Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday


February 26, 2020

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


Ê I once had a parishioner tell me that they were not appreciative of me preaching to them about sin during Lent.

That elicited one of those looks I occasionally give—a look of absolute bewilderment at what people sometimes say to me.

Some of you have received that same look.

“I’m sorry, Father,” this person said to me, “but what do you know of about my sins and the kind of sins I have to deal with in my own life?

“You’re a celibate male priest of all things! You don’t know the struggles I go through as a married person, as a parent, as a person who struggles with real temptations and real frustrations and real marital issues, for example.”

Granted, yes, I am that now-very-rare, almost extinct dinosaur of being a celibate Anglo-Catholic priest in the Episcopal Church (there aren’t a lot of us out there, let me tell you). After all, we all know how celibacy has taken a huge beating because of some horribly abusive clergy who hid behind their celibacy to do horrible, very non-celibate abuse. As you know, I also don’t make any apologies about any of that, but to say that, because I’m celibate, I somehow don’t understand others’ struggles, or, worse, that because I’m celibate I somehow seem “removed” from everybody else’s struggles, shocked me.

I responded to this person the only way I knew how to.

I said, “You do know that I am a sinner too, right?”

I understand that this might not be something parishioners want to hear. They don’t want to hear that their priest is a sinner just like them.

But the fact is, we all are sinners. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about.  This is our time to admit God and to one another,

“I am a sinner too.”

We’re all in this boat together. It might be different for you as opposed to someone else who is here tonight.

But each of our dealing with our own sins, in our own ways.  That doesn’t mean we say that so we can then whip ourselves, or bash ourselves or be self-deprecating. We say it as a simple acknowledgment of our humanity before God, our imperfection.

That is exactly what we do tonight and for these next 40 days.

During Lent, we will be hearing about sin. We will be hearing about repentance. We will be reminded of the fact that, yes, we have fallen short in our lives.

And tonight especially, we will be reminded that one day, each of here tonight will one day stop breathing and die.  We are reminded tonight in very harsh terms that we are, ultimately, dust. And that we will, one day, return to dust.

Yup.

Unpleasant.

But…

…sometimes we need to be reminded of these things.

Because, let’s face it. We spend most of our lives avoiding these things. We spend a good portion of our lives avoiding hearing these things. We go about for the most part with our fingers in our ears. We go about pretending we are going to live forever. We go about thinking we’re not really like everyone else. We think: I’m just a little bit more special than everyone else.

Maybe…maybe…I’m the exception.

Of course we do that.

Because, for each of us, the mighty ME is the center of our universe.  We as individuals are the center of our own personal universe.

So, when we are confronted during Lent with the fact that, ultimately, the mighty ME is not the center of the universe, is not even the center of the universe of maybe the person who is closest to me, it can be sobering. And there we go.

Lent is about sobering up. It is about being sober. About looking long and hard at the might ME and being realistic about ME. And my relationship with the God who is, actually, the center of the universe and creation and everything that is.

It’s hard, I know, to come to that realization. It’s hard to hear these things. It’s hard to have hear the words we hear tonight as those ashes are placed on our foreheads,

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

You are dust.

I am dust.

We are dust.

We are ashes.

And we are going to return to dust.

Yes.

It’s hard.

But…

Lent is also about moving forward. It is about living our lives fully and completely within the limitations of the fact that are dust.

Our lives are like jazz to some extent. For people who do not know jazz, they think it is just free-form music. There are no limits to it.

But that’s not true. There is a framework for jazz. Very clearly defined boundaries. But, within that framework there is freedom.

Our lives are like jazz as well.  Our mortality is the framework of our lives.

We have boundaries.

We have limits.

And I am going to talk about those limits during this season of Lent. I am going to be talking throughout these forty days about a term one of my heroes coined. That hero, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit priest and paleontologist, talked about something like passive diminishments.

Passive diminishments, according to Chardin, are simply those sufferings in this life that we cannot avoid.  They are the limits in our lives—the hard boundaries of our existence that we cannot avoid.

I’m not going to go into them too deeply tonight. But I will during the Sundays of this season.

Tonight, though I will say this:

Within those limits, within the boundaries of those passive diminishments, we have lots of freedom. And we have the potential to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Lent is the time for us to stop doing the bad and start doing the good.  It is time for us to store up for ourselves treasure in heaven, as we hear Jesus tell us tonight in our Gospel reading.  It is time for work on improving ourselves. And sometimes, to do that, we need to shed some things.

It is good to give up things for Lent.

I know this is a dumb thing to admit, but I am giving up sugar again for Lent.  And caffeine again too. I actually went back on caffeine while I was on vacation just so I could give it up for Lent. (Stupid). That’s how bad it is when you give up so much in your daily life. I’m vegan. I don’t drink alcohol. I’m celibate. What else can I give up?

The reality however is this:

Yes, we can give up sugar or caffeine or meat or tangible things that might not do us good.  But let me just say this about that.

If we give up something for Lent, let it be something that changes us for the better.

Let it be things that improve us. Let us not only give up things in ourselves, but also things around us.

Yes, we can give up nagging, but maybe we should also give up those voices around us that nag. Or maybe confront those voices that nag too much at us.

Yes, we can give up being controlling and trying to change things we can’t. But we maybe also try hard to push back and speak out against those unreasonably controlling forces in our own lives.

Maybe Lent should be a time to give up not only anger in ourselves, but those angry voices around us.

Lent is a time to look at the big picture of our lives and ask: what is my legacy?

How am I going to be remembered?

Are people going to say of our legacies what we heard this evening from the prophet Joel?

“Do not make your heritage a mockery…”

Am I going to be known as the nag? As that angry, bitter person? Am I going to be known as a controlling, manipulative person who always had to get my way? Am I going to be known as a gossip, as a backbiter, as a person who professed my faith in Christ on my lips, but certainly did not live it out in my life?

If so, then there is no better time than Lent to change our legacy. That is our rallying cry during Lent as well.

Let us choose to be a good, compassionate, humble, love-filled follower of Jesus. That is the legacy we should choose during this season, and from now on.

After all, we ARE ashes.

We are dust.

We are temporary.

We are not immortal.

We are bound by our passive diminishments.

But our legacies will outlive us.

In fact, in many ways, they are, outside of our salvation, ultimately, the most important thing about our future.

Let us live in to the legacy that will outlive us. This is probably the best Lenten discipline we can do. Most importantly, let this holy season of 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.
It is time for us to take full advantage of it.



































Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord


February 2, 2020

Luke 2. 22-40


+ So, let’s see if you can remember this. What happened 40 days ago today?

Yes, Christmas happened 40 days ago today. I know it’s hard to even think of that, now in early February. It feels so long ago already. But, yes 40 days ago we commemorated the birth of Jesus.

Which is why, today, we are commemorating the Presentation of Jesus.  Which simply means that, in Jewish tradition, the first born son was to be presented to the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.  And on that day, the child was to literally be redeemed.

Reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, an animal sacrifice would’ve made in the place of the life of the son, which in the case of Jesus’ family, who were poor, would have been two doves.

Now why, you might ask? Why 40 days?

Well,  until about the Thirteenth century, it was often believed that the soul did not even enter a boy child until the 40th day.  (The soul entered a girl child on the 80th day) So essentially, on the 40th day, the boy child becomes human. The child now has an identity—a name.  And the child is now God’s own possession.

This has been a very important feast in the Church from the very beginning. Of course the Eastern Church, which celebrates Jesus’ birth on January 6, doesn’t celebrate the Feast of the Presentation until when…

February 14th.


This day is also called Candlemas, and today, of course, we at St. Stephen’s, in keeping with a tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, will bless candles on this day.  In the early Church, all the candles that would be used in the Church Year and in individual people’s lives would be blessed on this day.  The candles blessed on this day for personal use were actually considered spiritually powerful. They were often lit during thunderstorms or when one was sick or they would be placed in the hands of one who was dying.  Now all of that is wonderful and, I think, is interesting in helping understand this feast day and in its importance in the life of the Church and the world.  

But the real message of this day is of course the fact, in presenting Jesus in  Temple, the Law in Jesus was being fulfilled.

This morning, in this feast,  we find the old and the new meeting. That is what this feast we celebrate today is really all about.

Now, I love this feast. But I have to admit that it has taken on a bittersweet air for my personally. It was on this day, two years, that we celebrated the Requiem Mass for my mother at Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo.  Many of you were there with me that day. And it was a beautiful mass. Fr. Mark Strobel even referenced this Feast day in his sermon for my mother that day.

In many ways, it was appropriate that her Requiem Mass was celebrated on this day. The Feast of the Presentation is all about the Old and the New meeting. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this feast is called the Meeting  of Christ with Simeon.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find this righteous man Simeon representing the Old Law. He is the symbol of the Old Testament—the old Law of Moses. We have Simeon who is probably a priest in the Temple. He is nearing the end of  his life. He knows he is in his last days. But he also knows something new is coming. Something new and wonderful and incredible is about dawn.

As a priest, he performed those Levitical rites that fulfilled the Law. He oversaw the rites of purification. Mary herself would certainly be going through the purification rites all mothers had to go through on this fortieth day after the birth of a child.  Simeon would also have presided over the dedication service of the new child to God, which, of course, would have included both his naming and his circumcision.  All of this fulfils the Old Law.

Then, of course, there is a figure who we always seem to overlook in this scripture reading. But she is important. And, after I’m done here, you’ll see how really important she is to the story.

The Prophet Anna.

Now, Anna is important to this story. Do you want to hear an interesting story
related to Anna?  OK. Hold on to your hats. Because my guess is that you’ve never heard this before.

So, from our reading today, we find quite a bit of information about Anna. We know that she is a widow. We know that her father was Phanuel. We know she was a prophet and that she lived in the Temple.

But, here’s where it gets interesting. I recently read about this legend that actually makes some real sense. . According to this belief, Anna’s father, Phanuel, was actually a High Priest of the Temple in the line of Zadok the High Priest, in which the prophets predicted the Messiah would be born.  According to the story, Phanuel was killed by Herod the King to prevent the Messiah from being born, since Herod believed that the Messiah would be born in the lineage of Zadok.

Phanuel had three daughters.  Anna (or Hanna as she was also known), Elizabeth, and another daughter, Joanna.

And, according this story, Anna is the none other than the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, when we encounter Anna in today’s Gospel reading, we are actually, according to this scholarship, encountering the grandmother of Jesus, which makes tremendous sense. Of course, the daughter of the High Priest would be in the Temple at the end of her life. Of course the granddaughter of the High Priest would bring her son and present him there, in the presence of his grandmother.

But we don’t stop there. If the name Elizabeth sounds familiar, it should. She is the mother of John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke describes her as a “kinswoman” of Mary. She was then Mary’s aunt. Which makes Jesus and John cousins.

But we encounter these women one other place in the Gospel of Luke. Also in the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus is going to the cross, he encounters the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” According Jewish tradition, the “Daughters of Jerusalem,” are actually the daughters of the high priest. It was an actual title that was given to them.

So, essentially Jesus encounters his aunts (we get the impression that Anna, was probably older than her sisters, was long dead by that point).

I love this little microcosm into the story of Jesus and his presentation in the Temple

I just want to add one personal note to this: my mother’s patron saint was none other than St. Ann, the patron saint of mothers.  I did not know any of this when I planned her Requiem Mass for this day.

Now, I imagine one or two of you might be a bit skeptical of this. But, the fact remains, in scripture this how we see God work. God doesn’t just randomly do things. There is a building of up of all God does. There is a plan and a structure to the way God works, especially in the life of Jesus.

Each aspect of his life has meaning and purpose, even in those generations before he was born. We see that God was working in preparation in the world, even before Jesus was born. Anna represents God’s unique way of preparation.  Anna is an important part of the story we are encountering today.  She comes forward out of the background and begins praising God and speaking of the greatness of this Child.  What she proclaims is the New. What she praises God for is Jesus—born under the most unusual of circumstances.

In case we forgot what happened 40 days ago, he was conceived and born of a virgin, with angels in attendance, with a bright shining star in the sky and mysterious strangers coming from the East.

In Jesus, we have the Law fulfilled.  Eventually, in this baby that comes before Simeon, the old Law would find its fulfillment. The Law is fulfilled in this baby, who will grow up, to proclaim God’s kingdom in a way no else has before or since. This baby will also grow up to die on the Cross.

No longer do we need those animal sacrifices. We don’t need a lamb or two little doves or pigeons to die for us.   His death did away with all those sacrifices.

Now, this all sounds wonderful. But no doubt we start asking this important question: why do we even need the Old Testament. If Jesus came to fulfill it, it seems pointless.

But what we need to remember is that this New Law does not overcome or cancel out the old Law. It only solidifies it. It makes it more real.  The Old Law will simply change because now there will be no more need of animal sacrifices and atonement offerings.

In Jesus—the ultimate Lamb of God—those offerings are taken away. They were needed then. They are not needed now. But they foreshadowed what was to come. We have one offering—that offering of Jesus on the Cross—and through it we are all purified.

But even more so than that. This Feast of the Presentation is about us as well. We too are being Presented today.  We too are presented before God—as redeemed and reborn people. We too are being brought before God in love. From this day forward we know that we are loved and cherished by God. We know that we are all essentially loved children of God, because Jesus, the first born, led the way for us.

The Old Law hasn’t been done away for us. Rather, the Old Law has been fulfilled and made whole by the New . We see that there is a sort of reverse eclipsing taking place. The Old Law is still there. But the New has overtaken it and outshines it.

See, it really is a wonderful day we celebrate today. The Feast of the Presentation speaks loudly to us on many levels. But most profoundly it speaks to us of God’s incredible love for us.

So, this morning, on this Candlemas, let us be a light shining it the darkness. Let that light in us be the light of the Christ Child who was presented in the Temple.  We, like Jesus being presented to Simeon, are also be presented before God today and always.

So let us, like the prophet Anna rejoice.  Let us, like her, speak to all who are looking for redemption.

And with Simeon, let us sing:

“Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have now seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.

Amen.