Monday, May 13, 2019

4 Easter


Good Shepherd Sunday

The Baptism of Saylor Mauk

May 12, 2019

Psalm 23; John 10.22-30


+ Today is a special day. It’s special of course because we are celebrating the baptism of sweet Saylor of course.

And it’s doubly special because it is also Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday because of this wonderful reading we have in our Gospel reading for today, as well as our reading from Revelation, and, of course, the very familiar 23rd Psalm

But, every year we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday without really thinking about it. How many times in our lives have we heard this psalm or the story or references to the Good Shepherd? For the most part, we just don’t even really think about it. After all, shepherds are just not a part of our modern lives.

Are there even shepherd anymore?  I’ve never met one. Have you ever met one?

Yes, still, when we really think about this image—of God being our shepherd—it still, weirdly, resonates for us.

We kind of get it.  And we are comforted by it. And it still does have meaning for us.

God as Good Shepherd. It’s a great image for God. In it, we 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 or she looked out for them, he watched after them.  The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock.   He or she 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 and loves 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 or she 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, the Good Shepherd 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 or she protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into rivers or lakes.
She or 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.

This is what we are looking for in our lives—a savior, a protector.  We are all longing for someone who will comes to us and rescue us from all the bad things of this life.  And not just Superman who sweeps down from the skies and pulls us out of danger, and then just nods to us and flies away. We long to have this protector, this defender know us and genuinely care for us.

That’s what makes the Good Shepherd so special. 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. And loves us for just who we are—no matter who we are.

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 us.

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.

I just came across this great quote from Chad Bird



We have a God whose goodness and mercy chases us and seeks us out. A God whose goodness and mercy follows us wherever we go and whatever we do.

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, we must respect the worth and dignity of all people, 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, whose goodness and mercy chases us, 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 and all-encompassing love of God.

Amen.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

3 Easter


May 5, 2019

John 21: 1-19

+ 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 you find yourself at the left hand of God, a phrase that comes from Richard Rohr about being in a bad place in your life?

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, when I find myself at the left hand of God (and I’ve been there MANY times in my life!) 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.

However, I will say this: when my mother died, I shut down to a large extent. I did not do something simply because I couldn’t do anything.  The shock of her death and the deep level of emotional pain prevented me from doing something. And that, to me, was so much worse.

Doing something in the face of the Devil—doing something when you find yourself on the left hand of God—is so much more imporatnt than freezing up and collapsing.

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.   

Fishing is what they did, after all.  Fishing is 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.” In 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.

Jesus 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 rabbis or priests.  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 who 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 just 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.





Thursday, April 25, 2019

So long, Leisha; we will sure miss you!


On Tuesday, April 2, Leisha Woltjer, long-time Diocesan Administrator, announced her resignation from the Diocese, effective April 30. Her last day will be April 26. With her resignation on the heels of Bishop Michael’s, which becomes effective on May 1, it is truly the end of an era in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota.

Leisha began working for the Episcopal Church in April, 2002, when she was hired as the secretary of Gethsemane Cathedral. I was, at the time, preparing for my ordination to the transitional diaconate at Gethsemane and was in the office the day Leisha started. I still remember when I came in that day and saw a fresh-faced young woman at the front desk who had never worked in a church environment before. Later, she would describe her time as secretary as a true baptism by fire. In that time, she truly saw both the best and the worst of the Church.

Over the years, Leisha and I worked closely with each other, both at Gethsemane Cathedral and later in the Diocese office. While at the Cathedral, we saw Deans and transitional Deans come and go. We worked on funerals and weddings together. Many jokes were shared and much laughter filled the office, oftentimes with a Dutch version of the pop song “Barbie Girl” blaring from the computer. I remember clearly how she would put intentional mistakes in bulletins for me when I was proofreading them just to make sure I wasn’t just skimming them. Oftentimes we had very bizarre experiences happen: at one point, we both became victims of a seriously deranged stalker who hung around the cathedral; my car was keyed multiple times and Leisha’s purse was stolen.

 In 2009, when Bonnie Bernardy resigned as Diocesan Business Manager, Leisha moved across the hall from Gethsemane Cathedral office to the Diocesan office, becoming the new Finance Manager, after having attained a degree in accounting while working at Gethsemane.  At that same time, I became Bishop Michael’s Executive Assistant. Over the next three years, Leisha and I worked side by side in the Diocese, oftentimes under as equally unusual circumstances as we had at the Cathedral . One memory in particular stands out when, during the April 2009 flood in Fargo-Moorhead, Leisha and I were manning the Diocesan Office at a time when only “essential workers” were allowed on the streets. As sirens wailed and the city took on the feel of a ghost town, we fielded calls and wondered if she would be able to make it back home to Sabin safely.   

After my resignation as the Bishop’s Executive Assistant in 2012, Leisha assumed most of the responsibilities I had, including editing The Sheaf which I had edited for 10 years.

For many of us, Leisha has been the voice and face of the Diocese and with her departure, it will seem strange not see her or hear her voice on the phone.   I will miss seeing her at the table handing out packets at Diocesan Convention. I will especially miss the care and devotion she had to many of us.

I know that I speak for many of us in the Diocese when I say that Leisha has been a feisty, strong-willed but truly incredible and genuinely caring person in her position in the diocese. She was just the person for the job at just the right time. Her dedication and attention to detail will be deeply missed.  

Leisha, we all wish you the very best in your future endeavors. And know that you go from here with all our blessings, gratitude and best wishes surrounding you and remaining with you. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter


April 21, 2019


+ It’s really not much of a secret.

I LOVE Easter.

This, to me, is what it’s all about.

If anybody asks me, so what do you love most about being a Christian, I always say, Easter.

What isn’t there to love?

This is what it’s all about.

That holy moment—that moment when everything changed—when God raised Jesus from the tomb was the essential moment.  

The Jesus who appears to us on this Easter morning is not a ghost.

He is not a figment of our imagination.

He is not an illusion.

And this story isn’t a fairy tale.

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

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

Why couldn’t God do this?

And if we look long and hard at what happened on that Easter morning, we realize that what happened there was more than just some vague experience for some ancient people.

What happened happened to us as well.

Everything since that point has been broken open for us.

Our old fear of death and dying—that’s all gone.

Because now we know that what we once held to be a mystery, is no longer a mystery.

What happens to us when we die?

We know now, because Jesus has been there already.

Jesus has gone there and by going there has defeated death.

What seemed to be the end—the bleak and horrible end on Good Friday afternoon—has been broken apart.

And what we are faced with is life.

Life that never ends.

Now, when people ask me if I believe in the Resurrection, I say that I do, but I usually leave it there.

Anything beyond my belief that it happened—and that it will happen for us—is beyond me.

I don’t understand it fully.

I still find bits and pieces of it being revealed to me.

I find on bad days or skeptical days that I’m, not certain I believe in it.


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

And that emotion is: joy.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find joy.

Joy comes to Mary Magdalene and the other Marys when they realizes that the tomb is empty and that it is Jesus, resurrected, standing before them.

We can almost feel that joy emanating from her as they rush to tell the other disciples about seeing him.  

Joy is an emotion we seem to overlook.

We think, maybe of joy as some kind of warm, fuzzy feeling.

But joy is more than just feeling warm and fuzzy.

Joy is a confident emotion.

It is an emotion we can’t manufacture.

We can’t make joy happen within us.

Joy comes to us and comes upon us and bubbles up within us.

Joy happens when everything comes together and we know that all is good.

This morning we are feeling joy over the Resurrection—over the fact that today we celebrate the destruction of everlasting death.

See why I like Easter so much.

Easter, however, is what it’s all about to be a Christian.

What I talk about when I talk about Easter is that fact that today is truly the embodiment of the joy we should all feel as Christians.

Today is a day of joy. 

Today, we are all filled with joy at the resurrection and the fact that the resurrection will happen to us too.

This is a joy that sustains us and lifts us up when we need lifting up.

It is a joy that causes us to see what others cannot see.

The Resurrection reminds us that God dwells with us.

God dwells within us.

And to see God, all we have to do is look around and see God in the faces of those around us.

See, Easter is about the Resurrection of Jesus, but it’s also about us as well.

That Resurrection is our Resurrection too.

What happened to Jesus will happen to us as well.

Why?

Because God loves us.

God loves us just for who and what we are.

God loves us, just as God loved Jesus.

And just as God raised Jesus up on that first Easter day, God will raise us up as well.

No matter who we are.

All us, fully loved and fully accepted by our God, will be raised up, just as Jesus is raised today.

By doing so, we no longer have to fear things like death.

By raising Jesus up, God destroyed our fears of an uncertain future.

By raising Jesus up, God brought victory to all of our defeats and failures.

See, there is a reason for joy on this Easter morning.

In fact, it is joy that dwells with us and among us as we gather here.

Joy.

So, on this Easter morning, let this joy we feel at this moment not be a fleeting emotion.

Rather, let it live in us and grow in us.

Let it provoke us and motivate us.

Let it flow forth from us.

And when you live into this joy—when you let this joy fully consume you—every day with be Easter day to you.

Every day will be a day of resurrection.

Every day will be a day of renewed life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed!

Alleluia!





Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil


April 20, 2019


+ I don’t know about you, but…

I LOVE Easter!

Some people like Christmas.

For them, that’s the real magical time.

But for me, it’s all about Easter.

This is what it is all about.

There is nothing, in my opinion,  like gathering together here on this glorious morning, in all of this Easter glory.

I just love Easter!

I love everything about it.

The light.

The joy we are feeling this morning.

That sense of renewal, after a long, hard winter.

An Easter eve like this reminds me that there is more to this world than we thought.

There is a glory that we sometimes catch a glimpse of.

There is an eternity and it is good.

There’s an old saying, “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die, it starts now.”

I love that.

Resurrection is a kind reality that we, as Christians, are called to live into.

And it’s not just something we believe happens after we die.

We are called to live into that Resurrection NOW.

Jesus calls us to live into that joy and that beautiful life NOW.

The alleluias we sing this evening are not for some beautiful moment after we have breathed our last.

Those alleluias are for now, as well as for later.

Those alleluias, those joyful sounds we make, this Light we celebrate, is a Light that shines now—in this moment.

We are alive in Christ now.

We have already died with Christ when we were baptized.

And in those waters, we were raised with him, just as he is raised today and always. Easter and our whole lives as Christians is all about this fact.

Our lives should be joyful because of this fact—this reality—that Jesus died and is risen and by doing so has destroyed our deaths. This is what it means to be a Christian.

Easter is about this radical new life.

It is about living in another dimension that, to our rational minds, makes no sense.

Even, sometimes, with us, it doesn’t make sense.

It almost seems too good to be true.

And that’s all right to have that kind of doubt.

It doesn’t make sense that we celebrating an event that seems so wonderful that it couldn’t possibly be true.

It doesn’t make sense that this event that seems so super-human can bring such joy in our lives.

Tonight we are commemorating the fact that Jesus, who was tortured, was murdered, was buried in a tomb and is now…alive.

Fully and completely alive.

Alive in a real body.

Alive in a body that only a day before was lying, broken and dead, in a tomb.

And…as if that wasn’t enough, we are also celebrating the fact that we truly believe we too are experiencing this too.

Experiencing this—in the present tense.

Yes, we too will one day die.

But, THAT doesn’t matter.

What matters is that that death is already defeated.

We are already living, by our very lives, by our baptisms and our faith in Jesus, into the eternal, unending, glorious life that Jesus lives in this moment.

Our bodies MAY be broken.

Our bodies WILL die.

But we will live because Jesus lives.

What we are celebrating this evening is reality.

What we are celebrating tonight is that this resurrected life which we are witnessing in Jesus is really the only reality.

And death is really only an illusion.

We aren’t deceiving ourselves.

We’re not a naïve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful.

We know what darkness is.

We know what death is.

We know what suffering and pain are.

For those of us who have losses in our lives, we know the depths of pain and despair we can all go to in our lives.

It is this Light of Christ, that has come to us, this glorious night, much as the Sun breaks into the darkness.

What Easter reminds us, again and again, is that darkness is not eternal.

It will not ultimately win out.

Light will always win.

This Light will always succeed.

This Light will be eternal.

I am honest when I say that part of me wishes I could always live in this Easter Light.

I wish I could always feel this joy that I feel this morning.

But the fact is, this Light will lose its luster faster than I even want to admit.

This joy will fade too.

But I do believe that whatever heaven is—and none of us knows for certain what it will be like—I have no doubt that it is very similar this the joy we feel this morning.

I believe with all that is in me that it is very much like the experience of this Light that we are celebrating this morning—an unending Easter.

And if that is what Heaven is, then it is a joy that will not die, and it is a Light that will not fade and grow dim.

And if that’s all I know of heaven, then that is enough for me.

The fact is, Easter doesn’t end when the sun sets tomorrow night.

Easter is what we carry within us as Christians ALL the time. Easter is living out the Resurrection by our very presence.

We are, each of us, carrying within us the Light of Christ we celebrate this evening and always.

All the time.

It is here, in our very souls, in our very bodies, in our very selves.

With that Light burning within us, being reflected in what we do and say, in the love we show to God and to each other, what more can we say on this glorious, glorious morning?

What more can we say when God’s glorious, all-loving, resurrected realty breaks through to us in glorious light and transforms us;

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!