Sunday, September 26, 2010

18 Pentecost

September 26, 2010

Luke 16.19-31

+ I don’t know about you, but I think we need to put a moratorium on funerals here at St,. Stephen’s. In the past week and a half, we have had four, which is a record in the fifty four year history of St. Stephen’s. Two weeks ago, when I last stood here, on Dedication Sunday September 12 (which seems to me like a million years ago), I had spent the entire night on “death watch” with Florence Anderson and her family who died early that morning. Of course the following Tuesday, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. Then, of course, Ruth Stickney passed away on Friday September 17. Then, Marlys Lundberg’s son, Tracy Ford, died very suddenly on Monday, September 20.

Of course, in the midst of all of that, James Mackay’s uncle, Hale Laybourn, died. Hale, of course, was also a former member of this congregation. Now to just put it all in perspective: On October 1, it will be exactly two years since I became Priest-in-Charge of St. Stephen’s.

In the two years I’ve been here, I have presided over 24 burials. My predecessor, Liz Powers, who was here four years, presided at two funerals. In fact, none of my predecessors have done as many funerals in their tenure as I have, even Sandi Holmberg in her fifteen years here. Now, before we begin to despair about that fact and think the walls of St. Stephen’s are crumbling around us or that Rapture has taken place, it’s important to remember that only five of those 24 were members of St. Stephen’s—and two of them were members you inherited when you got me. The majority were friends and family of parishioners, as well as people who had no other clergy person to preside at their services.

And it’s also good to remember, lest we begin to despair, that in that same two year period, we have had seven baptisms (again the most in a two years period since the 1960s) and seven weddings (remembering the fact that there had not been a wedding from St. Stephen’s since 1996)—and one of those weddings was last night.

The point in all of this is the simple fact that sometimes, by the world’s standards, what might seem to be a desolate situation is not. I think we see this most profoundly in our Gospel reading for today. I love the parable we heard today because there’s so much good stuff, right under the surface of it. In it, we find Lazarus. It’s the only time in Jesus’ parables that we find someone given a name—and the name, nonetheless, of one of Jesus’ dearest friends. In most of Jesus’ parables, the main character is simply referred to as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. But here we have Lazarus. And the name actually carries some meaning. It means “God has helped me.”

Now the “rich man” in this story is not given a name by Jesus, but tradition has given him the name Dives, or “Rich Man” Between these two characters we see such a juxtaposition. We have the worldly man who loves his possessions and is defined by what we owns. And we have Lazarus, who seems to get sicker and is hungry all the time. In fact, his name almost seems like a cruel joke. It doesn’t seem like God has helped Lazarus at all. The Rich Man sees Lazarus, is aware of Lazarus, but despite his wealth, despite all he has, despite, even his apparent happiness in his life, we can not even deign to give to poor Lazarus a scrap of food from all that he has.

Traditionally of course, we have seen them as a very fat Rich Man, in fine clothing and a haughty look and a skinny, wasted Lazarus, covered in sores, which I think must be fairly accurate to what Jesus hoped to convey. But there are some subtle undercurrents to this story. Lazarus is not without friends or mercy in his life. In fact, is seems that maybe God is helping him. He is not quite the destitute person we think he is. First of all, we find him laid out by the Rich Man’s gate. Someone must’ve put him there, in hopes that Rich Man would help him. Someone cared for Lazarus, and that’s important to remember. Second of all, we find these dogs who came to lick his sores. The presence of dogs is an interesting one. Are they just wild dogs that roam the streets, or are they the Rich Man’s watch dogs? New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey has mentioned that dog saliva was believed by people at this time to have curative powers. So, even the dogs are not necessarily a curse upon Lazarus but a possible blessing in disguise.

Finally, when Lazarus dies, God receives him into paradise. In fact, as we hear, “angels carried him to be with Abraham.” The Rich Man dies and goes to Hades—or the underworld. While in paradise, while the Rich Man, in the throes of his torment, cries out to him, Lazarus, if you notice, doesn’t ignore him or turn his back on him, despite the fact that the Rich Man did just that to Lazarus. Lazarus does not even scold him. It almost seems that Lazarus might almost be willing to go back and tell the Rich Man’s friends if only the gulf between them was not so wide. There really is a beauty to this story and a lesson for us that is more than just the bad man gets punished the good man gets rewarded. But even more so, what we find is that, by the world’s standards, by the standards of those who are defined by the material aspects of this life, Lazarus was the loser before he died and the Rich Man was the winner, even despite his callousness.

And the same could be said of us as well. It might seem, at moments, as though we are being punished by the things that happen to us. An overload of deaths, the loss of someone we love, the crushing sadness and sense of loss that comes upon after such set-backs. It is too easy to pound our chests and throw dirt and ashes in the air and to cry out in despair. It is much harder to recognize that while we are there, at the gate outside the Rich Man’s house, lying in the dirt, covered in sores, that there are people who care, that there are gentle, soothing signs of affection, even from dogs. And it is hard sometimes to see that God too cares.

And for us, at St. Stephen’s, in the midst of what seems like a lot of loss and sadness, we find glimmers of hope and joy in the midst of the darkness. We find those glimmers in the joy we celebrate here at this altar. We find joy in the marriages and baptism we celebrate. We find joy in each other, as we gather here. See, we do find glimmers of light in the darkness.

A week ago yesterday, I buried my father’s ashes. In fact, several of us here this morning helped bury my father’s ashes. Several of us stepped forward, as he requested, to bury his urn, and everyone came away with dirty hands, a fact my father no doubt would’ve relished. After the committal, as we were standing around at my family plot, I drew some people’s attention to the stone that marks the lot and specifically to the side on which my name is inscribed. The joke that afternoon was: “Geez, Jamie, even your gravestone is over-the-top!” And yes, I do take a big of pride in the fact that among all those Swedish Lutherans, there is a Celtic cross on my stone. But what people noticed more than anything was the epitaph I chose for myself. It’s actually the final line of a poem I wrote toward the end of my “cancer experience”.

The poem was written as my father and I were driving to Minot on a particularly cold night in October shortly after the first snow fall of the year. We were driving up there for my final interview with the Commission on Ministry before I was ordained to the Diaconate. As we neared the city and came up over a hill, I could see the city laid out below us. Above us, the sky had cleared after a particularly gray and gloomy day. When the clouds had cleared, we could see the stars, which, on that cold night, looked especially crisp and clear. And in that moment, after all that I had went through with my cancer, I suddenly know for the first time, that, somehow, everything was going to be fine. At the end of that poem, I wrote what would become the epitaph on my stone:

I wrote in that poem, “Dusk”:

“…I look up into the sky
and see it—a transformation
so subtle I almost didn’t notice it
as I sit there trembling
beyond the tinted windshield.
I say to myself
‘Look! Just look!

Look how the dusk—
full of clouds and gloom—
has dissolved into
multitudes of stars!’”

To some extent, that’s what it’s like to be a Christian. To some extent, that’s what its like: when we think the darkness and the gloom has encroached and has won out, we can look up and see those bright sparks of light and know, somehow, that it’s all going to be all right.

Paradise awaits us. It is there, just beyond those stars. That place to which Lazarus was taken by angels awaits us and, for those of us striving and struggling through this life, we can truly cling to that hope. For those we bury and lay to rest, they are in that paradise. For those of us still struggling, we can set our eyes on the prize, so to speak and move forward. We can work toward that place, rather than “diving” like Dives himself, into the pit of destruction he essentially created for himself.

In a real sense, the Rich Man was weighed down by his wealth, especially when he refused to share it, and he ended up wallowing in the mire of his own close-mindedness and self-centeredness. But for those of who, in the midst of our struggles, can still find those glimmers of light in the midst of the gloom, we are not weighed down. We are freed in ways we never knew we could be. We are lifted up and given true freedom. God truly has helped us. And we see it most when we recognize those multitudes of light shining brightly in the occasional gloom of our lives.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Requiem Eucharist for Ruth Stickney

Ruth Stickney(Jan. 22, 1920– Sept. 17, 2010)
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo, ND
September 25, 2010

+ I can not tell you how truly honored to be here this morning to commemorate the long and wonderful life of Ruth Stickney and to help commend this wonderful woman to God. I got to know Ruth (and Tom, of course) somewhat well over the last few years. I don’t need to tell anyone here that she was truly a remarkable woman—and I don’t say that lightly. She was a woman of great strength and of contagious warmth. There was no doubt about that.

Whenever I would visit her, she would look at me with that brilliant spark in her eyes and would welcome me as though she had known me all her life. I liked that. In these last few weeks, I can’t tell you how many times I would stand at her bedside and, as she awoke, she would look up at me and she would just shine. Oftentimes we didn’t say a thing to each other. I just stroked her hair and she just look up at me and it was beautiful. For that time I spent with her, I was important to her. I think she felt that way about everyone who came into her life. And every time I visited her, there was always that remarkable life dancing in her eyes.

This morning, Ruth is, I think, still here, in our midst, celebrating her life with us. And we should truly celebrate her incredible life. It was a good life. It was a life full of meaning and purpose and love. All her life, Ruth lived life to the fullest and drank deeply from that life.

And it was a life of faith in God, as well. For Ruth, her faith was important to her and I think that faith continues on with those of us who are here celebrating her life.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus say those wonderful warm words of welcome. “In my Father’s place there are many mansions.” In other translations, we hear, instead of mansions, “dwelling places.” In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I like that idea of mansions instead. After all, would the God of love that Ruth served throughout her life, who saw someone like Ruth through ninety years of life, provide her with anything less than a mansion? I don’t think so. And I am fully certain that God has indeed provided a mansion for Ruth. Can you imagine what that place must be like? Can you imagine the music and the beauty that fills that place at this moment? Can you imagine the joy she must feel right at this moment? That is probably the best consolation we can take away from today.

After all, that long life of hers is not over by any means. It has only blossomed into its fullest meaning. In Christ, Ruth is now fully and completely herself. She is whole.Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who are left behind. Whenever anyone we love dies, we are going to feel pain. That’s just a part of life.

But like any pain, like any sorrow, because of Christ, our feelings of loss are only temporary as well. They too will pass away. This belief that pain is temporary is what gets us through these hard times. This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss. We believe in a faith that surpasses death. When we look to Jesus in these moments, we know that yes, he was betrayed, he suffered and he died. Those who loved him felt a despair like no other despair. On that Friday afternoon in which he died, few of them could ever imagine that there would ever be joy or hope again. And yet, on that Sunday morning, their tears were turned to smiles and their sorrow was turned to joy.

That is what we hope in as well. That is where our faith lies. When the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Christ dries our tears with his grave clothes,” he wasn’t just speaking poetically. He was saying that, truly, Christ comes to us in the midst of our losses and shows us the way to Life—to a life reborn out of death. Into a life without end. It is a faith that can show us with startling reality every tear we shed—and we all shed our share of tears in this life, as I’m sure Ruth would tell you—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear like a bad dream upon awakening.

Ruth knew this faith in her own life and we too can cling to it in a time like this. I like to draw our attention occasionally the words of the service we are celebrating today from The Book of Common Prayer. Oftentimes, I think, we don’t really listen to these words. But these words are important. They were important to Ruth, I can tell you. She was a good and loyal Episcopalian who received great consolation form the words we find in the Book of Common Prayer. And in this service later, we will pray some wonderful words together. In the prayer called “The Commendation.” we will pray,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Those words meant much to Ruth and they should to us as well. This morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in our faith—in the faith that, with Christ, Ruth is in a place of unending light. There, Ruth is complete and whole and beautiful at this moment. Truly her beauty is, to quote the poet Anne Bradstreet, “bright and clear.” She is in a place where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but truly life everlasting. And let us be glad that one day we too will be sharing with Ruth in that everlasting life.

In the commendation, we hear:

“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Today, when we leave this service, we too will be singing, “Alleluia” as we sing “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Ruth, in the fact of her dying, also sang her song of alleluia. We saw that alleluia in that light shining in her eyes. We saw that alleluia in the amazing strength she had throughout her life and even in her last moments. Alleluia we sing today. Alleluia, she sings today. That alleluia gives voice to the joy we have today in the midst of our sadness, and it is that joy that will hold us up and sustains us with that “Ruth-like” strength to meet the days to come.

“Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

What greater strength can we have than that? Amen.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Burial Liturgy for Tracy Ford

The Burial Liturgy for
Tracy Ford
(March 7, 1956 – September 20, 2010)
Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home
Fargo, North Dakota
Friday, September 24, 2010

+ Whenever I do a funeral, I feel that I bond not only with the family—and luckily in this case I know Tracy’s mother, Marlys fairly well—I also sometimes bond especially with the person whose life we are remembering. I definitely felt a bond develop between Tracy and myself in these last few days as I prepared this service. In these last few days I have heard some wonderful things about Tracy. I heard about what a gentle, genuinely good person he was. And I heard about his faith in God. And as I heard more and more about Tracy, I felt that bond grow stronger between us.

Of course, that bond doesn’t make doing funerals easier, let me tell you. In fact, it sometimes complicates doing them. I find myself at times getting emotional about people I have never even met. But that’s a good thing, I think.

I am of the belief that what separates us who are alive and breathing here on earth from those who are now in the so-called “nearer presence of God” is a thin one. And because of that belief, I take a certain comfort in the fact Tracy is close to us today. I think most of us can feel that presence this morning. He is here, in our midst, with us, celebrating his life with us.

I am also especially happy that we heard this particular reading from the Book of Revelation this morning. In our reading today from Revelation we find Jesus saying to us, that he is the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end. As difficult as it is to say goodbye to Tracy, we are able to find strength in these words. We are able to cling to the fact that, although life is unpredictable, life is beyond our control, it is not beyond Christ’s control. Christ knew us and loved us at our beginning and will know us and love us at our ending.

As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

As we mourn this ending, we also take great comfort in the fact that we are also celebrating a new beginning for Tracy today. This is what we believe as Christians. What I love about being specifically an Episcopalian is that sometimes we can’t clearly define what it is we believe as Episcopalians. Nor should we. We can’t pin it down and examine it too closely. When we do, we find it loses its meaning. But when I am asked, “what do Episcopalians believe?” I say, “we believe what we pray.” We’re not big on dogma and rules. We’re not caught up in the letter of the law or preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible. But we are big on liturgy.—in the words of the services we celebrate. The Book of Common Prayer in many ways defines what we believe.

And so when I’m asked “What do Episcopalians believe about life after death?” I say, “look at our Prayer Book.” Look at what it says. And that is what we believe. This service we are celebrating today for Tracy is from that Prayer Book. It sums up perfectly what it is we believe about death and life after death. And it gives us hope to get through this very difficult time in our lives.

Later in this service, we will pray some wonderful words. As we commend Tracy to Christ’s loving and merciful arms, you will hear me pray,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

It is easy for us to hear those words without really thinking about them. But those are not light words. Those are words that take on deeper meaning for us now than maybe at any other time.

For Tracy, in this ending, he has a new beginning—a new and wonderful beginning that awaits all of us as well. Where Tracy is now—in those caring and able hands of Christ—there is no sorrow or pain. There is no sighing. But there is life eternal. At this time of new beginning, even here at the grave, we—who are left behind—can make our song of alleluia. Because we know that Tracy and all our loved ones have been received into Christ’s arms of mercy, into Christ’s “blessed rest of everlasting peace.”

This is what we cling to on a day like today. This is where we find our strength. This is what gets us through this temporary—and I stress that it is temporary—this temporary separation from Tracy. We know that—despite the pain and the frustration, despite the sorrow we all feel—somehow, in the end, Christ is with us and Christ is with Tracy and that makes all the difference. We know that in Christ, what seems like an ending, is actually a wonderful and new beginning. For Tracy, sorrow and pain are no more. Rather, Tracy has life eternal. And that is what awaits us as well.

We might not be able to say “Alleluia” with any real enthusiasm today. But we can find a glimmer of light in the darkness of this day. And in that light is Christ, and in that light Christ is holding Tracy firmly to himself. Amen.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The memorial service for my father, Albert Parsley

The memorial service for my father, Albert Parsley, will be 2:00 PM Saturday Sept. 18, 2010 at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church, Harwood, ND.

Burial of ashes will be in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Cemetery.

Albert H. Parsley, 76, West Fargo, died peacefully in his home on Tuesday, September 14, 2010.

Albert Harold Parsley was born Jan. 17, 1934 near Davenport, ND to John and Minnie (Lykken) Parsley. He was baptized on Feb. 4, 1934 at Kindred Lutheran Church, Kindred, ND. He grew up near Davenport, Horace and Warren, ND, where he attended school. He worked on the family farm until 1952 when he began working in the road construction business. From 1960 to 1962, he worked as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Air Force, living in Anchorage, Alaska; Tampa, Florida; Greensboro, North Carolina; Ft. Worth, Texas and Plattsburgh, New York, before returning to North Dakota. On April 18, 1969 he married Joyce Olson Gould in Sisseton, SD. On April 18, 2005, they renewed their wedding vows and had their marriage blessed by their son, Jamie, an Episcopal priest, in a ceremony in the chapel of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral, Fargo.

He worked for Correll Construction for several years before starting his own business, Al Parsley Construction, in 1980, which he successfully ran for twenty years. In 1996 he bought out his former employer Correll Construction and incorporated the business. He retired in 2000.
Al had a life-long interest in Native American culture and was an avid collector of artifacts and relics, as well an abiding interest in the history of North Dakota. He was also a metal detecting enthusiast. One of his fondest memories was the metal detecting trip he took to England in 2002.

He was a long time member of Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church, where he served as head usher for many years.

Al was a good man, a caring and compassionate husband, a generous and understanding father and a true friend to those who knew him. He deeply loved his family and God. His generosity to anyone in need knew no bounds.

His is preceded in death by his parents, and four brothers, Tom in 1937, George in 1947, Charles in 1988 and Arthur in 2003.

He is survived by his wife; two sons, the Rev. Jamie and Rick (Kim) both Fargo; three step-children, Jeffrey (Judy) Gould, Loveland, CO; Jason Gould, Fargo; and Michelle (Everett) Walker, Valley City, ND; brothers, Jim, Kindred, ND; Clifford (Karen), Apache Junction, AZ and Joe (June), Fargo; sister-in-law, Ann Parsley of Apache Junction, AZ; his aunt Florence Hagensen, Mapleton, ND; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be 2:00 PM Saturday Sept. 18, 2010 at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church, Harwood, ND.

Burial of ashes will be in the family plot at Maple Sheyenne Cemetery.

The Requiem Eucharist for Florence Anderson

The Requiem Eucharist for
Florence Anderson
(December 15, 1922-September 12, 2010)
Gethsemane Cathedral
September 16, 2010

Psalm 100
+ First of all, I am very grateful for the opportunity to here this morning and to be a part of this service for Florence. As some of you know, my father passed away on Tuesday morning, very suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep. I had many people say to me that I shouldn’t do this service. But I needed to do this service.

I have known and, more importantly, cared very deeply for Florence for many years. I was her priest, yes, but I felt I was more than just her priest. I truly felt as though I was one of Florence’s grandchildren. And I think Florence thought of me in that way also. And in the days following her death and before my own father’s death, I found myself reeling over the fact that she was gone. It was a terribly painful experience for me.

But I am grateful this morning. I am grateful for having known Florence and for the relationship with we had together.

I visited Florence for the first time on July 21, 2003. (I actually looked it up the other night in one of my appointment books from that time). She was still living in her condo at the time and I went over to bring her Holy Communion because her daughter Sharon asked me if I would. At first, Florence was a bit stand-offish with me. I was about to be ordained a deacon, and it was a whole year before I was even ordained a priest. She didn’t know me too well and I didn’t know her too well. But, my natural charm obviously won her over, and over the next few months I continued to visit her on and off.

We only really bonded after she fell and broke her hip early the next year. She went to stay at ManorCare and, while, there, she received some not-so-wonderful care. At one point I had to reprimand a nurse (after I was rudely reprimanded) after Florence has been pretty much forgotten about. Florence told me that she often laid there on her bed looking at the Pepsi machine outside her window wondering when she was going to die. She bounced back from that, and over the next several years, she and I went through various ups and downs in both of our lives.

Those down times—those set-backs in her life and mine—really bonded us. Many, many times over the years, I would say to her, “Well, considering everything we’ve been through in the past, this really isn’t all that bad, is it?”

When Florence died on Sunday morning, I could repeat that phrase to her again. It was not a bad death by any means. It was a quiet, peaceful death—one that perfectly suited the person Florence was.

Now, Florence would not want me to get up here and say sweet, wonderful, fluffy things about her. If she were here this morning—and I do think she is here, this morning—she would poo-poo me in that Florence kind of way and quickly put me in my place. Still, I despite the fact that it might sound fluffy and overly sweet, I do have to say this: Florence was a genuinely good person. She was a good person who has experienced some hard times in her life. We often talked about the fact that her life was never easy. Whether she was sharing stories from her childhood or through the years of adulthood and even these last several years, Florence knew what hard times were. That was something Florence and shared in common and our experience of hardships certainly bonded us in ways that are hard to articulate.

I often shared with her one of my favorite stories and it was one she could truly relate to. It’s an old Jewish tale about King Nebuchadnezzar—the great Babylonian king we meet in the Book of Daniel. The story goes like this:

The King one day was dressed in his finest apparel and was out walking in his garden singing praises to God. As he was doing so, an angel appeared to the King. The King at first was amazed. What a beautiful angel! And he was so thankful to God that he was able to see one. But then, the angel, without a word, slapped him hard across the face. The King was shocked and confused. He turned to the angel and asked: “Why, O angel, did you slap me across the face just when I was singing beautiful praises to God?”

The angel answered, “Of course you can sing praises dressed in your finest clothes, with a crown on your head, but try praising God after you’ve been slapped across the face by an angel.”

When I finished this story, I saw that little smile on Florence’s face. We all know the one. And you knew that she understood what this story was and what it meant to her. Because, let’s face it, she knew a few things about the “slaps” life can give out. And the great thing is that, even despite these slaps, she was still able to sing God’s praises.

I think we saw that most clearly on Saturday night, when Deacon Jim from Rosewood led the gathered family in singing Florence’s favorite hymns. Despite the setbacks of life, there was a resiliency in Florence. She, unlike the king in the story, was not shocked or overwhelmed or despairing over the slaps she received in this life. Yes, she was sad. Yes, she would rather not have gone through what she did. But at no point did she ever stop praising God through this time. Even slapped, she was still able to sing praises to God. And let me tell you: I know. I was with her and I saw, for myself, that even through the hard times, she clung strongly and firmly to her faith despite everything that happened to her.

Every time I came to visit her, she always received Communion. That service of Holy Communion was essential to her and her understanding of how God worked in her life. She truly did see that Communion as a foretaste of what awaited her beyond this world. And I can tell you with all honesty that there was no doubt in her mind that something wonderful and glorious awaited her there. And she was content and accepting of what awaited her.

On Sunday morning, September 12, she went to be in that place.

In one of the last conversations I had with her, I told her, “God really is with you, Florence.” And she nodded and there was a brightness in her eyes that made clear she truly believed that. God was with her and God is with her now.

Some of us might ask, however, why did Florence have to receive these “slaps in her life? Why did she have to experience so much hardship. I don’t think there any easy answers to any of the hardships we experience in this life. But, some images do help.

I teach at the University of Mary in Fargo. One of the courses I teach is called Suffering and Christian Healing. In one of the books that are required for the course, our perception versus God’s perception is explained this way:

Think of a carpet. From above, the carpet looks perfect. It’s soft. It maybe has a beautiful design. It has a color that perfectly compliments the room. But from underneath the carpet, it looks awful. We see stray pieces of thread. We see the plastic underlining. We see the dried paste and nail holes. That’s what life is like sometimes. We are on the underside of the carpet right now. That’s how we view life in this moment. We see the stray threads and the framework, but we don’t see the carpet as it is meant to be seen. We see the ugly things life has thrown at us and it frustrates us. It’s hard for us to imagine what’s on the other side of the carpet, if in fact there is even another side.

But, God is on the other side of the carpet. God sees the carpet as it should be seen. While we are here, on this side, we don’t understand why things happen the way they do. And we trust in the fact that one day, we will cross over to the other side—to God’s side. And when we do, it will all—somehow—make sense. It will all be the way it should be.

Florence is now looking at her life—and ours—from that other side. She is now looking at it all from God’s perspective. And that’s what she would want us to cling to as we go on from here.

As we talked about this service, she made it very clear that this service should not be gloomy or depressing, but rather a true celebration of her life. She would not want us to despair over her death. Because Florence knew that, although we can’t fully understand things now, we will one day. And that when we do, it will be beautiful.

So, today, although we might be tempted to despair, we really cannot. When looking at these last few days from Florence’s perspective, this has been one great and glorious day without end for her She has been relieved of all her pain and her sufferings. The weariness and the strain she carried with her has been lifted from her. And she has now become fully and completely herself.

Yes, we are sad for this temporary separation. But we are not despairing. Because we know that will all be well.

It will all be well.

And today, although we are reeling from the slap of Florence’s death, we are also doing what she did when slapped by life. We are singing God’s praises. We are singing her hymns and we are even singing in our readings today. In our Psalm for today we find everything we need to know about what Florence held in her heart before God. Oftentimes, I would read this Psalm to her before we shared Holy Communion. This psalm, Psalm 100, is traditionally called in the Book of Common Prayer the Jubilate Deo. In and it, we find everything Florence held dear and important to her.

O be joyful in the Lord, all you lands*
serve the Lord in gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

See, even in the face of everything,—even when we’ve been slapped, we can sing God’s praises. Even in those moments, when life on this underside of the carpet throws ugly things we don’t understand at us, we can still sing and cling to hope. Even then, we too can sing, just s Florence is right at this moment, in that place she longed for:

“For the Lord is good, his mercy is everlasting*
and his faithfulness endures from generation to generation.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I ask for your prayers for the repose of the soul of my father, Albert Parsley, who died this morning (Sept. 14) in his sleep.

A memorial service will be held at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church, near Harwood, ND on Saturday, September 18 at 2:00 PM. His ashes will be buried in the Maple Sheyenne Cemetery.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

16 Pentecost

September 12, 2010

Dedication Sunday

Genesis 28.10-17; 1 Peter 2.1-5, 9-10

+ Today, of course, is Dedication Sunday. Last Sunday I joked about the fact that Fall Start-Up is almost like a liturgical season in and of its self—like Advent or Lent. I think I joked that we should think about a new liturgical color for Fall—some of the suggestions being gold or brown and orange. For some people, this “Fall Start-Up time” in the church is be a bad thing. But I think it’s good to take some time in the middle of this long, green season of Pentecost and refocus ourselves a bit. And that’s what we’re doing today. We’re re-focusing. And, in doing so, we are not only looking forward—to a new Fall season, but we are also looking back as well—to our very beginning at St. Stephen’s.

Most of us know by now that the first Eucharist celebrated by the St. Stephen’s congregation occurred on September 9, 1956, at the El Zagal Clubhouse. (I will not at this time go into my own personal opinions about Masons) What you might not know is that St. Stephen’s actually existed long before that—but in a different place not that far away. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, which was consecrated on August 29, 1881, was closed in early 1956. That church building in Casselton is still standing. It is the beautiful field stone building standing right next to St. Leo’s Catholic Church right on the main street in Casselton. The church building later hosted the Mennonites, and is, at present, I believe, a museum.

Many of the furnishings within our church came from that original congregation. The candle stands on the altar, for example. They are inscribed to the memory of a person name Mattie L. Batton, who died in 1901. Or the processional cross, which was given in memory of Alice Martha Cotant. Or the large offering plate, which was given in memory of Anna Laura McCracken, who was born in 1875 and died in 1957. Half of the pews and the light fixtures all came from that original church building as well. The cross that stood above the altar in that church is now on the altar of our Children’s Chapel, and it was dedicated to none other than George W. Cass—that’s right of Cass County fame—who was born in 1810 and died in 1888. And , most interesting for me anyway, is the inscription on the missal stand (which I did not come from Casselton but was one of the first items given specifically for this congregation:.

In gratitude for safety of
Linda Johnson
in June 20, 1957, tornado
- Grandparents
Mr & Mrs. C.N. Frye.

So, our St. Stephen’s Church incorporates many generations of people. When we gather here together, we do so knowing that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves, much bigger than the gathering of people who come together here for Mass on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights. But what is wonderful is that, even after all these years and changes, even after the many, many people who have sat here in these pews, we are still gathering, we are still growing, we are still being a vital presence in the larger Church, the community and the world. And we are still serving Christ. That’s what the Church should be.

But sometimes we forget what the Church should be. For those of us who have been hurt by the Church, we can easily see it in its worst light. We can see it as a fussy, nit-picky group of legalistic people who are only concerned about observing the littlest dash of the law. Or, even worse, some of us have been on the receiving end of some of the more hypocritical members of the Church. And sadly, enough, we must accept that is part of the legacy of the Church as a whole. But the Church is also much more than that.

And we, at St. Stephen’s, have done a good job I think over its 54 years of striving to be a positive example of the wider Church and of service to Christ who, according to Peter’s letter this morning, truly is a “living stone”—the solid foundation form which we grow.

One of my favorite definitions of the Church comes from theologian Robert McAffie Brown. Actually, this quote is his description of the meaning for life, but I think it is also a wonderful description of the ideal toward which we are working as the Church. Brown writes that it is “our task to create a foretaste of [the Kingdom of God] on this planet—living glimpses of what life is meant to be, which include art and music and poetry and shared laughter…and politics and moral outrage and special privileges for children only and wonder and humor and endless love.”

What better goal to work for? When we think and pray and meditate on Brown’s definition, I think we can say that we are doing most of these things here at St. Stephen’s. There are no boundaries for a church that strives to do those things.

On our website we describe ourselves this way. Under “Who we are” we find that
St. Stephen's is a small congregation committed to the ministry of all the baptized with a focus on ministries of social justice.

Now just one asside here. As you have heard me say before, I am not fond of calling oursleves ”small.” I always make the challenge when I hear ourselves described this way: “small by whose standards?” We are a small congregation numerically when compared to other congregations in this city. But we are, despite that kind of smallness, so big in other ways. My fear is that “small” limits us. When we identify oursleves as small, we fall into a “small” mindset that can be stifling and we need to be very careful of that. But I digress (as I often do)…

The description from our website goes on:

We are involved in a number of outreach ministries and in several ecumenical partnerships. Members are actively involved in diocesan as well as congregational life. We have a history of strong lay leadership, a sense of independence and a vision for the future. Our corporate life is grounded in the Eucharist and the use of both the Book of Common Prayer and contemporary liturgies enhanced by a variety of music. We welcome all those with whom we can share the transforming influence of a Gospel of love and inclusiveness.

In a sense, this is very good blending of Brown’s description and what we do here at St. Stephen’s. St. Stephen’s is making a difference.

As you know I attend a lot of Diocesan meetings (as others do as well form St. Stephen’s). And I can tell you, people “out there” in the wider diocese are talking about St. Stephen’s and they are noticing what we are doing. People at other Episcopal churches (and at other denominations as well) in this very community are talking about the wonderful things being done here at St. Stephen’s and the growth and vitality that we have here. And those are things we should truly rejoice in on the anniversary of our Dedication.

In our reading from Genesis today, we hear that wonderful story of Jacob. Jacob has encountered God and has heard these amazing words from God: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob, in awe, exclaims: “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” He then goes on to say: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

As we look around, we too realize that the Lord truly is in this place. We too are able to exclaim, How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven. And by “this place” I don’t mean just this building. After all—God is truly here, with us, in all that we do together. The gate of heaven can be found in the ministries we do here. In the outreach we do. In the witness we make in the community and the wider Church.

God is here, with us. God is working through us and in us. Sometimes, when we are in the midst of it all, when we are doing the work, we sometimes miss that perspective. We miss that sense of holiness and renewal and life that comes bubbling up from a healthy and vital congregation working together. We miss the fact that God truly is here. So, it is good to stop and listen for a moment. It is good to reorient ourselves. It is good to refocus and see what ways we can move forward together. It is good to look around and see how God is working through us.

In a few moments, Laura and I will recognize and gives thanks for the many ministries of this church. There may be some we have forgotten to recognize. Rather than that being such a terrible thing (and I do apologize greatly in advance if that happens), it also means that because we, in this supposedly “small” place are doing such a variety of ministries it is hard to keep straight everything that is happening. And many ministries often go on clandestinely. They go on behind the scenes, in ways most of us (with exception of God) don’t even see and recognize.

But that is how God works as well. God works oftentimes clandestinely, through us and around us. And for all of this we are truly thankful. God is in this place. This is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.

Let us, as we heard this morning in Peter’s letter, rejoice. Let us truly be God’s own people, in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of Christ, the living stone, who has called us “out darkness into his marvelous light.”

Sunday, September 5, 2010

15 Pentecost

September 5, 2010


+ This week in the Episcopal Church’s Calendar of saints, we commemorate a group of truly remarkable people. On Thursday, we will commemorate Blessed Constance and the so-called “Martyrs of Memphis.” The Martyrs of Memphis are a fascinating group of saints in the church.

Dr. Scott Morris summarizes the Martyrs of Memphis in this way:

In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis and killed 5,150 people in a brief period of time. The city’s rich fled to St. Louis, leaving the poor and middle class to fend for themselves.

A notable exception was a group of Episcopal nuns known as the Sisterhood of St. Mary. They were led by a brave woman named Constance.

Five women with little medical training cared for thousands of people because they believed that it was God's will for them to stay and comfort the sick and dying. In the end they, too, succumbed to yellow fever. Today, they are known as the Martyrs of Memphis.

It’s a fascinating story. And some of us might say, foolish, especially when we consider that at ant any time, those sisters could have left the city. But they made the choice to stay and to serve, knowing full-well that staying would’ve meant almost certain death. This is what sacrifice is all about.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus at his most blunt. This is not the nice, sweet Jesus we have come to idealize. This Jesus uses some harsh language to make clear that following him is not some pleasant, sweet, Sunday drive. Following Jesus means sacrifice and the continued call to sacrifice.

Most fo us don’t want to believe that following Jesus involves such sacrifice. Many people think that following Jesus means going to church on Sunday and acting nice and maybe occasionally helping the homeless or the needy, which are all good things.

But following Jesus sometimes means following Jesus to the edge. Following Jesus sometimes—in fact, more often than not—involves hefting that cross on our backs and trekking off after him, despite the fact that we are tired and drained.

This past week, I thought I had just about reached my own personal limit. I felt as though I was getting it from all directions. There was one moment when I truly thought I wa sin the midst of some emotional gauntlet. The nitpicking criticism, the inability to help a person who needed my help, the overload of work and a series of family health issues just sort of piled on me. Then, to top it off, I inadervantly made someone break down and cry, of all things. I came home that night and simply curled up on the couch and wanted to disappear for a while.

Since I was working on this sermon at the time, I thought about the fact that, sometimes, this is what it means to follow Jesus. It means sometimes that, while bearing the cross, we must also endure the gauntlet. It means that although we are close to burning out, we must still go on. We must shoulder our burdens, brace ourselves for the gauntlet and move on.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t moment when I, at least privately, to Jesus, said: “I don’t now if I can keep on following you.”

But somehow, even in those low, dark moments, we find the strength to go on. We find the encouragement to put one more step in front of the other and we just do it.

One other insight in all of this: following Jesus does not mean we are slaves to Jesus. We have free will through all of this.

As I look back on this past week and throughout my years of service to Jesus, I realize there have been plenty of opportunities to simply turn away and say that I will not and cannot follow Jesus. There have been opportunities to simply walk away and go along another path.

There is no sacrifice in following Jesus if there’s no free will. For the martyrs of Memphis, they had the opportunity to leave. The sisters could simply have left and went back to their convent in New York state and lived a full life of further service. But they chose to stay, knowing full well what staying meant. They knew that staying probably meant their own death. But they also knew they were needed and this was where Jesus was leading.

For us, hopefully, Jesus isn’t leading us to quite that difficult of a sacrifice. But still we are being led and often that place to which we are being led is a difficult and painful place. It is, more often than not, a cross.

Jesus is asking us a very important request today. Give up your possessions, he says. Don’t let anything come between you and me, he is saying, as difficult as it is to do. Because those possessions that get in the way are often things we cling and cherish more than anything else. Following Jesus means putting Jesus first and foremost. It means making him the center of our lives and nothing else. And that it very difficult.

But following Jesus, we know that ultimately all path lead to victory. All the sacrifices we make for Jesus will be repaid to us in ways we can’t even fully fathom or imagine.

So, let us take up the cross we have been given—whatever it might be in our own lives—and let us follow Jesus wherever he might lead. Let us take the cross and bear it with dignity. And let us shed ourselves of anything that might come between us and that Person who leads us along what seems at times like uncertain paths. Because we know he will not lead us on uncertain paths, nor will he lead us to a place of desolation. Rather he will lead, as we know in our heart of hearts, home to our true home.

7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

  May 21, 2023   Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17     + As many of you know, these last five years have been hard years for this old prie...