Monthly Archives: August 2014

Emergent Occasions. Mark 1:16-20

The evangelist Mark tells us that one day “as Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” According to St. Mark the same thing happened again “a little further” on. More fishermen were called, and they too “immediately” followed.
The remarkable thing about Mark’s account of the calling the first disciples is that not only did they say yes—which they might or might not have done after a long consideration–but that they said yes instantly. Mark’s gospel is the gospel of immediate response. The evangelist understood what a rare and miraculous thing that instantaneous “yes” is–so rare, in fact, that perhaps that only an immediate encounter with the powerful Son of God makes it possible. For Mark the Spirit of Jesus is first and foremost the Spirit of Yes. His Spirit makes it possible for us to get up and go immediately when the moment of decision comes.
In some ways it is a miracle more remarkable than any of the other wonders the gospel records. If a miracle is something that calls attention to itself by breaking with the natural order of things, the immediate response of the disciples clearly qualifies as such. Human beings do not behave that way ordinarily. But they can—that’s the point. By the power of the Holy Spirit people like you and me can respond to the call of Jesus in just such an immediate way. In a world where most of our choices are predetermined, that ability is what makes us truly human. We can do it, but what we actively do, the grace of God lifts our ordinary lives into the realm of greatness. Let me give you a concrete example. . .
There were two maiden ladies in the church where I grew up back in North Dakota—Elsa and Arlene Jermiasson. They were twins, but they did not resemble each other much, except they were gifted alike with beautiful grayish-blue eyes that demanded glasses for reading and lots of strawberry blond hair, which was frosted with silver by the time I knew them. To their credit, they never dyed it. The Jermiassons never pretended to be anything they weren’t. They were quite enough without pretending. Elsa was the taller and prettier of the two, and she did most of the talking. But Arlene was the better cook, and she took charge of the money and generally called the shots.
I remember them both very clearly, more clearly with time, it seems. They seemed elderly to me as a child, but I don’t suppose that they were really old old—just past the age when people think seriously about getting married. They were spinsters by choice, not by necessity. My father, who knew them when they were young, said they had both had offers, but they were too independent-minded to rise to the bait. They didn’t have to. I don’t suppose thw Jermiasson ladies were really rich rich, but their parents had left them a nice spread, several thousand, acres, which they rented out. Financially, they were more than comfortable. They were able to buy a brand new Buick every year, and their clothes were always the nicest. Miss Elsa liked lavender, as I recall, and Miss Arlene favored turquoise. They took the Great Northern Empire Builder to Minneapolis every spring and fall to shop, and they always came home with a season’s worth of dresses with shoes and purses to match.
Furthermore, the Jermiasson ladies never lacked for places to wear them. They cut a wide swath. If there was lutefisk supper or a progressive whist tournament or a meeting of the Ladies’ Aid or Church Women United anywhere between the Little Missouri and the Canadian border, they were there with bells on. “I saw the gold dust twins up on the road headed to town at full sail,” my father would say, and we all knew exactly who he was talking about. The Jermiasson ladies were not lazy—no one ever suggested they were—but they did as they pleased. Miss Elsa played the organ at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, and Miss Arlene took care of the altar and the flowers. They kept the cleanest house in the county, and Miss Arlene always won blue ribbons at the state fair for her bread and chokecherry jelly. To all appearances they could not have been more comfortable and happy.
And then one winter a missionary came to speak at St. Olaf, raising funds for an orphanage and tuberculosis hospital on the edge of the Bering Sea. His name was Pastor Norstog. He must have had a first name, but I don’t think I ever heard it. Pastor Norstog was a big man, almost as broad as he was tall, with black beard and eyes that burned like live coals. He had a loud voice that startled the ladies, but he was a powerful speaker, and he had a box of interesting slides of his work among the Eskimos. (I know they we call the Alaskan native people “Inuit” these days, but in the 1950’s they were still Eskimos.) He also had some very sharp looking hunting weapons and furry clothes and carvings in walrus ivory to show us. He finished up the evening by singing “Children of the Heavenly Father” in his fine baritone voice in the Eskimo language, accompanied by Miss Elsa Jermiasson on the piano. And there was a round a sincere applause, and I’m sure the offering was satisfactory.
Afterwards everyone stayed around to visit and have coffee and dessert. And everyone, the Jermiasson sisters included, got in line to thank the missionary for coming all the way out to St. Olaf Lutheran Church to give us such a nice talk, which was only right and proper. So their turn came Elsa said, “Oh Pastor Norstog, we did so enjoy hearing about Alaska. I would really, really love to go up there some day and see your wonderful mission and all those sweet little Eskimo children.”
It was just of those nice things nice people say, signifying little or nothing, but the missionary immediately turned his fiery glaze fully upon her. “I understand you are a single lady,” he said.
Elsa blushed a maidenly blush. “Yes, Pastor, I am. My sister and I both.”
“Well then, what is to prevent you from going. I am alone too. My wife went to be with the Lord three years ago and I need a wife to help me with my work. Marry me then, and come with me. But you must make up your mind quickly. I am leaving on the westbound train in the morning.”
He said this loudly enough for a number people to overhear him, and as you can well imagine Elsa and Arlene went home in great consternation. “Oh my stars, what a rude thing to ask!” “Oh gracious, what must people be saying?’” Oh heavens, and he a Lutheran pastor too!” They made cocoa and talked for a long while about Pastor Norstog’s strange proposal before they finally calmed down enough to even think about sleeping. But finally Elsa started to yawn. “I going to bed then.”
“That’s good,” said Arlene. “You’ll need your sleep if you are going to get up early and marry Pastor Norstog and go to Alaska. The westbound train leaves in the morning.”
“Now don’t tease, sister!” said Elsa with a dismissive laugh. “I could never marry a man with such a loud voice and a beard like a pirate. And go to Alaska! My stars! Why would I run to the dark side of the moon?”
So Elsa went to bed and slept, but Arlene didn’t. And very early the next morning she rose and went to the parsonage where Pastor Norstog was staying. When they were alone she said, “My sister Elsa does not wish to go with you to Alaska, but I do, if you will take me.” So that was that.
They got married and left that morning on the westbound train. Elsa cried for a month—but she eventually got over it. Arlene, on the other hand, went off to the dark side of the moon with Pastor Norstog and never came back. She worked for ten years in the orphanage and tuberculosis sanatorium. She wrote and told my mother that she liked it there. “Everything is so clean,” she said. “Like God has swept it with a broom. I want to stay here forever.”
And she might have, but she died of a ruptured appendix. We heard from her sister that they couldn’t get her to the hospital to Anchorage in time because of a winter storm. Her grave is at the mission. Elsa wanted to send money for a nice monument, but Pastor Norstog declined. So it is marked in the customary Eskimo way, with a heap of lichen-covered stones at the center of a vast circle of horizon, encompassing an eternity of empty tundra and the grey Bering Sea.
The lives of the saints are never the same, beloved—but never that much different either. They start out like everyone else’s, as ordinary as bread and butter, and then at some point, early or late, they depart from the ordinary and take a sharp turn toward the dark side of the moon, toward a place where most people would never consider going. Arlene Jermiasson’s was such a life. It is almost a parable—a story worthy of consideration. A parable. A parable is a story that invites us to stop and ponder the direction in which our own life is heading. Arlene’s story does that for me. The story of the calling of Jesus’ disciples in St. Mark’s Gospel does that for me. Those fishermen were living their lives, thoughtlessly hurrying through the years, enmeshed in the preoccupations of ordinary life that entangle us all. And then along came Eternity itself and called them to leave their nets and embrace what St. Paul calls “the life that really is Life.”
Of course, without being fully aware of it, at the same time they got up and followed Life they also embraced death in a place far from home. All of them, we are told, were martyred in all sorts of nasty and unpleasant circumstances. So was Arlene. She also had to give up a life to get a life. What part ordinary human love had in her decision to follow the missionary to Alaska is impossible to say. Love is that incalculable. Some, no doubt. But it was the Spirit that offered her the choice, she said yes. And by saying yes she made a choice that caused her to end up under a pile of stones at the edge of the Bering Sea. But that, as they say, was that. If you lift your wings, you never know where Spirit is going to take you.
Still I can’t help wondering if Arlene ever regretted the safe and comfortable existence she left behind. She wrote many letters back from Alaska to people she had known, but if she did have second thoughts about her decision, I never heard that she expressed them. But did she?
Of course she did. Of course Miss Arlene Jermiasson, who took the train to Minneapolis twice a year to shop for dresses at Dayton’s and favored turquoise with shoes and purses to match–of course she must have sometimes had regrets there on the dark side of the moon. We never make any decision that changes the direction of our lives without regretting it at some time or another. But the point is that she never came back. She made a decision and then stuck with it.
Most people most of the time don’t really make the decisions with which they are presented–they let those decisions—both great and small–make themselves. The world works like that–it always begs us to let it make our choices for us. It always offers us the default position just in case we would rather just fall back on that. And the default position is always easier. So in the story of the calling of Jesus disciples, it was not really a “yes” or “no” decision that the Galilean fishermen were offered. It was a “yes” or do nothing nothing—“follow me” or just let your ordinary life carry you forward to tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after.
We have all done that, of course. We have all been offered choices, but we didn’t make them. Instead we let the direction the wind is blowing or the wants and wishes of other people carry us along. That is the reason that so much of humanity subsists in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, because no one is ever happy who leaves the steerage of his or her life to the prevailing currents.
So did Arlene’s “yes” make her happy. Were those first disciples who left their nets and followed Jesus happier for having done so? Well, I suppose ordinary human happiness doesn’t really enter into what the theologians call “the economy of salvation.” It’s not so much that our happiness doesn’t matter. It is the simplest and best gift of God. And everyone deserves some of it. But happiness is ultimately not as important as that sense of order and peace in our lives that is created by saying “yes” to the call of the Spirit.
In ordinary human terms the disciples were certainly happier before they heard that call and let it carry them away from everything they had ever known. Far from simplifying their lives, their decision to follow Jesus greatly complicated them. So would they have made the same choice twice? Well, they are not around to ask. But it seems safe to say safe to say that the decision to follow Jesus was the best thing they ever did. They found the peace of God in it, the peace, which the scriptures say “passeth all understanding.” And that peace does not leave any room for anything else.
So where does that leave us, beloved, who are in no great danger of being called to run off to the dark side of the moon? Those choices as rare as rocking horse manure. Only once in a thousand thousand times does life offer anyone a choice that which would in any way be called heroic. We live from day to day without making any decision more important than vanilla or chocolate. But then, all of a sudden, out of the clear blue, as it were, comes what the poet John Donne called an “emergent occasion,” that moment of crisis, the opportunity to make a real choice, a choice that really matters. The call comes once to all. And the willingness to say “yes” when the call comes, and then stick with it is what makes our lives holy, not right doctrine or commonplace morality. Even “bad” people can make holy choices when they are offered—the Bible is chock-a-block full with excellent examples. The problem with most of us, generally speaking, is that we ponder our choices too long. Sometimes forever. But the angels are on the side of haste, beloved. The westbound train always leaves in the morning.

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He Ain’t Heavy–Well, Maybe a Little Matthew 11:28-30

According to St. Matthew’s account, the rabbi Jesus said to all who would listen: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:28-30).
“My yoke is easy.” Well, maybe. But following Jesus has never been a piece of cake for me personally—quite the opposite. “My burden is light.” Yes, in some sense. But I don’t believe for a minute that the Spirit of the risen Lord is telling us that it would be light, at least all of the time. And mostly because of other people. There was a sad, sweet song from the late sixties—recorded by the Hollies if memory serves—called “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” The message being is that love makes the burden of other people tolerable. Then in the Catholic seminary where I lived for a while there was a grim joke the circulated—“He’s my brother–and he’s heavy.” The message being that tolerable or not, those with whom we have to live in this world are still sometimes definitely heavy. “You have to live with the living,” my mother was fond of saying. And it is the living who are the great obstacle we have to face in following Jesus. Jesus himself is great. I’ve got no problem loving the Jesus of the New Testament. I have the feeling that if I had met the Jesus of Nazareth I would have liked him as much as his disciples did. It was with each other that those first disciples had problems—and that is still case.
But it’s always a mistake to generalize from your own experience. Maybe things are different for you—maybe being a disciple for you is as cool and easy as soft-serve ice cream on a hot summer’s afternoon–but I am inclined to doubt it. Probably In this we are not so very different at all. Probably for no one who is really trying to do it is following the Lord easy peasy lemon squeezy. And what Jesus is saying when he tells us that his burden is light is not that it is insubstantial and hardly worthy of notice, but that it is bearable. Following Jesus is possible—his Holy Spirit makes it so. Indeed, anyone who hears the call to “Follow me,” can take up the yoke of discipleship and learn from Jesus. Anyone can. That is the difference between the Jesus’ yoke and anyone else’s.
The Pharisees, who belonged to the stiff, rigorous, law-abiding right wing of Judaism in Jesus’ time, we also fond of calling the Law of Moses a “yoke.” They were professionally righteous. They liked to say that they had voluntarily taken upon their shoulders the yoke of the Law in the ultimate act of submission. Now you are probably acquainted with what a yoke is. I used to see them rotting away on the walls of my grandfather’s barn. A yoke was comprised of a wooden frame with loops on either end that could be fitted around the necks of a team of oxen or horses so that a farmer could use them to plow his field. There were easier yokes and heavier ones, depending on the farmer and the job to be done.
The Law of Moses was a heavy pull to start out with. But the Pharisees intentionally made the Law heavier still by adding all sorts of rules and directives about what you could eat and what was forbidden, about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath, about sex, gender roles, clothing and countless other matters, and men and women had to obey all these laws in order to be a real, bona-fide Jew and not just some sort of mongrel Jew, unworthy of the name. To some keeping the Law was certainly a source of liberation—in keeping it you could feel certain that you had done all that God demanded of you. But for just as many it was impossible to shoulder the yoke of the Pharisees. The nature of the jobs, their poverty, their sexuality, their dubious parentage, their physical handicaps, their messed up personal lives all made it impossible to follow the Law of Moses with the rigor with which the Pharisees said it must be followed. You had to be a middle-class, respectable, pure-blood Jew, scrupulous, clean-living, and well-thought-of by the community to be Pharisee. Being Gentiles you and I could never have taken the yoke of the Law upon us. It would have been infinitely too heavy.
Then along came God in the person of a young rabbi from Nazareth with a different message. Jesus shared many beliefs with the Pharisees. Doctrinally, he was one. He simply wasn’t into middle-class respectability. Like many young people, he saw its inherent hypocrisies. He didn’t worry much about ritual purity. And although there is every sign that he was an observant Jew, he didn’t worry about what people thought of him. He welcomed anyone, even mongrel Jews—the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he called them—he opened himself to the company of prostitutes, tax-collectors, and all sorts of other trash. He called upon them to change their lives, but he didn’t care how messed up they were to start out with.
Jesus took down the barriers. It didn’t matter to Jesus how many mistakes they had made, or who their parents were, or what deep, dark secrets lay buried in the corners of their lives, He cured lepers rather than punishing them. He healed the halt and the lame and the blind without excluding them. He was sometimes stern, but did not scold. As the old hymn puts it: “O Hope of ev’ry contrite heart, O Joy of all the meek, how kind you are to those who fall! How good to those who seek!” He declared to everyone who found the Law of the Pharisees too heavy—“Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” He eased the burden of the Law into the law of love and the command to forgive, which he himself embodied.
And Jesus still accepts us where we are and as we are. With the help of his Spirit it is within the ability of each and every one of us to follow him. Jesus lived and did to make it possible. But it still isn’t easy. We still have to give up our pride and do the hard work of loving other people. And who are they? Well, they include family members—especially when they are being jerks—and friends—even when they let us down—and colleagues at work, neighbors, and other members of the church—especially when they are being lazy and nosey and thick headed and mean—and strangers who are always different from us in every sort of way—in color, sexuality, life-style, language, and color. Loving other people even means caring for and about our enemies—and we all have a few of those. Jesus certainly did. And that’s what means to follow him. Not living a life in which we never make an enemy—that would be a very low form of existence indeed– but learning from Jesus to give up our pride and certainty of our own rightness enough to see that our enemies are as human as we.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have met Jesus when he lived as one of us? I certainly would. By all the accounts we have, he was the most remarkable human being who has ever lived, with more compassion and wisdom and wit and holiness in his person than anyone before or since has ever had. Power, the scriptures say, flowed out of him like an electric current. He was filled like a glass to the brim with grace. He both spoke the truth and was the truth. But Jesus, who was the best of us, humbled himself to mix with the worst of us. He saw the worst in us too, and did not recoil from it. He simply cared about people without exception—especially the poor and the ethically-challenged—the very people the Pharisees would not let drink out of their garden hose. He cared for people greatly and regarded objects only as objects—which is rare enough among our kind. He valued individual people more than law and principles—which is exceptionally rare among those who are considered good. And he showed us by his example how to do that. Or at least, how to make a beginning in doing that. Learn from me, Jesus says. Learn from ME. He made righteousness possible for those who are—and will always be—amateurs at it.
When I was a kid we used to have to go to the neighbors from time to time to see slides of their summer vacation. Do you remember slides, beloved, and slide projectors and that funny electrical fire smell they made as if at any moment they were going to burst into flames? And do you remember sitting in a dark room looking at little postage stamp-sized-pictures of other people projected on a silvered screen and desperately trying to stay awake for the dessert you hoped would follow? I bet some of you still have some slides stashed in a dark corner of your lives. We do. Everyone thinks his or her own slides are interesting, but no one ever really wants to see the slides someone else took in Europe. So it will come to you as a relief that I have no slides to show. But I do want to tell you something we did on our summer vacation in France
Sunday morning, several weeks ago, my wife and I took the metro out of downtown Paris to the Basilica of St. Denis. From very early on the Abbey of St. Denis has been a royal family plot. Nearly all the kings and queens of France, from Clovis in the early sixth century to Louis XVIII in 1824, are buried there. Seventy beautiful recumbent white marble statues mark the resting places of France’s greatest monarchs. In all 43 kings, 32 queens, and 63 royal princes and princesses are buried under the soaring splendor of the nave. The ill-starred Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, guillotined during the French Revolution ended up here, together with St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris. He too was beheaded, but with a sword in 250 AD. But that wasn’t the end of him. According to a rather wonderful legend, the saint picked up his severed head, and walked six miles, preaching all the way, only to expire and be buried were his church now stands.
The church has also had some hard knocks over the centuries. During the revolution, officials order that the royal tombs opened and the remains dumped into a lime-pit. The sumptuous ornaments of the church were looted. Stained glass windows were melted for the lead to make bullets for Frances’ wars. But when the fires of the revolution had finally cooled and Napoleon became the name of a pastry, a restored Bourbon king had the jumbled bones of the royals exhumed and reinterred to the crypt beneath the church.
So the kings and queens are back where they belong. Their tombs are bathed in the most beautiful light, cool as the light of heaven. Their marble forms glow in the brown gloom. The effect is breathtaking. But the most wonderful thing about the Basilica of St. Denis is not the dead who are there but the living. My wife and I got there in time for Sunday morning mass and the enormous sanctuary was filled—but not with who you would expect. St. Denis is now a shabby suburb of Paris where many recent immigrants live, and the great church was filled, filled almost to capacity, with African émigrés—poor people, second and third class citizens, despised by many on France’s extreme right.
The old kings and queens are sleeping the deep sleep of immortality. The modern princes and princesses are having their Sunday morning café crème and croissants in their fashionable apartments on the Ile St. Louis. But the royal church of St. Denis is filled with those who should be there—mothers in cheap bright African cotton dresses and turbans with the quiet, wide-eyed children, old men leaning on their crutches, the poorest of the poor people of Paris. They are those who labor and are heavy laden, but they have found rest among the kings and queens. And I don’t think I ever worshipped among a sweeter and gentler congregation. The singing was beautiful. I felt as if I were surrounded by angels. And in some sense, I was.
“Come unto me,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” And they are still coming. They always will come. I often worry about the future of the church. And churches in America—especially of the liberal, Protestant varieties—are in big trouble. But it is pointless to worry. It is always pointless to worry, beloved. The future of the Church is in the hands of Lord—who else, after all. The buildings in which we worship in will pass into other hands. Some stained glass windows may get melted for bullets. Oh, well. Worse things have happened at sea. But the Lord of the Church keeps on saying, “Come unto me, all you who you who labor and are heavy laden.” And they will—as long as there are any.
You and I, however, just need to do the best we can with this time we have been given and not worry about what happens next. What comes next is always the Lord’s business, and he will take care of it in his own way. Right now, today and tomorrow, we need to make sure that our churches and our lives are open to the poor, the dispossessed, the recent immigrants, the lost children, those whom no one else cares about. And we need to fight to protect them against those who have made a profession of righteousness and want to crush everyone else with their empty rules and canting principles.
Enough said! Jesus showed us how to care about people and not objects. He showed us by his example how to treat people as persons and not things. He said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” It isn’t easy, beloved, but it is always possible.

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