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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pearls

Six of the original Philadelphia Eleven
A Sermon Preached at Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd
Philadelphia, PA - July 27, 2014 - Proper 12A
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
Genesis 29:15-26
Psalm 105:1-11,45B
Romans 8:25-39
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Let me being by saying what a real pleasure it is to be with you this weekend. Some of you may know that your rector, Jon Richardson, did two years of his seminary field education with me and then, did his diaconal work as the Interim Missioner for Youth and Young Families, and was ordained priest. I’m very proud of his skills and abilities, his hard work and creativity and his willingness to take risks for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You are very fortunate to have him as your priest.

I’m here in Philadelphia, of course, for the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of women in The Episcopal Church. The women who were ordained to the priesthood are known as "The Philadelphia Eleven" - like there were bank robbers or gang members, right?

I was ordained on the Feast of St. Luke at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA in 1986. I would not be a priest today if it had not been for the courageous witness and action of those eleven women who gave us a fuller image of the Realm – or the Kingdom, or Heaven – of God. 

Jesus gives us several images in the Gospel appointed for today:

It’s like a mustard seed – the smallest of the seeds but grows to one of the mightiest trees.

It’s like yeast hidden in a loaf of bread that increases the loaf three times its size.

It’s like a treasure hidden in a field.

It’s like a pearl of great price. 

One of my Spiritual Directors gave me a wonderful image for the Realm of Heaven. She said that sometimes people come into your life - or, you come into someone else's life - to rub each other the wrong way. 

'Divine Sandpaper', she called it.   

In 'rubbing each other the wrong way', all the pretense of politeness or the illusions we create for ourselves or each other, all of that is removed so that our 'true grain" and 'inner brightness' can shine through and be seen. 

I want to talk a bit about this pearl of great price as a metaphor for the ordination of women. One of the Eleven, Alla Renee Bozarth, wrote this poem about Pearls. I’d like to read you the first part of that poem: 

You are pearls.
You began
as irritants.

The ocean pushed
your small, 
nearly invisible
rough body
through an undetected
crack in the shell.
You got inside.
Happy to have a home
at last
you grew close
to the host,
nuzzling 
to the larger body.

You became
a subject
for diagnosis:
invader, tumor.

Perhaps your parents
were the true invaders
and you were born
in the shell—
no difference—
called an outsider
still.

You were a representative
of the whole
outside world,
a grain of sand,
particle of the Universe,
part of Earth.
You were a growth.
And you did not go away.

No matter your vocation, or calling – as a doctor or lawyer, a journalist or judge, a pharmacist or chemist, a teacher or executive, a plumber or electrician, an artist or musician, a deacon, priest or parent (yes, I believe one is called to parenthood and family) – following that call by God to a life of service to others requires a certain measure of persistence.


There are always going to be obstacles – finances, time, and a variety of other, compelling commitments – which demand your time and attention. But, when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, when you are following the path you are meant to be on, a way always seems to open.


However, when you are called to do something that goes against the grain, which is something someone of your gender or race or color or creed or sexual orientation or physical ability or class status has not done before – you are an outsider to the system – and obstacles become even more formidable. The persistence required to fulfill your vocation is even greater.


You become, 'Divine Sandpaper'. Or, as Alla Bozarth writes, a pearl. You start off as an irritant. An annoyance. You are pushed by the strong tide of vocational call until you crack the shell and get inside where you agitate some more.


Indeed, that kind of vocational call can be especially annoying and agitating even to you.  Sometimes, you wonder why on earth God has called you to the task and wonder why God won’t just leave you alone. A vocation can feel less a ‘call’ and more a push or a shove.


I clearly remember when I first said out loud that I felt called to the priesthood. I was about 6 or 7 – a young girl in a Roman Catholic school – when Sister asked each member in my class that question we all get asked at about that age: What do you want to be when you grow up?


When it was my turn, I said, with every bit as much calm and confidence as the boys who said, “Doctor” and the girls who said “Nurse,” – “When I grow up, I want to be a priest.”


Sister laughed the way adults laugh when you know it’s not funny and said, “Well, dear, girls can’t be priests. Only boys can be priests. So, what do you want to be when you grow up. “


I said, “I want to be a priest.”


The nun wasn’t laughing this time. She said, with an edge of anger in her voice, “I said, girls can not be priests. Girls can be nuns. Girls cannot be priests. So, why don’t you tell us what you want to be when you grow up?”


I knew what I was supposed to answer. I knew the answer Sister wanted me to make. Still, I knew the answer in my heart. I said, “I want to be a priest.”


And then, Sister took a few steps forward, looked me square in the eye and slapped me right across the face. She said, “Don’t you ever say that again.”


When I went home that afternoon, I told my mother what Sister had said and done. My mother became very angry and said, “Well, what did you expect? Don’t ever say that again or I will have to slap your face.”


So, I never said those words again. Well, not for another 25 years.  I also left the church which would not allow me to serve at the altar, much less have any role of ordained leadership.


I still believed in God. I still loved Jesus and wanted to serve the people of God through the church. I believed God was calling me to the priesthood. I just didn’t believe it would be possible. Ever.


And, then, one day – July 29, 1974 – eleven women who had been ordained deacons in The Episcopal Church were ordained to the priesthood by three retired bishops at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA.


They would become known as “The Philadelphia Eleven”.   

They were/are: Alison Cheek, Suzanne (Sue) Hiatt, Marie Moorefield [Fleischer], Alla Bozarth-Campbell [Alla Renée Bozarth], Betty Bone Schiess, Jeannette Piccard, Merrill Bittner, Emily Clark Hewitt, Irene Carter Heyward, Katrina Welles Swanson and Nancy Hatch Wittig.


The service caused about as much distress in the church as that nun who slapped me across the face when I was a child.  Some churches flew their Episcopal flags upside down. Other churches draped their doors and windows in black bunting and declared themselves in mourning. Some rectors and vestries passed resolutions which stated that they would leave The Episcopal Church to join The Roman Catholic church if the ordinations were found to be valid. 

I am not making this up. It happened just 40 yrs ago.

The ordination service would eventually be determined to be valid. “Irregular”. But, valid.  At the next General convention, in 1976, a resolution was passed which affirmed the validity of the ordination of women to all three orders of ordained service – deacons, priests and bishops.


An interesting note about that debate. At the same time as the ordination of women was being debated, the divorce canons were also being changed. Yes, a little more than 40 years ago, if you divorced you could not be remarried in the church; many were not welcome at the altar rail.

A “new” prayer book was also being brought into being. That would be the “new” 1979 Book of Common Prayer. A debate ensued about the use of gender for humankind.  The “traditionalists” or "conservatives" who did not want to change the language of the “new” prayer book, wanted to use the male pronoun for God and humankind. 

They said that “mankind” was inclusive of male and female.

However, when these same conservatives went to debate against the ordination of women, they argued that the word “man” in the canons meant the male members of the species.   

The women and our male allies, however, called them on that assertion, reminding them of what they had just said in the conversations about the language of the “new” Book of Common Prayer.


Man/Mankind is either inclusive of women or it is not. You can’t say that it excludes women for ordination but includes them in prayer.

I think the term is “hoisted on their own petard”.   

Someone else might call that “redemption”.

Either way, the canons were changed to include women.


As a compromise, the gender pronouns in the BCP were italicized and, where appropriate, “brother/sister” was added.


So, the next time you see an italicized ‘he’ or ‘him’ in the BCP, I hope you’ll remember that little story and how it was part of the argument for the ordination of women.


I do believe there is plenteous redemption with God. Even our most difficult stories can be redeemed by another story. For every story of suffering, there is a story of redemption. For every story of crucifixion, there is a story of resurrection.

Here is one that is redemptive to my story from when the nun slapped my face:


Bishop Barbara Harris tells the story of one of her visitations early in her episcopacy. She was standing at the back of the church, ready to process, when she spotted a little boy with his father. He was standing on the pew and pointing to her. She assumed the child was probably being rude. After the service, the boy’s father sought her out. He said, “My son was so excited to see you. He asked me, ‘Dad, some day, can boys be bishops, too.’?”


My prayer is that, one day soon, that will not be a question any girl or boy will have to ask. Vocation is not about gender. God calls everyone – male, female, old, young, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight,


For I am convinced, with St Paul that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – or from the call of God to serve the people of God..


Jesus said, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.


Let me conclude with the end of Alla’s poem about Pearls

In time
you grew
so large,
an internal
luminescence,
that the shell
could contain
neither you nor itself,
and because of you
the shell Opened itself
to the world.


Then your beauty
was seen
and prized,
your variety valued:
precious, precious,
a hard bubble of light:
silver, white, ivory,
or baroque.


If you are a special
irregular and rough
pearl, named baroque
(for broke),
then you reveal
in your own
amazed/amazing
body of light
all the colors
of the Universe.


Amen


Friday, June 27, 2014

Too dark and broken a place


I love to tell the story of my first visit to The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.

It was "Visiting Days 1981". I don't think they have them anymore. Visiting days, I mean.

I was keenly aware that my bishop was adamantly opposed to my attending EDS.  Indeed, he had voted against the ordination of women and I was the third woman he had allowed to go through the process in the diocese. I would be the fifth and last woman he ordained before he retired.

He wanted me to attend General Theological Seminary, AKA "The Seminary" (a title for which GTS vied with VTS, Virginia Theological Seminary), AKA, "The General" where he (and, at one time, his wife, I seem to remember) was on the Board of Trustees.

He said to me, and I repeat, "You will have enough difficulty having credibility in the church as a woman. You need to make certain that your academic credentials are impeccable."

If that had been true, I would have applied to Harvard.

Anyway . . .. 

There was this minor problem with GTS.  When I called to make reservations for Visiting Days, I asked about housing. Specifically, I asked, were they able to accommodate my family of two women and six children?

I heard a soft but unmistakable gasp at the other end of the line. And then, a muffled cough. And then, the throat cleared and said, "Well, that would present . . . some . . . . difficulty . . . because, you see, we . . . prefer . . . actually . . . it's very, very important . . . very important . . . required, actually, I think . ..  that you live on campus."

"And," I said, "you can not accommodate my family. Is that what you're saying?"

"Well, my dear," said the voice at the other end, "I doubt any seminary could. Not in The Episcopal Church, anyway."

Well, EDS could. And, did. Not without some . . . drama. And, to be sure, there's always some sort of drama going on in seminaries. Somewhere. The geography or year or denomination or spirituality or anything else doesn't matter, really.  There's always drama going on in seminaries.

It's part of the DNA of a group of people called together to discern their vocations in a fish bowl and under the enormous pressure of bishops and Commissions on Ministry.

The drama du jour upon our arrival at EDS had to do with the one available apartment in married student housing over at Kirkland Street in Cambridge that would accommodate us.

Oh, by the way, only three years later, there would be high drama around the selling of that property to Harvard (AKA, "The University that ate Cambridge"), but that's another story for another time which has many of the same overtones of the current conflict.

So, the problem was that the seminary family living there, in that one apartment that would accommodate our family of eight,  included the seminarian husband, the wife and three children, one of them a newborn.

A perfect, wholesome, all-American family right? Well, except the seminarian husband had just come out as a gay man - while his wife was pregnant, I seem to recall - and he had moved out to a single apartment on campus leaving his wife and three children in their old apartment.

Remember: it was the early 1980s. The AIDS pandemic was just beginning, but at the time it was called GRID = Gay Related Infectious Disease.

The students - and some of the faculty - were up in arms about the situation. It wasn't that he was gay, and it wasn't THAT he came out, it was HOW he came out, you see. WHEN he came out, actually. He couldn't have figured this out sooner? Like, maybe, before the third pregnancy? What were his wife and children supposed to do now? 

So, you might begin to see that, when two lesbians and their six children were about to displace the straight woman and her three children who had been "abandoned" by her "newly" gay husband . . . well .. . . it might cause a bit of .... well . . ..  drama.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to that first visiting day, when I decided to go to EDS.

I should mention that, when I arrived, my application seemed to have been misplaced. So, there was no room for me on campus. There was some distress and a wee bit of drama about that but one very well mannered and delightfully gay man took matters into his own hands and set me up in a room for the night at the Sheraton Commander, right around the corner.

The Sheraton Commander. I had never before stayed in a hotel. Only motels. Certainly, nothing that looked quite like The Sheraton Commander.

I was starting to feel waaay out of my league. Especially when I saw the unmistakable frown on the the very polite and delightfully gay man's face when he went to hang up my dress. It was not in a proper garment bag but, rather, covered by a black, heavy duty, leaf bag. It was all I had.

Cambridge practically reeked of the smell of "old money". It was home to "The Established". People with "history". Additionally, there resided some of the best minds in the world who studied or taught at Harvard and Radcliffe and MIT.

And then, of course, there was Boston.

I couldn't imagine how this daughter of "Mill Girls" from Fall River, MA was going to fit in to this place where the sons and daughters of The Established came to learn how to lead others to worship the God of their power and glory.

I sat through a few classes and attended a few interviews with some faculty and students, and was particularly shaken by my interview with the Dean, Harvey Guthrie.

He was impeccably dressed in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, a light pink stripped French-cuffed shirt with gold cufflinks and a red bow tie, and, on his feet - I'll never, ever forget - black penny loafers with a nickle in the slot.

I remember thinking, right then and there, that it must be so that, if one were to be a "real" Episcopal priest, one must dress very well and always, always, always wear black penny loafers on one's feet. With a nickle in the slot.

In fact, Ms. Conroy didn't even have to ask what she should get me as an ordination present. I rarely wear them anymore, but I do still have that same pair of black penny loafers in my closet.

As I said, my interview with Dean Guthrie left me deeply shaken.  I smiled my best smile and practiced my best manners in my best Jonathan Meyers suit (which I had gotten at a thrift shop just for this occasion), but there was something about the man that made me nervous.

It was as though he could see past my best performance self and right through to the real, nervous, anxious, insecure me, who wanted very much to please so she could be "accepted" - in more ways than just into seminary.

I was, after all, a Postulant. I had been accepted in my diocese. But this . . . this was different.

We exchanged pleasantries, the Dean and I, and then he invited me to sit down in a real red leather chair. He looked me straight in the eye and said words that I'll never forget.

"Well," he said, "let's begin. We don't have much time. I'm sure you have difficult questions to ask of me about how this school will prepare you for the realities of ordained ministry. I have difficult questions to ask of you about how your bishop and diocese and congregation and family will support you while you're here."

He smiled kindly and then said, "The world is too dark and broken a place for us to play polite, political games with each other. So, let's begin."

In that moment, I knew that this was the place I needed to be in order to learn and grow and become the priest I knew God was calling me to be.

At the same time, I was scared to death that I wasn't good enough for this place - for The Episcopal Church. It didn't have anything to do with my sexual orientation or the size and shape of my family.

It had everything to do with class status.

That was confirmed for me when I walked into the reception that was being held for visiting students. In the Tyler Reading Room. I mean, imagine having enough class status and enough affluence to have a room - a whole room - dedicated to a place where you could read! Just, read! With the library just across campus! Imagine being the person who had that room named after you.

It was hard for me to imagine.

To make things worse, as I walked into the room, The Tyler Reading Room, I noticed that there were tables tastefully decorated and offering large platters of cheese and crackers and red and white wine.  No paper plates here. Glass and crystal, knives and forks, thank you very much. And, everything impeccably done in green and cream and engraved with the school logo in gold.

The music playing in the background carried the unmistakable sound of a Viennese waltz.

I wanted to crawl out of the room before I had to open my mouth, but someone greeted me and pulled me over to a group of women who were standing along the outer perimeter of the room.  Our introductions were interrupted by the approach of a man - an odd looking little man, to my eyes anyway, wearing a tweed jacket and a red bow tie and sporting a handle bar mustache. He bowed deeply to all the women and said to us, indiscriminately, "May I have this dance?"

Just as I could feel myself break into an anxious sweat, I heard the woman standing next to me say in a rather loud, decidedly Texas drawl, "Well, shoot! If it ain't got a "hee-haw" in the middle of it, I can't dance to it."

We all laughed and the little man went away and, after my conversation with those women, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could, in fact, "fit in". That I could, in fact, learn here - and not just how to "behave" in order to be "acceptable".

This was a place where even the Dean, a man who had just returned from rehab for his alcoholism, understood that the brokenness in the world couldn't - wouldn't - be healed with perfection, but rather by the brokenness of those who knew their own brokenness perfectly well.

The world is too dark and broken a place for us to play polite, political games with each other.

Turns out, so is the church. So is the seminary.  All seminaries. But, these days, especially my beloved seminary of The Episcopal Divinity School.

Apparently, it's been going on for some time, but the conflict has, unfortunately, begun to boil over into the wider Episcopal and church community. 

If you've somehow missed it, you can find lots of pieces to fill in the blanks at Episcopal Cafe. There's also a commentary by Tom Ehrich and a report in The Living Church.

Bottom line: As we head into the 2014-15 Academic Year at EDS, there is no Admissions Officer (and the turnover in that position has been enormously high), no professor of Church History, and no Dean of Students - who recently resigned amidst much distress by faculty and students alike.

Another source of information also includes a closed FB group called, "EDS Students, Friends and Family" which is a painful read, most days.  It is rare to read a positive word there.

For most of the people who post there, the motto seems to be "Anyone who doesn't agree with us 110% must be against us."

There is no suggesting - not even hinting - that there might be another perspective to the story.

And, forget the words "reconciliation" or "resolution". The only words that seem to be approved for use are "bullied," "oppression," and "violence." 

When I have tried to ask questions that assume joint responsibility for the present crisis, it was suggested by two women that, perhaps I was looking to be named Interim Dean of Students. Another student said that, in his experience, those who sought 'reconciliation' were 'conflict avoidant'. Another informed me, flat out, that I was clearly not "one of the little ones of Jesus."

As Tom Ehrich said, "You can tell this isn't going to end well."

My take? And, it's just my take. I'm not professing to have an answer, much less THE answer. It's just my take and it's this: This is, essentially, a conflict of cultures.

The cultural conflicts I experienced 30 years ago at EDS still exist, just in a different form.

EDS has become a richly diverse community - ethnically, racially, and religiously. It is one of the approved seminaries for the MCC, Metropolitan Community Church.  It is also geographically diverse - especially now with the advent of "Distance Learning" students, who are only physically on campus for a week, twice a year.

The faculty are also very diverse - in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. I must say that I am very, very proud of my seminary for making a commitment to live out of and into the diversity and full inclusion of all of God's people at every level of seminary life.

That diversity, however, does not come without tensions and challenges. 

In order to live within the tensions of this the students and faculty, to their credit, eat, sleep, eat, drink and live out the VISIONS/FOUNDATIONS program.  You can follow the link and read more about it, but it is an excellent program - not without its own limitations, of course - which addresses the differences in various cultures, in part, by creating a culture and language of its own.

Part of that language includes "transparency", "shared governance" and "power analysis".

Here's the problem - well at least, as I see it: Near as I can figure the President and Dean and Board of Trustees are not similarly immersed in the VISIONS/FOUNDATIONS program. If you read the letter from the President of the Board of Trustees, you'll see that he speaks the language of "Best Practices" from the Association of Theological Schools.

Part of that language includes words like "authority," "decisions" and "finances".

Is it any wonder, then, that these groups keep talking past each other?

When you add the clear power imbalance between the administration and the faculty, you can begin to see why the issue of tenure is so explosive.  Add to that the power imbalance between administration and students and you see why the issue of the change in status for the housing of Distance Learners added fuel to an already raging fire.

Anyway, that's my take and, bottom line, I don't suppose it really matters what I think to most of the people "on the ground". Indeed, I don't think, in the final analysis, my "take" is going to make a difference in terms of the final outcome.

I think Tom Ehrich's latest post, SUGGESTIONS ON SEMINARY CONFLICT offers a way forward to both sides who seem entrenched in the need to be "right" and the need to be angry.
"Some of these steps might already be under way. But I would suggest the board of trustees assert their authority, bring in a trained corporate mediator (not a fellow or former seminary dean), agree on terms of a mediation, name them as binding, and then follow through with accountability. I would give it two months, then bring the conflict to a close. Anyone who can't accept the mediator's plan should be invited to leave, including tenured faculty and administrators."
It's a strong, clear forceful leadership strategy. I have no doubt that aspects of it will not be pleasing to any side of the several sides of this conflict. Handing over power to a trained corporate mediator and agreeing to binding arbitration is unheard of in church circles.

Maybe that's part of the problem. We in the church who think we have the corner on the market of 'reconciliation' are really the worst when it comes to the practical applications of that wonderful, life giving concept.

One thing is certain - We seem to be going nowhere fast by just allowing everyone to spin their wheels in the mud of conflict.

It might mean the end of the EDS, but if something doesn't happen soon to find some resolution and reconciliation, I fear the school will simply implode.

I fear the seminary which was once such a bright beacon of justice and hope to me and so many others over the years has, itself, become too dark and broken a place for us to play polite. political games with each other.

The brokenness of the world - or the church or the seminary that educates and trains the ordained leaders of the church - will never be healed by perfection, but rather by the brokenness of those who know their own brokenness perfectly well.

We don't have much time.  There are difficult questions we need to ask one another so we can make difficult decisions.

So, let's begin. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Hagar and Rebekah and Maleficent Know

 
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A Sermon preached at St. George's Chapel, Haberson, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Of all the stories in Hebrew Scripture, the stories of the tangled lives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac are, perhaps, the most heartbreaking.

I don’t know about you, but the story in Genesis about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael we heard this morning just makes me weep every time I read it. And, for the record, I don’t think it has anything to do with the Gospel reading about family relationships and more to do with Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome. Indeed, I think this story of Sarah and Hagar has lots to do with the story of Rebekah and the Disney movie that’s just been released called “Maleficent”.

I think we have much to learn about the Gospel from Hagar and Rebekah and Maleficent.

Let me put their stories in context for you.

So, God made a covenant with Abram but neither he nor Sari are getting any younger and still, no baby. So, Sari takes matters into her own hands and devises a plan for Hagar, her Egyptian slave, to be a surrogate mother. Sari gives permission for her husband to have a child with Hagar so the promises of God can begin.

In ancient culture, status for women came through marriage, but higher status came through childbearing, So, while Hagar started out with lower status than her mistress, the roles between she and Sari flipped when Hagar got pregnant.

I’m going to ask you to stop and think for one minute about this.  Have you ever been in a situation where suddenly, you and your boss realize that your skills were better than his or hers? Or, what about when someone who works for you suddenly surpasses your ability or status? Exactly! Role reversal often brings instant conflict. Hagar starts looking down on Sari and Sari in turn becomes abusive to Hagar.

In oppressive systems, this is often called “lateral violence”. And, there’s absolutely no doubt that Sari and Hagar, like all women in antiquity and many women today, are trapped in an oppressive system.

So, Hagar runs away. God finds her and tells her to go back home, and basically, deal with it. God promises that Hagar’s offspring will also be so numerous that no one can count them, and that she should call her son Ishmael, which means, “God hears”.

God doesn’t stop there, saying, “He’ll be a wild ass of a man, fighting everyone, and everyone fighting him; he won’t even get along with his family.”  Great! Thanks, God! But, Hagar hangs on to what God has told her about the big family and the nation born through her son and she begins to call God, “El Roi” -“The One who sees”

It reminds me of something Bishop Tutu teaches. Members of the northern Natal tribes of South African greet one another daily by saying, in Zulu, “Sawa bona”, which literally means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona” which means: “I am here”. This exchange is important, for it denotes that ‘until you ‘see’ me, I do not exist; and when you ‘see’ me, you bring me into existence.  This leads to a humble spirit of Ubuntu – or “I am because you are.”
Perhaps some of you remember that wonderful moment in the James Cameron movie, Avatar. When the natives greet one another they say, “I see you.” Not, 'I see you,' like, 'I'm looking at you.’ Rather, ‘I see you’, meaning- 'I understand you, I am with you...'

Because, you know, part of the point of the story is exactly inside the name Hagar gives God. El Roi. God sees us. Not just on the outside. But, on the inside. How different would the world be if we “saw” each other on the inside - with the eyes of the heart – instead of just what’s on the surface? Le Sigh! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the story...

Hagar goes back home and gives birth to Ishmael. Abram is delighted to have a son, and as Ishmael gets older he and have a father son relationship, teaching him how to hunt, and answering his questions about the stars and teaching him about God. The two of them play checkers on Saturday afternoons and go camping and all is right with the world.

But after a while, God takes Abram aside and says, "It’s great that you have a son, and I’m always going to take care of Ishmael, and he is going to be great, but you are still going to have a child with Sari. I made this covenant with you and I am not going to break my promise and it’s through this child, that I will keep that promise."  And God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sari is known as Sarah. And Abraham, as a sign of the promise between them, circumcises himself and Ishmael and all the members of his household.

Personally, circumcision is not the way I would seal a promise, but, hey, what do I know?

So, when Ishmael is 13, and Abraham is 99 and Sarah is 90, Sarah has a baby and they realize why God calls him Isaac, because his name means laughter and if you don’t think that just the thought of 90 year old woman giving birth to a baby is funny… I mean, come on….. Personally, I think God was laughing about Abraham thinking that circumcising everyone was a good way to seal a promise, but again, hey, what do I know?

So, that brings us to today. Isaac is now old enough to be weaned, and Abraham has a big celebration, and absolutely everyone is there – he even invites his relatives from the old ranch – anyone who is still alive, and he parades Isaac around like the proud 102 year old papa he is.

And even though this should have been a great time for everyone, for Sarah? . . . Well, not so much. Because she knows that even though Isaac may be “the promised one” and God may have great plans for him, as a woman living in antiquity, her future is still not on solid ground. Birthright is the thing. In ancient times that meant that the oldest son inherits everything- and is even the spiritual leader of the family.

So as Sarah is mulling all of this over in her mind, she happens to go out back and sees 14 year old Ishmael playing with 3 year old Isaac and thinks to herself, "There is no way that THAT kid is going to be in charge of MY son."
           
And she marches straight to her husband, shifts Isaac to her hip and points a finger right at Abraham and says “You need to get that woman and her wild ass of a son out of our house! NOW!"   And she spins on her heels and storms out of the room.
          
And Abraham, like all good husbands, begins to think of ways around the problem- maybe let Sarah cool off for a while and then take her out for dinner? Maybe he should get a piece of jewelry – because, everyone knows that “Every kiss begins with K”?  Just when he is about to slip into despair, he hears that now familiar voice of God. “Let them go, Abraham. They will be ok. I’ll take care of them. I know it seems harsh but things have to happen this way- the birthright has to go to Isaac”  (Remember, this is Hebrew scripture.)

I’m not sure how he does it – because it’s a scene I can’t imagine playing out in my own life – but somehow, the next morning, Abraham gets up early, takes a water bag and a piece of bread, gives it to Hagar and tells her to go. He tries to say goodbye to Ishmael, but the boy doesn’t even look up to meet his eye, and he runs from his father into the wilderness. Hagar glares at Abraham and maintains his gaze a while as she walks into the wilderness known as Beer-sheba.

In my mind, the scene plays out like this: The desert is hot, and with a teenage boy along it doesn’t take long for them to run out of water.  Days go by, and the two grow weak. Hagar watches her son run out of energy, skin parched and burned by the sun, his walking slow and staggered, and finally the boy just collapses on the sand.  Hagar runs up to him and turns him to face her, but he is disoriented, and his breathing is shallow. She cries,"Oh My God… Don’t do this! Don’t take my son… please.. He’s all I have...  Please…"

And Hagar drags the boy over to a bush, and kneels down beside him and brushes the sand from his face. But when the boy doesn’t respond it all become too much for her and she stands up and puts her fist to the sky and screams “WHYYYY!!!”

Why would God let this happen?  Why, after the first time she ran away would God tell her to go back to Sarah if this is how it was going to end up?  Why would God begin her out here just to watch her son die?

"Why"….She has no other words… and she falls to the ground in a heap and just cries…
I’m not sure how long she was there like that – in that state of confusion and grief and dread – with her arms wrapped so tightly around her knees, rocking back and forth. It was quiet, and she hadn’t heard a sound from Ishmael in so long, but she is afraid to look, and so she rocks.
            
But then, a word from God breaks the silence…"I see you…"

Hagar looks up, eyes swollen and filled with tears, and she responds, “I see you”. And God brings Hagar over to Ishmael and helps her lift his frail shoulders in her arms. And God looks deep into her eyes and says, “Don’t be afraid, and hold him tight” And God gently touches Hagar’s eyes and she follows the path of God’s finger as it points. And there, not 50 yards away, is a well – a spring – a fountain of life-giving water that she hadn’t seen before- until God had opened her eyes. 
             
There is a beautiful quote from the children’s book, the little prince. "What makes the desert beautiful… is that somewhere it hides a well..." "But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart".

God touched Hagar’s eyes and she looked, for the first time, with her heart. And they lived. And, Ishmael, just as God had promised, became a great nation.

The stories of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac always leave me with more questions. Often, I am left angry and confused. I wonder what happens to Ishmael and Isaac. There is a little hint in the story – one I discovered not too long ago. It has to do with Rebekah.

It started when I was curious about the name of the desert into which Hagar and Ishmael fled. It’s known as Beer-sheba and Ishmael lived in Paran in the southwest wilderness.

We all know the other heartbreaking story of Abraham and Isaac – when Abraham understood himself to being tested by God and came very, very close to sacrificing his son – his very own son – for whom he had sacrificed his very own first born son, Ishmael. After that near death experience, we do not hear about Isaac again for a very long time. Indeed, when, at age 127, his mother Sarah dies, we do not hear that Isaac is present at her graveside to grieve her.

After Sarah was buried in a cave of the field, east of Mamre (that is, Hebron), in the land of Canaan, we read that Abraham declares that Isaac ought to have a bride and sends his servants out of Canaan and into Mesopotamia to find a suitable woman. Again, Isaac does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

Indeed, it isn’t until the servants are returning with his bride-to-be, a woman named Rebekah that we see Isaac. Scripture says he “emerges from Beer-la’hai-roi, and was dwelling in the Negeb”. (Genesis 24:62). It is then that you begin to realize that Isaac was, in fact, not living with his father. One can only imagine why not. I mean, if you had almost been killed by your own father, would you want to be anywhere near him? I imagine the young man might have been suffering with what we today know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

If you look at a map, you will see that Isaac is not at all far from Beer-sheba and Paran. It raises for me the question of whether Isaac, after his traumatic experience with his father, sought out the comfort of his step-mother, Hagar and the companionship of his older brother Ishmael.

Anyway, Rebekah does an amazing thing when she meets Isaac for the first time. Scripture says she covers herself with a veil while the servant fills Isaac in on the story. Rebekah covers herself with a veil. It’s as if she understands that this man has been deeply damaged and needs time to heal before he can trust himself to love again.

Scripture says (Genesis 24:67) that “Isaac brought her into the tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

You know, in all of scripture, there are very, very few times when we are told that a husband loves his wife. Men “take” wives. They “buy” wives. The “own” many wives. But here, right here in scripture, it says, Isaac loved Rebekah.

Isaac saw something in Rebekah’s veiled face that said she saw him. She understood him. She knew him.  And, he loved her.  I see you, she said. And he said, I see you, too.

There is something about seeing and being seen that is absolutely central to the human existence. It’s the thing we all want, desperately, and yet fear most.

Indeed, there’s something about hearing and being heard that is also critically important to the human enterprise. We all want to be understood and understand and yet, while we’re often quick to blame others for not communicating, we fail to understand that communication is a two way street – it takes two – and we fail at it more often than we care to admit.

Prayer is the way we communicate with a God we can neither see nor hear, and yet we do so because, if we are not convinced that God can see and hear us, we live in the sure and certain hope that God is able to see us in our suffering and listens attentively to our cry.

Which brings us to the Gospel. Jesus says to the twelve disciples, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

The wisdom of Hagar is that she knows that God is El Roi – The God who sees. God’s name for Hagar’s son is Ishamael – God hears.  Hagar knows centuries before the psalmist sings, “In the time of my troubles I will call upon you/for you will answer me.”

Hagar and Rebekah seem to know centuries before Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known.” Hagar and Rebekah also seem to know centuries before Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome that we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God.  Indeed, Hagar brings her son Ishmael back to life and Rebekah brings Isaac slowly into trusting in love again and the new life that follows.

If you are still confused by this and if you get a chance, please do go see the movie Maleficent. This is the back story to the fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty”. Maleficent is a very strong and powerful fairy living in the Moors, a magical realm bordering a human kingdom.   

Her story helps explain why good people do bad things sometimes and how greed and betrayal can harden the heart. It’s also about the damage that can be done when we seek retribution and revenge and the mystery and healing power of true love.

It’s about seeing ourselves and others in the way God sees us and how peace and harmony can come from an acknowledgement of what is hidden in the deep darkness of our own souls instead of choosing only to see the evil and sin in others.  Finally, the merger of the magical kingdom and the human kingdom comes about only when a conscious choice is made to embrace both/and and not either/or.

There is much to learn from these three women, Hagar, Rebekah and Maleficent.

It all begins when we see each other and are open to seeing God in each other. So, this morning, I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you and say, “I see you.” Now, turn the other way and say to that person, “I am here.”

God knows. God sees. God hears. That’s not the question.

The question is, are you willing to see God in each other?

Amen

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Front row seat


NB: This was part of the meditation I gave at this morning's Hospice Interdisciplinary Team Meeting

Yesterday,  I went to visit Ms. Josey.  I had called the previous Friday and had spoken with her older sister, who had left her home in North Carolina and moved into her sister's home in Delaware to care for her. She was a bit hesitant about allowing me to come, stating that Ms. Josey had "taken to her bed" - a euphemism I've heard some Hospice patients and families use to mean "preparing to die" - and was very drowsy, hardly eating or drinking.

After hesitating, she said, "Why don't you come anyway, dear," she said. "We can always use prayer."

I arrived and was warmly welcomed into the home and escorted to the back of the house to Ms. Josey's bedroom where she appeared to be soundly asleep. Her older sister was quite persistent and fairly vigorous in rousing her, which surprised me.

Ms. Josey was not pleased - either to have been so rudely awakened by her sister or to see me, the very earnest but nonetheless Caucasian Hospice Chaplain who had visited her two weeks prior and was back again, like a bad penny.

I asked her some preliminary questions - Was she in any pain? Feeling any distress? - and we chatted a bit before I asked her if she'd like me to pray with her.

She looked me square in the eye and said, quite clearly but politely, "No."

Her older sister gasped and said, "Whatever do you mean, 'no'? Why Josey, just Sunday your very own pastor from your very own church came to call on you and you slept right straight through her visit. She tried to pray with you, but you just snored. Now, this nice young lady comes to pray with you and you tell her 'No'. Why, whatever has happened to your manners, girl?"

Several thoughts flew through my mind, including the fact that Ms. Josey might have "taken to her bed" but she was not exactly ready to die. In fact, I suspected she might be feeling some anger about that and simply didn't want any of God's representatives anywhere near her right now, thank you very much. I was also quite sure she wasn't too very pleased with her bossy older sister.

Ms. Josey looked at me, made a face, waved her hand and said, "Well, g'won. Pray, if you want."

Her older sister cleared her throat and gripped her hands tightly on the bed rails. "Yes, pastor. Please do pray with us. Do you have some psalms in that pretty red prayer book you got there?"

"Why, yes, ma'am. Yes, in fact, I do," I said.

"Well, then, I think we need to hear Psalm 23. And, probably Psalm 130 would do. And, I think Psalm 139 and, oh, yes, you absolutely must read Psalm 121. You know, the one that starts, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?' Don't you think that would be inspirational, Josey?"

Ms. Josey shot her older sister such a filthy look as to make us both blush. And then, she looked at me, smiled weakly, waved her hand, cleared her throat and through grit teeth said, "Yes, thank you. I would like that."

Yes, I dutifully read through the psalms.

Yes, every last one of them, just as instructed.

As I did, however, I thought to myself that, clearly, it was the year 2014 but, in that room, in that moment, it was really somewhere in the early 1950s.

I knew these were two elderly women, one of whom had "taken to her bed" and was preparing to take her leave of this life while the other was doing her best to tend to her needs; but in that room, in that moment, they were just two young sisters, squabbling and fussing at each other the way they had always done all their lives.

But, in between the squabbling and the fussing, there was no doubting that these two sisters loved each other. Indeed, they loved each other so much that one had left her home in North Carolina to come and tend to her sister who had taken to her bed and was preparing to die.

As I looked up from my reading every now and again, I saw them look at each other, exchanging glances and smiles. I saw the older sister loosen the grip of anger on the bed rail and take her sister's hand gently in her own.  I saw the anger melt from Ms. Josey's face, replaced by a warm smile.

I imagined some of the scenes from some of the chapters of their live spill out between them - shared, treasured memories that would surround them now and return to provide comfort to the sister in her grief even as these stories followed Josey on her way to eternity.

And, I thought, how absolutely amazing that we, Hospice nurses and social workers and chaplains, get a front row seat to the unfolding of the stories of people's lives.

It's an incredible honor and a privilege, one that we may lose sight of when we're in the midst of doing the often mundane tasks of our particular disciplines.

Sometimes, our job is to help our patients and families to remember the love they share, even in the midst of the painful, difficult work of dying.

In so doing, our patients and families help us to remember the love that compels us to do this work in the first place. We who love life so much and cherish it so deeply, love people to the end, so they may be reborn into the new reality of eternal life.

And, through it all, we get a front row seat to all those stories and all that love.

It's pretty amazing, when you think about it.

We are richly, deeply blessed in this work we do.

It's important work - even the seemingly insignificant stuff - like, for example, reading psalms under duress.

It's holy work, no matter our religious preference or spiritual expression.

Sometimes, we just need to remember that.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Brave and Startling Truth


—If you know the title and artist of this work please let me know so I may give proper credit.
June 8, 2014 – St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
 Lessons:

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12;3b-13
John 20:19-23

Much has been written and much can be said about this moment known as Pentecost. Most of it, I think, is the stuff of Bible Studies and Christian Formation Class and Adult Forum.

We can talk about the historicity and the theology of Pentecost. We can get into debates about the Christian co-opting of the Great Fifty Days of Jewish tradition, and the Counting of the Omer, and whether or not John’s Gospel is a reliable report of an actual event or, rather, part of a tradition of Jewish literary and spiritual mysticism.

We can try to discern the literal meaning of the great, violent rush of wind and the tongues of fire, or we can understand these phenomena as part of a metaphorical language to express an awareness of a freedom from the Law to a freedom of the Spirit of the Law.

We can wrestle, as well, with the great mysteries of the Resurrection and its gift of the Holy Spirit – the one sometimes called Ruach and sometimes called Shekinah – the same Spirit who was present at the moment of creation, brooding over the swirl of chaos, even as She was present at the moment of the Incarnation. 

She was there, too, in the midst of the violence of the Crucifixion, and the grief and sorrow, confusion and joy of the Great Fifty Days after the glory of the Resurrection, even as she is present to us, today, opening our eyes to the way the presence of God’s glory continues to be revealed in our day and time.

How to explain – how to understand – all these things in this brief moment of our worship together of Word and Sacrament?
When the day of Pentecost came. Mark A Hewitt, Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012..
This is a sermon. It is meant more to inspire than explain. Indeed, this is a sermon about what happens when we come upon a brave and startling truth that is so earth shattering that our lives are changed and transformed and will never again be the same.

As you may well know, poet and author Maya Angelou recently died. 

She is probably best known for her first book, “I Know Why the Caged BirdSings” and, perhaps for the poem she wrote for the Inauguration of fellow Arkansonian, Bill Clinton, “On the Pulse of Morning.”

It is her poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth” that has been speaking most powerfully to me about Pentecost and what it may mean for us today, in our own day and in our own time. Allow me to read to you an excerpt from that poem.

When we come to it                       
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun.
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores.
These are not the only wonders of the world.

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

If anyone knows the title and author, please let me know
That, I think, helps explain to me more about the Pentecost event than any book of theology or doctrine of the church.

It explains why today, Pentecost, is considered "The Birthday of the Church".

Hear now, again, the words of Jesus to the disciples in that house where they had met with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders of their day.

“Peace be with you,” he said and he showed them his hands and his side which bore the scars of the unspeakable, cruel violence that had been done to him.

And then he breathed on them the hot breath of vocation, the breath that finds its way to the very core of your being and shakes it like thunder, the rush of wind that you know – in the deep places of your knowing – was there at the moment you were called into being, is here now, and will continue to be with you as you take the first step onto this new, somewhat frightening, uncharted path of your vocational journey.

On the rush of that wind you suddenly know that the words of the Prophet Joel were true and that God continues to pour out God’s Spirit upon all human flesh – not because we are either demon or divine or even deserving in any particular way, but merely human – and that God’s sons and daughters will prophesy and young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams and even slaves – men and women – shall be freed by the Spirit to prophesy.

And the prophecy – the brave and startling truth – that you encounter, when you come to it, is this: you are neither demon nor divine. You are merely mortal, with the potential to do great good and great evil. And Jesus has said, even to you, oh mortal, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And you understand, when you come to it, when you come to this Pentecost moment, that the slate has been wiped clean and you stand at the moment of choice. You understand, when you come to it, that, being neither demon nor divine, you can create a climate where every man, woman and child of every ethnicity, race, tribe and nation can be set free from blind obedience to the crippling laws of man and set free to live into the spirit of the laws of God.

When you come to it, that cross in the road, there comes a Pentecost moment, when from the heavens the sound like a rush of violent wind comes and you know things now that you never understood before, and you know, as St. Paul tells the early Church in Corinth, that ‘there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord . . . . and to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. … to one wisdom . . .to another faith . . ..  to another gifts of healing . . .  and all these activated by the one and the same Spirit . . . .”.

And, you know, deep in your places of knowing, when you come to it, that this is how the church - the very Body of Christ - is born. You are - I am - the church, not when we become grand buildings, but when we become "pillars of flame", on fire with the passion of the Gospel.

And you know that the time has come and is now to face a brave and startling truth that you, even you, have your own unique gifts, and choose to use them to the glory of God, and in service to God’s people, and to your own deep satisfaction and yes, even your own delight.

When you come to it, that Pentecost moment of that brave and startling truth, the mighty wind comes to blow all obstacles from your path, and suddenly you know a spirit of joy and peace which the disciples first knew. 

And, you, too, will know the deep wisdom of Dr. Angelou: That the caged bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

I don’t know if I’ve taught you anything about Pentecost. If I did, I didn’t mean to. It was purely accidental. 

I will leave you with the ending of Dr. Angelou’s poem which I hope will inspire you to live into the gospel that you may find the brave and startling truth God has for you in your Pentecost moment:

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.                                                                            

Amen.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Church must die so Christianity can thrive.


Two years after his 19 year old wife died of tuberculosis, Ralph Waldo Emerson (b 1803) wrote,
"I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers."
Three years after I left parochial ministry, I have to say that, more and more, I agree with Emerson.

Well, by "the ministry" I believe he means the ministry as defined (and limited by) "the church". And, by "church," I mean the institutional church - not the place that is not necessarily a church building where two or more Christians have gathered in the name of Jesus. 

I'll start, straight up, with a confession: I have always been ambivalent about the institutional church.

Of any denomination. Anywhere. 

I once cared. Very much. Don't any more. Waste of energy. Poor stewardship.

I know. On one level, that's an incredible thing for an ordained person to say. Especially one that has given so much of her life to the institutional church and worked so hard to hold the church accountable to the justice the church claims to be central to its mission.

In my own defense, however, I confess that I am passionate about Christianity in general and "making better Christians" in particular.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the institutional church will make you a Christian any more than going to a garage will make you a car (as the old joke goes). 

It's not what you think. I'm not talking about standing on a street corner like the non-denominational Evangelicals and Pentecostal or knocking door to door like the Mormons.

I'm talking about what the church sometimes calls "Christian formation" - although the term sounds pretty spiritually arrogant to me. Sort of in the same way I find "Spiritual Direction" arrogant and mildly offensive. I much prefer the term "Anamchara" or "Soul Friend".

Specifically, I think "Christian formation"  means meeting Christians where they are and helping them to deepen and strengthen their faith.

That's where my passion is. Not the institutional church. Not any more.

Here's why.  I have two confessions. And, a four part plan.

First, the US population growth  is just shy of 1% per year but church membership (a self reported number and likely over inflated) is down.  The data shows a 1.15% decline in in membership.

There is a growing concern that this is going to get worse – much worse.

The members that stay behind are also giving less.
In terms of per capita giving, the $763 contributed per person is down $17 from the previous year, according to a 2013 study for the National Council of Churches conducted by Eillen W. Lindner. That is a 2.2 percent drop.”
That is only 1.8% giving per capita (US Per capita data here) and down 2.2% from the previous year.

So, while the US population is growing, the churches have a decrease in membership and an additional loss of revenue.  A net income loss of somewhere around 3.35% (2.2% plus 1.15%).

Remember: I'm not talking about a specific denomination. I'm talking about the institutional church.

At this rate, as any freshman economics student could tell you, growth is unsustainable.

Indeed, one of my worst fears is that pledging to the church is poor stewardship. 

Here's the truth of it: I still pledge to my local church because it has an amazing number of ministries within the community. It is a mission outpost that also gathers every Sunday to pray. I wish more of the congregation were involved in the ministries in the community, but there's still a higher percentage than many churches.

That said, I don't believe it is either healthy or wise to support the institutional church - financially, emotionally or spiritually or, especially, by ordaining any more "nice" but well educated and well intentioned (Good Lord, deliver us!) people to it.

I have come to believe that the institutional church is hopelessly corrupt and beyond salvation.  I believe that it is more concerned about it's own salvation, which is why it has lost its quest for excellence and has become so comfortable with mediocrity - and why in more and more cases it can't be a vehicle of anyone else's salvation.

That is not hyperbole or exaggeration.

I think most bishops and priests are well-intentioned men and women who are in over their head - way, way over their head. Indeed, I don't know anyone who can do the job they must do in order to "save the church". So, perhaps  predictably, it's become all about marketing and gimmick which, when dressed up in a clergy collar, is supposed to pass for "prophetic".

Actually, it's pretty pathetic.

More than a few bishops were once excellent parish priests who have now have no idea how to be a bishop, because, much to their surprise, they have found that the expectations of the institutional church have more to do with being a CEO and fundraiser than being chief pastor.

Some have simply shut down and have been "phoning it in" for so long that some of they don't even know the accurate names and locations of the churches in their own dioceses (True story here). Others have become less leaders and more cheerleaders of gimmicks and slick marketing.

I think this essay, "Leadership in Anxious Times" nails it.  Frederick Schmidt's metaphor of "this old house" whose "thirty years of neglect that made it affordable," is a brief but powerful parable about the church. I especially like this of his Six Lessons:
Don't confuse creative marketing with effective mission. Nothing sidelines an institution faster than contraction and flailing that is labeled as vision and the dawning of a new era. The people who come through your doors know it instantly. Many more simply never show up, because they can smell false advertising a mile away.
Here's the thing: I don't believe Jesus wants us to save the institutional church. Indeed, I don't think He will, no matter how much we wish He would.

I believe Jesus doesn't want more churches. More buildings. More property. More churches.

That's more about empire building than building up the Realm of God.  

I believe that Jesus would like more followers.

I believe Jesus wants more people to be more authentically Christian. More people who are willing to follow their baptismal vows more nearly and dearly, and live into the answer of their baptismal prayer that they "grow to the full stature of Christ."

We don't need a "vision" or a "revision" or even another "reformation" of the church.

We need a revolution, is what.

We need to discover just how big small can be. 

We need to get "back to the future".

That's my first confession.

My second confession is that, for the past six years, I've been watching the growth and development of the Anamchara Fellowship.  While other religious organizations are shrinking, Anamchara has had a steady 15% annual growth.

Why is it that, while the institutional church continues to close more churches than it starts, this ragtag bunch of assorted Christians continues to attract new members?

Full disclosure: My beloved is the Abbess of the Anamchara Fellowship

If you visit their web page, you will find that they have no "place". No building. No monastery. No convent. No retreat center. No church. No property. No land.

Their spirituality is clearly Celtic but they are also clearly and devoutly Episcopalian and Anglican. They are male and female, priest, deacon and laity, single, partnered, married and divorced, black and white, gay and straight, cradle and convert.

And - whether they are lay or ordained - they are all entitled to wear the same "uniform".  Some do. Some don't. Some, I'm convinced, sleep in it. I'm not particularly fond of it, and, unfortunately, it invites more than its share of the unstable who really think there's "magic in the habit". Thankfully, they've got a rigorous discernment process and, despite a few mostly delightful 'peculiar' folks in their membership, they have a pretty spiritually, emotionally and theologically solid leadership. 

They meet once a year at Annual Gathering. Monthly in their geographical "priories". Twice weekly on Skype for Compline. They communicate daily on their closed Facebook page. And of course, there's the telephone and cell phone.

They empower and enable and equip each other to pursue their individual and particular vocations and missions in their own communities of faith, in their own neighborhoods, in their own homes and families.

Did I mention that they are growing? 15% every year. Steady. Consistent. Since 2002.

I know some rectors and bishops who might be convinced to sell at least part of their soul for that rate of growth. 

So, here's my plan for evangelism. It has four parts.
First: Close more churches.

Second: Support more cathedrals.

Third: Ordain less priests, even fewer bishops, more deacons and, of them, only proven leaders who are willing to take risks for the Gospel. 

Fourth: Shape and form, empower and equip more Christians. 
Here's why:

The core essentials of Judaism are at the heart of Christianity. The early church did not focus on building places where new Christians could meet. Instead, the early church met people where they lived and breathed and moved and had their being.

The early church, like the synagogue, empowered people to worship and serve God and the people of God in their homes and communities.  People went to synagogue to study Torah and learn how to be a better person. The family was the center of faith. The 'neighborhood' was the community of faith.

Education, religious and secular, was - and is - a high priority.

This is true, even today. 

The synagogue was (and remains) the place for the celebration of High Holy Days and the major events in the life of the community - the weddings and funerals and the Bar Mitzvahs - but the emphasis was (and remains) on educating, empowering and enabling the people of God.

Their liturgies are all about remembering and re-enacting the stories of their faith so that they might live their faith more fully in their own lives where they find themselves.

The Rabbis continue to be the teachers.  The business of running the congregation is left to the President of the congregation. But the emphasis is on an educated laity and the empowerment of families to worship God in their homes and honor God in their lives.

I do believe this model is the work that the church - which claims to be the incarnation of the gloriously resurrected body of Rabbi Jesus - needs to be about.

It's what we're not doing. 

I believe it's a big part of why the church is dying.

Which is why I think we need to close more churches and support more Cathedrals.

Cathedrals, like synagogues, need to be places of education and empowerment.  Clergy - priests and deacons - as well as laity with specific charisms for education, pastoral care, evangelism, catechesis, liturgics, preaching, formation, pastoral counseling, social justice activism, finance, fundraising, administration, communication, etc. - ought to be considered "canons" of the Cathedral (give them titles if you must) and work out of the Cathedral to be with and among the people of God.

The ancient role of the bishops is to be "chief pastor". Bishops are people who love Jesus so much that they call the church and the world to be in more intimate relationship with each other.

The bishop is NOT the CEO of the diocese. The "ministry of the purse" is that of the deacon.

In my plan, the church buildings in communities that can support - and only those that can support - them, will then become "mission outposts" of the diocese and cathedral. As such, they would become "home base" to the various cathedral staff - lay and ordained - who will be assigned there, on a rotating and itinerant basis, depending upon the particular needs of that particular community. 

I think churches must give the "first fruits" - a tithe, a pledge, the first 10% of their income - in service to the community. They must be able to support the workers - the diocesan and cathedral staff who come to minister in their midst.  And, I think "clergy compensation" ought to be standardized throughout the diocese, according to job description.

Instead of using "ASA" (Average Sunday Attendance) as the measure of "viability", the measure would be how the building and the staff are serving the community and the world. Rather than looking at how many people are in the pews, we would be asking of people and clergy, "How did you live out Matthew 25?" And, "How many risks have you taken for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" And, "How many Christians are being helped to live out the Gospel in their own lives?"

One important metric for me is this: If the line items in the budget for repair and maintenance of the church buildings and grounds is larger than the line item for outreach and mission, a church is already spiritually dead and ought to be closed.

The only people we assign there - like the only people we ordain - are people who have demonstrated skills and abilities as creative servant leaders . . . . BEFORE they are ordained.

I am sick unto death of the embarrassment of riches of "nice" clergy. We have boatloads of them in The Episcopal Church. Well educated. Smart. Articulate. Kind. Deeply spiritual.

We don't seem to be raising up the kind of leadership with the qualities we need: First and foremost, those with some fire in the belly for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those with some energy who have the ability to inspire others to action.

People who love Jesus more than they do the institutional church.

This is important: Those who are clear about their own identity apart from their spouse/family/church or the identity a clergy shirt and collar will bestow upon them.

People who are: Self-starters. Self motivated. Innovative. Creative. Risk takers. Community organizers. Passionate about justice.  People who can put aside their own personal goals and ambitions and work with others for the sake of the Gospel.

People who are secure enough in themselves to raise up and train other members of the baptized without feeling threatened by their skills and abilities.  People who believe - really believe and not just give lip service to - the priesthood of all believers.

People who believe that so much that they are willing to move beyond status and respectability and permanence and security and be with people where they are: at their work sites - from factories and farms to board rooms and high rise offices - in their homes - from crowded tenements to McMansions - on the buses and subways.

People who can use the internet to the glory of God and for the edification of the Body of Christ. Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two. If Jesus were to begin His ministry today, I have no doubt that He would send out His word, two by two gigabytes.

Evangelism by sandals then. Evangelism by internet now. 

Everywhere people are, there the church should be.

Because, that's where the church is, already. The institutional church is arrogant enough to believe that the only place to meet Jesus is at their altar, with their magnificent music, listening to their profound words of wisdom from their pulpit, watching their beautifully choreographed liturgical dance steps in their beautiful sanctuary.

The people of God are literally dying for the institutional church to meet The Body of Christ where He already is - where they are.

Which is why the institutional church is dying. Because the people of God are not being fed with the bread of heaven where they are. The way Jesus did. The way Jesus sent his disciples out, two by two, to be with people. Not set up shop and expect people to come to them.

This is how Christianity will continue to grow and thrive.

It means that more and more of the institutional church must die.

The good news is that is is already dying.

The really good news is that, because of Jesus, we have the promise of resurrection. 

And, without being too obvious, there can't be a resurrection without first having a death.

I have no doubt that I've more than annoyed a few folks with this post. Indeed, I haven't done that intentionally but, you know, I hope I have.

I also have no doubt that many people will disagree with me. I never said I was right. I have only said that what we're doing is not only not working, it is not bringing more people to Jesus and not edifying the Christians we have. 

My real hope is that it provokes some serious conversation which gets us off the sense of failure because churches are closing and moves us to be excited to close more churches and be better Christians. 

I probably won't be around 30 years from now when my hope is that someone will say, "You know, years ago, Elizabeth Kaeton wrote a blog about this very thing. I just thought she was getting old and dottery. Turns out, we probably should have listened."

Or, perhaps, the women over at Dirty, Sexy Ministry have it right. Perhaps it's only that some "things" have, in their words, "lived waaay beyond their expiration date in the church" and need to die.

Bottom line: The Church (or serious parts of it) must die so Christianity can thrive.

Either way, we agree: The church is dying! And, has been since its birth on Pentecost.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Long live The Body of Christ!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!