Sunday, February 22, 2015

I Lent

February 22, 2015

Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

+ While I was on vacation in Florida, I ended up talking with friends about the subject of a film that has been very important to my life came up.

When I was little, there was an event that would happen, about twice a year. Twice a year, The Wizard of Oz would come on TV. This, of course, in the days before Cable and DVDs and BlueRay and Netflix.

I LOVED The Wizard of Oz. I’ve preached about my love of The Wizard of Oz before. I’ve peached about my views that Dorothy is a wonderful example of leadership.  She is. She leads by example.

But there is an aspect of that movie that I have never preached about. And when I was talking about that aspect of The Wizard of Oz in Florida, people were a bit surprised by my observation. I said—and I still maintain to this day—that there was one thing about that movie I hated. The ending. I think I must be the only person in the world who hated the ending of The Wizard of Oz.  While everyone else applauded and felt good for Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers together and waking up in at home in Kansas, I remember just hating that ending.

Why? I wondered. Why would she want to go back? Here she was in this beautiful
Technicolor world in which she is loved and lauded. Any dangers that might exists she’s already defeated. Why would she want to go back to that ugly, black and white, miserable world of Kansas, with the pig sty and her mean Auntie Em. What kind of future would Dorothy have there? She’ll probably get married young and live on a farm for the rest of her life (Not that there’s anything wrong with that)

And, if you notice, there’s one little story line that never gets resolved in the movie. Miss Almira Gluch, the mean neighbor, whom Toto bites—well, she’s gonna come back for Toto. Toto just jumped out of the basket. That situation was never resolved.  Things look kind of bleak for Dorothy—and definitely for poor Toto.  No, I did not like that ending at all.

For me, I know this sounds kind of terrible for a priest to say, but for me, this Season of Lent is kind of like that black and white world of Kansas. It’s kind of depressing at times.

And, as we head toward Holy Week, the future seems kind of bleak. Look at what awaits there. Betrayal. The whipping. The carrying of the cross. The crucifixion.

But on this first Sunday in Lent, if we were expecting, in our scripture readings, doom and gloom, well, we don’t get any of that.  Ah, no. Instead, we get… water?  We get Noah and the ark? And baptism?  Now, this is my way to begin Lent!

We begin Lent as we begin any important step as Christians—with solid footing in our baptismal understanding.  We begin Lent with a remembrance of our baptismal covenant—that covenant that we formed with God at our baptisms—a covenant that is still binding on us, even now.  This covenant is a covenant very much like the covenant God made with Noah after the waters of the flood that we hear about in our reading from Genesis.  I wasn’t expecting to do it, but here we are on this first Sunday of Lent, and I am preaching about, of all things, baptism.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also get another special treat.  In our Gospel reading, we get, in a very brief scripture, an upheaval. What?  You missed the upheaval in our Gospel reading? You missed the reversal?  You missed, in that deceptively simple piece of scripture, a mirror image?  

It’s easy to miss, after all.  Our Gospel reading is so simple, so sparse.  But then again, so is haiku.  But let’s look a little closer at what we’ve just heard and read.

In today’s Gospel, we find three elements that remind us of something else.  We find the devil. We find animals.  And we find angels.  Where else in scripture do we find these same elements?  Well, we find them all in the Creation story in Genesis, of course.  The story of Adam is a story of what? --the devil, of animals and of angels.  But that story ends with the devil’s triumph and Adam’s defeat.

In today’s Gospel, it has all been made strangely right.  Jesus—the new Adam—has turned the tables using the exact same elements.  We find Jesus not in a lush beautiful Oz-like place like Eden. Rather we find Jesus with wild animals in that Kansas-like desert—animals who were created by God and named by Adam.  We find him there waited on by the angels—and let’s not forget that an angel turned Adam away from Eden. And there, in that place, he defeats the Devil—the same Devil who defeated Adam.

I have found this juxtaposition between Adam and Jesus to be a rich source of personal meditation, because it really is very meaningful to us who follow Jesus.  If we lived with the story of Adam, if we lived in the shadow of his defeat, the story a somewhat bleak one.  It would seem like the end of The Wizard of Oz There doesn’t seem to be much hope.  The relationship ruined with Adam hasn’t been made right.

But today we find that the relationship has been right.  The story isn’t a story of defeat after all.  It isn’t a time to despair, but to rejoice.  The Devil has been defeated.  And this is very important.

We, in our baptisms, also defeat the Devil.  Now, by the Devil, I am not necessarily talking about a supernatural being who rules the underworld.  I’m not talking about the horns, forked tail and pitchfork.  By Devil I mean the personification of all that we hold evil.

In our baptisms, we renounce all the evil of this world and the next, and by renouncing evil, we are assured that it can be defeated.  By renouncing the devil and all the evils of this world, we turn away from the evil inherent within us. Our baptism marks us and in that mark we find the strength to stand up against evil.  This time of Lent—this time for us in the desert, this time of fasting and mortification—is a time for us to confront the demons in our lives.  We all have them.

In our wonderful collect for today, we prayed to God to “come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations.”

The poet that I am, I love the tradition language of Rite I better here.

“Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations.”

We all understand that term “manifold temptations.”  We all have those triggers in our lives that disrupt and cause upheaval.  Sometimes this upheaval is mental and emotional, sometimes it is actual.  We have our own demons, no matter what name we might call them.

I certainly have my own demons in my life and sometimes I am shocked by the way they come upon me.  I am amazed by how they lay me low and turn my life upside down. They represent for me everything dark and evil and wrong in my life and in the world around me.  They are sometimes memories of wrongs done to me, or wrongs I’ve done to others.  Sometimes they are the shortcomings of my own life—of being painfully reminded of the fact that I have failed and failed miserably at times in my life.  They are reminders to me that this world is still a world of darkness at times—a world in which people and nature can hurt and harm and destroy.  And their power and influence over my life is, I admit, somewhat strong.

Trying to break the power of our demons sometimes involves going off into the deserts of our lives, breaking ourselves bodily and spiritually and, armed with those spiritual tools we need, confronting and defeating those powers that make us less than who we are.

For me, I do find consolation when I am confronted by the demons of my life in that covenant I have with God in my baptism.  I am reminded by that covenant that there is no reason to despair when these demons come into our lives, because the demons, essentially, are illusions.  They are ghosts.  They are wispy fragments of my memory.  They have no real power over me despite what they make think sometimes.  Because the demons have been defeated by God.

Again, returning to our collect for today, we prayed, “as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.” God has been “might to save” us.  The demons of our lives have been defeated by our Baptismal Covenant and the waters of those baptismal waters.  The real power they have over my life has been washed away in those waters, much as all evilness was washed away in the flood in Noah’s time.

So, as we wander about in the spiritual desert of Lent, let us truly be driven.  Let the Spirit drive us into that place—to that place wherein we confront the demons of our lives.  But let us do so unafraid.  The Spirit is the driving force and, knowing that, we are strengthened.  Let us be driven into that place.  Let us confront our demons.  Let us confront the very Devil himself.  Let us face the manifold temptations of our lives unafraid, knowing full well that God is “mighty to save.”  And in confronting evil and temptation, let us, with Jesus, defeat those demons.  Strengthened by our Baptismal Covenant let us then be able to return from this place, proclaiming loudly, by our words, and by our actions, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

+ Occasionally, I find myself obsessed about certain news stories. I think we all do this at times. We find ourselves trying to find out any and every aspect of a particular news story, waiting for emerging details. Well, I’ve recently been obsessed about such a story. Many of you know about it all ready. It’s been going on since December.

In December, on Dec. 27, actually, the newly-elected Bishop Suffragan (or Assisting Bishop) of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, was involved in a horrific car accident.  She struck a cyclist, a husband and father. He struck the windshield of her car. She then drove away from the scene. The cyclist died at scene. Forty minutes later, she returned and was arrested for DUI and manslaughter.  It was discovered that she had a blood alcohol level equivalent to ten drinks. Now, that in of itself is horrible and terrible. But, it seems, she was arrested for DUI in 2010, also with an even higher blood alcohol level, as well as possessing marijuana paraphernalia. This DUI was not revealed to the Diocese of Maryland when she was elected last fall.

It seems that every few days new details of this horrendous story comes out.  The fact that her boyfriend, a defrocked Episcopal priest, paid a portion of her $2,000,000 bail. The fact that the Bishop of Maryland revealed that she was actually drunk at her consecration s Bishop in September. That fact that the Presiding Bishop probably knew about her being drunk and still consecrated her. The fact that the Standing Committee of the Diocese has called for her resignation (which still has not happened).  The fact that Presiding Bishop has now restricted her as Bishop. Etc etc.

It’s an ugly story. This story speaks to us in a particular way as we enter Lent. When we look at the shortcomings and failings of others, sometimes—I know we hate to admit this—I hate to admit this—but sometimes, sometimes, we sort of, very secretly, delight in these things.

We say things like, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”

Or, “Mmmph, I guess Bishops aren’t perfect after all.”

Or, what I’ve had to hear ad nauseum in the days afterward from several clergy, “There but for the Grace of God go I,” a phrase about which Sandy Holbrook and I had an interesting discussion once after I used that same phrase referencing another situation.

We delight in the shortcomings of others partly because it makes us feel a little better about ourselves.  But, that begs the question then: how should we feel? How should we feel about this situation?  We, of course, should feel horrible. We should feel anger. We should feel sorrow for that poor man who died and for his family. But we should also feel pity too.

Yes, it’s easy to demonize Bishop Cook. It’s easy to set her up as an example of all we dislike about the Church or the policies of the Church or whatever grudges any of us might have toward Bishops and clergy (yes, let me tell you, there is a lot of anti-clericalism in the Episcopal Church, which does run counter of the inclusiveness of our Church).  But underneath it all, Heather Cook is a human being like all of us—a human being with a horrible illness—an illness that killed a person and could easily have killed Bishop Cook and others.  That’s not an excuse. I am making no excuses for what Bishop Cook did. But it is a fact.

We are all fallible. We all fail—and fail miserably—at times in our lives.  And when we do, it is painful. It hurts. And others get hurt too.

This time of Lent is a time for us to face those failings in our lives. I think that’s why some of us kind of resist Lent when it comes around again. But, recognizing our failures—and other’s failures, as well—for what they are is a way forward. We are all fallible human beings. We will continue to fail at times. We will never, on this side of the veil, be perfect. And if perfection is our goal, we have already set ourselves up for failure. But failure too should not be the goal.

Striving to learn from our failures is the goal. Changing and growing and moving beyond our failures is our goal. A successive evolution from failure to redemption is our goal.

Lent is a time for us to think about our failures, to ponder them, but not to revel in them. And it certainly is not a time to beat ourselves up over them.

Tonight, Ash Wednesday, is a time for us to think about that ultimate moment in our lives, that puts all of our failures into keen perspective. Tonight is the night to think about the fact that we will all, one day, die. In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die.  Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by being cremated and being buried in the ground.  But, all of this can—and more importantly, should—be something in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on the world and our relationships with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves, our failures, and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do.  It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be or burned to ashes or buried.  It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end.  It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless.  Remembering our failures is depressing and can trigger depression or despair.  Our mortality is frightening.  Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation.  It is a preparation for the glory of Easter. It would be depressing and bleak if, in the end, all we are known for our failures.

My prayer for Bishop Cook is that this accident, this death, is not what she will ultimately be known for. In the midst of this horrendous situation, Bishop Cook’s story is not over. There are opportunities, as impossible as they might seem in this moment, for her to rise above this horrendous situation. One day, when she passes from this world, there will be references made to the horrible events of December. But hopefully, there will also be references made to how she rose above it, how she overcame her illness, how she found redemption in her own life and how she was ultimately sustained by the love and compassion of her God.

That is my hope. Yes, maybe I am the eternal optimist. But that’s also what it means to be a Christian, even in the midst of Lent.  Yes, we will hear, in a few moments, those sobering words,

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

And those words are true. But, the fact is, ashes are not eternal. Ashes are not the end of our story. Ashes are temporary. Resurrection is eternal.  Our life in Christ is eternal.  Our failures are temporary. Our life is eternal in Christ.  All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

There is a beautiful poem—one of my all-time favorites-written by probably one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers.  In many ways it has a very healthy attitude to the body and the death of one’s body. Jeffers wrote this following the death from cancer of his wife, Una, in September of 1950.   The poem is titled “Cremation”

It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth

Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame — besides, I am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.

We had a great joy of my body…

“We had great joy of my body.”

Hopefully, we can say the same of our bodies when the time comes for us to put our bodies aside.

So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. The same can be said of our failures. Our failures make us who we are. We are not defined by them. But we are formed in the fires of our failures and shortcomings.  It is not a matter of dwelling on our failures in this life. Rather, it is a time for us to look forward, past our failures, to resurrection, to renewal, to rebirth.

As we head into this season of Lent, let it truly be a holy time or preparation for resurrection. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual.  But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”
“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation.  Let us take full advantage of it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

4 Epiphany

February 1, 2015

Mark 1.21-28

+ This past week, in our confirmation class, we had a very in-depth discussion on several topics. We talked about death and I had the students plan their funerals, which was interesting.  We talked about heaven, reincarnation and…we talked about hell.  I said something regarding that kind of shocked our students.

I said, “I don’t know if I really believe in hell.”

Then I had to make myself clearer, because that is quite the statement after all.

I said, “I should say that I’m not saying there’s no hell.  There could be. But my hope—my real, deep and abiding hope—is that is it exists, I hope it is empty and will remain so.”

This was not good enough of a statement for our confirmation students.

“What about terrible people?” they asked. “What about Hitler? What about people who do bad things?”

I then went into one of my sermonettes on examining the reasons why we do things. Do we do good because we fear hell and punishment, or do we do good things because doing good things is…good? It brings about good.

They really got that.

But then, I started thinking about it and realized I needed to revise what I said about hell.  I do believe hell exists, actually. In fact, just this past week, we heard about hell.

On Tuesday, many people observed the seventieth anniversary of hell being liberated. On
that day, January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated. Hell on earth was liberated.  And, as we all know, there are hells right here on earth.

There are hells existing right here in our midst at any given moment. We, each of us, are often, at times, existing in our own personal hells.

And, as far as the question of bad things like Hitler that the confirmation students were asking about, I believe fully and completely that yes, evil no doubt does exists in this world. But that evil is not something that God cannot defeat.  I’ll get into that a bit later.

We get evil today in our Gospel reading. But first, before the evil, we get a bit of glory.  In the beginning of our Gospel reading for today, we find Jesus in a place, at first, in which he is being marveled at.  People are amazed by his teaching.  It is certainly a high point for those early followers of Jesus.  It is a moment in which the decision they made to follow him has been, in some very real way, validated. And then, in the midst of that adulation, in the midst of that wonderful, high moment, those followers find themselves confronting evil.  There, in the middle of all that praise, comes a person possessed by an evil spirit.  It was, no doubt, an unpleasant moment.  Just when things seem to be going well, there’s a crazy, possessed person in their midst.

For us we have been confronted with things like this as well.  Well, maybe not crazy, possessed people.  Or maybe…crazy, possessed people.

But, let’s face it,  we do know a few things about evil. For all the grand and glorious things we see on occasion as followers of Jesus, we are also reminded that there is still injustice and oppression and sexism and homophobia and racism and a multitude of other really horrible things going around us in the world and in our society. Some of us have even seen the effects of violence in our own personal lives.

We see evil.  We know evil.  We are confronted with evil on a regular basis, and especially in those moments in which we really don’t want to confront evil. But, what Jesus’ encounter with the evil spirit shows, however—and, again, as we all know here—is that evil is not quite what we thought it was.

Yes, evil has much power in this world.  But it does not have ultimate power.  Evil does not—nor does it ever—win in the end.  History has shown this again and again.

Auschwitz, that seemingly impenetrable fortress of evil and death and horror, was liberated.  It was ended.  Nazism was destroyed.  Hitler was defeated.

And, in following Jesus, when we confront evil and injustice and oppression and discrimination, we know full well that these things will all one day be cast out.  They all will be quieted.  And goodness will triumph ultimately in the end.  We know this as followers of Jesus.  We know this because we know that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

For us, when God’s blessings flow and we can feel that Presence of ultimate goodness at work in our lives, we like those people who witnesses Jesus casting out the evil spirit, are amazed.  We wonder and we marvel at what is happening.  And hopefully, like those first followers, we are motivated.  We are motivated to continue following Jesus, wherever he leads us. We are motivated to continue to stand up and speak out against evil when we are confronted with it.

That is what we have always done here at St. Stephen’s and that is what we will continue to do here.  We do this, because that is what followers of Jesus do.

But, being followers of Jesus also means facing evil full-on, knowing full-well that evil ultimately has no control over us. Evil—which may come to us in many forms—whether we confront it in the daily news in the form of ISIS or North Korea or stories of horrendous violence in our own communities—or whether we are dealing with various forms of evil in our own lives, with discrimination or abuse or even things like illness and death, which are their own types of evil, we know that ultimately evil and hell will be defeated.   We know that, following Jesus, these things will not win out.

Yes, we know that in following Jesus, he isn’t always going to lead us through sun-lit fields full of easy pathways. He leads us again and again down paths in which we are forced to confront ugly things. We are led down path in which we must not only face, but confront evil. We are led down paths that we don’t want to go down, at times.

Certainly, as we journey through our Church year toward Lent, we know that following Jesus means following him on the Way of the Cross, a path that goes through a place of darkness and violence and evil. But if we keep following, we will realize, again and again, that none of those dark evil things triumph in the end.  The path we follow Jesus upon leads us ultimately to sun-lit fields ahead somewhere.  That path to the cross leads us also beyond the cross.

We know good always wins.  That is what we are celebrating this morning and every Sunday morning.  The fact that, yes, we have been through those dark moments.  We have been through those lean years in our lives.  We have been through moments when it seems as though Jesus was leading us through desert wastes and arid lands.

But this morning, in this moment, we know—we are reminded: he is leading through a verdant land.  And as we follow, we will continue to see amazing things.  And it is good.

So, let us rejoice and be thankful today and always, even when evil seems to triumph Let us be thankful for all that we have been given in this past year.  And let us look with joy into a future of unlimited possibilities. God is at work in the midst of us this morning and always.  And on this morning we can truly say that it is wonderful and glorious.  What more can we do on this beautiful Sunday, but rejoice?

The Requiem Mass for Jonathan Gilbert

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