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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Martha, Martha

A Sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church,
Milford, DE
Pentecost IV - Proper 11 C

Apparently, this is the summer of The Gospel Greatest Hits.

Last week we heard the well-known and of't preached story of The Good Samaritan. 

This week the story of Mary and Martha - those two wild and crazy girls from Bethany - is on tap. 

I don’t know two other women – sisters – who, in the history of scripture stories about women, have been more seriously stereotyped.

Some sermons – even some of my own in the past – at least try to avoid the whole stereotype thing by encouraging us to find “balance” in our lives. 

When we haven’t been told that to sit at the feet of Jesus is much to be preferred than the busyness of Martha, we’ve all – male and female – been admonished to find ‘balance’ in our lives – between the busyness of work and the demands of family life with the need to nourish and care for our souls.

Which, of course, is good advice. If only if it were that simple, right?

My dear and good friend, Lindsay Hardin Freeman has written a couple of books* about women in scripture. I love the way she portrays Martha.  She writes that Martha has the likely characteristics of being “practical, hardworking, outspoken, domestic, hospitable, faithful, loving and . . . (my particular favorite) . . . 'tenacious’”

She sounds like lots of women I know and love – many in my circle of family and friends.

Lindsay asks that we put ourselves in Martha’s place, and imagine
You are making dinner for Jesus and his friends, which is over a dozen people. You were the one who invited them but it’s a much larger group than you thought.

You can tell they haven’t had a good meal in weeks. They’re ravenous. Andrew and Bartholomew are already nodding off in the corner. Let’s see…. food for fifteen. Fish would be good… we’ll have to get that, and lots of water at the well. Maybe some pickled herring and pretzels. Wine? Someone will have to run and get it. Jesus turned water into wine once, but his mother isn’t here to make him do it now. Figs. Figs would be good after dinner.

Soon the floor becomes more crowded, for in first-century Palestine, it is normal to stretch out on one’s side to eat. You need help. Where is Mary?

Ah, of course: at Jesus’ feet. You tilt your head, showing Mary that you need her. Nothing. You gesture with you hand. No response. So you ask for someone to be the bad cop. “Jesus, tell Mary to help me, would you?”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies, “Your distractions overpower you. One thing for dinner is enough; one stew pot is plenty. Mary has chosen the better part.”
Found on the Internet. Can I just say, "UGH!"?
Not moi, of course but some biblical scholar have described this scene as the first recorded incident of ‘mansplaining’ (Although, I wish I had thought of that.)

Okay, you can groan. In Jesus’ day, that was just the way it was. He didn’t know about ‘multitasking’ or I’m sure he might have re- framed what he said to Martha. 

Because, although it was ancient Palestine, I suspect Martha, being 'tenacious' might just  have clocked him with a water jar.

I grew up in a houseful of Martha’s. Those women knew how to multitask. One of my favorite memories from my childhood is that of the women in my family. At one point or another, they all took the same stance which they learned, of course, from their mother, my grandmother.

That stance would be standing in front of the stove, at least three pots going on at once – one in the front in a full boil, the back two on simmer, which she would give an occasional stir.  

She would have had a baby on her hip, a child sitting on the floor at her feet with a step stool as a desk of sorts while she drew on the blank back of an old calendar (which my grandmother and every woman in my family saved for just such a purpose). 

She would also be pulling a third child out from under the table, most likely a kid who had snatched a cookie or something from the pantry or who had had a ‘hit and run’ with another child and was hiding under the table.

Oh, and she did all of that while either reading or reciting a bible verse – the bible propped up on the shelf above the stove – or, perhaps, singing a hymn, and, in the process, teaching us about Jesus and his unconditional love for us. 

She did this not only by telling us and singing for us the stories of Jesus, but by the lives of faith she lived. 

You could miss that last important bit of the story by focusing only on the busyness of the work required of women who are mothers and homemakers and, well, multitaskers. They understood that it was all part of the whole. That caring for children, and cooking for their families and any work that they did outside of the home and studying scripture is ALL the work of ministry.

It’s all about caring for the people of God as a way to serve God.  

The women in my family taught me that a holy life is one that is integrated – the bitter with the sweet, the hard work with the fun, the drudgery with the laughter, the ridiculous with the sublime

Here’s the thing that gets lost in the story of Martha and Mary and the squabbling we imagine and stereotyping to which we fall prey. 

Jesus was doing a very radical thing. 

Not only was he allowing a woman – Mary – to sit at his feet and learn about God along with a roomful of men, he was, in his own way, gently teasing way, inviting Martha to do the same.

I want us to stop and appreciate that for one minute. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age just how outrageous and scandalous that was for him to have done, but it was.
My friend Lindsay notes that 
..... tradition has it that Martha went on to become a missionary, traveling as far as modern-day France, intent on spreading the word about Jesus and protecting his people. Often pictured with a dragon at her feet and an asperges (a container used to splash holy water), she is credited with saving the people of Aix (en Provence) from a dragon hiding on the banks of the Rhone River.

Ah, Martha, Martha. For Jesus, she would do whatever needed to be done: make meals, sweep the floor, shelter the disciples, proclaim Jesus as Lord – even kill dragons.
Many of us do the same sort of multitasking. And, yes, it is important to find a balance in our lives. 

Even more important, however, is to learn what the women in my life knew and taught me: integration

It is possible to do more than two things at once. Don’t let life’s distractions overpower you. 

The trick is this: to understand it as all being connected to each other and to God.

One of my favorite memories of my grandmother was that she would hold up her hand and say, “I have four fingers and a thumb. Each one is different from the other, yet they all belong to the same hand. And, the hand is poorer if one is hurt or injured or lost. Just like a family. Oh, we can adapt and adjust, but we can be so much better if we work together.”

So, here’s a question - or more: How different would your work be if you understood it as part of your ministry? 

Or, if, perhaps you considered that the work you do IS your ministry – that it  is what you do in the world in order to serve God? 

Whatever it is, in whatever profession or industry, if you are doing it because you are using the gifts and skills with which God has graced you and your find satisfaction in it, you are doing the work of ministry.

Perhaps you aren’t in a traditional ‘helping’ industry, but if you think about it, there is something that you do that helps improve the lives of people. 

If you are a manager, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day when you help inspire an employee – professionally and personally.

Perhaps you are called upon - in some big or even seemingly insignificant way - to make an ethical decision or a moral choice. Surely, you are bringing your Christian ethic into the workplace. 

If you are “just” an employee, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day, when you do something small, something seemingly insignificant, which makes a difference either in the life of a fellow employee or even your boss.

If you "just volunteer," you obviously don't do it for the pay. You do it for the satisfaction. 

If you think about the parts of your job that give you the most satisfaction, you will find there some of the gifts and skills which God has given you. You’ll find there your sense of vocation.

I know I know. That’s not what you’ve been told. You’ve probably understood that work has to be hard.

But, what if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you? Does not the Psalmist say, "Delight yourself also in the Lord: and you will receive the desires of your heart?" (Psalm 37:4)

What if your heart’s desire – that which gives you the deepest satisfaction – is, in fact, your vocation, your calling?

Perhaps you are a parent – a grandparent – an aunt or uncle or cousin. I happen to believe with all my heart that family life is a vocation. It’s a calling to a life of sacrificial yet deeply satisfying love. 

It is in the Petri dish of family that we come to know and love ourselves by knowing and loving others – or, sometimes, not. 

Family life is the ultimate balancing act – which is why so many of us fall and get bumps and bruises – and yet somehow, we find what it takes to get back up and multitask and integrate our way back into some semblance of normalcy.

We are all, each in our own way, male and female, both Mary and Martha. Sometimes we need to balance. Sometimes we need to multitask. 

Sometimes, we allow the distractions in life to overpower us.

But the women in my life taught me that we are at our best when we integrate all the different and varied parts of our life into an understanding of ourselves as children of God, one part of the family of God, each doing a part of the work that will make us, and our world, whole. 

And, when we are whole, we are more of the person God created us to be; we are holy.

I have come to believe that the ‘better portion’ scripture talks about is made even better with a little bit of both the Mary and the Martha who lives in us all.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Me and Mr. Bobby McGee

A Sermon preached for Pentecost V
Proper 10 C - July 13, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

As I started to write this sermon, I thought a good title might be “Oh, no! Not another sermon on The Good Samaritan”. 

I’m sure, over the years, you’ve heard this story many times and heard even more sermons on it. I know I have. And, they all follow the predictable path of the classic genre of the “story of three”.

Whether you are like the first hearers of the story or you have heard the story a hundred times, everyone listening knows that the first two characters would get it wrong, and the third would get it right. 

We can boo and hiss at the Priest and the Levite who passed by the poor man, left for dead on the side of the road, and cheer for the Samaritan, the unlikely hero, the half-breed, unholy, despised outsider who stops to rescue the man, administering to his wounds with the medicine of his day – wine for antiseptic and olive oil for soothing comfort.

And then, the Samaritan went even beyond that. He brought the poor half-dead man to the local community center – the inn – and paid the innkeeper to tend to him and promised to return and pay whatever other expenses were incurred in his care.

Yay! Hooray! It’s a great story with a great theme and important message. But, I’m betting that maybe – just maybe – we’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan so many times that we’ve missed some of the subtleties and nuances. We haven’t checked for the backstory.

Let’s start with the Priest and the Levite. 

So, why do you suppose they did they not tend to the man left half-dead on the side of the road? Well, one answer may be that they were, in fact, heartless and cold. But, if we consider their positions a bit more closely, we discover something less sinister, and actually, a bit more pragmatic.

At that time, priests were considered mediators between God and humankind and officiated at the Temple rituals. Some duties of the priests were mostly to take care of the Temple and to raise sheep and lambs for the daily sacrifice. 

Priests had to be without physical blemish or defect and wore distinctive clothing whenever they were in attendance at the altar or entered the Holy Place. Their clothing had to be clean and pure before they could approach God.

A Levite was a member of the ancient tribe of Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah, and the grandfather of Aaron and Moses. The task of the Levite became to accompany the Divine Presence and serve in the Temple. His role as teacher and spiritual example was to lead and, thereby, accompany others back to their spiritual purpose.

It would be easy to dismiss both of these two characters as more concerned with things temporal than things eternal. We might consider them proxies for our modern experiences with some clergy who seem aloof and apart and think they are better than the hoi polloi, the people.

That may be so. But, it is also true that, at that time, in that day, the strict rituals of the Temple would have prohibited them from going near or touching a dead body. That task would have been assigned to the women who would have had to bathe the dead body and prepare it for anointing by the Priest who was, most likely, a Levite.

No excuse, of course, but that’s not the point of the story, is it?

Jesus would have known the demands and requirements of the day. The lawyer to whom he was telling the story might also have been sympathetic to the cause of the Priest and the Levite. And, he would most likely have been shocked that the hero of the story was the Samaritan.

But, that’s not the point.

The point is to answer the question asked by the lawyer who came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Today, we might ask the question, “How do I get to heaven?” 

Since the man was a lawyer, Jesus asked him what the law says. And, of course, the lawyer gets it right,  

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Good job, says Jesus. 

But, the lawyer wanted to justify himself and asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And, Jesus told him the story which we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

So, let me pause here and bring back a contemporary cultural memory. 

Way back in the 80s, you may have heard about a man named Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers. To me, he is one representation of the Samaritan in the story. 

Now, the Samaritan was despised by ancient Jews. They lived up in Samaria, which was north of Jerusalem, where there was lots of trade and commerce and so, intermarriage. 

And, with intermarriage came what was considered racial impurity. The Samaritans were considered the ‘mongrels’ but since they rarely came to Jerusalem for High Holy Days, there were also considered apostates and outsiders.

Okay, so no, Mr. Rogers wasn’t a Samaritan in that way. He was, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister. But, his ministry was with children and that wasn’t considered a fast-track position.  I mean, he didn’t want to be pastor of a premier congregation or had any ambition to rise in the ranks of the hierarchy of the church.  

 Must be something wrong with that guy, right?

Not only did he want to work with children, he had an idea about how to do television programing for children that didn’t involve cartoons or clowns and loud music and didn’t treat children like little, stupid adults. He wanted a television program that respected children fed their intelligence and fired their imagination and taught kindness and respect by being intelligent and imaginative and kind and respectful to them. 

Clearly, there was something wrong with him.

There’s a great story about Mr. Rogers that, I think, is a modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The first year of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the public broadcasting affiliate in Pittsburgh granted Fred Rogers a shoestring budget. 

The set crew was made up of camera and sound and set directors who had been fired from other programs, mostly because they were a motley crew of alcoholics and drug addicts who had a spotty attendance record and were considered unreliable.

Mr. Rogers never once talked to them about their addictions or their behaviors or their work record. He always treated them with kindness and respect and was genuinely interested in them, engaging them in conversations about their families and their interests, asking them about their hopes and their dreams, and quietly encouraged them to pursue them.

At the celebration of the first anniversary of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which was a sudden, unexpected success, there was another, hidden success on that set. 

Every single last one of that crew was clean and sober and in 12-Step Recovery Programs.  They came to work in clean jeans and ironed shirts and wore a tie. They took pride in their work and it showed. 

Mr. Rogers never asked, “Who is my neighbor?” 

He asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Every time he got on TV. He sang it, in fact. 

In fact, he sang, "Won't you please, won't you please? Please won't you be my neighbor?" 

He assumed everyone was a neighbor. He wasn’t asking ‘will” you be my neighbor. He was asking ‘won’t’ you be my neighbor.  Won't you please be my neighbor?

He was saying, “We already are neighbors, no matter where you’ve been or where you live now or who you are or what you look like or who you think you are or. Let’s be in relationship with each other.”

Mr. Rogers knew and lived what Jesus taught. It’s not about the rules or laws or expectations people place on your life. It’s about going beyond the word of the law to the spirit of the law. It’s about exceeding expectations and moving straight on to aspirations. It’s about going beyond human kindness and generosity and being lavish and wasteful in kindness and generosity.

Why? Because we already have the greatest gift. We have life eternal. We are promised a place in heaven. As we learned in last week’s Gospel, our names are written in the heavens.

So, what have we got to lose? What’s the line from that Janis Joplin hit?: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” You and me and Mr. Bobby McGee are free to take the risks to move beyond the letter of the law and into the spirit of the ones who wrote the law.

We are free to move right past what is expected of us and move right into being more of who God aspires for us to be, as individual people, as people who say we are Christians, and as a nation which claims that we - every man, woman and child, no matter where we live or move or have our being - we ALL are “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights”. 

And, those unalienable rights which every human being is born with would be “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We are free to take the risk of showing kindness and mercy, especially to those our culture and our times tell us don’t matter. 

And, as Christians, we are free to be lavish and wasteful in expressing mercy and kindness and generosity. 

Our names are already written in heaven.

So, here's your assignment for this week: Take another look around your neighborhood. Around this church. Around the world.

Maybe like this story of the Good Samaritan, you've made some assumptions. Maybe things are not as predictable as you once thought.

Maybe there's more to the story than you know.

Maybe, like the story of the Good Samaritan, you've made some assumptions. Maybe things are not as predictable as you once thought.

Maybe there's more to the story than you know.

Instead of asking, “Who is my neighbor?” what if you asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” 

What if you and me and Mr. Bobby McGee were like the Good Samaritan and Jesus and had nothing left to lose because we already know that, no matter what others may think of us, we know how the story ends and we know we have life eternal and that our names are written in the heavens?  

What if we took that risk today - especially today - when it has been announced that the government will be rounding up some of our neighbors who haven't met a quota or filed the right paper or properly worked the system when the system is broken and stacked against them and all they want is to share in a piece of the dream, not for themselves but for their children and grandchildren?

What if you took the risk of moving past polite hello's from across the street and actually tried being in relationship with your neighbor? 

What if you took the risk of doing the unexpected? What if you took the risk of being kind and generous, even though our culture and our world says to follow the rules and hold on tight and not let go of what is familiar and what is safe?

How might that change the world you live in?

How might YOU be changed?

Let’s look a little more closely at the Good Samaritan.

And, as Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise. “


Sunday, July 07, 2019

Your names are written in heaven

Pentecost IV - July 7, 2019 - Proper 9 C

In this Sunday's gospel according to Luke, we see Jesus sending the apostles out two by two. 

That image reminds me of the old story about the two Jehovah's witnesses who showed up at a doorstep on a cold, rainy evening. The homeowner opens the door and felt terrible for them shivering outside in the rain. So he invited the Jehovah's witnesses in and offered them a seat in the parlor. 

After a very long silence, he asked, "so what happens now?" 

One of them replied, "I don't know, we've never gotten this far!"

As we continue to celebrate July 4th, one cannot look back on the history of this country without noticing that the historic threads of this nation are intertwined with the history of our church, the Episcopal Church. It’s as if you cannot look back on history and not see the history of the two.

I believe this is at least one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson was so adamant about the separation of church and state. (By the way, that principle appears nowhere in our Constitution. It was a principle of Jefferson with which he was adamant because of his experiences, of course.)

While he was intensely interested in theology, religious studies, and morality, he was most comfortable with Deism, rational religion, and eventually, Unitarianism – but not Christianity.

Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
Jefferson wrote that the purpose of human morality is to guide people in their treatment of others:  
“by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.”
Jefferson’s failure to live by those words on the crucial matter of enslavement is something that history — if not his maker — must judge him for. But his vision of personal rights and intellectual liberty remain central to this country’s founding principles.

Religious beliefs, he wrote, “are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine.” 

He argued that humans have no way to know which type of religion is “exactly the right.” In heaven, he said, there are no denominations — “not a quaker or a baptist, a presbyterian or an episcopalian, a catholic or a protestant.” (Well, as the old joke goes, if an Episcopalian can’t tell a dessert fork from a salad fork they are NOT allowed in heaven!)

Historians are clear that Jefferson was the primary author of The Declaration of Independence. Ira Stoll, author and academic, writes that the following words, are the "Theology of the Fourth of July":
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’
It was – and still is – a radical idea: Certain. Unalienable. Rights. It is especially radical to insert that idea into a Declaration of Independence, which is not simply an announcement or declaration; rather it is also the foundational idea in the creation of a newly emerging government.

The idea that every human being – all men and women – have certain unalienable rights that Came. From. Their. Creator. – God – has enormous power.  

It was a direct assault on the belief that kings and queens are ordained by God with sovereign power to rule over all men and women. 

And that, friends, is a belief that continues today, among the royalty and some subjects.

Do you see it? Do you hear it? ". . . . .
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’

This is the very radical idea around which the founders of this country built a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 

The government we call Democracy was created 243 years ago. In many ways, we are still part of a great experiment. We are still testing, still refining, still evolving. The words of the preamble to the Constitution are: “in order to form a more perfect union.”

Our government was never intended to be perfect. Our founders were wise enough to know that nothing in this life, nothing created with human hands, is ever perfect. Only that which comes from God is perfect.

Scripture is clear in the message that we are perfected in the refiner’s fire. And, that refiner’s fire has come in the form of a Civil War, which ripped the fabric of this country from North to South. Many people say that we are still fighting the issues of that war: slavery (now in the form of racism and White Supremacy), state’s rights (tariffs), and yes, the status of women.

It’s important, I think, for us to take at least a little time this weekend, if you have not already since Thursday, the fourth of July, to try to recall your own story along with the history of this nation and this church.

I cannot fully celebrate this national holiday without stopping to give thanks to my grandmother, who came here – not two by two as Jesus advised – but all by herself, a 13 year old girl, with only a bag with a change of clothes and a ‘guitarra’ across her back from a small village north and west of Portugal.

The Pulpit at Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
I’ve told this story many times but I’ll share it with you now, the first time I’ve been privileged to step into this pulpit.

She was the youngest of seven and the only girl. Her mother died suddenly and, after she wiped the tears from her eyes, looked up and saw her future: six brothers and her father. 

And, just at that very moment, a word came to her and that word was, “No!”

Immediately after that, an idea arose in her heart, making its way to her head and she could suddenly see another possibility for her future, to which she said, “Yes.”

Even though she was genuinely grieving for her mother, she – as she would tell us with a wink and a twinkle in her eye – laid it on pretty thick. She became proficient in the fine art of wailing. She spent a great deal of time in the yard, feeding the chickens – and wailing. Washing the clothes in the tub – and wailing. Hanging them up to dry – and wailing. Fixing meals and . . . .

A neighbor suggested that perhaps a summer in American, helping her aunts who were working as domestics for the wealthy ladies on Beacon Hill, Boston, would do her some good. Just for the summer. She would return in the fall refreshed and ready to take her mother’s place. It should not, perhaps, come as a surprise, that her father was delighted to find the money to fund her trip.

Except, she never returned home to Portugal. She was married at age 15 to a man who was a sailor in the Portuguese navy and eventually, they applied for and became US citizens. 

Here’s the remarkable part of her story: She may have come to this country alone but she did not leave lonely. She had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, fifteen of whom made it to adulthood and nine of whom were still alive at the time of her death at the ripe old age of 86.

I tell you that story to say this: Everyone in America – except for those we call ‘Native Americans’ – comes from good immigrant stock. We all have our stories to tell and all of our stories are entwined with the stories of those who arrived here on the Mayflower and those who settled in what was known as ‘the colonies’ and those who came here in slave ships or were indentured servants or prisoners from other countries.

The first 'native-born' governor of DE (not an immigrant)
We are a nation that is constantly being perfected’ because we believe the radical notion that we as human beings are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.  

And, those rights? Do you remember what they are? Yes, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Do you know that we are the only nation in the world whose foundational principles of government include ‘the pursuit of happiness’? It’s true. 

When I think about that, I wonder if, when our founders were writing that, they didn’t have the story from today’s scripture somewhere in the back of their minds. 

Jesus sends out the seventy, two by two, and gives them some strict marching orders.

They go out and return sometime later ‘with joy’, scripture tells us because they experienced more success than they could have ever asked for or imagined.

And, Jesus says to them a most remarkable thing. He says, “. . . do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

Our names are written in heaven. Just let that sink in for a minute.

Your name. My name. Our names. Are written in heaven.

At the end of the day, at the end of the celebration of our independence, no matter the origin of our ancestry, no matter the land from which our parents came, no matter the place in this country we call ‘home’, it is important to remember and never forget that our true citizenship is in heaven. 

That’s where are names are permanently inscribed. That is where we lived before we were born and where we will return after we die.

In many ways, our life here on Planet Earth, in this corner of the cosmos, on the continent of North America, in the land we call the United States of America, in the first state of Delaware, is not much different from those two missionaries in the story I told at the beginning of this sermon. 

The Sanctuary and pulpit (altar faces east)
In a more perfect union, in the 243 year old experiment known as democracy, sometimes, we surprise ourselves that we have made it this far and we’re not really sure what comes next.

When I despair of the almost constant bickering and drama that has become the daily bread of our anxiety, I remind myself of these words: “in order to form a more perfect union.”  

 I take at least a modicum of comfort in knowing that God is not finished with us quite yet.   

To borrow from the words of that great hymn by Katharine Lee Bates, the amber waves of grain of which we sing are being mowed in order to grow again. Our purple mountains are being made more majestic after emerging through the struggle of these days. The gleam on our ‘alabaster cities’ is being more highly polished by human tears.

May the words of her great song inspire us as our story continues to unfold: “America! America! God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

And, let the church say, “Amen”.

Sunday, June 30, 2019


A Sermon Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE
Pentecost III - June 30, 2019

If you close your eyes for a minute, you can see His face.

The words of the gospel of St. Luke draw a picture, sharp and clear, of a man on a mission. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He’s ready. He knows what is to come. Fully anticipates what is to happen to him. Expects it will, in fact, come to pass. 

And he is resolute. He has even sent messengers ahead of him. He has no time to waste. No time for goodbyes. No time to rest. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he bluntly says to a man who asks that he wait so he may bury his father.

If you close your eyes for a minute, you can see His face.

It must have been absolutely consumed with clarity of purpose. Etched with intention. Carved with deep lines of determination and single-mindedness and a tenacity that anyone could read – even from afar.

Never mind that it meant walking into the city of Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” which would turn suddenly, coldly, to calls to “Crucify him!” Never mind that it meant marching to Calvary to his death on the hard wood of the cross. He is marching to the tune of his destiny, and everyone can see it on his face.

You can also see determination etched on the faces of Elisha and Elijah. You and also hear the determination in the words of St. Paul as he exhorts the people in Galacia to "stand firm". 

In many ways, the image of the determination on the faces of Elisha, Elijah, Paul and Jesus in this morning’s lessons are a perfect image to summon up the faces of the people in the history of our nation that were set on freedom. Beginning this weekend but especially on Thursday, July 4th, we celebrate the 243rd Anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

There are also faces in our history that were set on freedom in the Civil War – a war which ripped the very fabric of this nation from North to South. Some maintain that our nation is still at war over the same issues of race (specifically white supremacy) the economy (especially tariffs), states rights, and yes, the role and status of women. 

Both our Christian and American heritage are interwoven with the history of the Episcopal church, and emerge in Jamestown, VA, the New World’s first permanent English settlement, which observes its 412th anniversary this year.

So, it is not surprising that the very nature and character of what it means to be an American is being questioned at the same time the definition of being Christian is also being raised and questioned.

Being “Christian” has come to be narrowly defined by televangelists and evangelical Christians. To be a Christian has also come to mean being a patriot; this has come to mean unconditional support for increasingly controversial government policies.

We have all seen the images that have come from our southern border. Heartbreaking images. Horrific images. Images of human suffering. These are people who have set their faces on opportunity and the hope of freedom. You can see the determination etched in their faces just behind the desperation which is also unmistakably there.

Michael Hunn is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rio Grande which holds 40 percent of the border between the United States and Mexico. Bishop Hunn has an essay in this week’s issue of Sojourner Magazine which begins, 
Before the finger pointing and blaming begins let me be clear: This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that the conditions for every child are not just adequate but are as good as any parent would expect for their own children.”
He continues, 
 “Border Patrol agents and their families are members of our congregations. The Episcopal Church is about half Republican and half Democrat. Yet every Sunday, we pray the same prayers to the same God, and then we get to work together, in spite of our differences, to make the world more like the one God envisions.”
This is a determined bishop who leads a diocese with congregations that bear the same determination which is etched in the face of Jesus. 

Last week Bishop David Reed of the Diocese of West Texas, which shares 500 border miles with Mexico, wrote these words to the people of his diocese:
As the immigration crisis continues to roil and divide our beloved country, we find our souls as stressed as our legal and political systems. Our desire to act wisely and compassionately, to “Walk in love, as Christ loved us,” collides with the enormity and complexity of the issues. What we are experiencing within the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas is only a small piece of the human migration occurring worldwide, a movement of peoples that will likely be with us for many years to come.
A simple solution to this crisis does not exist, but we can be instruments of God's grace and peace. We cannot do everything, but for Christ's sake, we can do something.

A number of our clergy and people are doing something to alleviate the human suffering along the border and farther north. I commend them for the hope and healing they offer, for their persistent love in the face of suffering . . . They are seeking to serve Christ in the person standing in front of them, whether asylum seeker or Border Patrol agent. Our clergy and churches did not go looking for this ministry; they did not rally to "an issue." They are seeking to respond faithfully to those in need arriving in their communities and on their doorstep.
It takes the determination that we see etched on the face of Christ in this morning’s gospel that leads to taking the risk of love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   

As Bishop Reed wrote, 
“To be angry and resentful is easy, a reaction that takes little imagination. To become cynical is to reject the hope of Christ. To love and to care is much harder, requiring that we extend grace and mercy to one another and to ourselves, but acting in love and choosing to care is the life into which we've been baptized. To love and to care is the Way of Christ, and the way of the Kingdom.”

Whether we are talking about the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, men and women have set their faces toward freedom just as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. When men and women took bold risks to ensure “liberty and justice for all,” and soldiers marched off into battle, ready to make the” ultimate sacrifice,” they often did so in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection they knew to be promised them by Christ Jesus.

As you turn the pages of our history books, you can almost see it in their faces.

The moral core of this nation is being challenged. Every. Single. Day. We are daily compelled to examine both our minds and our souls, to clarify both what we think and what we believe, about the basics of democracy and our religion. 

I don’t know about you, but I find this absolutely exhausting. And yet .. and yet, this is not the time to cave. This is not the time to give in or give up. It is not a time for apathy. 

It is a time, as it was for Jesus, and as it was for our forebears in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as it was – and now is – for all of our men and women in public service and in the armed forces and as public citizens, to stand up, and, seeking the determination of Jesus, set our faces toward the liberation promised in the Gospel and the freedom promised by the principles of our democracy.

One of my favorite hymns of this day does not appear in our Hymnal, interestingly enough, but it is, for me, emblematic of this “heritage made of a fabric woven in prayer,” which we commemorate on July 4th. (Note: It can also be found in the "Lift Every Voice and Sing" Hymnal, which is hopefully also in your pews).

Many think of it as a battle hymn. Indeed, it is called, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was written by Julia Ward Howe, who was a dedicated pacifist and abolitionist who also was the founder of Mother’s Day – a day she envisioned for all mothers everywhere to rise up and protest the loss of their sons to war.

This hymn was born during the American civil war, when Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D. C in 1861. She heard the soldiers singing the song “John Brown’s Body,” and was taken with the strong marching beat. She wrote the words the next day:
(said) Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
She wrote in an article which appeared in Atlantic Monthly, 1862:
I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.
You can almost see her face, can’t you? You know she had the face of Jesus before her – which bore the faces of all the prophets before Him, especially the young prophet, Jeremiah who wrote: “The Lord will roar from on high and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes against all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Jeremiah 25:30)

As chaos swirls around us and we are assaulted with heinous images of children being separated from their parents, and desperate people taking desperate measures for the dream of a good life for themselves and hope for a better life for their children, and yes, even as our beloved church struggles to find our way on the Via Media, the Middle Road of Anglicanism, let us take time during our Fourth of July celebrations, to meditate on the cost of our faith and our freedom.

Let us remember the face of Jesus, his face set toward Jerusalem. Let us see the face of Jesus in others and resolve, with them, to pay the high price of the Gospel. More importantly, let us be the determined face of Jesus in a world that hungers for the bread of freedom and the thirsts for the wine of peace.

As we celebrate this great country on Thursday, the 4th of July, may the words of Julia Howe’s hymn be in our hearts and on our lips, and steel our determination:
(sing) In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make (us) holy,
let us live to make (all) free;
[originally …let us die to make men free]
While God is marching on.
Sing with me, church:
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Bless This House

A dear friend of mine lost her home to fire late last year.

It was an horrific, devastating event, as you may imagine. The good news is that the house and many personal effects (dishes, paintings, jewelry, etc.) were able to be salvaged. 

The house has been completely renovated and they have finally settled back into 'normal' life - with all of its challenges and surprises and lots of stuff that never gets considered to be 'normal' but is, actually, the very stuff we miss most when we don't have it any longer.

My friend asked me to help her put together a 'house blessing' which would be the event that would call together all of their friends who helped in so many and varied ways, to pray with them, to thank them, to have a feast and make festival together. 

Not entirely happy with the Order of Service from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services for this particular occasion and family, I put together this resource.  

We then adapted it even further for this home, personalizing it with the names of the members of the family, including only those prayers the family liked, and ordering the blessing of the rooms to conform with the layout of her house.

I can hear some of you saying, "Bless a home? Isn't it blessed by the people living in it?"

In Christianity, blessing a home is an ancient tradition that can be found in Anglicanism, Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. In fact, when I was in Thailand, the monks at the local Wat (Temple) were seasonally busy, blessing homes. You could always tell because they left a small piece of gold leaf on the door frame.

In the Christian tradition, house blessing are usually performed by a priest who sprinkles holy water - a sign of our baptism - as she walks through every room of the house, accompanied by the occupants of the house and their family and friends. Sometimes, incense is also used.

There is a great tradition in the Anglican Church to bless homes during the Season of Epiphany, which I especially love. 

Many Christians, when moving into a new home or after renovating an old one, like to offer the house to God and ask for a blessing on those who live within it or might visit. 

The order of this service is adapted from The Book of Occasional Services, Church Publishing, Inc., 2000, and A New Zealand Prayer Book. The prayers are adapted from the "Prayers of Iona, Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change," as well as the Corrymeela Community, a few Traditional Celtic Blessings and prayers from other individuals as noted near the prayers. 

(I want to note especially that the original refrain of the blessing prayer was , "By the cleansing fire of your Holy Spirit. . . ." Given that the damage was done by fire, I elimated that word."

Since this is a rather large house, I added a Taize Chant for a little "traveling music, but certainly this service is not restricted to either Taize or that particular chant. Or, you may simply not want any musical interlude, which is, in fact, what this family chose. Another alternative might be to sing a hymn at the beginning or end of the blessing service.

Depending on the home and the wishes of the presider and family, the house and each room may be blessed with water and/or incense. In the past and at a particular individual's request, I have used a Native American 'smudge stick' instead of incense which was lovely, in its own way. 

Please feel free to borrow and/or adapt, with proper attribution, of course.
A House Blessing

The Gathering
+The grace of Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all.
And also with you.

We have come together
to celebrate the gift of this home
and to ask God's blessing on it,
and to ask God’s continued blessing
on those who live in it.
We have come together
to renew friendship
and to make festival together
to dedicate ourselves and this place
to the pursuit of peace, justice and wholeness
and to the care of God,
Creator, Word and Spirit.

Unless the Lord builds the house
They labor in vain who build it.
Unless the Lord protects the city
The Watchers guard it in vain.
Our hope is found in Jesus Christ
God's building block and corner stone.

(Adapted Prayer form the Iona Community, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.74-75)

Prayers and blessings 
Let us now bless this house in the name of God and with our love and prayers.
(A short space of silence is kept during which prayers may be offered in silence or out loud.)
Be present, Spirit of God, within us,
your dwelling place and home,
that this house may be one where
all darkness is penetrated by your light
all troubles calmed by your peace
all evil redeemed by your love
all pain transformed
and all dying glorified.

(Adapted Prayer by Jim Cotter, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.76)

May God give blessing
To this house and all who come here.
May Jesus give blessing
To this house and all who come here.
May Spirit give blessing
To this house and all who come here.
May all who come here give blessing
To this house and to all they meet here.
Both roof and frame
Both brick and beam.
Both window and timber
Both foot and head.
Both gate and door
Both coming and going.
Both man and woman
Both parent and child.
Both young and old
Both wisdom and youth.
Both guest and host
Both stranger and friend.
Peace on each window that lets in light
Peace on each corner of the room.
Peace on each place that ushers sleep
Peace on each plate that cradles food.
Peace of the Creator, Peace of the Word
Peace of the Spirit, Peace of the One.
(Prayer form the Iona Community, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.76-77)
May this home be glowing with warmth
in the chill of winter
And a cooling shade
in the heat of the summer sun,
May it be a place
where one awakes with eagerness,
And a haven from stress,
when the work of the day is done.
May God, our Mother,
safely cradle this house in her strong arms,
And breathe the comfort of her love
through every room.
May God, our Father, fire the minds
of those who dwell here with hopeful dreams
And give them the strength
to make those dreams come true.
May God, our Companion,
fill this home with laughter
And weave a satisfying peace
in times of solitude.
May the cupboards be forever full,
And the table spread with welcome cheer.
May friends come often through the door,
But yet the need for privacy
be respected here.
May the wild beauty of God,
May the indwelling peace of God
May the surprising mystery of God
Inhabit this home.
(Prayer by Jean Gaskin, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.91)

The Procession through the House

    (Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

At the Entrance

Hear the Word of God:
“The LORD will protect you
as you come and go, now and forever.”

Blessed are you, Welcoming God.
As your people come and go from this door,
be their constant companion on the way,
and welcome them upon their return,
so that coming and going
they may be sustained by your presence.
Bring to this door both friend and stranger
who come in peace,
and guard it from any who come in hostility.
May every grudge or malice be left at the door,
and may those who brought them
be so touched by grace here,
that they forget to collect them when they leave.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this entrance
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

(Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

In the Living Room

Hear the Word of God:
“How wonderful it is, how pleasant,
when God’s people live together in harmony.”

Blessed are you, Gracious God,
for you have provided this place
for unwinding and enjoying company.
Give your blessing to all who share this room, 

that they may find joy in their relaxation,
and always be generous hosts.
May all who gather here
be knit together in fellowship on earth,
and find a first taste here
of the communion of your saints in heaven.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this living room
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

(Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

In a Couple’s Bedroom

Hear the Word of God:
“You will be happy together,
drink deep, and lose yourselves in love.”

Blessed are you, Passionate God,
for when you join two people
in a covenant of love and desire,
they are no longer two but one.
Bless those who lie down here,
with a holy passion and delight in their loving,
and with deep rest in their sleeping,
that they may rise to serve you
all the days of their life.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this bedroom
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

In the Couple’s Bathroom

Hear the Word of God:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you
and make you clean
from all that has defiled you.”

Blessed are you, Creating God,
for you made us as whole persons
— bodies, minds and spirits —
and you called us good.
Give us a proper respect and love for our bodies,
keeping them clean and healthy,
so that we may glorify you in them,
as we confidently wait for you to clothe us
in robes of righteousness.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this bathroom
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

(Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

In the Kitchen


Hear the Word of God:
“I am going to give you grain
and wine and olive oil,
and you will be satisfied.
Be glad, and rejoice at what
the LORD your God has done for you.”

Blessed are you, Plentiful God,
for you supply
according to your great riches.
May this kitchen always be filled
with the produce of the earth,
and may the preparations here
be filled with pleasure and love.
Bless the hands that work in this place,
and fill us with gratitude for your provision.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this kitchen
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

          (Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

In a Guest Bedroom

Hear the Word of God:
“You will lie down
and go to sleep in peace;
for the LORD keeps you perfectly safe.”

Blessed are you, Sheltering God,
for you are the true rest of your people
and you cover each person
with the soft shelter of your wings.
Bless to your people
their hours of rest and refreshment,
that sleeping they might rest in peace,
and waking they may rise to serve you
all the days of their life.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this bedroom
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

In an Artist Loft

Hear the Word of God:
God has filled Bezelal [Bez-e-lal] with divine spirit, 
with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 
to devise artistic designs . . . .: in every kind of craft.

Blessed are you, Source of all Inspiration,
for you have blessed us with your impulse to create
as you have created us.
Bless those
who give expression to thoughts with images,
that this may be a place
of skill, imagination, beauty and peace.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this artists loft
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

In a Guest Bathroom

Hear again the Word of God:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you
and make you clean
from all that has defiled you.”

Blessed are you, Creating God,
for you made us as whole persons
— bodies, minds and spirits —
and you called us good.
Give us a proper respect and love for our bodies,
keeping them clean and healthy,
so that we may glorify you in them,
as we confidently wait for you to clothe us
in robes of righteousness.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this bathroom
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

    (Sung) Ubi caritas et amor. Ubi caritas Deus ibi est. (Taize Chant x 3)

In the Office/Work Area

Hear the Words of Jesus:
“Like the days of a tree
shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy
the work of their hands.”

Blessed are you, Creator God,
for your Son Jesus sanctified our labor
as he crafted wood with his hands.
Be present, we pray,
with those who work in this place,
that, laboring as workers together with you,
they may share the joy of your creation

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this office/workroom
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

In the Dining Room

Hear the Word of God:
“You will have plenty to eat,
and be satisfied.
You will praise the LORD your God
who has done wonderful things for you.”

Blessed are you, Inviting God,
for you welcome us at your table
and call us to share in the banquet of life,
giving us food and drink to sustain our lives
and make our hearts glad.
Fill us with gratitude for all you give us
and with a hunger to hasten the day
when all the world will enjoy such blessings.

By the cleansing of your Holy Spirit,
purge and heal this dining room
of every spirit of fear and despair
that clings to it from past terrors,
and transfigure their legacy
into inspirations for justice, peace and joy.

Concluding Prayers and Blessing

We dedicate this house to you
and your work as the God of Peace.
May it be a place of joy, laughter and freedom,
A place of renewal and refreshment
for those who are weary,

A place of hope
for those who have become disillusioned,
A place of healing and comfort
for those broken and hurt,
A place of forgiveness
for those who seek a new way of life,
A place of encouragement
for those who hunger and thirst
for peace and justice,

A place of vision and inspiration
for all those who seek a new and better way
for our country.

(Dedication Prayer from munity, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.90)

Let us gather up our prayers
into the prayer Jesus taught us:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.
For the Kingdom, the power
and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.

May the eye of God be dwelling with you;
The foot of Christ in guidance with you;
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you;
And be the Sacred Three
To save, to shield, to surround
The hearth, the house, the household,
This day, this night
and every day and night.
Amen .

(Traditional Celtic Blessing, published in Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, London: Mowbray, 1995, p.78)