Sunday, April 30, 2017

3 Easter

April 30, 2017

Luke 24.13-35

+ Now, I know by this point, you are all starting to groan when I start talking about our stained glass windows again. I apologize for that.  But, I am really excited about our new windows. And we should be too.  These windows are, as you are probably coming to see, like great big mirrors on our walls. They are reflecting in many ways what we do here at St. Stephen’s.

But I am not going to mention today the windows we already have, or even the window that will be coming up in the next few weeks—St. Cecilia—or even the one after that—St. Stephen. I’m going to talk about the window that is going in in the last spot on our east wall—Sts. Benedict and Scholastica. And more importantly, what that window will represent. That window will represent something we have worked hard to do here at St. Stephen’s.  That window will represent that very important—the incredibly VITAL—ministry of hospitality.  RADICAL Hospitality.  And if you want to know what real ministry is about, then this is IT.

Real ministry, as we have all discovered, is not about the almighty ME—the individual. It is about US—all of us, the children of God.  Radical Hospitality is not easy. Ministry is not easy. Sharing our time, our energy, our physical building, is not easy.

Because being radically welcoming means welcoming people we, personally, might not want to welcome. People who irritate us, or rub counter to our own views of what church should be.

This isn’t a judgment, mind you. I am preaching to myself here.
There have been moments in my time here at St. Stephen’s when I have had to deal with people whom we’ve welcomed here who have taken advantage of our hospitality. And that’s one of the pitfalls of being radically welcoming. Being radically welcoming does not mean being a radical doormat.  It’s good to have good boundaries in being radically welcoming.

But, through trial and error, through good experiences and bad, radical hospitality is what we do—and do well—here at St. Stephen’s. And we should be glad that we are that kind of congregation. That is what that window represents. But we’ll talk about all of that in a moment.

In today’s Gospel, we find hospitality as well.  We find this beautiful story of Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  Cleopas and the other disciple are, essentially, already in a strange time in their life in following Jesus.  The long week of Jesus’ betrayal, torture and murder are behind them.  The resurrection has happened, although, it’s clear from their words, they don’t quite comprehend what’s happened.

Of course, who could?  We still, two thousand years later, are grappling with the events of Jesus’ resurrection.

But as these two walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they are kept from recognizing their friend, the person they saw as the Messiah, until finally he breaks the bread with them.  Only then—only when he breaks that bread open to share with them—do they recognize him. It’s a wonderful story and one that has many, many layers of meaning for each of us individually, no doubt.

But for us Episcopalians, for us who gather together every Sunday and every Wednesday to break bread together, this story takes on special meaning.  In a sense, we are the disciples in this reading. We are Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, walking on the road—walking, as they are, in that place on the other side of the cross.

They are walking away from Jerusalem, where all these events happened—the betrayal, the torture the murder and the eventual resurrection of Jesus from the tomb—back to Emmaus, to their homes.  Like them, we go around in our lives on the other side of the cross, trying to understand what it means to be followers of Jesus on this side of the cross.

What this story teaches us is that, even when we don’t recognize Jesus in our midst, we should always be cautious.  He might not make himself known to us as he did to Cleopas and the other disciple.

Rather, he might remain cloaked in that stranger who comes to us.  And as a result, it’s just so much better to realize that everyone we encounter, everyone we greet, everyone we welcome, everyone we make room for, truly is Jesus disguised.

Which brings us back to our forthcoming St Benedict window.  As many of you know, there are many Benedictine Oblates at St Stephen’s—James, Emily Woolwine and your truly—and there are many others of us who are truly Benedictine in spirit. I have the good fortune of celebrating my 25th anniversary this year of being an Oblate.  Benedictine Oblates and other Benedictine-minded people strive in our lives to follow the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient, though very amazing document.

In that Rule, there is one particular amazing reference:  In the 53rd Chapter of the Rule, St. Benedict writes:

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

That is very, very powerful. And that’s what that forthcoming window will represent.  Because it’s most definitely what we do here at St. Stephen’s.  

But, for a moment, just imagine what an incredible world this would be if everyone could do this—if everyone could practice radical hospitality like St. Benedict.  What an amazing Christian Church we would have if we could do the same, if we could welcome every stranger—and every regular parishioner as well—as Christ.  

Imagine if we welcomed even our very enemies as Christ.  I think many Christians forget this. We are called to welcome all people as Christ, because we do not know when we will encounter him, in whatever guise he might choose to come to us.

Now, of course, that’s not easy.  In fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible.  Without God’s help, we can’t do it.  Without God’s help—without the Holy Spirit—we first of all can’t even begin to recognize Christ in our midst.  And without God’s help, we can’t seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

And, let’s face, it’s just easier to choose not to.  It’s much easier to grumble and mumble and complain. It’s much easier to backbite.  It’s easy not to see Christ in those people who drive us crazy, who irritate us, who say things to us we don’t want to hear.  It’s much, much easier for us to see the devil in people, rather than Christ.

But for us who gather together every Sunday at this table—at this altar—we can’t use that excuse of being unable to recognize Jesus in our midst.  Jesus IS in our midst.  

In our liturgy, we find Jesus in a multitude of ways.  Jesus speaks to us in the scripture readings we hear in the Liturgy of the Word.  The voice we hear in these sacred words is truly Jesus’ voice, speaking to each of us in our own particular circumstances, and to all of us as whole.

Jesus is present with us—in ALL of us—as we gather here.  We—the assembly of the people—we, all of us together, are the presence of Jesus here as well.

And when we break this bread at the altar, we find whatever spiritual blindness we come here with is lifted at that time.  We see Christ truly present with us—in the bread and the wine,  and in one another.

Radical hospitality DOES make a difference.  Greeting people as though Jesus were present in each person who comes through that door has incredible results—not in only in our collective life here at St. Stephen’s, but in the lives of each of those people coming among us.

We are showing them that, despite the occasionally somewhat ugly reputation the Church has at times—and sometimes deservedly so—we, as the Body of Christ in this world, can do much good as well.  We can truly love.  We can truly be accepting—of all people, no matter who or what they are.  We can truly see clearly that Jesus does still walk beside us.  We can see that he is with us here as we listen to the scriptures and he is here with us that this table in the breaking of the bread.

So, today, let us hear—truly hear—his words in the scriptures we have just shared and in the scriptures we will read this week.  Let us allow Jesus to speak to us with words that are familiar, with a voice that is familiar.  Let us allow him to take away whatever spiritual blindness we might have so that we can truly and completely see him in those people who share our life with us.  Let us allow him to take away that spiritual blindness that causes so much harm in the world so that we can fully experience him and show love and respect to everyone we come in contact with.

And when we break this bread this morning, let our hearts sing, as it no doubt did for Cleopas and the other disciple,

“Be known to me, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of bread.”

And recognizing him here, as we come forward to be nourished in body and spirit by his Body, Blood and Spirit. may we also go out into the world, able to recognize Jesus as he walks alongside us on our journey.

We are living, in this moment, on the other side of the cross.  We are living here, with Jesus in our very midst.  It is truly a glorious place to be.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

2 Easter

April 23, 2017

John 20.19-31

+ I am a very weird priest. I know this doesn’t come as a surprise to many of you. I really am. While some clergy people I know, try to avoid discussing issues like doubt or atheism, I actually gladly welcome the challenge, as you very well know. You know how I feel about atheism and agnosticism. I truly believe they are very valid religious expressions.  And important ones. And I respect and admire many atheist people in my own life and in society.

I have also been very honest with all of you about my own doubts at times.  I was an agnostic at one point in my life.

Doubt is an important and essential part of our faith life. We essentially can’t have real faith without real doubt. We need that tension in our faith lives to make our faith valid to a large extent. And to deny doubt in our lives is to deceive ourselves. We do doubt.

I remember once meeting a young, very devout Roman Catholic woman, with whom I always enjoyed have lively conversations. At one point in a conversation I had with her, I said, “well, surely there are some things about the Roman Catholic Church you disagree with. Certainly you doubt certain aspects of the Roman Catholic faith.”
She became very serious—very solemn—and very emphatically said, “I believe in every aspect of my Catholic faith. Without doubt.”

I wish I had faith like that.  I wish my faith was not pocked and spotted with doubt.

But, to be brutally honest,  it is sometimes. I do doubt sometimes. We all do. And I am wary to some extent of those who have no doubt. Yes, we struggle with these issues of belief in our lives.

Let’s face it, we don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus.  

You know what. I’d be the same way.  Well, maybe I wouldn’t insist on putting my fingers in a wound.  That’s a bit extreme.  But, certainly, if someone I knew and cared for died and suddenly everyone is telling me that person is now actually alive, I would definitely doubt that. And if I knew that person had died and was now standing in front of me, I would still be skeptical. Skeptical of my sanity, if nothing else. Or my eyesight.  

So, for Thomas, it wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to in the flesh—Jesus, was no ghost after all.  He stood there in the flesh—wounds and all.  Only when Thomas  had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.

That’s great for Thomas.  But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy.  We will struggle. We will struggle with things like the Resurrection.

Sure, we understand “resurrections” in our lives. We’ve all known what it is be reborn, to feel joy after bad things happen. But to believe in this event in the life of Jesus—this Resurrection. The Resurrection. He died, he was buried, and now, all of a sudden, he is alive. And is still alive. For us. Right now.

It’s hard. Our rational minds rebel against this. And for those of us who have studied systematic theology and have studied those German Biblical scholars of the Tübingen school—the so-called “High Criticism”—for those of us who studied Schliermacher and Feuerbach and Schweitzer, we especially find it all somewhat fantastic.   

It’s easy to doubt. But faith, that’s hard. It’s not easy to have faith. I don’t have to tell anyone here this morning about faith. We all know how hard it really is It takes work and discipline.

More likely than not, we can all think of at least one or two things we’d rather be doing this Sunday morning than being in church.  We could sleep in.  We could have a nice long breakfast with our families.  We could be reading the newspaper.  We could watch TV while lounging on the couch, or we could be sitting at the computer.

But instead, we made the choice to come to church.  We made a choice to come here this morning, and worship a God we cannot see, not touch.  We made a choice to come here and celebrate an event that our rational minds tell us could never have happened. And not just celebrate. But to stand up and profess belief in it, even if we might have struggles with it.  But even if we struggle with it—it’s all right. It’s all right to struggle and doubt and wrestle with it.

A strong relationship to God takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work. It takes discipline.  It takes concentrated effort. Being a believer in God does not just involve being nice on occasion and smiling.  It means living one’s life fully and completely as a believer.  And being a Christian believer is even more refined.  As Christians we are committed to follow Jesus.  But it’s even more than that.

Last Sunday I preached that our job as Christians is to BE the Resurrection. Right now. Right here. And I believe that.

Yes, rationally it might all seem very difficult. But if we just live as though the Resurrection didn’t happen only to Jesus but us too-if we believe that God has and will raise us up just as God raised Jesus—then, that covers so much of that doubt.

Sometimes we just have to square our shoulders and move forward as best we can. We just need to live into it, fully and completely, and let our doubts take care of themselves.  Certainly we cannot let ourselves wallow in doubt.

If we’re going to wallow in anything, we should wallow in the Resurrection and life and light and God.  The best way to overcome doubt is simply to get up and go out and just strive to be the best Presence of Christ we can be in this world.  To simply BE a reflection of God’s all-encompassing love and goodness in the world.

The key words here are “love” and “goodness.” Yes, things like the Resurrection and the Incarnation are hard to wrap our minds around.  They don’t relate well, sometimes, to our day-to-lives.  But, loving God and loving one another does.  

Of course, that isn’t that easy either.   But when we do this, we are encompassing every possible thing that the Resurrection means in our lives.  When we do that, we are doing what the Resurrection tells us to do.  By doing so, we bring the Easter joy and light to a world that seems out of control, a place wherein hatred and violence and utter stupidity seem to reign supreme.

It is difficult to be the conduit of the Light and Presence—the love and goodness—of Christ when others are shouting in hatred in the same name of Jesus.  It seems impossible when we realize that what we are asked to do is love and serve even those other Christians who are acting so stupidly un-Christian. It is hard to truly respect the worth and dignity of all people and their religious views and to recognize in them that they too are strivers after God, they too are strugglers in their relationship with God and that the God we are all striving after is the same God who, for us, remains cloaked and invisible.

Now, for Thomas, he saw.  He touched.  It was all clear to him.  But we don’t get that chance.

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

We are those blessed ones.  All of us. Our belief—our faith—doesn’t have to be perfect. We will still always doubt. Will still always question. And that’s all right.

We are still the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel.

Blessed are you all.

You believe—or strive to believe—but don’t see. 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 will, on some glorious day—in our own Resurrection—run to God and see God face to face.  And in that moment, our faith will be fulfilled. Doubt will die for good.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017


April 16, 2017

Matthew 28.1-10

+ Now, some people are Christmas people. They live for Christmas. That’s it for them.   For them, that’s the real magical time.

But for me, I gotta admit, it’s all about Easter.  This is what it is all about. There is nothing, in my opinion,  like gathering together here on this glorious morning, in all of this Easter glory. I just love Easter! I love everything about it.

The light.

The joy we are feeling this morning.

That sense of renewal, after a long, hard winter.

An Easter morning like this reminds me that there is more to this world than we thought. There is a glory that we sometimes catch a glimpse of.  There is an eternity, and it is good.

There’s an old saying, “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die, it starts now.”

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.  Jesus 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 in Christ now.  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 the fact that we are alive right now.  

It is also 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.  Easter 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. It is happening for us too.

We are already living, by our very lives, by our faith in Jesus, into the eternal, unending, glorious life that Jesus lives in this moment.  

Our bodies MAY be broken.  It may seem that all the bad things of life may defeat us at times.   But we will live because Jesus lives. 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 all those bad things that happen are really only illusions.

We aren’t deceiving ourselves.  We’re not a naïve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful. We know what darkness is.  We know what suffering and pain are.   For those of us who have losses in our lives, we know the depths of pain and despair we can all go to in our lives.

But, what Easter is all about is realizing that all of that is only temporary.  It is the Light of Christ, that has come to us, this glorious morning, much as the Sun breaks into the darkness, is what lasts forever.  

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. Easter shows us very clearly that God really does love us. Each of us. No matter who we are.

God really does love us. Because, look! Look what God does for us. The bad things don’t last. But the good things do last. Forever. That is the best gift we could receive from a God who truly does love us.

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 the Light of Christ 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!

At the grave of Dolores Frank (on her 100th birthday)

At the grave of Dolores Frank
(April 16, 1917-December 17, 1962)
Calvary Cemetery,
Rockville, Minnesota

For Gin Templeton, on her birthday

There was never
a question,

no what if?
There was only

a mind-numbing

and a faith
in matters

greater than anyone
could fathom.

But we can
still hope

even now
in this strange, distant future.

We can say—
and believe—

that what was put away
here in this earth

one December day,

and missed more deeply
than anyone could even say then,

will, one morning in some
even stranger, more distant future,

escape the long, sharp
shadow of this calvary

and live

--Jamie Parsley

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Saturday

April 15 2017

Matthew 27.57-66

+ I seem to say this every year on Holy Saturday morning. I LOVE this service. I love its simplicity. I love its solemnity.  I love this time to gather and just be quiet. I love the fact that, after all that we’ve been through liturgically in these last few days and all that we will still go through liturgically in the next day, here we are.

Here we are in a church stripped of everything symbolic. The cross hangs before us, veiled in black. The altar is stripped. The aumbry, that held just a few days ago the Body and Blood of Jesus, is now empty, its door wide open.  The sanctuary light, which gently reminds us of the holy Presence of Jesus in that Bread and Wine, is extinguished and has been taken away.

For those of us who delight in the Presence of God—who strive and long for the Presence of God—who find our purpose and meaning in the Presence of God—today is a bleak day. That Presence seems…gone. Or, at least, hidden from us.

For now, in this moment, on this Holy Saturday morning, time seems to sort of stand still. We are caught in this breathless moment—between the excruciating death of Jesus on the cross yesterday and the glorious Light that is about dawn on us tonight and tomorrow morning.  For now—in this moment—we are here.

And Jesus… Where is Jesus? We imagine his body lying there in the dark stillness of the tomb, wrapped and broken and bloodied.

But where is Jesus?

Not his body.


One of the reason I love this service is because it gives me that opportunity to speak about one of my favorite Christian subjects—the so-called “Harrowing of Hell.  The Harrowing of Hell is that wonderful concept in which we ponder Jesus’ descent  to hell to bring back those captured there. For me, it so packed full of meaning.

Hell. That place we thought was the end all of end-all’s.  That place that we dread and fear and cringe from. That place in which lies every one of our greatest nightmares and the most horrendous things we could even possibly imagine.  That black, bleak, miserable place. What I love about today and this Harrowing of Hell is that the fear of this place is broken.  The fear that there is a place in which God’s love and light might not be able to descend is broken open. Jesus goes even there in search of us, those he loves. 

Now, this imagine carries over into our own immediately lives. Hell, for us, is not necessarily that metaphysical place of eternal punishment. Hell is right here, in our own lives. In our own minds. In our own day-to-day lives. We all know what our own hells are and how isolating they can be. We know how impenetrable they seem.

What today shows us that there is no such thing as an impenetrable hell. At least not for Jesus. No matter how dark, how terrible our hells might be, Jesus will come for us there. Jesus will descend to us, wherever we might be. And from that place, he will take us by the hand and pull us out.  Because that is what Christ’s love is able to do.

Nothing can separate us from that love of Christ. Not even the deepest hell. It is incredible when we think of that.  And, for me anyway, it fills me with such hope, such joy, such love for Christ that even the bleakness of this morning doesn’t seem so bleak.

Oh yes, Jesus has died.  He truly died—he truly tasted death and partook of it fully. And we too must die as well. We too will taste death and partake in it fully.  But the fact is that, not even death can separate us from Christ.

That place wherein we find ourselves, lost, lifeless, without hope, is the place in which we cannot escape Christ. In the hells of our lives, even there Jesus comes to us. In those places in which we seem so far separated from God, from the love that God gives us, from the light God shines upon us, even there Jesus will come to us. No matter how far separated we might seem from Jesus, Jesus will cover that great distance and come to us. Even there. Even there he will find us and take us to himself. Even there, he will even die, like us, to bring us back to a life that will never end.

 That is what Holy Saturday is all about and that is certainly why I love this day.

 So, on this Holy Saturday, when all seems bleak and lost and without purpose, let us remember: Jesus is at work even in those moments when we think he might not be. The Presence of God is with us even when it seems furthest from us.  In the darkest moments of our lives, the bright dawn is about to break. Let us wait patiently and breathlessly for it.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

April 14, 2017

Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.14-16; 5;7-9; John 18.1-19.42

+ The main theme in my sermons for this Lenten season was the theme of brokenness.


In many ways, that is what this day is all about.


The Jesus we encounter today is slowly, deliberately being broken.  This moment we are experiencing right now is a moment of absolute and complete brokenness.

Brokenness, in the shadow of the cross, the nails, the thorns. Broken by the whips.  

Broken under the weight of the Cross.  

Broken by his friends,

Broken by his loved ones.

Broken by the thugs and the soldiers.

Broken by all those who turned away from him and betrayed him.

 In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real, as well.   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 Body on the cross.

 Bishop Steven Charleston  wrote a few years ago:

 “There are few people of faith who have not crossed through that dark day when they wondered if the God on whom they depended had gone away, deserted them, or even died. In the pain of our own mortality, when we face the loss of those for whom we care, when illness strikes us down or injustice overwhelms us, it is not hard to understand why we have felt this way. To receive the light, we must accept the darkness. We must go into the tomb of all that haunts us, even the loss of faith itself, to discover a truth older than death.”

Yes, we have known brokenness in our lives. We have known those moments of loss and abandonment. We have known what it feels like when it seems God has abandoned us, has deserted us, has turned away from us.  We have known those moments in which we have been betrayed.  We have known those moments when we have lost someone we have cared for so much, either through death or a broken relationship.  We have known those moments of darkness in which we cannot even imagine what light is even like again.

But, for as followers of Jesus, we know there is light.  Even today, we know it is there, just beyond our grasp.   We know that 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.

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.

In the Easter, which is about to break upon us, our brokenness will be made whole.  And will know there is no real defeat, ultimately.   Ultimately there will be victory.

Victory over everything we are feeling sadness over at this moment.

Victory over the pain, and brokenness, and loss, and death we are commemorating

This is what today is about.    This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us.

All we need to do is go where the journey leads us.  All we need to do is follow Jesus, yes, even through this broken moment.  And, in following, we will know joy—even a joy that, for this moment, seems far off.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

April 9, 2017

Matthew 26.14-27.66

+ Here we are this morning at the beginning of Holy Week. Every year, without fail, I begin this week with a big mix of emotions. Certainly, this week is the apex of the entire Church Year. Everything seems to lead either to this week or away from it.  But, on a much more personal level, I gotta say:

I actually dread Holy Week.

Now, I know probably your first reaction to my saying that is that you think I am dreading all the extra liturgies and services of this coming week. Actually, no. I don’t dread that at all. After all, I’m a church nerd. I like doing church liturgies and, frankly, doing the work I was hired to do. So much so, that I often forget about other people.

Our Senior Warden Cathy McMullen this past week very gently reminded me that maybe having all the services we had scheduled for this week might be a “bit much.” I was oblivious to that fact. But, yes, I realized: maybe it was. Certainly for our poor organist James.  And for our altar guild, and for many of you.  Which is why we are not doing Wednesday night Mass this week.

But I don’t dread Holy Week for any of those reasons.  I dread this coming week for one big reason: I dread the emotional aspects of this coming week. I think the biggest toll of this coming week on me is the emotional toll.

How can it not, after all? We, as followers of Jesus, as people who love Jesus and balance our lives on his life and teachings and guidance, are emotionally tied to this man. This Jesus is not just some mythical character to us.  He is a friend, a mentor, a very vital and essential part—no, he the very center of our lives as Christians. He is our God. So, to have to go through the emotional rollercoaster of this coming week is hard on us.   

 And today, we get the whole emotional rollercoaster in our liturgy and in our two Gospel readings.  Here we find a microcosm of the roller coaster ride of what is to come this week.  What begins this morning as joyful ends with jeers and bleakness. The Jesus who enters Jerusalem is the Jesus who has done some incredible things in the past few weeks, at least in the very long Gospel readings we’ve been hearing over the last few weeks.

Three weeks ago, he turned the Samaritan woman’s life around.  Two weeks ago, he gave sight to a man born blind.  Last week, he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. This day even begin with us, his followers, singing our praises to Jesus, waving palm branches in victory.  He is, at the beginning of this week, popular and accepted.  For this moment, everyone seems to love him.

But this procession of his is different than the normal procession of a monarch.  The great theologian Marcus Borg (who, I just found out this week, lived as a teenager in that trailer park on Main Avenue in Moorhead back in the 1950s): wrote this:

“[Pontius] Pilate’s procession embodied the powers, the glory, and violence of an empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative version procession and alternative journey…an anti-imperial and non-violent procession.”

Such a procession, as wonderful as it seems, is, however, dangerous.  Such an anti-imperial, non-violent procession is a threat.  And as a result…within moments, a darkness falls. It all turns and goes horribly wrong.   What begin with rays of sunshine, ends in gathering dark storm clouds.  Those joyful, exuberant shouts turn into cries of anger and accusation.  Those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem have fled.  They have simply disappeared from sight.  And in their place an angry crowd shouts and demands the death of Jesus. Even his followers, those who almost arrogantly proclaimed themselves followers of Jesus, have disappeared.  Their arrogance has turned to embarrassment and shame.  Even the Samaritan woman, whose life he turned around, the man born blind, and his friend Lazarus have disappeared and are nowhere in sight.

Jesus, whom we encounter at the beginning of this liturgy this morning surrounded by crowds of cheering, joyful people, is by the end of it, alone, abandoned, deserted—shunned.  Everyone he considered a friend—everyone he would have trusted—has left him.  And in his aloneness, he knows how they feel about him.  He knows that he is an embarrassment to them.  He knows that, in their eyes, he is a failure.

Throughout this coming Holy Week, the emotional roller coaster ride will get more intense.  On Maundy Thursday the celebratory meal of Passover will turn into a dark and lonely night of betrayal.  Jesus will descend to his lowest emotional point after he washes the feet of his disciples and heads out into the garden of Gethsemane.  

Friday will be a day of more betrayal, of torture and of an agonizing violent death in the burning hot sun.  

Saturday morning, while his body lies in the tomb, he descends to the depths of hell and from there will be lead those who went before into the depths. Not even the depths of hell are more powerful than he.  Saturday will be a day of keeping watch at the grave that would, under normal circumstances, be quickly forgotten.

Through our liturgies, we are able to walk with Jesus on this painful journey and to experience the emotional ups and downs of all that will happen.

And next Saturday evening and Sunday morning , the roller coaster will again be at its most intense, its greatest moment.  Next Sunday at this time, we will be rejoicing.  Next Sunday, we will be rejoicing with all the choirs of angels and archangels who sing their unending hymns of praise to him.  We will be rejoicing in the fact that all the humiliation experienced this week has turned to joy, all desertion has turned to rewarding and wonderful friendship, all sadness to gladness, and death—horrible, ugly death—will be turned to full, complete and unending joy.

Marcus Borg finished that quote we heard earlier in this way:

“Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?”

Are we on Pilate’s journey? Are we the crowd, are we the religious leaders who call for Jesus’ death because he doesn’t meet our personal needs?

Let us join Jesus’ procession, as uncomfortable and frightening as it might be at times.  As we journey through the dark half of our liturgy today, as we trek alongside Jesus during this Holy Week of betrayal, torture and death, let us keep our eyes focused on the Light that is about to dawn in the darkness of our lives.  Let us move forward toward that Light.  Even though there might be sadness on our faces now, let the joy in our hearts prompt us forward along the path we dread to take.  And, next week at this time, when we gather here again, we will do so basking in the Christ’s incredible Light—a Light that triumphs over the darkness of not only his death, but ours as well.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

5 Lent/Dedication of the Integrity Window

April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45

+ Today is, of course, a very special day here at St. Stephen’s. Today, we dedicate and bless our third stained glass window as part of the series of windows that will decorate our nave. As you’re probably guessed by now, these windows are commemorating ministries we do here at St. Stephen’s. And certainly with the window previous to this one you can see that we, as a congregation, have never shied away from controversial issues. In fact, if there’s a controversial issue, St. Stephen’s usually at the forefront of it.  We have, consistently, stood up for issues that were cutting edge and potentially shocking, by some people’s standards, anyway.

The Mary and Martha window that we dedicated in September commemorated the ministries women paved here at St. Stephen’s. It was a great day to celebrate those women who were the first to serve as acolyte,  and Senior Warden and priest here.

And today, we dedicate and bless our Integrity window.

Now, for me, what the Mary and Martha window represented seems to be a part of history for the most part. Dare I say, ancient history?  To some extent, yes.  Nothing about it seemed all that controversial for me. After all, I really, honestly don’t remember a time when women’s ministry—especially women’s ordained ministry—weren’t a part of the Church. So, what that window represents in many ways seems kind of like ancient history to me. By the time I came into active ministry in the Episcopal Church, women in ministry were very much the norm.

But…what we celebrate today in our Integrity window, well, now, that’s something else. I remember what it was like before.

Let’s go back, just a ways. Let’s go back twenty years. Let’s go back to 1997. Back in 1997, St. Stephen’s was already a part of my life. I had already attended my first Episcopal service, here at St. Stephen’s, two years before in 1995.  The Episcopal Church was definitely a major part of my life by 1997. In that year, I was heading off to graduate school in Vermont to get my MFA. I was in my twenties. Life seemed pretty darn good.  I was also very much into the latter stages of my own personal grunge period of life. (Let’s just say there was lots of flannel and unique facial hair and lots and lots of angst-driven poetry heavily influenced by the Smashing Pumpkins). I had aleady published two books of poems by that time and my third was due to be published that December.

And I can tell you this: nowhere, in any Episcopal or Lutheran or any other church I attended or knew of in 1997, would have had a window like this at that time. To have a window like this anywhere in any church I knew of would have been beyond cutting edge. Though, if any place would’ve had it in 1997, it would’ve been St. Stephen’s.

It was still the dark ages, for the most part, in the larger Episcopal church, regarding Gay Lesbian Bisexual or Transgender ministry. St. Stephen’s was certainly at the forefront of it all at that time. When other churches were either refusing to discuss issues of sexual identity, or were outright protesting or snubbing or excluding GLBT people, St. Stephen’s was talking about these issues. And were openly welcoming all people into this church.

St. Stephen’s was living up then—and continues to live up—to that all-important promise we make in the baptismal Covenant that is now proclaimed in that window:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

And the answer here at St. Stephen’s has consistently been:

“We will, with God’s help.”

In 1997, I too was also there, at the forefront of it all too.  Not here at St. Stephen’s (I was not a member of St. Stephen’s, and I definitely was not yet ordained)  But I was in the muck of it then. And let me tell you—it seemed like an uphill battle at times.  There would still be many years of struggle ahead. Many years  of despair and a feeling as though nothing was going to change.

Unlike the time the Mary and Martha window represents, I can speak with some authority about what it was like being involved in GLBTQ ministry and life in 1997.  I was there. I was doing it, as many, many of us here today were in 1997. We remember what it was like. And we remember how GLBT ministry in 1997 felt very much like that valley of dry bones we heard about in our reading from Ezekiel this morning.  There was opposition. There was both open and subtle hostility. There was meanness and blatant discrimination.   In fact, until that watershed year of 2003, that’s exactly what it really felt like. Dry bones.

And then, in 2003, came a change. It came in person of a very unassuming Episcopal priest.  Gene Robinson. And everything changed.

In 2003, Gene Robinson, an openly gay and openly partnered priest, was elected the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.  And the earthquake came. The bones rattled. And in the midst of that chaos and fearful clattering—and let me tell you, there was a lot of clattering—came a spark! A spark of life. Before we knew it, everything changed.

That summer of 2003, as General Convention met in Minneapolis and approved Gene Robinson as Bishop, the Church exploded over that decision. And St. Stephen’s was right there. Again, I wasn’t here at that time, but I remember St. Stephen’s being a vocal presence. In fact our very own Sandy Holbrook was a Deputy to that Convention, and several others of were present in 2003, showing their support for Gene Robinson.

I was right there too, again in the muck of it all.  I was working for the Diocese at the time. A Diocese that, for the most part, spoke out on an official basis,  against Gene Robinson and the decisions of that General Convention. None of that mattered to me, of course.  I spoke out too. And I ended up being quoted extensively at that time. Some of my comments were published on the front page of the Fargo Forum. Others were recorded for Public Radio and NBC radio stations.  (My mother saved all these, by the way).

What I said at the time was this: in 2003 we were 27 years out from the ordination of women. At that point the issue of women’s ordination was no longer an issue for anybody I knew , even the conservatives I knew.  So, I said, it was my hope in 2003 that 27 years after the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, in 2030, everything that was bound up in his election as Bishop would not be an issue any longer.

Who would’ve thought that say those words would be considered controversial? But sometimes, asking people to look at the larger perspective of something is very frightening to them.

People lashed out at me for that statement. And lashed out hard! There were some mean and very ugly comments made to me and against me, as you can imagine.  


But, as you’ve heard me say before, sometimes, speaking prophetically isn’t always fun.  In fact, it’s often dangerous.

Well, it’s not quite 27 years after Gene Robinson. In fact, it’s only 14 years. And we’re not quite to the same point women’s ordinations were at in 2003. We’re not fully out of those  woods. As long as we still have to stand up to the Church and ask for equal marriage rites, and equal ordination rights, we’re not out of the woods.  Yet. But, as you’ve heard me echo so often especially lately, we’re on the right side of history on this one.  

This is where we are on this Sunday in 2017. We’re right here. Here we are this morning. Here we are celebrating this beautiful window and every single thing it represents.  Proudly. Without fear.

This morning, 14 years after Gene Robinson’s election, I can tell you this: we might not be out of the woods completely, but we are no longer in the valley of dry bones. We are no longer out there, all alone, in the wilderness, crying out.

My hope is that in another 13 years from now—in 2030—some young priest is going to look at this window and say, “Wow! I can’t believe a window like would’ve ever been controversial. It’s ancient history to me.” Those words will be music to my ears.  And I hope they will be to yours too.

Any ministry we do that is controversial, that is unpopular, that runs counter to the status quo often feels like this. But, if it is of God, if God truly blesses it, if God’s Spirit is at work in the midst of this ministry, it cannot fail in the long run.

How do we know if what we do is ultimately a success? Well, scripture is clear on this. It is not successful if it bears no fruit. And this window this morning is a very clear and loud reminder to us of this ministry bearing fruit.

But, I also want to say a word of caution this morning. We should not relax too easily into your pews this morning.  We should not sit back and wipe our hands and say, “well, that was a job well done!”

We are not done. There is still opposition. There are still people who avoid St. Stephen’s because of where we stand and how we stand. There are still people who snub us and look at us as renegades and rebels and, dare I say, anti-scriptural anti-Christians (which absolutely boggles my own mind!).  We are not at the point yet when other churches in this diocese could put up this window as proudly as we do this morning.

There will be critics still. Trust me. People will criticize us for what we are doing this morning.  There will be people who leave congregations like this for making a stand like this. There will be hate mail (which we’ve received it). There will be Christians and clergy and well-intended people who will lash out at us.

We’re not quite there yet. But…we’re close. We’re excruciatingly close. So, let us not rest on our laurels yet. Let us do what we’ve always done.

The dry bones have taken on flesh and life, but they are sometimes slow in moving completely out of the valley and into the world.  For us we just have to do what we have always done.

We have to love.  Love fully. Love completely. Love without limits. 

Why? Because God loves us. And God is saying to us again and again in scripture to love one another as you want to be loved.  God loves us.   All of us.  It is this love we find again and again in the words of Jesus and throughout scripture. Love—love God, love one another as you would be loved.  We can’t do one without the other.  It’s love that prevails and trumps condemnation. It’s love—that holy love that comes from God—that ultimately wins out. It is this love that I will hope and pray descends upon all of us like a cool summer shower. It is love that puts us squarely on the right side of history.  That—love—is what this window represents and what we are called again and again to do in our lives.

So, let us bless this window with every ounce of hope and joy and love we have in us. Let us bless this window knowing that we are on the right side of history. And let us bless this window with the amazing life we are all living, that same life that gave life to those dry bones, the same life that brought Lazarus back from death, that same life God has given us and will not take away from us.   

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