Sunday, February 18, 2018

1 Lent

February 18, 2018

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

+ As I said in the announcements, I have been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a very good way.  Overwhelmed by the love, the concern, the absolute and wonderful care and concern of everyone at St. Stephen’s, of the wider Episcopal community, of my many friends and close family members in these three weeks since my mother died.

 I don’t even know how to process the kindness and the love. It’s just that amazing and far-reaching.

I’m grateful to know how loved my mother was. And I am truly humbled to feel loved by so many people.  

And the condolences keep rolling in!  Almost every day I keep receiving more and more cards from friends, from distant relatives, from friends of my parents.  It’s all very mind-boggling, especially when your mind isn’t working like it normally does.

At one point in the real hard and brutal days of grief—and there were and still are quite a few of them—I received a card from my parents’’ former pastor.  She was the first woman pastor at my parents’ church, which was a daunting role to take on 30 years ago. My parents absolutely adored her (so did I). And my mother especially supported her and was proud that a woman was serving in that capacity.

In her card, this pastor friend shared stories I never about my mother, about how quickly she volunteered for working at the homeless shelter and other types of ministry that no one else wanted to do. I honestly didn’t know about many of these ministries my mother did.

But the real kicker for me in her card was how she closed her comments. At the very end of her card, she wrote that she knew it was a hard and difficult time in life right now, but remember, she said, “Easter’s coming.”

“Easter’s coming.”

That has been my life preserver through these dark weeks. Lent is kind of like those difficult days of grief and sorrow. It is a season that, if we had a choice, we probably wouldn’t readily observe.

As we enter this season of Lent, many of us are probably groaning about it. I’m already hearing on Facebook people bemoaning the fact that it is Lent.

To be honest, I get it. It’s a bleak season. It’s a time in which we do things we don’t normally do, or even like doing.

We fast.

Many of us give up things we usually like.

We make sacrifices.

And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not going to get better any time soon.

But it helps when we remind ourselves that “Easter’s coming.”

However, before Easter, we still have to wade through some unpleasant waters.  And of course, there’s also Holy Week before we get to the glory of Easter.  And look at what awaits during Holy Week.


The whipping.

The carrying of the cross.

The crucifixion.


So, yes, here we are—in this season of Lent. And I know you probably came to Mass this morning thinking, “it’s going to be doom and gloom and sadness” all morning at church.  

But, guess what?


If we were expecting doom and gloom and sadness in our scripture readings, well, we don’t get any of that.  

Ah, no. Instead, we get… water?

We get Noah and the ark?

We get a rainbow.

And baptism?

Now, this is my way to begin Lent!

We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding.  We begin Lent with a remembrance of our baptismal covenant—that covenant that we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now.

This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood that we hear about in our reading from Genesis.

I wasn’t expecting to do it, but here we are on this first Sunday of Lent, and I am preaching about, of all things, baptism. And we don’t even do baptisms during Lent!

As if that wasn’t enough, we also get another special treat.  In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval.


You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading?

You missed the reversal?

You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image of something?

It’s easy to miss, after all.  Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse.  But then again, so is haiku.

 But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else.  

We find the devil.

We find animals.

And we find angels.

Where else in scripture do we find these same elements?  Well, we find them all in the Creation story in Genesis, of course.  The story of Adam is a story of what?

the devil,


and angels.

But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat. In today’s Gospel, it has all been made strangely right.  Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using those exact same elements.

We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful Oz-like place like Eden.  Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in that desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam, according to the story.  We find him there waited on by the angels—and let’s not forget that these same angels turned Adam and Eve away from Eden.  And there, in that place, he defeats the devil—the same devil who defeated Adam.

I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus.  In this story of Jesus we find, yet again, that it is never the devil who wins.

It always, always God who wins.

God always wins.

That is what the story of Jesus is always about—God always winning in the end.

If we lived with the story of Adam, if we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story is a somewhat bleak one.  There doesn’t seem to be much hope.  The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right.

But today we find that the relationship has been righted.  The story isn’t a story of defeat after all.

It isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice.  The devil has been defeated.  And this is very important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the devil.  Now, by the devil, I am not necessarily talking
about a supernatural being who rules the underworld.  I’m not talking about horns, forked tail and a pitchfork.  I’m not talking about Hot Stuff the Devil. Remember him? (I was once, back in my twenties, going to get a tattoo of Hot Stuff after someone jokingly said that Casper the Friendly Ghost would not look so good on my very white skin).   

By devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil. In our baptisms, we renounce all the evil of this world and the next, and by renouncing evil, we are assured that it can be defeated.  By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us—the evil that was set upon us from the beginning—from the story of  Adam being turned away at Eden.  Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil.

This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives.  We all have them.

In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to

“come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.”

The poet that I am, I love the traditional language of Rite I better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.” We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval.  Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual.  We have our own demons, no matter what name we might call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me.  I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down.  They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me.  They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others.  Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life.  In these days of mourning, I’ve found myself kicking myself for all I should’ve’ done for my mother.

They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy.  And that power and influence of evil over my life is, I admit, somewhat strong.

We need to look no farther than the evil and destruction of Parkland, Florida and he white supremacist who opened fire on those students!  

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.

For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism.  I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions.

They are ghosts.

They are wispy fragments of my memory.

They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes.

Because the demons have been defeated by God.

Again, returning to our collect for today, we prayed,

“as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.”

God has been “might to save” us. The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant and those baptismal waters.  The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven, as Jesus was.  Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives.  But let us do so unafraid.  The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened.

Let us be driven into that place.

Let us confront our demons.

Let us confront the very devil itself.

Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.”

After all, “Easter’s coming.”

Lent is not eternal.

Easter is eternal.

This time is only a temporary time of preparation.

So, let us wander through this season confident that it is simply something we must endure so that we can, very soon, delight in the eternal glories of a morning light that is about to dawn into our lives.

“The time is fulfilled,” we can say with all confidence. “The kingdom of God has come near.”

It is time to repent. It is time to believe this incredibly good news!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

 + Over the last week or so of this two and half week dark journey I have been taking since my mother died, I have been listening to one song over and over again. I do things like this. When bad things happen in my life, I end up listening to a lot of music. And I usually end up listening to one song more than any other.

The song of choice this time is one you would not expect as we enter the Lenten season.  The song I have been playing over and over again is a version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the Indie group, Animal Collective.

Yes, I know: “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a Christmas carol. But Animal Collective only sings the first and last stanza of the carol, which really is kind of perfect, in some ways, for Lent.  The words especially of the first stanza of that poem sure do speak perfectly to the mood many of us probably have had as this long winter keeps us in its stony grip:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter...

Let me tell you, those words sure have been speaking loudly and clearly to me these last few, very hard weeks in my life since my mother died.  And besides, my mother really loved Christina Rossetti.

So, somehow, it all comes together. These hard things, these difficult things are what we are dealing with in this season.  Ash Wednesday and Lent is all about facing the reality of our mortality, after all. Of looking hard into the empty eye sockets of a skull.

Lent is a time for us to be sober, to be awake and aware, to face the harsh realities of our existence separated as we are, in this moment, from God’s nearer Presence.

We face the fact that, as we journey through this “vale of tears,” we are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again.

But, recognizing our failures for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure.

But failure too should not be the goal.  Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die.

In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.

But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives of the world and our relationship with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God.

None of this is easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Or, as I’ve discovered recently, to have my complacent life shaken from me.

Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.

Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this moment we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.  It is sobering to realize that everything in our life is ultimately temporary.  

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter—and for the eternity of Easter.

It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.  But, the reality is this: we will not be known for our failures before God. Not in the end. If death does anything, it obliterates our failures, those moments when we fell short. That is my hope. Yeah, maybe I am the eternal optimist, even in the midst of mourning and grief.

But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, after all.  Even in mourning, even wading through the thick, dark waters of grief, we can still hope.  Even in the midst of Lent, we can be optimists.

Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

“You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary.

Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them.

But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life.

Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.  It is time for us, as we heard in our reading from the Prophet Joel, to

“return to [God] with all our hearts,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;”

It is time for us to “rend our hearts…and return to our God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

It is time for us to, as we always do, “make to God of our grain offering and our drink offering. “

It is time, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, to quietly go about our Lenten discipline, to give in secret, to pray to our God in our rooms with the doors shut, to fast with oil on our heads and washed faces.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.

But more than anything, let this holy season of Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment, as fasting and giving. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening:

“Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

One week later: THANK YOU!

My mother thought about her death. And she did so without fear of it. She planned her funeral and discussed her funeral service with me for many years. She had everything in place—she had purchased her urn, she planned the music and she picked the scriptures.  She did all of that just so it would be easier for me. That part was. The rest has not been.

When my father died in 2010, his funeral at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church was packed—something that I guess really didn’t surprise either of us.

However, she didn’t seem to think that her funeral would draw very many people. I thank everyone who came to her Requiem Mass and I especially thank everyone for proving her wrong on this one.

My mother was a woman of grace and dignity and strength. She was feisty and she was funny. She loved to joke.   And she could be fierce if she wanted to be—you did not ever want to be on her bad side (there were actually only a few people who were—and God help them!)

I truly believe all those attributes are not gone. I truly believe she is not gone today.

My mother was the most important person in my life. My life literally revolved around her. That is not a complaint, mind you. She was no burden to me. That is just a fact. I did what needed to be done. I did it because I loved her and wanted the best for her. And I hope that I was able to give her the best possible life I could give her in these last years.

More than anything, I wanted to make sure she was shielded from of the pain from earlier in her life. I tried to shield her from outside forced that tried to disrupt the peace of her latter life. I hope I did that for her.

I realize now I was in some kind of strange denial about the fact that she was declining in the last two days of her life. I didn’t want to admit that she was leaving. I still don’t want to admit that she is gone.  

But despite that, I am especially grateful that she was able to die in peace, in the home she loved, without pain, without struggle. She died happy and content and knowing she was loved.  I am grateful that this independent woman died on her terms, in the way she wanted, knowing she was loved, going quickly and in peace. 

I loved her so much. And I am so grateful that the last words she said to me as I left her

that morning were, “I love you,” and that she heard my response in turn. Those were the last words we exchanged. And I couldn’t ask for better final words. Our 48 years were summed in that last final exchange of words.   

Earlier on Sunday morning when I last saw her, she asked me, “Where did your dad go?” as though he had just been there in the room with her.

I believe my father had been there with her that morning, and that he came back for her later that day. That has been a consolation for me in these last very horrible days. And I do believe that she now dwells, with him, in a place of beauty and light, where “sorrow and pain are no more,” as we heard Friday morning at her Requiem.

I believe she is with the God whom she loved so deeply. And I believe that all her beauty and strength and dignity are alive, without flaw, right now, right there, in God’s loving and light-filled Presence.

I thank you all for all you have done. Thank you for being there for her when she needed you.

And thank you all for being here for my family and me as well.

Sunday January 28th was, by far the hardest day of my life. I survived cancer, car accidents, my father’s death, but the day my mother died was worse than any of them!  The reason is not a complicated one: I feared my mother’s death for a long time. And now…here it is.

You have helped make all of this so much better. I thank you for your friendship. I thank you for your love and your care and your concern. I have been quite simply overwhelmed by the prayers, the outreach, the concern and the love from all of you.
But thank you most for being there for my mother, for showing her that she was loved and she was important and she was special.

She was loved.

She was important.

And she was so special.

Oh, how I miss her and will continue to miss her!

Remember her.

Celebrate her.       

And please, please don’t forget her!