Sunday, October 29, 2017

21 Pentecost

October 29, 2017

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22.34-46

+ Today, for us Episcopalians, is the Sunday before All Saints Sunday. Here at St. Stephen’s, it’s the Sunday we put the names of our departed loved ones on the list, to be prayed for at Wednesday night’s Requiem Mass.  It is the Sunday we put out mementos of our departed loved ones on the altar in the Narthex, bedecked with saints relics and statues.

But, for a few of us, this particular Sunday may have a bit more relevance.  Today, as you may or may not know, is the Sunday in the Lutheran churches in which the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated.  Since some of us are former Lutherans, we may feel a bit nostalgic today, as we hear “A Mighty Fortress” and all those heart Lutheran hymns we heard this morning.

For the rest of us, we all understand that we are a religious minority in this area. We are surrounded by Lutherans and Lutheran churches in this area.  Its influence is deep here.

I don’t talk about it much, but I myself was Lutheran until I was fifteen years old, when I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. I actually stopped identifying as a Lutheran around age 13.  I didn’t leave the Lutheran Church in anger. I wasn’t frustrated by any policies or dogmas in the Lutheran Church. I never heard a sermon in that church preached against homosexuality or women. In fact, I don’t remember anything being controversial being preached there.

Later, when I heard people tell me their horror stories of the churches in which they were raised, I found myself thankful that I never experienced any of that as a child in my Lutheran church.  In fact, I really liked the Lutheran pastor who confirmed me. I admired him greatly and mourned him deeply when he died.  I still know many of the people in that congregation.  And I felt very much at home in that congregation.  In fact, one day, my ashes will be buried in the cemetery of that church.

My reasons for leaving the Lutheran Church were simply reasons of conviction. And maybe a bit of weird teenage rebellion.  I was drawn to Catholicism, and eventually to the Episcopal Church.  While other teenagers dabbled with atheism and Satanism, my rebellion was becoming a Catholic.  And let me tell you, that got a reaction in my family probably the other two rebellions would not have received.

And there are differences between us and the Lutheran Church, as any of you who were Lutheran, know full well. Because that, after all, is why you’re here.  

There is no doubt that the Reformation changed Europe and the world 500 years ago.  Without it, the Episcopal Church would not be what it is today.

So, we are thankful today. But, having said all that, I realize in very profound ways, that I am no longer a Lutheran on many levels. It has been a long time, after all.  

And I am quite honest about this: I am no Lutheran preacher. I have never claimed to be. And no matter how hard I might try, I will never be one.  Once, when I preached at my parents’  Lutheran congregation shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood, I was told afterward that I didn’t preach long enough.   I guess that’s true.  

When I preach, I am not very complex.  I have no fancy theological agenda behind any of my preaching.  My message is very consistent—for better or for worse.  It is a message I heard in that Lutheran church growing up, that has stayed with me all these years.  My message is this, in case you’ve been totally asleep during my sermons over the past nine years and may have missed it:

The theme of almost every sermon is: love.

Again and again, it’s love. And there aren’t too many Sundays that go by that I do not reference the summary of the Law that we find in our Gospel reading for today.  For me, this is what it’s all about.  This Gospel reading isn’t just a summary of the Law. It is a summary of Christianity itself.

This is what we must do as Christians.  Plain. And seemingly simply (but maybe not so simple).

Now, I once was scolded a bit—this was at another congregation, mind you—for preaching too much about love.

“You always preach about love,” this parishioner told me.

But the fact remains that this is essentially all Jesus preached about as well.  The gist of everything Jesus said or did was based solidly in what we hear him summarize in this morning’s Gospel.  In fact,  every sermon and parable he preached, was based on what we heard today.  Every miracle, and even that final act on the cross, was based solidly on what we heard this morning.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is clear.  Which commandment is the greatest? he is asked.

And he replied:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love you neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

He can’t get any clearer, as far as I’m concerned.  And it is these two commands, both of which are solidly and unashamedly based in love, that he again and again professes.

In his day, Jesus, like all good, pious Jewish men, was required to the pray this scripture, called the Shema, every day.  The Shema is the prayer all Jewish men were required to pray each day on waking.  The Shema is the first Commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Every day of his adult life, Jesus prayed this prayer.  It was the basis of his entire spiritual life.  And this commandment, along with the commandment to love others, is the basis for his entire teaching.

When he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” we can also add the Gospel.  The Gospel, along with the law and the prophets, is based on these commandments.  And so is our entire faith as Christians.

I don’t think I can get any clearer on this. I hear so often from Christians—not a whole lot of Episcopalians, but other Christians—that their faith as Christian is based solely on accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  I have no problem with that in actuality.

Our Baptismal promises in the Book of Common Prayer are based on accepting Jesus as our Savior as well.  In the Baptismal promises asked of a person about to be baptized (or their parents and godparents if they are too young) is that all-important question:

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?”

And, of course, we do.

But, for Jesus, the real heart of the matter is not in such professions of faith.  He never commands us to make such statements for salvation.

What he does command us to do again and again, to love.  

To love God.

And to love one another.

And, as you’ve heard me say, Sunday after Sunday from this pulpit, when we fail to love, we fail to be Christians.  Any time we fail in these two commandments, we fail to be Christians.  We turn away from following Jesus and we turn away from all that it means to be a Christian. I think the organized Church sometimes misses this fact.  And we, as Christians, sometimes miss this fact as well.

We sometimes think: maybe this is too simple.

Love God, love others.  It’s too simple.

Well, first of all: it is not.  It is not easy to love God.  It is not easy to love Someone who is, for the most part, invisible to us.  And, as we struggle with all the time in our lives, it is not easy to love others.  I don’t need to tell anyone here this morning that is sometimes very hard to love others.  So, it is not too simple.

But we still want something more occasionally.  And when we do, we find ourselves making confessional statements, like putting a statement such as accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior as the be-all and end-all of our faith.  By the way, it is not the be-all and end-all of our faith.  And nowhere does he command us to accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, though I hope we all do strive personally to do so.

We also fall into the trap of depending on things like dogma, or the Law, or Canons (or Church Laws), or any of the other rules that define it all for us specifically.  Certainly, when we start doing so, we enter that territory that Martin Luther rebelled against and felt needed to be reformed.   The fact is, all of those things, confessional statements, dogmas, church laws or any of those complicated rules, are pointless if they are not based on these two laws of loving God and loving others.

If anyone wants to know what Christians believe and who we are, these two Laws are it.  They define us.  They guide and direct us.  And when we fail to do them, let me tell you, they convict us and they judge us.

So, yes, I know I am guilty of preaching the same thing all the time.  But I do unashamedly.  I do so proudly.  I do so without any sense of remorse.

Here I stand.

Because all I am doing when I preach about loving God and loving others, is what Jesus did. I am following Jesus when I preach those laws. But more importantly than preaching about them, I hope we can all strive to live those laws in our lives.  I try to in my own life as Christian and as a priest. I try to help others to do that as well.

So, let us love unashamedly.  Let us love without limit.  Let us love radically.

As our reading from Leviticus tells us, “let us be holy” because our God is holy.

Let the love that guides us and directs and, yes judges us and convicts us, be the one motivating factor in our lives.  Let it be the foundation and basis of each ministry we are called to do. Let love—that radical, all-encompassing, all-accepting love—be what drives us. And let us—each of us—be known to everyone by our love.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

19 Pentecost

October 15, 2017

Isaiah 25.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

+ I believe I’ve shared this with you before, but in case you haven’t heard it, I’ll tell it again. When I was finishing up my Master of Fine Arts some twenty years ago, I did my critical thesis on my view that there were two types of writers.

There were those writers who were on the inside looking out.

And there were those who were on the outside looking in.

If you think about it, it’s actually quite true.

Think about your favorite writer or poet or playwright or novelist or theologian. Think of about their perspective on life or the world.

And you can guess about where your favorite poet-priest is on that spectrum (it’s not hard to guess)

If you examine them closely you will see that they are either on the inside looking out, or on the outside looking in.  

And since the writer’s perspective is all-important to literature, these perspectives are vital. Essentially then there are the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” It was fun for me to explore these two perspectives in literature for that thesis.

But, later, as a priest, I have discovered that these perspectives—literature itself—truly does reflect reality. As you look at your own life, you no doubt think you have a pretty clear understanding of where you stand on that spectrum. You probably think either that you are the outsider or the insider.

But, I always caution people on this. Don’t be quick to claim one or the other, because this perspective might change in your life. Circumstances might often put you in the opposite perspective. Or sometimes, your own choices put you in that perspective I’ve seen it happen again and again.

And I see it very clearly in our Gospel reading for today—a reading that caused a great amount of personal struggle this past week.  And “struggle” is definitely the right word for this reading.  It’s a weird story, to say the least.

It’s just such a pointless story isn’t it? I know, I shouldn’t be saying that about one of Jesus’ parables. But, to be honest, I just don’t like it. The structure is so off. There’s almost nothing, at face value, worth redeeming. I just don’t like the story.
But…let’s not throw it out yet. Let’s not completely abandon this story just because we find it unpleasant. If we did that every time we read the scriptures…well...I’ll just leave it there.

First of all, it definitely seems that Matthew has an agenda in this story. Obviously Matthew is directing this at the Jews. And when we see it from that perspective, it kind of starts making a bit of sense.

So, let’s reframe the story a bit:

The first guests, as we discover, are Israel.

The first slaves represent the prophets, who were also beaten up and killed for trying to tell them what God wanted.

The second slaves are the apostles. And, if you notice, the second group of people are very different than the first group.

At this point, “everyone” has been invited.  “Everyone” is a very important clue to this story. “Everyone” means everyone.

So, what Matthew is trying to have Jesus tell us is that Israel ignored God’s message, and as a result, the Kingdom was given to others. Last week, I preached about how sobering that thought is—the fact that the Kingdom of God can be given to others. The Kingdom can—and has been—given to others

So, we have these slaves going out and inviting.  They were called to invite everyone—not just the elite. Not just the best guests. Not the fancy wedding guests. Everyone.

To echo my original thought: for Jesus, everyone is invited to be an “insider” in his Kingdom. You don’t have be on the outside looking in to his Kingdom.
That’s great. That’s wonderful.  But, what happens next in the story is the real pivot here. The second coming happens. This is the “final judgment.” The King arrives! Now, that sounds great. We’re all looking forward to the Second Coming. We’re all looking forward to the King—God—arriving.

But wait….

It’s not all pleasant and beautiful. Why? Because someone gets thrown out. This poor guy who isn’t wearing a wedding robe gets thrown out.

What?

Wait!

Didn’t Father Jamie just say that Jesus invites everyone to be an “insider” in the Kingdom? So, what’s this now? If everyone gets invited, who cares if someone is wearing a robe or not?

Now it sounds terrible to us.

But, but, but…

Let’s keep it in the context of its time. At that time, not wearing the wedding robe that was provided to the guests was an insult. It was essentially a way of saying that, Yes, I’m here at the wedding, yes I’m going to eat and drink, but I’m not really going to participate.

I’m going to get what I need out of this, but once I do, I’m gone. I’m not really going to make a commitment to this feast. I’m going to be a bad guest.
And this is the real gist of this story.

Now, we’ve all known bad guests. Maybe we ourselves have been bad guests ourselves. We’ve seen them at weddings. We’ve had them at parties. We’ve seen them here in church.

They’re people who come and take and take and take, and expect the host (or hosts) to do everything for them, but then don’t participate. They stand off to the side, and complain, and backbite and fold their arms when something doesn’t go THEIR way. They refuse the wedding garment—they refuse the gifts that have been given to them.

Now, the good thing about this is that, it’s all about choice. We all have a choice. We choose to go to “the wedding.” We choose to be a good guest or a bad guest. God did not make us into mindless robots.  But there are ramifications to what we choose.

My motto for life, as you have heard me say a million times, is this:

the chickens always come home to roost.

The fact is, by not wearing the robe, we’re not really present.  We’re saying no to the King. For us, it’s kind of the same.

We can be here. We can sit here in our pews. Or up there in the presider’s place. But we don’t have to be a part of it all. We can be obstinate. We can cross our arms and critique everything about the sermon or the liturgy or the music or the way the altar is set up, etc. And not that anyone here has done any of these things (at least I haven’t heard), but we can imagine that people might complain about the capital campaign, or about the new windows or about all the changes that are being made or about how there are so many people in church on Sunday.
We can close our minds and hearts and be bitter and complain. We can nitpick or backbite or stomp our heels because we don’t like it.

We can “choose” to be the outsider.

We’ve all known those kind of people in the church.  

You know what, sometimes I am that person in church. Sometimes I am obstinate, and I complain about things.  

I’ll confess: I pride myself on being the “outsider.” After all, I’ve been an outsider for a long time.  But it’s a choice I made. And there are consequences to that choice. I can be continue to stand aloof, my arms crossed and frown at everything. 

 Or I can be a part of it all.

And not just here, in church on Sunday. As we know, it’s a lot more than just church on Sunday that makes us Christians—that makes us good or bad Christians.

Ultimately, it is about what we do out there. If we are jerks to people, if we are close-minded, if we judgmental, if we’re sexist and homophobic and mean-spirited, then we’re not really doing a good job as Christians.

If we refuse to love, we’re refusing the wedding robe.

The fact is, everyone is invited to the banquet. I say it again and again. We’re all invited. And, here’s the rub:

it really isn’t hard to get in.

At all.

But sometimes it is really hard to be a good guest at the banquet. Sometimes, we really just don’t want to participate. Sometimes, you know what, I just don’t want to be a part of it. Sometimes it’s just easier to cross my arms and pout in the corner. Sometimes it’s easier to not love and respect others. Because, we’ve so often not been loved and not respected by others.

Sometimes, we’re just used to being on the outside looking in. And sometimes it’s just hard to make the transition to being an “insider” after being outside for so long. And that’s our choice to react like that.

But it’s not what is expected of us. We’ve been invited to the banquet! We have an easy “in” to the banquet! We are invited, finally, to be an “insider.” We should be glad! We should be excited. We should don that wedding robe and do whatever else needs to be done to be a good guest.

Because, here’s the other stark reality of it all:

It’s not fun being the outsider.

I can tell you that by first-hand experience. It is not fun being all by one’s self on the outside of the party, looking in at everyone who’s there.

But, that’s sometimes where we put ourselves.  That’s where we often go to pout and feel bad about ourselves.

Luckily Jesus, who truly does love us, who truly does want us at the banquet, never lets us stay out there—outside the party—for long. Jesus does not let us stay the “outsider” for very long. The invitation from Jesus keeps coming.

“Come in,” he says to us. “Come in from the cold. Come in from the dark. Come in and join the party.”

Because, it IS a party. And all he have to do accept the invitation.  All we have to do is put on the wedding garment. That’s all the bad guests had to do to rejoin the party.

So, let’s do just that. Let’s put on the wedding robe. Let us not cast ourselves off into the exterior. Let us not alienate ourselves with our bitterness and anger.
But let us join the banquet in love. Let us heed the invitation. Let us celebrate, and be joyful and be glad. That’s what our Host wants from us.

And when we do, we can truly echo those words we hear today from Isaiah:

“This is our God, the one for whim we have waited…
Let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation.”



Sunday, October 8, 2017

18 Pentecost

Matthew 21.33-46

October 8, 2017

+ I’m sure you’ve noticed, but there is a lot of zealous people out there, especially recently. There is no end of people giving very impassioned opinions. Especially in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting one week ago tonight, people on both sides of the issues are giving very clear and defined opinions about gun control and politics.  Just take a quick perusal of Facebook.

And, for the most part, being zealous for something is not a bad thing by any means.  I would rather have someone zealous for an opinion with which I might not agree than know someone lackluster. At least the discussion will be interesting.

But this morning, I am going to ask you a very important question:

What are you zealous for?

For what do you have real zeal, real passion?

I know. Yes, some of us have real zeal for sports. And certainly, here at St. Stephen’s, I know there is a lot of zealousness for political opinion and causes.

As am I.  I am very zealous politically, and theologically, and spiritually, and poetically. You all know that. If I have an opinion on something, you’ll probably know it in no time at all, even if you might not agree with it.  Trust me, I am full of zeal!!

But zeal is a word we don’t use too often anymore. And, at least in this part of the country, we are, for the most part, uncomfortable with zeal.  Zeal equals emotion for any of us. And certainly zeal involves an emotional attachment to something.

Now, as I said, it is not a bad thing by any means to be zealous.  It’s good to be challenged occasionally (respectfully, of course).  It keeps us on our toes.  And it humbles us.

Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that keeps us on our toes.  It may even make us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves.

Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today.  These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want.  And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them.

It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts.

The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging. At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God.  The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. The Vineyard is symbolic of the Kingdom.  And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus. From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder.  

But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together.  It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable.  As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit.  It isn’t a story that we want to emulate.  I HOPE none of us want to emulate it. But again, Jesus DOES twist this story around for us.  

The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers.  We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions in our heart. Not because we inherently bad.  But because we sometimes can be just as resolute.  

We can sometimes be just that zealous. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want.  We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we might occasionally ride roughshod over others.  And when we do so, we find that we are not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing.  We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom.  We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God.  But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us.  It can be given to others.  

Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose.  Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes real and positive  change in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope.  It can also make us zealots.  It can make us fanatics.  And this world is too full of fanatics.

There are plenty of good examples of fanatics in this world right now, from the far right Evangelicals to ISIS to those poor people in North Korea who are held hostage to a brain-washed religion-like ideology.   This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear Jesus today tell us teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far.  If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return.  

And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us.  For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians—and we all should be that kind of a Christian—we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures.

But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable.  It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it.

As I have said, again and again, it is not just about any ONE of us, as individuals.  It is about us as a whole.

If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us.  If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level.  If we take the parable of the vineyard workers and apply it honestly to ourselves, we find it does speak to us in a very clear  way.

Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us.  It should move and motivate us.  We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst.

But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers.  It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God, and not on all the little nitpicky, peripheral stuff.  A story like this prevents us, hopefully, from becoming mindless zealots.

What it does allow and commend is passion.  What it does tell us is that we should be excited for the Kingdom.

True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes.  It makes us restless.  It frustrates us.  True zeal also energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst.

This is what Jesus is telling us again and again.  He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world.  He is telling is, very clearly, that is it not just about any ONE of us.  It is not about our own personal agendas.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst.  And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love.

Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self.

This is what Jesus preached. That is the path Jesus is leading us on.  This is the path we walk as we follow after him.  And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, let us follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal.  Let us set out to do the work we have to do as workers in the vineyard with love in our heart and love in our actions.  And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord is doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”




Friday, October 6, 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Today is the feast day of St. Placid, whose name I took when I became an Oblate of St. Benedict 25 years ago.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

A PASTORAL LETTER FROM FR. JAMIE IN THE WAKE OF THE MASS SHOOTING IN LAS VEGAS ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2017

October 2, 2017


Dear Members and Friends of St. Stephen’s


In the wake of the violence of October 1st in Las Vegas, I ask your prayers for Las Vegas, for the victims who died, for those who are injured, for those who survived. For family and friends and all those affected by this violence. 


Please pray. But, please don't stop at prayer. Rather, let prayer be the motivating factor in our lives at this time.  Prayer should ignite the fire within us to stand up and act. 


And so, I also ask at this time for your actions as well. 


I ask for your action as followers of Jesus and peacemakers for the Kingdom of God.


Speak out!


Work hard in any way you can to prevent violence and counteract hatred.


I ask you not to let your anger win out, because anger caused this violence.


I ask that you not let your fear win out, because fear fed this violence.


Speak out loudly and clearly. And let the whole world hear you.


The people of St. Stephen’s represent a wide spectrum of political belief. In this divisive time, those beliefs often separate us from each other. However, in this moment, we are united. 


I ask you to do anything and everything you can to bring about real change in this moment of darkness, hatred, violence and fear. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ in this world. 


And may the Peace of God which passes all understanding be with us and remain among us now and always.


O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


-peace,

Fr. Jamie+

Sunday, October 1, 2017

17 Pentecost

October 1, 2017

Ezekiel 18.1-4;25-32; Matthew 21.23-32

+ Anyone who knows me for any time knows how I LOVE cemeteries. I know. It’s weird. It’s morbid.  But they sort of obsess me to some extent.

I love to think about all the stories contained in a cemetery—all the stories that are untold, all the stories that are just mysteries. I love also how each cemetery is unique in its own way. Each has its own characters, its own “feel.”

Of course, we now have our own memorial garden here at St. Stephen’s, which also is unique in its way.  But, what few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries.  Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemeteries you wouldn’t even know they’re there.  

And I do invite you to go and visit theses cemeteries.  If you do, you’ll see, in each, a large boulder.

In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1.  The one is located at the end of Elm Street.  Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to the former Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery.  You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue.

County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of the old Trollwood, just within
sight of where the old main stage stood.  Back along  an oxbow in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder.  This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2. My great-grandmother’s third husband (talk about an interesting story!!) was buried in this cemetery in 1936.

A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway.  In 1984, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery, over by Holy Cross Cemetery, near the airport, because they were falling into the Red River through erosion. One of my great-uncles, who died in 1948, is actually buried in that cemetery.  

For the most part, many of the graves in Springvale are marked.  But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all.  No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries.  In fact, if you walked into them, you would have to force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery.

But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards. Hundreds.

These are the forgotten.  These were Fargo’s hidden shame.  Beginning 1899 and going through the 1940s, this where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried.  100 years ago next year, in the Fall of 1918, the Spanish Flu hit the world hard, and Fargo was definitely not spared. Many of the unclaimed victims who died in the epidemic were buried in the County Cemetery #1.

This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. There are lots of stories of unwanted babies being fished out of the Red River in those days.  This is where the bodies of those unnamed babies were buried.

And when one walks in those pauper cemeteries, one must remind themselves of those words we hear from Jesus this morning in our Gospel reading.

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

There, in those cemeteries, lie the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said:

“[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

That—and those words of Jesus we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading—are shocking statements for most of us.  And they should be.  It should shock us and shake us to our core.  It’s a huge statement for him to make.  Partly it does because, things haven’t changed all that much.

OK. Yes, maybe we don’t view tax collectors in the same way people in Jesus’ day did.  But, we do still have a similar view regarding prostitutes—prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society in our day.  Jesus uses these two examples as prime examples of the “unclean” in our midst—those who are ritually unclean according the Judaic law.

We, of course, have our own versions of “unclean” in our own society.  They are the ones in our society that we tend to forget about and purposely ignore.
 But we really should give them concern.  And I don’t meant from a judgmental point of view.

I mean, we should give all those marginalized people we ourselves may consider “unclean” by our own standards our compassion.  We should be praying for them often.  

Because to be viewed as “unclean” in any society is a death knell.  It is a life of isolation and rebuke. It is a life of being ostracized.  The unclean are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society.  They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies.

The “unclean” of our own society often live desperate, secret lives.  And much of what they’ve have to go through in their lives is known only to God.

These are the ones the so-called “alt-right” religious in our society view as “unclean.” (And yes, there ARE alt-right religious people, closer than most of us want to admit. These alt-right religious bullies have essentially destroyed the Church and been a bane to my existence from early on).

These victims of alt-right religious persecution need us and our prayers.  They need our compassion. They definitely don’t need our judgment.

As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them—or to BE them—that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went.  We are coming alongside people who need our thoughts, our prayers, our ministries.  And rather than shunning them, we need to see them as God sees them.

We see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together.  And, more importantly, we see in them ourselves.

Because some of them ARE us.

Some of us here have been shunned and excluded and turned away.  Some of us have been bullied by the alt-right religious. Some of us have been treated as less than we are by these established religious people who smugly claim to be doing the “right” thing.

So we can understand why prostitutes and tax collectors were viewed with such contempt in Jesus’ day.

The point of this morning’s Gospel is this:

The Kingdom of God is not what we think it is.

It is not made up of just people like us. It is not some exclusive country club in the sky. (Thank you, O God, that it is NOT some exclusive country club in the sky!)  And it is certainly not made up of a bunch of “alt-right” Christians who have done all the right things and condemned all the “correct” sins and sinners.

It is, in fact, going to be made up people who maybe never go to church.  It will be made up of those people we might not even notice.  It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us. It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.

As I said, in our society today we have our own tax collectors, our own “unclean.”  

They are the welfare cases.  

They are the homeless.  

They are alcoholics and the drug or opioid addicts and the drug dealers.  

They are the lost among us, they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness.  

They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels.  

They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or heretic.

They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be.

This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like.  It will filled with the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society.  It is the ones who today are peeking out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness.  They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them.

They are the ones who are on the outside looking in.

They are the inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us.

When we think about those county cemeteries just a few blocks north of here, we need to realize that had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, that is where he would’ve ended up.  He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city.

In fact, Jesus is there.

He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are.

Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits.  They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end. It is these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows—who are in glory at this moment. 

Of course, we too are the inheritors of the Kingdom, especially when we love fully and completely.  We too are the inheritors when we follow those words of Jesus and strive to live out and do what he commands.  We too are the inheritors when we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to those around us, whom no one else sees or loves.

So, let us also be inheritors of the Kingdom of God.  Let us love fully and completely as Jesus commands.  Let us love our God.  Let us love all those people who come into our lives.  Let us look around at those people who share this world with us.  And let us never cast a blind eye on anyone. Let us do as God speaks to us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel:

Let us “turn, then, and live.”