Sunday, May 26, 2019

6 Easter

Rogation Sunday +++
The Blessing of the Lifelong Covenant of Donna Clark and Daniel Wolford+++
May 26, 2019

John 14:23-29

+ This past week in the Fargo Forum there was a fascinating article about what is now called “Green Burial.”

Green Burial, for those who didn’t read the article, is a simplification of the burial procedures in the U.S.

It bypasses the more traditional aspects of burial that include embalming, metal, sealer caskets,  vaults and grave liners, etc.

It even by passes cremation.

It is a directed burial in the ground of a body wrapped in a shroud or placed in a wicker casket.

“Green Burial” is not something unique to many of us here at St. Stephen’s.

I know that several of you are  planning a “Green Burial.”

I like the concept of these “Green Burials.”

Though I am, of course, a major proponent of cremation, which, despite the article, actually does not emit that much pollution into the sky (Most crematories have updated cremation ovens that actually only release very little emissions into the air).

I like the idea of the return of our remains directly to the earth—truly a ashes to ashes, dust to dust way of doing it.

In fact, I even read a book about Green Burial from a completely Christian (actually eastern Orthodox)  perspective, called Christian Ending, which is essentially a handbook on Christian Burial.

But we, in our own Episcopal manner, have been performing a kind of green burial right here at St. Stephen’s.

5 years ago today—on Sunday, May 26, 2014—we did something special at our Rogation Blessing.

On that Sunday five years ago we dedicated our Memorial Garden.

And now, look!

Thanks to Sandy Holbrook and the gardening committee and all the people who have worked for that garden and all that beautiful landscaping that was done there, it has become a place of beauty.

And in these five years, our memorial garden has become a place of rest for seven people—and a place of consolation for countless others.

Most of those people have had their ashes buried directly into the earth, without an urn or another container.

The exceptions are those abandoned urns we’ve buried—we have kept them in their urns so that should family members want to claim them and disinter them later, they can do so.

Now I don’t think I’m overestimating it when I say it has also become a place of mercy.

We of course have laid people to rest there who had no other place to rest, who were rejected or forgotten.

Why? Why do we do that?

Because that is what we do as Christians.

In our Christian tradition, mercy plays heavily into what we do.

And as a result, there have been, since the early Church, a series of what have been called corporal acts of mercy.

I’ve talked about this many times before.

These corporal acts of mercy are:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.
We at St. Stephen’s, in the ministry we do as followers of Jesus, have done most of those well.

Including that last one. 

Burying the dead is a corporate act of mercy.

And, it’s appropriate we are discussing things like mercy and love on this Sunday, Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before the Ascension of Jesus.

In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus explaining that although he is about to depart from his followers—this coming Thursday we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven—he will not leave them alone.

They will be left with the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth.

The Holy Spirit.

He prefaces all of this with those words that quickly get swallowed up by the comments on the Spirit, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And just to remind everyone, that command is, of course, “to love.”

To love God.

And to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This is what it means to be the Church.

To love.

To serve.

To be merciful.

To be Christ to those who need Christ.

To be a Christ of love and compassion and acceptance.

Without boundaries.

Without discrimination.

Because that is who Christ is to us.

When we forget to be Christ to others, when we fail to do this, we fail to do mercy.

We are doing so this morning.

We are living into our ministry of mercy to others.

Today is, as I’ve said, Rogation Sunday.

Rogation comes from the Latin word “Rogare” which means “to ask.”

In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus saying to us,  

 “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate…”

From a very simple perspective, the thing we are asking today, on this Rogation Sunday, is to be faithful followers of Jesus, thorough our works and acts of mercy.

Now for some of us, this whole idea of Rogation Sunday and the procession that we will soon be making outside at the conclusion of our Eucharist this morning might seem a bit too much.

 The fact is, it is something, very much like burying the dead on the church grounds.

Our memorial garden—this visible sign of the final corporal act of mercy—is a part of this Rogation celebration.

This is where we do our blessing.

We process there and bless the earth and the land there.

We ask God’s blessings on the growth not only of crops and fields.

We also thank God today for the growth of our congregation.

We are thanking God for the acts of mercy and grace done to each of us.

And we are asking God to continue to make us Christ to those who need Christ.

We are thanking God especially for all the graces in our lives.

Grace is especially is something we celebrate on Rogation Sunday.

And grace is something I always preach at weddings.

Let’s see if you can remember my definition of grace.

I know Daniel will remember this definition.

Grace, in my very simple opinion, is a gift we receive from God that we don’t ask for.

In fact it is often something we receive from God that we may not even known how to ask for.

At most weddings I do, I mention that grace is what we celebrate.

Well, today we celebrate grace with this service of blessing on the lifelong committed relationship of Donna and Daniel.

I stress that is NOT a wedding—at least not in the tradition sense.

There is no marriage license.

The vows are a bit different.

Neither Donna nor Daniel will lose any benefits they would have as divorced or single people.

According to the task force responsible for this brand new liturgy in the Episcopal Church, they defined it in this way:

“’The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship,’ is intended for couples who desire to formalize their monogamous, unconditional and lifelong relationships that are ‘something different than a marriage in that [they do] not include the merging of property, finances or other legal encumbrances.’”

So, like a wedding, but not quite a wedding.

But what they do get today is blessing.

God’s blessing on their relationship.

Our blessing on the love they have for each other.

And we all get to be reminded of the fact that God’s grace still works in our midst in wonderful and beautiful ways.

It is a recognition of the grace of God in this love—in the fact that this love they have for each other is an unexpected gift from God to them.

This is how God works sometimes in our lives.

Just when we think we have given up on something—love or a relationship or whatever—God surprises us.

God has certainly surprised Donna and Daniel with the love they have found for each other.

And we should celebrate that!

In what we thought was our barrenness, God produces a fertile and beautiful garden.

In what we thought was a kind of death, we find a vibrant and beautiful life.

That is what we celebrate today in the blessing of the relationship of Donna and Daniel.

It is appropriate to do on this Rogation Sunday—this Sunday in which we ask God’s blessings on us, on the growth in our lives, and on the renewal in our lives.

As  we process out at the end of the Eucharist today, I ask you to look around the memorial garden.

I ask you to look at the names on the stones there.

We know some of them.

Others of them we will never know on this side of veil.

I ask you as you walk about to thank God for them.

I ask you today to thank God for the growth God has granted us at St. Stephen’s.

I ask you to thank God for the love in Donna and Daniels’ lives.

And I ask that you remember Jesus’ call to us, to love God and to keep that  commandment of love and mercy.

This is more than just sweet, religious talk.

It is a challenge and a true calling to live out this love in radical ways.

It is a challenge to be merciful.

As we process, as we walk together, let us pay attention to this world around us.

Let us ponder the causes and the effects of what it means to be inter-related—to be dependent upon on each to some extent, as we are on this earth.

We do need each other.

And we do need each other’s love.

And mercy.

We do need that radical love that Jesus commands us to have.

With that love, we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

We will show mercy to them.

Let this procession today truly be a "living walking" as George Herbert put it.

But let our whole lives as Christians be also a “living walk,” a mindful walk, a walk in which we see the world around with eyes of love and respect and justice and care.

And, most importantly, with eyes of mercy.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

5 Easter

The Baptism of Brooks Broten

May 19, 2019

Revelation 21.10, 22-22; John 13.31-35

+ If you’re anything like me, if you have been active in the Church over the years, you no doubt have encountered other Christians who tell us things like this:

“You know we’re in the last times, right?”


“When the Rapture comes, you want go with it, because to be left behind is terrible.”

There were even references recently to Revelation and the end times when the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a reference I didn’t understand no matter how hard to tried to unravel it)

I personally never understood these comments until I later heard that they come from some Evangelical churches that have found these interpretations of the Book of Revelation to mean that what is written in that book is happening right now.

And with the popularity of such books as the Left Behind series (which I personally find to be major manipulations of scripture, not to mention very badly written books), we have seen even more clearly some Christian’s ideas of how the Book Revelation somehow is interpreted in the light of current events  current events.

Later, as I sort of studied it a bit, I found a big problem with such teaching:

Almost every Christians since the time of Jesus believed they were in the “end times.”

The problem with this is that the rallying cry of these being the “end times” it’s been said of every major era of modern history.

People thought it was the end times when the Black Death rolled through Europe.

People thought it was the End Times when the Protestant Reformation raged, or when the Turks invaded Europe or when the French Revolution happened.

People thought it was the end times when World War I came.

People thought it was the End Times during the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

People definitely thought it was the end times when Hitler rose to power.

People in the 1950s were saying it was the end times with the Communist threat from Russia and China.

Or they were saying it was the end of times when kids started listening to Rock and Roll or the Beatles came to the U.S, or anytime during the very tumultuous 1960s.

And I remember my aunt, who belonged to the First Assembly of God Church, saying it was the end times in the 1980s.

I remember her saying that we should not have VISA cards because VISA was a clever guise for the Mark of the Beast—the numbers 666.

If we were to believe everyone who cried it was the end times, we could honestly say that the end times have been happening for at least 2,000 years. 

I solved my confusion about this issue by doing the only thing I could do in the fact of all that confusion:

I simply re-reading the Book of Revelation from beginning to end.

And you know what happened?

I was able to claim—or re-claim—it, and helped me to read it anew.

And I was able to see that the Book of Revelation really isn’t about “End Times”

Still, I think there are a lot of us who feel very differently about the Book of Revelation.

Revelation is a strange book.

It can be a frightening book.

But—and I know this might seem strange to many Christians— I don’t see it as a book of prophecy, as many Christians do.

I don’t see it saying anything definitely about future governments or some messianic Anti-Christ in our midst or that we are living in the so-called “last days” or what have you.

Mind you, I do believe “anti-Christs” come and go through history.

I do believe that powerful people who represent every anti-Jesus, anti-Christian ideals of loving God and loving others and respecting the worth of dignity of all peoples are real, and those people are, by definition anti Christ.

But, for that matter, anytime any of us run counter to these Christian ideals, we too become kind of “anti-Christs” to those around us.

Still, what I do see it doing is speaking to us through some beautiful and powerful poetry on what is happening in our lives, right now, as Christians, and about how, in the end, Christ is victorious.  

I think it is important for us to re-claim Revelation in this way —and, in doing so, re-read it with a new lens. 

In our reading this morning from Revelation, we find some very strange esoteric images—not an uncommon thing when we read Revelation.

We find this morning these images of a new heaven and a new earth, of this new Jerusalem, where death is no more or tears or crying.

It is a place of beauty and glory.  

It is a place of unending life.

And it is here that I think the Book of Revelation speaks loudly to us.

Even we, as Christians, sometimes struggle with the reality of death in our lives.

Even we fear it at times.

And that is all right.

That is normal.

Of course, death is a part of life, and certainly it’s part of my job as a priest.

I knew that going into it.  

But, let me tell you: it still is hard, often.  

And for people who have to deal with this mystery of death on a regular basis, there have to be ways to find strength and comfort in the midst of death.  

One of the ways I find my way through this sometimes constant dealing with death is by turning to the scriptures.

There is a common theme we find through all Scripture.

And that common theme is this:

the defeat of death.  

Or as the great Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow called it: “authority over death.”

I agree with him 100%.  

I think he is absolutely right about that.

Stringfellow saw it most profoundly in the life of Jesus.  

There we see this authority over death most profoundly.

We see it every time Jesus healed the sick, calmed the storms, cast out demons, ate with sinners, cleansed the temple, raised the death, carried the Cross.

And of course, in the Resurrection, which we are still celebrating in this season of Easter, it is all about authority over death.

In all of this, we see the God of life—God in Jesus—being victorious over death.

This view of life over death speaks to us most profoundly during this Easter season.

During this  season, what we have found most vital to our understanding of living into this Easter faith is the startling fact that death truly does not have power over us.

We, as Christians, cannot let the power of death control and direct our lives.  

As Christians, as followers of Jesus who crossed that awful boundary between life and death, and came back, we must truly be defiant to death.  

Of course, that ultimate victory over death happens only when we can face death honestly.

True victory over death is when we can see death in the light we hear about in today’s reading from Revelation.

Only then do we realize that death has no victory over us.

Because of what happened on Easter, because of the Resurrection, because Jesus did die, yes, but God raised him that tomb, and because Jesus walked victorious upon the chains of death, we know now death does not have the last word in our lives.

 Over this last year and a half especially, I can tell you, it would’ve been easy for me to just give into this victory death strives for over life.

Mourning does that do us.

It weakens us and saps our energies from us.

We all get stuck in mourning patterns.  

But, for us Christians, we can’t be stuck in such death.

We must live.

And we must move forward.  

We must  stand up against death.

I can tell you that, right now, in my own life, I am very tired of death.

I am weary of dealing directly with it.

I am tired of dealing with its after-effects.

I am tired of dealing with its seemingly overpowering presence.

But, standing up to death, even when we’re sick of it, is not easy.

Choosing life, with all its uncertainties, can be scary.

Even when moving forward into life  and living our lives fully and completely, we realize it can be frightening.

We are, after all, heading into the future which is unknown to us.

But that, again, is what I love about Revelation.

What Revelation promises to us, through all that poetry and imagery, is that death will lose, hatred will lose, violence will lose, evil will lose, war will lose—and goodness, and holiness and LIFE will be victorious.  

That isn’t wishful thinking.  That’s isn’t being na├»ve.

Rather, this is what it means to be a Christian.  

This is what it means to believe in the God of life.

That is what I means to follow Jesus.

Yes, following Jesus means following him to the Cross and to that dark tomb.  

And to death, yes.

But it also means following him into the great unknown on the other side of the Cross and the tomb—into that glorious, light-filled, unending life that swallows up death and darkness and war once and for all.

It means following him to the point in which the God of unending life raises him—and us—into unending life as well.

"See, the home of God is among mortals,” St. John tells us in our reading for today.
“He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

Those are words of absolute and glorious victory.

But more so, they are words of life—of a life that goes on forever and ever.

As we travel through these last days of Easter, as we head into this week in which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to that place of life and light, into that place in which the God of life and light dwells, let us do so with true Easter joy.

Let us do so rejoicing from the very core of our bodies.

We are alive.  

This morning, we are alive.

Life is in us.

We are followers of Jesus.

We are filled with life and love.

As we heard Jesus say in our Gospel reading for today, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciple, if you have love for one another.”

Those words are our words this morning as well.

We are filled with love and life.

We are celebrating love and life.

We are celebrating life and renewed life in the baptism of Brooks.

When we renew our Baptismal promises, we are celebrating the unending life that is ours through baptism.

And it is all very, very good.  

We have much to be thankful for and in which to rejoice.

So, let us be thankful for this life.

Let us rejoice in it.  

And let us realize that in rejoicing in our lives and in the life within each of us, God has truly prepared for us, as we heard in our collect this morning, “such good things as surpass our understanding.”


Monday, May 13, 2019

4 Easter

Good Shepherd Sunday

The Baptism of Saylor Mauk

May 12, 2019

Psalm 23; John 10.22-30

+ Today is a special day. It’s special of course because we are celebrating the baptism of sweet Saylor of course.

And it’s doubly special because it is also Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday because of this wonderful reading we have in our Gospel reading for today, as well as our reading from Revelation, and, of course, the very familiar 23rd Psalm

But, every year we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday without really thinking about it. How many times in our lives have we heard this psalm or the story or references to the Good Shepherd? For the most part, we just don’t even really think about it. After all, shepherds are just not a part of our modern lives.

Are there even shepherd anymore?  I’ve never met one. Have you ever met one?

Yes, still, when we really think about this image—of God being our shepherd—it still, weirdly, resonates for us.

We kind of get it.  And we are comforted by it. And it still does have meaning for us.

God as Good Shepherd. It’s a great image for God. In it, we encounter the compassion of our God.  

Certainly, for the people of Jesus’ day, this image of the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was.

The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock.  He or she looked out for them, he watched after them.  The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock.   He or she led the flock to a place to eat.

It’s a wonderful way to try to describe God’s goodness to us.  This image implies that God really—legitimately—cares for us and loves us.

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 or she is not the co-dependent shepherd.  The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed each one of them.  Rather, the Good Shepherd guides and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them to feed themselves.  The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there. He or she protects the flock from the wolves, from getting too near cliffs, or holes, or falling into rivers or lakes.
She or he cares for the flock.

And that’s VERY important.

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, if we allow ourselves to be led by him, we realize that those pitfalls are difficult, yes, but they don’t defeat us.  

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 to 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—caring for us.  We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will rescue us.

This is what we are looking for in our lives—a savior, a protector.  We are all longing for someone who will comes to us and rescue us from all the bad things of this life.  And not just Superman who sweeps down from the skies and pulls us out of danger, and then just nods to us and flies away. We long to have this protector, this defender know us and genuinely care for us.

That’s what makes the Good Shepherd so special. The Good Shepherd knows his flock.

“I know them and they follow me,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.

If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold.  This is the kind of relationship we have with our Good Shepherd.  We are know God because God knows us.  God knows us and calls us each by our name. And loves us for just who we are—no matter who we are.

The Good Shepherd reminds us that we don’t have 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 us.

We have a God who knows us and loves and cares for us.   All these are important images, vital images to explain the relationship God has with us and we with God.

I just came across this great quote from Chad Bird

We have a God whose goodness and mercy chases us and seeks us out. A God whose goodness and mercy follows us wherever we go and whatever we do.

But the Good Shepherd doesn’t end there.  This isn’t just about me as an individual and God.  

The image of the Good Shepherd must be taken and applied by anyone.  Any of us who follow Jesus are called to be good  shepherds in turn. We must love and love fully those who around us.  We must care for those people who walk this path with us.  We must look out for our loved ones and even our enemies, we must respect the worth and dignity of all people, and we must shepherd them in whatever ways we can in our own lives.

Again, this is not easy, especially when it seems we are lost at times, when we are falling into the traps life sets before us, when our alleluias during this Easter season feels cold and lonely.   

But, that’s the way God works, sometimes.  Sometimes, God’s works through our brokenness and helps us to guide others in their brokenness.   Sometimes the best Good Shepherd is the one who has known fully what a lost sheep feels like, who knows the coldness and loneliness of being that lost sheep.

So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, whose goodness and mercy chases us, let us not only be led, but let us also lead.    On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided and let us guide others.  And let our alleluia on this Good Shepherd Sunday, even if it is a cold and lonely Alleluia, still be an Alleluia nonetheless.  Let it be the sound we make, even in the cold and lonely places we sometimes find ourselves in.   And let us, in that place, know that, even there, we are still experiencing the amazing glory and all-encompassing love of God.


The Requiem Mass for Jonathan Gilbert

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