Sunday, April 26, 2015

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday
April 26, 2015
The Baptism of Cohan Ranney

Psalm 23; John 10.1-10

+ As most of you know, our congregation of St. Stephen’s has a very solid tradition of Benedictine spirituality. Several of us, including James and myself, are actual Oblates of St. Benedict at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Others of us are spiritually aligned with Benedictine spirituality. We carry out this spirituality by not just following the Rule of St. Benedict in our personal devotional lives. We actually attempt, through our ministries, to make the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict a reality. We do so by following St. Benedict’s command to welcome all people who come here as Christ. That means, people who come to this church are welcomed and treated with respect, no matter who they are. Because we believe that Christ dwells within each one who comes through that door. And that’s not just our newcomers. That’s our long-time members too.

The Rule of St. Benedict has been a great source of living out the Gospel in a practical way. And one of the areas of the Rule I’ve always loved and appreciated it the chapter on Abbots and Abbesses. Abbots and Abbesses, of course, are the leaders of monasteries. And I’ve discovered that Benedict’s chapter on Abbots or Abbesses is probably one of the best documents written on how to be an effective pastor and minister. And not just for clergy. But for anyone in leadership in the church.

The Rule makes clear that care of the sheep entrusted to one, is vital to a healthy monastery and, in our case, a healthy congregation.  St. Benedict writes:
“Above all let [the abbess] not neglect or undervalue 
the welfare of the souls committed to her, 
in a greater concern for fleeting, earthly, perishable things; 
but let her always bear in mind 
that she has undertaken the government of souls 
and that she will have to give an account of them…

“Let her know, then, 
that she who has undertaken the government of souls
must prepare herself to render an account of them. 
Whatever number of sisters she knows she has under her care, 
she may be sure beyond doubt that on Judgment Day 
she will have to give the Lord an account of all these souls, 
as well as of her own soul. 

“Thus the constant apprehension 
about her coming examination as shepherd 
(Ezech. 34) 
concerning the sheep entrusted to her, 
and her anxiety over the account that must be given for others, 
make her careful of her own record.” 

Essentially Benedict’s Chapter on Abbots and Abbesses is about how to be a Good Shepherd. That is very appropriate for today because today is, of course, Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. And I’m happy that, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we are able to celebrate the baptism of Cohan Ranney.
Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him in hat day and age. They would have “got” this.  They understood the difference between a good shepherd  and  a bad shepherd.  The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock.  He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He guided and led the flock to a place to eat.
This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock.  Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves.  In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd.  He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep.  Rather, he guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves.

The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there. He protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into places of water.

Let’s face it, there are many dangers out there.  There are many opportunities for us to trip ourselves, to get lost, to get hurt.  If we follow the Good Shepherd we avoid those pitfalls of life.

Of course, the journey isn’t an easy one.  We can still get hurt along the way.  Bad things can still happen to us.  There are predators out there, waiting to hurt us.  There are storms brewing in our lives, waiting rain down upon us. But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us.  We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us.

More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock.  He knows each of the sheep. If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold.

In our collect for today, there is a wonderful reference to the Good Shepherd.  In the prayer, we ask God:

“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’

Jesus sets the standard here for us.  Yes, we are called. But, in our calling, we then, in turn, are to be good shepherds to those around us.  We are called to serve, to look out for those people around us who need us. We are called to lead others to those choice places of refreshment. We are called to help and guide others.  And, most importantly, we are called to see and know those people we come into contact with in this world.  We are not called to simply exist in this world, vaguely acknowledging the people who are around us.

How often do we walk around not really “seeing” anyone around us? We are called to actually “know” the people we are called to serve.

The God Jesus shows us is not some vague, distant God.  We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves.  We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock.  We have the God who, in Psalm 23, that very familiar psalm we have all hear so many times in our lives, is a God who knows us and loves us and cares for us.  

But God accomplishes this love and knowledge through us. We, by being good shepherds, allow God to be the ultimate Good Shepherd. We were commissioned to be good shepherds by our baptisms. On that day we were baptized, we were called to be a Good Shepherds to others.

Today, dear Cohan is being commissioned to be a good shepherd in his life as a follower of Jesus.  And our prayer for him today is that he will, truly, grow up to be a good shepherd to those he meets and serves in his life.

Anyone can be a good shepherd.  Certainly, priests and pastors have long clung to that image and applied it to their vocation.  We’ve known the good shepherds in our clergy and ministers. I hope I have, at least sometimes, been a good shepherd to the people I have been called to serve.  

And we’ve all known the bad shepherds.  But, today, we don’t have to worry about those bad shepherds. Today, we celebrate the Good Shepherd—the Good Shepherd that is showing us the way forward to being good shepherds in our own lives.

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Good Shepherd, let us be what he is.  Let us live out our vocation to be good shepherds to those around us.  Let us truly “see” and know those people who share this life with us.  And let us know that being a good shepherd does make a difference in this world.

Let us make a difference. Emboldened by our baptism, strengthened by a God who knows us and love us, let us in turn know and love others as we are called to do.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Loneliness of Blizzards 20th Anniversary

20 very long years ago today my second book of poems, The Loneliness of Blizzards, was published. 

20 Years - The Loneliness of Blizzards

20 very long years ago today, my second book of poems, The Loneliness of Blizzards, was printed (the actual publication date was April 28, 1995). It seems like a lifetime ago.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

3 Easter

April 19, 2015

Luke 24.36b-48

+ I’ve shared this part of the priestly vocation with you before. But, during Confirmation this past year, I also shared it with our students.  As our confirmation class starts to wind down, I’ve discovered, as the students and I have reviewed all we’ve learned throughout this year, one of the things that has entertained them most was the stories of me being called in to deal with people’s houses that may be haunted.

The story you probably have heard is this one: When I was a new priest and was asked for the first time to come in to a person’s house and deal with what seemed to be paranormal activities, I honestly didn’t know what to do.

I was a fairly fresh priest, to be clear. I thought I knew all the answers. I’d already been through the wringer a few times.  But, I was a bit unprepared for this.

I was serving at Gethsemane Cathedral here in Fargo at the time and Bishop John Thornton, retired Bishop of Idaho was serving as sabbatical pastor. I loved—and still love—Bishop Thornton. He’s one of my pastoral heroes.  I learned so much about being an effective priest from Bishop Thornton in the short time I knew him and served with him.

Well, on this particular situation, I went in and told him I was asked to deal with this ghost situation.

I said to him, “Bishop, what should I do? I don’t know if I really believe in ghosts.”

The Bishop leaned back in his chair and with a  twinkle in his eyes, said, very nicely, “Jamie, who cares what you believe?”

I was shocked by this.  That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear.

But he very quickly added. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Jamie. If these people think they have a ghost, go in and bless their house. If they need you to be an exorcist, be an exorcist. If they need you to be a ghostbuster, be a ghostbuster. Whatever they need you to be, be that for them. For that period of time you’re with them, believe whatever they believe. If they believe they have a ghost, while you’re in their house, believe they have a ghost. Bless their house. Drive out whatever they think they have. And then once you get back in your car and drive home, if you still don’t believe, then don’t.  The key is this: be what they need you to be.”

It was the best answer I could’ve ever received.

So, I went.  I blessed their house.  And sure enough, whatever the issue was, it never made itself known again.

Bishop Thornton’s advice was by far the best advice I ever heard.  It simply blew me away.  It has also been advice that I have been able to apply to many other situations in my pastoral career.   And I can tell you, I have been asked, again and again to go in and deal with such issues.  

I still don’t know what I believe for certain about ghosts.  But, as Bishop Thornton made clear, it really doesn’t matter what I believe on this issue.

But there’s no getting around the issue of ghosts.  In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ followers experiencing something they believe to be a ghost. But the experience they have is also much more incredible than any experience with a ghost.  It much more life-altering. 

The Jesus who stand before them—the Jesus they know had been tortured and murdered, the Jesus who breathed his last and actually died—now stands before them.  But this Jesus is no ghost.  He is flesh and blood.  They can touch him.  They can feel the wounds of his death.  They can hold him.  And he can eat actual food with them.  The Jesus who appears to them, who actually lives with them, is someone they no doubt cannot even begin to understand.  If they thought what he said and did before the crucifixion was amazing and mind-boggling, now it is even more incredible. 

This Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel is just as incredible to us.  And perhaps maybe even more so.  For the people of Jesus’ day, they could actually wrap accept the fact that things happened beyond their understanding.  For us, we tend to rationalize away anything we don’t understand.  And the idea of someone who has died suddenly appearing before us—in the flesh, with wounds—and eat with us—is more than incredible.  It seems impossible.  And as we hear it, we do find ourselves beginning to rationalize it away.

But rationalize as we might, the fact remains: Christ is still present to us in the flesh.   We, the Church, those who have collectively come together to follow Jesus, to live the Christian life, to live out what Jesus taught us—we are the physical body of Jesus in this world still.  We, with our wounds, with the signs of our past pains, with all that we bring with us, are the embodiment of Jesus in this world. We are the ones who, like Jesus, bring a living and loving God to people who need a living and loving God.  We are called to embody God’s love, to embody God’s compassion, to embody—to make part of our bodies—a God who truly accepts and loves all people.  That is what it means to be Jesus in this world.

We are not called to be ghosts. We are not called to be vague Christians, who sort of float around and make echoing ghostly statements about our faith to people hoping they will somehow “accept Jesus.” We are called to be living, loving human beings embodying a living, loving God, serving living humans beings who, like us, are broken and in pain.

Just as Jesus shared what was given to him, so are we to share what is given to us. We who have known the love and acceptance of our God are called to, in turn, share this love and acceptance to others.  And when we do, we are the body of him who we follow. We can’t do the ministry we do if we are just ghosts.  We are not going to help anyone is we are wraiths and specters of God in this world.  

The God we embody and carry with us is not some ephemeral thing.  The God we serve is real.  And when we go out and serve others as Jesus, we make God physical.  We make God real. We make God’s love real. And that makes all the difference. That changes things.

So, let us carry out this mission together.  Let us be the body of  Jesus in the world.  And as the Body of Jesus, let us be the conduits through which we bring God to those who need God.  Let us sit down and eat with those with whom we serve and those we serve. Let us never be ghosts.

“…a ghost,” Jesus says to us, “does not have flesh and bones…”

But we do. And we are called to use out flesh and bones to serve others.  Let us never be vague Christians who float about transparently. But let us be physical Christians, showing our wounds to those who are wounded.

And as the body of Jesus in this world, we can do what Bishop Thornton reminded me to do when I was a new priest:  we can be whatever we are called to be in a particular situation.  We, as the physical Body of Jesus, can adapt and mold ourselves to those situations in which we can make God present in those areas in which God needs to be present.

If we do, we are doing what Jesus calls us to do.  If we do so we will find that we are not frightened and that whatever doubts will arise in our hearts really, in the long run, won’t matter.  Rather, by our presence, by love, by our acceptance, we will do what Jesus did. We will drive away, once and for all,  every one of those ghosts of fright and doubt.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dying, thanks to Bishop Pike and William Stringfellow

I’ve been obsessing a bit lately about the Bishop James Pike, who died in September 1969 in the Judean wilderness. In my obsessing, I came across this amazing quote by another hero of mine, William Stringfellow. What I love about this quote is that, as I meditated on it, I found myself replacing all of Bishop Pike’s issues with my own. Dying to these things we once held so dear is essential to dying "in Christ," I realize. Dying to our ego, to our aspirations, to our preconceived notions of ourselves and this world. Dying to ourselves now, our actual death will truly be a birth. Thank you, Bishop Pike. Thank you, Bill Stringfellow.

“The death to self in Christ was neither doctrinal abstraction nor theological jargon for James Pike. He died in such a way before his death in Judea. He died to authority, celebrity, the opinions of others, publicity, status, dependence upon Mama, indulgences in alcohol and tobacco, family and children, marriage and marriages, promiscuity, scholarly ambition, the lawyer’s profession, political opportunity, Olympian discourses, forensic agility, controversy, denigration, injustice, religion, the need to justify himself. By the time Bishop Pike reached the wilderness in Judea, he had died in Christ. What, then, happened there was not so much a death as a birth.”

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Burial Liturgy for Georgia Patneaude

The Funeral Liturgy for
Georgia Patnaeude
Fredrikson Funeral Home
Halstad, Minneosta
April 12, 2015

+ I will be honest with you tonight.  don’t want to be saying goodbye to Georgia tonight. I—like many of us tonight—just aren’t ready. Yes, I know she had a long life. Yes, I know she was tired. I know it was time for her to go.  But, it’s still hard. And I am going to miss her very much.

I knew Georgia for many years. And I certainly enjoyed greatly those years I knew her.  Every time I would visit her, she would always be so happy to see me. She would brighten right up and let out little yelp of joy when I would I come in to see her.  And I enjoyed that. I have always been very grateful for that.

As I said, I, like everyone here,  will miss Georgia dearly. I will miss her kindness, her gentleness, her laugh, her great sense of humor. I will miss that almost contagious joy that she carried within her.

I know this last year was a hard one for her. I saw her three weeks ago tomorrow, and that day she was having a hard day. But, as we talked that day, I can tell you this:  she was prepared. She knew what awaited her after this life.  And it did not frighten her.
As difficult as it is right now,  the reality is this. We are saying goodbye, yes. But it is only a temporary goodbye. It is a goodbye until we see each other again.

Georgia, I can tell you, had a very deep faith and belief that we would, one day, all see each other again.  She had a deep faith in her God, who was with her and remained with her until the end. She knew that she was loved and sustained by her God.  I can assure you, her faith was strong. She never wavered, throughout all of those last trials and illnesses. She never wavered through any of the hardships of her life.  She never complained. And, I can tell you,  she never once lost her faith.

Every time I visited her and asked her is she wanted Holy Communion, she very anxiously and excitedly said, “Yes!” She was always, to the very end, a good Episcopalian and a faithful follower of Jesus.  

The scripture readings we have today are particularly apt. Our reading from Romans could have been written with Georgia very much in mind: Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

And a bit later in Romans, we hear an even more incredible statement:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing—nothing—separates us from that incredible love God has for each of us.  It’s almost too amazing to even imagine. Georgia knew that love and that strong faith. And last Monday morning, that glory which the Apostle Paul spoke about earlier in that reading, that glory was revealed to Georgia.

She believed in that glory. She knew it awaited her. And she knew she was headed toward that glorious destination.

At the end of this service, I will lead us in what is called “The Commendation.”  For many of us, we have heard the words of the Commendation hundreds of times. But if you listen closely tonight to the words of the Commendation, you will find the heart in which Georgia Patneaude’s faith was found. In the Commendation, we will say,

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

And it will end with those very powerful words:

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

Those are words in which, even in the face of all that life—and yes, even death—throws at us, as it did to Georgia through her life, we, like her, can hold up our heads even then,  with integrity, bolstered by our faith in God. Even in the face of whatever life may throw at me, we can almost hear her say: I did not let those bad things win out in my life. And she did not.

“…yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.”

Even you, death, will not win out over me, Georgia seems to say. Even in the face of these awful things, I will hold up my head and I will face you, death, with strength. And, because I have faith in my God, you, death, will not defeat me.

And I can tell you, death has not defeated Georgia Patnaeude. All that joy, all that love, all that wonderful life that was contained within that little small frame of a body—all of that is not gone tonight. It is not lost. Tonight, all the good things that Georgia Patnaeude was to us—that woman of life and strength and joy—all of that is not lost.  It is not gone. Death has not swallowed that up.  Rather all of that is alive and dwells now in a place of beauty and Light inaccessible. All of that dwells in a place of peace and joy, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.  In a place in which, there never again be any more tears.

Georgia will never cry another tear again. Sadly, we’re not at that point yet in our own lives. We will shed more tears.  Certainly tonight and tomorrow we will shed more tears. But, for us who are left, we know that that place awaits us as well.  That place of light and joy awaits each of us as well.  And we will have the opportunity to dwell there.

Yes, I am brutally honest tonight. I will miss Georgia very, very much.  We will all miss her and will feel her loss for a long time to come. But, on this day in which we bid her this temporary goodbye, let us also be thankful. Let us be thankful for this woman whom God has been gracious to let us know and to love. Let us be thankful for her example to us.  Let us be thankful for all that she has taught us and continues to teach us.  Let us be grateful for the love she felt for us and the love we felt for her. And let us be grateful for all she has given us in our own lives.

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Georgia. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.  Amen.

2 Easter

Low Sunday
April 12, 2015

John 20.19-31

+ I’m going to test you this morning. This is going to be a hard test. I’m going to see if anyone here actually read my book of short stories, The Downstairs Tenant. I wrote a story in it called, “I Could’ve Gone on Forever.” In that story, I talked about an astronaut and an actual famous event about astronaut in the 1960s.  So, who was the astronaut I wrote about? Or—and I’m going to make this easy for you who didn’t read it—who was the cosmonaut? It’s all right if you didn’t read the book or the story.

It was about Yuri Gagarin. And today, April 12, is the 54th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s trip to space, making him the first  human being in space. In 1961, this was a HUGE event.  

Supposedly, the first words attributed to humankind in space came from him and they were not words of awe, or praise. The first words from humans in space were:

“I see no God up here!”

Actually those words are probably apocryphal.

But, let’s face it—he didn’t see God up there. He didn’t see God there or anywhere. You’ve heard me say it again and again.

I have deep and profound respect for atheism. I truly believe that atheism is fairly simple and straightforward. But belief—belief is hard.  And none of us can believe without a certain level of doubt. Doubt is healthy. It’s an important part of true faith.  In fact, it’s one of the healthiest things we can do as believers.

In this morning’s Gospel, we encounter doubt of course in the person of the apostle Thomas.  Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, doubted that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his very fingers into the wounds of Jesus.  It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh. Obviously, Jesus wasn’t a ghost or something after all.  He stood there in the flesh—wounds and all.  Only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.

It’s a strange and wonderful story.  I always liked this story and what it stands for. I think it’s always interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas.  Thomas, I think, is so much like us in many ways.  We sometimes do need little bits of proof to make our faith meaningful.  We sometimes need to touch the wounds of our own faith to actually believe.  We sometimes need to proof just to get us through the difficult phases of our belief.

But, the fact is, we are not St. Thomas.  For the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy.  Our doubts are not as easily done away with. Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh.  And we are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus.

Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy. It takes work and discipline. A strong relationship with God takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work.  It takes discipline.  It takes concentrated effort.  There will be good days and bad days in our relationship with God.

And with that, we cannot get around the fact there will be times of doubt.  We will question.  We will, however briefly, question God’s actions, God’s love for us. Or even that God exists at all.  We might even question the actual existence of God at times. It’s important to question.  Questioning means we’re not robots. And doubting is not a bad thing in and of itself.  Without some doubt, we would, again, be nothing more than unthinking and unquestioning robots.  And that is not faith.

Faith is being able to weigh both the certainties and uncertainties and still make that step forward into the unknown and hope and believe that we will be sustained.  Doing so is not the easiest road to take.  It takes constant work to make that step into the unknown.  Belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—come easy.  It takes constant discipline to believe in something we can’t see or touch.  It takes constant discipline to believe that there is something out there that we cannot see or feel that will sustain us when we take that step forward.

In a sense, we are sometimes like blind people groping in the dark, trying to understand who and what God is in our lives.  We make our guesses.  We see God as we want to see God.  We often form God into our image when we can’t do anything else. And when we do that, it’s easy to say that God of our own perceptions doesn’t exists because…that God doesn’t exist.

There’s a great quote I once heard:

“The same God many atheists don’t believe is the same God I don’t believe in either.”

That god is often a god of our own perceptions,a  god created in our image. And I do not believe in that god. If that were THE god, then I too would be an atheist.

But it isn’t that easy, sadly. Now, for Thomas, he saw.  He touched. It was all made clear to him.  We however don’t get that chance.  We are often just groping about in the void, trying to make some sense of who this God is that we follow and love and worship.

“Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning in our Gospel reading.

We are those blessed ones.  We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel.  Blessed are we.  We believe, but don’t see.  Yet.

We are the ones who are able to look into the void, into the very depths, and, unable to see God with our eyes, we somehow still have faith.  Seen or unseen, we know God is there.  And our faith is not based on seeing God here.  Because we have faith that one day, yes, we will see God. We have this faith because the one we the follow—Jesus—showed us the way forward.  He stepped out into that void and was held up by God.  He still motions to us to come forward, to step into what we think is a void.  Because Jesus did what he did, we know we too will be held up by God.  And because he died and was resurrected, even though we might doubt it at times, even though it doesn’t make sense to our rational minds, we know—deeply—that this is what awaits us as well.  And, on that glorious day, we will run to God and see God face to face.  And in that moment, our faith will be fulfilled.

Blessed are you who believe but don’t see now.  The Kingdom of Heaven is truly yours.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

At the grave of Dolores Frank (1917-1962) Calvary Cemetery, Rockville, Minnesota

I don't usually inflict my poems on others, but here's a poem I wrote for my friend Gin Templeton (co-author of our book, This Grass) for he birthday today. Happy birthday, Gin. 

Copyright (c) 2015 by Jamie Parsley

Sunday, April 5, 2015


April 5, 2015

+  I have never made a secret of this fact…but, I LOVE Easter. Some people are Christmas people. Some people are Easter people. I’m definitely an Easter person.  To be honest, I’ve never been a big Christmas fan. For me, this day is100 times better than Christmas.

During this last week, I actually got two opportunities to celebrate Easter in advance (something that doesn’t happen with Christmas). On Tuesday and on Thursday, we had funerals for two of our parishioners who both died on March 25. Funerals in the Episcopal Church are like little Easters. We get to light the Paschal Candle. We get to say the word Alleluia, even though we’re not supposed to during the Lenten season that precedes Easter.  And we get to concentrate on the fact that death, in the end, has no real power over us.

That is what Easter is all about. See, this is why I LOVE Easter.

But what’s even better about Easter in my opinion is that, unlike Christmas, which when it’s over it’s over (people put out that Christmas tree the day after Christmas), Easter happens again and again for us who are followers of Jesus. We get to experience it and all it represents mutliple times over the year.  And why shouldn’t we?  When we celebrate Easter, we are celebrating life. Eternal life.

Rob Bell one said,

“Eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

I love that. Resurrection is a kind reality that we, as Christians, are called to live into.  And it’s not just something we believe happens after we die.  We are called to live into that Resurrection NOW.  By raising Jesus from the dead, God calls us to live into that joy and that beautiful life NOW.  The alleluias we sing this morning are not for some beautiful moment after we have breathed our last.  Those alleluias are for now, as well as for later. Those alleluias, those joyful sounds we make, this Light we celebrate, is a Light that shines now—in this moment. We are alive now.  We have already died with Christ when we were baptized.  And in those waters, we were raised with him, just as he is raised today and always. Easter and our whole lives as Christians is all about this fact. Our lives should be joyful because of this fact—this reality—that Jesus died and is risen and by doing so has destroyed our deaths.

This is what it means to be a Christian. Easter is about this radical new life.  It is about living in another dimension that, to our rational minds, makes no sense.  Even, sometimes, with us, it doesn’t make sense.  It almost seems too good to be true.  And that’s all right to have that kind of doubt. It doesn’t make sense that we celebrating an event that seems so wonderful that it couldn’t possibly be true. It doesn’t make sense that this event that seems so super-human can bring such joy in our lives.

Today we are commemorating the fact that Jesus, who was tortured, was murdered, was buried in a tomb and is now…alive.  Fully and completely alive.  Alive in a real body. Alive in a body that only a day before was lying, broken and dead, in a tomb. And…as if that wasn’t enough, we are also celebrating the fact that we truly believe we too are experiencing this too. Experiencing this—in the present tense.  

Yes, we too will one day die. But, THAT doesn’t matter. What matters is that that death is already defeated. We are already living, by our very lives, by our baptisms and our faith in Jesus, into the eternal, unending, glorious life that Jesus lives in this moment. Our bodies MAY be broken. Our bodies WILL die. But we will live because God raised Jesus to life.

What we are celebrating this morning is reality.  What we are celebrating this morning is that this resurrected life which we are witnessing in Jesus is really the only reality. And death is really only an illusion. We aren’t deceiving ourselves.  We’re not a na├»ve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful. We know what darkness is. We know what death is.  We know what suffering and pain are.  Most of us here this morning have had losses in our lives. We know the depths of pain and despair in our lives.

What Easter reminds us, again and again, is that darkness is not eternal.  It will not ultimately win out.  Light will always win.  This Light will always succeed.  This Light will be eternal.

I am honest when I say that part of me wishes I could always live in this Easter Light.  I wish I could always feel this joy that I feel this morning.  But the fact is, this Light will lose its luster faster than I even want to admit.  This joy will fade too.

But I do believe that whatever heaven is—and none of us knows for certain what it will be like—I have no doubt that it is very similar this the joy we feel this morning.  I believe with all that is in me that it is very much like the experience of this Light that we are celebrating this morning—an unending Easter.  And if that is what Heaven is, then it is a joy that will not die, and it is a Light that will not fade and grow dim. And if that’s all I know of heaven, then that is enough for me.

The fact is, Easter doesn’t end when the sun sets today. Easter is what we carry within us as Christians ALL the time.  Easter is living out the Resurrection by our very presence.  We are, each of us, carrying within us this Easter Light we celebrate this morning and always.  All the time.  It is here, in our very souls, in our very bodies, in our very selves. With that Light burning within us, being reflected in what we do and say, in the love we show to God and to each other, what more can we say on this glorious, glorious morning?  What more can we say when God’s glorious, all-loving, resurrected realty breaks through to us in glorious light and transforms us;

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday

April 3, 2015

+ Last night I preached about how the story of Jesus, for us as followers of Jesus, becomes our story too. Well, here we are.  This too is our story. This is the part of the story we don’t want to be ours.

The bleakness.

The stripped away austerity.


We have reached the lowest point in this long, dark week. Everything seems to have led to this moment.

To this moment—this moment of the cross, the nails, the thorns. To this moment of blood and pain and death. To this moment of violence and utter destruction.

We are here, in this moment, not finding comfort, not finding consolation. We are here facing not only Jesus’ death, but our own death as well. And nothing fills us with more fear than this.

Here is our identity.

We are reminded of it every time we gather at this altar to celebrate the Eucharist.  We are reminded of it every time, in the Eucharist, the priest raises the broken Bread and shows it to us.

Yes, this is Jesus’ death. But it is ours too. In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real.  We can feel this brokenness now in a way we never have before.  Our brokenness is shown back to us like the reflection in a dark mirror as we look upon that broken, emaciated body on the cross.

But…as broken as we are, as much of a reminder of our own death this day might be, so too is the next  24 hours. What seems like a bleak, black moment will be replaced by the blinding Light of the Resurrection.  What seems like a moment of unrelenting despair will soon be replaced by an unleashing of unrestrained joy. What seems like an eternal brokenness will replaced by complete wholeness.

Yes, we might die, but God is not dead. Yes, we might be broken, but God will restore all that is broken. This present despair will be turned completely around. This present darkness will be vanquished.  This present pain will be replaced with a comfort that brings about peace.  This present brokenness will be healed fully and completely, leaving not even a scar.

God will prevail even over even this.

This is what today is about too. This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us. All we need to do is go where the journey leads us and trust in the one who leads.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday

April 2, 2015

+ This week is, of course, an emotional week. In addition the two Funerals we had this week, saying goodbye to two people who were friends to many of us, we also have the memory of what we are commemorating this week.

For me anyway my emotions are right on the surface, as they often are during Holy Week. I think they are because I realize that this week is more than what it appears on the surface. Yes, we are commemorating Jesus’s last days. But, as I said on Sunday, following Jesus means making his story our story as well. That’s not an easy thing.

I find myself thinking of my last days as well. In walking with Jesus, in following him, we are reminded, in no uncertain terms, that there will be a time when we too will be going through our own last hours, when we too will be eating our last meal, when we too will be turning away from this world and looking toward the next.

In my emotional state this week, I for some reason, was thinking about my father. And I was thinking about his last days and his last meal. I remember in the days after his death and funeral, I had to clean out his pickup. As I did so, I found on the front seat, an empty bag from Hardee’s. It hit me hard for some reason. I know he ate too much fast food, but it was easy food for him with his busy schedule. I shared my finding of the Hardee’s bag a day or two later with a friend of his, and this friend said, “Yeah! You know I saw him driving out of the drive-in at Hardee’s on Main Avenue that day before he died!”

That stayed with me all these years.  For some reason, I cannot pass that Hardee’s to this day without thinking that is where my dad got his second-to-last meal (he ate is supper that night at home, of course). There was something about that physical Hardee’s bag that struck me and had such meaning to me.  And it reminds me of what we are commemorating this evening.

This evening of Maundy Thursday is all about remembering and it is about the physical.  Tonight, we are experiencing physical signs of God’s presence.  We are being anointed in absolution for our sins. We are coming forward to be fed with Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, these next few days are also about that merging between the physical and spiritual—about, truly, Incarnation. This physical body of Jesus will tomorrow be tortured and then will be nailed to the Cross.  It will die and be laid in a dark tomb.  On Saturday, it will be there, laid out, broken and destroyed.  But on Sunday, that physical body will be raised out of that darkness.  It will rise out of that destroyed state.  It will come forth from that broken disgrace and will be fully and completely alive and present.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  For now, we are here, in this moment.  We are here on Maundy Thursday, experiencing the physical and spiritual life that we have been given.  We are preparing ourselves to remember that Last Supper, as we do every Sunday.

I think we often take for granted what we do at this altar each Sunday and every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.  I know I do occasionally. But what we celebrate together here is not something we should take for granted.  What we celebrate here is truly an incredible and beautiful thing.  It is more than just some memorial Jesus left us.  It is more than just nice, quaint practice of the Church.  It is a prescursor.

This meal is really our last meal as well. This is the last real meal that will ultimately sustain us.  

But it’s even more than just that too.  It also lifts the veil that exists right now, right here between each of us.  And we do live in a veiled world.  We live in a world in which we ignore each other, in which we really and truly don’t SEE each other.  Here, at the Eucharist, that veil too is lifted.

Tonight, we, the followers of Jesus, are witnessing Jesus truly humble himself, even in the face of his impeding death.  He humbles himself in the washing of feet. And he humbles himself in his giving us these basic element of bread and wine.  And he invites us, as well, to enter into this humbling experience—this experience in which we need to encounter each other in this most basic of acts.  He essentially invites us to enter into what Nora Gallagher calls “the kingdom of the living bread.”

What we experience here with each other at this altar in Holy Communion is truly a bridge of sorts.  We find that the divine—God—is present to us in some thing we can touch and taste and in those gathered with us here.  And more than just some spiritual practice we do, we do this not just with our spirits, but with our very bodies as well. We do it with our very physical presence.  And, in doing so, we realize that we are catching a glimpse of the resurrected state that we will so glorious celebrate in just a few days time on Sunday morning.

What comes to us at this altar, is truly the manna come down from heaven.  It is a reminder to us of the sacrifice of that Lamb of God, which we found prefigured in our reading from Exodus.

Whenever I raise the bread at Communion, you hear me say, “This is the Lamb of God. This is the one who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we are invited to this supper.”

This not just quaint language we use in the church.  This is truth.  Yes, this communion is not going to quench our physical thirst or cure our growling stomachs.  By outward standards what we do at this altar might seem frivolous.

But, as Nora Gallagher writes: “Taking Communion…is a creative acts, and it makes no more ‘sense than writing a poem, or for that matter, reading one. It isn’t going to get you anywhere in the world; it’s not networking; it has no practical worth.” And she is right.

Simone Weil once said, every creative act is a “folly of love.”

Still, for us, who celebrate this mystery together, we do leave here filled.  We do leave here spiritually fed.  We do come away with a sense that God is present and that God goes with us—each of us—all of us—from this altar and from this church, into the world.

So, let us come forward to this altar tonight, with each other.  Let us come forward to this kingdom of the living bread.  Let us also come forward on this night in which Jesus instituted this incredible sacrament in which he reminds us that God is with us, on this night in which he humbled himself and invites us, as well, to humble ourselves.  Let us humble ourselves and be fed on what is essentially our own last meal.  And let us go from here, humbled and fed, to feed others and to be the Presence of Christ to others.

The Funeral Liturgy for Patricia Butler

Patricia A. Butler
(March 17, 1924– March 25, 2015)
April 2, 2015

+I am very grateful this morning. I am grateful for the fact that we get this opportunity to  commemorate the life of  Pat Butler and to commend this wonderful woman to God. She was an amazing woman.

I first got to know Pat not long after I first came to St. Stephen’s in 2008. I went over to her home and visited her. And we had a great conversation about her life, about Fargo in 1950s and 1960s, and found out we knew many of the same people.

Over the years, she would often talk about the first years of this congregation of St. Stephen’s. She was one of the charter members of this congregation when it was founded in 1957. And this church was certainly very important to her.

We at St. Stephen’s are very grateful for all that Pat Butler did to make our congregation what it is.  She was a remarkable woman—and I don’t say that lightly. She was a woman of great strength and of contagious warmth.  Whenever I would come and 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.

Now I know that if Pat were here this morning, she would be poo-pooing me to be quiet about all these glowing comments about her.  Because in addition to being a strong person—she was also pretty modest.  

And, I can say in all honesty, that she really is with us here this morning.  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 Pat is close to us today.  She is here, in our midst, celebrating her life with us. And we should truly celebrate her life.  It was a good life.  It was a life full of meaning and purpose. And it was a life full of faith in God.

As her priest, I can tell you that, for Pat, 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 better. After all, would a God of love provide us, who made it through the perils of this life, with anything less than a mansion? Would God provide Pat with anything less than a mansion?  I don’t think so. And I am fully certain that God has indeed provided a mansion for Pat.

That is probably the best consolation we can take away from today. After all, that wonderful life of hers is not over by any means.  It has only blossomed into its fullest meaning. In God—in the God she loved and served—Pat is now fully and completely herself.  She is, in this moment,  whole.

Of course that doesn’t make any of this any easier for those who are left behind. I, for one, am going to miss her.  I am going to miss my visits with her and sharing Holy Communion with her and hearing her wonderful stories.  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, our feelings of loss are only temporary as well.  They too will pass away. This is what gets us through.

Our faith shows us that we will see her again. And when we do, it will be glorious.

This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss. That is what this Holy Week is all about.  Yes, Jesus, this week, was betrayed, suffered and was murdered. Those who loved him felt a despair like no other despair. On that Friday afternoon when he died, few of them could ever imagine that there would ever be joy or hope again. And yet, on that Easter morning, their tears were turned to smiles and their sorrow was turned to joy.

Today, it is an unending Easter day for Pat. And that glorious day awaits us as well.  That is what we hope in. 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 Pat would tell you—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear like a bad dream upon awakening.  Pat knew this faith in her own life and we too can cling to it in a time like this. It is in a moment like this that I am thankful for the fact that I knew Pat—I am thankful for the lessons she taught me—because even now she can help someone like me to understand my faith.

So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith—that, with God, Pat is complete and whole and beautiful at this moment.  

Today, it is Easter morning for Pat—an Easter morning that will never end.  And let us be glad that one day we too will be sharing with her in that unending joy.  Amen.

3 Pentecost

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