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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Crying in the Wilderness

A Sermon for ADVENT II 
December 8, 2018
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE 

Have you begun to feel it yet? I certainly have.

The tension of keeping Advent is enormous! The pressure is ON! It’s easy to simply say, oh, play the Christmas music already! Why not?!?! They’re playing Christmas music in the stores and malls!  Santa is already receiving guests at Rehoboth Beach. What’s wrong with you, anyway?!?!

I was talking with a woman the other day who was looking for Advent candles. She was hoping for three blue, one pink and one white but she would have settled for purple instead of blue.

She went to several stores without any luck because green and red candles seem to have taken over the stores. She finally stopped in at her local grocery store, thinking certainly they’d have a great variety of candles. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada. 

She finally asked a passing clerk: Do you have Advent candles? The clerk looked at her as if she had two heads and one was flopping.

Advent? What?!?!?

The rest of the world is “decking the halls with balls of holly” and we’re out scouring the stores for blue or purple candles. 

Or, at least, some of us are. 

I’m no Advent purist but I do love the season of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” to borrow a line from the poem “The Second Coming,” by W.B. Yeats.

Yeats, of course, was describing the aftermath of World War I. He was drawing on a biblical image to depict a world that had become unmoored, a world falling apart into anarchy. Which, of course, is what John the Baptizer is yelling about, out there in the wilderness. 

The apostle Luke names all the various leaders of the day to show how far Israel had fallen. 

Politically, the Jews were ruled by foreigners, and religiously, Annas and Caiaphas had been illegally put into their positions by the Roman authorities, and constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions.

John the Baptizer did not say, “The falcon can not hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” That, of course, was Yeats, but it’s a perfect echo of John.

I have to turn down the volume on my own Christmas voice. I’m no purist – or, as one of my friends says, “An Advent Jihadist" – but there is something about staying in the wilderness for a bit, listening to Luke’s Apocalypse which we heard last week, and tolerating John the Baptizer’s ranting in the wilderness – this week and next!

How else will we be prepared to hear Mary singing the Magnificat on the fourth week? How will we hear the Baby Jesus cry? In my experience, it’s important to listen to all of the voices of Advent – even the ones we don’t want to hear – in order to prepare for the joy of Christmas.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

I spent a good amount of my ministry in the Tri-state Area, mostly in New Jersey but also in New York and a wee bit in Connecticut. I was rector of a fairly large suburban congregation in northern NJ where taking one’s child to Radio City Music Hall at Christmas was almost a rite of passage.

And so it came to pass that a child I had baptized, one beautiful little girl named Olivia, celebrated her fifth birthday and lo, it was decreed by her father that the family should make the cultural pilgrimage into New York City for the Annual Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall.

Lo, the mother and father and their girl-child did board a train and traveled into the region known as The Big Apple where these modern pilgrims did pay homage at all the Holy Places: The State Building of The Empire, The Store of the American Girl Doll, and, of course, they, as a family, venerated the hallowed halls of F.A.O. Schwartz. (Of course!)

Olivia loved it all. Her parents were delighted. Everything was going well. They had great seats in Radio City Music Hall with a wonderful view. They thrilled as the Rocketts high-stepped and step-kicked their way through all the familiar Christmas songs.

And then, as it is written somewhere where no one can read but everyone just knows, the traditional ending of the Christmas Special at Radio City Music Hall began. The lights dimmed and a manger scene appeared under the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage.

There was Mary. There was Joseph. And there, in a manger, was the Baby Jesus.

Then, a man’s voice began to intone from his tried and true script, read to thousands of people over decades of Christmas holidays: “And it came to pass that a child was born in Bethlehem, in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. And it was for this he came into the world: To be killed and hung on a cross and to die for the salvation of the world.”

At which point, Olivia sat up in her seat and, at the top of her voice that would have made John the Baptizer proud, cried out, “WHAT! They killed Jesus?? Mom! Dad! THEY KILLED JESUS??”

At which point, a hush did fall over the entire section in which they were sitting in the hallowed halls of Radio City Music. Olivia’s parents did look at each other in horror, and fear did strike every corner of their parental hearts while embarrassment did cover their faces.

And, the father did open his mouth and bravely said to his daughter, “Olivia, let’s wait until tomorrow and we’ll talk with Reverend Elizabeth.”

And it was night, and it was morning, a second day. Sunday. In the fifth year of Olivia’s birth, when Barack Obama was in his first term as President and Chris Christie was Governor of all New Jersey. 

And, lo, the father and mother did bring the girl-child Olivia to church. As fate would have it, the parents did see their priest at the end of the church service but before the child Olivia came upstairs from Church School and they did tell her what to expect.

But, before the priest could even begin to think of an answer, lo! The child Olivia came careening around the corner, yelling, “Reverend Elizabeth! Reverend Elizabeth! Did you know? Did you hear? They killed Jesus? Why did they do that, Reverend Elizabeth?”

You know, there are times in the life of a priest when, if she keeps her mouth shut and her ears opened, she can actually hear the voice of God. And, so it came to past that I sat with Olivia on the chancel steps, kept my mouth shut, and let God speak.

“You know, Olivia,” I heard my voice say, “the people who killed Jesus were good people. They were kind people. They were just scared people. And, when people are scared, they make bad decisions. That’s what happened to the people who killed Jesus. They were good and kind people. They were just scared people. And, they made a bad decision which made them to a bad thing.”

Olivia considered very carefully what I was saying. “Here’s the thing, Olivia. It’s very important not to make a decision when you are scared. Or lonely. Or, tired. Or, even if you’re hungry. Some very wise people say that when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired you should HALT. Stop. Because if you are any of those things, you are probably going to make a bad decision. Just like the people who killed Jesus.”

Olivia looked at me and said, “Wait. Did they kill the BABY Jesus or did they kill JESUS?”

“Oh,” I said, “they killed Jesus. Not baby Jesus.”

“Oh,” said Olivia, getting up on her feet, “Well, that’s different!” 

And then, she ran off to play.

What's that old joke? You know, the one bout the kid who asks his mother, "Where did I come from?" And she sits him down and tells him all about the birds and the bees, at the end of which the kid says, "Oh, well, see? Tommy comes from Pennsylvania so I wondered where I came from".

Right. Le sigh. 

So, here’s my Advent message to you on this Second Sunday in Advent: We all know how the story ends. Don’t rush Advent.

Don’t rush the story. Live it.

Take each week as it comes. Light each candle, one by one.

Yes, the pressure is on and it is all around us. But, keep Advent. For as long as you can.

Stay and cry in the wilderness this week and next.

How else will the falcon hear the falconer’s song?

How else will you be able to join Mary in her song when it’s time?

How else will you hear the angels sing when the infant Jesus takes his first earthly breath?

Resist the pressure to rush the story.

Slouch your way towards Bethlehem.

We’ve been doing this for thousands of years.

The center will hold – especially if you take the time to listen for it and find it.

Amen.

-->

Thursday, December 06, 2018

When Christmas Hurts: Joy Anyway!


"It's the most wonderful time of the year .. . . ." 

Well, for some people, it is.

For others, the thought of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" leaves them cold.

Grief is one human emotion which is not supposed to be part of either Advent or Christmas.

But, for many, it is.

It really doesn't matter whether or not their grief is just weeks or months new, or years or decades old.

It still hurts. As one woman whose husband died ten years ago said to me recently, "The other day when I was putting up Christmas lights, one string wouldn't work. I looked at it carefully and found one bulb that was out. And, because that one little bulb was out, the whole, entire string of lights wouldn't work. And, I thought to myself, that's exactly how it feels since my husband died. I've got my health, my children and grandchildren, my great friends and co-workers - all of which I'm deeply grateful for - but ever since his light went out, nothing else seems to work right."

Grief is not limited to death of a loved one. Divorce, family separation due to geographical distance, demands of work, family feuds, and ruptured relationships are just some of the losses we experience, the pain of which can be intensified during the holidays. 

Oh, and don't diminish the pain of the loss of a pet. They are family members, too.

So, how to get through this Season of Advent with all of its "contemplation" and "joyful expectation"? How to prepare for Christmas?

Over the many years, I've been privileged to be a priest - and through my own experience of grief - I've developed bit of a Survival Guide.

Well, here are seven things that may help when Christmas hurts.

1. Accept your feelings, whatever they may be

The only cure I know for grief is to grieve. The paths your grief will take are many and will be different from anyone else's grief.  You may also find yourself traveling several paths at the same time: anger, resentment, sadness and even guilt because you are feeling joy may all surface for you. Try to stay in tune with what you know to be true and good about yourself and acknowledge the feelings that you have are normal and part of being human. See all of your emotions as companions on your journey. Say 'hello' to anger when it appears and ask him to stand over here, please, while you both scontinue walking. "Ah, there you are!" you might say to sadness, and tell her you wondered where she had been hiding. Ignore your feelings at your own peril.

2. Acknowledge those who have died or are no longer present in your life. 

It can be helpful to participate in a related holiday ritual in memory of the person who has died. Some ideas: lighting candles for them, talking about them, buying children's toys or books to donate in their name, donating to a cause that was dear to their heart in memory of them, dedicating a prayer service in their name, planting a tree - if you can, in a place that brings a happy memory or would be otherwise meaningful -  purchase flowers for the altar at church or temple or mosque, making a card or writing a letter which displays their picture or placing an item of theirs among holiday decorations.

3. If you need something, take a risk: Ask.

One of my dear friends found himself in an awkward and painful situation the first Christmas after his divorce. His children had planned to be on vacation with their spouses in in a warm place. He couldn't bear the thought of being alone. So, he picked up the phone and called some friends and asked what they were doing for Christmas. When they said they planned a "quiet Christmas at home," he said, "If I promise to be quiet, can I stay in your guest room?" They were surprised but delighted and said "Of course." He said, "I realize that I had leaned a lesson from the pain of the loss of my marriage: I am responsible for my own happiness. If I need something, I need to ask." (He reports that it was a 'different but very wonderful' Christmas, adding, "I am so grateful I spoke up.").

4. Feel free to say 'no'.

The other side of having wonderful family and friends is that they'll want to take care of your needs before you even know you have a need and have thought to ask. You may well be barraged with invitations to parties and social events. If you feel it will be too much for you and you'd like to simply opt out of participation in a holiday, let family and friends know. But, plan alternative, comforting activities for yourself and let someone know what you will be doing. Let them also know that it's okay if someone checks in with you on that day.

5. Consider something different

Don't hide from the truth that things have changed and that the holiday will probably never be the same as it was ever again. Accepting this - sometimes, it takes saying it out loud to yourself in the mirror - will help to manage expectations. This is especially important if you and your family plan to return to your usual routines and rituals after the first year. It's also okay to plan new activities - go to a new location for family celebrations change the menu, attend the theater, travel. Just understand why you are doing it - because this loss has changed your life and you are managing the best you can - and be honest about it, at least with yourself.

6. Scale back

Grieving can take an enormous amount of energy. Don't be surprised if the very thought of the holidays leaves you exhausted - emotionally and physically. For some people, it is wise to plan for this and manage the expectations you have of yourself. If the thought of many holiday activities feels painful, overwhelming or inappropriate this year, cutting back may help. For example, you might opt for minimal decorations at home and take a break from sending holiday greetings, or try e-greeting instead. You could limit holiday parties to small gatherings with your closest friends and family. Do whatever feels safe and comfortable to you. Create realistic expectations for yourself and others, but above all be gentle with yourself.

7. Give.

For other people who are grieving, sometimes the biggest comfort is to give to others. Some of us will feel paralyzed by the sheer emotion — sadness, feelings of helpless or hopelessness. In times of loss, grief compels some people to do something that will make a difference. For those folks, consider volunteering for an organization that helps others. Like:
Agencies that help the homeless or feed the hungry or assist families affected by domestic violence or partner abuse.
Assisting at hospital or nursing home reception desks
The ASPCA often asks volunteers to walk or or help feed or spend time with dogs or cats.
Community food banks need volunteers to stock shelves or counsel families
Local Thrift Shops need help with the registers, sorting through and sizing clothing, shoes and jewelry, testing (and repairing) appliances, or arranging attractive displays of furniture. 
If none of that feels appealing there is absolutely nothing in the world that is wrong with writing a check to an organization in memory of your loved one.

Or, for those who are struggling with divorce or separation or the rupture of a relationship, refuse to be defined by loss and make a donation to a worthy cause in your own name. Feel good about what you can still give despite your loss.

Again, being aware of why you are doing what you are doing - increasing your activites or scaling back, accepting your feelings, considering doing something different, saying 'no' to things you don't want to or simply can't do, taking a risk and asking for what you need - is absolutely key to grieving. 

No, none of these things will cure grief. Only grieving will do that.

But, they will help you survive the holidays in the hopes that you may eventually find the 'comfort and joy' promised by the prophets of old and sung in the carols and hymns of Christmas.

Or, as my dear friend, Louie Crew Clay, says, "Joy Anyway!"

Sunday, December 02, 2018

How to Survive The Apocalypse

A Sermon Preached for ADVENT I
December 2, 2018 - Proper Year C / RCL

 The Episcopal Church of St. David, Kinnelon, NJ

"American carnage." Isn’t that the term used in the inaugural speech of the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Dark. Bleak. Chaotic. Fear. Foreboding. Apocalyptical.

Some of our ‘end time’ Evangelical brothers and sisters clapped their hands with great delight on hearing the term “American carnage”.

They would like nothing more than for the Apocalypse to happen, for the Second Coming of Jesus to happen now. Right. Now. This now. Now, now.

The church has been expecting Jesus to return for a long time, and he hasn’t done it yet.

“It’s hard to stand on tiptoe for two thousand years,” says William Willimon.

We've seen some of those apocalyptic images come out of Alaska after their 7.0 earthquake. The images look fearsome and foreboding. 

One of my friends who lives in Alaska, where they can have up to 24,000 earthquakes a year - admitedly, none of them of quite this magnitude - said, jokingly, "Tell everybody if they want to help, send dishes."

We also caught some glimpses of that American carnage just this week when a few hundred refugees and asylum seekers and their children from the American-funded carnage in Central America rushed the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States.

So, in the face of all that, what are we to make of this morning’s passage from the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel? How are we to avoid the temptation to see what’s happening in our world today through the lens of the apocalyptic chaos of this piece of scripture?

Well, the first thing is to understand that these words of Christian Scripture are poetry. 

Yes, poetry.

We don’t listen to poetry and try to drag meaning out of it. We let poetry be poetry. We let its images dance a seductive dance over our imagination and creativity. We let it carry us to places deep in the inner recesses of our memory where the sacred lives.

Apocalyptic passages, like poetry, challenge reason and pull us to consider what is possible and what is impossible. 

That’s what Jesus is doing here in this passage. As C. S. Lewis once wrote—Jesus is describing a God without disguise who comes at us so unmistakably that he will “strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.”

And, Jesus is asking, “Are you ready?”

Ready not just for the first coming of Jesus as a sweet babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but ready for His coming again into your hearts as a light into these dark days.
 
So allow me take you where this amazing piece of apocalyptic poetry from Jesus took me as I considered what is happening in the world, what is happening in my life, and how it is I am to prepare for this Season of Advent.

I was seven or eight years old (not so very long ago!), the oldest of four, when I discovered the truth about Santa Claus. 

I didn’t mean to. I was just exploring my house for a quiet place to hide from my younger siblings so I could read my books in peace when I found that the door to the attic was unlocked. I climbed slowly up the stairs and scanned the room quickly and found a few spots, actually, where, with the addition of a blanket and pillow, would be most acceptable.

That’s when I saw it. 

There, over in the corner, hidden under a blanket were some of the toys we had asked Santa to bring for Christmas. I was confused and devastated. My carefully constructed fantasy world caved in on itself.

It was the end of my childhood innocence as a whole Pandora’s box of questions came flooding out at me: Why had my parents lied to me? Why didn’t they just tell me the truth? I mean, did they think I’d never figure it out? Did they think I was that dumb?

Just then, my mother came up the stairs and put her arms around me. She didn’t try to explain or excuse it. She just said, “I’m so sorry you had to find out this way. We meant to tell you earlier. We thought we still had some time. We never meant to hurt you.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a whole thing about Santa Claus and what you should do about your children and grandchildren. (I understand a substitute teacher in Montville, NJ told her first grade class that Santa isn't real and now she's out of a job.) 

That’s not the point of my telling the story. I believed my mother when she said my parents never meant to hurt me. I later figured out for myself that this is what happens when you take poetry and metaphors literally. 

People can get hurt.

Anyway, my mother said now I was old enough to help her wrap the presents for the younger ones and begged me not to tell them what I had learned the hard way. She promised that she would make sure to tell them before they found out on their own.

Not only that, she said, but now I was old enough to have my own room.

Well, THAT was a Christmas miracle I NEVER expected.

I mean, we lived in a small tenement apartment on the second floor of my grandparent’s house. There were two bedrooms. There were four kids. My parents had converted the parlor into their bedroom. My baby sister slept in a crib in their room. My younger sister and I slept in twin beds in one bedroom. My younger brother – whom we called, between clenched teeth, ‘The Little Prince” – slept in the other bedroom, which he had all to himself. Grrrrrr.

So, to trust that another bedroom would magically appear after learning about the lie of Santa Claus seemed like way too much to ask. My mother spread out her arms and said, “Welcome to your new bedroom. Daddy is going to paint the walls and we’ve got a nice rug to put down and your godparents have given you their daughter, Judy’s bed because she’s gone off to college. You just wait and see.  It’s going to be lovely.”
 
And, it was. It was ready by Christmas Eve – my first night in my new room. I was so excited I could barely sit still through the evening’s festivities.

In all the excitement, it wasn’t until it came time for my parents to tuck me in that we realized there was one important feature missing.

A nightstand and a table lamp.

There was a light in the ceiling – right in the middle of the room – with a long string that hung down from it. Which meant that when the string was pulled and the light went out, the only light was that from the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Which wasn’t great but it was okay. I mean, I had my own room. How cool was that?

“Good night,” my parents called from the bottom of the stairs. 

“Good night,” I called back.

And then, it happened. They closed the attic door and turned off the hall light. Suddenly, it was completely dark in my room. No, I mean pitch-black dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me which meant, of course, that now I could begin to see everything that wasn’t there.

Scary things. Monster things. Fear and foreboding sank over my body and settled deep into my bones. If there wasn’t any Santa Claus, were guardian angels a hoax as well? 

At age eight, I knew one true thing: There WERE monsters under my bed. I knew that if I got out of bed to pull the light string, they would get to me before I was able to get back under the covers.

And then, because I was like every eight year old girl who ever lived in any time or any place anywhere, EVER, I had a flare for the dramatic. 

I KNEW – knew beyond a shadow of a doubt – that I. Was. Going. To. DIE.

I started to weep softly as I said my prayers, hoping against hope that there was actually a God and that hadn’t been all a lie my parents told, too.

And suddenly, I heard it. 

Despite all the noise in my head, I heard it. 

It was the unmistakable sound of the click of a wall switch. 

I opened my eyes and there, at the bottom of the attic stairs, was a little sliver of light at the bottom of the attic door. My parents had turned on the hall light which was just enough to comfort me and rescue me from the depths of my despair. 

And, ever since then, from that time forward to this very day, when I am anxious or frightened or just flat out terrified, I look for that little sliver of light. That, for me, is how I understand Jesus. That’s who I understand him to be – a little sliver of light in the midst of fearsome darkness.

As the Season of Advent moves steadily upon us and the world around us continues to swirl seemingly out of control, I hope that you can remember this little story. 
 
I hope you can remember that apocalyptic passages are, essentially, poetic passages and ought to be treated as such. We don't demand literal interpretations of poems, we ought not to demand them of apocalyptic passages.
 
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.
 
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
 
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
 
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
 
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
 
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

In preparing for this sermon, I've untied Luke's Gospel from the chair and I've stopped trying to "torture a confession" from the "sun, moon, stars, and earth".

I encourage you to do the same.
 
Rather, I hope you will press your ear against the Gospel hive, listening for the buzz. Or, blindfold yourself and feel along the walls for a light switch of inspiration and insight.
 
Allow it to carry you away from the doom and gloom of life and into another metaphor of your life which is life-giving and salvific. 

It occurs to me that its a good way to prepare for Advent.   

I recommend waterskiing across the surface of the Gospel stories of Advent and Christmas while you wave to the authors at the shore. 
I strongly urge you to drop a little church mouse into a Gospel story and watch him probe his way around, looking for a morsel or two of goodness upon which to feast. 
 
You may discover there the small sliver of the light of Christ which dwells in you. 

To your great surprise, you may even learn that YOU are the sliver of light in the darkness that shines for others.

When Christmas finally arrives, like Jesus at his coming, may you strike “irresistible love” into the hearts of every living creature.

Are you ready? 

Amen.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Kingdom of the Ego and the Soul


A Sermon Preached on the Feast of Christ the King
Last Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 29 B 
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
November 25, 2018

So, I’ll start with a confession because it’s good for the soul. Or, at least, so I hear.

When Fr. Howard called me last Tuesday to ask if I could cover for him today, I confess I was concerned and a bit distressed. I mean, we’ve all seen the commercial on TV where they operate for back pain. The person walks out of the outpatient clinic a few hours after the procedure upright and smiling broadly. 

I, well – many of us, including Fr. Howard – thought that’s exactly how it would go. Apparently, that reality happens more often in TV commercials than in real life.

I was happy to be able to help out, not just for Fr. Howard but because it meant being with you all again. But then, it hit me: This is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. And, suddenly, the realization hit me: That means that it's Christ the King Sunday.

Well, if I’m honest, I confess I thought to myself that after more than thirty years of preaching, I don’t think have another Christ the King sermon in me. 

I mean, what more can be said about the fact that the kingdom of God is not of this world? Or, to use the words of St. Paul, that it is in this world but not of this world?

And, anyway, how does that help anyone deal with the realities we have to face today? Is it really good or wise to teach people that they must wait until they die before they can know anything about the Kingdom of God?

So, with my teeth grit, I read over the Gospel lesson from John. Several times. And then, I read it again. And, though I prayed mightily for it, no new inspiration arrived, no new insight, nothing to help us live through these end days of the year when darkness comes early and the morning light appears later in the day. 

So, I got up off my knees and went back to work.

Here’s the truth as I know it: Sometimes, the light of inspiration comes when we least expect it. I think I was in the kitchen, de-boning the Thanksgiving turkey carcass I had boiled down to make some bone broth for the cold that comes in the deep winter months when I heard it.

Listen to part of John’s gospel again with me:

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.


How odd, I thought to myself. Pilate asks him if he is a king and Jesus says, “I came to testify to the truth.” As if being a ruler and telling the truth are diametrically opposed. As if power and truth are mutually exclusive.  


Is that true, I wondered? Can a person rule and being truthful? We know that many politicians have a difficult relationship with the truth but what about all those people who are charged with the sacred duty of leading the people?  


Are leaders, by their nature, the adversary of truth? Is truth a stranger to leaders? Can truth and leadership walk side by side as companions?  
 

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not just talking about our current state of political affairs. I’m not talking strictly about American political parties of any persuasion.  


I’m talking about leadership at all levels and in every situation – government officials, corporate executives, heads of pharmaceutical companies, hospital administrators, law enforcement agents, school officials, local business owners, and yes, religious leaders.  


Is it okay to tell a ‘little white lie’? Or, to exaggerate a few details? Or, to play fast and loose with the facts?  


Okay, so I know I wouldn’t appreciate it if you told me that I look awful in the outfit I’m wearing. If you think that, I’d rather you keep the truth of your opinion to yourself, thank you ever so much.  


But, what about those times when the welfare of people’s lives are at stake? Is it okay to ‘tell a white lie’ or ‘exaggerate a few details’ or ‘play fast and loose with the facts’ then? 

 

Some of us have become so familiar with ‘spin’ that it is a ‘new normal’ for us. This can either make us naïve or cynical. I know I naively believed that Fr. Howard would walk out of that outpatient center and right back into the church. I’m now struggling not to become cynical. 

 

Here’s the thing I’ve learned as I’ve grown older and not necessarily wiser but more. . . um . . . ‘seasoned’: 

 

Truth and lies are not always black and white. 

 

Courage is not always the opposite of fear. 

 

Those who believe still have doubts. 

 

Hate is not the necessarily opposite of love. 

 

In this life, anyway, there are shades of white and shades of black as well as shades of gray. And, most of us live very shadowed lives. 

 

As I say that, I think of that line in the movie “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nickolson’s character, Col. Jessup, yells, “You can’t handle the truth.”

 

Many of us can’t handle the truth – even about ourselves – so we write our own press releases and some of us, unfortunately, actually believe them.

 

I’ve learned that the stories we tell about ourselves are different, based on their origin. Quaker leaders Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson from the Center for Courage and Renewal talk about the difference between ego stories and soul stories. 

 

Let me give you few of their examples:

 

Ego stories are told for the sake of self-promotion, as when we apply for a job. Soul stories are stories beneath the ego stories, with the thread of truth running thru them.  

 

Ego stories try to portray us as in control or in charge of our lives. Soul stories are stories of twists and turns when our plans were undone by the unexpected. 

 

Ego stores are highly crafted stories that leave out important things. Soul stories honor the fragments and integrate them with the whole.   

 

We tell ego stories at a party when someone asks, “What do you do?” When we want the people we trust to know about us, we tell stories from the soul

 

As a Hospice Chaplain, I’ve learned that ego stories do not sustain us in times of suffering, but soul stories are the ones we turn to in hard times or when we die.

 

This is what I hear in Jesus’ response to Pilate. I hear Pilate asking Jesus an ego question and Jesus giving Pilate a soul answer. “So, you are a king?” is Pilate asking, “So, you really do have power? So, the truth is that you can get yourself out of this?” 

 

And, I hear Jesus answering, a kinder, gentler, more humble version of the statement: “You can’t handle the truth!”

 

I started out by saying that confession is good for the soul. I do believe that to be true. 

 

Next week begins the Season of Advent, and we prepare for the coming of Jesus, the Christ, who came into the world not as a King to be worshiped, but as a naked babe, born of lowly and mean estate, not so much to be loved as to love us into being more human.  

 

Jesus came to testify to the truth which Jesuit scholar and physicist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said so well: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

 

The truth of the God we worship and adore is that God loves us so much that God became one of us. 

 

And, because God knows our human condition through Jesus, God gave us the gift of free will. 

 

And, because God loves us unconditionally, God knew we would sometimes make poor choices so God also gave us the gift of grace, grace upon grace, by the power of the Spirit. 

 

Perhaps, on the Sunday after we have given thanks for all that we have been given, it is a good thing – a meet, proper and right thing so to do – to prepare to confess the truth of who we really are, to tell fewer stories from our ego and begin practicing telling stories from our soul, at least with the people we know and trust.  

 

Because, you know, confession is good for the soul. Or, at least, so I’ve heard.

 

In fact, sometimes, you might even get a sermon out of the deal.

 

Amen.


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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Inspired generosity

A Sermon Preached at 
The Episcopal Church of St Phillip, Laurel, DE
Pentecost XXV - Proper 27 B


I seriously loves me some Jesus, but sometimes – not always, but sometimes – Jesus pulls my last, poor, tired nerve.

Like in this Gospel story. Jesus is in the Temple, sitting across from where people are putting money in the Treasury. Rich people were putting in large sums but he watched as a widow came in and put in a few small coins, worth about a penny.

Jesus calls to his disciples and says look at this poor widow! Even though she’s only contributed about a penny, she’s actually given more than all those rich people.

I want to say, “Wait! Stop! And, what is YOUR contribution, Jesus? For goodness sake, get up, man, and do what SHE did! How about putting into practice what you preach?”

In fairness, maybe he did and that part just didn’t get written into the story. I don’t want my temporary annoyance with Jesus in this particular story to detract from his larger point: There is a difference between giving out of your abundance and giving out of the same generosity with which God gives to us.

I’m privileged to be a guest here so I don’t know when you start your Stewardship Season but I’m of a mind that Stewardship Season lasts all year. As your leadership – laity and ordained – begin to consider the 2019 Budget, I hope you are at least beginning to consider your pledge to this work and ministry of this church, especially as you face the uncertainty and challenges of this time of interim leadership and transition.

So, I want to underscore the point Jesus makes in this gospel story with a story of my own. I want to underscore the point he made about the difference between giving out of your abundance as opposed to striving to be as generous as God is with us. I also want to underscore my own point about leading by example.

I clearly remember the first time I started to earn an allowance. I got fifty cents a week in the form of two shiny quarters delivered to me by my father every Saturday night. Right after we had taken our weekly baths, washed out our white gloves and polished our shoes for Church the next day.

My father would remind me, every week, that one quarter was to go into my piggy bank and one quarter was to go to into the Church collection basket on Sunday.

I can still feel my teeth clench with resentment as I tried to smile and say, “Yes, Daddy.” Sort of the same way my teeth sometimes clench when Jesus annoys me. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out a way to beat my father at his game.

The collection baskets in the church of my youth were literally baskets with long, smooth handles that the ushers would glide skillfully and smoothly through their hands as you placed your pledge envelope or coins into them. There were three collections in my church: one for the Adults to put their paper money or pledge envelopes, and one for ‘the work of missions’ - usually an order of priests or nuns who were working with people in far off places like Cambodia or Guatemala or someplace in Africa.

The children’s basket was always the last basket to be passed. Since we normally sat in the back of the church, it was filled with shiny coins – dimes, nickels and quarters – rendered with the same resentment I always felt in my heart. The best part, however, before listening for the ‘clink’ of your coin as it went into the basket, was to first move your hand across the cool top of the coins. To a kid, you could almost see the dream of how many ice cream cones or comic books you could buy with that great stash dancing above their heads like the caption balloons of the cartoon characters we watched every Saturday morning.

What was God going to do with all that money, anyway? I was quite certain that God would have been much happier knowing that His children were happy with their mouths full of jaw-breakers or gummy worms we could purchase with those quarters.

That’s when I got the idea. Ready? It’s brilliant. Truly brilliant.

I discovered that if you put your hand over the coins, you could simultaneously drop your quarter in while very discretely picking up one or two more. Then, you would fidget in your seat, pretend to cough into the hand with your ill gotten gain, and then, as your mother gave you the ‘evil eye’ for making noise in church, you simply leaned over and slipped the quarter(s) into your sock or shoe.

Brilliant! It was a positively brilliant scheme which went on for weeks without anyone noticing what I was doing. My parents did get a bit suspicious when I stopped being resentful of giving one half of my hard earned allowance money to the church, so to cover my tracks, I began having conversations with them about how I might have a vocation to become a nun.

I have to tell you, this was my first run as a thief, and I was pure genius! I was being a scoundrel and they thought I was trying to be a saint! How cool is THAT?

Well, because God is God and we are not, all good – and bad – things come to an end. Eventually. Eventually, I got found out.

Turns out, one of the nuns had turned to give me the stink eye when I coughed and saw me slipping the coin into my shoe. Over the next few Sundays, she watched and realized that I always coughed at the same time and always made the same move down to my shoes. She reported me to the priest and, before I knew it, my parents and I were called into the parish office where the nun told my parents exactly what she had seen.

My parents were furious. I was humiliated. The priest, a kind, gentle man, came over to me and gently put his arm around me as he asked why I had done it.

Through heavy sobs and copious tears, I blurted out the real reason: I was afraid. I was afraid because, after I went to bed, when my parents thought we kids were all asleep, I was awake. And, I could hear them argue.

Their arguments were always the same. It was always about the family budget. My brother was very ill and she had to pay Dr. Rudolph for the office visits and she still had a $70 balance with Mr. Rexall at his Drug Store for my brother’s penicillin. Now, $70 may not seem like a lot these days but at that time, for my family, that was a fortune.

My mother was concerned that my father’s good friend, Mr. Johnnie Walker, was taking more money than she was able to pay either Dr. Rudolph or Mr. Rexall. My father said that a man needed something at the end of the day when he worked so hard at the factory. They would go back and forth, their voices getting louder and more angry, and I would fall asleep with the pillow over my head to block out the sounds of their argument.

I thought that I could save up enough money to help my parents pay off the doctor and the pharmacist, let my father keep his friend, Mr. Walker, happy, and still buy candy and comic books for myself and my siblings and friends.

I’m not really sure what happened next. I do remember the priest asking the nun to take me out of the office and to the kitchen where he invited her to share a slice of cake and a glass of milk with me while he talked to my parents.

I do remember that my parents stopped arguing late at night and that Mr. Walker’s name was no longer  a line item on my parent’s budget.

And, I will never forget that this priest’s decision to err on the side of generosity changed my life. Actually, his generosity inspired the generosity of my parents and has inspired me to err on the side of generosity. 

Oh, and he also inspired me to stay away from a life of crime. 

I am inspired, like the widow in this gospel story, to contribute more than mere money. I am inspired not to just ‘go through the motions’ like the scribes in the first part of the story.

I am inspired to be as generous as I know how to be, even though sometimes – not always, but sometimes – the institutional church, the Body of Christ, pulls my last, poor tired nerve.

I hope you are inspired to do the same, because generosity is always inspiring. Your generosity can and will inspire others. Just as God's generosity inspires us.

Amen.


Sunday, November 04, 2018

And I mean to be one, too.

A Sermon Preached at St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
All Saints' Sunday - November 4, 2018

Today is the day many in the church celebrate All Saints Day. We are allowed to transfer it from Thursday, November 1st to the closest Sunday, and so we have in this church.

I don’t know what you, personally, believe about ‘saints’. Episcopalians hold various places on a broad spectrum of thought about this subject. 

Some reject it flat out as ‘Papist rubbish’. Others embrace it fully, even placing statues of various saints in and around the church. 

You’ll even find some congregations with banks of votive candles in front of statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or in one church I know in Baltimore, a statue of King Charles I, the reported last and highly disputed saint of the Reformation who refused to give up bishops in the church and was martyred for his choice.

So, here’s the question many of you have always wanted to know but were afraid to ask: Do Episcopalians believe in Saints? Do we ‘make’ saints the way the Pope does?  Do Episcopalians have their own saints?  No we do not. 

We do have some saints which you can find listed in the Book of Common Prayer, including Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, Matthias, Bartholomew, Matthew, Michael, Luke, James, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Thomas, Stephen and John – all new Testament figures. 

Episcopal Churches are often named after saints from the post-Biblical age (like, St. Augustine), and those individuals identified by the universal church as saints are often called saints. 

But, for the most part, our “saints” are identified as “theologians, bishops, martyrs, etc.” 

Or, as that favorite song in our hymnal “I sing a song of the saints of God,” by Lesbia Scott puts it: And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, And one was a shepherdess on the green; They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

Saints, for Episcopalians, are people not to pray to or through whom to ask intercession from God; rather, they are heroes of the faith whose lives provide a blueprint of sorts for our lives. 

For the saints of God,"as Scott wrote, are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too."

That is very unlike my highly devout Roman Catholic grandmother who had little shrines everywhere in her house. Indeed, the top of her bedroom bureau was covered with statues of saints with little votive candles in front of them. Under the votive light were little slips of paper with her written prayer petition.

The thing about my grandmother is that she didn’t fool around. If she was going to make a ‘novena’ to a particular saint for a particular petition, that saint had jolly well better respond in the affirmative to her request.

I remember the statue of St. Gerard, the patron saint of families, was always in deep doo-doo.

She would pray to St. Gerard for one of her 15 adult children (she had had 20 pregnancies and 22 children) and, if he hadn’t granted her novena, she would turn him around to face the corner and blow out his candle adding as her finger wagged in his direction, “And you won’t see the light of day again until you answer my prayer.”

I credit my healthy, balanced theology of sainthood from my grandmother.

It always breaks my heart every time I read this morning’s passage from Luke’s gospel and hear Mary say to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s so heart-wrenching, that scripture reports, “And Jesus wept.”

But, listen to what Jesus says to the crowd after he performs the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. 

Remember, Lazarus has been dead four days. When Jesus commands them to roll back the stone, Mary cautions him that “there will be a stench”.

But Jesus prays to God and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And scripture reports that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Unbind him and let him go. 

The first part of the miracle is that Lazarus was raised from the dead. But the second part is just as miraculous. The people had to help unbind him – they had to get near his smelly body and put their hands on the strips of cloth that bound him and remove them.

To my mind, that is the best understanding of the theology of miracles and saints. 

It’s not just the intervention of God – it’s not just the miraculous working of Jesus. It also takes all of us – the community of faith – to roll up our hands and unbind each other that we may be ‘let go’ of the death-grip of sin. 

To find new life after resurrection.

The stories of the saints are just stories, some of them fantastic. We are the ones who unbind the stories from the past and find within them a blueprint of a life of faith from which we might learn about the miraculous work of God.

And, as Lesbia Scott has taught us to sing, “For the saints of God are just folk like me.” 

So, yes, I do look to the lives of the people I’ve known who have died. I don’t pray to them to intercede with God for me. But, I reflect on their lives and what I’ve learned from them. I try to change my life for the better. 

In Buddhist and Asian cultures, the ancestors are honored and revered not just one day a year but always. In African and African American cultures, the ancestors are likewise honored with libations and prayers.

In Hispanic cultures, "The Day of the Dead" - November 2nd, or All Souls Day - is observed by creating altars with pictures of the deceased and vases of marigolds. The names of the deceased are said aloud and everyone responds "Presente" - "present" - as an acknowledgement that the souls of the deceased live on. 

I want you to take one moment right now. Close your eyes and call up the faces and names of the saints in your life who have died and passed on to the other side. When you are ready, speak their names, aloud or silently in your hearts.

Take a moment to do that right now. 

And, now, let us all say, "Presente".

I believe what we say in the Creed every Sunday. 

I believe in the communion of saints. 

I believe that Jesus kept his promise and has given us the gift of life eternal. 

I believe that our ancestors are with us, walking with us, inspiring us on this pilgrimage we call life.

I can’t prove that to you. If I argued the case in court against Perry Mason I would most certainly lose. Which is right. It doesn’t make any sense, actually. But faith rarely does.

Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go.”

It’s a message we all need to hear on this day when we honor and celebrate the saints who have gone one before us, the saints who are here now, and the saints who are yet to come.

May we continue to be free – to be let go, unbound – to worship God in the fullness of the great mystery that is God - and the mystery that is the faith of our lives. 

Amen.