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Sunday, November 10, 2019

All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Pentecost XXII - Proper 27 C - Track II
November 10, 2019
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Seaford, DE

This morning’s gospel passage from Luke is one of those times when you can almost see Jesus doing a facepalm. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear him pray an exasperated prayer to God under his breath, “Seriously? I have to explain this to them?”

This is the 20th chapter of Luke’s gospel. There are 24 chapters in Luke’s gospel. Now, in the 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus healed Simon’s mother of fever and before the sunset on that same day, healed many who were sick. In the 5th chapter, he filled the empty nets of the fishermen with so much fish the nets were almost breaking; he also healed a leaper, and cured a paralyzed man who had to be lowered to him through the tiling in the roof.

And, that’s just in the first five chapters. The miracles go on and on –feeding five thousand with 2 loaves and five fishes, healing children with seizures and a woman with an 18-year infirmity, etc., etc. All this, and yet there’s absolutely no sign of the Sadducees asking Jesus any questions about any of those miracles. 

The first time they come to him, here in the 20th of 24 chapters, the Sadducees don’t ask him about anything he’s done, not any of the miracles of healing or, in fact, anything he’s said. Instead, they bring to him a hypothetical situation thinly disguised as a way to get him to say something about a theological concern of theirs about resurrection – in which, the Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, do not believe.

So, this hypothetical situation is almost comic in its exaggeration. A woman – who was considered property in ancient Israel, simply a vehicle through which a man could produce an heir – has lost her husband to death. Torah says that the man’s brother must then care for her – with, of course, all the rights and privileges and “other benefits procured unto us by the same” which was afforded to a man in marriage (wink, wink).

The ancient understanding of the purpose of marriage is to reproduce, to sire an heir – which is the primary reason why sex was prohibited outside the bonds of marriage. 

It was really all about protecting one’s property – the woman and any children she bore. The law of Moses was designed to protect the “investment” of a man’s “property” – especially since the ancient culture was not kind to widows or any other unmarried woman.

In this scenario, however, the Sadducees carried the point to the intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous. There were seven. Seven brothers, all of whom married the same woman. All seven brothers died without producing an heir. And finally, after seven husbands, the woman finally died having never produced a child.

The story reminds me of the “tests” we kids used to create for the priests and nuns of my youth. I grew up Roman Catholic and as kids, we took endless delight in asking questions that mirrored our sense of what was – to us – absurd ideas which we were carefully taught. My favorite one was this:

So, Sister, we know that God is all-powerful, right.

Yes, my child, Sister would say, not looking up from her desk (“custody of the eyes”) or continuing to clean the chalkboard (remember those?).

So, if God is all-powerful, God can do anything, right, sister?
Yes, my child, Sister would say.

So, if God is all-powerful and God can do anything, can God create a rock that he can not lift?

Ha! We thought we were so clever!

We practically squirmed in our seats, waiting to hear Sister stammer and sputter as she was stumped for an answer.

We forgot that Sister had been studying Jesus.

She would stop what she was doing, look kindly upon our mischievous souls and say, “Now, that is a wonderful question. Very thoughtful. Good for you. That shows you are using the old noggin’. So, what do YOU think, children? Can God create a rock that he can not lift?”

And, just like that, Sister had stolen the glee of our trickery and turned it into a class in religion. Right there, in the middle of recess or lunch break. And, the worst of it was that Sister never stopped smiling kindly. She always seemed to be secretly amused – like she knew the trick and had gotten ahead of us. I think I hated that smile most of all.

It seems to me that the Sadducees did the same thing with Jesus. What I find amusing – and, I’m sure it didn’t pass the attention of Jesus – is the subtext of what the Sadducees were asking. They place their concern about the resurrection squarely in the midst of what some religious leaders throughout the centuries have always concerned themselves.

In the exaggerated hypothetical situation of one wife for seven brothers, what the Sadducees seem most concerned about is not justice, not peace, not mercy or walking humbly with God. No, they are concerned with who has the right to claim this woman as his property. And, that, quite frankly, means, who is first in line to have sex with her in the afterlife.

You see, it’s not just The Episcopal Church that has consumed many years and many General Convention resolutions about the sex life of others. There really isn’t anything new under the sun.

Which is why I see Jesus doing a facepalm. Or, maybe that’s my projection. More likely, he was probably smiling kindly just as Sister did when we asked her about the omnipotence of God.

What Jesus essentially says to the Sadducees, to use Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message, is 
“Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”
All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God. What a brilliant way to answer their question. It’s almost as if Jesus has stolen the glee of any unintended trickery and turned it into a class in religion. Right then and right there. I suspect Jesus never stopped smiling kindly. Perhaps he even looked to be secretly amused – like he knew the trick and had gotten ahead of them.

I don’t think there’s any question you can’t bring to Jesus. You may not get the answer you want – you may not hear the answer because you want another answer – but you will always get an answer. Sometimes, the answer is ‘no’.  Sometimes, the answer is ‘wait’. 

And, sometimes, sitting with the question – prayerfully and expectantly and hopefully – will bring you an answer you never expected or anticipated, something to challenge the comfort of the status quo, something that calls you to an action you couldn’t have asked for or imagined.

You’ve probably heard the story of the woman, a harried mother of four very active children, who said, “I used to pray all the time to God for patience. ‘Give me patience, Lord,’ I would pray. And then,” she said, “God sent me four children, and I’ve been learning about patience ever since.”

Sometimes, I wonder when we pray for peace, if what we get is war so that we will really understand and appreciate peace.

This weekend as we remember and honor our Veterans, I hope when we pray for peace we really mean it. Which means that we are willing to work to achieve it.

God knows, right now there are enough wars around the globe to make us cherish peace. There is enough gun violence in this country to have reduced some of our cities to something akin to war zones. The rise of Nationalism with its attendant racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance of immigrants has resulted in acts of violence and cruelty to men, women and children. Threats of civil war have been heard if election results are not what some want.

I think it takes observances like this Veteran’s Day weekend when we remember those who have fought and died or who have fought and lived through the unimaginable horrors of war, to make us grateful for the men and women who cherish peace. 

We honor them best by working to ensure that peace will prevail and that we will, as that song goes, “study war no more.”

Jesus tells us that God is the God of the living and the dead, for all are alive in the sight of God.

Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

There is great comfort in that mystery.

I urge us to live through that mystery that is our faith in a God who loves us so much that we are giving the gift of free will. And, when our choices are not the best for us or others and we repent, we are given the gift of grace to seek forgiveness.

Free will and grace. These are two gifts whose generosity can’t be measured.

Turns out, God can create a rock that He – or She – can’t lift. Unless, of course, God wanted to lift up that rock and then God would, indeed, lift up that rock.

Because, well, God is God.

If God can do that, God can also allow us the freedom to fall short of the mark and still provide us with the means, through grace, to lift ourselves up and try again.

I find great hope and take comfort in that mystery. Because that means that nothing I can do will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not even me.

And, because I believe in “the forgiveness of sins, the the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting,” I also believe that All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

In the words of St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians, 
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Creator, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”    

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A soulin' in Hallowtide

All Saints' Sunday - November 3, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Meat nor drink nor money have I none
Yet shall we be merry
Hey, ho, nobody home. (Hey, ho, nobody home.)

+In the name of the Great Mystery of God, who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Can there be anything more spectacular than the light in autumn? Well, except, perhaps, the light in spring? I have a particular affinity for the autumn light, the way it dances on the leaves as they change color before they die and fall off their branches; the soft, tender way it embraces the trees that have gone bare; the soft caresses it gives to a face surprised by the sudden chill in the air.

There’s a bit of magic in the air this time at the end of the harvest and beginning of winter. The ancients thought this time between the solstice and the equinox was a time when the veil between this world and the next was thinned and those who had died that year were now able to cross into the spirit world and otherworldly beings and fairy folk were able to cross into ours.  

Celtic spirituality celebrated this time as the pagan festival of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, and lit bonfires on fairy hills to help light the way to heaven for souls who were caught or stuck between worlds.

Pagans in Galicia in the northern part of Spain, influenced by the Celts, celebrate the Dia de la Muerte, the Day of the Dead. Those Spaniards who traveled to the “new world” brought those festivities with them. We see variations of them in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Haiti.

Americans native to this land have always worshipped the ancestors as have those in Africa and the African diaspora, which varies from nation to nation and tribe to tribe.

When the Christian movement began in those countries, much of pagan thought was easily co-opted by the Christian understanding of resurrection, heaven and hell, and their rituals were adapted and modified to accommodate this new belief.

In the Middle Ages in England, the Celtic festival of Samhain, the feast of the Dead, became a time for “a soulin’”. The time of October 29th  – November 2nd was known as “Hallowtide” – a holy time in the universe.

It was believed that some fairies caused mischief, but most likely that became a cover for the pranks and tricks which all children of every time and culture like to play, especially as the doldrums of a long winter stretched out before them.

The evening of November 2nd was the time when the poor and children would go a soulin’.

They would go from house to house, begging for money or food. “Soul cakes” were handed out, along with a penny or a ha’penny. Soul cakes are little cakes that look more like muffins and are richly filled with berries and nuts.

Other versions of soul cakes are a cross between what the British call a biscuit (but we call a cookie) and a scone; they are sweet and carry a cross made of currents (or, raisins). I’ve made both kinds for your pleasure at coffee hour.

The soul cake given to the poor and children had a currency all its own. It was believed that when you did an act of kindness for a poor soul, it would help move the soul of a loved one to pass on from Purgatory to Heaven – or, from being stuck here on earth to move on to be home with Jesus. Every cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory.

Whatever soul cakes were leftover were either left on a plate beside the door for hungry, haunted souls and fairies as appeasement against mischief. Or they were tossed into the bonfire as sacrifices for the dead.

As the poor and the children would wander from house to house, they would sing:
Soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
Yes, our modern practice of Trick or Treat no doubt comes from this old ritual, but more importantly, it is into this “Hallowtide” – this holy time which is midway between the solstice and the equinox, the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter – that the church hallows the saints who have gone on before us.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Gospel selected for this day is the Beatitudes from St. Luke, with the blessings and the woes, reminding us of the difference between here and there, between now and then, between heaven and earth.

There is great hope for the poor in these promises of Jesus.  

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

“Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.” 

And, there is a warning for those who think that the material things and the successes they have had in this life is all there is.

It is Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message that speaks most powerfully. He writes:
But it's trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you'll ever get.
And it's trouble ahead if you're satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
Jesus not only reminds us of our own mortality but also our human fragility. He calls attention to the dangers of self-satisfaction and greed, and the importance of living this life, this one life that we all have here on earth – to the betterment of our lives and others.

Jesus acknowledges that our human failings and flaws not only hurt ourselves, but others are also hurt. Other people go hungry. Other people are poor. Other people do not have shelter, much less a home. And, Jesus tells us that there is justice in the world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., so famously said, “The moral arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice.” King didn’t just make that up. He got that from reading the Beatitudes.

Here’s the thing I appreciate about this Hallowtide, this time from October 29th-November 2nd .

For me, the whole theology of resurrection can be summed up in one line from the Eucharistic prayer we use at funerals – in both Rite I and Rite II. It is this: “for we know that life is changed, not ended.”

Changed. Not ended.

Let that sink in for just a moment.

It means that we believe in a life after this life. We don’t know what that life after this life will look like. We only believe that it exists. It doesn’t mean that one life has more value than the other. It means, to me, that all life is sacred.

To remember our loved ones who have died is not a morbid exercise. It is not an exercise in cheap sentimentality. Rather, it is a ritual that celebrates life – all life – in this world and the next. It is a ritual that honors the everlasting soul of every human being.

This is why the rubric for funerals in an Episcopal church, the casket is closed and covered with a pall. If the body has been cremated, we cover the urn with a pall. We do that because we do not place the emphasis on the body but on the soul. We celebrate the resurrection.

We honor the spirit of the person who has died, knowing that the body may be gone, but the spirit has united with the One who created us and gave us life and is bathed in Light Eternal.

Today, after the Prayers of the People, we will read the Necrology – the list of those who have died. I am going to ask you to participate in something people in Hispanic cultures practice on this Holy Day of All Saints. As the names are read, if you knew and loved that person or even if you didn’t know that person but you recognize the name, I’m going to ask you to say, “Present”.  

In doing so, we will be affirming life. We will be affirming our faith. We will be affirming what we say we believe about “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting. Amen.”

As a child, my grandmother would always observe this Hallowtide by taking the family to the cemetery where we would have a picnic lunch. We would spread our blankets near the graves of our relatives and she would tell us stories of their lives. She would also tell us stories of relatives we had never met – her father and mother and brothers who were buried back in Portugal. She would say to us, “You need to know about them so you can better know who you are.”

I suspect part of what’s wrong with our culture is that we live disconnected lives. We all live so far away from each other. Which can be overcome, of course, by visits and technology.

But I fear we don’t tell our stories to each other any more. It’s important to know the family stories – and all the characters and their stories. We need to know about them so that we can better know ourselves.

Eugene Peterson translates the last part of Luke’s gospel in this way:
There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests - look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors!
Your task is to be true, not popular."
As we move away from the end of the harvest and enter the beginning of winter, the days will become shorter and the nights will become longer. Soon and very soon, it will be Advent and we will begin to light candles to light the lengthening shadows as, once again, we await the coming of the one who is The Light of the World.

Until then, enjoy the autumn light. Let its gentle clarity guide you through the rustle of dead leaves, the dry, bare tree branches, and the barren cornfields. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have come before you and for all that they have made possible for you today. Count your blessings – name them one by one. Share what you have with those who don’t.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

And, take some time to enjoy the autumn light. There is an undeniable bit of magic in the air. Take a hint from what is happening all around you and try to slow down and enjoy and be grateful for this life you’ve been given.

If you are still, if you are quiet, if you listen, the sound you will hear as the wind blows the leaves to the ground and the barren branches clack against each other is life calling after life in the veil between heaven and earth which is especially thin this time of year.

Perhaps you too will find yourself doing your own version of “a soulin’” – looking for lost souls to help, to share what you’ve got with those who don’t, to commit a random act of kindness and bring a little light into a world that will soon grow dark and cold.

Transforming souls – your own and those of others – through kindness and generosity is the best magic of all.

My shoes are very thin.
I have a little pocket
To put a penny in.

If you haven’t got a penny
A ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you.

Soul, a soul, a soul cake.
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for him who made us all.


Sunday, October 27, 2019


Pentecost XX - Proper 25 C
October 27, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

This is a sermon about humility. Which is a very difficult conversation to have in the church. It’s almost as difficult as talking about money but not as difficult as talking about sex – well, as long as it’s someone else’s sex life we’re talking about. 

The difficulty in talking about humility is in the very last part of the very last sentence, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, it would seem that if you WANT to be exalted you have to humble yourself, but if you exalt yourself you will be knocked off your high horse and humbled – or even, perhaps, humiliated.

 The word humility of course, comes from the Latin humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", or "from the earth". 

When someone displays the distasteful characteristic of arrogance, the antidote is always to call that person to humility. That’s what we witness in the Pharisee of this parable of Jesus as reported in Luke’s gospel (18:9-14). But, what if the person’s characteristic is the opposite of arrogance? What if the person is someone who gives a new definition to “low self-esteem?” 

I once worked with a nurse who, every time she bumped into something said, out loud, “I’m sorry.” This was a woman who was an amazing nurse. Skilled. Experienced. Compassionate. An excellent clinician and diagnostician. 

I stopped her once, after she had apologized to a chair, and gently asked her, “Did . . . did you just apologize to that chair?” 

She became a bit flustered and admitted, sheepishly, “Why, yes, yes I suppose I did.” 

“Do you realize that you always apologize to every inanimate object you happen to bump into?” I asked her.

Her face blushed as she said, “My mother always told me that I was a clumsy oaf. She used to make me walk with a book on top of my head with an apple on top of the book. I could never make it across the room without either dropping the apple or the book. She even took me to ballet lessons so I’d learn some grace, but it didn’t work. I’m just a clumsy oaf, and . . .” she added just below her voice, “stupid. That’s what mother always said,” shaking her head, “clumsy and stupid.”

“But you’re not,” I said. “You’re neither clumsy nor stupid. You’re a brilliant nurse who moves with the skill and grace of an angel at the bedside, tending to your patients and their families.”

At which point, my friend started to cry. “No one has ever said that to me before,” she sniffed. 

“Then I’m going to say it to you every time I see you,” I said.

I wrote the words down on a piece of paper and said, “I want you to tape this to your bathroom mirror and read it every morning. 

Say it out loud, ‘I am a brilliant nurse who has the skill and grace of an angel as I tend to my patients and their families.’”

She blushed again but looked me straight in the eye as I handed her the paper and said, “I will do that. I will say this out loud to myself every morning. Thank you.”

Funny thing. Three months later she was still occasionally bumping into things, but she no longer apologized to inanimate objects. She had more confidence and provided excellent patient care. 

Sometimes, exalting yourself IS an act of humility, especially if you have had your self-worth and self-esteem bullied out of you by well-intentioned people.

The important thing to remember is that, while arrogance is as troublesome and concerning as low self-esteem, they are flip sides of the same coin. I think it helps to remember that humility means “grounded” or “from the earth”.

The word ‘humility’ helps us to remember that we are human – we are from the earth and connected to the earth and to the earth we shall return. For me, humility is a reminder that I am human, a mere mortal, which means I am not defined by my worst characteristic. Neither am I defined by my best characteristic. Rather, I am the sum total of all my parts. Good and bad. Warts and all.

I see the prayers of the Pharisee and those of the Tax Collector as being equal. Oh sure, I’m annoyed by the Pharisee’s prayers but only because he didn’t balance it out with his flaws. I have pity on the Tax Collector because he knew only too well his flaws. 

As a Tax Collector, he knew the hatred and the revulsion of the people – a Jew doing the work of the Roman Oppressor. Which leads me to ask what he was doing to change his lot except to ask God for mercy only to go out and do it all over again.

Humility isn’t a contest to see who is the most humble. I am reminded of that old story of a priest who came into the church, knelt before the altar, beat his breast and said, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”   

A few minutes later, another priest came into the church and saw the priest at the altar, beating his breast and joined him on his knees at the altar rail, crying out even louder, “Have mercy on my Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”

Just then, the sexton came into the church. He saw the two priests kneeling at the altar and decided to join them, beating his breast and crying out for mercy. One priest turned to the other and said, “Well, great! Now EVERYONE will want to be exalted!”

Author Rachel Held Evans wrote this in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
“Some rabbis say that, at birth, we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks. To those who repent of their sins, especially in the days of Rosh Hashanah, God sends the angel Gabriel to make knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God. Because each one of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness from time to time, our strings are full of knots. But, the rabbis like to say a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots. So the person with many sins but a humble heart is closer to God.”
No, the Rabbi isn’t saying that we should, therefore, go out and sin so that we can be closer to God. 

For me, the Rabbi’s story is one that amplifies the message of Rabbi Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

Humility is telling the truth about ourselves, and sometimes, it’s harder to admit our attributes than it is to admit our faults. The person with many sins but a humble heart is close to God. And, the person with many attributes but a humble heart is also close to God. 

Humility is not about how good or bad we are. Humility is about having a humble heart and telling the truth about ourselves.  One of the aphorisms of the12 Step Program is “If you see more than three people in one day who cause you to say, ‘Jerk!’ it’s time to look in the mirror.”

Humility calls us to acknowledge that we are all sinners, yes, but not one of us is beyond the redemption of God. Humility is reaching way down into the depths of our souls and putting our hands and fingers into the rich soil, the fertile earth of our humanity. 

The religious paradox is that staying connected to the earthiness of our humanity helps us to grow wings to fly closer to God. Sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch a star.

I am convinced that the church which does not offer a quick fix or an instant cure, the church which offers the unspeakable joy of the miracle of death and resurrection, the church that is a vehicle of the grace to do the hard work of reconciliation is the church that will grow and flourish and thrive because it is closer to the Gospel truth than those who sell or market the Gospel with happy, shiny, put together people as proof that “hey, this Jesus stuff works!” (to paraphrase Rachel)

Rachel also wrote: 
“This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”
As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife . . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”

That’s what humility looks like. Or, as D.T. Niles once wrote in the New York Times, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

Rachel Held Evans died this past May of an allergic reaction to a medication for an infection. She was 38 years old, the mother of two small children and the spouse of a devoted husband. 

At her funeral, fellow author and friend Nadia Boltz-Webber gave this benediction, which summed up Rachel’s understanding of the Gospel.

I give it to you now as an example of the best sort of humility. I believe Jesus blesses it when we tell the truth about the fullness of being human because that is the way God created us.

The Benediction from Rachel Held Evans’ funeral:
Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude— God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.

Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story. Amen 
And, let the church in all humility say, “Amen.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prayer changes nothing - and everything

Pentecost XIX - Proper 24 - October 20, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, De

Everything I learned about praying always and not losing heart, I learned from two very different people at two very different stages in my life.

You are not going to be surprised to hear this, but the first person to teach me about prayer was my Grandmother. You think the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) is persistent? Ha! She had nothing on my Grandmother! In fact, I’m told that the best translation of the phrase, “she will wear me out etc." is actually a boxing term in Greek for giving someone a black eye. 

Yup, that would be my Grandmother.

When you walked into my Grandmother’s house, you couldn’t help but see the two pictures of the two men my Grandmother considered “The World’s Greatest Roman Catholics.” 

The first was Jesus. I know, right? Who knew Jesus was Roman Catholic? I thought he was Jewish. The picture was what we kids called his “High School Graduation” picture. You know, the one of him in profile, with his long hair beautifully combed, and the perfect back-lighting? 

The other picture of the other great Catholic? Oh, that would have been John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course.  Yes, she did have a picture of the Pope. It was in the bathroom. I never dared asked why.

Walking into my Grandmother’s bedroom was like walking into a shrine – we kids used to call it “Disney World for Roman Catholics”. If you didn’t grow up Roman Catholic, you might not understand, but let me try to describe it to you, anyway.

Oh, and, just in case there’s any question or doubt: I cherish my Roman Catholic upbringing as I do my Portuguese heritage and I mean absolutely no disrespect to either. This is part of what makes me uniquely me – warts and all – and I am deeply grateful for it all.

So, to my grandmother’s house. The tops of all of her bureaus were filled with statues of saints, all of which had small, flickering votive or novena candles in front of them. If you lifted up each statue, underneath them, written in Portuguese, was a slip of paper with her particular prayer petitions to that particular saint.

In my Grandmother’s world of prayer, one prayed to particular saints for particular things. St. Jude, of course, was the saint of Lost Causes. You prayed to him if you needed a Big Phat M.I.R.A.C.L.E. Maybe someone was gravely ill? In the hospital? Maybe he or she had (said in a whisper, lest on one else should get it…. shhhh . . . .) cancer? Better petition St. Jude.

St. Joseph was patron saint of Workers. Joe was your guy if your husband or sons or brothers were out of work or there was a strike at the factory. Joe would get them back to work, right quick.  The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) was the one you turned to if your novena prayers had not yet been answered. My Grandmother figured that Mary had the ear of both God AND Jesus, so if you prayed to her, you knew one of the two guys were going to hear about it, big time.

There were lots and lots of others – St. Martin de Porres, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Lucy, St. Elizabeth of Portugal (+ my patron saint), Mother Elizabeth Seaton, to name just a few, but the busiest saint was always St. Gerard, the patron saint of families. He was also the one in the most trouble for not answering my Grandmother’s prayers.

If you were a saint, and my Grandmother prayed to you – hwever many prescribed decades on her rosary for the prescribed amount of days or weeks or months – and you didn’t answer her prayer, you were in BIG trouble.

My grandmother would first yell at the statue. Then, she would blow out the candle. Then, with a great flourish, she would turn the statue to face the wall, saying to him or her in broken English, “And, you gonna stay there until you gonna answer my prayer.”

So, I learned three important lessons about prayer from my Grandmother

First lesson: God is always watching. Never let God catch you not praying.

Second lesson: Don’t put all your prayers in one basket. Spread them around.

Third lesson: If your prayers aren’t answered, pray harder. Louder. Like you mean it.

And then, I grew up.  I learned stuff about the world. I learned that the world I lived in was very different from my grandmother’s world. It was a world she couldn’t have even imagined much less live in, so she kept more and more to herself, speaking only Portuguese. As my world expanded, her world grew smaller and smaller. It was safer for her that way.

Even as my Grandmother retreated from the world, I ran straight to it and found myself moving farther and farther away from the images of God of my childhood. Those images simply didn’t have any relevance to the world in which I was living. 

I discovered that God was not a puppet master, pulling every one and every thing on a string. I learned that God didn’t cause tornadoes and hurricanes and tidal waves – the shifting earth did that. Smokey the Bear taught me that only I could prevent forest fires – not the wrath of God. 

I learned that people had heart attacks and strokes and diabetes and even ‘cancer’ because of hereditary and environmental and nutritional considerations, and not because God punished them for sin. I learned that left-handed people were not sinister, that people with seizure disorder (epilepsy) were not possessed by demons, that women with normal menstrual cycles were not ‘unclean’, and that children born blind or deaf or with a deformity were not evidence that their ancestors had sinned.

For a very long time, all of that knowledge put me in a tailspin crisis of faith. Now that I knew all this stuff about the world, what was I supposed to believe about God?

Well, I learned that my faith didn’t have to stay in a childhood fantasy box. I learned that my faith could grow and adapt and change in order to meet the challenges of the world. I learned to take the lessons I needed to learn from the faith my grandmother in order to live my own life, in my own time, in the world where God had placed me. 

It wasn’t until I met a second person in my adult life that I was able to articulate what I knew about prayer and bring it to yet another level.  That person was Bishop Jack Spong.

I had been working for Jack as Canon Missioner for about three years when I discovered a lump in my right breast. The doctor thought it was probably benign but, as he said, “You and I will both sleep better once that lump is out.” 

So, two days before my surgery, I went to my bishop to tell him and to ask him for his prayers.
Jack listened very carefully, as he is wont to do, and then, pastor that he is, he assured me of his prayers. 

Scholar that he is, he also could not resist asking me a question. 

“Elizabeth," he said, “of course I will pray for you, but, you know, people come to me – as I’m sure they come to you – as if your prayers were some sort of magic. I want you to know that, if it were in my power to cure you of any cancer, of course I would. But you know, and I know, that neither you nor I are that powerful. So, when you ask me to pray for you, what are you asking, really?”

Well, it was the first time I had ever really thought about that. Jack has been called a heretic and an atheist. I can assure you that he is not an atheist. He's more of a modern mystic. And, I’ve come to learn that the people I trust most in the church – people who believe in God and love Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit – are often what many in the church consider heretics. I’ve discovered that that says more about them than what is true about Jack or any heretic. 

Jack has a way of challenging what you say you believe – not so you believe like him – but so that you can better articulate what you believe. He respects differences and won't hesitate to tell you why he thinks you're wrong. Always a good bishop, he just wants to make sure you can articulate why you believe what you say you believe.

I heard myself say to him that when I am anxious or afraid, I often feel much worse because I think I’m all alone in whatever situation or crisis I’ve found myself. I imagine that, in this world, we are all standing on an interconnected web, and each one of us has his or her own thread. 

When I’m anxious or afraid, it gets very dark which makes me feel even more afraid and alone. When I know someone is praying for me or with me, it’s like a light is turned on, and I can see others around me, lifting me up, holding me up in their prayer, and I’m less afraid.

Jack listened very carefully, nodded his head and smiling, said, “What I’ve discovered is that prayer is a paradox - something that contains two opposite statements, both of which are true.”

“Prayer,” he said, “doesn’t change anything. And, prayer changes everything.”

“Mostly, prayer changes everything, because prayer changes me. It changes my focus. It makes me less self-centered. It makes me care more about others. And, it makes me aware that I am part of a vast, interconnected network and I’m not alone. People who have come before, people who are here, now, and people who are yet to come are all standing with me. That Jesus is with me because I am with others and they are with me.”

"So,” he said, “Why don’t we pray together, right now?”

And, we did. We held hands. We prayed. Right then. Right there. In his office. No vestments. No saints. No votive lights. No little slips of paper with petitions on them. No prayer beads. And, it was holy. And, it was right. And, it was good. And, I did not lose heart. 

Well, I came through the surgery with flying colors and a benign pathology report. I also came through with a deeper appreciation for the lessons my grandmother taught me about prayer, which I have adapted to suit the world I live in. In my life. In my time. I share them with you as a present.

First lesson: Pray always and without ceasing. Make everything you do be a prayer. If you are mowing the lawn or raking leaves or making applesauce or starting your day of work, dedicate whatever you are doing. Make it a prayer to God.
Second lesson: Pray through a variety of sources and means, without judgment. Whether you use prayer beads or candles or chant, all of it is prayer. When I am on pilgrimage in Palestine this January, I will carry each one of you with every step I take because, for me, I pray best with my boots on and my sleeves rolled up. If someone tells you that they are sitting Zazen for you, or they lay hands on you and speak in tongues, accept it as prayer without judgment. Everyone prays in his or her own way. It's all prayer. It's all good. I mean that: It’s all good.
            Third lesson: Pray expectantly, hopefully, persistently, and never lose heart.  Know that we are all interconnected in an amazing network of relationships. And, we are all connected to a great mystery that scripture calls “a great cloud of witnesses.” People who have gone before us and people who are waiting to be with us along with the people you love who are near or far from you are also in that cloud. The church calls it “the mystic sweet communion” which we call upon when we make Eucharist together. We are never alone.

Pray always and do not lose heart because prayer is a paradox. Prayer changes nothing. And, prayer changes absolutely everything. Prayer changes the question, often from “Why me? Why now?” to “Okay, me. What now?”

And, most importantly, prayer changes the one who prays. I’ve learned that courage is just fear that you walk through, anyway.

Pray always and do no lose heart because prayer changes me and prayer changes you, so that, no matter what life throws at us, our faith is strengthened and our relationship with God is deeper.



Sunday, October 13, 2019

There is a field. I'll meet you there.

St. Philip's Episcopal Church,  Laurel, DE
October 13, 2019

Tonight at sunset, observant Jews here in Delaware and all over the world will begin the celebration of Sukkot, which commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions. (Leviticus 23:42)

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. The word sukkot means huts (some translations of the bible use the word booths), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival.

Every Jewish family will build an open-air structure in which to live during the holiday. The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

The Sukkot ritual is to take four types of plant material: an etrog (a citron fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and rejoice with them. (Leviticus 23: 39-40.) People rejoice with them by waving them or shaking them about.

Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, Program Director, Project Genesis, explains that when a family lives in a Sukkot for 7 days, they learn not only to appreciate not just their history as a people, but they gain deeper appreciation for the simpler things in life – time with family, meals together, talking together instead of typing a text or email, time away from the TV and reading a book. 

There is also time to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, the vast expanse of the sky and the multitude of stars, the crisp smell and the chill in the autumn air. 

The operating theory, of course, is that by doing without, we will better appreciate what we have. 

That has been the basis of some forms of parental discipline for generations upon generation, everything from “time out” to “you’re grounded” to “no TV for you, young man” to “hand over the car keys, young lady.” 

Sukkot is not a punishment, it’s a spiritual discipline. 

Jesus, our Rabbi, turns that teaching on its head in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke (17:11-19). The gratitude expected comes not from having to do without but from having been given something or having something restored. 

Jesus was traveling with his disciples between Samaria and Galilee. Now, let me set that in context for you. Samaria is a city in ancient Palestine, now called The West Bank. Samaria lies in between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.  Galilee, of course, is known for Nazareth, where Jesus and his family lived. Judea is home to the great city of Jerusalem. 

Samaria and Galilee were both considered inferior by Judean Jews. Galileans were known to speak with a distinct accent which disqualified them from reading Torah in the Temple during public services of worship. Samaritans were known to intermarry, leading them to be considered the ‘mongrels’ or the ‘half breeds’ of the Hebrew people and therefore, inferior. 

Indeed, as distasteful as the Judeans found the Samaritans, the hierarchy of prejudice and bigotry found the Galileans to at least be above the Samaritans. No one expected anything good to come from a Samaritan – a foreigner! – not even a Galilean like Jesus. 

We are told that Jesus encountered ten lepers as he was walking in the region between Galilee and Samaria. We do not know their identity. Perhaps there were some Galilean and some Samaritan. 

We don’t know. 

We only know that they were ten men (but, who knows, there might have been some women) and that Jesus had mercy on them as they called to him and healed them all, sight unseen, identities unknown. 

What we do know from Luke’s account of this story is that of the ten who were healed only one returned to give thanks. 

And, he was a Samaritan.

It is twice in this story that Jesus turns our expectations upside down and right side up. Not only was the one who showed gratitude a mongrel, half-breed Samaritan, he was grateful not because something had been taken from him; rather, he was grateful for what he had been given. 

Today’s gospel asks us to consider the gratitude of the lepers. I have no doubt that all ten lepers were deeply grateful for the healing they experienced. Only one had an “Attitude of Gratitude”. 

And, he was a Samaritan. 

Now, it’s easy to see this gospel only in that light. Ah, yes, we think. This is about being grateful. Check. 

Thanksgiving will be here in less than two months, providing another opportunity to be grateful. Check. 

And then we’ll no doubt be hearing about Stewardship and how we need to be grateful for all we have been given and return a portion to God as our tithe or our pledge. Check. 

I want to suggest that, while important, all of that is low-lying gospel fruit – it’s easy pickins. 

I want us to stretch a little – go up a bit higher where the sweeter gospel fruit is waiting for us. I want us to spend a little time with Jesus in that land in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”. 

Jesus has grown up being carefully taught about the Samaritans. He knows they are considered inferior. Indeed, although they had the same scriptures and purity codes, Samaritans rarely went to Jerusalem during the High Holy Days, which was considered heretical. 

And yet, Jesus seems to place himself intentionally in this area between what he has been carefully taught is right and amidst a people who do things all wrong. In this place, he is most certain to encounter not only Galileans but those unlike him, people considered unclean and inferior. 

If any of you have watched Star Trek, you know that there is always a Neutral Zone, a place to create distance between warring factions. It’s a place where you’re really not supposed to be, and, if you do go there, you’d better not have your photon torpedoes armed.

Many mystics have written about this Neutral Zone. The Celts call it “a thin place” – a place close to the veil between heaven and earth. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic theologian and poet, writes about this Neutral Zone as a “field”. He writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, 
there is a field. 
I’ll meet you there. 
When the soul lies down in that grass, 
the world is too full to talk about 
Ideas, language, 
even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make sense.
For Rumi, that field, that thin place that is too full to talk about is a place where those with opposing ideas might discover that they have something in common. 

Indeed, they may discover that their differences aren’t really all that important in the presence of the Divine.

Actually, I’m not sure that expressing gratitude is all that important to Jesus. It’s clearly important to Luke who is telling the story, but I’m not absolutely certain that it’s important to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t condemn the nine or take away their healing or punish or curse them. What he does do is to lift up the one who does return to him. Which makes me curious to know more.

There is no one that Jesus could have hated or feared more than this 10th leper - hated because of his beliefs and feared because of his disease. And yet, Jesus meets this leper in this Neutral Zone, this thin place, in this field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and heals him and then greets him when he returns to give thanks and praise. 

“Get up,” Jesus says to him, “and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” The word Luke uses for ‘well’ here is the same word that’s used for ‘salvation’

Do you hear that? Let’s reach a little higher and pick this higher gospel fruit that this leper – this unworthy, unclean, wrongdoing, wrong-thinking, sick, Samaritan leper – is not only healed of his disease, but he is also made whole and transformed in the presence of God. 

Saying thank you is a nice, social pleasantry. It's important to be polite. But what Jesus is talking about is not just being polite. Jesus is talking about the spiritual disciple of gratitude.  

Being polite makes you nice. Being grateful makes you spiritual. 

It's a little more difficult. You have to reach higher. You can be polite just by habit. Being grateful means your heart and soul are moved.

Which also makes me wonder if the thing Jesus is asking me to reach for – this higher gospel fruit – is to consider who it is I am avoiding meeting in that field. 

Let me explain it this way. There’s a theologian who has written a book on conflict mediation whose name is David Augsberger. I don’t know if the Sr. Warden who has a degree in conflict mediation has read this particular book but I’m sure the theory won’t be strange to him. 

Augsberger suggests that, “Conflict arises from the competition of same and other.” 

Those who are the same, those who see themselves on the side of right-doing, seek to control, subordinate, exclude and destroy those they see as other – those who are seen on the side of wrongdoing. 

It’s easy to spot that exclusion and subordination and destruction of ‘the other’ in the Bible. Scripture is filled with stories of tribal warfare and those who think God is on their side or take defeat as having disappointed or disobeyed God in some way. 

We see it, too, in our own day and time. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV or radio and you’ll hear the heartbreaking stories of the Israelis and Palestinians and the heartbreaking wall in modern day Samaria. 

Or, the Kurds and the Turks doing battle in Syria as the threat of Isis rises once again. There’s a lot more, even in our own country, but you get the picture.

Augsberger goes on to ask some very difficult questions, “What if the other is necessary to us, part of us, completing us, redefining us, capable of transforming us? What if the other we fear is the bearer of our healing, our hope, and our health as a human race?”

Let me bring those questions to this Gospel lesson: What if the Samaritan leper, the person I most hate and fear, is the bearer of my own healing? What if meeting that person in the field is the key to the healing of humanity and the transformation of the world?

That makes me think that picking the gospel fruit of gratitude is a far simpler task than picking the higher gospel fruit of healing and transformation in the Open Field of Possibility.

It also makes me think that we could all benefit from spending some time apart in our own Sukkot or hut, with an open roof so we could look out and contemplate the vastness of God’s creation. 

Speaking for myself, it just might move me not only to feel gratitude, but to see just how small and insignificant I am in relation to the enormous variety of all of God’s creatures and creation.

Perhaps we all need some time apart, to live more simply and reflect on our place in the world and role in the family of God before we find the courage to enter that Neutral Zone, that thin place. There, we might discover what Vendantan Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi taught.

When asked, “How are we supposed to treat others?” the Maharishi answered, “There are no others.”

So, I will leave you to ponder these questions: Who is the Samaritan for you? Who is the outcast, the one you fear and hate? Jesus invites us to meet that person in that region between Samaria and Galilee – that space between wrongdoing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us to find our healing and salvation – and theirs.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Out in the area between Samaria and Galilee, there is a village. Let’s meet there. 

We’ll build a booth - a small hut - in that thin place, and stay a while. In the fullness of silence, we’ll learn to appreciate each other – where even ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense because, in the sight of God, there are no others – and be grateful for all we have been given. 

And then, we shall return, each to our homes, to give thanks and praise.

And in that act we shall be changed and transformed and never again be the same, for we shall find the path to our salvation and be made whole.