Sunday, June 27, 2010

5 Pentecost

June 27, 2010

Luke 9:51-62

+ Let the dead bury their own dead.

What an unusual statement. It almost boggles the mind when you think about it. And yet….there is beautifully poetry in that phrase. And 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 mean by this reference?

In our culture—in our world we embalm or cremate our dead, we care for our dead and dispose of their bodies in a fairly quick but respectful manner. WE bury our dead. The case was not so for Jews in Jesus’ day.

Yes, they also buried their dead, but not the same way we do. 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 that culture is that when a person died, they were anointed, wrapped in a cloth shroud and placed in a tomb. This tomb was actually a temporary interment. They were probably placed on a shelf near the entrance of the tomb. About a year or so after their death, the family gathered for another service at which the tomb was re-opened. By that time, the body would 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.

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. 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 just says, not now.

Whatever the case, the son is being given a choice and he is choosing to first bury his father’s bones and then follow Jesus. In a sense, he is choosing the dead and dried bones of his father over 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.” But the man can not break that attachment, either to the bones or to his duty to his dead father.

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? 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.

As some of you know my computer was attacked by a particular ferocious virus in April. There was a moment when I thought I was going to lose everything on my computer. I quickly found myself going into despair mode. To some extent, it was easy for me to say that my life in so many ways revolved around the files I had on that computer. My manuscripts (including the manuscript of the new book which is being published this year), my sermons, my poems, not to mention files and files of photos of family and friends were, I thought, lost for good. I was sick to my stomach with frustration and sadness over the thought of losing all of those things. I raged, I kicked the door, I pleaded with God, I pounded my chest with mea culpas. I tried to exorcise the little Lamisil-like demons that I imagined had possessed my computer. I felt miserable.
I couldn’t stop thinking, for a while anyway, what it would be like if I lost everything on that computer.

I was reminded of this feeling of grief and frustration as I was flying back from the Provincial meeting in Des Moines yesterday. At the Province VI Synod meeting, there was a wonderful speaker, a self-described “very orthodox Lutheran theologian” by the name of Nadia Bolz-Webber. She is the pastor of this incredibly cutting-edge, cool, Emergent congregation in Denver, Colorado, called the House for All Sinners and Saints. This church is described, according to their website as:

“…a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination.”

I love that!

Nadia—who is 41, tall and thin, with dark hair—appeared on Thursday night in a sleeve-less black clerical shirt with a band collar and both bare arms covered in tattoos. My first thought when I saw her was: “This is the coolest priest I have ever seen in my life!” And at a meeting in which none of the clergy—even the Bishops—wore collars, it was refreshing to know that the only other person besides myself wearing a collar was this uber-cool Lutheran pastor.

Nadia proceeded, during the time she was with us, to blow us all away with her message of how the Church must become and stay relevant to those in our midst. I, of course, had to pick up her book: Salvation on the Small Screen: 24 Hours of Christian Television, a book in which she hilariously confronts the televangelists of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

While she was doing research on the book, which involved essentially involved recording and watching 24 hours of broadcasting from TBN on her DVR, she had the unbelievable happen to her. The hard drive on her DVR crashed. She writes of this crash:

“[It] died. As in gone. Poof. Nothing. If you had come to my house that day you would have found me crying like a spanked child. After K├╝bler-Rossing my way through the stages of grief, denying the recording was gone, magically thinking maybe it been erased due to a buildup of unconfessed sin on my part and pleading with the cable company, my editor suggested that maybe I should just do it again.”

As I read that yesterday on the airplane home, I sympathized completely with her. That’s exactly how I felt when that stupid virus attacked my computer. I went through every one of those stages of grief in those days afterward before I finally took the computer into Best Buy and had the Geek Squad clean it up and deliver it (and all my backed up files) back to me. There was a moment of joy when I realized that I lost none of my files. Everything was saved. Only later did I realize that essentially these files were really my own “bones.”

And although, yes, my computer is fixed and I have restored some of those backed up files, I also have not restored all of them. In fact, I haven’t restored most of them. I realized that most of my backed-up files are just files I don’t need anymore. And even if I had lost all the files, my life wouldn’t have ended. The kingdom of God would still be proclaimed. And my faith in God, my following of Jesus and my striving to love and serve others wouldn’t change either just because I lost those files. In this case, I could’ve let these dead bury their own dead.

So, in a sense, we find ourselves confronted with that very important question: what are you attached to? What attachments do you have in your life? What are the “bones” of your life? What are the attachments in your life that cause you to look for excuses for not following Jesus and serving others? What things in your life prevent you 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 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. 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. 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 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. We are proclaiming that Kingdom and making it a reality in our midst. Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

4 Pentecost

June 20, 2010

Luke 8.26-39

+ I’m sure I have mentioned as some point one of my favorite movies of all time. It was a movie that, when it came out on Christmas 1973, was quite the sensation. Even as young as I was when it came out, I remember people talking about it. I remember that even my grandmother read the book the movie was based on. My parents went to the movie and I remember my mother talking about it—how frightening it was. The movie (and the book) is, of course, The Exorcist.

What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that there is an actual true story behind the novel and the movie. Back in 1949, a young Lutheran boy in the Washington DC suburb of Georgetown, was supposedly possessed by a cluster of demons. Over a period of several months, a group of Roman Catholic Jesuits priests (and possibly an Episcopal priest as well), worked to drive these demons from, which they did. The story was reworked and made into the novel by William Peter Blatty, which was then made into the blockbuster film.

But the really amazing aspect of story in the novel and the movie is the fact that the turning comes when the story we hear in this morning’s Gospel is used. In the book and movie, the young priest, Fr. Damien Karras, is frustrated by the fact that he and the older priest, Fr. Merrin, cannot cast the demons out. Finally, remembering this Gospel story, Fr. Karras, calls the demons into himself, much as Jesus casts the demons into the herd of pigs. Fr Karras then flings himself out the window and down a long flight of stairs. He frees the girl, but dies, of course, in the process.

Although many people condemned this movie as violent and dark and satanic, the book and movie ultimately have an incredible Christian message that speaks very potently even now. I can’t hear this Gospel reading without thinking of that climactic scene from the movie.

Now, whether we believe in actual demons or nor not, whether we believe in possession or not, what we all must believe in is the presence of evil in this world. Whether that evil is natural or supernatural, the fact is, there is evil. And those of who are Christian have promised that we must turn away from evil again and again. Whenever we are confronted with evil, we must resist it. Or, as we find 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?”


“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 or homophobia, or even by contributing to various forms of violence, we, as followers of Jesus, must stand up against evil and say no to it.

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 to do. It is not easy to look long and hard at the evil that exists in the world, and in our very midst. And it is definitely not easy to look long and hard at the evil we may harbor within ourselves. .

But, even in those moments, when evil is not something outside ourselves but something within us, we know that ultimately, it too can be defeated. It too can be cast away. It too can be sent reeling from us.

The story of Jesus is clear: good always defeats evil ultimately. Even in those moments when evil seems to triumph, we know that those moments of triumph are always short-lived. Good will always defeat evil ultimately.

Yes, we find the premise 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 Christians, 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 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, we cannot be Christians anymore. 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 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.

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

So, let us do just that. Let us proclaim all that Jesus has done for us. Let us choose good and resist evil. Let us cast off those dark forces that kill 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 love and joy and hope.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

3 Pentecost

June 13, 2010

Luke 7.36-8.3

+ Each Sunday as we gather here together, we use that little red book in our pews. The Book of Common Prayer is a book we take for granted for the most part. We think of it as nice little quaint book which contains our worship services. But the book actually contains more than just our Sunday Eucharist and a few prayers.

One part of the Prayer Book most of us probably have never even ventured to look at is found on page 447. The service for “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” is a service very few of us here this morning has probably taken advantage of. But it is an important service and it is one that certainly deserves our attention, even if we have no desire to take advantage of that service. And it’s nice to take a look at it at a time other than Lent, when we are almost overwhelmed with talk of sin and forgiveness.

The service of Reconciliation is service in which a person seeking to ask forgiveness of whatever shortcomings they have goes to a priest (and in the Episcopal Church only a priest can grant absolution) and having prayerfully and thoughtfully shared these sins, received words of comfort and counsel and then is given absolution by the priest. It really is just like Confession is in the Roman Catholic Church, though for us we don’t go into a little cubicle and whisper our sins through a screen to a priest.

So, on those occasions when we describe the Episcopal Church as “Catholic lite,” and we get the inevitable question of whether or not we have “Confession,” we can say yes, we do, but then quickly add that it’s not a requirement.

I think few of us want to take advantage of this service, but, occasionally, we sometimes do find the need. And, as I said, it is not a requirement for any of us, though it is a very vital and, at times, helpful service Not a lot of people know that I take advantage of it on a fairly regular basis.

I go every few months to an Episcopal priest I know who is my confessor. Although I usually go dragging my heels a bit, I feel good once I have done it. I come away from Confession feeling better. There really is something very positive and good about being open and honest about one’s shortcomings, about sharing those shortcomings with someone else, about getting some practical and helpful council and advice and then hearing from that person that I am forgiven for the wrongs I have done.

When I was in seminary I read two books on confession. One was a book for priests who would serve as confessors. It was the classic text for Anglicans entitled A Manual for Confessors by “the Honorable Canon of Birmingham” Francis George Belton, originally published in 1916.

The other was more modern and much more helpful for all people (not just priests) seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The book is called Reconciliation: Preparing for Confession in the Episcopal Church, by Martin L. Smith, a priest and former member of the Episcopal order of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

Both of these books discuss in detail what we find summarized on page 446 in our Prayer Book:

The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others, through the common prayer of Christians assembled for public worship, and through the priesthood of Christ and his ministers declaring absolution.

So, as we’ve just heard, we realize that Confession is not something the Church and bunch of male priests invented. It was something commended to us by Jesus, who knew full well how important it was for us to confess and to hear the words of forgiveness.

As most of you know, Friday was the 6th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. Before I was ordained, I went on retreat and I made a point of taking advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was good for me to shed some of the failings I had done during my training, to ask forgiveness for some of the resentments I had felt for others during that often very difficult time and to head into my new life as a priest feeling renewed.

As a priest, one of most important responsibilities has been to be a confessor. On that night that I was ordained, as part of the ordination service, the Bishop declared to me that among my responsibilities as a priest was “to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners…” And in these years since, my responsibly as confessor has been an important and consistent one. I have heard more confessions and granted more absolution than I can count. I have heard confessions not just here in church, but at restaurants, in bars, in hospitals, on airplanes from absolute strangers (which has made me wary of wearing my clericals on the plane when I fly), in cars on long trips.

In all these situations—whether I am seeking out Confession in my own personal life or whether I am being a confessor to someone else—what I have discovered again and again is how important it is for us to hear those words of forgiveness It is important of us, at times, when we have failed in our relationships—either with God or with one another—to be like the penitent women in our Gospel reading for today. It is good for us to humble ourselves, to kneel down and to seek pardon and forgiveness. And in those moments, we NEED to hear those words of forgiveness.

In the Prayer Book, those words of forgiveness are described as “Absolution” and there are a few different forms given in the Rite for Reconciliation. One goes like this:

The Priest, laying hands upon the penitent’s head says:

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Those are important words to hear. Having both given absolution and having received absolution, I can say that it is a truly powerful experience. There is a sense of a weight being lifted. There is a sense that something which was bound up has been loosened and released. To hear those words of pardon and forgiveness are important to us because we sometimes do need to hear that we are forgiven. Without those words of forgiveness, we continue on in our self-pitying and our self-loathing. Those words of pardon and absolution restore us. They help us rise above the wrongs we have done so we can live fully and completely.

When we hear Jesus say to that penitent woman in today’s Gospel, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” we can almost feel a weight being lifted from her. Whatever shortcomings that woman brought with her into that place, we know are gone from her as she leaves. This is the power of confession.

At the end of “Form Two” in the Prayer Book, the service is concluded when the priest, echoing this very Gospel reading, says,

“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”

To which the penitent replies, “Thanks be to God.”

Those are words that cause us to continue on, despite the things we have done. The forgiveness of our sins transforms us and changes us. It frees us from whatever might hold us down.

So, let us together strive, when we have done wrong, to seek those words of forgiveness. Some of us might actually wish to seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation as found in the Book of Common Prayer. I encourage you to do so. It is good to have a regular confessor—to take time to confess your faults and failings to some one. It is good psychologically and it is good spiritually. Certainly I am always available for this service, but any priest will do. Any priest can grant absolution and forgiveness.

But more importantly, let us all carry those words of forgiveness from Jesus close to our hearts when we do fail and we do fall short in our relationships. Let us humble ourselves, but let’s not despair in those moments. Let us come before Jesus and seek that forgiveness that lifts us up from our tears. Let us unloose from within us whatever is holding us captive so that we may be truly free to love God and love others with no regrets, no recriminations, no undue guilt.

Jesus’ words to us are “go in peace.” That peace we find in this forgiveness is truly a liberating peace. It is a peace that destroys not only what others do to us, but we do to ourselves and to others, which sometimes can be much worse. That peace we find in reconciliation truly does liberate.

So, let us take the peace offered to us by Jesus and go forth in that peace. And doing so, let us rejoice in the freedom that peace gives us. Amen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Burial Office for Greg Craychee

Greg Craychee
(December 23, 1947 – June 6, 2010)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Micah 6.6-8; John 11.21-27

+ I, like everyone here this morning, was shocked when I heard the news about Greg. When Harriet Blow, Greg’s dear friend, called me early Sunday evening to tell me that Greg had died probably earlier that morning, I was blown away. I admit that I did think twice about the fact that Greg wasn’t in church on Sunday morning. He was scheduled to be acolyte on Sunday. But oftentimes, if he was “on-call” at Korsmo, I understood he might not be able to make it in. Though, it was a bit strange that he didn’t call and let me know. But I just kind of shrugged it off.

Still, it is hard for us to face the fact that we have lost a truly good man. And Greg was a good man. Anyone who knew him, even slightly, knew he was good.

Now I say this know full well that if Greg were here this morning (and he is here with us this morning—in spirit), he would no doubt shake his head in that kind of shy way of his and would, in his sort of flustered way, protest my saying he was good. And, when I say he was good, I certainly don’t mean he was a saint, or that he was perfect. He, like any of us, was not perfect. He had his shortcomings, he had his eccentricities, he no doubt had personal emotional and person baggage just like the rest of us do. But I will continue to maintain that was a truly good man.

Often his goodness was not something we saw on the surface. It wasn’t something he readily advertised.

The great Poet Laureate of England, John Betjeman, was once described as “a good Christian man doing good deeds by stealth.”

Those same words could very well have been used for Greg Craychee. Greg did his good deeds mostly by stealth. He helped people in any way he could. Some of those good deeds we know about, some of those good deeds few of know about. Some of those good deeds only God knows about.

As his priest—as someone who knew him fairly well—I can say that he was honestly good. He cared for others. He served others. He had a compassionate and tender and caring side to him. But everything he did, he in a very humble way.

Our reading this morning from the book of Micah truly does reflect Greg Craychee in many ways.

“What does the Lord require of you?” we hear the Prophet Micah ask.
“To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

That was Greg. He did justice. He loved kindness. And he quietly and humbly served his God and his fellow brothers and sisters. And he did so without complaint. Every Sunday, I saw Greg in church—always ready to help, always ready to serve. And the loss of someone like Greg is felt widely. Most everyone here this morning, no doubt, feels that loss in various ways and we will be feeling the effects of that loss for a long time to come.

But today, what we can take away from Greg’s life, is another gift Greg leaves us in a stealthy kind of way. Greg leaves the example of his good deeds and of his strong faith. He was a faithful man. His faith was important to him. This church was important to him. And although he didn’t preach or proselytize or try to convert people—he was a good Episcopalian after all—I can take a pretty good guess at what he believed. .

I can’t tell you how many times I am asked by non-Episcopalians: so what is it you Episcopalians believe? I always respond by saying: If you want to know what we believe, come to our services. In a very real sense, what we believe—and what Greg believed— is best expressed in how we worship—in the words and actions of our liturgy.

We Episcopalians hold our liturgy dear. While other churches hold fast to their confessions, to their dogmas, we Episcopalians have a very simple standard of faith. If anyone wants to know what we as Episcopalians believe, you need look no further than our Prayer of Common Prayer Book, from which our service today comes. . We truly do believe as we worship. And so, on this day when we are still reeling from the shock of Greg’s passing from us, we do gather here together—in this place that was near and dear to Greg and his life. And we find our consolation in the words of this service and in the scriptures.

The words of this funeral service are not light words. They really do give voice to what it is we believe as Christians. And they give voice, no doubt, to what Greg believed as a Christian regarding what awaited him as he left us on Sunday morning.

At the beginning of this service we heard those wonderful words that have been said at the beginning of every Anglican funeral service since the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.

“I am resurrection and I am life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in my shall have life,
Even though they die.”

Those words, of course, we heard twice this morning. We also heard them in our Gospel reading from John. But those words of Jesus are not light words either. They are words that sustain us and hold us in moments when life doesn’t make sense and death does seems overwhelming. In those moments, Jesus truly does stand before us as the true conqueror of death and the bearer of unending life. They were words that Greg had faith in. He believed those words of Jesus in his life. And this is the same faith he clung to. It is this faith that has been fulfilled for him in ways too incredible for us to even comprehend at this moment. Greg knew this faith in his own life and we too can cling to it in a time like this.

In just a few moments, we will stand and sing a beautiful hymn—the “Song of Farewell.” We will sing these words:

“Come to his aid, O saints of God
Come meet him, angels of the Lord,
Receive his soul, O Holy Ones
Present him to God on high.”

We believe those word. We believe that on Sunday morning, the saints of God did come to Greg’s aid. On Sunday, the angels of the Lord did come to meet him. On Sunday, his soul was presented before God on high. One day we too will be received there as well. One day, we too will experience that wonderful place of unending light.

And at the end of this service, I will stand at Greg’s casket and I will say these words:
“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
And we, at the end of this service, will do just that. We will go out from here not weeping in sorrow. Rather, we will go out on a high note. We will go out singing that glorious hymn, “Jesus Christ is risen today.” We will go forth from here with that word of victory—“Alleluia”—fresh on our lips and ringing in our ears.

So, what is it we believe about these end of life issues? It’s all right here in our service. It’s all right here in what we pray and sing and celebrate.

So this morning and in the days to come, we can all truly take consolation in that faith that Greg held so dear. We can cling to the fact that, in this moment, Greg is truly and wonderfully taken care of. He is complete and whole at this very moment and for every moment to come from this time on. Let us go forth, singing our alleluias, rejoicing as Greg at this moment is rejoicing. Let us take consolation in that unending place of light to which he has been received by saints and angels. And let us be glad that one day we too will be there as well, sharing with him in that joy that will never end.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

2 Pentecost

June 6, 2010

Psalm 30; Luke 7. 11-17

+ You’ve heard me talk many times before about the so-called “Emergent Church” movement. This is the movement in the Church that deals with a new way of looking at Christianity—a different, more “modern” way that actually looks back at the beginning and tries to fuse modern ways with ancient ways. This is the movement that has been popularized by such leaders as Brian MacLaren (of Generous Orthodoxy fame) and Phyllis Tickle (of The Great Emergence fame).

Every month I am reading one or two new books from the Emergent Church and each book really does challenge and amaze me. What I have come to love about the Emergent Church movement is its ability to give voice to people like me—so-called Progressive or Liberal Christians who also want deep spirituality. As one of my clergy friends who identifies himself as an “emergent Christian” says of himself: “I am a liberal who loves Jesus. I believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection wholeheartedly, but I also believe that women, gays and everyone else has a full and equal place in the Church.”

It is a refreshing movement for those us wearied by the in0fighting and wrangling going on the Church. It is providing us a way forward through all the religious-political muck.

One of the best summations of the Emergent Church movement has been the “Phoenix Affirmations.” Not a lot of people know about these wonderful statements, but if you don’t, I encourage you to learn more about them. The Phoenix Affirmations were published as a book in 2006 by a UCC pastor from Flagstaff, Arizona by the name Eric Elnes. They are a series of 12 Affirmations that essentially summarize how the Church is changing. For example, Affirmation 5 is stated this way:

“As Christians, we welcome persons of every race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental ability, nationality and economic class into full life of our community.”

That doesn’t sound too radical for us here at St. Stephen’s. I think we all strive to do this here. But, the affirmation goes on:

“We affirm the Path of Jesus is found where Christ’s followers uplift and celebrate the worth and integrity of all people as created in God’s very image and likeness.”

Sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? It sounds quite a bit like our Baptismal Covenant in which we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” But the affirmation goes even one step further:

“We further affirm that Christ’s path includes treating all people authentically rather than as mere categories or classes, challenging and inspiring all people to live according to their high identity.”

In other words, to be a Christian means that we more often than not, have to move outside our comfort zones in following Jesus.

In our Gospel reading for today, we experience one of those instances in which Jesus shows us that following him means stepping outside the comfort zones we in which we live. The story of the widow and her son makes very little sense unless we have some basic understanding of the culture in which it occurred. From our perspective, it is a sad story in and of itself. A widow has lost her son. She is weeping. Jesus tells her not to sorrow and raises him from the dead.

But there is more going on here than what we might fully appreciate at first . The fact that the woman is a widow is an important factor in the story. Women, in that time and that place—in that culture—were not seen as equal to men. A woman’s identity was not her own. The only importance a woman had was in relation to the males in her life—whether it be her father, her husband, her brother, or her son. A woman could not make money for her self. A woman could not work for money. Whatever money she had she received from the men in her life. A woman legally had no status in that culture. So, if a husband died, a widow was in trouble. Unless there was another man to take care of her—her son, her brother, her husband’s brother, her father, a new husband—she became destitute.

That is why this story is so important. That is why Jesus makes the issues he does here. With the death of this widow’s son, she would be lost in a sense. She would have nothing. She would probably be out on the street, begging for money.

Often we hear in the Church poetic language used about Jesus. We often hear him described as “the defender of widows.” It’s a phrase we don’t hear much anymore. It doesn’t have the same meaning for us as it did in other times and places. And because it doesn’t have much meaning for us, for the most part, we don’t give a statement like that much thought. But knowing what we know now, we realize how powerful a statement it really is.

“A defender of widows”

Jesus truly was—and continues to be—the widow’s refuge. Of course, in our day and age, widows for the most part are not by any means in the same predicaments as the woman in today’s Gospel is. Widows—women for the most part—are not seen as marginalized by our culture anymore.

Yes, there still is an unfairness in our culture—especially in business and elsewhere, but women, for the most part, have been able to be viewed on the same level as men. Women over the last fifty or a hundred years, have been doing a great job of standing up and demanding equal rights.

But the question needs to be asked: who are the widows in our midst today? I’m not talking here about those who have lost husband and wives, because that is not the real meaning behind the story of the widow in our Gospel this morning. The widows in our lives are those living on the fringes. The widows in our lives are the ones who wandering about, discarded by our culture, looked down on by most of us, the ones who are shunned and ostracized. So, who are the widows? Who are marginalized? Who are the ones on the fringes of our culture? Who are the ones on the fringes of our own community here at St. Stephen’s?

Because it is those people that Jesus is telling us, by his actions and by his words, to care for. It is those people our Baptismal Covenant demands we reach out and care for. It is those people that Jesus commands us—he commands it of us—to love, as we want to be loved. If we look around us, we might not readily see them.

In Jesus’ day it was easier to see them. There was the widow, the leper, the Samaritan, the tax collector. Today, they go by other names. You know what names they go by for you. Take a moment to think of who the marginalized person is in your midst.

The best way to find this person is to ask this question of yourself: who is the person I want least as my neighbor? Who is the person I don’t want living next to me or sitting next to me or sharing my table? That then becomes the marginalized person in our midst. And that is the person Jesus is telling us, throughout the Gospels again and again, to love as we would want to be loved. And this is the point we can take with us as well.

Today’s Gospel is really a beautiful one. Jesus has raised this widow’s son and, in doing so, he helps not only the son by giving him back life, he helps the widow as well by giving her life—or a biter life—as well. This is what happens when we follow Jesus. He pushes us outside our comfort zones and as he does, as frightening as it might seem to us, he gives us life as well. We might stand there, bewildered, in that uncomfortable place. But we stand there renewed as well.

Eric Elnes, in the Phoenix Affirmations book, writes:

“If Christian history teaches us anything, it demonstrates that it takes three things to move out of our comfort zone: a cross, an empty tomb and the will to follow Jesus through both.”

Following Jesus is constant series of being pushed outside our comfort zone. It is constant series of being comforted with the cross and the empty tomb—again and again. Like the young man in today’s Gospel, hopefully we emerged from our spiritual deaths able to make a positive difference in people’s lives around us. Hopefully we, in those moments in which Jesus healed us and sent us on our way, are able to be a “widow’s refuge” to the “widows” in our midst.

Elnes writes elsewhere in his book:

“To walk with Jesus on the other side of the cross is to enter a realm where transformative love works miracles…for slaves held in bondage, for women held in subordination, for divorcees prohibited from remarrying, for racial minorities excluded from a white world, and for gays and lesbians blocked from full participation in the straight world [and, I would add, from the Church]. In short, it is a realm where love works miracles for the dardnest people—including you and me.”

The message of today’s Gospel is not clear at first, but it becomes clear when we place it alongside our lives. The message of today’s Gospel is this: Listen to the voice of Jesus. It saying to you, “be the widow’s refuge in your life.” Look long and hard for the widows in your life this day and this coming week. Recognize those people who are lost, afraid, struggling because their support is gone. Look for those who are drifting, out there on the fringes. Search out that person you never in a million years would never want as a neighbor. Reach out with love and compassion for those who are snubbed and mistreated by the society in which we all live.

Avoid the snubbing and the mistreatment of others in your own life. Like Jesus, be the refuge and defender for that marginalized person. Jesus raised you up, like the young man in today’s Gospel, from the shrouds and the decay of death. Go forth from your grave, singing the words of the psalm we shared today:

“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

And in living, in dancing, in that all-encompassing joy, be the refuge and defender for someone who needs you.

Friday, June 4, 2010

3 new poems in the latest issue of Danse Macabre


Three poems from my upcoming book, Fargo, 1957 were just published in the latest issue of Danse Macabre.
Fargo, 1957 is the book of poems about the June 20, 1957 tornado that struck Fargo which is currently in production at the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University. It should be published later this year

Take a look:

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