Sunday, February 27, 2011

8 Pentecost

February 27, 2011

Matthew 6.24-34

+ When I was about eight years old, I had a major problem. I was a chronic worrier. I worried about absolutely everything. I worried about my parents and my grand-parents and even my dog dying. I worried that my friends were going to be in accidents. I worried about nuclear war. I worried about homework and school and I even worried, for some bizzare and irrational reason, about going swimming at the local swimming pool. For the most part I kept my worrying to myself. It was a secret. No one else knew that I worried like I did. And I didn’t want anyone to know about it because, let’s face it, it was embarrassing.

I probably would have gone on worrying about everything in such an irrational way had I not started getting sick. I started having intense stomach problems around this time. At first the doctors suspected I might have appendicitis. But then, they finally started talking about an ulcer. Now imagine—an eight or nine year old kid having an ulcer. One very wise doctor saw through it all and point blank asked me if I was worried about anything. I wasn’t completely honest about the level of worrying I did, but I did admit to the fact that, yes, I worried. From that time on, with some help, I eventually overcame this chronic worrying I was doing. I still worried. I worried abnormally at least through the earlier part of junior high. And then, I just learned, at some point, to let go. I learned at some point that I really was worrying over things I didn’t need to worry about.

And our Gospel reading for today from Matthew was helpful at that time in my life as well.

“…can any of you by worrying add a single day to your span of life?” Jesus asks.

Which is a true level of wisdom that I don’t think we have fully fathomed in our lives. But the real message from our Gospel reading this morning is not just that wise maxim of Jesus. Rather, it is the command he makes, not once, but twice. Jesus commands us twice today, “Do not worry.”

“Do not worry!” Jesus says firmly to us.

What we find Jesus saying to us today is not some sweet, gentle suggestion to not worry. It is a point-blank command not worry. And it is a command that is placed within the context of his explanation that we cannot serve two masters. There is a connection here between the two masters and his command not to worry. In telling us that we cannot serve two masters, Jesus is making clear to us that service to any other master hinders our relationship to God. It muddies the waters, so to speak. It complicates our relationship with God. We cannot serve God and money. We cannot serve God and still have as a master something other than God.

In this case, God is being quite demanding God expects full service from us. God expects our full attention. Because, let’s face it, we can be easily distracted. Worrying works the same way in our lives. When we worry, the waters again become muddied. Worrying distracts us. It distracts us from God and from each other. Worrying becomes a barrier in our service to God.

But worrying is a hindrance in another way. Why do we worry? We worry because cannot control a situation. We worry because a situation is out of our control. And control is the key here. As someone who works in the church every day, I know a few things about this issue of control. I experience this issue of control constantly. I deal all the time with people—both clergy and lay—who constantly try to control situations, whether it be a parish, a diocese or the myriad situations that arise in this human organization called the Church. Controlling something can be all-consuming. It can be frustrating for a controlling person when things are not going your way. And when things are completely uncontrollably, a person who wants to control is at their wit’s end.

Yesterday I attended the funeral for my father’s former boss and good friend. My father bought the business he worked in for many years from this man and they remained good friends for many years after that. This man’s wife died after a long struggle with cancer in September, just a week before my father died. This friend of my dad’s was so distraught over her diagnosis, illness and death that he just couldn’t go on anymore and last week he committed suicide. At the funeral yesterday, the pastor spoke of this man’s hands.

The pastor said, “He had such big hands—hands that fixed everything—engines and all kinds of mechanical things. But when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, he would just look at his hands helplessly. In this situation, those hands could not fix her cancer and could not fix the outcome of that cancer.”

For those of us who like to control situations, things like cancer and illness and death—especially sudden death—strike us very, very hard. And when those things happen, we find ourselves worrying as though worrying somehow can control the situation. More often than not worrying is simply something to DO in the face of uncontrollable situations. But worrying doesn’t DO anything. Except make us sick and create added stress in our lives. And it muddies the clear, pure waters of our relationship with God. Worrying gets in the way of our relationship with God.

Last week you heard me say that holding grudges against others is not an option for Christians. This week I can say in all honesty that worrying also is not an option for Christians. Worrying is simply something we do to show that we have little or no faith in God. If God is in control and we have complete faith in God, then we really have no right to worry. By worrying we are showing that our allegiance is not with God. By worrying, we are following another master—ourselves. By worrying, we are trying to control situations that are not in our power to control. And all of it only leads to despair and depression and frustration, not to mention physical illness.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned as a priest is just let it all go sometimes and not worry. I remember hearing once when I was studying to be a priest, that anyone who works in a parish should be prepared that 25% of your congregation is just not going to like you or anything you do. I was shocked by that comment and almost ready to despair ever actually finishing the process to be ordained. But I have learned since then that that’s sometimes just the way it is. Now, I hope that’s not true of me here at St. Stephen’s. I hope there are not 25% of you who dislike me. But there are moments when I do hear grumblings and complaints about things I do or say here.

Just this last week, for example, it came to my attention from one of our vestry members that one of or two people here at St. Stephen’s don’t like that I use the word “Mass” to the describe the Eucharist (which IS a perfectly Episcopalian term to use, by the way). Rather than letting things like that bring me down, rather than worrying about things like that or being frustrated by it—and I know many clergy who do, which is why we call nitpicky comments “clergy killers,”—I have learned to just let it go and not worry about it. I can’t control whether people are going to like me or not. All I can do is be myself and do what I have been called to do here at St. Stephen’s and hope that even in my imperfection as a priest and pastor, somehow God will use me in just the right to accomplish the work I have to do. That’s all any of us can do in our service to God and one another.

So, let us center our attention on the one master we have committed ourselves to follow. Let us heeds that master’s command of “do not worry.” Let us shake off all those attempts to control situations in which we do not need to control or are simple unable to control. Let us release those situations to God and allow ourselves, instead, to simply put our trust in that God. And in doing so, let us heed the other command Jesus makes to us in this morning’s Gospel. Freed of the murkiness and distraction worry causes in allegiance to God, let us truly “strive first for the kingdom of God” in our midst. Let us be the conduits of God’s righteousness to those in need around us. Being a conduit is a great remedy for this control issue. As a conduit all we have to do is simply be ourselves and let God work through us as we are.

Today, February 27, is usually celebrated as the feast of Blessed George Herbert, the great Anglican priest and poet. As most of you know, Herbert has been a very important influence in my professional and personal life. In the last twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve ever traveled anywhere without a copy of Herbert’s poems accompanying me. Last Wednesday I commemorated George Herbert at our Wednesday night Mass. I shared that great image of Herbert’s from his poem, “Windows” in which he describes human beings as that “crazy, brittle glass.” The image in the poem is that essentially we are glass. We are glass window panes to God’s light. To reflect that light we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be pristine. God’s light shines even through crazy, brittle glass. It will shine through a dirty window, or a cracked window or a warped window. The window doesn’t have to do anything. It doesn’t even have to be perfect. It simply has to be. It simply has to reflect that light in any way it can. Certainly it doesn’t have to, nor can it, control that light. It certainly doesn’t have to worry about that light or about whether it is good enough to reflect that light. The window pane simply is.

We are the window panes through which God’s light shines. And all we have to do is be that conduit of God’s light. So let us shine with that light. Let us strive first and foremost for the Kingdom of God in our midst. And when we do, we will realize that any imperfection on our part—anything that may cause us to worry or fret—is simply lost in the flood of God’s light that shines through us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

7 Epiphany

February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

+ This past week I was giving a preview of this morning’s sermon to a friend of mine. I was talking specifically about Jesus’ command to love our enemies and how in Leviticus we are commanded to “not take vengeance or bear a grudge.”

As I was sharing this, my friend looked at me with absolute disbelief but, very politely, said nothing. I was curious about this whole look of disbelief, so I asked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I don’t know,” my friend said. “I just can’t imagine you preaching about love and how one should not seek vengeance.”

“Why?” I asked. “I preach about love all the time. And I’m not a vengeful person.”

“Well, I know the kind of movies you love,” my friend said. “You love movies about revenge. Movies like Kill Bill. In fact, when that came out, you talked about that movie like it was God-inspired scripture.”

Now, I will admit, yes I love movies about revenge. Let’s face it, they’re entertaining. But they also speak to us at a very base level. We have all been wronged in some way or the other in our lives. There is some kind of pleasure we receive when someone who has wronged us is brought to justice and we have been vindicated—if in no one else’s eyes but our own. Secretly—or maybe not so secretly—we have all fantasized about getting revenge on people.

In that movie, Kill Bill, one of my favorite scenes is when, at the end of Kill Bill 2, we find Beatrix Kiddo (played by Uma Thurman), after she has killed Bill and the others who tried to kill her years earlier at her wedding, lying on a bed in a motel in Mexico while the daughter she thougth had died watches cartoons in th enext room, crying in great joy.

When I first saw that scene, I wanted to cry in joy with her. It is one of those scenes most of can relate to. When we think for a moment about all of our enemies being eliminated—about every person who has ever wronged us being brought to our own sense of justice—it is a wonderful fantasy.

The problem, for me is actually quite simple. As much as I love movies about revenge, I also am of the belief that revenge has no place in a Christian’s life. We, as Christians, simply do not have the option for revenge. There is no such thing as a Christian Beatrix Kiddo.

The love we find Jesus talking about today is not the kind of love that allows things like revenge or grudges. At the same time, the love he is talking about is not sweet. It is not lovely. It is certainly not romantic. The love Jesus is talking about is messy love. It is knock-down, drag-it-out-in-the-mud kind of love., It is love that is painful. It is not the kind of love we find ourselves craving. It is not the kind of love we find ourselves trying to express in poems and songs. It is not the love we celebrated last Monday on Valentine’s Day. Rather it is the kind of love that gnaws at us. It is the kind of love we fight against and rebel against. It is the kind of love we dig in our heels against. It is the kind of love that makes us do things we don’t want to do.

When anyone asks me “What do I have to do to be a Christian?” (and you have heard me say this a million times, I know), I always say, it is this, “Jesus said to be a Christian one must love God and love each other as ourselves.” That is not the answer most people want to hear, surprisingly enough. As much as people might vent and complain about rules and regulations and dogmas, deep down I think that is exactly what people expect out of the church. Deep down, whether we admit or not, sometimes we want to Church to tell us what to do or say about this issue or that issue. We sometimes do want specifics. We sometimes do want black and white. And Jesus’ command to love definitely does not fall into that category.

Yes, at first it seems to be amazingly simple. Love your neighbor. Love God. Love yourself. Simple. But it isn’t. And at first we think it’s so fluffy and “feel good” But when we really think about it, it isn’t. It’s actually hard and messy and difficult. And it is mind-blowingly radical.

Essentially this message of Jesus is this: even when everything is falling apart, even when your enemies outnumber your friends, even when people have purposely singled you out and are attacking you personally, love them. Love them all. Love them even when you feel the hatred boiling up within you. Love them even when hatred feels good and getting revenge feels like the only right thing to do. Love them until the hatred goes away and the bile dies. Because it is not our place as followers of Jesus to hate. No where have we ever been given permission to hate. The only time hate enters into our Christian vocabulary is as something we are commanded not to do .

Which does make me wonder where people like Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists get their license to do and say what they do. Now, I am very happy that they’re not coming to Fargo. But they provide us with us a perfect opportunity to do what we are truly called to do as Christians. First, they teach us beautifully on what not to do as Christians. In a sense, any Christian who hates, who actually uses the word “hate” in their literature and on their signs, have essentially forfeited their right even be called Christians. But more importantly they give us that uncomfortable, frustrating opportunity to practice what we preach—to practice radical love. As much as they might hate us, we must love in return. And I’m not talking about outwardly loving them only. I’m not talking about standing up and saying it in public—which is hard enough. I am saying that we must believe it. We must feel it. We must say it before God in the quiet of our hearts.

It’s all right that we might not want to do it. It’s all right that even saying it causes bile to rise up in our mouths. It’s all right that saying it causes our skin to crawl and our blood to boil. Jesus no where, in today’s Gospel, tells us we must love with a smile on our face. All he says to us in today’s Gospel about this is. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”

We must love them and we must let this love win out over their hatred. Because it will. Again and again, love will win out over hatred. But the only way it wins out is when we eliminate hatred entirely from our lives. The only way love can prevail is when love has full reign. Love does not have full reign in our lives when we carry around grudges and when we drudge up past hurts that have been done to us.

In our reading from Leviticus we find it stated as clearly as possible, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit: I am one of the worst people in the world for carrying around past hurts and grudges. But I have discovered that grudges and anger over what people have done to me in the past really does hamper love from having full reign in my life. Those grudges and memories of things people have done to me prevent me again and again from that truly radical love Jesus commands us to strive toward. I have learned that Jesus isn’t telling us to ignore the past and to forget the wrongs that have been done to us. That is na├»ve and foolhardy and when we do so we find ourselves falling into unhealthy patterns of relationship with others. But I have taken a good long hard look at those situations in which I have been wronged and I have worked on them until I can come to a point when I can tell myself that, yes, I do love those people who have wronged me. I can say that I love them with all honesty. And I can even say that I love them even if I don’t particularly like them. And by loving them—honestly and for the sake of being a follower of Jesus—I realize I can’t carry those negative grudges with me anymore.

Those grudges only bring me down and make me into a bitter, angry person. And those grudges only lead to thoughts of revenge oftentimes. Grudges and revenge and all those dark negative things only fly in the face of what Jesus is talking about today. It is not easy to love our enemies. It is so much easier to hate them and bear grudges against them and seek revenge on them. As we find in movies like Kill Bill, it feels good to do those things.

Because when we do those things what we are really doing is regaining some sense of control over an uncontrollable situation. Hatred and revenge and grudges help us to believe that some sense of fairness has been brought about. But love is the only thing that makes it all, somehow, right. Love, even in the face of all that has been done to us, somehow always wins out, even when we ourselves might not ever see the results of that love. This is not sweet Pollyannaism fluffiness we’re talking about this morning. It is actually a very difficult, very challenging kind of love. It is a kind of love that changes everything—that transforms things, that challenges even our most rational way of thinking and processing. It is a dangerous love. It is dangerous because it forces us to step outside our insulated, self-protective cocoon and put us in an even more vulnerable place—a place in which we can be hurt again.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus tells us, “and pray for those who persecute you…”

So let us heed his command to us. Let us love our enemies. Let us love the Fred Phelps and all the others who peach hatred. Let us meet their hate, again and again, with love. Let us pray for those who hate us. Let us pray that our love may actually do some good in their lives and in the lives of all who witness our love. For when we do these things, as Jesus tells us, we are the children of our God. When we do so, we become more whole, more completely, more holy. And in doing, we are living out that that command of God from Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Let love prevail in all we do and say and believe. And when it does, we and the world around becomes truly and completely transformed by that love.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Episcopal Journal article about Fargo, 1957

A priest-poet’s elegy
Lives lost in Fargo tragedy are commemorated

By Nan Cobbey

Episcopal Journal, February 2011. Vol 1 No. 1

Jamie Parsley grew up hearing stories of a tragedy that occurred 12 years before his birth. Two of his relatives were victims of a tornado that swept through Fargo, N.D., on June 20, 1957, killing 12 people and devastating the community. Parsley, a poet, teacher and Episcopal priest, has just finished a book about the event and responses to it. Fargo, 1957: An Elegy includes poems and pictures and a personal “processing” of a difficult history.

“I would hear the story when the weather would get bad,” Parsley, now 41, explained. “But there wasn’t a whole lot of detail. We don’t like to talk about our emotions too much in this part of the country. There was a mystery about the whole story.”

That mystery peaked Parsley’s interest. Author of nine previous books of poetry, he is associate poet laureate of North Dakota, named by the current laureate, Larry Woiwode. Parsley still lives in Fargo where he serves as executive assistant to the bishop for the Diocese of North Dakota and as priest-in-charge of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

“Over the years I tried very hard to figure out how I was to process this story in some way. Two or three years ago, I started doing research…researching the lives of all 12 people who died. Out of this came the poems.” Parsley found a “freedom” in writing about the tragedy and the people who lost their lives by using poetry. “I couldn’t have found that with any other type of writing. I was able to sort of give a voice to these people, a voice they were not able to have after fifty-some years.”

Parsley hopes that readers will recognize “a commonality between all of us as human beings in these experiences—these things happen in various forms in all of our lives. You wake up one morning and you think ‘Well, it’s just going to be another day.’”

Fargo, 1957: An Elegy is available for $20 from The Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University,

Nan Cobbey, former associate editor of Episcopal Life, lives in Belfast, Me.

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