Sunday, December 27, 2015

St. Stephen (observed)

December 27, 2015

+ I know. You’re wondering, why are we commemorating St. Stephen today? His feast day was yesterday.  It’s the First Sunday after Christmas. Where’s our Gospel reading from the first chapter of John?

We come to church and everything’s red. What’s going on, Fr. Jamie? Get it together! Are you insane?  

Well, trust me. There’s a method to all this madness. As there always is.

First of all, we are celebrating St. Stephen for the very important reason that he is our patron saint of course. So, we transferred his feast from yesterday so we could all enjoy St. Stephen. Why wouldn’t we? We very proudly bear his name. I’ll get into all of that in a moment.

But, there’s another important reason we’re commemorating him today. We have transferred his feast from yesterday because I really do think it’s important to remind ourselves how important St. Stephen is to all of us.

And…

I would like to, at this time, officially open our 60th year. I christen it, shall we say?  Today, do we officially begin our 60th year as a congregation. This is something very important to commemorate. 60 years of amazing ministry in the Diocese of North Dakota.

Bishop Emery and those first founders of church were a smart bunch. They were a prophetic bunch. Naming our church after St. Stephen was a smart thing. Of course, the reason they came to this name was because St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, ND had just closed in 1956. And we inherited much of their furnishings.

But St. Stephen was a great saint for us to have as our patron.  In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just a namesake. They are seen as special guardians of that congregation.   And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt, present among us this morning, with that whole communion of saints, who is always present with us at worship.

St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church “Proto” is the important word here. Proto means, essentially, first. He was the first martyr of the Church. He was the first one to die for his open proclamation of  Christ.

He also is considered a proto deacon in the church.  In this year in which we are raising up two prospective deacons (along with  William too) in our congregation, this is especially meaningful as well.  He is a special patron saint of deacons—and of all people who share a ministry of servitude to others.

What better saint can we claim as our patron that St. Stephen?  He was the first to do many things.  Just like we, as a congregation, have been the first in doing many things.  St. Stephen, in his stance on a few issues, was not popular always obviously.

There is a reason they dragged him out and stoned him. Well, neither are our opinions and our stances on some issues. (I’m not going to go into detail on those today) And making the stance we have in the past and the reaction we have received from others, let me tell you, I can feel for St. Stephen.  So, again, talk about a perfect saint for us.

It’s appropriate that this congregation that has been the first to do many things, is named after St. Stephen. When we look back at our 60 year history, just think for a moment about all those people who came through the doors of this church. Think about how many of those people who have been hurt by the Church.  Think about how many were frustrated with the Church.  And more often than not, their relationship with God has suffered for it.   But they came here searching. Searching for true religion. Searching for a welcoming and open community.

So what this true religion?   I see the Episcopal Church, and specifically St. Stephen’s,  as making a real solid effort at true religion.  For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, what true religion is.  The Church should be like a dinner to which everyone is invited.   And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.  St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family.  We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.

So what is true religion?  True religion begins and ends with love.  We must love one another as God loves us.  True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us.   When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes.  We too are compelled to love that person as well.   Love is the beginning and end of true religion.  

Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love.   Love has never been a stranger here. God’s love has been offered not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the entryway and in the parking lot.   And most importantly in the lives of our members out in the larger world.  That Love that God has commanded us to share has went out from here into all the world.  

We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from this place and these people.  We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love.  We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.

But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts. Our job now is to turn around and to share this love with others. Our job is take this love and reflect it for everyone to see.

So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did.  We have set the standard. We have embodied who and what St. Stephen the Martyr stood for. Even when it was not popular. Even when people felt it wasn’t time. Even when people said, “wait. There’s no rush. Why do this now?”

We have stood up again and again for what we have felt is our mission to accept all people in love. We have journeyed out at times into uncharted territory. And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, by our acceptance of all, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is truly capable of.

This is how we begin our 60th year. We begin it by doing what we have always done. We do it as St. Stephen’s did it—with our eyes firmly set on Christ, with our lips singing and praying, with our head held high, with love in heart, even if stones and rocks are falling around us.

We do so affirmed in our many ministries. We do so, hopefully, thankful for the ordained ministries of two new deacons to serve here, and for the ministry of a new priest to serve the larger Church. We do so thankful for the ministry of Bishop Gallagher. We do so thankful or our continued place in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. We do thankful for our prophetic past. And we do so thankful for an amazing future.

It is an amazing time to be at St. Stephen’s. Those founders of our church would only be amazed at what this congregation they envisioned in 1956 would one day be.

As we begin this 60th year, let us do with gratitude to God and one another in our hearts. Let us shake off the negativity and that nagging doubts that have plagued us over these months. And let us, like St. Stephen, be strong and firm in our faith in God and our convictions of serving others in love. And may our God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness. May we continue to flourish and grow.  And may we continue to venture bravely forward in  all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world.  Amen.



Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Day

December 25, 2015
  
+ I’m a church geek. You know how you know I’m a church geek? Because one of my greatest pleasures in life is doing the Christmas morning Mass.  Yes, I know. Christmas Eve is beautiful. But Christmas morning.  I don’t know. It’s just just…something special. I think that is what Christmas Day is all about. This sense of it all being just…a bit more holy and complete.

The great Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton, once wrote this poem. I love it:

Make ready
for the Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
glory
that now sleeps
in your paper
flesh like
Dynamite.


For me, that captures perfectly this strange feeling I have experiencing this morning how I LOVE a Christmas Day mass And now—this morning— Christmas is here.  This morning, we celebrate the Light.  And we celebrate the Word.

We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darkness.  We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration. And we celebrate this Word that has been spoken to us—this Word of hope.  This Word that God is among us. We celebrate this

“Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
glory

When we think long and hard about this day, when we ponder it and let it take hold in our lives, what we realized happened on that day when Jesus was born was not just some mythical story.   It was not just the birth of a child under dire circumstances, in some distant, exotic land.  

What happened on that day was a joining together—a joining of us and God.  God met us half-way.  God came to us in our darkness, in our blindness, in our fear—and cast a light that destroyed that darkness, that blindness, that fear.

God didn’t have to do what God did. God didn’t have to descend among us and be one of us.  But by doing so, God showed us a remarkable intimacy.

Last night at Mass I shared a great quote from the great Dominican theologian, Meister Ekhart:

“What good is it  if Mary gave birth to the Son of God [two thousand years ago]? I too must give birth to the Son of God in my time, here and now. We are all meant to be the mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

I love that quote and I think it’s very true.  We need to be the people through whom God is born again and again in this world. We need to bring God into reality in this world again and again.  

Why?  Because God is a God of love.  Because we are loved by God. Because we are accepted by God. Because we are—each of us—important to God.  We are, each of us, broken and imperfect as we may be some times, very important to God. Each of us. And because we are, we must love others.

We must give birth to our God so others can know this amazing love as well.  Knowing this amazing love of God changes everything.  When we realize that God knows us as individuals.  That God loves us and accepts each of us for who we are, we are joyful. We are hopeful of our future with that God. And we want to share this love and this God with others. That is what we are celebrating this morning. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live.  This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful morning.  This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of longing. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let the hope we feel today as God our Savior draws close to us stay with us now and always. Let the joy we feel tonight as God our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year. God is here.  God is in our midst today.  God is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. And God loves us.

The great Anglican poet Christina Rosetti put it more eloquently:

 Love came down at Christmas,
love, all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

That is what we are experiencing this day. Love came down.  Love became flesh and blood. Love became human. And in the face of that realization, we are rejoicing today.  We are rejoicing in that love personified.  We are rejoicing in each other.   We are rejoicing in the glorious beauty of this one holy moment in time.



Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve


December 24, 2015

Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20


+ I don’t know about you, but it sure feels different tonight. Even those of us who might be scrooges about Christmas, even those people know—there’s something special and beautiful about this evening. You can feel it. It’s all around us.

Christmas.

Yes, it might be dark and cold out there. But even in this coldness, in this darkness, there is Light. We are celebrating the Light tonight—this Light hat that has come to us in our collective and personal darknesses.  We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration—all those things we live with in our day to day lives. And as it does, no doubt most of us are feeling two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope—in our belief that what has come to us—Christ—God made flesh—is here among us. And Joy—at the realization of that reality. God has come among us.

As we come forward tonight to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours this evening, we find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this evening comes up from our very centers.  We will never fully understand how or why God has come to us as this little child in a dark stable in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. But, although it seems innocent, although it seems so nice and friendly, it is a momentous experience.

The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us.  The event we celebrate is the Incarnation—God coming to us in the flesh. For us, Incarnation means, God breaking through to us.  

And whenever God breaks through, it is not some gentle nudge.  It not some kind of flick. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and changes us.

For people sitting in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It can be blinding and can be painful. And what it exposes is sobering.

That is what God does to us. That is REAL Incarnation. It shakes us up and changes us. That is what we are commemorating tonight.

We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. And it can happen again and again in our lives.  What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy.

The joy we feel today, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, at God breaking through to us and being with us and among us, is a joy that promises us some THING. It is a teaser of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will all have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life.

But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in humility. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives.

There is a great quote from the great Dominican theologian, Meister Ekhart:

“What good is if Mary gave birth to the Son of God [two thousand years ago]? I too must give birth to the Son of God in my time, here and now. We are all meant to be the mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

We need to be the people through whom God is born again and again in this world. We need to bring God into reality in this world again and again.  Why?  Because God is a God of love.  Because we are loved by that God.  Because we are accepted by that God.  Because we are—each of us—important to God.  We are, each of us, broken and imperfect as we may be some times, very important to God. Each of us. And because we are, we must love others, just as God loves us.  We must give birth to our God so others can know this amazing love as well.

Knowing this amazing love of God changes everything.  When we realize that God knows us as individuals. That God loves us and accepts each of us for who we are, we are joyful. We are hopeful of our future with that God. And we want to share this love and this God with others.

That is what we are celebrating this evening. Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with the “things” that will, a week from now, be a fading memory. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us, with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh, who causes us to leap up with joy at this very presence.  Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him.

Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty land.  Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live.

This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful night. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of longing. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let the hope we feel tonight as God our Savior draws close to us stay with us now and always. Let the joy we feel tonight as God our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

God is here. God is in our midst tonight.  God is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. And God loves us.  So, let us greet this Savior tonight with all that we have within us and let us welcome God into the warm shelter of our hearts. Amen.





Saturday, December 19, 2015

What we witnessed

What we witnessed

For my godchild,
Ben Flom,
on the occasion of his confirmation
at St. Paul’s-in-the-Pines Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, North Carolina
December 20, 2015



When the waters of life
on that late autumn day
 washed over you,

a flame within you
blazed 
suddenly and even more brightly

than the Paschal flare
above us.
I saw it!

and rejoiced in it!
as we all did
who stood there

amazed
at this moment
of absolute grace,

reflected
in the waters
beneath you.

And as that water
dried, we all
gazed into your eyes


and saw divinity
staring back. You were—
as we all are—

a child of the unstoppable
unrestrained Love
that came to us

in these same waters,
in this same anointing,
in this same candle flame

that made us—
and you—
in turn

to be
unstoppable
unrestrained Love.


 --Jamie Parsley

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent/Christmas Letter

Advent-Christmas, 2015

My Friends at St. Stephen’s,

Blessed Advent! Well, it has definitely been an exciting year for us at St. Stephen’s. We have witnessed amazing growth. We have seen loved ones pass from our sight. We have bid others farewell as they have moved away. We stood up for the Gospel of Jesus and the Baptismal Covenant as we understand it. We have done what we have been called to do in very real and important ways—mission, worship, prayer and outreach. It is certainly exhilarating to be serving alongside all of you.

As we anxiously await the celebration of Jesus’ birth, I hope you will all know that I do so with true joy in my heart. This joy comes from knowing that we, at St. Stephen’s, are growing and expanding and being a vital and important presence in the community and the larger Church. I think we all have to admit that it is a great time to be at St. Stephen’s.

As we celebrate Christmas, be assured that I pray for each of you individually by name over the course of each week in my daily observance of the Daily Office. Also know that I will be remembering all of you at the altar during celebration of the Mass both on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.

In return, I ask you to pray for me also. Pray also for the ministry and mission of St. Stephen’s. In your prayers, please ask you that God’s Spirit continues to be present here, and to refresh, renew and sustain us so that we can do the work we have been called to do.

My sincerest blessings to you and to all those you love and cherish during this season of joy, hope and love.

                                                                        PEACE always,

                                                                        Jamie+

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Letter to St. Stephen's regarding our acceptance of the offer of DEPO

December 13, 2015
3 Advent/Gaudete

Dear Members and Friends of St. Stephen’s,

This afternoon, the congregation of St. Stephen’s met following our regular service of Holy Eucharist to discuss Bishop Michael Smith’s offer of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) for St. Stephen’s. The meeting, much like our process of discernment, began and ended with prayer. Following the meeting and, after hearing feedback from our congregation, our Vestry met to vote on Bishop Smith’s offer. The vote was unanimous in favor of Bishop Smith’s offer of DEPO.

With our acceptance of this offer, Bishop Carol Gallagher will share her ministry and Episcopal oversight of our congregation, beginning January 1, 2016.

What does this mean for us as a congregation?

+ This was a vitally important decision on our part. It means that we, as a congregation, will continue to  live out the ministry we feel we have been called to do as a congregation. We see this as an extension of a ministry based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Baptismal Covenant of respecting the worth and dignity of all people, as we see it and have discerned it for ourselves.

+ After January 1, Bishop Carol Gallagher will now have direct Episcopal oversight of our congregation. She will visit our congregation on an annual basis.

+ We will now be allowed to recognize and celebrate marriage rites for all people, without distinction.

+ All of our members will be able to pursue their ministries without hindrance.

+ With this vote, we are NOT “breaking away” from the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. In fact, we will remain a contributing and active presence in the Diocese of North Dakota. The Diocese will continue in our collective and personal prayers, as we will in the prayer cycle of the Diocese.

+ We will continue to have a personal relationship with Bishop Smith, and we will continue to invite him to share in the life and joys of our congregation.

Your prayers are requested for our congregation of St. Stephen’s as we move forward together. I also ask your prayers for Bishop Carol Gallagher, for Bishop Smith and the Diocese of North Dakota, as well as your continued prayers for the Episcopal Church. I also ask for your continued prayers for me and for the Vestry of St. Stephen’s.

Fr. Jamie Parsley and the Wardens and Vestry of St. Stephen’s

3 Advent

Gaudete

December 13, 2015

Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

 + Well, it has been an interesting week here at St. Stephen’s. And it will no doubt be an interesting coming week. This past Friday, of course, we bid farewell to our own Harriet Blow with a beautiful Requiem Mass.

And today, of course, we will be having at a very important meeting, at which we will be considering making a decision about our future ministry here at St. Stephen’s. I know some people are going into the meeting with apprehension and maybe a bit of fear.

Before our meeting today, I want to stress a few things about what it is we are doing today. Yesterday afternoon, I sent an email off with these same thoughts and I am going to repeat them because they are important to repeat. First, if we do accept Bishop Smith’s offer of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, it does not, in any way, mean we are “breaking away” from the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. If we accept DEPO, life will go on pretty much as it always has, just with a different Bishop.  What we will do with DEPO is simply do what the Episcopal Church as whole will be doing in three or six years. We are saying, “Yes” to the Church to which we belong.

But more importantly than that, we are saying “yes” to the Gospel of Jesus as we understand it. We are living out and professing the promises we made in our Baptismal Covenant, to “respect the worth and dignity of all people.” We are doing what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s.

Back in the 1970s, when the issue was full inclusion of women in the church, St. Stephen’s was the first then, even when it was not a popular stance to take.  Elthea Thacker (at whose Requiem mass I assisted way in in 2002) was elected the first female Senior Warden in the Diocese of North Dakota. And she was the Senior Warden at St. Stephen’s. Around that same time, St. Stephen’s was also the first congregation in the diocese to have, of all things, female acolytes.  Although these might not seem like big issues now, back then it was a big deal. There were people then who thought, no doubt, that it would destroy this congregation.

In 1985, St. Stephen’s called the first female priest to serve as Rector, the Reverend Sandy Holmberg.  There were many who thought women serving in such a position was going to be the end of the Church as we knew it. It didn’t.  In fact, the Church has been enhanced by the ordained ministries of women for many years. I, for one, am deeply, deeply grateful for the fact that women have been able to serve in these positions at St. Stephen’s. Where would we be now without women wardens, women acolytes, women deacons and priests?  

None of these decisions were easy decisions. St. Stephen’s was seen back then as a radical place for doing so. It put us outside the norm. Which isn’t always a comfortable place to be.  But it is what we must to do sometimes.

Let me tell you, Christianity puts us outside the norms sometimes.  And if it doesn’t, it’s not true Christianity.

What we are discussing today is fully in line with what we have been doing all along here at St. Stephen’s. This is not some new thing we are doing. We are not doing it to show defiance to Bishop Smith. We not doing it do show off to the press. We are not doing it just for the sake of being different and outside the norm.  We are considering this option because it is what we have always done as congregation.

And because of that, this morning we should be rejoicing. This is what Christians do. When life gets difficult—as it does sometimes—we do not get the option of despairing. We don’t get to let fear and anger win out. We, in the face of all that, rejoice.

It is Guadete Sunday.  Or Rose Sunday. I think it’s very appropriate that we are having our congregational meeting this Sunday. (We didn’t plan it that way, trust me) It is a Sunday to rejoice. It is called Gaudete because in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say rejoice.”  Gaudete means Rejoice.  Rejoice is our word for the day today.

As we draw closer and closer to commemorating Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy.  It is a time to rejoice.  It is a time to be anxious (in a positive way) and excited over the fact that, in just a little over a week, we will be celebrating God’s coming among, God’s being with us. Or as Paul says today, “the Lord is near”  Or, in Latin (since we’re on kind of a Latin bent this Gaudete Sunday) Dominus propus est.

Today we need something a bit different.  We need a break from our Sarum Blue.  What many people don’t realize is that Advent, with all its hopefulness, is actually, like Lent, a penitential time.  It is a time for us to slow down, to ponder, to think.  And to wait.  It is a time to be introspective, as well—to think about who are and where we are in our lives. So, in the midst of pondering and waiting and introspection, we also find ourselves looking forward to our future as a congregation and our commitment to Christ’s command to love and love fully.

It is important, as followers of Jesus, that in doing such introspection, in looking forward, we do not despair.  We do not lose heart.  Even in the midst of a penitential time such as Advent, it is important that we also find joy. 

That is why we are decorated in rose this morning.  That is why, in our pondering, we are pondering joy—even joy in the midst of difficult decisions.  That is why, even despite all that happened and will happen, we can still rejoice.

Gaudete.

In our pondering and in our moment of rejoicing, we are also given a dose of sobering finger-shaking.  We find, in our Gospel reading, that formidable figure of John the Baptist, saying to us,

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These words speak loud and clear to us even now—in this moment of joy.  Those words are speaking loud and clear to us as a congregation this morning. We are being told,

bear good fruit.


We bear good fruit when we live out in our joyful lives, the difficult tasks of loving and 
fully accepting all people equally.  This is what Gaudete Sunday is all about—rejoicing.  Living in joy.  Letting joy reign supreme in us.  Letting joy win out over fear and uncertainty. Being joyful in our love for God and for others.  We must embody joy. We must live joy in all we do and say and are.

It is not easy to be inclusive and accepting and radical in our love.  It is actually very hard. It means people are not going to like us for being “outside the norm.”

But, even then, we must still embody joy.  Today, we too must, in all honesty, proclaim:

“Gaudete!” Rejoice.

And live that Gaudete out in our very existence, in the ministries we do, in how we deal with others.

So, let Gaudete be more than just what we say or we do one Sunday a year.  Let it be our way of life as we await Jesus’ presence coming to us.  St. John and St. Paul are both right:

The Lord is near!

The Lord is near. So…let us bear good fruit.  And when we do we will find that we too have “the creative gift and strength to pass the test.”  We too, as embodied joy, will be bearing good fruits.





Saturday, December 12, 2015

In anticipation of the December 13th meeting

Please join us this Sunday, December 13 following our celebration of the Holy Eucharist for a special CONGREGATIONAL MEETING to discuss Bishop Michael Smith’s offer of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) for St. Stephen’s.

This is a very IMPORTANT MEETING and your feedback is important to us.
In anticipation of this meeting, it is important that we clear up some misconceptions as well as list pros and cons to consider prior to the meeting:

First of all, and very importantly, it must be clear that we are NOT “breaking away” from the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. We WILL remain of a full-fledged member of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota should we accept the offer of DEPO. This is a very important aspect of our understanding of the DEPO process. We will still be contributing members of the Diocese. We will still paying Our Fair Share to the Diocese. We will still attend Diocesan Convention and ministers’ conferences. Ministries that are headed by members of our congregation such as the Guatemala Medical Mission and the East Africa Fund will continue to be diocesan ministries. By all outward appearances, little will change on that level.

+ It is important to remember that it is Bishop Smith who is offering us this option of DEPO and that we are responding to his offer.

+ If we choose DEPO, it will sever our professional relationship with Bishop Smith. If we accept his offer, Bishop Smith will appoint Bishop Carol Gallagher to have official Episcopal oversight of our congregation. This, however, does not mean that personal relationships with Bishop Smith will be severed. We are asking all people to be respectful to Bishop Smith at all times.

+ St. Stephen’s might be the only congregation in the diocese to actually accept Bishop Smith’s offer for DEPO. This will no doubt make us feel alienated at times.

+ There are no doubt unforeseen circumstances that we have not yet considered. We trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us during this time.

 If the Vestry votes for DEPO…

+  we, as a congregation, will continue to  live out the ministry we feel we have been called to do as a congregation. We see this as an extension of a ministry based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Baptismal Covenant of respecting the worth and dignity of all people, as we see it and have discerned it for ourselves.

+  St. Stephen's will, at this time, be the only church in the Diocese where marriage rites for all people no matter their sexual orientation can be performed. I will be the only priest in the Diocese allowed to perform such rites, and will be allowed to do so for couples from other Episcopal congregations in the diocese (though not in their church buildings).

+ This is not the first time St. Stephen’s has been at the forefront of such stances. St. Stephen’s was the first congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota to have a female Warden. It was the first congregation in the diocese to have female acolytes.  And it was the first congregation in the Diocese to call a female priest to head a congregation, as well as many other “firsts”  including being the first congregation to being an Open and Affirming Congregation of Integrity.  Our acceptance of this offer is very much in line with our long-lasting commitment to being a fully inclusive congregation for all people.

 + HOWEVER, this will be more than issue of being allowed to perform marriage rites equally. It will be a clear statement to the diocese and to the larger church that we are following our conscience, our conviction and our commitment to serve all God’s people in an inclusive way.

+ We are aligning ourselves squarely with the larger Episcopal Church which approved equal marriage rites for all people this past summer at General Convention.

+ Probably the most important aspect of accepting DEPO will be the fact that by doing so we will actually make a difference in our congregational life, in the life of the Church and, most importantly of all, in the lives of people who need us to be the Church for them.
Ultimately, outside of these issues, nothing really changes. We will still be the congregation we have always been. We will still practice the radical love, acceptance, and hospitality for which we are known.

As for what others may think of us: people who look at St. Stephen’s differently have already been looking at us in such a way for many years and for issues other than this.   The reality is that we are simply aligning ourselves with the larger Episcopal Church. And, in three years (or six years), the stance we are considering making tomorrow will be the norm throughout the entire Episcopal Church.  

ABOUT THE MEDIA: The media has been aggressively interested in this meeting. The Wardens and Vestry are asking that all members of St. Stephen’s refrain from speaking to the media about this meeting on Sunday December 13 pending the release of a statement from the vestry and me following the meeting. We wish to conduct this meeting prayerfully and with dignity, as well as respect for all opinions of our members. We are asking that the media respect the complexity of this situation for us at this time so our members can feel comfortable in sharing their opinions and concerns honestly and openly.  Again, a statement will be released following the meeting which should summarize the meeting and any implications of our final vote.

Most importantly, we ask for your prayers at this time. We ask for prayers for The Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota, for Bishop Smith, for Bishop Gallagher. And we ask your prayers for St. Stephen’s. We ask that the Holy Spirit may be present with us at this time, to open our hearts to love and our minds to consider that ways in which we have been called to live out the Gospel of Christ and the Baptismal Covenant to which we are bound as Christians.

Please know that I am personally grateful for each of you. It pains me deeply to know of the divisions and the personal pains these situations have long caused in our church and with each of you as individuals. My prayer is that we may proceed unified and as a congregation committed to the Gospel of Jesus and the worth and dignity of all people.  


Friday, December 11, 2015

The Requiem Mass for Harriet Blow

The Requiem Eucharist for
Harriet Blow
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo, North Dakota
December 11, 2015

+ What we are doing this morning should have happened over 82 years ago. This funeral for Harriet Blow was, many people believed, going to happen in November 1933. Or in December 1933. Or in January 1934. Certainly, some believed, it was bound to have happened by 1943. It certainly would’ve happened, they believed, by 1953. Or by 1963. And certainly it was believed that it would already have happened by 1973.

To be honest with you, I thought this Requiem mass this morning would be celebrated in May or June. But it did not.

Harriet Blow, who, it was thought, would not survive long after her birth, who would not live to see twenty, certainly wouldn’t live to see thirty, lived to see age eighty-two. She outlived every single person who thought she would not survive to this day. No one then would’ve thought that this day would be happening in December of 2015.

When she was born on November 17, 1933, she was quickly baptized within four days because it was not believed she would live. Today, on this day, we celebrate the long and amazing life of Harriet Blow. And she was amazing.

Here was a woman who, by the standards of this world, was a small woman with malformed arms, unable to walk, partially blind, essentially deaf. She was, by the world’s standards, helpless.

But for those of us who knew her and loved her, she was amazing. She was a powerhouse. She was a symbol to us that appearance were, most definitely, deceiving. Underneath that seemingly broken and fragile exterior, there was a strength and drive and purpose.

There was faith in her God and faith in those who cared for her and loved her. There was no doubt this amazing woman went though some incredibly difficult moments in her long life. We will never fully know how hard it was at times. We will never begin to fathom how hard it was for her.

But we do know that none of those setbacks destroyed. They never stopped her. She plowed ahead with life. She loved and loved strongly. And she lived and lived strongly. She was amazing.

The image I have of her again and again is one of strength and steadfastness and independence.  For some reason, in these last few days, I think about many times when Harriet would grow impatient at church or when her ride was slow in coming, how she would head off for home from here. I think of her chugging along in her wheelchair toward home.

In many ways, that image represents so much of who Harriet was. Someone who set her attention on one thing and worked hard for that goal.  Yes, she was a person blessed in many ways, with strength and determination. And certainly God surrounded her with people who, in turn, loved her and looked out for her.
But ultimately today we, who knew her, are the true fortunate ones. We are the ones who were blessed to have known her. We are the ones who should thank our God for sending this person into our lives.

Because, let tell you, no matter how hard our lives may get at times, no matter how overwhelming the odds may seem in our lives, Harriet Blow showed us that ultimately, those problems will not ever defeat us or overwhelm us.  We don’t get to legitimately complain over the little set-backs in our lives anymore after having known Harriet Blow.

On many occasions, I would spend much time with Harriet before church on Sundays.  She would often arrive early and we had many conversations in the Narthex when few other people were even at church yet. On a few of those occasions, I would often find myself complaining about some minor thing in my life.

“Geesh, Harriet,” I would say. “I’m really tired today.”

“Oh, Harriet. My back really hurts today.”

Harriet would listen and smile politely. But what I realized later was that she had every right to say to me, “Father Jamie, don’t complain. You don’t know how good you have it.” And of anyone I know, she had the full right to say such a thing to me.

Of course, she never did. But it’s very true. Harriet shows us that we do need to remember how good we truly have it. And for that alone I am grateful for having known her and claiming her as a friend.

I, like all of us here today, am going to miss her very much.  I knew Harriet for many years. And I certainly enjoyed greatly those years I knew her. I will miss her kindness, her gentleness, that smile of hers. And I will miss her strength.
Our scriptures today are all based on strength, if you notice. In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the Prophet say to us:

[God] gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless…
but those who wait for the 
Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint

And in our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, we hear:

“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…”
If we wonder where Harriet’s strength came from, it came from God. She would be the first to say that to us, this morning.  That magnet on her refrigerator that said “I find my strength is in God” is truly the best statement about Harriet’s source of strength.

I’ve thought a lot about her strength and about all she was to us in these last several months.  I hadn’t fully realized how much I will miss her until last Sunday.

The night before, I received a call from our mutual friend, Clotine Frear, saying that Harriet had passed. I rushed over to her apartment and anointed her and said the Payers at Death with her. The next morning, before Mass, as I was standing here in the church before anyone got here, I looked at where her
wheelchair always sat. I remembered all the countless mornings, when HandiWheels would arrive, when she would come up in the elevator, when she would sit there. Although she hadn’t been in church for several months, I suddenly felt her absence then. I realized that after over 50 years of regular attendance at St. Stephen’s, she suddenly was not going to be here again with us, worshipping with us. At least, not here in in our physical presence. But, she does continue to worship with us. Or should I say, we continue to worship with her?

This Eucharist that we are about to celebrate is not some quaint Communion service. This Eucharist is a glimpse of the worship that goes on for all eternity in God’s nearer Presence.  For a moment, we join with those who are in that Presence, who are in that worship, for all eternity. Harriet is there, at this moment. While she may not be here as she was before, in her wheelchair, confined by her physical life, dependent on others for her well-being, she is with us in a completely different way. She is with us without the wheelchair, without the physical limitations that controlled her life for so long. She is, in this moment, whole and complete.  She has, in the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Renewed her strength,
   she has mounted up with wings like eagles,
she runs now and will never again be weary,
   she walks and will never be faint

The strength of Harriet Blow is real even in this moment.  Not even death has defeated Harriet Blow. All that joy, all that gentleness, all that wonderful life that was contained within that little small frame of a body—all of that is not gone today. It is not lost.

This morning, all the good things that Harriet Blow was to us—that woman of life and strength and joy—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 a place of beauty and Light inaccessible. She dwells there now in a place of peace and joy. And for that, let us be thankful for this woman whom God has been gracious to let us know and to love.

Let us be thankful for her example to us. That example of strength in the face of hardship.  Let us be thankful for all that she has taught us and continues to teach us.  Let us be grateful for the love she felt for us and the love we felt for her.  And let us be grateful for all she has given us in our own lives.

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