Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter


March 27, 2016

John 20.1-18


+ It’s really not much of a secret. I LOVE Easter. This, to me, is what it’s all about. If anybody asks me, so what do you love most about being a Christian, I always say, Easter.

What isn’t there to love? That holy moment—that moment when everything changed—when God raised Jesus from the tomb was the essential moment.  The Jesus who appears to us on this Easter morning is not a ghost. He is not a figment of our imagination. He is not an illusion. And this story isn’t a fairy tale.

Every so often, someone will come up to me and ask that age-old question: “Do you really believe in the Resurrection? Do really you believe that God raised Jesus from the grave?”

And my answer is always this: “Why not?”

Why couldn’t God do this? And if we look long and hard at what happened on that Easter morning, we realize that what happened there was more than just some vague experience for some ancient people. What happened to Jesus happened to us as well.

Everything since that point has been broken open for us. Our old fear of death and dying—that’s all gone. Because now we know that what we once held to be a mystery, is no longer a mystery.

What happens to us when we die? We know now, because Jesus has been there already. Jesus has gone there and by going there has defeated death.  What seemed to be the end—the bleak and horrible end on Good Friday afternoon—has been broken apart. And what we are faced with is life. Life that never ends.

Now, when people ask me if I believe in the Resurrection, I say that I do, but I usually leave it there. Anything beyond my belief that it happened—and that it will happen for us—is beyond me. I don’t understand it fully. I still find bits and pieces of it being revealed to me. I find on bad days or skeptical days that I’m, not certain I believe in it.

But what I have discovered is that, mostly, I find one deep, strong emotion coming forth in me when I ponder the Resurrection. And that emotion is: joy.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find joy. Joy comes to Mary Magdalene when she realizes that it is Jesus, resurrected, standing before her. We can almost feel that joy emanating from her as she proclaims to the others: “I have seen the Lord.”

Joy is an emotion we seem to overlook. We think, maybe of joy as some kind of warm, fuzzy feeling. But joy is more than just feeling warm and fuzzy. Joy is a confident emotion. It is an emotion we can’t manufacture. We can’t make joy happen within us. Joy comes to us and comes upon us and bubbles up within us. Joy happens when everything comes together and we know that all is good.

This morning we are feeling joy over the Resurrection—over the fact that today we celebrate the destruction of everlasting death. See why I like Easter so much.  Easter is what it’s all about to be a Christian.  What I talk about when I talk about Easter is that fact that today is truly the embodiment of the joy we should all feel as Christians.

Today is a day of joy.  Today, we are all filled with joy at the resurrection and the fact that the resurrection will happen to us too.  This is a joy that sustains us and lifts us up when we need lifting up. It is a joy that causes us to see what others cannot see.

The Resurrection reminds us that God dwells with us. God dwells within us. Each of us, no matter who we are. And to see God, all we have to do is look around and see God in the faces of those around us.

See, Easter is about the Resurrection of Jesus, but it’s also about us as well.  That Resurrection is our Resurrection too. What happened to Jesus will happen to us as well.  Why? Because God loves us. God loves us just for who and what we are. God loves us, just as God loved Jesus.  And just as God raised Jesus up on that first Easter day, God will raise us up as well.  No matter who we are. All of us, fully loved and fully accepted by our God, will be raised up, just as Jesus is raised today.

By doing so, we no longer have to fear things like death.  By raising Jesus up, God destroyed our fears of an uncertain future. By raising Jesus up, God brought victory to all of our defeats and failures.

See, there is a reason for real joy on this Easter morning. In fact, it is joy that dwells with us and among us as we gather here.

Joy.

So, on this Easter morning, let this joy we feel at this moment not be a fleeting emotion. Rather, let it live in us and grow in us. Let it provoke us and motivate us. Let it flow forth from us. And when you live into this joy—when you let this joy fully consume you—every day with be Easter day to you.

Every day will be a day of resurrection. Every day will be a day of renewed life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed!

Alleluia!






Saturday, March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday

March 26, 2016


+ We’ve all been here. We’ve been here, in this belly of    hell. We’ve been in this place in which there is nothing. Bleakness. No hope. Or so it seems.  It’s not just a bad place to be. It’s the worst place to be.

We have been in that place in which we seemed abandoned. Deserted.  No one was coming for us, we believed. No one even knew we were here, in these depths of hell.

Hell.

Holy Saturday is the time in which we commemorate not only the fact that Jesus is lying in the tomb—in which we perform a liturgy that feels acutely like the burial service. We also commemorate a very long belief that on this day, Jesus, although seemingly at rest in the tomb, was actually at work, despite the fact that it seemed he was dead. He was in the depth of hell.

This belief, of course, comes to us from a very basic reading of 1 Peter, and from the early Church Fathers.  Jesus descended into hell and preached to those there.   The popular term for this is the Harrowing of Hell.  Harrowing is a harvesting term. One harrows the field. Jesus went to hell and harrowed until it was empty.

As a follower of Jesus, I find the story of the Harrowing of Hell to be so compelling.  I find it compelling, because I’ve been there. I’ve been to hell. More than once.  As we all have.

I have known despair. I have known that feeling that I thought I would actually die from bleakness. Or wished I could die. But didn’t.

Even death wasn’t, in that moment, the worst thing that could happen.  That place of despair was the worst place to be.  It is the worst place to be.

Which is why this morning’s liturgy is so important to me.  In the depth of hell, even there, when we think there is no one coming for us—just when we’ve finally given up hope, Someone does. God sends Jesus to us, there. He comes to us in the depths of our despair, of our personal darkness, of that sense of being undead, and what does he do? He leads us out.

I know this is a very unpopular belief for many Christians. Many Christians simply cannot believe it.

Hell is eternal, they believe.   If you turn your back on God, then you should be in hell forever and ever, they believe.  If you do wrong in life, you should be punished for all eternity, they will argue.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of you to hear me say that I definitely don’t agree.  And my faith speaks loudly to me on this issue.  The God I serve, the God I love and believe in, is not a God who would act in such a way.

Now, I am not saying there isn’t a hell. There is a hell. As I said, I’ve been there.  But if there is some metaphysical hell in the so-called “afterlife,” I believe that, at some point, it will be completely empty.  And heaven will be absolutely full.

What I do know is that the hell I believe in does exist. And many of us—most of us—have been there at least once. Some of us have been there again and again. Any of us who have suffered from depression, or have lost a loved one, or have doubted our faith, or have thought God is not a God of love—we have all known this hell. 

But none of these hells are eternal hells.  I do believe that even those hells will one day come to an end. I do believe that God sends Jesus to us, even there, in the depths of those personal hells.  I believe that one day, even those hells will be harrowed and emptied, once and for all.

Until that day happens, none of us should be too content.  None of us should rejoice too loudly.  None of should exult in our own salvation, until salvation is granted to all.

If there is an eternal hell and punishment, my salvation is not going to be what I thought it was.   And that is the real point of this day.

I love the fact that, no matter where I am, no matter where I put myself, no matter what depths and hells and darknesses I sink myself into, even there God will send Jesus to me to find me.  And I know that the Jesus I serve and follow will not rest until the last of his lost loved ones is found and brought back.

As I said, It’s not a popular belief in the Christian Church.  And that baffles me. Why isn’t it more popular? Why do we not proclaim a God who comes to us in our own hells and bring us out? Why do we not proclaim a God of love who will bring an end, once and for all, to hell? 

We as Christians should be pondering these issues.  And we should be struggling with them.  And we should be seeking God’s knowledge on them.

On this very sad, very bleak Holy Saturday morning, I find a great joy in knowing that, as far as we seem to be in this moment from Easter glory, Easter glory is still happening, unseen by us, like a seed slowly blooming in the ground. That Victory of God we celebrate this evening and tomorrow morning and throughout the season of Easter is more glorious than anything we can imagine.  And it is more powerful than anything we can even begin to comprehend.

In my own personal hells the greatest moment is when I can turn from my darkness toward the light and find consolation in the God who has come to me, even there, in my personal agony.  

Even there, God comes to me and frees me.  God has done it before.  And I have no doubt God will do it again. In the bleak waters of abandonment, God has sent the buoy, the lifesaver of Jesus to hold us up and bring us out of the waters.

That is what we are celebrating this Holy Saturday morning.  That is how we find our joy. Our joy is close at hand, even though it seems gone from us. Our joy is just within reach, even in this moment when it seems buried in the ground and lost.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

March 25, 2016


+ The one word that has been with me these last few days has been a word most of us know well in our lives. Brokenness. In many ways, that is what this day is all about.

Brokenness.

The Jesus we encounter today is slowly, deliberately being broken.  This moment we are experiencing right now is a moment of brokenness. Brokenness, in the shadow of the cross, the nails, the thorns. Broken by the whips.   Broken under the weight of the Cross.  Broken by his friends, his loved ones. Broken by the thugs and the soldiers and all those who turned away from him and betrayed him.

 In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real, as well.   We can feel this brokenness now in a way we never have before.  Our brokenness is shown back to us like the reflection in a dark mirror as we look upon that broken Body on the cross. We have all wondered at times in our lives if God, who once was such a source of joy and gladness to us, had turned away from us.  We have all known what the anguish of losing someone love feels like, whether we lost that person to death, or to a change of feelings, or simply due to desertion.

Some of us have known that fear that comes when we are faced with our mortality in the face of illness, and we think there will never be a time when we will never be well again.   This dark place is a terrible place to be.  But as Bishop Charles Stevenson once wrote:

“To receive the light, we must accept the darkness. We must go into the tomb of all that haunts us, even the loss of faith itself, to discover a truth older than death.”

 Yes, we have known brokenness in our lives. We have known those moments of loss and abandonment.  We have known those moments in which we have been betrayed.   We have known those moments when we have lost someone we have cared for so much, either through death or a broken relationship.   We have known those moments of darkness in which we cannot even imagine the light.

But, for as followers of Jesus, we know there is light. Even today, we know it is there, just beyond our grasp.  We know that what seems like a bleak, black moment will be replaced by the blinding Light of the Resurrection.  

What seems like a moment of unrelenting despair will soon be replaced by an unleashing of unrestrained joy. This present despair will be turned completely around.  This present darkness will be vanquished.  This present pain will be replaced with a comfort that brings about peace.  This present brokenness will be healed fully and completely, leaving not even a scar.

In a short time (though it might not seem like it) our brokenness will be made whole.  And will know there is no real defeat, ultimately.   Ultimately there will be victory.  Victory over everything we are feeling sadness over at this moment.  Victory over the pain, and brokenness, and loss, and death we are commemorating.

This is what today is about. This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us.  All we need to do is go where the journey leads us.  All we need to do is follow Jesus, yes, even through this broken moment.  Because if we do, we will, like him, be raised by God out of this broken place. The God in whom we, like Jesus, trust, will reach out to us, even here, in this place, on this bleak day, and will raise us up.

Following Jesus, means following him, even to this place. But, we, who have trusted in him, will soon realize this is, most definitely, not the end of the story. Not by any means. We will, in our following of him, know in a short time joy—even a joy that, for this moment, seems far off.  




Celan before the Grunewald Passion


Celan before the Grünewald Passion

(Holy Week, 1970)

The limbs
entwined—
gnarled

as oak. The
blood
flowed--red as

a mother’s,
shed for naught
in the labor

camp.
The ribs
strained—

a father’s—
typhus in its
last exhaled

breath. Our
own passion
awaits us—

weeks
from now
in waters

dark as noon,
silent
and unseen

by anyone
except
someone’s downcast


gaze—
tender
and distant

--Jamie Parsley

Paul Celan (1920-1970) was a Romanian-born German-language Jewish poet. After surviving the death camps, Celan became a well-respected poet in post-war Europe. He committed suicide on April 20, 1970, by drowning himself in the Seine in Paris.   

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday

1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35

+ I know this isn’t something many priests confess. But…I am a bit of a skeptic. No, not just a bit. I’m actually very much a skeptic. I’m very skeptical of so-called supernatural stories.

Still, even despite that, I am a deep lover of mystery. I love those shows on Discovery Channel or History Channel and other channels about UFOs and ghosts. Oftentimes, I just sit there and roll my eyes at all. But I am deeply entertained by it all. In fact, I can’t stop watching them.

Tonight, we are in the midst of a mystery as well. But this is a mystery at which I don’t roll my eyes. I am not a skeptic about this mystery. Tonight we commemorate God happening to us.   We commemorate an event in our lives as Christians that has changed us and affected us and transformed us and made our spiritual lives better.  

Tonight, we commemorate that incredible and amazing miracle—the institution of the Eucharist.

Tonight, we remember the fact that Jesus took bread, broke it, gave it and said, “This is my body,” and that he did the same with the wine and said, “This is my blood,” And that by doing so, something incredible happened. God happened. God broke through to us. God broke through to us in an incredible and wonderful way.

Every Sunday and Wednesday, we participate in this incredible, holy event.   We come together. We celebrate together this mystery.  We come forward and take this bread and drink from this cup and, in doing so, we take the Body and Blood of Christ. Every Sunday, our congregation celebrates this mystery, this miracle and this incredible conduit in which God still continues to come to us in this tangible, real way.  

In this bread and wine we share, God happens to us.  God is present with us in a unique and wonderful way.  And recognizing this presence, how can we be anything other than in awe of it?  We should be blown away by what is happening on our altar.  

I hear all the time from people who tell me that it was this holy event of the Eucharist that  converted them and changed them and transformed them.  And that amazes me.

I’m sure there are people out there who see what we do as archaic.   There are even some Christians out there who say we don’t need Holy Communion every Sunday. I disagree.  We need Holy Communion every Sunday.  

One of the reasons I came back to Church and have stayed in the Church as long as I have is this one act of the Church.  Even when I wandered away from the Church and journeyed about spiritually, I oftentimes found myself craving what I had always experienced in the Eucharist.  And it was this deep desire for the Eucharist that brought me back to the Church in my twenties.

The reason we come to church is so we can experience God’s presence.  What better way than in in the Bread and the Wine and in one another?  The reason we come to church is to be strengthened in our everyday faith life.  We come to church to be fed spiritually, so that we can be sustained spiritually.  And the amazing fact is, people are still being transformed by this event.

Each of us is transformed by what we do here.  And so is anyone who comes to our altar and experiences God’s Spirit coming to us in this bread and wine.   
 This is why Holy Communion is so important.  This is why we celebrate this miracle every Sunday.  There is nothing else like this kind of worship in the Church.  It is one of the most intimate forms of worship we can know.

God truly comes among us and feeds us with this Holy Bread and Drink. We form a bond with God in Communion that is so strong and so vital to our spiritual lives.

Jesus tells us tonight, on the eve of his death, on the eve of his leaving us, that he will not leave us without something.  Rather, he will leave us with a sign of his love for us.

As John tells us tonight, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

He loved us even at the end so that he could leave us something to nourish us and sustain us until he comes to us again.  He leaves us this wonderful and amazing sign of God’s sustaining us. But Holy Communion is more than just being fed in our bodies.  What we learn at this altar of ours, when celebrate the Eucharist together and we share Holy Communion together is that, Jesus is our Bread of Life, our cup of Salvation,  that Jesus is the Body given for us and the Blood shed for us, whenever we are starving or thirsting spiritually.
When we feel empty and lost, God comes to us and refreshes us. God feeds our spirit with that presence of absolute love in our lives.

In other words, what Jesus is saying to us is: this is what will fulfill you.
 This God who feeds us, with Spirit, with food. God then becomes the very staple of our spiritual lives.  God is the One who feeds that hunger we have deep within us, who quenches that seemingly unquenchable thirst that drives us and provokes us.  God fills the voids of our lives with this life-giving Presence.

But it’s more than just a moment. This love that we experience in this Communion, is love that we can’t just hug to ourselves and bask in privately. This love we experience in this Eucharist is a love that is meant, like the Bread and the Cup, to be shared with others.

“Love one another,” is Jesus’ commandment to us in those moments before he is betrayed, in those hours before he is tortured, on the eve of his brutal murder. “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Holy Communion—and the love we experience in it—is not just something we do here in church on Sunday mornings or on Maundy Thursday.   It is something we take with us when we go from here. It is something we take out into the world from here. As Christians, we are not only supposed to share the Body and the Blood of Christ wherever we go because we carry those elements within us.  We are to Become the Body and Blood of Christ to those who need Christ. And because we carry those elements within us, we are to feed those who are not just hungry of body, but are hungry of mind and spirit as well.
We are to share and BE the Body and Blood of Jesus with all of those we encounter in the world. 

How do we do this? We do it simply by loving. By loving and accepting fully and completely.  That is how we live this Eucharist in our lives in joyful thanksgiving.

So, as we go from here this evening, during the rest of this Holy Week and especially during the holy season of Easter, let us go out into the world remembering what we carry within us. Let us remember WHO we are carrying within us.  Let us remember what nourishes us, what sustains us, what quenches our own spiritual hunger and thirst.  Let us go out, refreshed and filled with life-giving bread and life-refreshing cup—following Jesus and serving God, who feeds us with his very self.

But let us go out also into the world ready to share that bread and cup that gives such life to us. Let us show it in our actions and show it in our words.  Let us show it by living out that commandment of love to all. Let that Presence of God within us nourish those around us just as it nourishes us.



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Easter Letter

Lent – Easter, 2016

As most of you know and have heard me say on many occasions: Easter is, by far, my favorite Season in the Church Year. I love it not only for the Paschal Mystery we celebrate and contemplate; I love it as well because, like our baptismal faith, it is about renewal and rebirth.

During this Easter Season I would like to extend to you my blessings and deepest gratitude. St. Stephen’s has become a place and community in which I am finding myself rejoicing and giving thanks on a daily basis. We are  community constantly renewing itself in God’s Spirit. Our continued commitment to welcome and include all people equally in the life of Christ is truly making a difference in people’s lives.

As we near Easter I would like to invite each of you to join with me in commemorating Jesus’ last week during Holy Week and celebrating this great and beautiful Event of the Resurrection at St. Stephen’s. There are plenty of opportunities for worship during Holy Week and the Easter Season. A schedule of Holy Week/Easter events is included in this mailing.

So, please do join in this beautiful and important time of the Year by worshipping at St. Stephen’s.

And again, please know of my deep gratitude and joy in being able to serve alongside you at St. Stephen’s. Each of you remain in my daily prayers. Please include me in yours as well.

Peace,


Fr. Jamie Parsley

Priest-in-Charge 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday

March 20, 2016

Luke.22-14-23.56

+ I don’t always like to rehash my sermons. But I’m going to this morning. I’m going to rehash my sermon from last Sunday.  Last week, in my sermon, I said this to you:  save your palms. Keep them. Fold them up , display them in your homes. Keep them throughout this year. Let them dry out.

Because next February, I will ask you to bring them back to church. Because these palms that are so young, and green and fresh this morning, in February will be burned and made into the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

It’s interesting to ponder them in such a way. There is a strange kind of cycle here.  These palms represent us, in many ways. Yes, they are green and fresh now. But they will, one day, be ashes. As we all will. We have them in joy at the beginning of this liturgy, but they also come to represent all that this coming week will entail.

In fact, everything that is about to happen this coming week, speaks to us, like these palms, on a very personal level. As we approach this Holy Week, we need to keep in mind a very important reality.  What is about to happen in Holy Week is about us, as much as it about Jesus.  Now, I’m not talking about this all in some abstract way. I mean it, when I say, this is our story too.

Let’s face it: we’ve been here. Our liturgy today—this service we have this morning—begins on a high note. Jesus enters in a hail of praises. The crowds acclaim him. It is a wonderful and glorious moment as Jesus enters Jerusalem, praised by everyone.

But everything turns quickly. What begins on a high note, ends on a lowest note possible. The crowds quickly turn against him. He is betrayed, whipped, condemned. And although we hopefully have not physically experienced these things, most of us, have been here emotionally.

We have known these highs and lows in our own lives. We have known the high notes—those glorious, happy moments that we prayed would never end. And we have known the low notes—when we thought nothing could be worse.  And sometimes these highs and lows have happened to us as quickly as they did for Jesus. Unless we make personal what is happening to Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, it remains a story completely removed from our own lives.

As we hear this reading, we do relate to Jesus in his suffering and death. How can we not?  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 in our lives unscathed in some way. We all carry our own passions—our own crucifixions—with us. We have all known betrayal in our lives as times. We have all known what it feels like to be alone—to feel as though there is no one to comfort us.

Whenever we feel these things, we are sharing in the story of Jesus. We are bearing, in our very selves, the wounds of Jesus—the bruises, the whip marks, the nails.   

And when we suffer in any way in this life, and we all have, we have cried out, “where are you, God?” That is what this story of Jesus shows us very clearly.

Where is God when we suffer?

Where is God when it seems as though everyone has turned from us, and abandoned us? Where is God in our agony? Where is God?

The death of Jesus shows us where God is in those moments.  Where is God? God is right here, suffering with us in those moments. How do we know this? Because we see it clearly and acutely in his story of Jesus.

The Gospel story we heard this morning is our story in a sense.  For those of us who carry wounds with us, we are the ones carrying the wounds of Jesus in our bodies and in our souls as well. 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 are turned away and betrayed, every time we are deceived, and every time we feel real, deep, spiritual pain, we are sharing in Jesus’ passion.  When we can feel the wounds we carry around with us begin to bleed again when we hear the story of Jesus’ death, this story becomes our story too.

But…and this is very important…BUT, there’s something wonderful and incredible about all of this as well.  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 we read about today and in our own lives, are ultimately temporary.

But what we celebrate next Sunday is forever—it is unending.  Easter morning awaits us all—that day in which we will rise from the ashes of this life—the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the ashes of these palms we wave this morning, and live anew in that unending dawn.

Next Sunday reminds us is that, no matter how painful our sufferings have been, no matter how deep our wounds are, God, who has suffered with us, will always raise us from this pain of ours, just as God raised Jesus from his tomb.  God will dry all our tears. All our pains will be 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 own Easter morning awaits us, as well.

So, as difficult as it might be to hear this morning’s Gospel, as hard as it is to relive our pains and sufferings as we experience the pains and sufferings of Jesus, 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 will lie empty behind us.  

And before us lies life. Unending, pain-free life.  Before us lies a life triumphant and glorious in ways we can only—here and now—just barely begin to comprehend.



Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reading at the Plains Art Museum

I'm looking forward to reading a few poems at this event tonight. Plains Arts Museum in Fargo, beginning at 6:00 p.m.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

5 Lent


March 13, 2016

John 12.1-8

+ If you know me for any period of time, you know this fact about me. At some point I am going to ask you one particular question: What are your funeral arrangements?

I think sometimes that I should’ve been a funeral director. I mean, let’s face it: I do a lot of funerals. A lot. And I often have to do funerals for people who have never made any plans for their funerals.

So, when I ask, don’t think it’s morbid or weird (though it is kind of morbid and weird). I ask because it’s an important question to ask. And it’s important to think about. Because, let me tell you, if you don’t make them, those left behind will. And sometimes, they are not in the best frame of mind to plan a service.

I always encourage people—especially parishioners: Make those plans in advance.  And not just plans for the funeral service.  But plans for the disposition of your remains.

And just so you think I’m not some hypocrite up here preaching (I hope you never think I’m a hypocrite up here preaching), yes, I have my own arrangements made.  They’re in my in my will, and I express my wishes quite often to people. It’s no secret that for me personally I prefer cremation with burial. I am of the frame of mind that believes that the body, whether buried or cremated, should be treated with a certain level of respect and care and should be properly buried or disposed of in some way. These bodies, these vessels we have been given, are important and are wonderful gifts to us from God, and we should treat them with some level of respect.

In today’s Gospel, we find Mary doing something that sort of encompasses this view of the sacredness of the body.   We find her coming before Jesus and doing a very unusual thing: she anoints his feet. And Jesus, even more strangely, reprimands Judas by saying that Mary is doing nothing more than anointing his body for burial. She is, in a sense, anointing him for burial.

As we near Holy Week—that final week of Jesus’ life before the cross—our thoughts are now turning more and more to these “last things.”   Yes, it’s all starting to sound a little morbid.  And no doubt, poor Judas was also thinking Jesus was getting weirdly morbid himself.  

But, Jesus is reminding us, yet again, that even the simplest acts of devotion have deeper meaning and are meant to put us in mind of what is about to ultimately happen. Mary sees in Jesus something even his disciples don’t.   She sees—and maybe doesn’t fully comprehend, though she certainly intuitively guesses—that Jesus is different, that God is working through Jesus in some very wonderful and unique way.   And she sees that God is working through the very flesh and blood of Jesus.

For us, as Christians we do know that issues of the flesh are important.  And not in some self-deprecating way, either. You will not hear me preaching much about the “sins of the flesh.” (Don’t think I’m encouraging them either, though) For us, flesh is important in a good way in our understanding of our relationship with God.

What we celebrate here every Sunday and Wednesday at the Eucharist is reminder to us how important issues like physical matter are.  We worship not only in spirit and in spiritual things.  We worship in physical things as well.

Bread and wine.

Candles and bells.

And, at Wednesday mass, incense.

These things remind us that we have senses, given to us by God. And these senses can be used in our full worship of that God.  And that God that we worship is concerned with our matter as well. God accepts our worship with all our senses. God actually gets down in the muck of the matter of our lives.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from one of the early Church Father, John of Damascus.   John wrote a truly remarkable thing while defending the veneration of icons—or holy images of Christ and the saints.  There was a time in the church when people felt there should be no images  like this because it violated the commandment to make no graven images.   John wrote in defense of icons:

“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

I love that quote!

“I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation.”

Why so many Christians view matter or the flesh as such a horrible, sinful thing baffles me.   And as we all know, there are Christians who believe that.  There are Christians who believe that these bodies of ours are sinful and should be treated as wild, uncontrollable things that must be mastered and disciplined and ultimately defeated. Why we as Christians get so caught up with this awful ridiculous view that the flesh is this terrible, sin-filled thing we carry around is frustrating for me.  In fact, the belief that the flesh is bad and the spirit all-good is a very early church heresy, which was condemned by the early Christian Church.

We have all known Christians who do think that flesh is a horrible, sinful thing—who think all we should do is concentrate only with the spiritual.   For those of us in the know—even for those of who have suffered from physical illness and suffering ourselves in this flesh—we know that the flesh and the spirit truly are connected.   We cannot separate the two while we are still alive and walking on the earth.

Still, I do always love the quote from one of my personal heroes, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from his incredible book The Phenomenon of Man:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

I think we could just as easily say that we are spiritual beings having a material experience.   I, of course, don’t see that as a downplaying our flesh.   Rather, I see it as truly the spirit making the material holy.   Our flesh is sacred because God makes it sacred.  

And if we have trouble remembering that our flesh is sacred, that God cares about us not just spiritually but physically, we have no further place to look than what we do here at this altar, in the Eucharist.   Here, God truly does feed our flesh, as well as our spirits.   And, we can even go so far as to say that by feeding our flesh, God becomes one with us physically as well as spiritually.   That is what Holy Communion is all about.

This is part of the reason why I think that even following our death we should honor what remains of this flesh because it is sacred.   We shouldn’t just toss it away or in any other way disrespect it.  We should be respectful to our ashes and those of our loved ones, for truly God has worked through the flesh of all the people we have known in our lives and, by doing so, has made them each uniquely holy and special.

Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will begin our liturgy with joy and end it on a solemn note as we head into Holy Week.   Next Sunday, we will also get palms. Now, every year you hear me say: save those palms. First of all, they are blessed palms. We will bless them at the beginning of the Mass.  I say fold them, display them, let them dry out. Because next winter, right before Ash Wednesday, I will ask you to bring them back to church. Those green and beautiful palms that we wave next Sunday, will be burned and made into the ashes we use on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

We are kind of like those palms. One day, we too will be ashes. But our ashes will still be important.

There is a strange and wonderful circle happening in all of this. We see it all comes around. And that God does really work through all of this in our lives as Christians. Yes, even in the ashes, and matter of our lives.

Holy Week is a time for us to be thinking about these last things—yes, our spiritual last things, but also our physical last things as well.    As we make our way through Holy Week, we will see Jesus as he endures physically and spiritually, from a spirit so wracked with pain that he sweats blood, to the terror and torment of being tortured, whipped and nailed to a cross.   As we journey through these last days of Lent, let us do so pondering how God has worked through our flesh and the flesh of our loved ones.

Yes, we truly are spiritual beings enjoying a physical experience.   We are spiritual beings enjoying an incredible and wonderful pilgrimage through matter.  So, enjoy it. Exult in it. Truly partake in this material experience.  Let us rejoice in this material experience God has allowed us. Let us be grateful for all the joys we have received through this matter in which we dwell and experience each other.    And let this joy be the anointment for our flesh as we ponder our own end and the wonderful new beginning that starts with that end.  





Monday, March 7, 2016

The memorial service for Robert "Bob" Hendricks

The memorial service for
Bob Hendricks
Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home
Fargo, North Dakota
Monday, March 7, 2016

Good afternoon. It a true honor to do this service for Bob. As I said at the beginning, I was Bob’s priest. And it was an honor for me to serve as such.

Last August, when Bob was in the hospital and was really beginning his final journey, I went up to see him. It was an interesting visit. Bob was, of course, beginning to really show signs of his dementia. And often, with illnesses such as that, important events come to the surface. That day, there was discussion about where Bob was going to be moved. But for Bob, he had his mind set on one thing. Where did Bob think he was going that day?  He was certain he was going camping that day. And I’m happy that’s where he was in his thoughts.

What was particularly interesting, however, was, at one point, his doctor came in and was questioning Bob trying gauge where he was in relation to his dementia. Some of those questions, Bob answered incorrectly by the doctor’s standard. But at one point the Doctor turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder and asked Bob, “Do you know who this is?”

Without a beat, Bob, very clearly and very strongly, answered, “That’s Fr. Jamie, he’s my priest!”

I have thought a lot about that day over these last several months, and especially over this last week and half. I was honored and proud to be Bob’s priest. And like many of us today, I am very grateful for having known him. He was a special and unique person. And those special and unique people come into our lives sometimes very rarely. So, we should all be thankful today for this wonderful and unique man.

I am especially happy that the family wanted me to share this poem “Two Roads” by Robert Frost today. This poem was, of course, Bob’s favorite poem. And I loved reading it.  

I don’t think that Bob’s family knew this when they asked for this poem, but I actually know a lot about poetry. I am a poet—in addition to being a priest. I’ve actually published 13 books of poems. I have a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing. And I’m an Associate Poet Laureate of the state of North Dakota, in addition to being a priest. And I’m also kind of an amateur-expert on Robert Frost. I visited his grave in Bennington, Vermont. I’ve visited many of the places Frost lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire (where Frost actually finished the poem “Two Roads”), Gainesville, Florida and Key West. And I actually know quite a bit about this poem. So, when the family asked for this poem, I said, yeah, I think I can do this.

This poem is an important poem in American literature, of course. And it is seen by so many people as a poem about rebellion. Which is completely correct.

We have a choice in our lives, Frost ponders. We can take the expected road—the well-paved road, the road that is expected of us. Or we can take the other road. The less-traveled road. The one few people travel.

It all sounds romantic, especially to those traveling the well-paved road. The grass is always greener on the other side. But for those travelling the less-traveled road, it is not always so wonderful either. It is a lonely road at times. It is a difficult road. It is, oftentimes, uncharted territory one travels through on that road. It can be frightening.  And it can be uncertain.

The well-paved road is the road most of us travel. We often don’t make that choice. The choice is often made for us. But to travel the less-traveled road, that takes concentration. That takes a concentrated choice. One chooses the less-traveled road.  And not everyone can take it. Most don’t.

So, when one does take the less traveled road, when the difficulties of that less-traveled road happen, there is no one to blame than one’s self. You chose this road, after all. No one else  did it for you. You did. So you are ultimately the one responsible for whatever may come.

Bob knew this road in his life. Bob chose this road.  And Bob would be the first to tell you, it was a hard road at times. It was difficult. It was uncharted territory at times. There were times when he no doubt felt alone on that road. There were no doubt times when he maybe he even regretted it (and that’s all right).

But I know for certain that, in the end, when all was said and done, he would have agreed with Robert Frost. It did make all the difference.

Bob, that perpetual teacher that he is, no doubt, saying that same thing to all of us today.  He is saying us, choose wisely the road you travel. No matter how old you are, no matter where you are right now in your life—choose wisely. And then proceed with purpose and meaning.

That is what we take away from this day and from our memories of Bob Hendricks. Our choices matter. Our choices outlive us.

Bob lived with this sense of memorialization. He knew that things we did and said mattered and would have meaning in the long-run. Yearbooks from our high school years outlive all of us. They are oftentimes our only memorials. Future generations will look at those books and will see those teenagers we were, so full of hope for the future, so full of life, so full of all that could be in life. And that is how many of us will be remembered.

Bob knew that. Bob worked hard to make sure that is what is remembered.  And each of us can thank him for that.  What we do—the choices we make—matter. So chose well.

Yes, it is a sad day today for those of us who knew and loved Bob. But we do have our consolations today. Our consolation today is that all that was good in him, all that was talented and charming and full of life in him—all of that is not lost today. It is here, with us, who remember him and loved him. It is here in all that we learned from him. 

And, for those of who have faith in God and in a life that is beyond this life, we take consolation that all of that goodness now dwells in a place free from pain and hardship.  The consolation we can take away from today is that, all of the difficult things in Bob’s life are over for him.   Thank God! That dementia, that Parkinson’s, that slow deterioration—it is all over for him. All of that has passed away for him and he is now fully and completely himself.  He is whole in this moment.

Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who knew him and cared for him. Whenever anyone we love dies, we are going to feel pain. That’s just a part of life.  But like the hardship in this life, our feelings of loss are only temporary as well.  They too will pass away.

Realizing that and remembering that fact is what gets us through some of those hard moments of life.  This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss. It is a faith that can tell us with a startling reality that every tear we shed—and we all shed our share of tears in this life—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear. 

It is in a moment like this that I am thankful that I was Bob’s priest. Because even now he still teaches me to understand how important this life is and how important the choices we make are to our lives.

Bob chose the right path. Those of us who are gathered together today can attest to that fact. So, let us be thankful that he did make the right choice in his life.  It did make all the difference.

Amen.