Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pain touches pain

Sometimes, you know, the phone rings and you just never know what's going to be set into motion.

So, a week ago I got a call from a local business man - someone I know only from occasional pleasant conversations over the counter. His wife died suddenly and unexpectedly and he asked if I would preside at the funeral. He said he had called his former church - an Episcopal Church in the NE Corridor (not saying which diocese - it doesn't matter) - but found that it had closed 5 years ago.

This was the church where he and his wife had gotten married. It was where all three of their kids were baptized and confirmed and one was married. His wife had chaired the hospitality committee and both had taught in the Church School and organized and lead girl and boy scout troops. His wife had served on the Altar Guild and he had served on the Vestry, including two terms as a Warden, one during a capital fund drive as well as a time on the Search Committee. 

It was also the place where he practiced "sacrificial giving" and pledged - no matter what. Indeed, he's continued to send a check at the end of every year, for the 10 years since he moved here.

He said he knows that all the checks he's sent for the past ten years have been cashed. No one sent him a thank you note - which he didn't expect nor want - but neither did anyone send him a note telling him that the church had been closed. He wistfully and sadly wondered what had happened to those five checks and hoped they went to some good.

But, he wondered if I would be willing to preside at the Celebration of Life ("That's what they're calling it these days," he said, sounding confounded) and Memorial Service at the funeral home chapel - the service directly from the Book of Common Prayer, please, but no communion, thank you - and that I would kindly understand if he was really, really angry at the church and would probably be for a very, very long time.

In my pastoral work, we have a saying: Pain touches pain.

It was very clear that the pain of the sudden, unexpected death of his wife was touching the pain of his sudden, unexpected learning of the death of his beloved church.

The intensity of all that pain was almost too much for him to bear. 

So, when I went to the house the next day to plan the service with him and his daughter, we talked a bit about the closed church and the checks.

He was grieving too deeply to be concerned about the money. But the daughter? Well, she was furious.

No, wait. She passed the Exit for Furious about 10 minutes after she heard the story from her father and was on the road to Heads Will Roll.

So, while I was there, she called the diocesan office. She put the speaker phone on so everyone would be able to hear.

To my surprise and delight, the person who answered the phone at the diocesan office did exactly what was needed: 
Offered sincere condolences.
Assumed the veracity of the complaint and didn't challenge it or get defensive. 
Apologized, profusely.

Listened, actively.

Empathized, warmly.

Assured the caller that, "I, personally, will get to the bottom of this and get back to you."
There are lots of possibilities I can imagine about what happened to that money - everything from theft by an individual to incompetence of a bookkeeper to an overwhelmed diocesan staff to the indifference or arrogance or the "hands off" leadership style of the diocesan bishop.

And, I'm sure there are things I can't possibly imagine. 

It's important to know what really happened so that, yes, if there was any wrong doing, there can be accountability and appropriate consequences, but especially so that procedures and policies can be put in place so it never happens again.

The daughter's response was equally surprising and delightful.

She said, "Look, bottom line, we don't want the money back. We want it to be put into a fund that provides pastorally for the congregation after a church is closed."

"You can use it to pay someone, if necessary, to search the parish records and books and make sure letters go out to everyone to notify them of the church's closing. I don't care if half of the letters come back marked 'undeliverable'. The cost would be worth it to make the good faith effort to make sure everyone knows what happened to their church."

I cringed at the use of the term "good faith effort" which seemed poignant in the circumstance. 

"The only thing I ask is that it not be used to pay some or part of diocesan staff position," she said.

"My mother would want to help the bishop be the bishop: The Chief Pastor. I want to help the bishop and the diocese to be pastoral. Is that too much to ask?" she asked, her voice trembling with emotion.

Again, the person at the diocese who answered the phone was very pastoral and said quietly, "Of course not. That is not an unreasonable request. It's a perfectly reasonable expectation."

She again apologized profusely, offered sincere condolences, promised again to "get to the bottom of this" and get back to her. "I will call you no less than a week from today to give you an update of where I am," she said as they exchanged pleasantries and hung up.

A few days later, I presided at the funeral. It was in the chapel of the funeral home and it was lovely. I was in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood. The service was directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. The music was piped in over a Really Good sound system. It was solemn and respectful with moments of poignant humor and absolutely infused with a sense of celebrating this woman's life.

It was everything the Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer promises: A belief in the resurrection so deep and so profound that it creates a safe place where people can grieve and mourn while also rejoicing in the precious gifts of faith and life.  In that moment of communal worship, God's people can weep and laugh, all without concern for judgement.

It was not in "A" church but the church was there in that funeral home chapel. It was an honor and a privilege, as it always is no matter where I am, to be the church's representative at a moment of intense individual family loss and pain and grief and emotion.

I don't yet know if the diocese has gotten back to the daughter. I pray for the best possible outcome.

That's not why I'm writing this blog. The money is not the important thing here. It's just money. It's gone and the family doesn't want it back.

It's the relationships we have in Christ that are more valuable that fine gold. The breach of trust in that relationship may have caused irreparable harm to an entire family.

I'm writing this blog because, after I posted this story on my FaceBook page, it became clear that this is not an isolated incident. One person wrote that, after her church was closed, she drove by and noticed that "someone" had thrown out the parish registers in the dumpster.

Seriously.

I'm writing this blog because I hope a few folk read it and call their diocesan offices and ask if there is a diocesan policy for pastoral care for congregations of closed churches. And, if there isn't one, to insist that one be developed.

If necessary, write a resolution for your next diocesan convention as an opportunity to educate the diocese on this issue, and get everyone on board with the policy.

I also hope some seminary faculty or seminarians read this and begin to ask what kind of pastoral care might be required for a congregation when their church closes. There are going to be more - not less - of these pastoral challenges in the years ahead. 

I understand that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has such a policy. You can find it here.

I especially like the Pastoral Care section but I don't see a specific area that deals with making an attempt to reach out to parishioners who have moved away. 

There may be others. If your diocese has such a policy, please do share a link to it in the comment section. 

I think it's incredibly important that dioceses take responsibility to insure the pastoral care of all parishioners of all closed congregations.

Even the ones that have moved away.

Especially the ones that keep contributing.

Because, you know, sometimes the unexpected and unthinkable happens.

And then, the phone rings.

I don't think, for a clergy person anyway, not answering the phone is an option.

UPDATE:  A note from Joan Gundersen, Archivist from the Diocese of Pittsburgh
A number of dioceses do not have an archivist. Every diocese should.  The position doesn't need to be full time, depending on the circumstances.   There is an organization for individuals serving a parish or diocesan archivists and they offer training at their annual meetings.   It is NEHA (National Episcopal Historians and Archivists).  If your diocese does not have someone designated to handle these responsibilities, it is not meeting its pastoral obligations or serving as good stewards.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Stewardship of Community

 
The Vocation of Community
Brooklyn, NY – October 5, 2014
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Good evening. Before I begin my sermon, I’d like to claim a few moments of personal privilege. I’ve known your rector since he was a seminarian at Drew. That wasn’t all that long ago, but, oh, my, my, my we have come a long way, baby.

I am so proud of this man, I could simply burst. I can’t tell you what an absolute delight and honor and privilege and joy it is to be invited into his pulpit, to have earned a share of his trust.

So, I’m going to stop now before I break into tears like a proud woman who is honored to be known as one of his mentors.  Please pray with me.

Holy God, take my mouth and speak through it, take my spirit and breathe through it, take my heart and set it on fire with a passion for your Gospel. Amen.

So, as I understand it, this Evensong kicks off for you at St. Luke and St. Matthew, the Season of Stewardship – a time when you, as a community of faith, will be looking at all the different aspects of the vocation of stewardship.

Tonight, we’ll be looking at the Stewardship of Community. Which is why I chose this passage (John 19:25-27) from John’s Gospel when Jesus, from the cross, is heard to say, “Woman, behold your son.” And, turning to the beloved disciple, he said, “Behold your mother.”

You may recognize this passage as part of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus – seven moments during the three hours Jesus reportedly hung from the cross when Jesus said some deeply profound things. You may have heard some of these “Seven Last Words” preached by various people in a Good Friday Service.

It is of great significant that Jesus spoke of caring for his mother from the cross. Now, this is a detail he could have taken care of any time. He had been talking about his death for weeks – maybe even months. He could have whispered something to someone at any time – even leaned over to the Beloved Disciple over the table at The Last Supper.

But, he waited until he was in agony, naked and hanging from the cross, to say something about caring for his mother. Which, of course, raises a question about the larger context of his words. Many scholars agree that what Jesus was saying was something much deeper, much more significant, than, “Take care of my mother.”

I believe that, with those words, Jesus was calling us into deeper intimacy of relationships. Some people call that “the family of God”. Or, make reference to our being “brothers and sisters in Christ”. And call us a “church family”. Indeed, some of you may call your rector, “Father Michael” and you might refer to me as “Mother Elizabeth”.

Whenever I hear those kinds of descriptions of church, I confess to feeling a cold chill run up and down my spine. It’s sort of like that New Yorker cartoon I once saw. It’s a large auditorium with three or four people sitting in various chairs around the otherwise empty room. There is a person at the podium on stage. And, above the podium is a banner which reads, “Annual meeting of adult children of functional families.”

Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a member of a dysfunctional family. Gold star level. 

Can I see a show of hands? How many here are members of what we lovingly refer to as “dysfunctional families”? Right! Just as I thought.

So, why in heavens name do we want to recreate that mess in our church? The Body of Christ? The New Jerusalem? The Community of Faith?  Why would we recreate our dysfunctional families as our “church family”? Because, you know, that’s often what we do. We don’t mean to, or intend to, but we do it anyway. And, the impact can be devastating.

I’m a Hospice Chaplain and I can tell you that a clear 85-90% of my patients do not have a “church home”.  Some of it is due to the fact that, as people age, they are unable to get back to church. We pray for those people every week but the euphemism “the shut ins.”

 I’m here to tell you that they are not so much “shut in” as they are “shut out”.  No one comes to re-member them into the community of which they were once a vibrant, integral part.

Then, there’s the majority of that 85-90% who are “homeless” because they left their church due to some conflict in the church. Sometimes, it was over theology or philosophy, but, more often than not, it was over something stupid like how the linens were folded, or the color chosen to replace the carpet in the narthex. Hand to Jesus! As I listen to the story, it has all the markings of a stupid family squabble. That’s because, you know, it is.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m hearing Jesus saying more than just “Take care of my mom after I’m gone.” I’m hearing Jesus calling us, from the cross, to deeper, more intimate relationships – relationships that are beyond blood and DNA, kith and kin, clan and tribe.

I’m hearing Jesus calling us to look beyond the blood we might share and into the blood he shed for us. I’m hearing Jesus calling us out of the placental water from which we were born and into baptismal water to be born again. I’m hearing Jesus calling us to separate out the strands of familial DNA and dive deeply into the intricate matrix of being a new creation in Christ.

And that’s it, you see. It’s about calling. Vocation. I hear Jesus calling us into the vocation of community. Community is a vocation.  Just let that thought sink in for just a moment. Let your brain wrap itself around that thought: The vocation of community.

I do believe that communities of faith are not as haphazard a thing as it might first appear, at least on the surface. I think there is an amazing grace to the ways in which we are called into specific communities at specific times in our lives – and, at specific times in the life cycle of a community of faith.

It’s like chaos theory, you know? As author Mark Helprin writes in A Winter’s Tale:
“Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.”

“If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined.”
You see, we may think we “just happened” to find this amazing place, or that Michael’s coming here was chance or an amazing piece of good luck. Oh, we can talk about “God’s will” but I’d rather talk about God’s call to us to be together and live together in the intimacy of being part of the body – the very sinews and muscle, the red and white blood cells, the bones and teeth and hair – of Christ.

I don’t think it is so much God’s “will” as it is God’s “call.” We have a choice in whether or not – or even how – we answer that call. We have the gift of free will. Community is a vocation. A calling from God to be the incarnate, resurrected  Body of Christ. And, we are called into intimacy which takes us beyond social constructs of “mother/father” “sister/brother”. We are beyond mere “family” and into what the Hawaiians call “o’hana’. O’hana are not people of the same family blood. O’hana are people of the same land.

Christians are not necessarily people of the same family blood. Christians are people of the same blood of Christ which makes us the family of God.

There is no prescribed way to be a Christian community. There is only your way. Each part of the Body of Christ will have its own, distinctive quality, based on its own unique vocation. For many of us, it’s a wonderful merger of cultures and difference in beliefs, reflecting how we come to faith from a variety of multicultural perspectives and pluraform truths.

Here’s what I know to be true: An authentic community of faith is one that is strong enough to be risk being vulnerable to each other. It is one that is willing to surrender the cherished part for the sake of the even more precious whole. It is to enter into conversation with the intent of conversion. To risk personal transformation for the sake of the revolution of the Gospel.

That is why we must be good stewards of community. Because it is a precious, divine gift. It needs tending and watering so that it might blossom and flower and bear fruit.

We have a shot at redemption here, you know: To redeem the dysfunction of our families of origin by living more fully as a new creature in the new creation of the family of God.
We don’t have to treat each other like our biological sisters and brothers or mothers and fathers – God forbid! – especially if you are bearing a grudge or carrying around some unfinished business.  To be a good steward of community is to let that stuff go – prune the branches, cut out the weed or clear out the underbrush that is stunting growth – and allow yourself to grow, as St. Paul says, into the full stature of Christ.

That hard work is also part of the Stewardship of Community.

So, church, when you look at each other, please see in each other not a dollar sign, but the sign of the cross. Look at each other and allow the Christ in to  behold the Christ in the other. 

See Christ alive and living in this place, not just in the Sacraments of the church but in your everyday, ordinary sacramental lives of faith in which we are broken and poured out and consumed in the name of Christ so we can be the true presence of Christ in the world.

Take each other into the very heart of your hearts – where truth and love, honesty and authenticity abide and make a dwelling place– to live together in peace. And, love one another, as God loves you.

Unconditionally.

Abundantly.

Beyond boundaries of reason and respectability.

And the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, will be in your hearts and in your minds and in your community of faith.

Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The forgiveness connection



Pentecost XIV - Proper 19A - September 14, 2014
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

N.B. I preached this morning, as Herb O'Driscoll says, "from a prepared heart". I did not have a manuscript in front of me - Which, you must understand, is absolutely terrifying to me. The good folks at St. Paul's, however, make it so much easier. What follows is what I remember saying. 

Track 1

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

So, I'll start with a confession.

On October 18th I will celebrate the 28th Anniversary of my my ordination to the Priesthood.

As you may know, the Eucharistic lectionary runs in a three year cycle (Pragmatically and without a hint of dramatic flourish  known as Years A, B and C). So, if  you do the math, you will see that I have preached on this set of lessons .... well, more that a few times.

Sometimes, the three lessons fit together like the proverbial hand in a glove.  There's some theme that connects them all, and they are reflective of each other.

And then, there are times like this morning.

Here's my confession: For the life of me, I can't tell how it is that the story of The Parting of the Red Sea fits with the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. And Paul's Epistle about judgement really doesn't give us much help.

Can you? Can anybody here give me a clue? No? Well, okay, then. I guess that old saying is really true: Misery does love company.

Except, I had a bit of an epiphany this morning at the eight o'clock, thanks to something Gerry said, bless his heart. But, I'll get to that in a minute.

So, here's the thing: Jesus says that we must forgive not seven but seventy-seven times. What does that mean, do you think? Someone is saying that it means that forgiveness sometimes takes a long time. Yes, I think that's true, depending on the offense.

Someone else is saying that it means that forgiveness is what all Christians have to do. That's true enough. Someone else is saying that forgiveness is hard work.  In my experience, that's also sometimes true. Sometimes, the offense is so minor as to almost be understandable and it's easy to "forgive and forget". Other times, it confounds us how someone could behave in that way towards us and so it takes a lot longer to forgive.

This weekend, I spent some time visiting a dear friend in New Jersey who is having some difficulty in his family which has been going on for the past year. Not surprisingly, with the conflict still ongoing, he's having difficulty finding forgiveness.

On the three and a half hour drive home (I have to stop a few times along the way), I listened to a few Public Radio Stations and heard two modern stories, seemingly unconnected, that shed a great deal of light on this morning's two ancient, seemingly unconnected stories.

The first story came as a surprise in the midst of an interview with Maureen Corrigan, about a book she has recently written: "So we read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures."

Corrigan just happen to mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, in his lover's apartment in LA. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Maryland would not allow his body to be buried in the family plot in the Roman Catholic cemetery, she said, because the Archbishop declared, in a great religious euphemism, that  he was "not a practicing Catholic at the time of his death."

Meaning, of course, that he was a heavy drinker and was unfaithful to his wife, Zelda.

He was buried in "a Protestant cemetery" - I don't know which one, which one would be your guess? Right! - until 1975 when his daughter convinced the Bishop that his body ought to be exhumed and allowed to lie at rest with the rest of his family.

I thought to myself, my goodness! Thirty-five years is a long time for a religious institution (and, trust me, it's not just the Roman Catholics) to hold a grudge! They are no better than the slave in today's Gospel who demanded mercy and forgiveness for himself, but would not provide the same for one who was in his debt.

I wondered if that's what Jesus meant by "seventy-seven times" of forgiveness, for surely, that's what the church needed to do in order to forgive Fitzgerald as well as their own rigidity.

I mused over this story about F. Scott Fitzgerald and then, about an hour and a half more down the road, came another story, seemingly disconnected to the one that continued to run through my head.

The second story involved four GIs during WWII who were, as they say, "a band of brothers". They were from all over the country and forged their relationship in the rigors of boot camp of Ft Dix and the fox holes of the European Front.

During a particularly fierce battle on a field in the countryside north of Paris, one of them took a bullet and died. The three remaining friends were bereft and did not want to leave their comrade on the battlefield. Looking up, they noticed that there was a small Roman Catholic church on the rise of the hill which was surrounded by a cemetery.

The three men gathered up their friend's body and carried him to the church. Knocking on the door, they begged the priest to buy their friend in their graveyard, for which they would pay the good cleric whatever he asked and promised that, after the war, would return to pay any outstanding debt as well as their final respects to their friend.

The priest only had one question: Had the soldier been baptized?

The three soldiers were confounded. They had talked long hours into the night about their childhood, their families, their homes, their dreams, even politics. But, never religion. They thought he was a Christian but had no idea if the man had been baptized, much less what particular religion he practiced, if any.

The priest said, sadly, that he could not bury the man in the consecrated ground of this cemetery.

The three soldiers were shocked and horrified. How could this be? How could this man of God, of whatever religion, make such a coldhearted decision? They pressed upon the priest to make some kind of accommodation, please, for the love of God!

The priest finally conceded that he would bury the American soldier - outside the fence that surrounded and enclosed the cemetery.

The soldiers gladly accepted the compromise, paid the priest, and said their goodbyes to their friend.

Five years later, the soldiers returned to the cemetery, looking to pay respects to their friend. Alas, they could not find the grave. They searched and searched but could not find a gravestone outside the parameter of the cemetery fence.

Trying hard not to let anger rise, they knocked on the door and asked for the priest. "Where is he?" they demanded, "What did you do with our friend? He's nowhere in the cemetery!"

The priest looked down at the floor, then looked up at the soldiers and said, "I thought a great deal about what you said. And, I considered carefully what you did for your friend. And," he added slowly, "I moved the fence."

I don't know when, in those five years, the priest moved that fence. I wondered how many shovels full of dirt - more than seventy-seven, no doubt - it took to accomplish the task.

I do know that the priest had to forgive the soldier for not letting anyone know whether or not he was baptized. And, he had to forgive himself for not assuming the best and bury him in the cemetery.

The two stories, years and continents apart, were, nonetheless connected to each other and the Gospel story about forgiveness.

And then, all of a sudden and from out of nowhere this morning, I "got" the connection with the story of the Parting of the Red Sea.

At least, I think there's a connection there, and I don't think I'm stretching the metaphor beyond credibility.

You see, many of the Israelites believed that their time of bondage in Egypt must have been because of something they did that was so very wrong, it displeased God so much, that God allowed them to be slaves to the Egyptians.

Indeed, many scholars see the Levitical Codes as the way the nation of Israel made absolutely certain that, not only would they would regain their identity as a people, but they also set a standard of life so "pure" that they would never again anger or disappoint God. Hence, "The Purity Codes" of Leviticus.

The story of the Parting of the Red Sea is evidence, proof-positive, that God loves us so much that God will go to any length to provide a pathway for us to find forgiveness and salvation for ourselves. God will even push back the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass into liberation and then, in those same waters of liberation, drown the Egyptians, the vehicles of their oppression.

Forgiveness does not just happen. It is a process. Sometimes a long process that takes hard work, shoveling through the dirt and very ground of our beliefs. Or, parting the baptismal waters of our faith and drowning the anger that has enslaved us in them.

It's something we do, not just for the one who hurt us, but mostly, in fact, for ourselves. For the health and well being of our own souls and hearts and minds and yes, bodies.

There's a saying in the 12-Step Program that, living with anger towards someone who has hurt us is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.

That's certainly been my experience.

There is an unmistakable connection between our anger and our ability to forgive - but sometimes it as difficult to find as the connection between the stories of the Parting of the Red Sea and the Gospel Parable of the Unforgiving Debor. 

The thing to remember about these words of Jesus - that we must forgive seventy seven times - is that it's not an invitation or a suggestion.

It's a statement of reality.

Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen years later

Every year on this date, I wake up and find it difficult to catch a full breath. And then I look at the calendar or my iPhone and I remember.

It's September 11.

"9/11".

Today is the 13th Anniversary of that awful day that changed so much in our lives that we had taken for granted and didn't know we'd miss until after their absences became part of the "New Normal, Post 9/11 Reality".

The 'Patriot Act" (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, and with it, we began living into the bizarre notion that giving up some of our personal freedoms - our "inalienable rights" - would keep us "safe".

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by the United States Congress on September 14, 2001, authorizes the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001. The authorization granted the President the authority to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those whom he determined "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11th attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups.

The AUMF was signed by President George W. Bush on September 18, 2001.

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp ("Gitmo") was established in January of 2002 "to detain extraordinarily dangerous prisoners, to "interrogate" prisoners in "an optimal setting", and to prosecute prisoners for war crimes. Detainees captured in the "War on Terror", most of them from Afghanistan and much smaller numbers later from Iraq the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia were transported to the prison.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA)  was signed into law by President (you guessed it) George W. Bush in November 2001. Originally part of the US Department of Transportation the TSA was moved to the Department of Homeland Security on March 9, 2003.

In November of 2002, The Homeland Security Act was passed to "make America secure from terrorist attacks."

In effect, TSA and Homeland Security have made the experience of air travel completely odious and noxious in particular and life in general in these United States less and less united about more and more things we once simply understood to be part of what made us Americans. 

In the almost predictable but always foolish wave of jingoism fueled by revenge that followed, we were plunged - or, allowed ourselves to be plunged - into two wars - Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars were supposed to have ended once we "got" Osama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein - but have not.

I really believe The Tea Party was born on 9/11/01 and, with it, the beginning of the War(s) on Women, Reproductive Justice, The Voting Rights Act, and Immigration.

The budget appropriation for the NDDA (The National Defense Authorization Act), which specifies the the budget and expenditures of the United States Department of Defense, increases ($607 billion for 2014) every year as the budget for programs to help the poor have the basic human rights of food, clothing and shelter is slashed - year after year after year.

In June of 2014, the NDDA was expanded and passed by Congress so that detainees may be brought to the United States for "detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF). In plain English, that means the policy of indefinite detention by the military, without charge or trial, can now be carried out here at home.  

And, don't even get me started on the National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance and "domestic government spying".

I think the reason I wake up every year on this date and find it hard to catch a full breath is not just because of my memories of that day and the days that immediately followed.

Somewhere, deep in my heart, I'm really afraid that the terrorists have won, after all.

We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because "they hate our freedom".

Well, we seem to have given up quite a bit of it to prove "them" wrong.

In the raw, gaping holes and broken concrete and twisted steel left in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania terrorists seem to have exposed the dark underbelly of this country.

They have revealed to us that we are, in many ways, still fighting the Civil War.  Tribalism. Racism. Sexism. Greed. Slavery. All these things still exist and we are still doing battle with them.

It's no surprise - well, not to me, anyway - that with the recent war and now tenuous truce in Gaza and the rise to power of ISIS/ISIL and their barbaric beheading of two American journalists, many religious folk are using this 13th Anniversary to talk about The End of Time.

The Apocalypse.

The Parousia

It's not a surprise to me because I think a sad reaction and result of "Never Forget(ing) 9/11" has been that on focusing on the destruction and the deaths that happened on this day, we've not allowed ourselves to heal. Not even "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" which some thought we'd achieve in the brutal death of Osama bin Ladden and Saddam Hussein have "settled the score".

Some will argue that we haven't yet had enough time to heal. Perhaps. I would argue that as long as we keep focusing on what "they did to us" as opposed to working to right the wrongs in the systems of our own country, we will continue to use 9/11 as an excuse to water our own seeds of prejudice and oppression and violence and we will never heal.

In the meantime, we are loosing - if some of us have not already lost - our souls.

Henri Nouwen says something very interesting about end time behavior in his book, "Bread for the Journey":
The great danger of the turmoil of the end-time in which we live is losing our souls.  Losing our souls means losing touch with our center, our true call in life, our mission, our spiritual task.  Losing our soul means becoming so distracted by and preoccupied with all that is happening around us that we end up fragmented, confused, and erratic.  Jesus is very aware of that danger.  He says:  "Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, 'I am the one' and 'The time is near at hand'  Refuse to join them" (Luke 21:8).

In the midst of anxious times there are many false prophets, promising all sorts of "salvations."  It is important that we be faithful disciples of Jesus, never losing touch with our true spiritual selves.
I think that means that it is important - now more than ever - for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, that we get on with the work of the Gospel.  You know, the "Good News". 

Thirteen years later, I am hearing the words in Philippians 4:8-9 in a new, more compelling way. I am hearing them as a way to honor the 2, 976 lives of those who died on 9/11.

So, I leave these words with you as a way to get through this sad anniversary in our common lives.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
With that as the "new normal", I do believe I'd wake up on this anniversary able to catch a full breath.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

What you say to one another is eternal.

 

Pentecost 18A – September 7, 2014 
St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton 
Track 1

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 149

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20


So, let me put this morning’s gospel into context for you.

Jesus and his disciples have been traveling all over Israel. They’ve been up to the very northern part of the country, way up in Caesarea Philippi – an area known for pagan worship where, interestingly enough, Peter made his confession that he thought Jesus was the Messiah (we heard that story last Sunday). It's also where Jesus took a few of the disciples alone to a mountain top and he was Transfigured.

After that, they returned south to the region of Galilee, stopping at Capernum. All along, Jesus is teaching his disciples by parable and ‘ground rules’, about what it means to be his disciple.

They are now back in Judea, making their way beyond the Jordan, on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus gives them the ground rules for resolving conflicts among church members.  This is so important to hear, I want you to listen to this passage again, this time in Eugene Petersen’s translation which we find in The Message:
Matthew 18:15-20 (The Message)

   15 "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. 16 If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. 17 If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.

   18 "Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. 19 When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. 20 And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
So, this passage is important because it provides the ground rules for resolving conflicts among members of the same community of faith. The Body of Christ. The Church.

Wait a minute! Hang on!  Church members have conflicts?!?!

Get out of town! Church members don’t’ have conflicts! Right? That’s just for people on Soap Operas or SitComs or Reality TV like The Kardashians, or the Atlanta or New Jersey or LA (or wherever) Housewives, right?

Any actual, true, followers of Jesus have so much love in their heart and peace like a river flowing in their soul and the sweet song of Kumbya on their lips that there are no conflicts in church!!! 

There's no conflict in church, just like there’s no crying in baseball!!!

Right?

Ahem! WRONG! (Especially if you're a Red Sox fan but we'll talk about that later.)

For some reason, people - even people in the church - think that following Jesus is easy.

Everything Jesus ever taught is easily understood by one and all; easily agreed on by one and all; and all the consequences and specific actions are easily followed by one and all. Right?

And our individuality is washed away at baptism and we leave our intelligence on the church steps and we all think alike and act alike and walk alike and talk alike and become cookie cutter clones of one another.  Right?

Ahem! Not so! Well, maybe in a cult somewhere, but clearly not in The Episcopal Church..

Here’s a newsflash: Real churches have - or should have, actually - real conflicts.

Partly these will arise from individual human faults and failings that need to be confronted for the sake of the well-being of the community.

And partly these will arise from good people simply disagreeing about exactly what following Jesus requires of them in their particular context.

The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts.

UMC pastor and writer David Ewart writes “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches. And, in fact, Jesus knows this, and gives specific instructions for dealing with conflict and offensive behavior - including telling members to leave as a last resort.”

This is an especially important ground rule because, as I mentioned, Jesus is coming from the northern parts of Israel down to Judea on his way to Jerusalem. And, we know what is going to happen in Jerusalem, right? There will be conflict of major proportion. Indeed, the disciples will squabble amongst themselves and abandon Jesus in his hour of need, Judas will betray him and Peter, who we heard last week confess Jesus as Messiah will deny him, not once, but three times.

Jesus will be charged with blasphemy by the religious leaders of his day and trumped up charges of treason by the political leaders of his day. He will be beaten, mocked and tortured, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem while being whipped and made to carry the cross on which he will be crucified and on which he will die.

Conflict? In the church? The Body of Christ? 

It’s in our DNA.

As Pastor Ewart says, “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches.”

As many of you know, I’m a Hospice Chaplain. When someone asks me what I do, I often find myself offering a list of activities.

Well, I have lots of patients - most, actually - who aren't Christians, or who disavow themselves of any denomination or set of beliefs. Lots of "former Roman Catholics". Or, "Well, I was baptized in a non denominational evangelical church and I love the Lord, but I don't go to any church."

And, why is that so? Mostly they've left the church because - you guessed it - conflict.

What I hear myself say for those who are Christians, and for those who request them, is that I administer the sacraments, I anoint dying persons and hold prayer vigils at their bedside with family members.

But, you know, I have found that, for lots of Christians – even some who have gone to church all their life, including some Episcopalians – it’s not the “activities” of the church – the sacraments and anointing or even the prayers, that bring comfort and lead them to a peaceful death.

I have found that what people want most – for themselves and for others – is precisely what Jesus is talking about this morning. It’s all about forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Dr. Ira Byock, in his book, “Dying Well," writes that there are five key things that people need to say before they die. They are:
I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

Goodbye.

Saying “I love you,” is, not surprisingly, the easy part for most people. Which is good, because that’s an important place to begin. It’s the next two – the, “Please forgive me” and the “I forgive you,” – that often provide the most difficult terrain and landscape to travel in the last days of our earthly journey. They are important, however, if a person – the one with the terminal illness, is, as well as the people who are left behind are – to get to a place of gratitude for what has been in order to find the strength and courage to say “Goodbye”.

Last year, I was visiting a patient, an elderly man with cancer, who was very near death. He had stopped eating and was sleeping a great deal, but was having moments of being awake and alert. His wife had called me because, she said, her husband wanted to talk with me and it seemed important.

When I arrived, he had been sleeping, but, after a few moments, he was awake and smiling. He asked his wife if he could have a cup of tea – and one for the chaplain and you, please. His wife smiled at me sadly, knowingly. Clearly, whatever the man wanted to tell me, he didn’t want his wife to hear. She left the room quietly, and I could hear her putting the kettle on and fixing a tray with the tea pot and china.

The man looked at me and said, “I want you to promise me something.”

I smiled and said, ‘You know, I learned long ago never to make promises I know I can’t keep. So, why don’t you tell me what you need to tell me and I’ll let you know if I can promise it.”

“Well,” he said, “I want you to tell my wife that I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. You see, about 25 years ago, I had an affair with someone in my office. My wife never knew about it. It didn’t last long. It was just . . .something stupid . .. .but, I’ve felt guilty about it all these years and I want to tell her how very sorry I am that I did that and betrayed her and my marriage vows to her.”

I looked at him sadly and said, “You know, that’s not my story to tell your wife. It’s not my confession. It’s not my place to ask her for her forgiveness for you. You still have time to tell her and ask for her forgiveness. But, you know, I suspect that, if she knew of your affair, she already has forgiven you. She obviously loves you and has taken such very good care of you these past few months. That wouldn't have happened if she were hurt or feeling betrayed.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“From what I've come to know about your wife, she's a very loving, very forgiving woman,” I answered, “But you really need to tell her what's on your heart, so you can be at peace and leave this earth with a heart filled with gratitude for the life you’ve been given to live.”

“Here’s the one thing I can promise,” I said, “You have expressed remorse for your deeds. God has already forgiven you for what you did. That’s a promise you can take to heaven with you. I have every confidence that one of the first things that Jesus will do when you get there is to open his arms widely and say, “I love you. All is forgiven.”

Just then, I heard his wife coming back into the room. She was having a bit of trouble juggling all the things on the tray so I got up to help her. It only took a few minutes but when we got back to the bedside, it was clear that her husband was taking his last few breaths.”

We stood there, she and I, each holding one of his hands while we held each other’s hand. His wife wept softly, said, “I love you,” a few times while she brushed away the tears. Then, she sighed deeply and said, “Oh, I wish I had told him that, long ago, I forgave him for that silly affair he had with that woman in his office.”

I smiled at her and said, “You know, the nurses I work with say that the ability to hear is the last sense to leave the body. Why don’t you tell him yourself?”

She looked at me a bit quizzically but then she turned to her husband and told him that she knew about the affair.  And, she said, “I forgive you.” And, she said, “I love you.” And, she said, ‘I’m so grateful for everything we had together – the good stuff always outweighed the bad.”

And then, he took his last few breaths and died. And, we said goodbye.

After she composed herself, she said to me, "Do you think he heard me?"

"Well," I said, "we'll never know for certain, but I just love the thought that the last thing he heard before he left this earth was your voice saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.' And, the first thing he heard when he got into heaven was the voice of Jesus saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.'".

"I love that, too," she said, as she squeezed my hand and dried her tears.

This morning, Jesus offers us some ground rules for living together as a beloved community of his disciples. He doesn’t promise us nirvana. He doesn’t promise us paradise – not while we’re on this side of Eden.  

 Because Jesus understands our humanity, and understands that there will always be conflict among us, he offers us a way to find forgiveness and reconciliation.

And, because he understand that we all have a divine spark within us, he reminds us that ”Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.”

Or: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”

There’s still time. Don’t wait till the last minute. Make sure you seek forgiveness of any wrong you have done. Make sure you offer forgiveness for any wrong done to you.

Jesus has given us the structure – shown us the way – to find the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation, which are pathways to gratitude. And, a heart filled with gratitude is a heart that which understands a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” which is the very heart of Eucharist..

It is in that heart-breaking place of praise and thanksgiving and Eucharist that we are able to have a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us in heaven where, we are promised, we will find forgiveness and reconciliation and feast on Divine Love for eternity.

Yes, we all believe that are still many miles left to our earthly journey. It’s also true that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is promised to no one. All we really have is today. This day. The present. Which is why it is such a gift.

All we get is this one life, here on this earth, before we complete our earthly pilgrimage and return to the One who loved us into being, loves us unto death, and will love us for eternity.

It’s not too late. You still have time. You don’t have to have a diagnosis with a terminal implication to say the Five Key Things everyone needs to say before they die.

I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

Goodbye.

If you can't remember all that, remember the words of Jesus: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”

Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

But, who do you say that I am?


St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
Proper 16 A – Track 2
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

So, did you hear the story about the time Jesus decided to give St. Peter a day off from welcoming everyone at the Pearly Gates?

Peter was really glad to have some time for himself. He called together a few of his old buddies– Andrew, James and John (AKA the "Sons of Thunder"), Mark, that wild man, John the Baptist and even Judas (after all, to err is human, to forgive is divine). 

They made some sandwiches, packed a few cold brewskies, and they all went fishing out on the boat, just like the old days. They got up real early and tiptoed past St. Paul’s room so as not to awaken him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t one of the original twelve. He was just way too serious to enjoy a fishing trip with the boys. Always spouting theology. He could be such a downer!

 As for Jesus, he was really excited to have a change in duties for the day.  His mother said she’d cover the baptisms and salvation by faith for the day, and a few extra angels were placed on prayer duty. Jesus was just excited to be practicing hospitality again.

Just as the Pearly Gates opened, Jesus saw three clergy making their way up the streets lined in gold: A Roman Catholic priest, a Lutheran pastor, and an Episcopal priest. (Stop me if you've heard this before.)

Jesus greeted the Roman Catholic priest and said, “Welcome! Yes, it’s me! Jesus. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” And, the RC priest smiled broadly and was well pleased. 

“Tell me,” said Jesus, “who do you say that I am?”

The RC priest looked startled and said, “Well, the Pope says . . ..  . .”

And, Jesus said, “Yes, yes, I know what the Pope says about me. I know what ALL the Popes have said about me. Never mind. Come in, come in. Welcome!”

Then, the Lutheran pastor came forward. “Welcome,” said Jesus. Then, putting his arm around the pastor, he asked, “Tell me, who do you say that I am?”

The Lutheran pastor looked a bit bewildered and said, “Well, the Bible says . . .. “

And Jesus, a bit disappointed said, “Yes, yes, I know what the Bible says. Never mind. Come in, come in. Welcome!”

Then, the Episcopal priest came forward. Again, Jesus greeted him warmly, put his arm around him and asked, “Tell me, who do you say that I am?”

The Episcopal priest smiled broadly and said, “Why, you are the Christ! The living Son of the eternal Triune God! You are the Prince of Peace and The Messiah! You are the King of King and Lord of Lords!”

Jesus smiled a dazzling smile, blushed a bit, and said, “Yes, you are absolutely correct.”

The Episcopal priest looked a bit troubled and said, “Then again, others say . . . . .”.

There’s a lot of truth in that self-effacing humor, and here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. It’s important to know what you think about Jesus.  It’s also very important to be mindful of and respect what others believe about Jesus.

A few years ago, I did some post-doctoral work as a Proctor Scholar at The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. I took a course with Dr. Patrick Cheng entitled “Christology” which covered what different people have thought and think about Jesus. 

We spent the entire semester examining the question, “Who do YOU say that I am?”.

We discovered that the understanding of Jesus changes a bit when He is seen through various cultural and ethnic and racial lenses. For the sake of brevity, I’ll give you three examples. 

For many in the variety of the Hispanic communities, Jesus is Liberator, which lays the foundation for Liberation Theology and the necessity of praxis, putting one’s faith into action – including political action – and always reflecting on thought and action in base communities. 

For many in the varieties of Asian communities, Christ is universal but Jesus is particular, His cross seen as the lotus. His full humanity and divinity seen in the Yin-Yang. 

For Africans, Jesus is the Healer, but He is also seen as the One who has power over oppression and spiritual dominion.

There’s more to it than that and there are many more examples from other cultures and even variations based on gender, but I’ll leave that to whet your curiosity.

The point of this morning’s Gospel, however, is not what others think about Jesus. The disciples easily recounted to Jesus that others thought of him as "John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

 Jesus did not seem impressed with any of that. 

He wanted to know: What do YOU believe about Jesus?

In our baptismal covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons", loving our neighbor as ourselves, and to “respect the dignity of every human being”. St. Paul reminds us “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

I’ve been thinking about all these things as I’ve considered finding the face of Jesus in all of the images that have been coming to us out of Ferguson, MO. Are we able to see the face of Jesus in Michael Brown, the unarmed, 17 year old Black man whose last words have become part of a chant of those who protest his death, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

Some of us are able to see the face of Jesus in the protesters who demand answers to their questions and the speedy administration of justice.   

But, can we also see the face of Jesus in those who take their anger about the daily injustices they live with and protest by looting stores – taking things they can’t afford because, if they make minimum wage it is not a living wage?

Can we see in their faces the angry face of Jesus turning over tables?

Can we see the face of Jesus in the police and national guardsmen who carry their rifles not on their shoulders to use if necessary but pointed at the unarmed crowds, ready to shoot at any infraction? 

Can we see the face of Jesus in the fear those whose job it is to "protect and serve” and “keep the peace”, but dressed for warfare and undermined by a military posture? 

The prophet Isaiah calls us to “look to the rocks from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” as well as to “lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath.”

That was good advice for the people to whom Isaiah first spoke these words as they are for us today.  Some of us have an idea of what it means to be Christian, but I wonder if we are able to say who Jesus is, for us, in our day and our time.

Yes, Jesus is as St. Peter says, “The Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” but who is he for YOU? Look to the rock from which you were hewn. How does who you are, and where you come from - your culture and ethnicity - influence your understanding of Jesus?   

When you lift up your eyes to the heavens and look at the earth beneath, where do you see Jesus today? How is Jesus manifested in your life, in your neighborhood, in the work that you do, in the world in which you live? 

As you move through these difficult and dark days: Wars and rumors of wars in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Ferguson, MO; the rise of ISIS in the Middle East; the barbaric beheading of an American journalist; the plague of Ebola in West Africa; where do you see the hand of God?   

Where do you see the unconditional love of Jesus?

I believe that we will all, one day and in God’s good time, get to heaven. All. Not some. All. 

Maybe you’ll arrive on St. Peter’s day off, and Jesus will be there, waiting to greet you warmly as you pass through the Pearly Gates to receive your eternal reward.

If Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am?” How will you answer? What will you say? 

Not that it will make a real difference, because I believe with all my heart that you’ll be welcomed into heaven, no matter what.   

As actress Elaine Stritch says, “So much of life is so unfair. I believe someone’s got to play fair at the end.” As a Hospice Chaplain, I believe that, too.

It’s not for heaven’s sake that we need to answer the question. It’s for Christ’s sake – the Christ that lives in me, and the Christ that lives in you.  

Because, as Jesus reminds us in this morning’s Gospel, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

So, with that thought in mind, who do you say Jesus is? 

Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Fruits of Compassion

A Sermon preached by the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
All Saints Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
Pentecost X - August 17, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Well, those of you who were here last week and tolerated that rather long sermon about the DNA of Jacob and Joseph and Jesus are being rewarded. As you read and listened to the story of Joseph this morning, I hope you were better able to understand the compassion Joseph showed to his brothers, the self-same brothers who, we learned last week, had sold him into slavery.

For those of you who weren’t here last week, I urge you to read the story of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Rebekah and Leah, and all their children, including Joseph and Benjamin who are featured in today’s reading.  It’s part scriptural soap opera, to be sure, but it’s also an important context for understanding the limits of our own humanity as well as the excellence to which we are called through our baptism in Christ Jesus. 

I think rereading our baptismal covenant is a good thing, especially this week. The bad news seems unrelenting and coming from all over the world: Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine, and, God help us, Ferguson, MO. To make matters worse, many of us are still reeling at the news of the suicide of Robin Williams, which has sparked a national conversation about suicide, depression, addiction and Parkinson's Disease. 

If ever we needed to stay clear and focused on the promises of our baptismal covenant, it is in these days. If ever we need to stay centered in the unconditional love of God in is now. And, into these very dark days comes two more stories from scriptures about compassion.

It’s a remarkable thing, isn’t it, this finding the divine spark in ourselves, which helps us to find the divine spark in others? This change of heart leading to compassion is like watching a miracle unfold.

We see this in the story of Joseph in the scripture from Genesis as well as in today’s gospel from Matthew (15:21-28). Both are stories of how prejudice hardens the human heart but the divine spark that is part of our baptismal DNA can allow compassion to shine through even the darkest human impulse.

Jesus is approached by a Canaanite woman who comes after Jesus and his disciples, shouting and calling and pleading with him to heal her daughter. The disciples try to shoo her away but she is also persistent – as any mother would be whose daughter was ill.  But this mother refuses to accept Jesus’ first response of exclusion.

She pushed and persisted and reached down, deep down, past her anxiety, past the fear she knew came from years prejudice against her ethnicity as a Canaanite and her gender as a woman, pushed way down until she reached that place where she knew God’s love and found the voice of her own intelligence.

When Jesus, in his humanity, insulted her by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

And, in that moment, Jesus was able to push and persist and reach down, deep down, past the limits of his humanity, past the human arrogance that blinded him to the fullness of the woman’s humanity, pushed way down deep into that place of his own divinity where he could see the goodness and the wonder of all of God’s creatures and creation.

 And, in that moment, not only was the woman and her daughter healed, but so was the human side of Jesus. 

In that moment, Jesus recognizes that his mission and ministry in new and profoundly different ways. He begins to understand that his ministry is to all persons – not just those who are like him. 

In touching his divinity, Jesus finds compassion for the woman and her daughter and he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, her daughter was healed instantly.

In that moment, Jesus himself was changed and transformed and would never again be the same.  And, he went on to change and transform the world.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this Gospel story as the stories and images pour out of a little town just outside of St. Louis, Missouri I’m sure you have been as distressed as I’ve been about Michael Brown, a young, 18 year old, unarmed, African American man who was shot to death by a town policeman in Ferguson, MO.

All the details are not yet in, of course, and there has been the usual media spin, first to make him a saint by talking about how he was scheduled to go off to college in two weeks and then to demonize him by showing security tape of him appearing to steal cigars from a convenience store.

Truth is, like most boys his age he was probably not a saint. We don’t have enough information yet to know how bad a sinner he really was. 

Did he deserve death?

The question hangs in the air like a noxious cloud, filling us with toxic uncertainty. 

How 'bad' do you have to be to "deserve" death?

You have likely seen the photo of Brown’s mother staring into the camera, her husband encircling her neck with his arm, her eyes swollen to slits after what must have been hours of crying and asking questions that went unanswered.

I have no doubt she has, many times this past week, cried her mother’s cry to Jesus, asking for healing, begging for understanding, pleading for justice.  

 If Jesus were here today, what do you suppose he would do?  What would he say to this woman who, like her Canaanite sister, is judged by the color of her skin?

What does the church, the Body of Christ, have to say to any mother who loses her child to the injustice of bigotry and hatred? Or, the insanity of gun violence and war. Or, modern plagues caused by the Ebola virus? Or, the depression that ends in suicide?

In moments like these, I don’t believe we are called to judge. That is for the courts. In moments like these, I don’t believe we are called to respond with violence. That is for fools. 

In moments like these, I don't think simple answers make complicated situations any easier. 

In moments like these, I do believe we are called to push past our own anxiety and fear, to push and persist and reach down, deep down, past the limits of our humanity, past the human arrogance that blinds us to respect the fullness of what our baptismal vows calls “the dignity of every human being”; to push way down deep into that place wherein the spark of own divinity dwells, where we can see the goodness and the wonder of all of God’s creatures and creation.

It is in that moment that we will find compassion. 

And in that compassion, we will find, like the Canaanite woman, healing for our daughters and sons. 

And in that healing we will find reconciliation, such as Joseph and his brother Benjamin and all of his brothers found, even after unspeakably cruel infidelity and betrayal. 

And, in that reconciliation we will know the peace of God which passes all human understanding.

Vaclav Havel, was a Czech playwright, essayist, poet, philosopher, dissident and statesman. He was the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic after the Czech-Slovak split.

Shortly after his election, he gave an address to the United Nations, in which he said a few most remarkable things. He began by saying that his new nation had much yet to learn, and he asked the nations of the world to help this new nation learn what it needed to know, but he also pointed out that, given the struggle for freedom his country had just been through, it had much to teach other nations who might have begun to take their freedom for granted.

And then he said this: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

You see, the miracle of compassion which we see in Joseph and his brothers and in Jesus and the Canaanite woman is not about having power and might.  Indeed, the miracle of the compassion which leads to healing and reconciliation is nothing less than a deep, confounding mystery.

It is this:  Like Christ, we can become victorious by virtue of our defeat. 

I don't pretend to understand that. I just know it to be true. 

Jesus said that we are to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And, he gave us a new commandment. He said, love one another as I have loved you.

That sounds pretty straightforward to me. Not easy. Not simplistic. But, straightforward.

It's our 'mission' statement as Christians. That's important to remember in these dark days.

Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as Jesus has loved us. 

And, with that love, with that love, that compassion, I believe we are changed and transformed.

I believe that with that compassion and love, we can change and transform the world.

Indeed, I don’t know anything else that ever has – or ever will.

Amen.