Sunday, December 27, 2009

1 Christmas

Dec. 27, 2009

John 1.1-18

As most of you know, I love to read biographies. I try to read at least one a month. I just enjoy reading about the lives of people. However, probably one of my least favorite parts of biographies are the beginnings. To be honest, I’m just not all the interested in childhood stories. Very rarely do we discover the essence of who people become in stories of their childhood. What makes a person interesting, for me anyway, is the kind of person they have become after being formed by the difficulties and joys of life.

But today, in our Gospel reading, we are given a glimpse of the very beginning. The beginning we experience today is a bit different than the beginning we read about in Genesis. The beginning we encounter today even harkens back further than the creation of Adam and Eve. It goes back to before those creation stories to who and what God was initially.

“In the beginning…” we hear at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. And they are certainly the most appropriate words if ever there were any. Especially at this time of the year.

Although the Church year begun a month ago, the year 2010 is now upon us. As this year runs down and the new begins, our thoughts turn to beginnings. We think about that New Year and how important a new year is our lives. It heralds for us a sense of joy—and fear—of the future.

All of a sudden we are faced with the future. It lies there before us—a mystery. Will this coming year bring us joy or sadness? Will it be a good year or a bad year? And we step forward into the New Year without knowing what that year will hold for us.

I have a personal tradition of watching two movies on or around New Years Eve. The first is a movie called 200 Cigarettes—which is about a group of edgy, cool, New Wave New Yorkers on New Year’s Eve 1982 partying and thinking about their lives and all that the New Year entails. It’s not a great movie and I don’t recommend it to too many people. It’s just one of those kind of so-so movies that I occasionally like to watch just for he fun of it.

But another movie that I always like to watch around this time of the year is a movie I do recommend. It’s a Cohen Brothers film called The Hudsucker Proxy. It opens with a really powerful beginning. It begins with a panning shot through the snow of New York City from above. As the shot continues to pan, we hear the narrator. He says, as we travel along with him:

That's right.

New York.

It's 1958 .

Anyway, for a few more minutes it is.

Come midnight, it's going to be 1959.

A whole other feeling.

The New Year.

The future.

Old Daddy Earth [is] fixing to startone more trip around the sun.

Everybody [is] hoping this ride round[will] be a little more giddy...

...a little more gay.

All over town, champagne corks[are] popping.

Over in the Waldorf, the big shots [are]

dancing to the strains of Guy Lombardo.

In Times Square, the little folks [are] watching

and waiting for that big ball to drop.

They're all trying to catch hold

of one moment of time... be able to say:

"Right now! This is it!

"I got it!"

Of course, by then it'll be past.

But they're all happy...

...everybody having a good time.

That’s what beginnings are all about, I guess. That one moment when we too can say: “Right now! This is it! I got it!” And we all know that just as soon as we do, just like the narrator said, “it’ll be past.”

In our reading from John this morning, it’s also one of those moments. In that moment, we get a glimpse of one of those “right now” moments. It seems as though, for that moment, it’s all clear. At least for John anyway. We encounter, the “Word.” And for a moment, we too might think we’ve got it too. We think, “Yes, I understand that Word. But do we? Just when we think we’ve got it, it’s past and we’re not so certain.

That word—“Word.” In the original Greek, it’s “Logos.” That word means more than just .what comes out of our moths. And it’s more than just the Word as Bible. “Word” isn’t even the really correct interpretation of that word Logos. Logos really means Knowledge of Logic. We find that word in many of the words we use. Psychology, which essentially means knowledge concerning the mind Biology, which means knowledge concerning life Theology, which means knowledge concerning God or religion.

But even knowledge doesn’t quite convey what John is trying to tell us in this glimpse of the beginning. Another way to translate the word “logos” is to say “essence.” It is the very essence of what it conveys. If we look at it in this way, then we can sat that the “Word” of God we encounter in today’s Gospel is, in a sense, the very essence of God.

This is a little different then what we sometimes encounter in the scriptures for our Sunday reading. This is deep, theological thinking that isn’t as easy to grasp on a first, quick reading.

But this is an appropriate way to begin the Gospel of John and to begin our new year as well. It is a great beginning. It sets the tone for all forms of Christian theology and a deeper understanding of what it means to believe as a Christian. When we think about what it is we are celebrating in this Christmas season, at least in the context of our Gospel reading for today, we are talking about the Incarnation. We are talking about this Word—this Logos—this knowledge and essence of God, actually taking flesh, coming to us as a human being. Our understanding of who and what Jesus was and is is encapsulated in this reading. Jesus is not just a very nice guy, a gloomy prophet, a rebel, a rabblerouser. We realize that he is the essence of God. When we look at Jesus, we see God. He is the conduit, the prism of God. And even before he took flesh on that Bethlehem night, he was. He existed without beginning. And he still continues to exist, without end.

In Jesus, we experience a beginning that doesn’t seem to end. In Jesus, God comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine. God appears to us in the Gospels not as God in the Old Testament, cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind. Instead, in Jesus, God appears before us, as one of us in a whole new beginning.

God’s word, God’s wisdom, God’s essence became flesh. God’s voice was no longer a booming voice from the sky, demanding sacrifices. God instead spoke to us as one of us. And this voice was a familiar one. And the Word spoken to us is a word of Love. The commandment this Word tells us of is a commandment to love. Love God and love one another as you love yourselves.

While we might not be able to fully fathom what this means and what the Word is saying to us, we can embrace it and make it a part of our lives And that beginning that we find in John is a strange beginning, because it keeps on and on. It is as much of a beginning now, to us, as it was at the time John wrote it. We are refreshed and renewed by this new beginning. It strengthens us and motivates us to meet with joy and gladness our new beginning. This might be one of the few times when I actually enjoy the beginning of a story.

I enjoy this beginning because this is the true message of Jesus as the Word. Maybe the true message of Jesus is that, in God’s Kingdom, that beginning keeps on and on, without end. In God’s Kingdom there is constant renewal. In God’s Kingdom it is always like New Year’s Day—always fresh, always full of hope for a future that does not end or disappoint.

As we prepare to celebrate 2010, let us think about beginnings and how important they are for us personally and for our spiritual lives. And let us do what we can to be the bringers of new beginnings not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. With this encounter with the Word, we, like John, are also saying in this moment, “ Right now! This is it! I got it!” John shows us that we really do “got it.” Unlike how we might feel at the New Year—full of both hope and apprehension—in this instance, in our grasping of it, it doesn’t wiggle away from it. It doesn’t fall through our fingers like sand. Or snow. It stays with us. Always new. Always fresh. Always being renewed.

We’re here.

It’s the future.

The Word, the Essence, of God has come to us as one of us. It’s incredible, really.

This moment is a glorious one.

Let us be joyful in it.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2009

Luke 2.1-20

Well, here it is. Christmas Eve. Now, as we enter this holy night, I have to admit something. Some of you, in the midst of the craziness and hustle and bustle of these past few weeks have heard me make a confession I really didn’t want to make. In the midst of being exhausted and tired and overwhelmed by everything, I let slip my secret: Christmas is not one of my favorite seasons. I have tried. I have made every effort throughout the years to celebrate and enjoy this holiday. But it just has never really endeared itself to me.

Now, to be clear, I am not talking here about Jesus’ birth or Advent or anything of the spiritual things associated with this season. Rather, I have never been a big fan of all the Christmas trappings that go along with his holiday.

Still, despite my frustrations over the actual season, tonight I, like most of you, feel a little tinge of excitement on Christmas Eve. I, like most of you, know that tonight is just a little more special than any other night. Something holy and beautiful is happening around us tonight.

Throughout this past Advent, it seems to me that the one prevailing prayer I (and, in various forms, everyone of us) has been praying is that wonderful prayer we find in the book of Revelation: Lord Jesus, come quickly. I preached earlier in Advent on the importance of that simple prayer and how it truly sums up what we anxiously look forward to during the Advent season and throughout our spiritual lives. We, as Christians, are looking for the answer to that prayer: Lord Jesus, come quickly. It seems that the answer to that prayer will bring with it all the answers. When Jesus comes to us, our questions of life and death will be answered. Our enemies will be vanquished. All will be made right.

And tonight, here on this Christmas Eve, that prayer has been answered. We realize that Jesus has come to us. But what we find in his coming is that our questions about life and death have not been answered. We still don’t understand life and we still fear death. Our enemies have not been vanquished. In fact, sometimes, they seem to be triumphing all the more. And as we look around this world—at the violence, at the crime, at the war and injustice of this world, at the racism and homophobia and sexism that still exists—we realize all has not been made magically right.

And what we expected in our Savior, our Redeemer our Messiah—what we thought would be the mighty warrior coming with sword in hand to shield us and vanquish the forces of evil—we instead find a Child. We find a vulnerable human baby, born of a teenage mother under mysterious and scandalous circumstances. And still, despite all of that, somehow, on this evening, holiness shines through to us. Our prayer—Lord Jesus, come quickly—has been answered and we know that although it has not been cataclysmic, something incredible still has happened.

As the great Archbishop of Canterbury (and probably the greatest of my personal heroes), Michael Ramsey once wrote: “Our Christmas is no less Christmas and our joy no less joyful because we are keeping Christmas with a very dark and troubled world around us…Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from life’s grim realities into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather is it a joy that, as we face and feel the world’s tragedy, we know that God has an answer: an answer for [hu]mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope.”

Tonight, in this dark, cold night, we celebrate that hope. While darkness still exists, we now see that in the midst of that darkness, there is a glimmer of light. It is dim at times. It doesn’t seem like much. But it is there. And as we strain into that darkness, we realize that hope comes to us as Light. We celebrate hope of that Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darknesses. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration. And as it does, we hold bask in the glory of those two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope—in our belief that what has come to us—Jesus—God made flesh—is here among us, Our prayer, “Lord Jesus, come quickly” has been answered in ways more remarkable then we originally thought. And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

As we come forward tonight to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours this evening, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this evening comes up from our very centers. We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a barn in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded.

When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we realize that yes, our Advent prayer has been truly answered. When we prayed “Lord Jesus come quickly,” he truly did come to us quickly. He comes to us where we are. And as he does, we find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—that anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are rejoicing in this evening.

Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents under a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. We know that our true hope and joy are not there because by Saturday, we’re going to see that what the rest of the society is celebrating in this Christmas season will be disposed of. By Saturday, the wrapping paper and the boxes will be on the curbs and so will many of the trees. Our true hope and joy is more powerful and more tangible than anything that is so disposable. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory.

Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he comes to us, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager under scandalous circumstances in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us.

So, yes, I guess maybe all our expectations of Jesus’ coming have, in fact, been fulfilled. Slowly, but surely, he does make all things right—eventually. This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful night. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of happiness and excitement. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let this hope you feel tonight as Jesus comes to us stay with you now and always. Let the joy you feel tonight as Jesus comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is here. He is in our midst tonight. He is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. So, greet him tonight with all that you have within you and welcome him into the shelter of your hearts.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

4 Advent

Dec. 20, 2009

Luke 1:39-56

These past few weeks of Advent in our Gospel readings we have faced the formidable figure of St. John the Baptist. There he has been, on the far side of the Jordan, where the Children of Israel paused before they crossed over into the Promised Land, telling us that we too should step into the baptismal waters of the Jordan and emerge as children of God. But this morning, the tone changes.

Today, we encounter Mary (and John, once again, but now only the womb of his mother Elizabeth). And any encounter with Mary is always a special one.

Now, I know as I say this that some of you of more Protestant bent stiffen a bit when I start going off about Mary. And I do it quite often. But, I have a deep and abiding devotion to Mary. I always have. And I am not ashamed to admit that love for her. Mary is very important to our understanding of who Jesus is.

Today we encounter, after these last weeks of hearing John shouting in the wilderness, the beautiful voice of Mary, singing her Magnificat.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…”

You have and you will hear me preach often about Mary, because I think she is so important. And I also think that so many non-Roman Catholics have made such an effort to ignore her. Scot McNight, in his wonderful The Jesus Creed, wonderfully puts it this way:

“Most Bible readers fail to connect Jesus with Mary when they think of the teachings of Jesus. This failure fulfills what I think should be the (tongue-in-cheek) correct translation of Luke 1.48: ‘From now on all generations (except Protestants!) will call me blessed!’”

This morning, as we celebrate our last Sunday of Advent, as draw agonizingly close to the Birth of Jesus, it is only right that we encounter Mary at this point. Here she is, on this Sunday doing what she has always done—pointing toward Jesus. And as we approach Christmas, no doubt most of us are feeling two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.

Hope—in our belief that what is coming to us—Christ—God-made-flesh—is almost here among us And Joy—at the realization of that reality.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also catch a glimpse of the hope and joy Mary and Elizabeth felt at the ways in which God was working their lives. Mary, carrying within her flesh God made flesh in the person of Jesus, and Elizabeth, carrying within her flesh John, who would later be the Baptists calling to us from the Jordan River, meet and there is a spark of energy that fires up between them. Or more importantly, there is a spark of energy that comes up between the babies they are carrying within them. What I have always loved about this story from scripture is that neither Mary nor Elizabeth probably fully understand what is going on within them. They both know that something strange and wonderful has happened. Mary, the young virgin, has conceived under mysterious and certainly scandalous circumstances and is about to give birth. And Elizabeth, the barren elderly woman, also is about to give birth. These sort of things don’t happen in ordinary life. Certainly nothing even remotely like this happened in the lives of these two simple Jewish women. But now, here they were, greeting each other, both of them pregnant with children that came to them by miraculous means. And, although they might not fully understand why or how, they feel real hope and joy at what has happened to them. The full expression of this hope and joy finds it voice in the words of Mary’s song—

“My soul glorifies the LORD
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In a sense, when we find ourselves relating to any of the people we meet in this Gospel reading, we may find ourselves relating more to Elizabeth. As Mary and the baby she carries draws near, there is a sense of joy and hope that comes not from some external place for Elizabeth, but from a place deep within her. It is a joy and hope that leaps up from her very womb—from the very center and core of her body and soul.

And so it should be with us also. As we come forward today, like Elizabeth, to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we are about to remember and commemorate and make ours this evening, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. But we can also find ourselves relating to Mary. Like Mary, we are called to carry within us Jesus. Wherever we go, we should bear Jesus within us. And like Mary, we should be able to rejoice as well, at this fact that Jesus dwells within us. We too should sing, in joy and hope:

“My soul glorifies the LORD
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Like both Mary and Elizabeth, this hope and joy we are experiencing this morning should be coming up from our very centers. This is really how we should approach the miracle that we commemorate this evening. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a dark stable in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded.

When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened. We find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—that anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are facing this morning.

Our true hope and joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory. Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he draws near, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother-and who dies like we all must die. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us.

This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful morning. This is why we are feeling within us a strange leaping. This is why we rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let the hope you feel today as Jesus our Savior draws close to us stay with you now and always. Let the joy you feel today as Jesus our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how you live your lives throughout this coming year.

Jesus is so near our very bodies and souls are rejoicing. Greet him with all that you have within you and welcome him into the shelter of your hearts. And sing to him with all your hearts,

“My soul glorifies in you, O Lord,
and my spirit truly rejoices in you, O God, my Savior.”


Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Requiem Eucharist for Rosemary Stillman

Rosemary Stillman(Oct. 25, 1922-Dec. 16, 2009)

St Stephen's Episcopal Church
December 19, 2009

Revelation 21.2-7; John 14.1-6
It struck me suddenly yesterday that next month, it will be ten years that I knew Rosemary Stillman. Ten years. Every month for ten years, I visited Rosemary, celebrated Holy Communion with her and shared with her her highs and her lows.

Ten years is a long time to know someone. And when one visits someone every month for a decade, one gets to know that person. I knew Rosemary very well. And she knew me very well. And in those ten years, as we would often reflected to one another, we went through some major highs and some major lows together.

All of us here today went through our own highs and lows with her. We journeyed alongside this very remarkable person—Rosemary Stillman. And she was remarkable. She was truly one in a million.

Now, I say this, but I do so acknowledging at the same time that Rosemary was no saint. And I know that where she is at this moment, she would be clear in letting me know that she would not want to be called a saint. Each month, without fail, when I visited her and we shared Holy Communion (which we celebrated from the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer—the one she was most familiar with), she would say, every time, in good times and bad, “I need forgiveness.” She understood and was fully aware of her failings and her shortcomings. And that awareness only endeared her all the more to me.

She was also a die-hard Episcopalian. That’s how I got to know her. Ten years ago next month, when I was doing my duty in Clinical Pastoral Education, in which I served as a Chaplain at MeritCare Hospital, I came to her room and was delighted by her exuberance and her pride in her Episcopalianism.

“Do you know the difference between an Episcopalian and Roman Catholic?” she asked. “Episcopalians are snooty, have money and like their drinks.”

Which is actually pretty true. Although I served at that time at Gethsemane Cathedral, Rosemary always refused to join. She liked being referred to (I called her this), a “proxy” member.

However, over a year ago, when I became Priest-in-Charge here at St. Stephen’s, she immediately requested that she become a member here. She actually had fond memories of St. Stephen’s. She visited this church with her beloved John shortly after the church was built in 1957 and would visit it often when she came back to Fargo.

Our relationship was definitely that of priest and parishioner. I heard her confessions (and she often heard mine). But we were also friends. She admitted her shortcomings, her frustrations both at herself and just about everyone else, and, with me, she allowed herself to relax, to be herself, to kick back a bit. Not that it was always easy. There were one or two times when I got angry at her, but they were very short-lived. She would invariably call me and apologize (which I knew was very hard for her to do), then she would crack a joke, we’d laugh and, like that, it was all over.

More importantly, as I knew her over these last ten years, just one year after her beloved John died on January 8, 1999, I also, like all of us here this morning, walked with her through those very difficult years of her life. Rosemary did not like coming back to Fargo. She did not like how the city of her girlhood had changed so drastically. She often felt trapped here. But she also knew that, despite her dislike of this city, here she was loved. She was loved by us—her friends and caregivers. And she was cared for. And, as she told us, we made her existence here more bearable.

As her priest, I can assure you of this: she had a deep and strong faith. Her faith sustained her, even in those moments when everything else seemed out of control and horrible for her. We often talked about the Cross. I would say to her: “Rosemary, you don’t have to bear this Cross alone.” And when it became too much for her, she would let it go, but not without some struggle.

She often was frustrated that her prayers were not answered the way she wanted them to be answered. Although she could control so much in her life, she couldn’t control God. During one very difficult moment not that long ago—when she was informed that she was going to lose her leg—she was particularly frustrated. But that afternoon, I shared with her a quote from the great Anglican theologian, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis wrote these words in the dark, horrendous days following his wife’s death by cancer in 1960. As he vented at God, demanding from God to know an explanation for the pain he was enduring, he came to this conclusion:

Lewis writes, “”When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer’. It is not the locked door. It more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze. As though He shook his head not in refusal but waving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”

Rosemary understood that quote and I think that, in the end, that is exactly the way she viewed her predicament. She didn’t understand, but she knew God did. Rosemary had no fear of death. She knew where she was going. She knew who was waiting for her there. And Rosemary knew, with her lack of fear in death, how true those words were that we heard earlier in this service from the book of Revelation.

“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”

Her issue was not death. Her issue was the fact that she was sick of mourning and crying and pain. And, on Wednesday morning, her mourning, her crying, her pain ended. For her, they truly were “no more”. For us, it’s not so much the case. All of here this afternoon know that we still have our share of mourning and crying and pain ahead of us. But, as usual, Rosemary is there to lead us the way forward. Rosemary shows us how to be strong in the face of those ugly things of life. She shows us still that yes, they do await us, but don’t fear them. Don’t let them win. Be strong. Hold your ground. And look like a million bucks while you’re doing it.

Rosemary often talked to me about this day. She oftentimes said she didn’t want a funeral. She only wanted me to take care of her ashes and to simply do something nice. But as I thought about it, I also remembered something else she said to me on a fairly regular basis. Rosemary often said, “If you can’t go first class, then don’t go at all.” And one thing Episcopalians can do is send someone off first class. So, here we are today, sending Rosemary off with the first class treatment.

I am going to miss Rosemary Stillman. I already do. Those first few months without visiting her are going to be hard. There will be mourning. There will be tears. There will be pain. But in the midst of what I will go through, I will try, as Rosemary did, to remember that one day it will all be done away with.

One day, it will be my time to go. And I know, as sure as anything, that my God in Christ will be there, my loved ones will be there. And I know that Rosemary will be there, waiting for me, greeting me in that way she did each month for those ten years. And if there are mimosa’s in that place (and I really hope there are—who knows, maybe that “gift from the spring of life” we heard about in Revelation today tastes somehow like mimosa’s), I am going to look forward to having one with her once again.

Jesus told Thomas in our Gospel reading for today, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” In other translation, we hear that word “dwelling places” replaced with “mansions.”

“ In my Father’s house there many mansions.”

What those mansions might look like, I have no idea. But what I do know is that whatever awaits us, it is beautiful and remarkable and better than anything we can hope for. And I do know that in that place, there is no mourning or crying or pain.

Yes, today we are sad. Today we feel the loss of Rosemary Stillman in our lives. But, despite these pains, we also have an abiding and overpowering faith. These negative things are temporary. The great and glorious things are eternal. They will never end. With Rosemary leading the way for us there, we know that it will be a remarkable experience. And we know that, with Rosemary there, it will be first class all the way.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

3 Advent

Gaudete Sunday
December 13, 2009

Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today we light our pink candle on the Advent wreath--the candle of joy. It’s so called because in our reading from Paul’s letter t the Philippians, we hear “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say rejoice” or in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: interum dico, gaudete.

As we draw closer and closer to Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy. It is a time to rejoice. It is a time to be anxious and excited over the fact that, in just a few weeks time, God will come to us.

Now, it’s easy for us to think about these things from our perspective. As Paul says today, ”the Lord is near” or, in Latin (since we’re on kind of a Latin bent this Gaudete Sunday) Dominus propus est. From where we stand—here and now—it’s easy to look at the coming of Jesus as a joyful thing. But, as I said last week in my sermon, when we pray that prayer, “Lord Jesus come quickly” what we are praying for is that Jesus will come. And when he does, this time, it will not be as a baby in a manger. It will be in glory and might.

The news we hear proclaiming loudest to us today in our readings about Jesus’ nearness is not the prophets, it is not Paul. It is John the Baptist.

OK. I’m going to admit something: I never really used to like John the Baptist. I know it sounds terrible. This revered saint has held such appeal for countless Christians over the ages. But to me, he seemed like such a minor character in the story of Jesus. And I’ll admit, to me he seemed to me kind of like a wild man, out there in the desert in his clothes made form animal hides, shouting about the coming of the Kingdom.

I never saw the appeal people both in John’s time and since saw in him. And he has had great appeal. He is greatly revered in the scriptures, in the early Church and in our own times.

But when I realized that essentially what he was doing—proclaiming the nearness of Jesus—it struck me one day that is what we are called to do as well. Like John, who tells people who ask him how to prepare, we too should respond: “with righteousness.”

If Jesus is truly near to us, why would we want to be caught stealing or abusing others or taking advantage of anyone? Why would we want to be caught at Jesus’ coming doing the exact opposite of what God expects of us?

When I realized that our role is like the role of John the Baptists, I found myself drawn to him. I found myself returning again and again to those scriptures about him and read those words he preached. As frightening as those words may be, there is such startling truth in them:

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These words speak loud and clear to us even now. We can hear those words and know: Jesus is near and so let us bear fruit.

We—Christians—bear fruit when we are joyful in our God. How can’t we? That joy that we carry within us fertilizes the good things we do. It motivates us. It compels us. It gives us purpose and meaning in our lives.

This is what Gaudete Sunday is all about—rejoicing. Living in joy. Letting joy reign supreme in us. As frightening and amazing as the nearness of Jesus might be, the emotion is must elicit in us, always, is joy.

I can never let Gaudete Sunday pass without referencing Fr. Alfred Delp. You’ve heard me talk about Fr. Delp in the past. Delp was a German Jesuit priest who, in February, 1945, was killed by the Nazis. On Gaudete Sunday, 1944, while he was in prison awaiting his uncertain future, Fr. Delp wrote these words about a Christian full of joy (and remember as you hear these words—they were written by a priest in prison who is about the executed for standing up to the evil he saw in his world):

“Only a person like this will be capable breathing deeply, and life and the world will not refuse him. They will give all that they rightly have to give, because it is demanded with the sovereign goods of divine jurisdiction, which have been put at his disposal. He will feel the eternal brilliance of creation again, regarding it reverently and protectively. He will award things this intrinsic brilliance again because his mind and heart, his hands and works, have the creative gift and strength to pass the test. And such a person becomes one of great joy—the great joy that he lives and experiences, as well as gives and enkindles in others. Gaudete!”

Let Gaudete be more than just what we say we do one Sunday a year. Let it be our way of life as we await Jesus’ presence coming to us. The Lord is near! Let our joy flow up from within us and burn in our lives with a radiant flame. And when we do we will find that we too have “the creative gift and strength to past the test.” We too, at Jesus’ coming, will be bearing good fruits

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2 Advent

December 6, 2009

Luke 3.1-6

In this morning’s Gospel, we are faced with the formidable figure of John the Baptist. The impression we get from Luke is of someone we probably wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He comes across to us through the ages as a man crazed. Certainly it would be difficult for any of us to take the words of a man like this seriously. Especially when he’s saying things like, “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Somehow, in the way John the Baptist proclaims it, this is not so much hopeful as frightening. It is a message that startles us and jolts us at our very core.

But this is the true message of Advent. Like John the Baptist and those who eagerly awaited the Messiah, this time of waiting was almost painful. When we look at it from that perspective, we see that maybe John isn’t being quite as difficult and windy as we initially thought. Rather his message is one of almost excruciating expectation.

One of my favorite books of recent years is called The Forgotten Desert Mothers. Last week I referenced a book about St. Antony of Egypt. Both of these books are about those early Christians who tended to take the words we heard this morning from the Baptist as literally as they could. These desert mothers and fathers have a lot to teach us. Like, us, they lived in an age of uncertainty. Many had suffered dearly during the persecutions against Christians. Others had previously been pagans who lived lives of excess. It was a time when nothing in the world seemed too stable. Governments gave way to stronger governments. Differing religions battled each other for what each perceived to be “the truth.” And so too did many Christians. It sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In the face of all of this uncertainty, these men and women heard the call of the Baptist. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

In response they did something we might find unusual. We, as modern Christians, are taught that we must not only live out our faith, but also, in some way, must proclaim our faith to those around us. We take seriously the command to go out into the world and proclaim what we believe. Certainly that is what we will do this morning when we recite the creed. It is what we do when we go out to feed the hungry or to tend the sick. We do it when we reach out to others in the name of Christ.

These early Christians, however, did the exact opposite. They retreated from society and went off to the desert, in this case usually the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. Oftentimes, coming from wealthy homes and positions of authority, they sold it all, gave the money to the poor and went off to live alone. And we’re not talking about a few individuals here. We’re talking about people leaving in droves. The deserts were literally populated with men and women who tried to leave it all behind. More often than not, they formed loosely-organized communities, usually around a church, in which they lived and prayed alone for most of the time, only coming together to pray the Psalms or celebrate Eucharist. Their lives in the desert weren’t, as you can imagine, comfortable lives by any means. Some walled themselves up in abandoned tombs. Others lived in caves. One went so far as to crawl stop a tall pillar and live there for years on end, exposed to the elements.

Even then they couldn’t completely escape what they left behind. Many of the stories tell of these poor souls being tormented by demons and temptations. It’s not hard to imagine that, yes, alone in a dark tomb or cave, one would be forced to face all the darkest recesses of one’s soul. Part of the process of separating one’s self from the world involved finally wrestling with all those issues one carries into the desert.

Few of us in this day and age would view this kind of existence as the ideal Christian life. In fact, most of would probably look on it as a sort of insanity. But at the time, in that place, people began to see this as the ideal. People, I imagine, were tired of the day-to-day grind of working, slaving, fending for themselves in a sometimes unfriendly society. They felt distant from God and they were not able to find God in the society in which they lived.

The idea of going off and being alone with God was very appealing. Of course, even this seemingly simple and pure way of living was soon tarnished by another form excess. Some of the people who went off to live in the desert were simply mentally unsound to begin with. Others went insane after years of living alone in a tomb or a cave. They abused their bodies, sometimes to the point of death, by whipping themselves, by chaining themselves to walls, by not taking care of themselves physically, or simply starving themselves to a point close to death. Some even went so far as castrating themselves for the kingdom of heaven.

But despite these abuses, the message of the desert mothers and fathers to us is still a valid one. The whole reason they went off like they did was to shed everything that separated them from their waiting for God. They sought to make their very lives a living Advent. They were waiting expectantly and anxiously for Christ. And by mortifying themselves, by chastising their bodies and fasting, they would be prepared for his coming again. Although I hope no one here is called to a life quite that extreme, I think their message speaks to us clearly in these days before Christmas.

We should find ways to prepare for the Incarnate God’s coming to us.

If you noticed as you came to church today the message James put on our outdoor sign. The prayer James put out there is

Lord Jesus quickly come

It is, of course, an homage to the beautiful motet by the late, great church composer Paul Manz, who died in October.

But it is also the perfect summation of this Advent season.

Lord Jesus, quickly come.

It is the prayer we should all be praying as we prepare the way of the of the Lord. It should bb the prayer that is on our lips constantly in these days before Christmas.

This past week, Joanne Droppers lent me one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in some time. The book is Exiles by Ron Hansen. I have long been a fan of Hansen, every since I read his exceptionally beautiful novel Mariette in Ecstasy.

In Exiles, Hansen examines, in his fiction, the story of the great poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. More importantly what he examines is the incident behind Hopkin’s most famous poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

On this day—December 6—in 1875, a German passenger steamer, The Deutschland, on its way from Bremerhaven to New York, ran aground in a blizzard on a sandy shoal in the Thames estuary near Harwich, England. After several hours of being trapped there, early on the morning of December 7 the ship began to take on water and the captain order the ship to be abandoned. The passengers panicked and people began falling into the freezing water. Among the several hundred who died were five Franciscan nuns who were fleeing the anti-Catholic sentiments that were sweeping Germany at the time. All five died. But as they floundered in the water, they were heard crying out one prayer. As Hopkins puts it in his poem:

“And they the prey of the gales;
She the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.”

Whether we look at our Advent as a desert or as the freezing waters that rise about us to overwhelm us, the fact is, this is our time to cry out as that sister did in those freezing waters.

Both places are frightening. John’s wilderness if frightening. And at times, these moment sof expectation are frightening. But, still, even in these frightening moments, we can still give voice to that for whom we long:

Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

In it, we find our hope and our longing articulated. We find that we can now see the goal for which we are working. We can look into the gloom, into the frightening future and see that all is not lost. He is coming. And he is racing to us. And the speed with which he comes to us may even frighten us as well. Or maybe, it is simply that we are excited and overjoyed by it.

He is coming to us. And when he does, truly “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” in our midst.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Open House for new book

Please join
as they celebrate the publication of their new book

This Grass

Poems by Jamie Parsley Paintings by Gin Templeton

Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing.

There will also be displays of paintings and poems, music and appetizers.

When: 7:00 to 9:00 PM
Monday, December 14, 2009

Where: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
120 21 Ave. N. Fargo

This Grass: Poems by Jamie Parsley, paintings by Gin Templeton.
ISBN 978-0-615-33346-5

For information, please contact Jamie at or Gin at or at

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