Sunday, July 16, 2017

6 Pentecost

July 16, 2017

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

+ I don’t think I’ve ever discussed this in a sermon before, but there is a very old and very strange tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church that has both fascinated and perplexed me. Many years ago I read a wonderful book on the subject, which I now no longer have and could not find in any online searches. But the idea of that book has lingered with me. The tradition is that of the so-called “Holy Fool.”

Now, I’m going to quote extensively here from Wikipedia, for which I apologize.  I don’t like quoting from Wikipedia if I don’t have to. But this is a pretty good summary of what Holy Fools were.

Foolishness for Christ refers to behavior such as … deliberate flouting society's conventions to serve a religious purpose–particularly of Christianity. Such individuals were known as both "holy fools" and "blessed fools". The term "fool" connotes what is perceived as feeblemindedness, and "blessed" or "holy" refers to innocence in the eyes of God.
The term fools for Christ derives from the writings of Saint Paul. 
In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:10, he famously says:
"We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised." (KJV).
Fools for Christ often employ shocking and unconventional behavior to challenge accepted norms, deliver prophecies, or to mask their piety.

A Holy Fool is one who acts intentionally foolish in the eyes of [all].
The term implies behaviour "which is caused neither by mistake nor by feeble-mindedness, but is deliberate, irritating, even provocative."
The "holy fool" is a term for a person who "feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or who provokes shock or outrage by his deliberate unruliness."  Such conduct qualifies as holy foolery only if the audience believes that the individual is sane, moral, and pious. The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that holy fools voluntarily take up the guise of insanity in order to conceal their perfection from the world, and thus avoid praise.
Some characteristics that were commonly seen in holy fools were going around half-naked, being homeless, speaking in riddles, being believed to be clairvoyant and a prophet, and occasionally being disruptive and challenging to the point of seeming immoral (though always to make a point).

In other words, the Holy Fool is one who challenges, who disrupts one’s previously held views. It’s a topsy-turvy ministry. It is a ministry that, in a very shocking way, jars one out of their complacency.

The Holy Fools challenge again and again everything we thought we knew about our faith.  They challenge us on an intellectual and social level. And they challenge all out preconceived notions of what it means to be a Christian.

I’ve always loved the tradition of the Holy Fool. Because they remind us that Jesus is not calling any of us to perfection. 

There are so many Christians who strive for some kind of weird perfection in Christianity. We must do this or do that so that we may be “right.” There are people who feel: I figured this out. I have read all the right books and taken all the right classes and I know now what it all means.

With such thinking comes a kind of moral and intellectual superiority. You have often heard me caution against “intellectual snobbery.” We have all done it. We think we know more than others on these subjects because we read all the right books, or took all the right classes and have attained the right degrees from the right institutions.  And if we’re not “right”—doing the right things, saying the right thing—then we’re in trouble. We’re “wrong.”

The Holy Fools challenge all of that. For them, our job as Christians is not to be perfect Christians or even “successful” Christians. And let me tell you, nowhere does the “intellectual snob” fit into Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom! Our job as followers of Jesus is to follow—to follow in our imperfection, as fractured, imperfect human beings. Not the best, but the least.

Now, I know that even hearing that creates frustration in many of us.  We like the idea of working toward the goal of perfection. And often we maybe even feel we have gained a kind of “success” as a Christian. We’ve got it figured out.  And I’ve heard people say it, even. I’ve heard people say to me, “Well, that’s not a very Christian thing to do, Father.” I’ve done it too.  I’ve said that.

So, the Holy Fools, in the face of that exalted view, challenge us, and frustrate us. But, the fact is, nowhere does Jesus expect us to be successful in our faith, or perfect.

Now, today’s Gospel, at first glance you would think would not be a reminder to us of this fact. But…but…it actually is. Deep down inside this Gospel reading, we find exactly what those Holy Fools were getting at in their bizarre and eccentric ministry.  

If you notice at the beginning of our Gospel reading, as Jesus sits in the boat from which he preaches sort of like from a pulpit, we are told that there is a large crowd coming forward to listen to him.  To this large crowd, Jesus then proceeds to preach about seed that fails and seed that flourishes.  And for this moment, it seems as though the seed of the Gospel as it comes from Jesus’ mouth is truly falling on the good soil.

But…. when we look at it from the wider perspective of the story of Jesus, what we realize is that what he is preaching is, in fact, falling on rocky ground and among thorns.

Let’s face it: on the surface, from a completely objective viewpoint, Jesus’ ministry is ultimately a failure (or seems to be anyway).  Let’s look very hard at just this instant in Jesus’ ministry.  

On this particular day, he is surrounded by twelve men—people he himself chose—who just, let’s face it, just don’t get what he’s saying.  And they won’t for a very long time. In fact, they won’t get it until after he’s dead.  These men will, eventually, turn away from him and abandon him when he needed them the most.  One of them, will betray him in a particularly cruel way: one of them will betray him to people he knows will murder Jesus.

By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross, it’s as though everything Jesus said or did up to that point had been for nothing.  Not one of the people Jesus helped, not one of the people he gave sight to, helped to walk, healed of illness, came forward to defend him.  Not even one person he raised from the dead came forward to help him in his time of need. And certainly, not one person from this large crowd of people that we encounter in today’s Gospel, comes forth to defend him, to vouch for him or even to comfort him as he is tortured and murdered.

Everyone left him except his mother and a few of his female friends.  And maybe his dear apostle John.

As far as his life of ministry was concerned, it seemed very much like a failure.  It seems, in that moment, as though the seed he sowed had all been sown on rocky ground and among thorns.  It seemed as though the seed he sowed had died.  For any of us, frustration would be an understatement for what we would be feeling at that moment.  

And if this was the end of the story, if it ended there, on that cross, on that Friday afternoon, then it would be truly one of the greatest failures.

But this is one of the cunning, remarkable things about Christianity—one of the things that has baffled people for thousands of years.  And this is what the Holy Fools embody in their lives and ministries.   

In the midst of this failure, in the midst of this frustration, God somehow works.  In that place of broken dreams, of shattered ambitions, God somehow uses them and turns them toward good.

Somehow, in a moment of abject loneliness, of excruciating physical pain, of an agonizing murder upon a cross, God somehow brings forth hope and joy and life unending.  And what seems to be sown on rocky ground and among thorns does, in fact, flourish and produces a crop that we are still reaping this morning. God truly can use our flawed and fractured selves for good and turn our failures and our frustrations into something meaningful.

What we can take away from our Gospel reading today is that our job is not always to worry about where or how we are sowing the seed.  Our job is to simply do the sowing.  And God will produce the crop. It is not our job to produce the crop.

What I have realized in my years of ordained ministry is that I simply need to let God do what God is going to do.  Our job, as Christians, is simply to sow.  And God will bring forth the yield.  And when God does, then we will find crops flourishing even in rocky soil and amidst thorns.

So, all you who have ears, listen. We will all feel moments of frustration in this life, but for those of us who hope in God and who sow the seed of God’s Word in this world simply cannot allow frustration to triumph.  Frustration and despair are the thorns and rocky soil of our lives.

Rather, let us heed the message of the Holy Fools for Christ. Let us be Holy Fools for Christ.

God loves us our weirdness, our eccentricity. God loves us when we are the misfits, the fools.  God uses and works through our imperfections.  And in our weirdness, in our imperfection, we become the rich soil in which that seed flourishes.  When we do that, the crops God brings forth in us and through us will truly be one hundred times more than whatever we sowed.  Amen.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

5 Pentecost

July 9, 2017

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

+ You’re going to get a glimpse—a brief one, mind you—into the secret life of a priest. Now before your minds start racing, there’s nothing scandalous about it. And for anyone who has taken my Episcopal 101 class and been through my instructed Mass, this isn’t going to come as any surprise to any of you.

But…what most of you might not know is that all these vestments…well, each one is put on with a prayer. Each of these vestments a priest wears has a prayer that goes along with it. As the priest puts on each articles of clothing, he or she can say a prayer to remind them that each article of clothing has symbolic meaning.

See, it’s really not that secret. If you go into the undercroft, you’ll see on the wall there by the vestments the vesting prayers on the wall.  

The prayers are actually good things for someone like me.  I need such things in my life to help me get centered. And I really do love the symbolism of them.

The prayers are interesting in and of themselves.  For example, when I put on the alb, which is the white robe under these vestments, I pray,

“Make me clean as snow, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made clean in the blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”

When I put on the stole, the scarf-like vestment I wear around my neck, I pray:

“Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost through the sins of my first parents and, although, unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”

And when I put on this chasuble, this green vestment I wear over it all, I pray a prayer that directly quotes our Gospel reading for today. The prayer I pray when I put on the chasuble is,

“O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it to merit Thy grace.”

The chasuble, in this sense, really is symbolic of the yoke.  And that’s really our word of the day. Yoke. Now this word is a strange one.  It’s one we  really don’t want to have to ponder, because, let’s face it, no one wants a yoke.  When we think of yoke, we no doubt think of something that weighs heavily upon us. We think of something a beast of burden carries on their backs. We can’t imagine anything worse for us.  Why would we want an extra burden in our lives? We have enough burdens as it is.  We are all truly “weary and carrying heavy burdens.”

And sometimes these heavy burdens truly affect our bodies.  As some of you know, I have very terrible back issues. These came from fractured bones I received in car accidents over the years. Just recently, my back has been particularly bad.  I can’t stand for long periods. I can’t walk for a long distance anymore.  Every time I go to my chiropractor about these issues, he says things to me like, “Father, you’ve been carrying some heavy burdens on your back, haven’t you?”

Well, we all do, don’t we? We are all carrying around things we probably should have allowed ourselves to get rid of some time ago.

So, the last thing we want at this time in our lives is to take on another burden.  Jesus shouldn’t be a burden in our lives. Isn’t Jesus supposed to take some of the burdens from us?

The reality is:  taking on Christ is equivalent to taking on a very heavy burden. Being Christians means living with a burden. It means we have a structure, a framework that directs our lives.  And sometimes it’s hard to live in such a way. It’s hard to live by a set of standards that are different from the rest of the world.

Let me tell you as someone who lives with standards different than the rest of the world (vegan teetotaler that I am).

Still, I think, most of us, even us Christians still bristle when we describe our faith and many of those standards that go along with our faith as a yoke.  A yoke on our backs confines us. It does not allow us freedom.

And we, as humans, and especially as Americans, love our freedom. We love “elbow room.” We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and forcing us to go places we don’t want to go.

But the fact is, when we take Christ as our yoke, we find all our notions of personal freedom and independence gone from us. No longer do we have our own personal freedom. No longer do we have our own personal independence. What we have is Christ’s independence.  What we have is Christ’s freedom.

Our lives are not our own. As Christians, we don’t get to claim complete personal independence over our own lives. Our lives are guided and directed by Christ.  Our lives are ruled over by Christ. The yoke of Christ means that it is Christ who directs our yoke. It is Christ who directs us, if we need to, to go the places Christ wants us to go and do the things Christ wants us to do and live in certain ways that Christ wants us to live.  It is our duty to be a “beast of burden” for Christ and for what Christ teaches.

The great thing about that is that if we let Jesus direct us, nothing wrong will happen to us.  Jesus will always lead us along the right path.  Jesus will direct us where we need to go.

Now I say all of this to you as though I am fine with all of this. I say this to you as though I have completely surrendered myself to Jesus as his beast of burden. I’ll be brutally honest with you, however.

I find much of this very difficult to bear as well. I have always been one of those independently-minded people myself. I know that’s not a surprise to any of you.   I have never liked being told what to do or what to say by anyone. Ask my mother. I have always preferred doing things on my own. And for years I struggled with this scripture in my own life.  I did not want to surrender my personal independence and my personal sense of freedom.

Which is why that prayer I pray when I put on my chasuble is not always a prayer I want to pray.  Certainly, in many ways this prayer defines for me what ministry is all about. When I put on this garment, symbolic of my ministry as a priest, I am reminded of the yoke, of the burden, I carry every day.

In a sense, as a priest, my life is not my own. I’m not complaining about that. I knew the rules of the game when I entered the priesthood. But the reality is that my life is fully and completely Christ’s.  As a priest, I don’t always get to do what I want, or go where I want to go. There are standards. There are boundaries. It’s not a free-for-all.  

I strive to do what Christ wants and I strive to go where Christ leads me. The key word there is “strive.” I try to do what Christ wants and try to go where Christ leads. More often than not, my own arrogance gets in the way, my own fears cause me to shrug off the yoke of Christ, and my own selfishness leads me to do only what I want to do.

All ministry is a yoke.  And ministry, as we all know, doesn’t just happen out of the blue.  Our ministry that we do stems directly from our baptism. It is a response to the promises that were made for us when we were baptized and which we re-affirm on a regular basis.

So, when I talk about my life not being my own, it is not confined to just me as an ordained priest in the Church. Rather, through baptism, we are all called to ministry, to a priesthood of all believers.  We have all, through our baptism, taken on the yoke of Christ.  Because, through baptism, we have been marked as Christ’s own forever and we have been given a yoke that we cannot shrug off.

Our lives are not our own.  Through baptism, we are Christ’s—and our lives belong completely and fully to Christ.

Now all of this might seem confined and difficult to accept, but Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his yoke is not quite like the yoke put on a beast. While that yoke is heavy and unwieldy—it is a tedious weight to bear for the animal—for us, he tells us, his yoke is light and the burden easy. It is a burden that we should gladly take on because it leads us to a place of joy and gladness. It is a yoke that directs us to a place to which we, without it, would not be able to find on our own. We, in our arrogance, in our self-centeredness, in our selfishness, cannot find the Kingdom of God on our own.

Only through Christ’s direction can be we be truly led there. The yoke of Christ is, in an outward sense, a simple one to bear. The yoke of Christ consists of loving God and loving our neighbor as our selves. It is these two commandments that have been laid on our backs and by allowing ourselves to be led by  them, they are what will bring us and those whom we encounter in this life to that place of joy.

So, let us gladly embrace the yoke Jesus laid upon us at baptism. For taking on the burdens of Christ will not be just another burden to bear. It won’t cause us any real pain. It won’t give us aches and pains that will settle in our backs and necks, like the others burdens we carry around with us in this life.

But rather, the yoke of Christ is what frees us in a way we cannot even begin to understand. It is a freedom that we find in Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says to us, “and you will find rest for your souls.”

Let us take the yoke of Christ upon ourselves with graciousness, and we too will find that rest for our souls as well.











Friday, July 7, 2017

Marlys Lundberg

The Burial Liturgy for 
Marlys Lundberg
(Sept. 18, 1927 - June 10, 2017)
Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home
Fargo, North Dakota
Friday, July 7, 2017

As I said at the beginning of the service, it is an honor for me to officiate at this service. Although I was Marlys’s priest at St. Stephen’s, I considered her more than a parishioner. She is someone I considered a true friend.

St. Stephen’s was an important place to Marlys. She was very faithful in her attendance.  I remember well how Lowell would drive her to church, drop her off at the door and then be waiting for her after church.

And that was pretty much all I knew of Marlys until September of 2010. On the twentieth of that month, her son Tracy died very suddenly. For me personally, it was a very difficult month. On September 14, I had lost my father very suddenly. And so when Tracy died, I think I was still in a bit of shock in general in my life.

When I shared this news with Marlys that day, she amazed me with how she reacted. Although she was in mourning herself, although she was in much pain over the death of Tracy, Marlys was so compassionate and caring to me, even despite her own pain. That always impressed me.

Two months later, Marlys was dealt another blow with the death of her son Kory.

It was during all of this that Marlys and I really bonded and became good friends. And it was during this time that I realized we had so much in common.

Namely, our politics. I came from a long line of very liberal Democrats, namely through my mother and grandmother. And that, let me tell you, pleased Marlys to no end.  In our many conversations that we had over the years, she would regal me with stories of local and national politics in the 1960s, stories of Bobby Kennedy and North Dakota politicians.

She also shared with me some of her heart aches, including the sudden death of her first husband, Stanley, in a car accident in south Fargo in November of 1966, and how hard it was for her following that death.

There was no doubt that Marlys knew true heartache in her life. She had cried her share of tears in life.

But, what was truly amazing about her was that all those deep pains were not evident when you saw her. She always had a smile, a sparkle in her eyes. She was always alive—in a very real sense.  She was always caring, always compassionate, always concerned.  She was a person I genuinely looked forward to seeing and talking with.

And when Lowell died, even though he was a member at the church next door to St. Stephen’s, through a bit of serendipity, I ended up doing that funeral service as well, which also was a great honor.

It was a very sad day for me and for many people at St. Stephen’s when Marlys moved to California shortly afterward.

But I made sure she was still included in the life of St. Stephen’s. And I always enjoyed receiving notes from her.

And so, as I have said, I am very grateful to be able to officiate at this service, to help all of us in saying good bye to this truly wonderful person.

I will miss her dearly, as I’m sure all of us here today will.  But, as I have discovered in my career, people like Marlys Lundberg do not pass so easily away into “the mists,” so to speak. Her presence, her strength, her grace, the convictions she instilled in her family and friends—those are things that live on in a very real and wonderful way. And is those things that we celebrate today, that we give thanks to God for, that we promise to embody in our own lives.

The greatest honor we can give Marlys is by truly embodying those ideals she held so firmly in our own lives. When I think about the strength with which she faced the hardships of life, I am still amazed. Which is why this reading from Isaiah I think speaks so loudly to me today.

Your sun shall no more go down,
   or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
   and your days of mourning shall be ended. 

For Marlys, her days of mourning are ended. Sadly, for us, our days are not. We will miss her dearly. The world without Marlys Lundberg is just a bit different.

But for those of us who knew her and loved her, I can tell you, she would not want us mourning too loudly. She would not want us looking at our hands through tear-stained eyes.

She would want us each to live and live fully. She would want us to work for righteousness and justice and all those things she held so dearly in her life.

So, let us do just that. Let us continue to do that work that Marlys did so well in her life. Let us strive for peace and justice and righteousness in any way we can in our lives. When we do that, we will continue to celebrate Marlys and all she truly was.

I am very grateful today. I am grateful for Marlys and for her presence in my life. I will miss her. I will miss that smile and that twinkle in her eyes and that fiery spark of life.

But I will not forget her. Let none of us forget her. Let us be thankful for her example to us.  Let us be thankful for all that she has taught and continues to teach us. And let us be grateful for all she has given us in our own lives.

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

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










Sunday, July 2, 2017

On the Feast of St. Alban

For Linda and Mike Hall on the 10th anniversary of their ordination to the Diaconate


There was a change.
It was an electric charge we felt

there, above us
subtle as a breeze.

There was a spark
as it came upon you,

with anointed hands
laid upon your heads.

It kindled a flame
among the husks

and tinder
of former lives.

Everything in you that was not needed
was shed

to embrace that one holy moment
when the veil—

that ephemeral barrier
between us and them—

was lifted,
and heaven

drew close.
In that moment

the ground at your feet
was sacred as Sinai.

In that moment,
the earth and all its promises

fled.
What happened there

before the altar
was fire. We saw it

as it shook its wings
and spread.  


--JAMIE PARSLEY