Sunday, March 31, 2019

4 Lent


March 31, 2019
Laetare Sunday


Luke 13.1-3,11b-32

+ As you may have heard, the writer and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor was at Concordia College last Tuesday. It’s one of the few times I have ever been star-struck—and I’ve met some fairly famous people in my life (at least famous by my personal pantheon of famous people).  I was even fortunate enough to be seated at the head table at a supper in her honor that evening, just one person over from her.  

In fact, I even got to talk to her. And what did we discuss?

We discussed St. Stephen’s! Or more specifically what we do here.

At some point in the evening, I was talking to a student beside me, who was asking questions about the Episcopal Church. When she asked what I loved most about being Episcopalian, I said it was our theology about the Eucharist.

Barbara Brown Taylor, who was talking to someone else, turned and said, “I heard the word ‘Eucharist.’”

I then explained to her our views on the Eucharist here, about our open invitation
of all people present here are welcome to Holy Communion, not just the baptized (which is very controversial, I know, even among some of you) She smiled and we had the discussion I often have about the Last Supper and my view that we do not know who was baptized and who wasn’t at the Last Supper (actually we know only One who was at that meal).
I then said that somehow the Eucharist has become this privileged meal for only those who are “in”—which is exactly what we can imagine Jesus would not want it to be—an exclusive little private meal for the privileged.

At some point the conversation turned to St. Stephen’s being the only congregation in the Diocese to be allowed to same-sex marriage, and our DEPO process. She was particularly impressed with this.

I explained that, as of May 1, the thing we fought so hard to do here at St. Stephen’s will now be the norm in the Diocese of North Dakota.

She said, “You guys are trailblazers.”

“And rebels,” I added. “

The conversation turned briefly to religious communities on the edge. At that point, she was asked to give a question and answer period so we never finished our conversation.

But during her talk later that evening, Barbara Brown Taylor talked about religious communities on the edge. And it gave me a bit of pride knowing that she knew of an Episcopal church in Fargo, North Dakota that was one of those communities.

We are one of those communities. We have been out on the edge in our ministries throughout our entire history.  And, I can say this, being out here on the edge is important, but it isn’t always fun.

There’s a downside to being rebellious. It can be very isolating. Oftentimes, the rebel is all alone in the cause of rebellion. There are days when it feels like one is Don Quixote fighting windmills.  And it’s exhausting.

To stand up for what it right, to often be at odds with those in authority, to finally have make a decision to step back and not cow tail to authorities who do not respect you or respect the worth and dignity of other human beings or respect the stand you’ve made, is very hard. And now that we are pondering the end of DEPO and our own reconciliation with the Diocese of North Dakota, we are also facing a difficult moment.

How to do so when there has been so much pain and so much hurt between us? Because we do have to acknowledge the fact that, we made the right stand. The proof is in the pudding.

What we stood up for in 2015 is now the norm in the Diocese and the rest of the Episcopal Church. For the naysayers in 2015, I hate to say this, but—I told you so. I told you this was exactly what was going to happen.  What we stood up for then is now the norm.  And we needed to make that stand then.  We needed to be that force in 2015. We needed to stand up and be a safe place in a diocese that did not feel safe for many of us.

Yes, when that decision not to allow same-sex marriage rites in this diocese when the rest of the Church did, it did not feel like a safe place in this Diocese for many of us.  And for the people who have been married through St. Stephen’s, who have been affirmed by our stand, it was totally and completely worth it!

Yes, now is the time for reconciliation. Now is the time for us to move back into our rightful place in this diocese.

But…and I am going to emphatic on this: for reconciliation to happen in this diocese, we have to realize that it is going to be a two-way reconciliation. It is not time for us to come groveling back.

We did nothing wrong in our stand and in what was said and done in 2015. I want to be clear: we are NOT the Prodigal Sons returning home in this. And I want that to be very clear about that as we proceed forward in this diocese.

But, although we are not the Prodigal Son, we can definitely find ourselves relating to the story Jesus tells this morning in our Gospel reading.  We have all been down that road of rebellion and found that, sometimes, it is a lonely road, as I said. Sometimes we do find ourselves lying there, hungry and lonely and thinking about what might have been. 

But for me, in those lonely moments, I have tried to keep my eye on the goal.  I am, after all, one of those people who habitually makes goals for myself.   I always need to set something before me to work toward.  Otherwise I feel aimless.  Goals are good things, after all. 

In our Gospel for today, we find the Prodigal Son have some big goals and some pretty major hopes and dreams.  First and foremost, he wants what a lot of us in our society want and dream about: money. He also seems a bit bored by his life. He is biting at the bit to get out and see the world—a feeling many of us who grew up in North Dakota felt at times in our lives. He wants the exact opposite of what he has. The grass is always greener on the other side, he no doubt thinks. And that’s a difficult place to be.  He only realizes after he has shucked all of that and has felt real hunger and real loneliness what the ultimate price of that loss is.

It’s a difficult place to be. But, I’ve been there. WE’ve been there.  Many of us have been there.  And it’s important to have been there.

God does occasionally lead us down roads that are lonely.  God does occasionally lead us down roads that take us far from our loved ones.  And sometimes God allows us to travel down roads that lead us even from God (or do it seems at times).

But every time we recognize our loneliness and we turn around and find God again, we are welcomed back with open arms, and complete and total love.  That, of course, is what most of us get from this parable.

But…

There’s another aspect to the story of the prodigal son that is not mentioned in the parable.  The prodigal has experienced much in his journey away.  And as he turns back and returns to his father’s house, we know one thing: that prodigal son is not the same son he was when we left.  The life he has returned to is not the same exact life he left.  He has returned to his father truly humbled, truly contrite, truly turned around.  Truly broken.

And that’s the story for us as well.  In my life I have had to learn to accept that person I have become—that people humbled and broken by all that life and people and the Church have thrown at me.  And I have come to appreciate and respect this changed person I’ve become.

That’s the really hard thing to do.  Accepting the change in myself is so very difficult.

Who am I now?

God at no point expects us to say the same throughout our lives.  Our faith in God should never be the same either.  In that spiritual wandering we do sometimes, we can always return to what we knew, but we know that we always come back a little different, a little more mature, a little more grown-up.  No matter how old we are.  We know that in returning, changed as we might been by life and all that life throws at us, we are always welcomed with open arms by our loving God.  We know that we are welcomed by our God with complete and total love.

And we know that, lost as we might be sometimes, we will always be found.  And in that finding, we are not the only ones rejoicing.  God too is rejoicing in our being found.

That is the really great aspect of this parable.

God rejoices in us.

God rejoices in embracing us and drawing us close.

So, let us this day rejoice in who we are, even if we might not fully recognize who we are.  

Let us rejoice in our rebelliousness and in our turning back to what we rebelled against.  

Let us rejoice in the fact that we are a voice and force of change as a congregation.

Let us rejoice in our being lost and in our being found.

Let us rejoice especially in the fact that no matter how lonely we might be in our wanderings, in the end, we are always, without fail, embraced with an embrace that will never end. 

And let us rejoice in our God who rejoices in us.




Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No Caffeine -- No Pain No Gain


I recently decided to give up caffeine. No coffee, no soda, no…nothing. And not just for Lent, but for good. After a few days of really terrible flu-like symptoms and the deepest sense of fatigue I’ve ever known (one night I went to bed at 9:30 p.m. and slept like I was dead until 7:00 a.m. the next morning), I gotta say I am feeling really good.  No pain, no gain, right???

Sunday, March 24, 2019

3 Lent


March 24, 2019

 Luke 13.1-9

+ I know this is hard to believe, but we are rapidly—very rapidly—approaching the middle point of the season of Lent. For some of us, that might be a reason to rejoice. For those for whom this season gets a bit heavy, that is why we have our Lataere Sunday next Sunday, with our rose vestments. We get a little half-way break for Lent.

For me, I actually don’t mind this season. It gives me the opportunity to slow down a bit, to ponder, to make a concentrated effort to do some very specific spiritual things.

And one of those things is repenting. Now, I know. That’s such a “church word.”

Repent.

I mean, it’s not a word we use in our day-to-day lives. It doesn’t come up in our lunch conversations. Well, maybe in mine. But probably not in yours.

But Jesus seems pretty clear on this one,  In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say some very stern words to us:

“…unless you repent, you will all perish [just as those poor unfortunates whose blood was mingled with sacrifices and on whom the tower of Siloam fell].”

Not pleasant talk. It’s uncomfortable. Especially when we hear words like “repent” we definitely find ourselves heading into an uncomfortable area. We find ourselves exploring the territory of self-abasement. We find some people lamenting and beating their breasts or throwing ashes in the air over all of this repentance talk.  We have been taught for a large extent that what we are dealing with in all of this talk of repentance is that somehow God is angry and is going to punish us for all the wrongs we did and that is why we must repent—repent, of course, meaning turn around.

And at first glance in our Gospel reading that’s exactly what we might be thinking. God is angry and we must repent—we must turn away from what is making God so angry.  But if we look a bit closer and if we really let this reading settle in, we find that we might be able to use this idea of repentance in a more constructive and positive way.

In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus essentially saying to us that we are not going to bear fruit if we have cemented ourselves into our stubborn way of seeing and believing.  And that’s important! A stubborn way of seeing and believing. The kingdom that Jesus is constantly preaching about is not only this magical place in the next world. If that’s all we believe about the Kingdom, then we are not really hearing the scriptures. And belief like that lets us off the hook. Essentially then, all we have to do is work on getting in our magical kingdom in the sky.

But Jesus, again and again, talks about the kingdom not just there, but here too. It’s fluid. And our job as followers of Jesus is to make this Kingdom a reality NOW.

Right now.

It is our job to allow the Kingdom into come into our midst, to give us a glimpse of what awaits us.  And the only way that happens, as we have heard again and again, is when we can love God, love others and love ourselves.  

And I would add as well another aspect to that. Scripture mentions loving the stranger even more times that loving the neighbor, as Barbara Brown Taylor (who is visiting Concordia College this week) has pointed out.  When we do—when we love God, love  ourselves, love our neighbor, love the stranger—it is then we bear fruit. It is then what we see the Kingdom of God right here, right now.  When we don’t love—and it is hard to love when we are stuck in all that negative stuff like being angry or stubborn or resentful—then we are essentially the fig tree that bears no fruit.  And it’s important to see that this love needs to be spread equally. It is love for God, love for our neighbor, love for the stranger and love for ourselves.

We are not bearing full fruit when we are only doing two of the three.  The love becomes lopsided.

If we love only God and ourselves, but not our neighbors or strangers, then we are in danger of becoming fanatical.  If we love God and love others only and not ourselves, we become self-abasing.

But if we strive to do all of it—if we strive to love fully and completely—then we find ourselves being freed by that love. And it is freeing.

When we talk of our stubbornness, when talking of closing ourselves off in anger and frustration, we imagine that cementing feeling—that confinement. But when we speak of love, we imagine that cementing feeling being broken. We find ourselves freed from our confinement. We allow ourselves to grow and flourish.

That’s the point Jesus is making to us in our Gospel reading today.  And that is why repentance is so essential for our spiritual growth, for the health of our Christian community and for the furthering of the Kingdom in our midst.  Repentance in this sense means turning away from our self-destructive, stubborn behavior.

The Kingdom will not come into our midst when we refuse to love. The Kingdom cannot be furthered by us or by anyone when we feel no love for God, when we feel no love for others and when we feel no love for ourselves.

Repentance in this sense means to turn around—to turn away from our self-destructive behavior. Repentance in this sense means that we must turn around and start to love, freely and openly.   Repentance in this sense means that by repenting—by turning around—we truly are furthering the Kingdom in our midst.

There’s also another aspect to the analogy Jesus uses in today’s Gospel reading. If you notice, for three years the tree didn’t bear fruit and so the man who planted the tree thought it was a lost cause. But the gardener protests.  He gives the tree a bit of tender loving care and the tree, we assume, (we hope!) begins flourishing.

What I love about that is the fact that it says to us that none of us are lost causes. We all go through times in our lives when we feel as though we are bearing no fruit at all. We feel as though we are truly “wasting the soil” in which we live.  We feel as though we are helpless and useless and that sometimes it feels as though the pains and frustrations of our lives have won. We have been cemented into our negative feelings and emotions.  The pains and frustrations of this life have stifled in us any sense of new life and growth.

But that little dose of TLC was able to bring that seemingly barren tree to new life. A little bit of love and care can do wonders. It can change things. It can change us. It can change others.  It can give life where it was thought there was no possibility of life before. It can renew and it can revitalize.

At this time of year, we are probably made most aware of this. Certainly when we look around at our seemingly dead and barren landscape, flooded with water, we might think that nothing beautiful or wonderful can come from all this mud. And in this season of Lent, when we are faced with all this language of seeking mercy, on recalling our failings and shortcomings and sins, in this stripped-bare church season, it is hard to imagine that Easter is just a few weeks away.

But, in a sense, that is what repentance feelings like. Repentance is that time of renewal and revitalization that comes from the barren moments in our lives. Repenting truly does help us to not only bear fruit, but to flourish.  Repenting and realizing how essential and important love of God, love of our neighbors, love of the stranger, love of self are in our lives  truly does allow us to blossom in the way that God wants us to flourish.

So, as we journey together through this season of Lent, toward the Cross, and beyond it to the Resurrection, let us do so with our hearts truly freed. Let us do so with a true, freeing and healthy love in our hearts, having turned away from those things that are ultimately self-destructive And let the love we feel be the guide for our actions.

Through all of this, let us bring about the Kingdom of God into our midst slowly, but surely. Let the Kingdom come forth in our lives as blossoming fruit. And when it does, it is then that will truly flourish.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

2 Lent


March 17, 2019

Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.31-35


+ This past week, of course, we all watched with shock and disgust at the horrendous massacres at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  It was inevitable, I guess. If you have kept your thumb on the pulse of all that has been happening within these last few years, you probably noticed what I have noticed. You probably have noticed the stark and horrendous rise of islamophobia in the world.  Islamophobia is, of course, a fear and discrimination of Muslims.

I saw it on social media, among people whom I thought I knew better. Usually, when I push back on it, I usually say, “You do know we worship the same God, right? We are all children of Abraham” I am met with either blank stares or denials.  

There is much fear, and much misunderstanding about Muslims in our society and the world And we, as fellow children of Abraham, need to stand up and speak out whenever we see blatant Islamophobia in our midst. I can’t say that enough.

I think this massacre in New Zealand hits home for us on another basis. Most of us can relate to that feeling of having a safe haven destroyed by violence.  We rejoice in the fact that our congregation of St. Stephen’s is a safe place.  And to have something like violence destroy a place of safety is frightening.

We must face the fact, though, that we now live in a  very violent time. And violence is a real force in our world.

One of the lessons I learned from this incident—among several lessons—was a very hard  lesson on living with the threat of real violence. Violence, I realize, is something most of us don’t even consider in our personal day-to-day lives. It very rarely rears its ugly head in our personal lives. At least, I hope it doesn’t. But let me tell you, when it does, it is terrible. And you are not the same person afterward that you were before.  And also, very importantly, we realize that violence is not always expressed physically.

Violence can be expressed in multiple ways, including through intimidation, bullying and downright terror. Yes, our words have consequences and can cause violence.  There’s no getting around violence in our lives.

Even today, in our scriptures readings, we get some violent images.  First, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis. In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham).  God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.  Violent and strange, yes. But the really strange part of the reading is the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces.

If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut up animals—then the story makes little sense.  It’s just another gruesome, violent story from the Hebrew scriptures.

But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning. Covenant of course is not a word we hear used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures.

A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animals and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.” Let this violence come upon me if I break what we have sworn to do.

What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God.  God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “my word is good. If this relationship between the two of us breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

As Scot McKnight writes in his wonderful book, 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed: “What appears to us as gruesome was normal for Abraham; what was great was how graphic God got in the act of promise.”

Then, we come to our Gospel reading. Here too, we find a sense of impending violence. The Pharisees ominously come to tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. This is real danger. Life-threatening danger.  And how does Jesus respond to this danger and impending violence?  He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight as he was speaking. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. His violent death.  

As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments.  He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is beautiful. And it is powerful.  It’s incredible poetry.  Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. In Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body, the shattered body of God’s very Son, and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”

But, as wonderful as that may sound to us, to Jesus it must’ve been frightening, even though he knew full well that it had to happen. And even here we see Jesus using this impending violence as a means for us to rise above violence and fear.

Jesus is letting us see his fear and his sadness.  Jesus is letting us see the fear he has in knowing that he, in a sense, has become the sacrifice that must be cut in two as part of the covenant God has made with us.  He is letting us see him for what he is about to be—a victim of violence.  When we hear that phrase “Lamb of God,” we need to remind ourselves that is not some sweet sentiment.  The Lamb of God is a sacrificial lamb—a lamb that is to be sacrificed.

Jesus lays it all out before God and us. He wails and complains and lays himself bare before God.   He is blatantly honest in his lamenting.

The fact is: sometimes we too do fear and despair.  Sometimes, when we are afraid, we do not want to pray to God,  It is in those sometimes awful moments, that it is completely all right to complain to God. It is all right to vent and open ourselves completely to God.  Because, the important thing here is not how we are praying or even what we are praying for.  It is important that, even in our fear, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world and in events like what happened in New Zealand, that we come to God.  

We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities, exposed and vulnerable. And we come angry at injustice and violence.

We come angry that we have to deal with white supremacy in this day and age!  Didn’t we already fight a war to end white supremacy and fascism??

And here it is again??

And, let me repeat something I honestly didn’t think I would have to keep repeating: white supremacy is in direct opposition to everything Jesus was and is.  It is a sin—a blatant and ugly slap in the face of the God of Abraham.

So, we take what it is hurting us and bothering us and we release it to God. We let it out before God. We are, in that moment, blatantly honest with God.  Because God knows. God has stood in the midst of that violence.  And God still stands in the midst of the violence that we see in this world.

So, when we come across those scriptures and psalms full of violence that might take us by alarm, we need to recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers and expressions before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of violence and death, was still able to open his heart and his soul to God in song and poetry.

More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life,  pray when we are afraid or angry or frustrated.  Let our prayers release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows us more completely than anyone else.  In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives and this world, in the shattered open world in which people cannot even worship God in the safety of their own places of worship, we know that God, even then and there as a bright light, passes back and forth.  Even in that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light.

All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness. And in doing so, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.





Sunday, March 10, 2019

1 Lent


March 10, 2019

Luke 4.1-13

+ Lent is a strange time. It’s so different than the rest of the Church year, for me anyway. Because, what we’re forced to do in Lent is do something I don’t like doing sometimes.

I’m not talking about fasting or confession or giving up something for Lent.  No, what Lent forces me to do that I don’t really want to do is: look in the spiritual mirror. And not just look—but really look—honestly, bluntly—in the mirror. That is not fun to do.

It is not a pleasant experience to look at ourselves honestly and bluntly in the mirror. It is not fun to confront ourselves. It’s probably easier for most of us to confront the Devil—however we might view this personification of evil—in our own lives.

But, if you notice in our Gospel reading for today, that three-fold commandment of Jesus is all about looking in the mirror and confronting ourselves. We find Jesus repudiating the Devil’s temptations with some strongly worded quotes from Scripture:

“One does not live by bread alone”

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God]”

and

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

When we look at them, these commandments are really all about us. About me—the ego.  

The Devil becomes this almost peripheral character in our reading, if you notice. He’s kind of like a whispering shadow at the edge of the story. The main characters of this story are, of course, Jesus. And us.

So, in our Gospel reading, we hear first that we do not live by bread alone.  Looking in that mirror, looking at ourselves, we find that, yes, honestly, we’ve had too much bread—too many carbs—too much of everything.  

This season of Lent is the prime time for us to look long and hard at our eating practices.  For the most people, we simply eat without giving a second thought to what we’re eating or why we’re eating it. And this goes for drinking too.  

Certainly we have doctors who tell us that this is one of the leading causes of a good many of our health problems in this country.  Nutrition. Food. And too much food. And too much bad food.  When we realize how high the rate of obesity and related illnesses are, we know that food really is a major factor in our lives.  When we look at issues like obesity and eating disorders and alcoholism and all kinds of addictions, we realize that there is often a psychological reason for our abuse of food or alcohol.

We do eat and drink for comfort.  We do eat physically or partake of others things thinking that it will sustain us emotionally.  We put food or drink into that place in which God should suffice.

A time of fasting is a time for us to break that habit and to nudge ourselves into realizing that what should be sustaining us spiritually is the spiritual food we receive from God.

Then, we hear “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God].”

Here again is a major temptation for us.  Let’s face it, for us: the world revolves around us. Around me. And one of the sources of our greatest unhappiness is when we realize others don’t feel that way. We want people to notice us, to like us.

Ideally, we would like to have people fall at our feet and adore us.  We have all thought about what it would be like to be noticed—truly noticed—when we enter a room, like a movie star at the Oscar’s. OK. Maybe that’s a bit extreme.

But, just think about it for a moment. Look at how we feel when we send an email—and there’s no response. Or when we post something meaningful on Facebook—and we only a get a few likes

But, it’s not about others. That’s all about me and my ego. And I’m the only one angry or frustrated. And I put myself in this position. Yes, I might be mad at others, but it’s ultimately MY fault for feeling this way.

We are all susceptible to self-centeredness, to that charming belief that the world revolves me—the individual.  That, we believe, will make us truly happy.  If we can be fully accepted, fully loved and appreciated.

But Jesus again nudges us away from that strange form of self-idolatry and reminds us that there is actually someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows our thoughts better than we do.  We are truly loved, truly accepted, truly appreciated—by God. And we shouldn’t worry about the rest. Rather than falling to the self-delusion of believing our world revolve around ourselves, we must center our lives squarely and surely on God.

Finally, we are warned not to put the Lord our God to the test.  We’ve all done this as well. We have railed at God and shaken our fists at God and bargained with God.  We have promised things to God we have no intention of truly keeping.  We have all said to God, “If you do this for me, I promise I will [insert promise here].”

Again, like all the previous temptations, this one also revolves around self-centeredness and selfishness.  This one involves us controlling God, making God do what we want God to do.  This one involves us treating God like a magic genie or a wishing pond.

I’ve done this. I’ve been here. I’ve shaken that fist at God and railed loudly at God.

The realization we must take away from this final temptation is that, yes, God always answers our prayers.  But the answer is not always what we want.

Sometimes, it’s yes.

Sometimes it’s no.

Sometimes it’s not yet.

But what we fail to realize in all of this is that those moments in which God does grant us the answer to prayer in the way we wanted, it is only purely out of God’s goodness and God’s care for the larger outcome.  It has nothing to do what we do.  We cannot manipulate God and make God do what we want.  None of us are in the position to do that.  

And if we had a God that we could do that to, I’m not certain I would truly want to serve that God.

These are the temptations we should be pondering during this Lenten season.

When I said earlier that these confessions of Jesus are the basis for our understanding of Lent, they really are.  Each of these statements by Jesus are essentially jumping off points for us as we ponder our relationship with God, with each other and with ourselves during this season. What Jesus experienced in that desert, we too experience this Lent—and at many other times in our lives. The confrontation with the Devil in the desert, is often a confrontation with ourselves in the mirror. It is a confrontation with that difficult and dark side of ourselves—that gossipy, self-centered, controlling, manipulative person we sometimes are.  These ego-centric behaviors really don’t promote our egos. They actually hurt our egos in the long-run.

Yes, we might have full stomachs, Yes, we might be loved and appreciated and accepted, yes, we would have a fairy-godmother-God who grants all our wishes—but we would not ultimately be very happy.  We would still want more and more. But, in our core of cores—in our very spirits—we would still be incomplete and unfulfilled.

But I also don’t want to just brush the Devil off here. Our Gospel reading today is important for one other aspect of Lent that is uncomfortable. It is confronting the Devil. We are also called to confront the devil during this season.

Now, I’m not talking about the little red horned creature with the forked tail. I am talking about the ways in which evil confronts us. We are confronted by the Devil when others bully us and push us around and abuse us and hurt us. We all have had them.

Bullies.

Mean-spirited people who truly want to do us harm.

Sometimes they are strangers.

Sometimes they are spouses, or family members.

Sometimes they “friends.”

Sometimes they are bosses.

Sometimes they are clergy.

And sometimes they are Bishops.

And sometimes it is not just the Devil, but those who have allowed the Devil to do the Devil’s work—those complacent followers of these people who have allowed evil to go on and persist.   When we are confronted by the Devil, we must resist. We must stand up and say no. And we must expose the Devil’s antics. The last thing we should do is simply roll over and present our tummies to the Devil like obedient puppies. And we must never blame OURSELVES for the evil that the Devil does in our lives.  When we do that—when we roll over, when we blame ourselves, when we come crawling back after being abused and mistreated, attempting a one-sided reconciliation—we are only giving more power to the Devil.

It is our job as Christians, as followers of Jesus, to resist the Devil again and again and again, whenever we confront evil in this world. It is our job to stand up and say “No!” to the Anti-Christ—to that personification of anything that is truly anti-Jesus in this world.

This is also a very important part of our Lenten journey—and our journey in following Jesus.  At some point during Lent, our job is to stop gazing in the mirror—to stop gazing longingly at ourselves— and to turn toward God.  Our job is to recognize this God who does truly grant us everything we really need and want, just maybe not in the way WE think those things should be given to us.   It is for that realization that we should be thankful during this season of Lent.

So, let us, when we emerge from the desert with Jesus, do so re-focused—not on ourselves, but on the God who truly does provide us with everything we need in this life, and the life to come.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday


March 6, 2019

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21


+ I’ve shared this story with you before, I know. But it’s one of my own important Ash Wednesday stories.

Seventeen years ago—in 2002—Ash Wednesday fell on February 13.  On that Wednesday, I was here, at St. Stephen’s.  My friend, Andrea, and I had eaten supper at Juano’s on Broadway that night and came over for the Ash Wednesday mass.

I wasn’t a priest yet. But, I was, to be bluntly honest, in a bad place in my life on that Ash Wednesday. I had just been laid off from a job. And physically I was not feeling well.

Later that week, I would have to face that fact that something physically was not right in my life. And a week later to the day, on February 20, I was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a very hard Lent for me that year.  For some reason, I think of that Ash Wednesday often in my life. It was an important night for me.

I remember, on that night in 2002, that I had made a concentrated resolve to change my life, to “turn my life around.” And just when I thought that was exactly what I was doing, the bottom dropped out.

Not only did something bad happen to me. Something life-threatening happened to me. And I was faced not only with the unpleasantness of life.

I was faced with sickness.

And death.

My own death.

Maybe that’s why that Ash Wednesday and that Lent of 2002 was so important to me. Because, let’s face it: that’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.  Ash Wednesday—and these ashes we are using tonight—are also ways in which we too face these harsh realities of our lives.  They are reminders that we, one day, will die.

I hate to be the one to tell you that news, just in case you hadn’t realized that before.  We are all, one day, going to die.

The traditional phrase for a reminder of our death is Momento Mori. Back “in the day”—we’re talking the medieval and renaissance day—it was common for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull? In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves.

Well, tonight, we have our own momento mori. These ashes that we are about to receive are, truly our momento mori—our reminder that we are all going to die one day. To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives. 

In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever. As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is simply not the case. We don’t realize that we are bones and ash essentially.

In this service this evening, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.

It’s sobering, but it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent.

We will stop breathing.

We will die.

Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by burying in the ground, or by being cremated.

In these last 15 years of my life as a priest, I have presided over many, many funerals, with embalmed bodies and cremated bodies. And, let me tell you, doing so certainly puts into perspective the fact that we are all physically disposable. With cremation so prevalent these days, out momemto mori is not so much a human skull anymore. Our momento mori is nowadays ashes.

I thought about that a lot back during Lent in 2002.  I can tell you that that Lent was one of the most difficult Lents of my entire life. But it was also, I have to say, one Lent in which the real meaning of this season was driven home for me. As I went through the shock of diagnosis, the emotional and physical roller coaster of treatment, I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that I will one day die.

I thought about things like the disposition of my body and came to conclusions such as my decision to  be cremated and have my ashes buried in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery in Harwood. Or what the kind of funeral I wanted for myself (which is, of course, a High Requiem Mass with lots of incense).  And I thought a lot about what comes after all that. I thought about where I was going and what that place toward which I was going was going to be like. 

I thought about my relationship with God, about how faithfully (or unfaithfully) I had followed Jesus in my life. And I thought about Jesus’ own encounter with his mortality in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes, as horrible as experiences like cancer are, they can be gateway events. They can be events in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on 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 and our relationship with God. It isn’t 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.

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.

Yes, our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that this life we find so normal and comfortable will one day end.   But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter. It would be depressing and bleak if ashes and the skull were the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder these ashes is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, but rather to eternal existence—a larger life in God.  The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter.

What I like about Lent is that is shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always sunshine and flowers and frivolous happiness all the time.

If our Christian faith was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives.

But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life.  It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. 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.  Lent is not a time for us to deny our bodies or see our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.
Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven.
A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies and in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.”

We eat too much.

We drink too much.

We get lazy sometimes.

And we let our bodies go sometimes.

This time of Lent is a time for us to find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves. That is really the true meaning of Lent.
Where are our treasures?

Are they here, in the corruptible, or in they in the incorruptible?  This is the question we must ask. his is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.

Where are our treasures?

So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it be a truly holy time. Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in our lives. 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 Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment.  Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in the goodness 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.



Sunday, March 3, 2019

Last Epiphany


Transfiguration Sunday
March 3, 2019

Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9.28-43a


It’s appropriate I guess. We began this season of Epiphany with a glorious event. And now, we end the season of Epiphany with a glorious event.

Way back on January 6 (doesn’t that seem like ages ago already?) we began this season with the Magi visiting the child Jesus In that event, we had a mysterious star.

Then, on January 13th, we commemorated the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

The following Sunday, January 20, we commemorated the Wedding Feast at Cana, in which Jesus turned all that purification water into fine wine.  

Now we end the Epiphany season on another glorious high note.

First, today, we get this reading from the Torah—from the Hebrew scriptures—about Moses’ encounter with the glory of God on Mount Sinai. The glory of God, we find, is so powerful that it has a kind of residual effect on those who encounter it. For Moses, in our reading from Exodus, after encountering the glory of God,  “the skin of his face was shining.”

Then, in our reading from the Gospel today, we find a similar event.  We find another encounter with the Glory of God on a mountaintop: the Transfiguration.

I realize that I preached a lot about the Transfiguration in my 15 years as a priest. It’s an event I have explored so often in sermons and in scripture study and in my prayer life.

Why is that? Because it really is an important event in scripture and in our lives as Christians. In fact, it is such an important event that we actually celebrate twice in our Church Year. We celebrate today of course, the Last Sunday of Epiphany—the last Sunday before Lent begins. And we celebrate it again on August 6.

Personally, I truly appreciate that we celebrate it on this Sunday before Lent begins.  I’m happy that we go into the season of Lent with this vision fresh in our minds. I am happy that we enter Lent with the glory of God shining on the skin of our faces.

There is no better way to enter this season.  The events of Moses’ encounter with God and the Transfiguration is what will sustain us and hold us and nourish us through these next forty days.  This Transfiguration and the glory that we see revealed on the Mount was certainly one of the defining events in Jesus’s life. And in ours too, as followers of Jesus.

For us, the glory we witness on Mount Tabor is the glory that awaits us in God’s Presence. It is the glory we see whenever we encounter God in our lives.

On Mount Tabor, we have seen the veil temporarily lifted that separates this world from God’s world.  And it is a glory that is almost too much for Jesus’ followers to comprehend.  It is this glory that we glimpse today that sustains us.  It strengthens us for what we are about to participate in our following of Jesus.

Because following Jesus always involves this glory that we encounter on the mount. Following Jesus means recognizing in him the fulfillment of the Law (which is represented by the presence of Moses on the mount in today’s Gospel reading) and the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures (represented by Elijah’s presence on the mount)

There is no doubt, as we enter the season of Lent, that the one we follow is not just another great teacher or leader. The one we follow is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed One, the one promised to us in the prophecies, the one who embodies the Law given to Moses.

This is important to recognize and hold close as we enter Lent.  Because following Jesus also means following him down off the mountain and onto the path that lead to another hill-top—Golgotha.  It means following Jesus from the glory of the mount all the way to the darkness and defeat of the cross.  And, of course, to the eternal glory beyond the cross as well.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  For now, we are here. For now, we are encountering the glory of this moment. For now we come down off the mountain with Jesus and his privileged three followers. And we are struggling to make sense of this event. We are struggling to make sense of this moment of glory.

What do we do when we encounter the glory of God? How do we process it? How do we make sense of glory? I don’t know if we can make sense of it.

But what we can do it is embody it. What we can do it open ourselves to this glory of God. Because it is a glory that is given to each of us, no matter who we are.

Now, of course, this past week, you have heard about the very disappointing vote in the United Methodist Church regarding not giving full-inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the Church. We, in the Episcopal Church and especially re at St. Stephen’s, felt the pain of those United Methodists affected by this vote. We have been there. We know this disappointment, this frustration.

Here, we are still living within that disappointment and frustration. We know the pain of what it feels like to be told to “wait.”

“Wait,” those in authority keep saying. And many of us have waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And, in our waiting, we have often felt neglected and forgotten and cast away.

But the fact is this: church votes and commands to wait do nothing to lessen the glory of God that dwells within each of us. Each of us—no matter who we are—carry within us that transfiguring glory of God—of the God who appeared to Moses, of the God whose glory descending upon Jesus on Mount Tabor, of the God who is our God as well, who loves us and knows us and is well-pleased with each of us.  And that is what we take away from our encounter with the vision on the mount of the Transfiguration.

It would be nice to stay here, basking the glory of this event. It would be nice to stay put and not come down off the mountain. Because once we come off the mountain, we must face some unpleasant things.

For the followers of Jesus, they must endure their own betrayal of Jesus, they must endure the fact that their betrayal contributes to Jesus’ torture and murder. In our lives, we must come down from the mountain and face our own issues. We must face a Church that is still fractured, that still tells us to “wait,” that still excludes and turns away.  We must come down and face whatever issues we are wrestling with our lives—issues that seem in many ways to detract from the glory that we have just witnessed. And as we come down and face those things, it is amazing how quickly the vision of God’s glory vanishes from our minds.

In that one moment, when all seemed clear, when all seemed to have come together, we find in the next instant that everything is topsy-turvy again.  And that’s this crazy thing we call life. It often works out this way. We find that we can’t cling to these glorious, wonderful events that happen.

But what we can do is carry them deep in our hearts. What we can do it not let that glory of God that dwells within us and shines brightly on the skin of our faces to die away.  And if we recognize that, if we embrace that  we find that somewhere down that road away from the mount, it will still be there, borne deep within us. Somewhere, when we need it the most, that comforting presence of the God of glory we encountered on the mountain will well within us and help sustain us when we need sustaining and shine brightly on our faces.

Of course, the stickler about this is that it is not something WE can control. We can’t make it happen. We can’t conjure that glorious experience whenever we want it.

It happens on its own. It happens when it is needed the most. And when it does, it truly does sustain.

In these next forty days, we will need to be sustained by the glory we encounter today. In this upcoming season, we will be encountering a somewhat more dour side of spirituality.

On Wednesday, we will have ashes smeared on our foreheads as a reminder that we will all one day die. We, in this upcoming Lenten season, will face the fact that we truly do have limitations. We will remember and repent of the wrongdoings we have done in this life—to God, to others and to ourselves.

And we will fast.  Some of us will fast from certain physical foods or drink. Some of us will abstain from certain practices. Some of us will struggle to use this upcoming season to break certain dependences we’ve had on things and people.

And in this season, we will hear in our scripture readings and participate in our liturgies the continuing journey away from the amazing mountain-top experience toward the humiliation of the cross of Golgotha. 

In those moments, we will need to find an inner sustenance.  In those moments, we will truly see how far we have journeyed away from the mount of Transfiguration. We will, at times, no doubt, feel as though we are far separated from the glory of God. It will not seem that this glory will be shining on the skin of our faces.  

But, then, on Easter morning—there again, that glory will be revealed to us once again and it will all fall into place once more.

So, let us begin our Lenten season with our faces still aglow with this encounter with God.  Let us go knowing that no matter what will happen—betrayal, physical and emotional pain, even death—we know that what ultimately wins out is the glorious light of God’s loving presence in our life. Let us go from here carrying that glory within us, without detachment. Let us go from here transfigured with Jesus—changed by this encounter with God’s glory so that we can reflect and spread this glory even in the midst of whatever may come to us in the days that are to come.