Sunday, June 30, 2019

3 Pentecost


June 30, 2019

1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21; Galatians 5.1,13-25; .Luke 9:51-62


+ As you know, this past Friday, we got our tower for our bell. When I first saw that tower at the NDSU Newman Center, I wasn’t certain how this would all come to be. But, here we are. And it, weirdly, all fell into place in a very nice way. At least, so far.

Dinah Stephens, who donated the bell in memory of her children, Jada and Scott,  and I were discussing it on Friday, and she wrote me this note:

“Without your persistence the Newman Tower would not be St. Stephens. And of course you drove by it every day. The light went off in your head....hey!!! We could use this!”

Well, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but for any of you who have 
worked with me, at least on the Vestry level, I am not one to let grass grow under my feet. When I focus on something, I will work on it until either I succeed at it, or I have admit failure on it. And even, in those times when I have to admit failure, I still kind of find myself gnawing on the failure. Because it’s hard for me to give something up I’ve forced on. 

That’s not always a good thing, let me you. It’s actually weirdly obsessive.

But being at kind of person means I really have issues with what Jesus is telling the young man in our Gospel reading for today.  

We hear Jesus say, Let the dead bury their own dead.

It’s  an unusual statement.   It almost boggles the mind when you think about it. And yet….there is beautiful poetry in that phrase.

We hear this saying of Jesus referenced occasionally in our secular society.  It conveys a sense of resignation and putting behind oneself insignificant aspects of our lives.

Still, it is a strange image to wrap our minds around.

Let the dead bury their own dead.

What could Jesus possibly mean by this reference? Does it means we shouldn’t bury our loved ones?  Not at all.

This statement from him, as always, has a deeper meaning—and really only starts to make sense when we put it in the context of his time and who his followers were.  When we find this man talking about having to go and bury his father, and Jesus’ response of “let the dead bury their own dead,” we might instantly think that Jesus is being callous.   It would seem, at least from our modern perspective, that this man is mourning, having just lost his father.

The fact is, his father actually probably died a year or more before.   What happened in the Jewish culture at that time is that when a person died, they were anointed, wrapped in a cloth shroud and placed in a tomb. There would have been an actually formal burial rite at that times. And of course, Jesus himself would later be buried exactly like this.

This initial tomb burial was actually a temporary interment.  They were probably placed on a stone shelf near the entrance of the tomb.

About a year or so after their death, the family gathered again at which time the tomb was re-opened.  By that time, the body would, of course,  have been reduced to bones.  The bones would then be collected, placed in a small stone box and buried with the other relatives, probably further back in the tomb.

A remnant of this tradition still exists in Judaism, when, on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, the family often gathers to unveil the gravestone in the cemetery.

There’s a wonderful liturgy in the New Zealand Prayer Book that I’ve used many times for the blessing and unveiling of a gravestone.

Which I think a very cool tradition personally. 

We actually oftentimes do a similar tradition in our own culture.  More and more, we find that often, there is a cremation and a memorial service within the week of death, but the burial or disposition of the remains takes place much later.

When my mother died, that’s exactly what happened. It was over four months between the time of her death and time we buried her ashes.

So, when we encounter this man in today’s Gospel, we are not necessarily finding a man mourning his recently deceased father.  What we are actually finding is a man who is waiting to go to the tomb where his father’s bones now lie so he can bury the bones.  When we see it from this perspective, we can understand why Jesus makes such a seemingly strange comment—and we realize it isn’t quite the callous comment we thought it was.  

As far as Jesus is concerned, the father has been buried.  Whatever this man does is merely an excuse to not go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, as Jesus commands him to do.

Now to be fair to the man, he could just be making an excuse, which really under any other circumstances, would have been a perfectly valid excuse.  Or he could really have felt that his duty as his father’s son took precedence over this calling from Jesus.  Certainly, in Jewish culture, this would be an acceptable way of living out the commandment of respecting one’s parents.

It doesn’t seem as though he doesn’t want to follow Jesus or proclaim the Kingdom.  He doesn’t flat-out say no.  He simply says, not now.  In a sense, he is given the choice between the dead and dried bones of his father or the living Jesus who stands before him.

Jesus’ response, which may sound strange to our modern, Western ears, is actually a very clear statement to this man.  He is saying, in a sense: “You are attached to these bones.  Don’t worry about bones.  Break your attachment, follow me, proclaim the goodness and love of God and you will have life.

Follow me

TODAY.

NOW.”

How many times have we been in the same place in our lives?  How many times have we looked for excuses to get out of following Jesus, at least right now?

We all have our own “bones” that we feel we must bury before we can go and proclaim the Kingdom of God in our midst by following Jesus.  We all have our own attachments that we simply cannot break so we can go forward unhindered to follow and to serve. And they’re easy to find.  It’s easy to be led astray by attachments—to let these attachments fill our lives and give us a false sense of fulfillment.  It is easy for us to despair when the bad things of life happen to us.

But the fact is, even when awful things happen, even then, we need to realize, it is not the end.   Despite these bad things, the kingdom of God still needs to be proclaimed.

Now.  And not later. Not after everything has been restored. Not when everything is good and right in the world.  Not after we have calmed down.

The Kingdom needs to be proclaimed NOW.

Now.

Even in the midst of chaos.  

Even when those crappy things happen, we still need to follow Jesus.

Right now.

Right here.

Our faith in God, our following of Jesus and our striving to love and serve others doesn’t change just because we have setbacks.

Rather, when the setbacks arise, we need to deal with them and move on.   But if those setbacks become an excuse not to follow Jesus, then they too become a case for  letting these dead bury their own dead.

So, in a sense, we find ourselves confronted with that very important question: what are we, in our own lives, attached to?

What are the “bones” of our life?  What are the attachments in our life that cause us to look for excuses for not following Jesus and serving others?

For not loving, fully and completely.

What things in our lives prevent us  from proclaiming the Kingdom of God?

Whatever they might be, just let them be.

Let the dead bury their own dead.

Let’s not become attached to the dead objects of our lives that keep us from serving our living God.  Let’s  not allow those dead things lead us astray and prevent us from living and loving fully.  Let us not become bogged down with all the attachments we have in this life as we are called to follow Jesus. Let us not let them become the yoke of slavery we hear Paul discussing in his letter to the Galatians.

Rather, let us take this yoke, break it and burn it as Elisha did, as an offering to our living God.  But let us remember that this is not some sweet, nice, gentle suggestion from Jesus.   It is a command from him.

“Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, go, and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

We proclaim the kingdom, as we all know, by loving God and loving each other. You can’t proclaim the kingdom—you can’t love—when you are busy obsessing about the dead, loveless things of your life.  

We who are following Jesus have all put our hands to the plow.  We put our hands to that plow when were baptized, when we set out on that path of following Jesus.

Now, with our hands on that plow, let us not look back.

Let us not be led astray by the attachments we have in this life that lead us wandering about aimlessly.

But, let us focus.

Let us look forward.  

Let us push on.

Let us proclaim by word and example the love we have for God and one another.  

And when we do, we are doing exactly what Jesus commands us to do.

Now is the time.  

Let us proclaim that Kingdom and making it a reality in our midst. Amen.



Sunday, June 23, 2019

2 Pentecost


June 23, 2019

Galatians 3.23-29;Luke 8.26-39

+ I had an interesting discussion with someone this past week about the sermon I preached last Sunday. Last Sunday, I preached, in passing, that I was a Christian Universalist. In other words, I do not believe in an eternal hell.  I do not believe that the God that I believe in and love would send anyone to a metaphysical hell for all eternity.

This person had an issue with that belief of mine.  She even quoted to me several passages of scripture that she felt showed she was right. Which actually helped my position, especially when we examined early Jewish understanding of the afterlife at that  time.

And then she made an assumption. She said, “well, since you don’t believe in evil…”

Oh. I said. Nope. I never said I didn’t believe in evil.

I say it emphatically:

Evil DOES exist.

Now I’m not saying I believe in actual supernatural devils or demons.  But, the fact remains, whether we believe in actual demons or nor not, whether we believe in Satan as a goat-like horned figure with a forked tail or not, what we all must believe in is the presence of actual evil in this world. Whether that evil is natural or supernatural, or both, the fact is, there is evil.   Even good rational people know that!

Just look at the news, depending on what news source you follow.

And those of us who are followers of Jesus have promised that we must turn away from evil again and again, in whatever way we encounter it.   Whenever we are confronted with evil, we must resist it, we must stand up to it.

In our Baptismal service, these questions are asked of the person being baptized (or their sponsors):

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”

And…

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

And, as our Baptismal Covenant asks us asks us:

“Do you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Evil is something we must stand up against however we encounter it.  Whether we encounter it as a spiritual force, or whether we encounter it in other forms, such as racism, sexism, war,  or homophobia,  as followers of Jesus, must stand up against evil and say no to it.

And let me be really blunt here:

Treating migrant children like animals is EVIL.


Allowing children to sleep on floors, under tin foil sheets, in col, dirty conditions is evil.

Separating children from their parents and families is evil.

I can’t believe I even have to say it in this day and age, and in this country.
And if you don’t think it’s evil, if you don’t think it’s anti-Christian, I, as your priest, invite you to take a long, hard look at your soul. And repent.

And maybe make an appointment with me this week for confession.

In a sense, what we are being asked to do is what Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel.   We are being compelled, again and again, to cast out the evil in our midst, to send it away from us.  This is not easy thing to do.   It is not easy to look long and hard at the evil that exists in the world, and in our very midst. But it is very easy to believe that evil wins.

The story of Jesus is clear: good always defeats evil ultimately.  Again and again.

It might not seem like it sometimes. Often times, evil wins the battle. But, be assured, evil never wins the war.  

Christ, as we heard in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians today, breaks down the boundaries evil in its various forms sets up.

In Christ, we hear, there are no distinctions.

In Christ, all those things that divide us and allow the seeds of evil to flower are done away with—those issue of sex, and social status and nationality and race are essentially erased in Christ.

And we, as followers of Jesus, so prone at times to get nitpicky and self-righteous and hypocritical and divide ourselves into camps of “us” versus “them,” are told in no uncertain terms that those boundaries, in Jesus, cannot exist among us.

Those boundaries, those distinctions, only lead to more evil.  To less love.

But even then, even when evil does seem to win out, even when there are moments of despair and fear at the future, there’s no real need to despair.

Even in those moments when evil seems to triumph, we know that those moments of triumph are always, always short-lived.   Good will always defeat evil ultimately.

Yes, we find the premise of good versus evil  in every popular movie and book we encounter.  This is the essence of conflict that we find in all popular culture.  

Good versus evil—and good always wins.

But, for us, as followers of Jesus, this is not fiction.  That is not a fairy tale or wishful thinking.  It is the basis on which our faith lies.

When confronted with those spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, we must renounce them and move on. And what are those spiritual forces of wickedness in our lives?  What are those forces that divide us and cause conflict among us?  What are the legion of demons we find in our midst?

Those spiritual forces of wickedness are those forces that destroy that basic tenant of love of God and love of each other.  Those spiritual forces of wickedness drive us apart from each other and divide us. They harden our hearts and kill love within us.

When that happens in us, when we allow that to happen, we cannot be followers of Jesus anymore.  We cannot call ourselves children of a loving God.  When that happens our faith in God and our love for each other dies and we are left barren and empty. We become like the demoniac in today’s Gospel.  We become tormented by God and all the forces of goodness.  We wander about in the tombs and the wastelands of our lives.   And we find ourselves living in fear—fear of the unknown, fear of that dark abyss of hopelessness that lies before us.

It would be easy to feel like that in the wake of the violence and terror we experience in this world.  It is early to feel that way when confronted with the reality of detention camps on our borders.

But when we turn from evil, we are able to carry out what Jesus commands of the demoniac.   We are able to return from those moments to our homes and to proclaim the goodness that God does for us.

That’s what good does.  That’s what God’s goodness does to us and for us.  That is what turning away from evil—in whatever form we experience evil—does for us.

So, let us do just that.  Let us proclaim all that God has done for us.   Let us choose good and let us resist evil. Let us love—and love fully and completely, without barriers.  Let us love each other. Let us love peace and nonviolence.  Let us cast off whatever dark forces there are that kills love within us.

And let us sit at the feet of Jesus, “clothed in and in our right mind,” freed of fear and hatred and violence and filled instead with joy and hope and love.



Sunday, June 16, 2019

Holy Trinity


June 16, 2019

John 3.1-17

+ When all is said and done, at the end of the day, I can say this about myself:

I am actually fairly orthodox in most of what I believe. I don’t say that pridefully. I’m not bragging. I’m just saying…

Yes, I know. I’m pretty liberal.  At least socially.

But theologically, I’m pretty cut and dry. It would be hard to find a major heresy in most of my thinking.

OK. Yes, I’m a universalist. I do believe that, eventually, we will all be together with Christ in heaven. I really do believe that. I do not believe in an eternal hell.

But the rest of it is pretty much straightforward.

I believe Jesus is the unique and divine Son of God.

I believe he’s the Word of God Incarnate.

I believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.

I believe prayer does make a difference in this world.

I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist.

And let’s not get into my view of Mary and the saints.

And then, there’s the Trinity.

Sigh.

The Trinity.

Every time I try to explain it, I find myself nudging over into some kind of heresy. Was that Modalist in my definition? Or am I guilty of Partialism?

I don’t want you to think I’m a heretic or anything. I don’t want any heresy charges brought against me. So, you know what? I’m not even going to attempt it today. After all, I’m just a priest. I’m not a theologian, nor have I ever claimed to be one.

Most of us, let’s face it, don’t give the doctrine of the Trinity a lot of thought. Like you, I really don’t lost a lot of sleep over it.  I approach this Sunday and this doctrine of the Holy Trinity as I approach any similar situation, like Christmas or Easter or, as we celebrated last Sunday, the Holy Spirit and Pentecost.

It’s a mystery. And I love the mystery of our faith. And let me tell  you, there is nothing more mysterious than the Trinity.

God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or Redeemer and God as Spirit or Sanctifier.

I know, I know.  It’s difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God.

The questions we priests regularly get is: how can God be three and yet one?  How can we, in all honesty, say that we believe in one God when we worship God as three?  

Certainly our Jewish and  Muslim brothers and sisters ask that very important question of us: Aren’t you simply talking about three gods?

(We’re not, by the way—just to be clear about that)

My answer is: I don’t know.

But I believe. I don’t know what it is, but I believe in it.

Whole Church councils have debated the issue of the Trinity throughout history.  The Church actually has split at times over its interpretation of what exactly this Trinity is.  

We can debate it all we want this morning. We can talk what is orthodox or right-thinking about the Trinity all we want.

But the fact remains that unless we have experienced God in a real and somewhat personal way, none of this talk to the Trinity is really going to matter, ultimately.  There is the key to everything this Sunday is about.  We can go on and on about theology and philosophy and all manner of thoughts about God, but ultimately what matters is how we interact with our God.

How is our relationship with God and with each other deepened and made more real by this one God? That’s what Jesus tells us again and again.

Just love God.

In scripture we don’t find people worrying too much about whether they are committing a heresy or not in trying to describe God.  

What do we find in scripture? We find a constant striving toward a more personal and closer relationship with God.  This is our primary responsibility: our relationship with God.

How can all this talk about God—how can this thinking about God—then deepen our relationship with God?  

Our goal is not to understand God: we will never understand God.  God is not some Rubik’s Cube or a puzzle that has to be solved.  Our goal is to know God. In our hearts. Passionately.    

Our goal is to love God.

Our goal is to try to experience God as God wishes to be experienced by us.

Because God does know us.

God does love us.

And, more likely than not, we have actually experienced our God in more than one way more than once in our lives.

I personally have experienced the Trinity—or rather, I should say, I have experienced God in a tri-personal kind of way (I don’t know what heresy that might be, but I really don’t care)  

I personally have experienced as a loving and caring parent, especially when I think about those times when I have felt marginalized by people or the Church or society or by friends and colleagues.

I have also known Jesus as my redeemer—as One who, in Jesus, has come to me where I am, as Jesus who suffered in a body and who, in turn, knows my suffering because this One also has suffered as well. And this One has promised that I too can be, like Jesus, a child of this God who is my—and our—Parent.    I have been able to take comfort in the fact that God is not some distant deity who could not comprehend what I have gone through in my life and in this limited, mortal body.  In Jesus, God knows what it was to be limited by our bodies.  There is something wonderful and holy in that realization.

And I have known the healing and renewal of the Spirit of God of my life.

If that’s the Trinity—and certainly that’s the Trinity I have experienced in my life—then, it’s wonderful!

If all we do is ponder and argue and debate God and God’s nature, we’ve already thrown in the towel.  And we are defeating the work of God.  But if we simply love God and strive to experience God through prayer  and worship and contemplation, that is our best bet.

No matter what the theologians argue about, no matter what those supposedly learned teachers proclaim, ultimately, our understanding of God needs to be based on our own experience to some extent.

Yes, God is beyond our understanding. Yes, God is mysterious and amazing and incredible.  But God does not have to be a frustrating aspect of our church and our faith.  Our experience of God should rather widen and expand our faith life and our understanding and experience of God and, in turn, of each other.

So, today, as we ponder God—as we consider how God has worked in our lives in many ways— and who God is in our lives, let us remember how amazing God is in the ways God is revealed to us.  God cannot be limited or quantified or reduced.  

God can only be experienced.

And adored.

And pondered.

God can only be shared with others as we share love with each other.

When we do that—when we live out and share our loving God with others—then we are joining with the amazing and mysterious work of God who is here with us, loving us with a love deeper than any love we have ever known before.





Thursday, June 13, 2019

15 Years a Priest!



June 12, 2019


Matthew 10.7-16


 + In our Gospel reading for tonight, we hear Jesus say, “I am sending you as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I can say that scripture has definitely been a prophecy-fulfilled in my ministry. When I heard those words fifteen years ago last night, I may have had an idea of what Jesus meant. Fifteen year later, I can truly say I KNOW what Jesus meant.


I’ve been there, in the midst of those wolves. And if I have had any gift granted to me by God to survive, it has definitely been to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.  Well, I don’t know how “innocent” I’ve been.  But I’ve tried really hard to be innocent as a dove.


Fifteen years ago, on that that hot night (and it WAS hot that night) I was impatient. I was biting at the bit. I was straining forward. That ordination couldn’t happen fast enough.


And when it did, it was something. It was unique. And it was wonderful. I truly experienced the Holy Spirit that night.


I have told you before how, when the Bishop laid hands on my head that night, I FELT the electricity of the Spirit in that moment. And I definitely felt something change in me.


At moments, it seems like it was just yesterday.  And at other moments, it seems like it was 100 years ago.


15 years of priestly ministry. You have heard me say it before. I will say it again a hundred times I’m sure.


I love being a priest.


I  can say in all honesty that I was meant to be a priest. As sure as a shark is meant to hunt, or a fish to swim, I was meant to be a priest. It was almost like it was programmed into me.


Now saying that, I’m not saying I have been a perfect priest. I was never called to be a perfect priest.  Nor even at times, have I been a particular good priest.


I have failed.


I have tripped up.


I have stumbled.


I have made many, many mistakes.


But even then, even with all the mistakes I’ve made, it’s all right. It’s all good. Still, it hasn’t been easy.  


I remember twenty years ago, when I told the first Episcopal priest I too wanted to be an Episcopal priest, he leaned back in his chair, put his fingers to his chin and shook his head.


“It’s never going to happen,” he said.


And I thought then, that was it.


All right. 


The door was closed and that was that.


And if that priest had had his way, it would’ve ended there.


Actually, let’s face it: the odds were against me. Because of who I am and what I am, I really can’t imagine now how I made it through and was ordained.


And there were people who said I shouldn’t have been ordained.


There were people who said I had no right to stand at the altar.


Sadly for them, they did not get their way.


Nor really did I.


God did.


Some priests have been able to fly under the radar. Not me. Which is not always a good thing.


Being a priest like me means being a target. A big target. For better or for worse.


But it helped that I did not go into this as some doe-eyed, na├»ve PollyAnna.  I was prepared for all this vocation would give me—both good and bad. I knew and was prepared for all of those things.


Fifteen years ago I thought I knew what it meant to be “broken.” I know now what it means to be broken.  And I have served many broken people.


But I was also prepared for the good things, as much as anyone can be prepared for such things in their lives.


In these fifteen years I’ve known the beauty of grace and friendship. I knew what it was, in those moments, to see God breaking through in wonderful and incredible ways.


I also realized that all that spiritual training I had—clinging to the Holy Eucharist and the discipline of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer—could truly sustain one spiritually when the Devil takes you by throat and shakes you.  The Holy Eucharist and the Daily Office have been my buoys.  They have been the buoys through the hard times. They have been the buoys when my father died and then when my mother died.  They have helped me when I have felt so utterly alone in this world. They helped me keep my head above water.


So, yes, I am the scarred veteran priest.


But I stand before you as priest who can still hold my head up and say, without one qualm, without one doubt, without hesitation: I am so happy to be a priest.


I am!


I really am!


I’m going to close tonight with the prayer I had printed on my worship booklet back then. It was a prayer I adapted from a prayer by one of my all-time heroes, Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. I can say that this has been a prayer that has been answered in ways I never knew prayers could be answered. This is a prayer that is a very clear warning to everyone: be careful sometimes what you pray for. 


It might actually be answered.


I close with this prayer I prayed fifteen years ago last night. And tonight, I can say that prayer has been answered. Again and again in my life. And for that, I am truly grateful.


Let us pray.

                                                                                   

Holy God, the years have fallen away—one by one—

only to reveal this one shining moment.

It lies here before me as a precious gift I neither asked for nor deserved.

And yet, here it is. Here it is in its beauty, more precious than any other gift.     


Only one thing I ask: take my heart and break it.

Break it not as I would like it to be broken, but as you would.

And because it is you who are breaking it, how can I be  afraid,

for your hands are the hands I have felt all my life at my back and on my face, supporting me, comforting me and guiding me

to the places you wanted me to be.

Your hands  are safety and in them, I am safe.


Take my heart and where you have broken it, fill it with joy—

not the joy I want for myself, but the joy you want for me.

Fill my heart with a burning joy and let its fire burn away

everything dead or dying within me.

Let my heart burn with a joy I cannot imagine

and can only vaguely comprehend.


It’s time, Lord, and I am ready.

See! I am ready to be your priest.