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Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Leaf Scar

 

A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XXI - Proper 24 A - October 18, 2020


It seems as if every essay I read about this passage from Matthew’s gospel works very hard to make the Religious Leaders look like the bad guys. It’s almost cartoonish and makes me giggle a little. 

 

One commenter wrote: This time it’s the Herodias and disciples of the Pharisees who conspire to trap him.” Well, for goodness sake! Jesus has only been goading them into an adversarial relationship. He turns over the tables of the money changes, brings out the whips and insults their integrity and then tells a couple of parables that cast them in a very bad light.

 

Not that they don’t deserve it, mind you. They have seriously compromised their integrity. But, you know, you don’t go poking the beehive with a stick unless you expect at least one bee to get annoyed and try to sting you.

 

They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Jesus (“aware of their malice,” Matthew adds) rejects that question and reframes it by answering, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

 

The Herodias are agents of Rome – they’re the “G-men”, the “suits” – and favor a tax to the emperor. No one would be surprised to learn that they are lining their own pockets before the revenue gets shipped out of the province. The Pharisees, however, like other Jewish people of their day, resent the tax, not to mention the idolatrous image of Caesar on the face of the coins required to pay it.

 

Jesus stumped them cold in their tracks. It almost feels too easy, doesn’t it? The Herodias and Pharisees set out to “trick” Jesus but he spins the trick right back on them, without even seeming to break a sweat. Or, is it just that, by now, many of us are very familiar with the story?

 

Honestly? I don’t know who is tricking whom in this story. Matthew would like us to believe that the religious leaders are setting up Jesus into an adversarial, contentious relationship. I submit that it is Jesus who sets the trap for them, revealing to them and his disciples and anyone else who might be paying attention at the time - and for all time - the corruption and deceit and hypocrisy inherent in the institutional religion.

 

Which, I think, is the point, the reason for his ‘re-formation’ of religion – about being freed from the “letter” of the law to live more freely into the “spirit” of the law.

 


Jesus is building his case. He’s taking on the establishment, religious group by religious group, theo-political position by theo-political position. He’s got his face set toward Jerusalem and we know what will happen there. So does he. When you know how the story ends – when you know it’s not the end – you can take risks like this.

 

The beginning of his earthly ministry is to set up the ending of his earthly ministry so that the salvific ministry of eternal life can begin and we can return to The Garden.

 

Jesus is living out a natural force in nature. We see it all around us, especially this time of year. Those who are familiar with my sermons know of my deep affection for my grandmother. You know that some of my fondest childhood memories are being with her - especially in the kitchen, yes.

 

When we weren’t in her kitchen, I loved being on long walks with her, especially our daily walks to church for early morning mass. She also loved to take long rides on Sunday in the car. She would sit in the back seat and I would sprawl out on the “back ledge” behind her seat in my father’s Studebaker.

  

My grandmother especially loved the Autumn of the year. She loved all the wild, beautiful colors and the way the whole round earth seemed to be celebrating life in a vivid, flashy display of life at this point in the year.

 

It was she who first taught me of the great ironies in life, this one chief among them – that the outrageous burst of color and life were actually a sign of death. 


It’s a chemical process, of course. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of the tree changing the composition of the food-making process it was sending to the leaves in preparation for the change from summer to winter, so that life would continue from one season to the next within the tree.

 

My grandmother said that life on this earth ends in a blaze of glory. She pointed out that Jesus was called to this earth by a great star of wonder and light in the sky and that he was called back home to heaven in that same great light of the resurrection.  So, she said, we should not be surprised with the earth mimicked the divine which had created them and did the same.


You will recall Paul saying to the church in Thessalonia to be "imitators" of him so they can be an example to others. And, Moses says to God, "Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight." 


It's about knowing and imitating God's ways - even as all of nature imitates God's ways and thus, finds favor in God's sight.


I remember one time on one of our walks to church, she stopped to watch a leaf fall from its branch. She then picked up the leaf from the ground and showed me the spot on the tree branch from which the leaf had fallen.

 

At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. If you put your finger on the end of it, you can feel its sticky sap. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.

 

“And this,” she said rolling the sap between her fingers, “is why we cry when someone dies. It’s okay to be sad. Even trees are sad a bit and weep. But, their tears become a protective coating for the tree sealing it off from any damage.”

 

“The important thing is this,” she added, “Every leaf that falls leaves behind a ‘leaf scar’. The tree knows every leaf that has ever grown on its branches, and every branch that has ever grown from its body.”

 

“Like leaves on a tree, we change our home from inside the tree, to outside the tree. Then, we fall off the tree and rest at its base, providing food and nourishment for the roots of the tree.  But, there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That life lasts forever and, even in death, we are all a part of that Life that goes on, even when we’re not here.”

 

“We may not return in the Spring – no one knows where we go after we die – but we know this to be true: Life will return.”

 

It seemed a great puzzle to me. I confess that, from time to time, it still does. Along with millions and billions of generations of other people who have wondered about The Meaning of Life, I wondered about the reason. I mean, why are we here if only to fall and die at the end?

 


I
asked my grandmother, of course. She smiled kindly and said, “It’s always been about Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun. It’s been about the times in between, when the sun rises and sets and the moon rises high in the sky, only to fall again for the sun to rise. It’s about falling and rising. It’s about the times we’ve been happy and sad. It’s been about the sun and the shade, the rain and the wind, and the old people and the children. It’s been about the way life takes us on a ride through the seasons and changes of life. It’s about learning, finally, to just enjoy the ride, the way a leaf changes colors and then glides into the wind to finally  settle on the ground.” 

 

“Some of us, like the leaf, depart in a blaze of glory. Some of us are just blown off by the wind. But, after all is said and done,” she said, holding up the leaf and matching its end to the ‘scar’ that was already forming on the branch from which it had fallen, “no matter how we leave, we all leave our mark, child. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, we leave our mark. We all leave our mark. And, that – and the ride – have to be enough.”

 

Jesus is getting ready to leave in a blaze of glory. Does he seem to be goading his adversaries into an argument? Well, that’s because he is. They don’t yet know it, but they are kindling for the great blaze of glory he is building.

 

He’s doing so to make a point about remembering the importance of the Tree of Life from which we are all leaves, and not the structures we have built around the Tree. Jesus is calling us to remember The Tree in the center of the Garden.

 

He is going to Jerusalem where he will be made to carry the remains of a tree on his back; the tree felled and fashioned for him; the tree to which his body will be nailed but the tree on which he will not – can not, shall not – stay.


The marks he will carry on his body will be marks that stay. Those marks will be outward and visible signs that Life has been here and, through those very marks, Life will return. 

 

I think somewhere deep in the places of our knowing, we know the wisdom of my grandmother to be true. Some of us do, anyway. We know somewhere deep in our souls that all these things – the trials and the troubles, the arguments and conflicts, the chaos and confusion the anxiety and fear, are all part of this particular season in our lives. This too, shall pass. And, The Tree will remain.

 

Some of it is out of our control. Some of it is as directly caused as the “tricks” pulled on Jesus into which he tricked the leaders of his time into participating. Some of us will misplace our loyalties and disorder our priorities. Some of us will fall gently. Others will be violently blown off by a sudden, unexpected strong wind. It’s all part of the rhythm and the dance of life.

 


So when you see the leaves begin to change their color, and watch them fall to the ground to dry and turn brown and gather into brittle clusters tossed by the wind on the ground to nourish the earth with its remains, remember the branch and The Tree from which those leaves fell.

 

Remember, then, that just like Jesus, we, too, will leave our mark. So, give to God that which is of God, and that which is of the earth to the earth to be gathered up and used by God for God’s mysterious purposes. And, bidden or unbidden, God is there, in the midst of us, blessing it all, like the Tree in the middle of the Garden from which we come and to which we will return. 

 

Amen.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

No, THIS is the worst parable ever


A Sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XIV - Proper 23 A

October 10, 2020

 

Last year – in September, 2019 – I preached a sermon I titled, “The Worst Parable Ever.” It was The Parable of the Shrewd (or, Crooked) Manager from Luke’s gospel.

 

I was wrong. That was not the worst parable ever. It was only one of the worst parables ever. 

 

Actually, THIS is the worst parable ever. This one right here: Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Banquet. (Matthew 22:1-14)

 

If you wrestle with this parable through the night, I can assure you that you’ll wake up in the morning limping, just like Jacob who wrestled with the angel. You may even have a headache from banging your head against the rock that was your pillow.

 

Seriously. Well, I tried to warn you two weeks ago about the upcoming gospels from here to the Feast of Christ the King just six weeks from now. 

 

Unfortunately, our minds are on the pandemic and whether the COVID will rob us of a full NFL season, and, perhaps, how to celebrate a safely distanced Oktoberfest, or whether or not Halloween masks this year will provide adequate prevention from COVID transmission and infection. 

 

Oh, and then there’s the matter of the presidential election. Indeed. 

 

So, who wants to wrestle with a contentious piece of scripture while we have so many other things over which to gnash our teeth and rend our garments and growl? 

 

The temptation, of course, is to take this scripture literally. I love the saying about us, that Episcopalians “take scripture too seriously to take it literally”. That posture really saves us, especially in this parable, from dangerous conclusions that defy the image of God as a God of unconditional love, a God who is capable of a change of mind as well as heart, which we saw in the first lesson from Genesis.  

 

I am assured by my Lutheran friends that Martin Luther did not like preaching on this parable. As Paul writes to the church in Philippi, how are we supposed to “rejoice in the Lord” who throws uninvited guests into the outer darkness?

 

The great theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin and others of his orthodox Protestant theological persuasion, have preached that the one ejected from the banquet represented the one who did not "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14 and Gal. 3:27).

Calvin preached that we are all invited to the kingdom, but we are all under obligation to be clothed with Christ and to live lives of righteousness.  

 

Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean that the message of this parable is that only practicing Christians are saved—everybody else is toast. 

 

I simply don’t believe that people like Gandhi aren’t in heaven right alongside Mother Theresa. Or that faithful Jew, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is still not respectfully dissenting from the opinions of devout Roman Catholic Antonin Scalia. Or that Jesus and Buddha, Mohammed and Brahma don’t walk and talk and discuss theology together on the same path in the Celestial City. 

 

Lutheran pastor, Mary Anderson reinterprets this parable with a modern one of her own – which, as you know, are my favorite kinds of parable. 

 

Imagine that an active member in a congregation has just heard a sermon on that gospel from an orthodox follower of Calvin theology – that the only ones going to heaven are devout Christians. She has tears in her eyes. She hears the judgment loud and clear. 

 

Her son-in-law is a self-proclaimed atheist and her granddaughter is unbaptized at age six. She has a wonderful neighbor who is Jewish; her longtime doctor is the best listener in the world—and a practicing Hindu. 

 

It turns out that she loves a lot of people who are going to hell. How can she be happy in heaven without them? She was told once that heaven will be so incredible that she won't miss these people, but she can't imagine rejoicing in the Lord under these conditions. She can't imagine her sweet grandchild in hell.

 

But the grandmother has accepted the invitation; she's put on Christ and considers herself clothed with righteousness. She has recommitted herself on many occasions to imitating Christ. So what would Jesus do, she wonders. 

 

The congregation rises to sing a hymn rejoicing in salvation, and worshipers dutifully recite the Apostles' Creed. The grandmother's voice catches on the words of faith, "he descended into hell." She's never had a satisfactory explanation of what Jesus was doing in hell between his death and resurrection. 

 

For her at that moment, after suffering through a sermon that sent her loved ones to outer darkness, she knew what the creed meant for her. Before he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to retrieve those who had not heard the gospel through no fault of their own. Jesus went to get those cast into outer darkness and bring them into the kingdom with him. 

 

If she was clothed with Christ, she reasoned, she was called to be like him.

 

By the time of the final hymn she decided that to really be like Christ, she would pass up heaven in order to comfort her grandbaby in hell. She would offer her eternal life for her grandchild's eternal life. 

 

She would descend into hell as Jesus did. She left church convinced that day that if we truly live a transformed life, we can't stand by and feast while others starve and burn. That just isn't the Jesus way!

 

Now, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I don’t know the right interpretation of this Gospel parable – much less if this woman (let’s give her a name – let’s call her Ethel – got it right –  but I do love what happened to the woman in this modern parable.   

 

Let me explain: When I was in seminary, studying scripture with the Jesuits, one of my favorite professors was Dan Harrington. 

 

He was an absolutely brilliant theologian and wonderful pastor but, honestly? What I love most about him? Well, he looked and talked like a truck driver. And yet, he had more scholarly articles published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary than any other professor at Weston School of Theology at the time.  

 

He was a big, burly Irishman whose face was covered in fading freckles, and the hair on his head had that wonderful tone Irish-red becomes after it turns grey. He had a thick Irish-Bawston lilt which made the occasional pearls of wisdom he would drop even more memorable. 

 

I’ll never forget his advice: Parables work best, he said, when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. 

 

Just let that sink in for a moment: Parables work best when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. 

 

Ethel, the woman in that story took the parable not literally but seriously (I suspect she may have been an Episcopalian). She took it as a challenge to take seriously her clothing in Christ. 

 

Indeed, Ethel took it so seriously that she was transformed from one who understood herself as saved and going to heaven to one who gave up heaven in order to save and protect those she loved. 

 

Isn't this what Jesus did and what Jesus would do? 

 

The parable interpreted her life. 

 

I don’t know about you, but when I grow up I want to be more like Ethel. 

 

Like Ethel, I want to take even the worst of the parables, no matter how grumpy and frustrated or conflicted or sad they make me feel or whether or not they come at a particularly bad season of the year, and have them better interpret my life. 

 

I suspect if more of us took scripture less literally and more seriously, we may find ourselves leaving worship, perhaps with a slight limp but still rejoicing in the transformative power of Christ to work through our worst parts of our stories to bring us closer to walk the path of the teachings of Christ.

 

May we all be less interested in changing God’s mind and more deeply committed to following the Spirit and changing our lives in Christ. 

 

Then we might be able to join St. Paul whose hymn of praise still sings to us throughout time and space: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,Rejoice.

 

Amen? Amen.


Sunday, October 04, 2020

New Rules

 

New Rules: A Sermon on Live FB Broadcast

Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter FB Page 

Pentecost XVIII - Proper 22A - October 4, 2020

Rules. Rules are important. Rules provide calm in times of anxiety. Rules provide focus when there is a crisis. Rules provide order in the midst of chaos.

 

The liberation of the Israelites from 400 years of bondage in Egypt was a miracle. Their crossing the Red Sea onto dry land was a miracle. The manna that came down from heaven and fed them when they were hungry and the water that flowed from the rock and gave them drink when they were thirsty were straight-up miracles.

 

In today’s reading from Hebrew scripture, God gives another miracle to the people of Israel. They are known as The 10 Commandments. They are ten rules, 10 ways to organize themselves as a newly liberated people so that order may be brought out of the immediate headiness of their newly gained freedom.

 

Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, their priests began writing down more rules; they were called Purity Codes and gathered into a book called Leviticus. The dynamic which gave rise to these rules was the belief that the only reason God punished them with 400 years of bondage in a foreign land was due to the fact that they displeased God.

 

God forbid that should ever happen again! So, they would discern what God wanted of them – how to order their lives in every detail – so that God would not punish them again with slavery. Indeed, these rules would shape and form their identity as Jews.

 

Rules are important. Religious rules, especially those formulated in reaction to a traumatic event in the lives of a people, become central to individual and community life as the way to work out their salvation.

 

Over the centuries after the Exodus, the Levitical codes and rules and their interpretation and enforcement, were studied and revered and treasured and kept by the religious leaders of the Temple and taught by the Rabbis.

 

So, I’m going to ask you to do something this morning that you may not have considered before. I’m going to ask you to stand in the shoes – or, more accurately no doubt, the sandals – of the temple leaders.

 

This is the second parable Jesus has told them since he turned over the tables in the temples and took out the whips and told the money changers and temple leaders that they had turned his father’s house into a den of thieves.

 

When the religious leaders challenged his authority to have criticized their financial system, he told them the parable we heard last week, about the father and two sons in the vineyard. Now he tells them yet another parable, this one even more pointed and clear that he is criticizing them.

 

They are son who promised to work but didn’t. They are the tenants who steal from the landowner’s vineyard and kill his servants and even his son. That made the religious leaders so angry they wanted him arrested and thrown into jail.

 


Now, remember what I told you about rules and how especially important the religious rules are to the people of Israel, about how a whole group of people came together to write rules that they thought would not only be pleasing to God, but would give them their identity as a people and a nation. Indeed, the rules formed the pathway to their salvation.

 

Now, imagine being one of a group of people whose whole job it was to study the law and interpret the law and enforce the law and here comes this upstart young Rabbi – a Galilean, no less – and he not only ridicules them with parables but actually has the hutzpah to say to them, “Have you never read the scriptures!”???

 

Imagine! No wonder they wanted to lock him in jail and throw away the key.

 

But, what they don’t understand, what his disciples then and in every generation that has followed him for thousands of years, is that Jesus comes to offer us yet another layer, a deeper meaning of freedom.

 

I think St. Paul explains it best when he writes to the ancient church in Corinth that Jesus “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2Corinthians 3:6).

 

Jesus wants us to be obedient to the spirit of the law and that spirit is the love of God. Not the judgment of God. Not a God with an arbitrarily punitive nature.

 

No! Jesus wants us to know that God is a God of love – that God IS love – and the only way he can see to help us to know about the essence of the nature of God is to challenge and attempt to disassemble the religious structures that have, themselves, become oppressive and corrupt.

 

I want to tell you another parable – a modern one – about rules and our obedience to the spirit of the law.

 

It was 1986 and I was newly ordained and working in Boston, MA. I had been appointed by Bishop Johnson to the newly convened Interfaith AIDS Task Force. The AIDS pandemic had just reached Boston and ignorance and fear proved to be a deadly combination.

 

If you think people are behaving badly in this COVID epidemic, you wouldn’t believe how perfectly awful it was in the late 80s. The virus that causes AIDS – known as HIV – is a very different virus than COVID. HIV is transmitted through body fluid during intimate contact. COVID is transmitted by droplet which can be inhaled through the nose or mouth or transmitted through the eyes or skin.


Wearing masks prevent transmission of COVID. On the other hand HIV suppresses the auto immune system. In those days we had no real treatment for AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. Masks are worn by non-infected people to keep protect people with AIDS because even a common cold could mean their death.

 

In those days, my first partner on the Interfaith AIDS Task Force was a young man named Jimmy Mac. He was a 26-year old gay man – at the time that made him 7 years younger than I was. He could have been my kid brother. He was a very popular DJ on a local Boston radio station.  He and I would go to schools, churches, businesses – anywhere we could get our foot in the door, to raise awareness and teach what we knew about prevention and early intervention.

 

Working with Jimmy was amazing. His energy seemed unbounded and enthusiasm and spirit of generosity were inspiring. He knew he was going to die but he wanted to prevent as many deaths as he could before his time on this earth came to an end. I was utterly charmed and I came to love him dearly.

 

The last time I saw Jimmy, he was at Boston City Hospital, in strict isolation on the AIDS unit. He had called me and asked me to come visit saying that he had so few T-cells left in his immune system he had named them.

 

His good spirit on the phone did not prepare me for what I was about to see when I walked into his hospital room. He was thin – painfully, wafer thin – and there were angry, purple Karposi sarcoma all over his handsome but now emaciated face.

 

I had to dress in a white paper gown, manila colored plastic gloves, and green paper mask, hair and shoe coverings. As soon as Jimmy saw me, a smile crossed his face. He said, “Girl, you are a hot mess. Look at you,” he coughed as he laughed, “I’m calling the fashion police. Shame on you! Your gloves don’t match your shoes.”

 

I fussed around his sheets, straightening his pillow, when he suddenly grabbed my arm with surprising strength. “Elizabeth,” he said, “I know I don’t have much time left, so please, hear me out.”

 

“I’ve been here for two weeks. I haven’t seen a human face for two weeks. In all that time, I haven’t seen a human smile or felt the touch of human skin.” He coughed some more and it took him a few minutes to catch his breath.

 

“So, I have something to ask you, Elizabeth. Please don’t say no. I trust you. I’m counting on you,” he said, “Please, take off your mask and let me see your face. And, take off your gloves and let me feel your skin.”

 

“Besides,” he said, “that whole get up is supposed to protect me from you. But, you know, the people in this hospital act as if they have to protect themselves from me. You would think here, in the hospital of all places, they’d know that.”

 

“Will you take off that mask, Elizabeth?” he asked. “And, your gloves? Please?” 

 

And, even though I knew the rules, even though I knew the cost of breaking the rules, I listened to the spirit in the voice of Jimmy Mac calling me to a deeper obedience of the Law of Love. And, I took off my mask, and I took off my gloves, and I crawled into bed with him and held his skin-and-bone body in my arms.”

 

Soon, I heard him singing softly, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.  . . . . . ”

 

I stroked his hair and his forehead as I sang with him, “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

 


The next day, I got the call that Jimmy Mac had died. And even as the tears of grief fell I rejoiced that he was now free from his suffering. But I also rejoiced to know that I had also been set free from the letter of the law to a deeper obedience to the spirit of the law of Love.

 

I do believe this is what Jesus came to teach us. I believe the Christ in Jimmy Mac came to help me to learn that. I believe that sometimes you have to break a few rules in order to be obedient to the spirit of Love incarnate in Jesus.

 

The life of faith we are called to is not about blind obedience to Ten Rules carved in stone. A life of faith is about breaking open our hearts of stone to find ways to more deeply love in the name of The One who gave us a new Rule: Love One Another as Jesus has loved us.  

 Amen.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Quid Potuit Fecit

 

A Eulogy for Ralph William Peters, Jr.

St Peter's Episcopal Church, Lewes, DE

October 3, 2020


There is an old, abandoned monastery outside of Paris – well, there are many no doubt – but the memory of my visit to this particular monastery comes to visit me every now and again.

 

I was there with several girlfriends of mine – we had just graduated from high school and were taking the summer to hitchhike through Europe which was very trendy (and very cheap) at the time.

 

We had stopped in town and purchased some bread and cheese and wine – and a tin of Gauloises cigarettes, as I recall.

 

We decided that the tree-shaded cemetery of the abandoned monastery was the perfect place to have lunch.

 

As we looked around the headstones, we noticed that each one was carved with the name of the monk, the date of his birth and death, and then the same three words, in Latin.  

 

Quid Potuit Fecit*. 

 

We had just completed four years of required Latin and two years of French but it took us a while before we were able to make the translation.

 

Quid Potuit Fecit translates literally to “What he could do, he did.”

 

When we talked to the locals, however, they, in their very French attitude, translated it (with a shrug and that way the French have of pouting their lips and pleading with their eyes) to mean, “Ah, mademoiselle, you see, it means, ‘he did the best he could.”

 

“C’est ca, ne’st pas? Eeh deed the best eeh could!”

 

He did the best he could!? Well, I was 18 years old and convinced, as all 18-year-olds are, that the world was a mess and all the world needed – what the world had been waiting for, really – was for me to come and fix it. 

 

I was outraged, as were my girlfriends.

 

We thought, ‘He did the best he could’? Seriously? That’s it? That’s what dedicating your life to God gets you? Your name and time on the earth carved onto a slab of stone and the acknowledgment that “Well, the poor soul didn’t have much but, you know, he did the best he could”???

 

No different from all the other poor souls buried here???   

 

“Outrageous!” we thought.

 

I think it was in that very moment that my heart hardened against the institutional church, which served to cement the obligatory young adult period of church abandonment. Those who have survived their own or their children’s adolescence will understand.

 

It wasn’t until years later when I finally grew up – okay, years and years and years later – okay, maybe just a few years ago (when I finally grew up) – that I started to understand that perhaps I was overly influenced by the attitude of the French.

 

That, perhaps, there was a deeper, spiritual meaning of the phrase which could be better found in the original Latin.

 

What he could do, he did. He did the best he could. Actually, that’s more than can be said of the lives some people live, isn’t it?

 

Some people do squander the gift of what Mary Oliver called “this one, wild, precious life”* we are given. They don’t do what they can. They don’t even seem to try, much less do the best they can.

 

As I’ve sat with that phrase in the weeks following Ralph’s death, I’ve come to understand that it is not only high praise, but it really captures, for me, Ralph’s life. 

 

What he could do, he did.

 

I’ve come to know that a person’s life is more than their obituary. It’s much more than their resume. It’s what one has done with what’s merely listed on one’s resume and obituary – the stuff you can’t or wouldn’t list – that is the real stuff of life.

 

What you can do, you do. You use the gifts and talents you’ve been given. It’s the stories that are the glue that holds the list together. Indeed, as those of us who come to church every Sunday have discovered, stories hold the world together.

 

The stories of a person’s life tell us how they took what God has given them and used them, to the best of their abilities – to do what they could.

 

Sometimes, we succeed more than our wildest dreams. Other times, we fail so miserably that we are lead to the brink of despair, to peer into the abyss, there to contemplate meaning and purpose as well as the absurdities of life.

 

We’ve heard some of the stories of Ralph’s life here earlier this morning, from his family. We saw various facets of the uncut diamond that was Ralph William Peters, Jr. 

 

I hope we hear more stories later at the Repast and even later as the years roll on and holidays and birthdays are celebrated and we feel his spirit and we remember.

 

Ralph did what he could with what he was given and built a life on the foundational stones of kindness and generosity.

 

That did not mean that he disabused himself of the creature comforts and luxuries, large and small, of life. He loved his boat, even though he once admitted to me that it was a “money pit”. He frowned when he said and waved his hand dismissively but the flash of the light of joy in his eyes told a different story.

 

No one loved good food and wine as much as Ralph Peters. The few times I cooked for him, I was rewarded with lavish praise, a clean plate and that high-wattage smile.

 

But, to have a good meal and a glass of wine?  On his boat? Especially with friends? As God was painting a sunset? Ah, now, there are luxuries whose value is simply beyond mere mathematical calculation.

 

Even the grad from M.I.T. knew that.

 

He sometimes valued what others questioned the value of – like the grandfather clock that was a wedding gift of his father to his mother that was damaged in The Fire (could that only have been two years ago?).

 

Ralph paid perhaps twice the value of that clock for the parts and labor for repairs, but to his mind, he was saving a memory, salvaging a legacy and tradition, protecting and guarding the love that loved so much, it brought him and his brother into being.

 

His parents wound that clock every Sunday night and then shared a kiss. Ralph and Rita continued that tradition, that liturgy, every Sunday night, complete with the kiss.

 

It was fitting, somehow, that Ralph left this earth listening to the sound of it chiming down the hall. What he could do, he did.

 

Ralph’s life was a life that valued life – so much so that he worked to better the lives of others in big way like trying to provide permanent solutions to the problem of homelessness. 

 

But there were also small ways, like making the coffee for coffee hour every Sunday, a kindness for which he is fondly remembered at St. Philip's, Laurel.

 

What he could do, he did. Mistakes? Sure, he made a few. It’s the unspoken and little mentioned flaw in the qualities of kindness and generosity. 

 

Sometimes, kindness and generosity can lead to being fooled and taken advantage of. 

 

Sometimes, it leads to believing your own press releases and being foolish with the gifts you’ve been given. Even the most precious of gifts. Like, love.

 

Sometimes, that leads to things falling apart. As the poet JmStorm once wrote*:

 

“Sometimes falling apart/

is the way we shake loose the pieces/

that don’t belong anymore.

It’s as natural as the wind and rain. /

So cry if you need to./

Scream if you must./

But never lose sight of what it really is:/

a thunderstorm that clears the air./

 

Through it all, Ralph did what he could and, over the years of sunshine, showers and thunderstorms, he developed what only can be described as an inner glow.

 

It wasn’t always visible. Like the light of the moon, it was hidden, sometimes, by clouds of distress. But, when Ralph smiled, well, his whole face lit up, didn’t it?

 

And, when you were loved by Ralph, you could be assured of basking in the warmth of his smile. 

 

Oh, he’d also take you on and stubbornly argue his point, but even in the heat of  passionate disagreement, his love for you was never in doubt.

 

At least, not for him.

 

Shortly after Ralph died, I asked Rita if they had a song that was ‘their song’.

 

She didn’t take 5 seconds to answer. “You Light Up My Life,” she said. I smiled. My first thought was that Debbie Boone, good evangelical Christian girl, said that every time she sang that song, she always thought of Jesus and sang to him.

 

I smiled again. I know they both loved Jesus, but don’t think that was what Ralph and Rita were thinking when this became their song.

 

I should have known that would be their song. When Ralph and Rita were together, the wattage was enough to light up any room.

 

I imagine that when Rita eventually – not soon, please God, but eventually – joins Ralph in that great somewhere out there some call ‘heaven’, he’ll be free of his walker, and there he’ll be, waiting on a boat to ask her for their first dance together in Paradise. 

 

Quid potuit fecit. What he could do, he did. And, he did the best he could.

 

I’m old enough now to appreciate the full spiritual depth of that ancient phrase. And, like any good dissident daughter, I still have issues with Mother Church, but I’ve obviously gotten over my abandonment of her.

(I don’t know about you, but I always come back for the stories, like all the ones we have heard this morning, and how they are all gathered together – the ancient and new stories – and, once gathered up by the priest or bishop and blessed and offered to God at the altar, become food and drink and nourishment for our weary souls.)

 

What he could do, he did. That will be my word of prayer for him, whenever I visit him here. Or, when his memory comes to visit me.

 

What he could do, he did. And we who loved him could not be more grateful for all that he did, because he did the best he could do.  

 

If we’re lucky, if we do what we can do with this one, wild, precious life, when the time comes for us to take our leave from this earth, the same will be said of us.

 

Amen. 

 

Here's the video of the sermon and eulogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCoqvKFF7bI

 

*With heartfelt gratitude to the Rev. Tobias Haller, BSG, who helped me remember Latin: "Perhaps influence by Anselem of Canterbury and John Duns Scotus’ Medieval view of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: Pontuit, decuit, ergo Fecit

(God could do it, it was appropriate, therefore, it was done.)"

 

* Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean--

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

~ Mary Oliver  “The Summer Day”.

 

*“Sometimes falling apart

is the way we shake loose the pieces

that just don't belong anymore.

It's as natural as the wind and rain.

So cry if your need to.

Scream if you must.

But never lose sight of what it really is:

a thunderstorm that clears the air.

It is not enough to dream, we must also act.

Without action, a door is just a wall.

and remember:

When life closes a door, just open it again.

It's a door.

That's how doors work.

~ JmStorm

 

*But, I can still conjugate in Latin: 

amo amas amat I love, You love, He/she/it love

amamus, amatis, amant: We, you (plural), they, love