here at the grave,
we say it, defiantly, “Alleluia.”
Renee’s life and love are too powerful to be defeated by
death. God’s grace and mercy are definitely too powerful to be defeated by
death and the grave. With that grace and
mercy upon us and upon Renee, we can say, “Alleluia.” And mean it.
I am grateful this morning. I am grateful that I knew Renee.
I am grateful that I could say she was a
friend. All of here this morning are grateful for all that was Renee was to
each of us, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a sister, an
aunt, a friend. We should all be grateful for having known her.
But we can also be grateful that our relationship with her
does not end today. It will continue on and one day, it will be complete and
unending. I hope in that day. I look forward to that wonderful day. And it will
be a wonderful day!
The traditional closing sentences for this funeral from the
Book of Common Prayer are some very beautiful words. They are:
“Into paradise may the angels lead thee; and at thy coming
may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem.”
We are echoing those words today as well.
Into paradise the angels have led thee, Renee.
May all the martyrs have received thee.
Today, you have been brought into the holy city Jerusalem.
One day we too will
be received there as well. One day, we too will experience that wonderful
paradise. One day we too will know the unending joy of that holy place.
So this morning and
in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Renee is
now complete and whole and beautiful at this very holy moment and for every
moment to come from now on. Let us take
consolation in that paradise to which she has been received by martyrs and
angels. And let us be glad that one day
we too will be there, sharing with her in that joy and mercy and love that will
never end. Amen.