Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Requiem Mass for Sharon "Angel" Brekke

Sharon “Angel” Brekke
(July 5, 1950-March 25, 2015)
Samuel Memorial Episcopal Church
Naytawaush, Minneosta

March 31, 2015

+ I am very grateful this morning.  am grateful that Mother Jackie asked me to be a part of this service. When I heard that Angel died, I let Mother Jackie know that I would definitely be here for this service.  Nothing would’ve prevented me from being here this morning to say goodbye to Angel.
As you might know, I knew Angel for many years. She was a very important person in the life of St. Stephen’s Church in Fargo, where I serve as priest. And she was an important person in my life too.
I certainly enjoyed greatly those years I knew her.  I was very honored to be her priest. And even more honored to be her friend.  I have always been very grateful for her friendship.

The years in which I knew Angel were hard ones for her. She was dealing with much physical pain throughout all of those years. When she wasn’t able to come to church, I would often go to her house to bring her Holy Communion.  And many times we had in-depth discussions about her illness, about death, about what awaits us after this life.  And I can say, this morning, that, like everyone here this afternoon,  I will miss Angel dearly.

I will miss those discussions with her. I will miss her presence at St. Stephen’s.  I will miss the affections and kindness she carried with her.

Certainly, that kindness and affection remained intact even despite the fact that these last several years were hard ones for Angel. That debilitating pain and suffering she experienced over these last many years, took their toll on Angel.

The last time I saw Angel was in late January, right before I was leaving for vacation. At that time, Angel took my hand and said, as she had often said, “You know, Fr. Jamie, the doctors say I don’t have long.”

I sort of poo-pooed her at that time.

I said, “You know, Angel, doctors are not always right.”

She sort of shrugged at this and said, “Well, if they’re right, I’m ready.”

And she was ready.  I had had enough discussions with Angel over the years that I knew she had deep faith in where she was going—and that she would, in the end, be all right.  And she knew she would be all right. She knew she would be taken care of by the God in whom she believed.  She knew there was place awaiting her, where she would not suffer any more pain. We can rejoice, this morning, in the fact that she is there in that place at this moment.

Still, that doesn’t make what we—the ones who are left behind—any easier.  I can tell you that, when I heard the news that Angel had passed, I was hurt. Deeply. I thought to myself, it all seems so unfair.
Why? I prayed to God. Why did someone who was so kind and so loving as Angel have to suffer as intensely as she did.

And then I remembered something I read in a book years ago that has been very meaningful for me. 


 In this book, our perception versus God’s perception is explained this way:

Think of a carpet.  From above, the carpet looks perfect.  It’s soft.  It maybe has a beautiful design. It has a color that perfectly compliments the room.  But from underneath the carpet, it looks awful. We see stray pieces of thread. We see the plastic underlining.  We see the dried paste and nail holes.  

That’s what life is like sometimes. We are on the underside of the carpet right now.  That’s how we view life in this moment.   We see the stray threads and the framework, but we don’t see the carpet as it is meant to be seen. We see the ugly things life has thrown at us and it frustrates us.  It’s hard for us to imagine what’s on the other side of the carpet, if in fact there is even another side.

But, God is on the other side of the carpet.  God sees the carpet as it should be seen. While we are here, on this side, we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. We don’t understand why someone like Angel had to experience the set-backs she did over these past few years.  But we trust in the fact that one day, we will cross over to the other side—to God’s side. And when we do, it will all—somehow—make sense. It will all be the way it should be.

Angel is now looking at her life—and ours—from that other side. She is now looking at it all from God’s perspective. And that’s what she would want us to cling to as we go on from here.

Today we are saying goodbye to Angel. But it is only a temporary goodbye. It is a goodbye until we see each other again.
Angel, I know, had a very deep faith and belief that we would, one day, all see each other again.  She had a deep faith in her God, who was with her and remained with her until the end. And because of her deep faith in God and in what awaited her following this life, she would not want us to despair over her death.  Because Angel knew that, although we can’t fully understand things now, we will one day. And that when we do, it will be beautiful.
So, today, although we might be tempted to despair, we really cannot. When looking at these last few days from Angel’s perspective, this has been one great and glorious day without end for her. She has been relieved of her pain and suffering. The weariness and the strain she carried with her has been lifted from her. And she has now become fully and completely herself.

Yes, we are sad for this temporary separation. But we are not despairing. Because we know that will all be well.  It will all be well.

Today, all the good things that Angel Brekke was to us—that woman of strength and character and integrity—all of that is not lost.  It is not gone.  Death has not swallowed that up. Rather all of that is alive and dwells now in Light inaccessible. All of that dwells in a place of peace and joy, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. In a place in which, there never again be any more tears. Except, maybe, tears of joy.  And for us who are left, we know that that place awaits us as well.
That place of light and joy awaits each of us as well.  And we to will have the opportunity to dwell there.

I will miss Angel. We will all miss her and will feel her loss for a long time to come. But, on this day in which we bid her this temporary goodbye, let us also be thankful. Let us be thankful for this woman whom God has been gracious to let us know and to love. Let us be thankful for all she was to us—a caring and loving presence in our lives. L
et us be thankful that even in those moments, when life on this underside of the carpet throws ugly things we don’t understand at us, we can still cling to hope and know that will not, in the end, be defeated.  And, most of all,  let us be grateful for all that love and the care Angel has given us in our own lives.

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Angel.
 At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.  Amen.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

March 29, 2015

Mark 15.1-39

+ This past week at St. Stephen’s, we had something happen that has never happened before here. On Wednesday, we lost two parishioners on the same day. Pat Butler was one of our senior members of St. Stephen’s, our second longest serving parishioner. Pat joined St. Stephen’s in 1957, within that first year of St. Stephen’s founding. She was a wonderful person. I always enjoyed spending time with her and talking with her, either in person or on the phone.

Our new senior member is Audrie McConnell, who joined on January 4, 1957. After Audrie, our second longest-serving member is none other than Harriet Blow—who, if you might remember, was not expected to survive her birth and now, here she is, the longest serving member of St.. Stephen’s.  She joined in 1960. Carol Spurbeck is next, having joined in 1961 and the Coffeys and Greta Taylor, who both joined in 1962.

Also on Wednesday, Angel Brekke died. Many of us will miss Angel. She regularly attended Sunday morning Mass, even despite debilitating pain and health problems. She was here, though, on a regular and faithful basis, always looking very put-together, with her bright red hair and always smiling.  She delighted in being here, and being a part of the worship life and community life of St. Stephen’s.

Losses like these are hard. They’re hard for me personally, as I’m sure they are some many of us here this morning And they’re hard for us as a congregation.

This coming week will be difficult for the fact that we h ave to say goodbye to these parishioners, these follow seekers of God, these friends of ours who were also family to us.  But of course this coming week is difficult for another very important reason as well.  It is Holy Week.  This is one of THOSE weeks.  There is A LOT going on and, at times, it seems almost overwhelming.

But, that’s just the way life works sometimes. We, as followers of Jesus, now have to follow him through some unpleasant places.  We are forced to follow him through the horrendous torture and through a brutal murder.  None of us want to do this.  We want our sunny, friendly Jesus.  We’ll even take a scolding Jesus.  We do not want this tortured, beaten, bleeding Jesus.

But that’s what it means to follow Jesus.  It means that what we are about to embark on is a very personal journey. Yes, we might relate to the crowd who cry, “Crucify him!” Yes, we might relate to Peter in his denial or even Judas in his betrayal. Or we might to relate to the women who followed Jesus or to Jesus’ mother who must watch the torture and murder of her child.

But, the one we really relate to is the one we follow. Why shouldn’t we? When we hear this Gospel—this very disturbing reading—how can we not feel what he felt? How can we sit here passively and not react in some way to this violence done to him?  How can we sit here and not feel, in some small way, the betrayal, the pain, the suffering?

After all, none of us in this church this morning, has been able to get to this point unscathed in some way.  We all carry our own passions—our own crucifixions—with us.  We bear, in our own selves, our own wounds. Oftentimes those wounds we carry with us—those memories and pains we lug around—cripple us.

I can tell you in all honesty: I carry them in my own life. At times, I carry those pains and memories of pains with me as heavily as any cross.  They cause us to bleed at a moment’s notice.  For every pain, for every betrayal, for every emotional or verbal or physical pain we carry with us, we are able to relate to what Jesus went through.  And he, in turn, is able to relate to us as well—here in our pain.

What this coming week shows us is that every time we suffered and continue to suffer, God does too. If we believe that God is not still suffering in us and among us then we are deceiving ourselves.  If we do not believe that Jesus is not still suffering the insults, the whippings, and is being murdered in our world then we are blinding ourselves.  If we believe that Jesus is still, in a sense, not still being denied proper burial and is dependent on the kindness of others to bury him, then we are have not been paying attention.

The Gospel story we heard this morning is our story in a sense.  It is our story because we are followers of Jesus and because we follow him, it becomes our story too.  Every time we hear the story of Jesus’ torture and death and can relate to it, every time we can hear that story and feel what Jesus felt because we too have been maligned, betrayed, insulted, spat upon, then we too are sharing in the story.  Every time we hear about people turned away, betrayed, deceived, and we can feel their pain in some small way, we are sharing in Christ’s passion.  When we listen to and share in the horror and terror of the Germanwings Crash in the French Alps this past week, when a mentally unstable co-pilot purposely and calmly crashed an airplane full of screaming passengers into a mountain, then we understand how powerless we can feel in the face of violence and death.  When we can feel the wounds we carry around with us begin to bleed again when we hear the story of Jesus’ death, we too are sharing in his death, again and again.

But the greatest part about sharing in this story of Jesus is that we get to share in the whole story.  Look what awaits us next Sunday.  These sufferings and hardships we experience today, are ultimately temporary.  But what we celebrate next Sunday is forever—it is unending.

The great Nobel-prize winning Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, died also this week, on Thursday.  Tranströmer, in his wonderful poem, “Summer Grass,” wrote:

“So much has happened.
Reality has eaten away so much of us.
But summer, at last”

We, as Christians, understand that. We get that.

So much has happened.

Reality truly has eaten away so much of us.

But…

Easter…

At last.

Easter morning awaits us all—that day in which we will rise from the ashes of this life and live anew in that unending dawn. Yes, this morning we are mourning for our fellow followers of Jesus, Pat and Angel. But our tears are dried and our pains are healed in the glorious light of Easter morning.  This is our hope.  This is what we are striving toward in case we might forget that fact.

Our following of Jesus means following him even to that point—to the Easter light that is about to dawn into our lives.  Our own Easter morning awaits us as well.

So, as difficult as it might be to hear this morning’s gospel, let us just remember that in the darkness of Good Friday, the dawn of Easter morning is about to break.  With it, the wounds disappear.  The pains and the sufferings are forgotten.  The tears are dried for good. The grave lies empty behind us.  And before us lies life.  Before us lies a life triumphant and glorious in ways we can only—here and now—just barely begin to comprehend.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

5 Lent

March 22, 2015

John 12.20-33

+ This coming June, we will be celebrating a big day. Our confirmations students will be confirmed. I have really enjoyed our confirmation class. We have some very articulate and precocious students.  Nothing drives that fact home more for me than something we do at the end of our regular confirmation classes.  At of our class, I give the students an opportunity to “Stump Fr. Jamie.”  To “Stump Fr. Jamie” students can ask any question they would like regarding theology or spirituality or the Church.

Let me tell you, these kids do a very good job of trying to stump me.  And once or twice, maybe—just maybe—they’ve come close to actually stumping me.

Now, it’s not really fair. Because any time I might not be able to answer their questions, I just concede to that wonderful thing in the church we have called “mystery.”  Some things are just mysteries and we should accept the mysteries of our faith.  I know. I know. What a rotten thing for a priest to say. What a cop-out.

But what I have discovered every time our confirmation students ask questions is that, in actuality, they really are seeking.  And they are sometimes surprised to their priest himself is a seeker as well.

The fact is, I have never made a secret of the fact that I am also a seeker, just like all of us this morning.  We’re all seekers.  We’re here this morning seeking something.  People who aren’t seekers don’t need to come to church. They don’t need to listen and ponder the Word.  They don’t need to feed on and ponder the mysteries of the Eucharist that we celebrate at this altar.  People who don’t need to seek, don’t come following the mysteries of their faith.

I have discovered in my own life as a seeker, that my seeking, my asking questions and my pondering of the mysteries of this life and my relationship to God, are what make my faith what it is. It makes it…faith. My seeking allows me to step into the unknown and be sometimes amazed or surprised or disappointed by what I may—or may not—find there.

In our Gospel story for today, we also find seekers.  In our story, we find these Greeks seeking for Jesus.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they say.

This one line—“we wish to see Jesus”—is do beautifully simple. There’s so much meaning and potential and…mystery, to it that I don’t think we fully realize what it’s conveying. And what I doubly love about it is that as beautiful and as simple as the petition is—“we seek Jesus”—we never, if you notice, find out if they actually find him. The author doesn’t tell us. We find no resolve to this story of the Greeks seeking Jesus.

However, despite it being a loose end of sorts, it does pack some real meaning.  What’s great about scripture is that even a loose end can have purpose.  One interpretation of this story is that that the Greeks—as Gentiles—were not allowed to “see” Jesus until he was lifted up on the Cross. Only when he has been “lifted up from the earth,” as he tells us this morning will he “draw all people to [himself].” Jesus’ message at the time of their approaching the apostles is still only to the Jews. But when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross on Good Friday, at that moment, he is revealed to all. At that moment, the veil is lifted.  The old Law of the Jews, according to this thinking, has died—the curtain in the Temple has been torn in half—and now Jesus is given for all. It’s certainly an interesting and provocative take on this story.  And it’s especially interesting for us, as well, who are seeking to “find Jesus” in our own lives. Like those Greeks, we are not always certain if we will find him—at least at this moment.

But, I am going to switch things up a bit.  Yes, we might be seekers here this morning.  But as Christians, our job is not only to be seekers.  Our job, as followers of Jesus, as seekers after Jesus, is to be on the receiving end of that petition of those Greeks.  Our job, as Christians, is to hear that petition—“show us Jesus”—and to respond to it.  This is what true evangelism is. Some might say evangelism is telling others about Jesus.

Possibly. But true evangelism is showing people Jesus.  And, let’s face, that’s much harder than telling people about Jesus.

So, how do we show Jesus to those who seeking him?  Or, maybe, even to those who might not be seeking Jesus? We show people Jesus by doing what we do as followers of Jesus and seekers after God.  We show people Jesus by being Jesus to those around us.

Now, that sounds impossible for most of us.  The fact is, it isn’t.  This is exactly what Jesus wants us to be. Jesus wants us to be him in this world.  He wants to be our hands, helping others.  He wants to speak through our voices in consoling others, in speaking out against the tyrants and despots and unfairness of this world. He wants to be our feet in walking after those who have turned away and are isolating themselves.

When we seek to bring the Kingdom into our midst, we are being Jesus in this world.

We might not always succeed in doing this.  We might fail miserably in what we do. In fact, people might not find Jesus in us, at all.  Sometimes, whether we intend it to or not, we in fact become the “Anti-Jesus” to others. But that’s just the way it is sometimes.

In seeking Jesus and in responding to others who are also seeking him, we realize the control is not in our hands.  It doesn’t depend on any one of us.  Which, trust me, is comforting.  I personally don’t want all that responsibility.  Nor, I’m sure, do any of you.  Who would?

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying: “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls on the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  In those moments in which we seem to have failed to be Jesus to those around us, when those who come to us seeking Jesus find, rather, nothing, or, worse, the “Anti-Jesus,” we find that even then, fruit can still come forth.  God still works even through the negative things life throws at us.  God still works event through our failures and our shortcomings.

Jesus can still be found, even despite us.  Jesus can still be found, even when we might not even be seeking him. Jesus can be found, oftentimes, when we are least expecting to find him.  

Certainly, Jesus is here this morning in our midst.  His Spirit speaks to us in our hearing of the Word.  He is here in the Bread and Wine of our Eucharist.  He is here in us, gathered together in God’s Name.  And let me tell you, Jesus is definitely out there, beyond the walls of this church, waiting for us to find him and show him to others.  He is never far away.

So, let us, together, seek Jesus.  Let us search for God, here, in the Word where we hear God speaking to us, in this Eucharist, in which we feed on Jesus’ Body and Blood. Let us search for God in going out from here and encountering those people who need God.  And let us also help others who are seeking.

“We wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks say to the disciples.

And people still are saying that to us as well.

“We wish to see Jesus.”

Let us—fellow seekers of Jesus—help them to find him.




Friday, March 20, 2015

Book signing at Melberg's


I'll be signing copies of my new book, The Downstairs Tenant, at Melberg's Books and Gifts in Moorhead on Saturday from 1-4 p.m.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

4 Lent

Laetare

March 15, 2015


Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-21

+ I don’t know about you, but doesn’t seem like not all that long ago that we had the rose colored paraments and vestments? It was three months ago, actually. We celebrated Guadete Sunday on December 14th. Enjoy it now while you can. Because we’re going to have to wait nine months to put up the rose vestments again.

But today is Laetare Sunday, also known as “Rose Sunday.” Laetare is Latin for “joyful” and it is called this because on this Sunday, the traditional introit in the old Latin Mass was “Laetare Jerusalem”—“rejoice Jerusalem.”  It’s also known by other names. “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday.”  It is, of course, traditional on this Sunday to wear the rose or pink vestments.

It’s a special Sunday.  It is sort of break in our Lenten purple, so to speak.  The purple will return tomorrow of course.  But this Rose Sunday is a reminder to us.

We are now passing into the latter days of Lent.  Palm Sunday and Holy Week are only two weeks away and Easter is three weeks away.  And with Easter in sight, we can, on this Sunday,  lift up a slightly subdued prayer of rejoicing.

No, we’re not saying the A-word yet. We’re not allowed to be quite that joyful today. But, we’re close.

Still, I can’t help but face the reality of the fact that we are now over half-done with the season of Lent and I personally have not preached about the one thing we preachers should be preaching about in Lent. I have not yet preached about the so-called “elephant in the room.”  The elephant, in this case, is, of course that ugly word and that ugly concept—Sin.

I know, we don’t want to hear about sin.  I don’t want to hear about sin.  I don’t want to preach about sin.  Most of us have had to sit through countless hours listening to preachers go on and on about sin in our lives.  Many of us have had it driven into us and pounded into us and we just don’t want to hear it anymore.

Yes, we know we’re sinners sometimes.  But the fact is, we can’t get through this season of Lent without at least acknowledging it.  Certainly, I as a priest, would be neglecting my duty if I didn’t at least mention it once during this season. Besides, whenever there’s an elephant in the room, I—and I’m sure most of you—like to face our elephants head-on.  And in facing the elephant, we sometimes realize the power we thought that elephant had has been overcome.

As much as we try to avoid sin and speak around it or ignore it, for those of us who are Christians, we just can’t.  We live in a world in which there is war and crime and recession and sexism and homophobia and morally bankrupt people and, in looking at all of those things, we must face the fact that sin—people falling short of their ideal—is all around us.  

And during this season of Lent, we find ourselves facing sin all the time.  It’s there in our scripture readings. It’s right here in our liturgy.  It’s just…there.
And here. Everywhere.

I certainly have struggled with this issue in my life.  I don’t like preaching about sin. I would rather not do it.  But…I have to.  We all have to occasionally face the music, so to speak.

The fact is, people tend to define us by the sins we commit—they define us by illness—the spiritual leprosy within us—rather than by the people we really are underneath the sin.  And that person we are underneath is truly a person created in the image of God.  Sin, if we look it as a kind of illness, like leprosy or any other kind of sickness, truly does do these things to us. It desensitizes us, it distorts us, it makes us less than who were are.  It blots out the image of God in which we were created. And like a sickness, we need to understand the source of the illness to truly get to heart of the matter.

Alexander Schmemann, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, (and I believe he’s echoing the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth here) wrote, “Essentially all sins come from two sources: flesh and pride.”  And if we are honest with ourselves, if we are blunt with ourselves, if we look hard at ourselves, we realize that, in those moments in which we have failed ourselves, when we have failed others, when we have failed God, the underlying issues can be found in either our pride or in our flesh.

This season of Lent is a time when we take into account where we have failed in ourselves, in our relationship with God and in our relationship with each other.  But—and I stress this—Lent is never a time for us to despair.  It is never a time to beat ourselves up over the sins we have committed.  It is rather a time for us to buck up. It is a time in which we seek to improve ourselves.  It is a time in which, acknowledging those negative aspects of ourselves, we strive to rise above our failings.  It is a time for us to seek healing for the leprosy of our souls.

The Church is, after all, according to the early Christians, a hospital.  And, in seeking, we do find that healing.

Some of you might know this about me, but one of my favorite musicians right
now—someone I go on and on about—is Sufjan Stevens. He’s an incredible Indie Rock singer and musician. He’s just incredible. I’ve been listening to him for years.

What a lot of people might not know about Sufjan Stevens is that he’s actually a very committed Christian. I read in an article once that he attends an Anglo-Catholic church (actually a Presbyterian Church--Resurrection Presbyterian Church) in Brooklyn, where he now lives.  He has a new album coming out later this month, and one of the latest singles from this album is a wonderful song entitled,  “There Is No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross.”

I’m not going to share the lyrics (they’re not exactly family friendly) but I love the song, but I love the title too.  In fact, as most of you know, it’s actually one of my favorite themes to preach about. The shadow of the cross.  There might not be any shade in the shadow of the Cross, but it is there that we find our healing.

The Cross is a very potent symbol for us in our healing.  Gazing upon the cross, as those Israelites gazed upon the bronze serpent that Moses held up to them, we find ourselves healed. And as we are healed, as we find our sins dissolved by the God Christ knew as he hung the cross, we come to an amazing realization. We realize that we are not our sins.  And our sins are not us.  Our sins are no more us, than our illnesses are.  Our sins are no more us than our depressions are us, or disappointments in life are us.

For those of us who have had serious illnesses—and as many of you know, I celebrated thirteen years of being cancer-free last month—when we are living with our illness, we can easily start believing that our sickness and our very selves are one and the same.  When I was had cancer thirteen years ago, there were moments of despair and frustration.  There were moments, as I lived with that illness within me, when I couldn’t see where the illness ended and where I began.  We had become bound to each other in a way that I despised and hated. But now, as I look back at that time, I realize I wasn’t my cancer.

For those of us who have had serious illness, it is a good thing for us to ponder and look back at our illness.  It is important for our healing process to ask ourselves: how did it happen?  Why did it happen?  How can I prevent from it happening again?  Part of the reason why I’m a vegan right now.

The same is true of sin. In this seasons of Lent, it is important for us to ponder the sickness of our sins, to examine what we have done and what we have failed to do and to consider how we can prevent it from happening again.

But, like our illnesses, once we have been healed, once our sins have been forgiven and they no longer have a hold over us, we do realize that, as scarred as we have been, as deeply destroyed as we thought we were by what we have done and not done, we have found that, in our renewal, we have been restored.  In the shadow of the cross, we are able to see ourselves as people freed and liberated. We are able to rejoice in the fact that we are not our failures.  We are not what we have failed to do.

But in the shadow of the cross we see that we are loved and we are healed and we are cherished.  And once we recognize that, then we too can turn our selves toward each other, glowing with that image of God imprinted upon us, and we too can love and heal and cherish.

See, there is no shade in the shadow of the Cross. See, sin does not have to make us despair. When we despair over sin, sin wins out.  Rather, we can work on ourselves, we can improve ourselves, we can rise above our failings and we can then reflect God to others and even to ourselves.

So, on this Laetare Sunday—this Sunday in which we rejoice that we are now within the sight of that glorious Easter light—let us gaze at the cross, held up to us as a sign of our healing God.  And there, in the shadow of that Cross, in that place where there is no shade, let us be truly healed.  And, in doing so, let us reflect that healing to others so they too can be healed.

See, it is truly a time for us to rejoice.



Sunday, March 8, 2015

3 Lent

March 8, 2015

Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22

+ I don’t know about you, but I am suffering. I’m suffering from major spring fever. This wonderful weather is making me very happy. And ambitious. I’ve been having a crazy, busy schedule, but these last few nights I have been doing the annual spring cleaning at the rectory.

My mother came over last night to do her inspection of the house. She gave her seal of approval to my work. Though it does shock her that is not one bite of food in the entire house.

But the person I feel most sorry for is my garbage man. Tomorrow morning, he is going to have deal with quite a bit of clutter.

But this is appropriate time to be getting rid of clutter.  Lent is a time for us to sort of quiet ourselves to get rid of whatever clutter we might have knocking around inside us or in our lives.  Clutter is that stuff in our lives—and “stuff” is the prefect word for it—that just piles up.  If you’re anything like me, we sometimes start ignoring our clutter. We sort of do that too with our own spiritual clutter.  We don’t give it a second thought, even when we’re tripping over it and stumbling on it.  In fact, often we don’t fully realize how much clutter we have until after we’ve disposed of it. When we see that clean, orderly room, we realize only then how clutter sort of made us lose our appreciation for the beauty of the room itself.

In Lent, what we dispose of us is the clutter of our spiritual lives.  And we all have spiritual clutter.  We have those things that “get in the way.”  We have our bad habits.  We have those things that we do without even thinking we’re doing them.  And oftentimes, they’re not good for it—or at least they don’t enhance our spiritual lives.

Often the clutter in our spiritual lives gets in the way of our prayer life, our spiritual discipline, our all-important relationship with God.  The clutter in our spiritual life truly becomes something we find ourselves “tripping” over.  The clutter in our spiritual life causes us to stumble occasionally.  And when it does, we find our spiritual life less than what it should be. Sometimes it’s just “off.”

During Lent, it is an important time to take a look around us.  It is important to actually see the spiritual clutter in our lives and to clear it away in whatever ways we can.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus going into the temple and clearing out the clutter there.  He sweeps the Temple clean, because he knows that the clutter of the merchants who have settled there are not enhancing the beauty of the Temple.  They are not helping people in their relationship with God.  Rather, these merchants are there for no spiritual reasons at all, ultimately.  They are there for their own gain and for nothing else.

In a sense, we need to, like Jesus, clean out the merchants in our lives as well.  We need to have the Temple of our bodies cleaned occasionally.  We need to sweep it clean and, in doing so, we will find our spirituality a little more finely tuned.  We will find our prayer life a more fulfilling.  We will find our time at Eucharist more meaningful.  We will find our engaging of Scripture to be more edifying.  We will find our service to others to be a bit more selfless and purposeful than it was before.  We will see things with a clearer spiritual eye—which we need.

It is a matter of simplifying our spiritual lives.  It is matter of recognizing that in our relationship with God and one another, we don’t need the clutter—we don’t need those things that get in the way.

We don’t need anything to complicate our spiritual lives.  There are enough obstacles out there.  There will always be enough “stuff” falling into our pathways, enough ”things” for us to stumble over.

Without the clutter in our lives, it IS easier to keep our spiritual lives clean.  Without the clutter in our life, we find things are just…simpler.

So…how do we do this? Well, the answer is really no further than our scripture from the Hebrew Scriptures for today.  God lays it on the line for Moses on Mount Sinai.  And each commandment that God gives Moses is really a matter of housekeeping.  It is a matter of cleaning up the messes in the Israelites’ lives.

Rather than the clutter of the gods you have been worshipped—those gods that are really not at all helpful, but only get in the way of the one true God—simply worship only the One God. Simple.

You shall respect this God by respecting God’s Name. You shall, in a sense, honor, love and worship this One God. Likewise, God cleans up the messes of their relationships with one another. Love God. Love your neighbor. Don’t hate your neighbor. Don’t bear grudges against your neighbor, or lust after your neighbor, or be jealous of your neighbor or steal from your neighbor, because these things only clutter up your life needlessly.  Rather, love them and in loving them, you will see all that clutter disappear to some extent. And if you do these things, you will be living the life that was intended for you by God.

In a sense, we are not living the life intended for us when we allow our lives to mucked up.  What we need to do occasionally is sweep out the junk, the trivial things, the dust and the dirt that have accumulated in our lives and live in that simplicity that God intends for us.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also find that the Temple Jesus is cleaning out and cleansing serves its purpose for now, but even it will be replaced with something more perfect and something, ultimately, more simple.  It will be replaced by something that will not need to cleansed.  It will be replaced with something that will not be cluttered.  It will be replaced with the Temple of  our living God.  And it will be here that we will find our true worship.

It is here that will find a true and living Temple of our true and living God.  And, in a sense, our own bodies become temples of this living God because of what Jesus did.  Our bodies also become the dwelling places of that one, living God.

Which brings us back to Lent.  In this season of Lent, we become mindful of this simple fact.  Our bodies are the temples of that One, living God. God dwells within us much as God dwells in the Temple.  Because God dwells in us, we have this holiness inherent within us.  We are holy. Each of us.

Because of this Presence within us, we find ourselves wanting to cleanse the temple.  We find our selves examining our selves, looking closely at the things over which we trip and stumble.  We find ourselves realizing that the clutter of our lives really does distract us from remembering that God dwells with us and within us.  And when we realize that, we really do want to work on ourselves a bit.  We work at trying to simplify our lives—our actual, day-to-day lives, as well as our spiritual lives.  We want to actually spend time in prayer, in allowing that living God to dwell fully within us and to enlighten us.  We fast—emptying our bodies and purifying our selves.  We recognize the wrongs we have done to ourselves, to others.  We realize that we have allowed this clutter to build up. We realize we have not loved God or our neighbors.  Or even ourselves.  Or we have loved ourselves too much, and not God and our neighbors enough.

Once we have eliminated the spiritual clutter of our lives, we do truly find our God dwelling with us.  We find ourselves worshipping in that Body that cannot be cluttered. We find a certain simplicity and beauty in our lives that comes only through spiritual discipline.

So, as we continue our journey through Lent, let us, like Jesus, take up the cords and go through the temple of our own selves.  Let us, like him, clear away the clutter of our lives.  Let us cleanse the temple of our own self and make it like the Temple of a place worthy of God.   And when that happens, we will find ourselves proclaiming, with Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” For it will.




Sunday, March 1, 2015

2 Lent

March 1, 2015

Mark 8.31-38

+ On Friday, the Episcopal Church lost a very great man. Canon Malcolm Boyd died in Los Angeles. If you do not know who Malcolm Boyd was, you should. He was, to say the least,  a well-known Episcopal priest and writer and poet. He was most famous for his best-selling book of prayers, Are You Running With Me, Jesus? which was published fifty years ago this year.

I met Malcom Boyd once. He was the co-editor (along with Bishop Chester Talton) of an anthology of prayers, Race and Prayers, in which was included one of my poem/prayers “A Prayer on the Feast Day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.”  One time when I was in Los Angeles for a meeting, I got to meet him.  I remember being impressed with the life and light that he had in his eyes.  He was a man not only fully alive, but was also one who spiritually charged, shall we say.

Malcom was a true prophet in the Church. As a gay man and a priest, he spoke out as far back as the 1960s on the issue of full-equality of Gay and Lesbian people in the Episcopal Church.

But, in his most famous book, Are You Running With Me, Jesus—and in fact in all of his writing—he spoke honestly of what it means to follow Christ. And it was clear from those prayers and from his other writing that, for him, following Christ was not some easy thing. It was hard. And it meant following him into places he didn’t want to go.  It meant being brutally honest with himself and about himself.  It meant, for him, not compromising.  It meant standing up strongly and firmly and speaking out loudly and clearly.  Malcolm Boyd was a true disciple of Jesus.

And in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus explaining to us in very blunt words what it means to be a disciple.  For him, being a disciple, means being a follower.  A follower of him.  And Malcolm Boyd was a definitely a follower of Jesus. As we all are, as Christians.

Hopefully, those of us who have gained any sort of maturity as Christians have come to the realization that being a Christian—being a follower of Jesus—means that we are being led into a unique life. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean closing ourselves up intellectually.  It doesn’t mean we get to stop thinking.  Trust me.  I know too many of these kind of Christians.  These are the people who think being a Christian means not having to think anymore.  Just believing that all will be well and there aren’t any problems.

I think we all, at times, found ourselves lulled into a false sense of what it means to be followers. We think that being a follower of Jesus means that everything was going to be happy-go-lucky and wonderful all the time.  We think that  following means not really having to think about things anymore. It’s easy, after all, a lemming.

But that isn’t the kind of following Jesus wants us to do.  The kind of follower Jesus wants us to be is hard.  

For me, personally, I am not a comfortable follower.  It’s hard to have someone else’s standards essentially be my standards, even if it is Jesus’ standards. It can be depressing. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be joyful in our following of Jesus.

Yes, we should be filled with a deep and sincere joy. But, as the old song goes, no one promised us a rose garden. Nowhere in scripture have we been promised that life is going rosy and sweet all the time. Being a follower is not always so much fun.  Being a Christian means not always strolling around in comfort and joy in a rose garden.

As we are reminded in this season of Lent and especially in that week preceding Easter, being a Christian means following Jesus wherever he goes.  And where he goes is not to the rose garden.  It is to the garden of Gethsemane—to that place where he too would be feeling anguish, where too would sweat blood, where he too would cry out to God. Following Jesus means essentially being like him. And being like him, means having the same relationships he had.

And when we look at the relationships he had, we realize they were not normal relationships. His relationship with God was intense. For Jesus, God was a parent. God was “Father.” But the relationship was even more than that. It was also almost like lovers. Jesus loved God. God loved Jesus. And that, too, is what our relationship with God should be like, as followers of Jesus. We should love God. Because God loves us. Deeply and intensely.

But it doesn’t end there. There is also the relationship Jesus had, because of his intense and deep love of God, with others.  Jesus loved others.  Intensely. Deeply. He cared for them.  And because he did, so should we.

In everything we do as followers of Jesus, we should let love always be our driving force. It is that love that makes us feel the anguish he feels.  It is that love that makes us suffer with him.  It is that love that makes us bleed with him.  It means following Jesus not just through the moments of teaching ministry, not just through the miracles he performed.  It means following him through the dark days of his last week, through the blood and excruciating moments of his dying.  It means that, like him, our love for him causes us take up our crosses and follow him wherever he might go.

Jesus knew, as we find in our Gospel reading for today, that there were certain things he had to do.  He had to “undergo great suffering,” He had to be killed.  He understood that fully. He in turn tells us that we too must realize that we will have to bear our share of suffering in this life.  We too will have to take up our own crosses.

Now, to be fair, this statement about taking up our crosses needs to be examined a bit.  The cross being referenced here might not be what we instantly think it is. Reginald Fuller, the great Anglican theologian, believed that the Greek word used for cross here—stauros—actually might not necessarily have meant the cross on which one was
executed. Rather, he believed that it might actually mean the tau (the T) and chi (the X) that was used as a sign of ownership to brand cattle. This adds a very interesting dimension to this scripture.  The brand of the cross that we must bear becomes God’s seal upon us.  And when we look beyond the events of Good Friday, we realize that the cross on which Jesus died truly does become the brand we must bear upon ourselves as followers of Jesus.

Even the thought of a brand is not a pleasant thought.  Brands are painful, after all.  Brands really hurt. And brands cannot be undone.  They mark us forever.

That is exactly what the cross does to us. The cross is the reminder to us that following Jesus doesn’t just mean following him through the rose gardens of our lives.  It means, following him all the way to that cross.  It means taking up our own crosses and staggering with him along that path.  It means sweating with him in the garden of Gethsemane.  It means crying out with him in anguish.  It means feeling with him the humiliation and loneliness of being betrayed—yes, even by one’s friends or own followers.

But, it also means following him to the very end.  Just as the cross is a symbol of death and torture and pain—it is, for us Christians, also the symbol of the temporal nature of those things.  The cross is the doorway through those awful things, to the glory that awaits us beyond the cross.  The cross is the way we must travel, it is what we must carry, it is what we must be marked with, if we wish to share in the glory that awaits us beyond the cross.

I said earlier that no one promised us a rose garden in scripture.  I should revise that.  While we might not have been promised a rose garden, we have been offered glory.  Glory comes to us, when we follow Jesus.  It comes to us when we let our love for God and others lead us through the dark and frightening places this world can throw at us.  If we let that love guide us, if we let ourselves be led by Jesus, we will find true and unending glory awaiting us.

So, as we encounter the crosses of our lives—and we will—as we allow ourselves to branded with the cross, as we allow our love for God and others to lead us into places we might not want to go, let us do so with the realization that glory has been offered to us.  Just because we have been branded with the cross, we know that, in our branding,  there will be no shame for us. But that, one day, was seems to be a brand, what seems to us a symbol of pain and loss and failure, will be transformed.  It will be transformed into jewels, into a crown upon our heads. And, on that day, there will be joy replacing our pain and sorrows.