Sunday, April 17, 2016

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday

April 21, 2013

John 10.22-30

+ Do you ever notice how we all tend to take for granted certain images we have in the Church? Especially images that have long been used to describe God. I was reminded of this earlier this month.

April 4 was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. In preparation for that anniversary, I was reading about how MLK, a few weeks before his death, took a trip to Mexico with Ralph Abernathy. One night, Abernathy woke to find King sitting on the balcony, staring intently at a rock in the ocean. King turned to Abernathy and said, “You know what the rock reminds me? It reminds of ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me.’”

What I found interesting about that story is that I had not given a second thought to God as the “Rock of Ages” for years.  How many times have we heard that hymn without actually thinking about what it means? There are other images as well that we often take for granted.

One of those is one we celebrate today. This morning is popularly known as Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. And here, too, we encounter an image for God that we hear about all the time—at least once a year—without really thinking about.

God as Good Shepherd. It’s a great image for God. In it, we also encounter the compassion of our God.  Certainly, for the people of Jesus’ day, this image of the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was.  

The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock.  He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock.   He led the flock to a place to eat. It’s a wonderful way to try to describe God’s goodness to us. This image implies that God really—legitimately—cares for us. This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock.

Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd.  The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed each one of them.  

Rather, he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them to feed themselves.  The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there. He protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water. He cares for the flock.  And that’s VERY important.  Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there.  There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt.

If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him, we realize that those pitfalls are difficult, yes, but they don’t defeat us.   Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one.  We can still get hurt along the way.  Bad things can still happen to us. There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us.  There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting to rain down upon us.

But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us—caring for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us. The Good Shepherd knows his flock.

“I know them and they follow me,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.

If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold.  This is the kind of relationship we have with our Good Shepherd.  We are know God because God knows us.  God knows us and calls us each by our name. The Good Shepherd reminds us that we don’t have some vague, distant God.  We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves.  We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock.  We have a God who knows us and loves and cares for us.   All these are important images, vital images to explain the relationship God has with us and we with God.

But the Good Shepherd doesn’t end there.  This isn’t just about me as an individual and God.  The image of the Good Shepherd must be taken and applied by anyone.  Any of us who follow Jesus are called to be good  shepherds in turn. We must love and love fully those who around us.  We must care for those people who walk this path with us.  We must look out for our loved ones and even our enemies, and we must shepherd them in whatever ways we can in our own lives.

Again, this is not easy, especially when it seems we are lost at times, when we are falling into the traps life sets before us, when our alleluias during this Easter season feels cold and lonely.    But, that’s the way God works, sometimes.  Sometimes, God’s works through our brokenness and helps us to guide others in their brokenness.  Sometimes the best Good Shepherd is the one who has known fully what a lost sheep feels like, who knows the coldness and loneliness of being that lost sheep.

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, let us not only be led, but let us also lead.    On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided and let us guide others.   And let our alleluia on this Good Shepherd Sunday, even if it is a cold and lonely Alleluia, still be an Alleluia nonetheless.  Let it be the sound we make, even in the cold and lonely places we sometimes find ourselves in.   And let us, in that place, know that, even there, we are still experiencing the amazing glory of God. Amen.




Monday, April 11, 2016

The funeral liturgy for Bona Dea Miller

The funeral liturgy for
Bona Dea Miller
Boulger Funeral Home
Fargo, North Dakota
Monday, April 11, 2016


Proverbs 31

As I said at the beginning of this service, it is a true honor for me to officiate at this service for Bona Dea. I am the priest of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where she was a member.  Although I didn’t know her well, we did talk on occasion and I greatly enjoyed those conversations we had.  She definitely had an opinion which she had no fear expressing. And, I could tell, she was definitely a very strong person—that came through very clearly—which I admired greatly.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t get to know her better.  But I can say this: I definitely sort of felt a kind of bond develop between Bona Dea and myself over these last few days. Certainly, because she was a member of St. Stephen’s, she was regularly in our prayers, so there was that spiritual connections.  And on Wednesday night, as she was dying, I went up and prayed with her and anointed her. Those kind of things definitely help that spiritual bond become even stronger.     

But I can say that meeting you, and hearing you talk about who she was and all that she was to you in your lives—there is the real bond. That is where her life really comes alive. In all of you, who knew her and loved her and will carry on with her memory in your lives.

Now, I am of the firm belief that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is a very thin one.  And because of that belief, I do take a certain comfort in the fact Bona Dea is close to us today in spirit.  I hope we can feel that presence this afternoon and in the days and years ahead. She is here, in our midst, with us, celebrating this wonderful life.

I am also especially happy that we heard this particular scripture reading from Proverbs today. It’s not a scripture we hear very often, especial as funerals, which makes it even more special. But I think it’s a wonderful scripture and, from what I’ve heard about Bona Dea, this is a very appropriate scripture.

One of the things that has become clear from all of you is that she had a real sense of legacy in her life. She knew that what we did in this life mattered. Our actions live on after us.  And knew that was important.  So when we hear those words,

Give her of the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the gates
.

Those words speak loudly to us today. This is a statement for those of you who are gathered today. You, her loved one, the ones who live on after her, the ones who carry on the act of her legacy, you are her works, praising her in the gates. You are the fruits of her hands.  So, be grateful for this legacy.  It is a wonderful thing.  It is your responsibility as her loved ones to carry her with you from this day onward. Her legacy lives in you. And it is you who are to praise her.  It is you who are to carry in your lives all the good things that she was in this life.

That is a noble responsibility. To carry on the good things that Bona Dea was is important. That is what she would want. That is her true legacy.

In that same reading from Proverbs, we hear the author say,

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.


As I said, when I spoke with her over the years, I could sense both that strength and that dignity in her voice. Those too are noble legacies to have. Strength and dignity. And Bona Dea seemed to really embody those virtues in her life.  If we want to truly honor her, if we want to truly carry on her legacy, it is our duty to embody strength and dignity in our own lives.  

By doing so, you do her honor and justice.  You carry on her memory by all you do and say.  And she would be proud for such a legacy.

Yes, I know is hard to say goodbye to her today.  I know is hard to put her to rest and to move on in your own lives without her. But, we do have our consolations today. We have our consolations in the strength and dignity she has bestowed to all who knew her and loved her.  And we have our consolation today in knowing that the hardships of these last few years have been taken from her once and for all.

But, probably the greatest consolation we have today, is that  all that was good in her, all that was talented and charming and full of life in her—that sense of humor, that love of music and dancing, that vibrancy that was her—all of that is not lost today. All of that goodness now dwells with us who remember her, and for those of us who have faith in God and in a place beyond this life, we know all that goodness dwells there too,  in a place free from pain and hardship, in a place beyond death, in a place of beauty and light.

Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who knew her and cared for her. Whenever anyone we love dies, we are going to feel pain.  That’s just a part of life. There is no avoiding that fact.  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, as Bona Dea would no doubt tell you—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear like a bad dream upon awakening. It is in a moment like this that we can truly be thankful for all that’s Bona Dea  was to us.

So this morning and in the days to come, let us remember her with a smile. Remember her smiling. Rejoice and be thankful to God for all the good things she was to each of you. And embody those good things in your own lives.  Be strong.  Live with dignity.  Dance.  And sing.  Live your life fully and completely. When you do, it is then that you will be honoring her and her life.  It is then that you will be carrying on her legacy. It is then, that her legacy will blossom and flourish within you.

May God’s perpetual light shine forever upon her, and may her memory be forever blessed.  






Sunday, April 10, 2016

3 Easter

April 10, 2016

John 21: 1-19

+ So, when I was in graduate school, studying poetry, I came across a great quote from the British literary critic, A. Alvarez. He said, essentially, it’s good to be an apprentice. You learn the task—in this case, of poetry—so that “when the Devil takes you by the throat and shakes you,” it is then, that you’ll know what to do. It is then, that you become a poet. It has been great advice. And I think it’s advice that can be used in multiple situations.

So, the question for all of you this morning is: When the Devil takes YOU by the throat and shakes you, what do you do? What do you do when the bad things of this life are thrown at you? Do you shut down, and curl up and just wait for it to pass? Do you freeze up and just brace yourself for it? Do you react and rage at the injustice of it? Or do you confront it all?

When the Devil takes me by the throat, do you know what I do? I make myself busy. When I was diagnosed with cancer, when my father died very suddenly, when any of the bad things happen, I just get busy. I do something. Anything. Because not doing something is worse than the Devil’s cold hand on my throat.

In this morning’s Gospel, we find the Apostles doing something very much like that.  They aren’t sitting around doing nothing.  They are doing some thing.  They are keeping busy. In the wake of the murder of Jesus, in the wake of his resurrection, in the wake of his appearing to them—in the wake of this unusual, extraordinary activity in their lives—they do the most ordinary thing in their lives.  

They go fishing.  They pick up their nets and they go out onto the water.  No doubt, considering all that had happened to them in the previous days and weeks, their minds were reeling.  But, now, they are doing something they knew how to do. Something that gave them some comfort, no doubt.   

This what they did, after all. This what their fathers did and no doubt what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did as well.  Fishing was in their blood.  It was all they knew until Jesus came into their lives.   And, no doubt, when the extraordinary events of Jesus’ murder and resurrection happened, the only way they could find some normalcy in their life was by going fishing.

The fact is, this is probably the last time they would ever go fishing together.  Their old life had once and for all passed away with the voice that calls to them from the shore.  

Their jobs as fishermen would change with the words “Feed my sheep.” It that instant, they would go from fishermen to shepherds. No longer would they be fishing for actual fish. Now they would be the feeding the sheep of Jesus’ flock.

That symbolic number of 153 seems to convey to us that the world now has become their lake. And what is particularly poignant about all of this is Jesus doesn’t come into their lives to change them into something else.  He comes into their lives and speaks to them in language they understand.  He could have said to them: “Go out and preach and convert.”

But to fishermen and shepherds, that means little or nothing.   They are fishermen, not priests or pastors. They are not theologians.

Instead, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”  This they would understand.  In those simple words, they would have got it.   And when he says “feed my sheep,” “Shepherd my sheep,” it was not just a matter of catching and eating.  It was a matter of catching and nurturing.

And this calling isn’t just for those men back then. That voice from the shore is calling us too.  In a sense, we are called by Jesus as well to be shepherds like Peter and the fellow apostles.   And those around us—those that share this world with us—are the ones Jesus is telling us to feed.

It isn’t enough that we come here to church on a Sunday morning to be fed.  A lot of us think that’s what church is about. It’s about me being fed. It’s about me being nurtured. To some extent, yes. But, if all we do is come to church to be fed and then not to turn around and feed others, we are really missing the point.  We, in turn, must go out and feed.  

And this command of Jesus is important.  Jesus asks it of Peter three times—one time for each time Peter denied him only a few weeks before.   Those words of Jesus to Peter are also words to us as well. In the wake of the devastating things that happen in our lives, the voice of Jesus is a calm center.  Amid the chaos of the world, the calm, cool voice of Jesus is still saying to us, as we cope in our ordinary ways, “feed my sheep.”

Because, it is in these strange and difficult times that people need to be fed and nourished.  Not by me, the priest, only. But by all of us—all of who call ourselves followers of Jesus.  It is in times like these that we need to be fed, and it is in times like these that we need to feed others as well.  That, in a sense, is what it means to be a Christian.

Following Jesus, as we all know, is not easy.   The fact is: it’s probably the hardest thing one can do.   Jesus is not present to us as he was present to those fishermen in this morning’s Gospel. He is not cooking us a breakfast when we come back from ordinary work.  This God of Jesus, this God he keeps telling us to love and to serve, is sometimes a hard God to love and serve. Loving a God who is not visible—who is not standing before us, in flesh and blood, is not easy.  And I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone here this morning: loving our neighbors—those people who share our world with us—as ourselves, is not easy by any means.

It takes constant work to love.  It takes constant discipline to love as Jesus loved.   It takes constant work to love ourselves—and most of us don’t love ourselves—and it takes constant work to love others.

But look at the benefits.   Look at what our world would be like if we loved God, if we loved ourselves and loved others as ourselves.   It was be ideal.   It would truly be the Kingdom of God, here on earth.   It would be exactly what Jesus told us it would be like.

But to do this—to bring this about—to love God, to love ourselves, to love each other, it’s all very hard work. Some would say it’s impossible work.   There are people, I’ll confess, I don’t want to love. I don’t want to love those people who hurt me, or who hurt people I actually do love.  Sometimes I can’t love them. I’m not saying I hate them. I’m just saying that sometimes I feel nothing for a person who has wronged me or one of my loved ones.  

In that instant, it really is hard to be a follower of Jesus.  Certainly, it seems overwhelming at times.  Let’s face it, to live as Jesus expects us to live, to serve as Jesus calls us to serve, to love as Jesus loves—it would just be so much easier to not do any of it.   

Being a Christian means living one’s life fully and completely as a follower of Jesus. It means being a reflection of God’s love and goodness in the world.

 A quote you’ve heard me share many, many time is this one of  St. Augustine: “Being a Christian means being an Alleluia from head to toe.”

It means being an Alleluia even when the bad things in life happen.  It means being an Alleluia—in our service to others—when we would rather go fishing. It means, occasionally, going and feeding the sheep rather than going off fishing and being a busybody when the bad things in life happen. 

In the midst of all the things in the world that confuse us—as we struggle to make sense of the world—the voice of Jesus is calling to us and is telling us to “feed my sheep.” Because in feeding those sheep, you know what happens: we too are fed.  In nurturing Christ’s sheep, we too are nurtured.  See, it all does work out. But we have to work at it for it to work out.

So, let us do just that. Let us feed those Jesus calls us to feed. And let us look for the Alleluia of our lives in that service to others. In finding the Alleluia amidst the darkness, we—in our bodies and in our souls—become—from our head to our toes—an Alleluia.




Sunday, April 3, 2016

2 Easter

April 3, 2016

John 20.19-31

+ I have been re-reading an incredible biography of the poet who speaks loudest to me in these last few years. I’m not certain if I’ve talked about him from the pulpit before (I think I must have though). But I love him and have loved him even before he died in 2000.  I am speaking of the great Welsh poet (and Anglican priest), R.S. Thomas. If you do not know R.S. Thomas—get to know him. In addition to be being one of the most important contemporary Welsh poets, Thomas was a parish priest for his entire adult career, serving at some obscure and quite wild parishes in Wales.  Long after he retired as a priest, he was interviewed and made some interesting observations about faith.

He said, “I don’t know how many real poets have ever been orthodox.”

(I could name a few, actually)

He went on to say this: “The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the Resurrection is a metaphor.”

(That particular statement about the Resurrection created quite a controversy at the time)

Thomas went on: “…I feel perfectly within my rights in approaching my whole vocation as priest and preacher as one who is to present poetry, and when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects.”

I love that statement, as controversial and cutting edge as it still is after all these years.  And I have long held very similar views regarding the poetry of our faith.

The fact is, yes, we all have doubts. I have doubts too.

Last week, in my sermon, I mentioned that I am often asked the question, “Do I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?” My answer was another question (something I hate having done to me): “why not?’

But the fact is, yes, I do doubt sometimes. Did God raise Jesus from the dead? Will God raise us from the dead one day?

Those are hard things to believe in at times.  Those are hard things to wrap our minds around at times.  But, you know what else is hard to wrap our minds around sometimes? Poetry.  And that is probably why I love all of this. Theology. The mysteries of our faith.

If we only look upon it all with skeptical eyes, it all seems so unreal. But if we look upon it as poetry—poetry unfolding in our own lives—then—oh then! Then it becomes amazing!

Yes, I will say this, this morning.  There is definitely no white-bearded male god who sits on a throne in heaven. R.S. Thomas would agree with me on that one. You know why I don’t believe in that image of God (outside of the fact that there is nothing scriptural about that image):  That image of God is not poetic.  I do not believe in a god that is so made in our image.  I don’t believe in a god that is simply a projection of our own image and self.   Who would want that god?  

The fact is, the God we believed in as Christians, the God of Jesus, is not like that.  That God is not that easy to quantify.  That God is not that easy to pin down and define. In that sense, God—and understanding of God—is truly like a poem. There are layers and nuances to it all.

So, who is this God of Jesus?  Who is this God we believe in?  Maybe it is the God of our creeds.

When I am done with this sermon, we will all stand and profess what the Church believes in the Nicene Creed that lays out quite clearly what it is we believe as Christians.  That Creed is not easy. It’s actually quite complicated. In it, we say we believe in complicated things like the Incarnation, the belief that, in Jesus, God has become actual flesh and blood. Or to use the words of the Creed:

We believe that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light,/true God from true God…”

(Poetry)

Or the Resurrection.   We say in the creed that we believe that Jesus having been murdered ‘[on] the third day…rose again…”—in his flesh and blood.

Whether we believe these things literally or metaphorically or, as R.S. Thomas would say, mytho-poetically (I kinda like that!), we are saying more than anything else, we are trying to understand God and how God works in our lives and in our history.

If we approach our creed too rationally,  it will boggle our minds. But….if we approach our creed as a poem, then, it comes alive for us.

Do we literally believe these things? I don’t know if you do or not. But this is what I do know:  beneath all these words and images and concepts—within the very poem that is the Creed—there is something good and pure.  There is a God who reached out to us in the person of Jesus. There is a God that this person, Jesus, saw as a good and loving—a God who cares for each of us. And in the life of this person Jesus, God did some great things. And we believe that because God did great things in the life of Jesus, God does continues to go great things in our lives.  We believe because we know, in our hearts, that there is truth somewhere in all of this.

That is why the poem of Creed speaks to us.  We know something amazing really did happen and that because it did, life is different—life is better, despite everything that happens.  We didn’t see Jesus while he was alive and walking about.  We didn’t see first-hand how God worked in him and through him.  We didn’t see God raise him from the tomb.  

We don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel. Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus.   You can tell Thomas didn’t have a poetic bone in his body—at least, before encountering the Resurrected Jesus.  Afterward, my guess is that he became very poetic.

It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh How many of us would only jump at that chance? For Thomas, Jesus stood there before him, in the flesh—wounds and all.   And only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.

But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy.  Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh.  At least, not on this side of the Veil—not while we are still alive.  If he does appear to you—in any shape or form—please let me as your priest know.

The fact is, we are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus.
 To believe without seeing, is not easy.   It takes work and discipline.  A strong relationship with God—this invisible Being we might sense, we might feel emotionally or spiritually, but we can’t pin-point—takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work.  It takes discipline.  It takes concentrated effort.

Being a Christian does not just involve being nice on occasion.   Being a Christian doesn’t mean just being ethical and moral.  Being a Christian means living one’s faith life fully and completely as a Christian.  Being a Christians means being a reflection of God’s love, God’s Presence, God’s joy and goodness in the world. Being a Christian means being God’s poem all the time.  

And when we do that, God is present among us.  We can’t prove it.  We can’t quantify it.  But we know it.  And we feel it.

Now, for Thomas, he saw.  He touched.  It was all clear to him.  We don’t get that chance. Thank God, we don’t get that chance!

 “Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning.

We are those blessed ones.  We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel. Blessed are all of you. You  believe, but don’t see.

Seen or unseen, we know God is there.   And our faith is not based on seeing God here in front of us in the flesh or proving the existence of God, or finding scientific proof for the Resurrection.  Because we have faith that one day, yes, we will see God.

Yes, God will raise us, like Jesus, up from our own death.  Because Jesus died and was resurrected, we too will die and be resurrected by Jesus’ God. What comes after that…again, we don’t know. The poem of our lives will continue, though. At least from what we see in the resurrected Jesus, it will be wonderful.  And that wonderful reality awaits us too. That is where our hopes lie. That is the true Easter hope and joy.

Death is not the end. It is, in fact, only the beginning.

Blessed are we who believe but don’t see now.   The Kingdom of Heaven is truly ours.