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Sunday, June 02, 2024

Jesus, the Ethicist


Sermon preached at the Historic Old Christ Episcopal Church
Pentecost II - Proper IV B - June 2, 2024
the Rev Dr Elizabeth Kaeton
 

I am, by birth, a New England girl, born in the gritty mill city of Fall River, MA., but I’ve lived in many cities: Bar Harbor, ME, Boston, MA. Baltimore, MD. Newark, NJ, and now, Long Neck, DE. I’ve worked in many other cities, including Washington, DC, and New York City which I love.

Even so, if you woke me up at 3 AM out of a dead sleep and asked, “What’s your favorite baseball team, I’d say, “The Boston Red Sox. And, anyone who beats the NY Yankees.” And, if you check my computer, you’ll see that I subscribe to and read daily two newspapers: The Washington Post. And, The New York Times.

The Times has a column that appears weekly and I wait for it expectantly. It’s called, “The Ethicist.” This week’s column was from a woman who has a friend who is a high school teacher in a low-income area. The friend always shares tearful stories of her student’s need for food, school supplies, professional clothes for job interviews, etc. And, over the years, her friend has been generous and kind and helped her out.

A few months ago, there was a job fair at the high school and the kids needed proper clothes for the interviews. The woman went through her closet and gathered professional blazers, skirts, pants and blouses and gave them to her friend. Well, a few months later, she visited a webpage which sells gently used clothing, thinking she might sell some of her own stuff, and - OOPSIE! - she found all 20 items that she had donated to her friend for her students.

What to do? Should she confront her friend? Here’s her question: When making a donation, what is the ethical expectation?

As I read this morning’s scripture from Mark, I wondered how Jesus might answer her question. The Pharisees are asking Jesus ethical questions about expected behavior, given what they know about what Scripture says concerning the Sabbath. But, these are not innocent questions. No, these questions about plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath or healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath were being asked to test Jesus, “so that they might accuse him”.

No matter the motive for the question. Both Jesus and the Ethicist have found themselves in the age-old question of “What is the difference between the good and the right?” Doing a good thing does not make it, necessarily, the right thing. And, doing the right thing does not, necessarily, make it a good thing.

In this very sanctuary, slaves worshiped here along with their masters. I’m told that, the loft up there in the back of the church is not a choir loft. That is where the slaves were required to sit. And, if you wander around the church grounds, you will see a graveyard for the White folks and way off to the side, you’ll see the place where slaves were buried. Because, God knows, if there is segregation on earth, well, it just stands to reason that there’s segregation in heaven. Right?

The slave owners - good Christian folk - were following the law. They were doing what was right. However,they were not doing what was good for those they held in bondage or their own souls.

Jesus was presented with a similar question about the difference between behavior that is right or behavior that is good on the Sabbath. Now, it is important to know that in Jewish law, the Sabbath is given and commanded as a day of rest, being modeled after the idea that God rested after all the work that God had done to create the world (Ex. 20:8-11). In Deuteronomy, sabbath is also described as a sign of liberation. Taking a sabbath rest is proof that we are no longer enslaved and forced to work without rest (Deut. 5:12-15).

It is also important to know that it is a principle in Jewish law that saving a life takes precedence over most other Jewish laws, including observance of the sabbath. Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

If one were to enter into a conversations with Jesus, one might ask probing questions about the situation. Is the man with a withered hand at risk of dying? Could his healing wait until the next day? Is the hunger of the disciples so great that they might die if they do not gather grain on the sabbath? But Jesus is not concerned about particulars. Jesus is more interested in expanding categories of doing good and doing harm - of the right vs the good.

I was fascinated to see the NY Times Ethicist do much the same thing. He wondered if that high school teacher found that she couldn’t use the clothing - perhaps they were the wrong size or style for the kids in the class - and that maybe, just maybe, she was selling the clothing in order to make money so that the kids could purchase their own clothes?

The point he made is that while the high school teacher was doing good, what she was doing in not telling her friend was not right. He writes this: You should tell her what you’ve found. If there’s a compelling explanation — an explanation not only for her actions but for misrepresenting them to you — you might be able to resume your relationship. Seething in silence, though, just means you’ll have your peace of mind stolen too.

Jesus teaches that sharing food with companions and friends is an act of doing good, equivalent or at least parallel to King David feeding his companions with consecrated food. Similarly, the compassion Jesus extends to the man with a withered hand is an act of doing good that may even save his life, especially if the man’s livelihood depends on the use of his hands.

Unfortunately, Jesus was not able to admonish the Pharisees not to “seeth in silence.” Scripture tells us that they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against (Jesus), how to destroy him.”

St. Paul tells us that, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” We have within us the ability to do tremendous good and enormous bad. In my experience, most of us fall short and miss the mark precisely when we stumble over that which is good and that which is right.

Sometimes, it’s a hard choice. Sometimes, doing that which is good means that we have to stand up for what is right, and that may mean standing up to change the law, which was once thought to be right.

Standing up for what is good and right may mean sitting in jail until the will of ‘we the people’ is strong enough to change the law.

Jesus teaches that the “rest of Sabbath that is possible with freedom” is not the same as passivity. Sometimes, we have to actively resist what the law tells is right in order to do what we know in our hearts to be good. Jesus acts for liberation and wholeness.

Jesus is also very clear that liberation and wholeness are not just for some but for all.

No matter where you were born or how you were brought up, no matter where you’ve lived or worked or gone to school, no matter the color of your skin or texture of your hair or the shape or size of your body, or who you love, we have this treasure in clay pots - in earthen vessels. 

I believe that treasure is the Light of Christ that shines in me and it shines in you. And, if we follow THAT light, we’ll always be able to tell the difference between the good and the right.

Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Easter III - Because He Lives

 


Because He Lives - Easter III
A Sermon Preached at 

St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
April 14, 2024


It was right after Easter that I started asking myself, “Well, Elizabeth, you say you believe in the Resurrection - and, you do - but how would anyone know that about you? If Christianity were a crime and you were charged with believing in the Resurrection, would there be enough evidence to convict you? What does it mean to live a life that believes in the Resurrection?”

I sat with those questions for a few weeks and I have come to know that my work as a Hospice Chaplain provides substantial evidence that I believe in the Resurrection. I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe in the gift of Life Eternal. I really do believe with all my heart the words I say in the Eucharistic Prayer at a funeral that “we believe that life is changed, not ended.”

 

I also know that I am a hopeful person. I confess to you that I do believe St. Paul was right when he wrote in the 28th verse of the 8th Chapter of his Letter to the Romans, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

I don’t think you can say a sentence like that unless you believe in The Resurrection. We have faith, and faith gives us hope and hope leads to a life that reflects a belief in the message of The Resurrection of Jesus that
having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1).

And so, my ministry is Hospice. And, my message to you, every time I’ve been here, even in those days of doubt and anxiety during the COVID pandemic, even in those days of deep frustration and discouragement that there would ever be another rector for St. Philip’s, I kept saying - do you remember? - “Just you wait. Something, someone, is right around the corner. The Holy Spirit isn’t done with you yet. Something good is about to happen. You just wait.”

And now, you have Jack Anderson as your rector. I hate to say it but I’m going to, anyway: See? I told you so! The Holy Spirit, which is the gift of the Resurrection, always gives us hope.

But there is another question that has been circling around in my brain as we enter the third Sunday of the Easter Season. It came to me as I listened to this passage from Luke’s Gospel. The Resurrected Jesus meets the disciples and some were startled and others terrified. I mean, Duh! Of course they were. Can you just imagine being there in that room and seeing the Resurrected Christ, right there, talking to you, telling you to calm down and, hey, if you want, you can even put your hands in the wounds of my hands and feet and my side?

I can imagine their terror but I can’t even begin to imagine their joy when they realized that their greatest fears had been transformed into the realization of their greatest hopes. Jesus is alive! Jesus lives! And in my religious imagination, I can imagine them singing the words to that great hymn:

Because he lives, I can face tomorrow (sing it with me). Because he lives, every fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because he lives.”
Ah, it’s a wonderful feeling, this resurrection feeling, isn’t it? We could just stay here forever, couldn’t we, in this moment of the joy that the disciples first knew. But Jesus is not having any of it. Do you know what comes next? Well, scripture says this: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

I mean, honestly! That Jesus! He’s gone down to hell to set the captives free, then back to earth to bring the good news to his disciples which leaves them delirious with joy. But, he brings them right back down to earth and reminds them of what’s important right here and right now. The important, basic stuff of what it means to be human.

Which brings me to the question that has been bugging me ever since I read these scriptures. And that is: “Well, Elizabeth, you say you know that Jesus lives but if that’s true and God is everywhere in creation, then why do you go to Church? Do you go just for the joy you feel in the beautiful music and the meaningful words of the prayers? Or, is there something more you’re supposed to be doing? To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s Church got to do, got to do with it?”

I found myself remembering a refrigerator magnet my kids gave me years ago. It said, “Going to church won’t make you a Christian any more than going to the garage will make you a car.” You know, they were right. They were naughty and snarky but they were right.

And then, I remembered a dear woman I met in Baltimore who taught me more about church and prayers and community and love than all my years in seminary. I was a fairly wet behind the ears new priest and it was part of my portfolio to preside at the weekly Wednesday Eucharist at the Senior Residence which had been built by the church, just a block down the street.

The folks who attended were concerned about a new resident. She was the widow of a fairly prominent Black Baptist preacher. Her children had convinced her to sell their 5-story brownstone walk up and move into this lovely but small two bedroom apartment.

She hated it. She was angry. She was refusing to engage in the many activities provided by the Resident’s Association. She was taking more of her meals in her room. Folks would occasionally see her come down for her mail but someone overheard her children talking to the manager and saying that if their mother insisted on having her mail delivered to her room, they were to decline.

Some of the residents ambushed me one afternoon, after church, and asked if I would kindly go and see her, visit with her, say some prayers with her, maybe even offer her communion. I was young and enthusiastic. Of course, I said yes.

So, off I went, up to the tenth floor which had, I’m told, one of the best views of the city (It was true). What’s that old expression? Fools rush in? Yes, and it’s also true that God protects fools and children. Or, at least, God had a few lessons in store for this fool to learn while she thought she was going someplace to do someone else some good.

Mrs. Parks, was her name. She was not happy to see me, that was clear, but she was a Christian lady, the widow of a Baptist preacher, and she was nothing if not painfully polite and courteous. We had some polite conversation. I think the word “chat” sums it up quite well. We chatted about oh, this and that. After about 30 minutes, we seemed to have exhausted our reserves, so I offered to pray to close our time together.

She said yes, of course, and then raised an eyebrow ever so slightly when I pulled out my trusty, brand new, BCP. She tried not to sigh as I flipped through the pages to find just the right prayer and then read it with as much piety as I could muster, given the situation.

When I looked up from my book, the expression on her face could only be described as ‘sour’. I asked if there was something wrong. She demurred, at first, and then her Baptist self just couldn’t resist. “Well,” she said, with a little more than a tease in her tone but chiding me none the less, “is THAT how you Episcopalians pray? Out of that . . . book?”

I was horrified. I mean, I LOVE that book. You know? That’s how I had been taught to pray. Whatever could she mean? She saw the panic in my eyes and immediately regretted her words. She “there-there’d” me for a while as she shooed me out the door.

I wasn’t entirely sure she’d let me in the next week but she did. And, to my surprise, the weeks and months that followed. She was always polite and courteous, but when it came time for the prayer at the end of our visit, she was always noticeably tense when I reached for my BCP.

Until one afternoon, several months into our weekly visits, I decided to take a risk and try to pray without my prayer book, to trust the spirit and pray from my heart. I mean, I figured, what did I have to lose? If I really messed up, I might just win her sympathy and, along with it, her permission to continue to use my beloved BCP.

As we came to the end of our visit, I asked if I could pray with her. Even before she could agree, I shut my eyes - maybe a little tighter than I intended - clasped my hands together, a little more vigorously than I had intended - and prayed. I have no idea what I said. I just opened my heart, opened my mouth and let fly.

When I opened my eyes I looked at her face and, to my surprise and distress, I saw that she was crying. Horrified, I said, “Oh, Ms. Parks, I’m so sorry. Did I say something to offend?”

She took a few slow breaths and then said, “Oh no, child no. You did good. Just fine. It’s just that, when we get to this time, I know it’s time for you to leave. And today, with you offering a prayer from your heart and not your book, it really hit me that it was time for you to leave. And then,” she said, “and then, I realized just how lonely I really am.”

“Ms. Parks,” I said, “let’s talk about that loneliness. You must still be grieving the loss of your husband. I can’t imagine how much you miss your old home and how hard it’s been to adjust to this apartment and this community. Can you tell me about that?”

And, for the next hour, we did just that.

Jesus did not leave his disciples in the moment - “while they were in their joy and disbelieving and wondering” - he reminded them of what was important - the needs of others. Loneliness. Grief. Sadness. Disbelief. Hunger - either physical or a hunger for community - relationship.

And that, my friends, is why I go to church. My kids were right. Going to church doesn’t make me any more of a Christian than going to a garage will make me a car. But going to church gives me the place from which I can go out and meet people where they are.

Going to church allows me a place where I can share a laugh, or my astonishment at something that has happened, or my disappointment that something hasn’t happened. Church in its best sense is a sanctuary, a safe place, where I can grieve my losses and celebrate my joys.

Being church takes practice. It takes patience with others. It requires tolerance of differences.

Jesus was known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread and he is also known to us in the broken places of our lives. Going to church allows us to hear the old, old stories and tell our stories and, in so doing, to deepen our relationship and trust, so that we can be there for each other in the broken places of our lives.

At St. Peter’s Church in Lewes, where I go to church, a new portico has been built and a statue of St. Peter is being installed. A plaque is going to be mounted on the brick wall. It says this:

"This portico statue of St. Peter is dedicated to the oppressed and the marginalized; the poor and the poor in spirit; seekers, mystics and misfits; and all those for whom the failings of the Church have caused immeasurable pain. St Peter’s freely offers the keys of the Holy Realm of Heaven to all. May all persons find sanctuary in this place.”

That plaque makes plain what many churches, like St. Philip’s, believes. It’s the reason I go to church, because it incarnates my belief in the Resurrected Christ who is standing at the door with open arms, welcoming each soul into this place, just as he did when he entered that Upper Room and startled the disciples with his resplendent self.

But Jesus did not leave the disciples there in their joy and wonder and disbelieving. He showed them his humanity, his needs, his vulnerability. “Got anything to eat?,” he asked. And so every person, every image of God, who comes into this place, hungering for justice and thirsting for peace, longing to know that they are loved, hoping to find forgiveness and reconciliation, those misfits and seekers and mystics, each and every one, come to this table and are fed.

I am fed when I come here which allows me to go back out into the world and feed others, to sit with those who are dying, to be with their loved ones and family members. And, when asked, I can say with conviction, “Yes, I know that my Redeemer lives. Yes, I believe life is changed, not ended. Yes,

Because he lives, (sing it with me) I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, every fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because he lives.”

And let the church, the Risen Body of Christ say, Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

When Jesus Met Satan

 

                                     The Temptation of Christ, by Simon Bening

When Jesus Met Satan
St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Millsboro, DE
Lent I - February 18, 2024

 

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan ; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1:9-15

So, as tempting as it is to talk about Noah’s Ark, and as easy as it is to be seduced into talking about The Flood and the Baptism of Jesus, well, it’s the first Sunday in Lent. I won’t be with you again until the fourth Sunday in Lent, and so, let’s just dive right in, shall we?

 

Let’s talk about Satan. And, wild beasts. And, angels. Yes, let’s roll up our sleeves and do that.

 

I want to talk about Satan because I’m really tired of him taking the fall, as it were, for our shortcomings. And, yes, I’m just going to say it: Sin. Yup, you are hearing a sermon on sin preached from an Episcopal pulpit from a progressive woman priest.

So, buckle up, friends. Satan, wild beasts, angels and sins. Looks like the preacher is fired up. Except, this isn’t going to be a hellfire and brimstone sermon. (Is Tommy Ray frowning? He told me once he loved a good hellfire and brimstone sermon, but, he also told me that while he wasn’t used to my style of preaching, I didn’t do too bad. I’ll take that.)

 

I want to talk about the Christian version of “When Harry Met Sally.” Let’s just title this sermon, “When Jesus Met Satan”.  By now I hope we know a little something about Jesus. So how ‘bout we get to know this Satan a little better, shall we?

Names for the Satan are numerous: Besides Lucifer, he may be referred to as the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Baphomet, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Moloch or simply - as the SNL Church Lady says, “Saaa-tannn”.

The word “devil” derives from the Greek diabolos, meaning “adversary.”  In Judaism, “Satan” as a noun, means “adversary” but it is also a verb and generally refers to a difficulty or temptation to overcome rather than a literal being. In Buddhism, Mara is the demon that tempted Buddha away from his path of enlightenment. Much like Jesus of Christianity resisted the Devil, Buddha also resisted temptation and defeated Mara.

 

Turns out, all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Satan is known as the fallen angel of God. His name in Hebrew is Lucifer which means “The Shining One.” The Latin translation for Lucifer is “The Morning Star,” or the planet Venus. In Greek, he is known as “Phosphorus” which means  “light bringer” and “Eosphorus,” meaning "dawn-bringer".

In one of the Midrash stories in Judaism, Lucifer’s original job was to present humans with the opportunity to choose between good and evil. In other myths, Lucifer acts as a prosecuting attorney in the heavenly Court. In that role, he brings up all the wicked, evil, selfish choices of human beings before God for the human to be judged.

 

But there is a myth that Lucifer was kicked out of heaven because he wanted equality with God. Now, in some versions of the myth, Lucifer’s plan is that no one would have the ability to sin against God, so that not one soul would be lost, and all would be able to return sinless to the presence of Heavenly Father without the need for a Savior. Sounds pretty cool, right?


Ah, but as recompense for his plan, Lucifer demanded that the power and the glory which God  possessed be transferred to him, effectively making him "God." God, of course, saw right through the plan and rejected it. Lucifer was furious and rallied other angels to his side and started a war in heaven. The result of which, of course, is that Lucifer lost and became “the Fallen Angel” and thus became more commonly known as Satan, God’s adversary.

 

In today’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit immediately sends him out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. This is, of course, a mini version of Moses and the Israelites, having been freed from bondage in Egypt, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before returning to Canaan, The Promised Land, Paradise, flowing with milk and honey.

It is there, in the wilderness, that Jesus meets the ancient foe, the adversary of God, Lucifer, the angel who fell from the brightness of the morning star to the darkness of the depths of the abyss; one of the sons of God who tempts Jesus just as others were tested.

Buddha was tempted by the demon Mara who challenged him to prove his enlightenment. Buddha touched the earth and called upon the earth to testify for him.

Muhammad was tempted by the demons of Satan with suicidal thoughts to throw himself off the cliff of a mountain, but the angel Gabriel appeared before him to reassure him that he was one of God’s prophets.

When Jesus met Satan, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. There he remains and fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time Satan tempts Jesus three times: to turn stones into bread, throw himself from a temple, and submit to Satan in exchange for power.

In other words,
Lucifer is taking on his original job to present Jesus with the opportunity to choose between good and evil, to tempt Him and, in so doing, to test the decision of God to gift humans with free will - the power of choice - our own autonomy - our own moral agency.

When Jesus met Satan, not only were humans given a clear sign of our liberation in Christ, but God’s decision to give us the gift of free will in The Garden was justified.

When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision was reaffirmed when God chose to place a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of the covenant God made with Noah “and every living creature of all flesh” never to destroy the earth or the human race ever again.

When Jesus met Satan, God’s decision to send Jesus for our salvation was validated.

When Jesus met Satan, we were deemed worthy of salvation.


Our baptism reaffirms the freedom God has given us to choose between good and evil, wrong and right. That’s not to say that we don’t make wrong choices. We do. All too often. And, when we do, we call that sin. But, that’s not the end of the story.

When Jesus met Satan, the end of the story was changed - or, perhaps, completed - so a new chapter can begin.

Because of Jesus we have, as our prayerbook says, “the means of grace and the hope of glory” if we but follow His way, obey his commandments and observe his teaching.

Here’s the thing: It really doesn’t matter what you call the forces of Evil in this world - Satan, the Devil, Beelzebub, Lucifer. What matters is that you understand these things: We all have within us enormous potential for good. We also have within us enormous potential for bad. When we choose the good, we call that being righteous with God. When we choose the bad, we call that Sin. Sin is what separates us from God  - and often, from each other.

Our Catechism in the BCP defines it this way: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” The key here is that we don’t get to say what sin is for other people. Sin is a matter between God and each person. And, each person, when they truly repent of their sins, can seek out a good and faithful priest and make a good confession and be assured of God’s absolution and pardon for their sins. When sin affects others negatively or harmfully, then sin is a matter for the community, and sometimes, for the courts.

 

But what is evil? It is said that sin is the root of all evil. Some say love of money is the root of all evil. The sages hold that the seven deadly sins - Lust, envy, anger, greed, gluttony, sloth and pride - but, especially pride, is the root of all evil.

I think what Lucifer teaches us is that evil happens when we try to be like God, when we want the power and authority of God by some sort of scheme or negotiated plan. Evil happens we set ourselves up to be the one who decides who lives and who dies and why; who gets food and shelter and clothing, the basics of life - based on some human construct of worth or need.

Evil happens when we set ourselves up as the prosecuting attorney before the Heavenly Court, charging people with crimes WE think they’ve committed because of their race or gender, their age or social status, their country of origin, sexual orientation or religion, or because we disagree with the decisions they make for themselves and their lives.

That, my friends, is evil.
 

Annie Lamott says that you can be reasonably certain that you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.

Yes, there are evil forces, temptations, seductions, that can lead us astray. Call those forces of evil what you will, but when Jesus met Satan we learned that we cannot - not for one Red hot New York minute - blame our bad choices on Satan. We have been given the gift of free will. It is our choice, not Satan’s fault, that leads us away from God. We must take responsibility. We must hold ourselves accountable.

Yet, even when we do, we are assured of the second gift God has given us in Christ Jesus and that is the gift of GRACE. Grace to repent - to turn around, to walk away, to start anew. Grace to seek and ask for forgiveness. Grace to seek amendment of life and to “go and sin no more.” And, grace is always available to us. As my friend, Jerry, the UMC preacher from Tennessee says, “Grace is like grits. You don’t gotta order it. By God, it just comes.”

When Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, after Satan left defeated, we are told that “the angels waited on him”. So, too, will be our reward, when we resist the power to pull us from the path of righteousness and “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Amen.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

"To The Left" - Ash Wednesday

 


“To the Left.”
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday - February 14, 2024
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Millsboro, DE


There’s a wonderful book I’ve been reading (and recommend highly) called, The Amen Effect, by Rabbi Sharon Brous. In the early pages of the book, Rabbi Sharon describes a pas­sage from the Mish­nah about an annu­al pil­grim­age that took place when the tem­ple in Jerusalem still stood.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews “ascend­ed to the Tem­ple Mount, entered the court­yard, turned to the right, and then cir­cled and exit­ed to the left, except for one to whom something had happened.”

That person, who “entered and circled to the left,” would be asked why. “They would reply: ‘I am a mourner,’ and they were blessed,” the Mishnah text continued.

Another counter-circler might answer “Because I have been ostracized,” and also would be blessed, although the content of the blessing is debated.

The ancient Rabbis hoped that the blessing would open the heart of the one who had been ostracized so that they might find their way to repentance and forgiveness and the fabric of the community would be repaired.

 

Rabbi Brous says that the word "Amen," comes from the Hebrew word emu­nah, mean­ing “to believe” or “to affirm.” The word amen serves as an acknowl­edge­ment of the oth­er. Yes, I believe you, I see you. Amen.

Ash Wednesday, for me, is the day when Christians enter the Temple to the left. Some of us are in mourning, yes, but others have been ostracized; still others may not be formally ostracized but there is a separation, a rift, in a relationship.

Some of us are not so much mourning but rather are simply sad - sad about the state of affairs in our families, our neighborhoods, our church, our state, our country, or the world. Others of us know that something is wrong with us. Why are we snapping and grumpy all the time? Why have I become so critical and criticize everthing?

 

Am I using my busyness as a sort of defense - a barrier or boundary - to keep myself, protect myself from the need to engage with others when I just don’t have the energy - or the desire? Because maybe they WILL see me? And then, what will I do?

Are we really that tired and exhausted all the time, or has the sadness we can’t really name become a form of depression? Some of us are scared and anxious because we know our bodies - and perhaps our minds - are not what they once were.


Ash Wednesday, as the beginning of Lent, marks us as the ones entering the world from the Left. We’re the ones with a big black smudge of ashes on our foreheads, announcing to the world that we understand that we are not going to live forever, that our time on this earth is finite and limited, and that we are struggling to come to turns with those facts.

The smudge of Ash Wednesday declares that while everyone else is walking to the right, we are taking this time to intentionally walking to the left. Counter-circular. Counter-clockwise. Against time. Reclaiming our time to take the time - 40 days’ worth of time - to repent, to turn around and take steps in another direction and consider our lives in faith from a different perspective.

We have forty days to reconsider our relationships with others and the ways in which we might take the risk of repairing that which is wounded or sore and tender and needs healing.

We have time - this time, this Lenten Season - in the words of that great hymn, to “ponder anew what the Almighty can do” if we but open our hearts and our souls and our minds and confess our imperfections, acknowledge our limitations, and concede our shortcomings.

This is also the time to look into the eyes of the people who are walking to the right - those who seem to do it right, to have it right and all together, at least enough to bless us if they stop to ask why we are mourning or fasting, or marking Lent.

Lent heightens our awareness that appearances can, indeed, be deceiving, and when someone who is walking on the right looks at you, walking on the left, it may well be because they recognize something in you that they know is in them, too. Some who are walking on the right have not yet had the courage to walk on the left, to admit that they are not perfect, that they, too, need healing and a blessing.

Lent is a time to exchange our Alleluias for an Amen.  To say to each other, “Yes, I believe you. Yes, I see you. Yes, I recognize your pain, your struggle with questions, your quest for answers.”

As I mark your foreheads with the ashes of the Hosannahs and Alleluias in the palms of yesterday, let us whisper to each other, “Amen”.

Let us say silently to each other, with our eyes which are an amplification of the soul, “I see you. I see you are a beloved child of God. I see you are hurting in some way. I bless you. Please bless me.”

Scripture tells us that we were created out of the dust of the earth, that we are mortal, and only God is immortal. We know that life is a fragile gift and our time here is limited, so how can we make it better? Make ourselves better people? Become the person God had in mind when we were conceived and created?  

On this particular Ash Wednesday, the 14th of February, while the rest of the world walks to the right and celebrates Romantic Love, let us smudge our foreheads with the stuff of our mortality, walk to the left and celebrate the Love of the Eternal.

Let us confess and say right out loud the words of our faith, that we believe we are dust and to dust we shall return.

And let the church whisper to each other, “Amen”.




 

Ash Wednesday - Sr. Bucky


 Good Ash Wednesday morning, good people of Lent. It's the first of 40 days of the Lenten Season. Like a fine wine, this season needs to age and then aerate before it is fully appreciated.

It's amazing to me how many of us are still stuck in 6th Grade Sunday School when we were taught to "give up something" for Lent - a small sacrifice to reflect the Great sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

I can still hear Sr. Bucky's high, thin, post-menopausal voice shrilling, "Surely you can give up yer bubble gum or penny candy for 40 DAYS and 40 NIGHTS after JESUS, himself (make a fast sign of the cross after a quick bow of the head) Suffered in AGONY on the cross for YOUR SINS."

No, Bucky wasn't her name. It was Sr. Mary Joseph Something-Or-Another. We called her Sr. Bucky behind her back because she had really awful bucked and splayed teeth.

I know, I know. We were horrid children. Horrid. I know that because Sr. Bucky told us that at least three times a day. After a while, you know, you just figure, what the heck. No matter how good I am, she'll always and only think I'm horrid.

SooOOooo . . . to her face it was, "Yes, sister," and "No, sister," and "Please, sister," and "Thank you, sister," but after school, far, far away from earshot of her or any of the other nuns, it was "Ugh! Sr. Bucky."

Then there came the day when one of the fathers of one of the kids in the church school who was a dentist "fixed" Sr. Bucky's teeth. Well, he yanked them all out and gave her dentures. I have to think there was another remedy to the poor dear's orthodontic challenge, but that was probably the cheapest and easiest and so it was what was done.

She was so proud of those dentures. Seriously. And, you know, it did dramatically change her appearance. But, not her disposition. She was still a horrid human being. So, we continued to call her Sr. Bucky. And, for her part, she continued to call us horrid children.

So, my memories of Ash Wednesday and Lent as a child are that we were served a double portion of the guilt trips and images of the suffering and agony of Jesus. I think the word "SUFFERING" was written on the BlackBoard and stayed there throughout the entire 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, lest we forget.

It was replaced the Monday after Easter with colorful butterflies who perched themselves on the words, "HE IS RISEN!". Or, "ALLELUIA!" Or "REJOICE!". It varied from year to year, depending on that particular nun's mood.

How we ever made it through without losing our minds and breaking the Sixth Commandment I'll never fully understand.

Later on, after Vatican II as I recall, some clergy tried to make up for the sins of the fathers (as it were) and try a new tack. "Take something ON for Lent," was the new Lenten slogan. We were to try something new. A new way to pray or meditate. A new course of study. Learn a new language.

You know, something that was rollicking good fun. Which missed the point just as badly as giving up candy for Lent. I have come to know that Ash Wednesday is really a joyful day.

Yes, way. Okay, it's not like the joy of Christmas, and it's nowhere near the joy of Easter. There is a maturity to the joy of Ash Wednesday. Sort of the difference between appreciating a glass of Boone's Farm Wine at $1.99 per bottle and a glass of 2010 Domaine Armand Rousseau, Chambertin Grand Cru at $75,000 per bottle.

It begins with understanding that famous statement from Carl Sagan, "“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff”.

Once you get your head wrapped around that, you begin to appreciate that the smudge of ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a process to connect you more securely with the origins of your life.

It is to understand that we are connected in ways too deep for human understanding that we are part of a Great Mystery that includes stars and comets, planets and asteroids, sun and moon, ocean and stream, mountains and valleys.

It's about understanding what Bill Nye (the Science Guy) used to say, "We are a speck on a speck, orbiting a speck, in the corner of a speck, in the middle of nowhere."

That puts us all in our place, including Sr. Bucky who, poor tortured soul, didn't get to understand or appreciate that until after she, herself, returned 'dust to dust, ashes to ashes'. Which is why she treated us like dirt.

She had no idea that when Joni Mitchell sang the words to Woodstock, she was not being a hippie radical, she was singing the joyful truth:

We are stardust, we are golden / We are billion-year-old carbon
And we've got to get ourselves / Back to the garden

So, friends, Rejoice! It's Ash Wednesday! We're all gonna die. So, take this time to really live. As de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Your Lenten task is not to become spiritual. You already are. Your task, this Lent, is to become the BEST human being you can be before you return to the spiritual plane from which you came.

Let's get on with it, shall we? Don't give something up. Don't take something on. Be more of the image God intended when you were conceived and created.

Gratitude is a good place to begin. Find one thing to be thankful for today and then watch how your heart begins to open. I don't know how it works. It's a mystery to me. I just know that it does.

I am convinced that if you cracked open the middle of the middle of this planet, the sound that would emerge is millions of billions and trillions of voices saying in millions and billions and trillions of languages and tongues, "THANK YOU".

But, all those languages would merge together and the sound you would hear is not specific words but laughter. Deep, raucous, joyful laughter.

And that, my friends, is your Lenten assignment if you choose to take it: To listen for the joy in the center of the universe.

I hope something good happens to you today.

Bom dia!

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Luckiest Person

 


Epiphany II - January 14, 2024
St.Mark's Episcopal Church
Millsboro, DE

 

It was 1925 and Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp had a headache. He decided to sit out the game and lost his position to Lou Gehrig, who would go on to play every game for the Yankees until his retirement in 1939.

That was a total of 2,164 games – or 2,130 consecutive games – a record that stood for 56 years, until broken by Orioles hitter Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1995.

Henry Louis Gehrig played first base and was a batter for the Yankees and, during
his 17 seasons, the Yankees won seven pennants and six World Series. Gehrig's World Series contributions include a .361 batting average, 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 34 games.

Gehrig played his last game for the Yankees on April 30, 1939. Gehrig's consecutive games streak came to an end on May 2, 1939, when he removed himself from the lineup after a dismal start caused by a mysterious neuromuscular disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS – later known as “Lou Gehrig's Disease.”  Gehrig was the Yankee captain from 1935 until his death in 1941. He was 38 years old.

On July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood on the field that he loved and gave a speech that stunned everyone. My father said he listened to it on the radio and he remembered it more than any speech given by any politician, or sermon preached by preachers like Billy Graham, or even any passage from scripture, except, maybe, when Jesus said, “Love one another.”

Lou Gehrig - a man who had just been told that he had a rare neurological disorder that would gradually rob him of his ability to walk, use his arms and hands, or speak, and would die – sooner rather than later – of respiratory failure -  that same man stood on that field and said to the crowd, “I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Some people said he was trying to make people feel better. Others said it was because he was proud and didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or have anyone’s pity. Daddy said that only great men can make a speech like that, men who know they are called to the job and give it their all. He said only great men know and are so thankful that they were given certain gifts by God that they use those gifts to the best of their ability.

My father said that when you know those things – that you have been gifted by God, no matter what those gifts are, and that you use those gifts to the best of your ability, and you have met all the challenges behind you – you know that God will give you the strength you need to face all of the challenges before you.

He said, “The power you have before you is even greater than the power that has been behind you.”

All our lessons today – well, except for what St. Paul is saying to the church in Corinth, God only knows why he was going on and on about sex or why the people who put the lectionary together thought Paul’s words had a place in all of this (because, you know, they really deserve to be taken seriously and talked about by serious Christians) – but all the OTHER lessons in today’s lectionary are about vocation.

 

Vocation. From the Latin “Vocare” meaning “to call”. It’s a word most people think applies only to ordained ministry, to bishops, priests and deacons. But, our catechism is clear. We have four orders of ministry – laity, deacons, priests and bishops – and those four orders are equal. The institutional church is a hierarchy and it is the hierarchy that ascribes to those orders increasing or decreasing value. But, in our baptism, all four orders are equal in call, equal vocations.

Now, I admit that I had never considered baseball a calling but my daddy sure did. He might miss mass on Sunday, but he would never miss a ballgame. Baseball, he said, was like life. “You know, we’re all just trying to get home,” he said, pointing up. “Sometimes in life, we’re just trying to get a base hit. Sometimes, we just try to pitch one over the plate. Sometimes we hit a pop fly. Sometimes, it’s a swing and a miss. Sometimes, we steal bases - you know, for the good of the team.”

“And sometimes, sometimes, you hit a homerun and, if you’re really lucky, you hit a home run when the bases are loaded. That’s the best,” he said, “because not only do you get home, but you bring three others with you.”

“Even so,” daddy said, whether it’s a strike or a hit, we all get our time up at bat and we all get three balls and we all get three strikes. And, nine innings, with the possibility of overtime.”

For my dad, Gehrig was one of several players who were uniquely gifted. How could I forget their names? Babe Ruth, the Bambino. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper. And, of course, Hungry Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse.

Understand, please, that these three men were all Yankees – well, daddy said never forget that Ruth was “stolen” from The Boston Red Sox – and Boston Red Sox fans are the natural born enemies of the Yankees. And, vise versa.

In fact, my dad used to always say that he had two favorite teams: The Boston Red Sox and any team who beat the Yankees. (I think I’m pretty safe in here because I’m willing to bet that, come Spring, most everyone in here will be rooting for either the O’s or the Phillies.)

Baseball is like life, daddy said, and in his world, you were as called to the mound as a priest is to the altar. He also felt that way about his factory work. He felt he was called to it. As an immigrant, lucky to have the job. Blessed to be part of a union that guaranteed his wages and the safety of his work conditions and helped to provide health insurance for his wife and children.


It was hard work, dirty work, but it gave him dignity because it gave him purpose and it gave him the means to support his family – a home run, rounding the bases and bringing others home with him. “What a great country,” he’d say.

How many of you feel that way. – or, felt that way – about the work you did? Maybe you didn’t feel called to it because the institutional church can be pretty stingy with the words it uses – words like vocation and blessings and sacramental.

Take old Eli in the first scripture lesson from the First Book of Samuel.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Eli’s eyes, we are told, have grown dim, but it is not difficult for the reader to see that far more than Eli’s eyes are in trouble.

In the previous two chapters, we learn that his sons are out of control. They’ve been outrageous and irresponsible with the spiritual authority they’ve been granted. Furthermore, we read that Eli’s spiritual perception is weak; he has mistaken Hannah’s fervent prayer for drunkenness, and now, in this encounter, he is slow to realize that it is God who is calling Samuel.

Eli is the representation of institutional religion of his day. And, he blew it. Several times. With his sons, with Hannah and with Samuel.

But, when God creates us, when we are “knit together in our mother’s womb” as the Psalmist says, we are given certain gifts. We are called here to do something or some things no one else can do. We all have our time up at bat. We may strike out but there are nine innings in the game. There’s always another inning to give it our best.

And then, there’s Phillip, who followed Jesus and his eyes were opened to all the possibilities that were laid out before him. Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. He went and found his friend Nathanael to share the Good News (literally,) but it was Nathanael’s turn to be skeptical.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked.

“Come and see” said Phillip

When Jesus saw Nathanael, he recognized instantly that this was an honest man. Nathanael, having been seen for who he was, the gift of integrity he had, was able to see exactly what Phillip and Andrew and Peter before him had seen: A man who was able to see past the externals and into their soul, into their unique gifts and potential, and call them to come and follow him, come and try out their gifts and put them to use for others (for the team, as it were)

That’s what got people excited. Oh, the miracles were wonderful. The healings were incredible. His teaching was powerful. But, what got people excited, was the invitation.

“Come and see.”

Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, are three of the best hitters in baseball history. (Two of them – Ruth and Williams, my father would want me to say – were Boston Red Sox hitters.).

Even so, Lou Gehrig was up at bat 8,001 times. He had 1,888 runs, 1,995 Runs Batted In, and 493 home runs.
And, you would be pleased to pay attention, while he had 493 home runs, he struck out 790 times – almost twice as many times as he hit home runs.

But, he never missed a game. Unlike Wally Pipp, he didn’t sit one out because of a headache. He was always there. Always ready to use what God had given him to do the best he could with what he had been given. Always ready to accept the invitation to “Come and see.”

Which is why, even though he had been given a diagnosis of a terrible neurological disease that would slowly sap the life from his body and he would die a terrible death, he could face any challenge before him because the same God who had given him the strength he needed to face the challenges behind him would also give him the strength he needed to face the challenges that were ahead of him.

As my daddy said, “The power you have before you is even greater than the power that has been behind you.”

And, if God can do that for Lou Gehrig, God will do that for you, too. Because God has done that over and over again, with Eli and Samuel, Peter, Andrew, Phillip and Nathanael, and so many, many others whose sacred stories we read in holy scripture. We, too, can face any call, any vocation, any challenge, that lies ahead of us, look it straight in the eye and say, “I’m the luckiest person on the face of the earth.”   

Don’t believe me?

Come and see.            

Amen. 

NB: Thanks to Boyd Etter for the story of Lou Gehrig and to Bill Shatzabell for some of the information in this sermon. I especially love the story of Babe Ruth who had a tough childhood and was adopted. Some sports journalists used to complain that the Bambino was arrogant b/c he was often not at the press conferences before the game. Ruth was visiting children at orphanages, bringing them hope. 



Friday, November 10, 2023

Abortion: A Christian Perspective

 

Note: This is an essay I did for a catalog compiled for the art show: "Deeply Rooted: Faith in Reproductive Justice," currently on display at Brandeis. There is also A Jewish Perspective and a Muslim Perspective in the catalog. I encourage you to read them.

My essay is below but it's really the art I want you to see. I've included a link to some of the work in the catalog. I think art is one of the most political, emotional, and spiritually subversive projects of which the human heart is capable.

I should also like to note that these women are Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and "spiritual but not religious.". And, look: We're working together and making beautiful, strong art that makes a powerful, subversive statement about our own bodily autonomy. This work gives me great hope.

 

Despite conclusions that might be drawn from media reports and protest marches, there is no one, true, universal Christian position on abortion. There is, however, consensus on one theological principle: All human life is sacred and every person is created in the “likeness and image of God”. The questions which complicate the matter are two:

“When does life begin?”

“Which has more value: the life of a fetus or the life of a woman?”

 

There are many Christians, most of whom who would define themselves as Catholic, Orthodox or Evangelical, who believe that human life is strictly a biological phenomenon, measured from the moment of conception – when the sperm and egg unite. Psalm 139:13-16, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 22:10-11, Job 31:15, and Jeremiah 1:4-5 are often used to support this conclusion.

Further, often using the passage of Mary, the mother of Jesus visiting her cousin Elizabeth when the fetus that would become John the Baptist ‘leapt in her womb’ (Luke 1:39-44), it is believed that “From the first moment of his (sic) existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2270).

This, of course, means that, “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.” (CCC #2274); this requires the prohibition of embryo research or use for
Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) that entail the destruction of human embryos. However, while Eastern Orthodox tradition opposes embryonic stem cell research, it accepts such research when fetuses from spontaneous miscarriages and not elective abortions are used.

Other, equally devout Christians, believe in the biblically based principle that human life begins at birth.
Citing Genesis 2:7, G-d forms a figure from the Earth, but it does not become Adam until

G-d "breathes into him the breath of life, and he became man.”

It is strongly believed by these Christians that life begins when you draw your first breath, further asserting that this is when G-d places your soul in your body. Before this moment, a person isn’t a person but a clump of cells, dependent upon the body of the mother for life.

Many faithful Christians argue that there is no decisive basis in scripture to support the absolute stance that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. That said, only one passage in the Bible speaks directly about the value of a fetal life compared to the value of the life of a born person, Exodus 21:22-24:

<<22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman's husband demands, as negotiated with the judges. 23 But if the woman herself is injured, the punishment shall be life for life, . . .24 . . . an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound.“>>

 

It is this question – the value of the life of a woman vs. the life of a fetus – and the answer which decides clearly for the life of a woman, which seems to be most compelling reason for the overwhelming support of the right to an abortion for women who have suffered rape or incest or when the pregnancy places the life of the woman in danger.

Of the eleven Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only the Roman Catholic hierarchy officially state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances.

All judicatories in the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger.

The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are also considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.

Many mainline Christian denominations have thoughtful and robust statements on abortion that, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s statement, calls for a public discussion of abortion that moves beyond the narrow binary of pro-life and pro-choice.

And many Christian denominations share the position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that women can “make good moral choices in regard to problem pregnancies.”

My own Episcopal Church holds that while they, “regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension,” it expresses its “unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”  

The Unitarian Universalists have been leaders on issues of reproductive health, rights and justice since the early 1960s, believing they “have a moral responsibility to demand and ensure that abortion protections are codified into law.”

The argument for or against abortion through the narrow lens of “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” simply does not suit the majority of American Christians.  This is no doubt due to the fact that so many Christians have had an abortion.

A 2021 study completed by LifeWay, a self-identified conservative “pro-life” group, indicated that 70% of all women who have had an abortion identify as Christian, which includes Catholics (27%), Protestants (26%), non-denominational (15%), and Orthodox (2%). Among Protestants, more identify as Baptists (33%), Methodist (11%), Presbyterian (10%), or Lutheran (9%).


According to a 2022 poll conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 64 percent of U.S. Catholics (and 40 percent of Catholic Republicans) agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, almost identical to the 65 percent of all adult Americans who held that view.

In fact, many religious organizations and people – including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, and “spiritual but not religious” – work together through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to advocate for women’s reproductive health including continued access to safe and legal abortion services in this country.

 

While there is no one “Christian perspective” on abortion, if we believe that we are made in the likeness and image of God and, as such, human life is sacred, I believe that we will be able to move beyond the narrow “pro-life/pro-choice” binary and into that which honors and respects the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” promised at the very foundation of this country.


The Rev Dr Elizabeth Kaeton is an Episcopal priest who has been involved with the Religious Coalition for Reproduction Choice since 1997, having served for a decade on the national board of RCRC, two terms as Vice President. She was President of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, on the Board of Integrity, attended Lambeth 1998 and 2008 and served as elected deputy to four General Conventions. She is the co-parent of six children, has six grandchildren and lives in Delaware with her spouse of 47 years and their two Shih-Tzus, Eliot and Olivia.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Greatest but not The Easiest

 


Pentecost XXII - October 29, 2023
The Episcopal Church of St. Mary
Bridgeville, DE


The idea seems simple enough. “Love God, love neighbor.” The problem, as always, is in the execution of the idea. Who is God? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love them?

Wrestling with these questions is at the heart of what it means to be a follower, a disciple of Christ Jesus. If we’re honest, we’ve all struggled with these questions at different times in our life’s journey.

As a Hospice Chaplain, these are two questions people struggle with, even at the end of life, sometimes one more than the other. As a person of faith, these are two questions I have wrestled with my whole life.

If I’m honest, I struggled with those questions as I was writing this sermon and, in fact, right up until today. Part of the reason is that the world moves so fast these days, it’s often hard to get your bearings.

Not so when I was a kid. I knew exactly who my neighbors were. That’s because I knew the borders and boundaries of my neighborhood.

Furthermore, I knew the rules – the family rules, the rules of the neighborhood and the rules of the church. And, I obeyed them.

In my neighborhood, we had a policeman who “walked the beat”. His name was Officer Murphy. We all loved Officer Murphy. You could wind your watch when he would appear on your street. He knew every kid by name and where we lived. We felt safe whenever he was around.

And, we loved Fr. Levesque, our parish priest, who also walked through our neighborhood on his way back and forth from visiting with people in their homes. He always had a tin can full of mints in his pocket that he opened and put in our mouths as we swarmed around him like baby birds with our mouths opened for this mid-week sweet communion.

There was also Mr. DeMello, the Truant Officer. He was there to report you to your parents if you skipped school. We didn’t have to worry too much about Mr. DeMello, though. Not in our neighborhood.

That’s because we had Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller was a woman whose kids had all grown and her husband had died so she always dressed in black and lived alone.

If I close my eyes, I can still see her, standing in front of her second floor window, a cup of tea in her hand which she slowly sipped as she watched everything that went on in our neighborhood.

I don’t know if she counted us as we walked together to school but she knew when one of us was missing. She made it her business to know where each one of us was and exactly where we were when we weren’t supposed to be there.

No one dared skipped school in my neighborhood. We were too scared of Mrs. Miller who would come and find us (I don’t know how she found us but she always did), pull us out of wherever we were by our ear, and march us all the way to our parent’s home, still holding that ear as if her life depended on it – our feet barely touching the ground – before depositing us in front of our parents, giving us a hard smack upside the head before she left.

You never wanted to mess with Mrs. Miller. Nosireebob.

There were other people who came into our neighborhood: The Bread Man who came every Wednesday and Friday, the Milk Man who, several times a week, delivered glass bottles of milk or cream and tins of cottage cheese which he put into an aluminum container that sat on everyone’s doorstep. He covered everything with ice before he left. Funny, no one ever got sick.

We were free to ride our bikes everywhere. I was nine years old and, as the oldest of four, rode my bike at least once a week to the market to pick up “just a few things” my mother had called ahead to the grocer who had everything ready for me. He always asked me about school and what I had learned that week and we would have lovely conversations about that subject.

The rules in my neighborhood were also simple: You could play stick ball in the street but one kid always had to be the lookout for oncoming cars, and you always moved to the side as soon as a car appeared at the top of the street. You showed respect. While the streets were for stick ball, the sidewalks were for hopscotch and jacks, and everybody, I mean, EVERYBODY, had to be on their own porch when the streetlights came on.

As well as I knew my neighbors, I also knew God. He was a white man with long hair and a long, white beard who sat on a cloud way up in heaven and, all he had to do was point at someone who was being bad and ZAP! That person was dead dog meat.

I even knew what God sounded like. My father loved to read to us and I loved nothing more than sitting on his lap, my ear pressed against his chest. One day, as I listened to the sound of his voice in his chest, it occurred to me that this is what God must sound like: mysterious, other-worldly, distant and yet just as close to me as my next breath.

And, the rules? Simple. There were 10. Follow those, go to church, listen to the gospel, take communion, don’t skip school, do your homework, obey your parents, do your best to follow the Golden Rule and love God and your neighbor as yourself and you would go to heaven. Guaranteed.

Simple, right? Easy-peasy!

And then, ah, and then, I grew up. And the world was no longer simple or easy. The War to End All Wars which my grandfather fought in rolled itself into WWII which my father fought it; which rolled itself into the Korean Conflict which my uncles fought it; which rolled into The Vietnam War, which was a war no one wanted and everyone hated and protested.

The world began to move very quickly and in 1966, the cover of Time Magazine posed a question no one in my neighborhood would have dared to think much less ask: Is God Dead?

That was followed, five years later, by the 1971 Time Magazine Cover of
a Pop Art psychedelic Jesus who gazed serenely from clouds. It was simply titled: “The Jesus Revolution.”

By the time I was in seminary in the 1980s, I was enormously frustrated, trying to understand a discipline known as Process Theology, founded by a man named Alfred North Whitehead.

I remember crying in a professor’s office because I was so confused. She comforted me and then whispered, “Never mind. God doesn’t even know what Whitehead is talking about.”

And here we are this morning, more than 2,000 years later, listening to these ancient words from both Moses and Jesus who are teaching us the ancient commandment of God to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And, if we’re honest, in our darkest moments, some of us are still asking Who is God? Who is my neighbor?

Who is this God who allowed a very sick man to shoot and kill 18 of his neighbors and friends in Maine while they were bowling or otherwise having a good time with other neighbors?

Who is this God who allowed the beautiful island of Maui, often called ‘Paradise’, to burn to the ground?

And what kind of God allows innocent men, women and children to die cruel, brutal, barbaric deaths in a place known as The Holy Land, a place dedicated to God by people of three different faiths?  

Not the God we know. Which, if that’s true, raises other questions, ones with which people have also been struggling to understand since the beginning of time: If God is all powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people? What role, if any, does God play in it all?

Here's where I’ve landed on the matter. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out. Far from it. As a Hospice Chaplain, I’ve had this conversation about these questions many times with many people over the last many years.  Here’s what makes sense to me and why Jesus says that The Golden Rule is the Greatest Commandment:

There are things beyond the intellect and reason of the human mind. God is primary among them. As many advances as can be attributed to the human mind, there are many things we simply can’t understand.

Like, how to understand a love that is so pure, so unconditional, that we have this terrifying freedom to make choices, some of which are good and some of which are not.

Like, no matter what we choose, good or bad, we always have the choice to love because we are always loved.

Think about this mystery: Even before we loved God, God loved us. We are free to love this mystery we call God, who is far beyond our wildest imaginings and yet never further away from us than our next breath.

Free to love this mysterious God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. And, to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves.

Or, not. Whether or not we know God or love God, God still loves us. St. Paul tells us that nothing - absolutely nothing - can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not even ourselves.

Turns out, The Great Commandment is not as easy as it once sounded. Turns out, we grow up and find the world is a very complex and complicated place.

Turns out, one can choose to dedicate one’s whole life to living out that great mystery, to love the questions and live into the questions – Who is God? Who is my neighbor? – so that, as the great philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke said, we may love the questions so much that, one day, we may live into the answer.

That’s why, I think, Jesus says that this is the Greatest Commandment and the second is like unto it. Not only do all the laws and the prophets hang on these two commandments, but the very enterprise of being human hangs in the balance.

Indeed, I would add that the future of the world depends on the kind of love that is humble enough to admit we don’t know everything and we don’t have all the answers, and we cannot see God, but to love, anyway. To choose love. Even when it makes no sense.

As Pascal said, “
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Jesus has lots to say about that in later Gospels that are worthy of our time and consideration and study. For now, and in preparation of that, I’m going to leave you with the whole quote from Rilke to which I think, Jesus would give his stamp of approval:   

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”   

Amen.