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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Joy to the world!

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us
A Sermon for Christmas I – 12/29/13
All Saints Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

First, a news flash – especially for those who received (or are yet to receive) their Christmas presents through FedEx or UPS or the USPS: Here it is. Ready?

There are Twelve (12) Days of Christmas. 

Yes, twelve. 

That's even four more than Chanukah.

Indeed, this is, actually, the 5th Day of Christmas. So, relax! There’s still plenty of time to celebrate.  In the Anglican tradition, these twelve days are known as Christmastide.

So, on the first Sunday and the fifth day in Christmastide, St. John’s Gospel tells his own Nativity Story, in his own unique, poetic way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.,” adding, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

While St. Luke’s gospel is my hands-down favorite, I must admit that I’m a big fan of St. John’s version of the good news. His antisemitism is decidedly problematic, but his poetry is often the perfect expression of the mystery and majesty of the Incarnation. 

God made flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. 

How else to express a mystery than through poetry?

During Advent, a small group of us gathered at St. George’s Chapel Parish Hall to consider some of the words we use during Christmas and Christmastide – and, in fact, during the whole Christian year.

We looked at words like joy and peace and love – words we toss around lightly and freely - but we wanted to delve more deeply into these words and wondered how we could put some “flesh” on them.

On this fifth Day of Christmas, I’d like us to look more closely at the word ‘joy’. We say, “Merry Christmas,” and, if we’re Anglican, “Happy Christmas,” but we also sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.”

I wondered about this word, “joy”. How is it different from “merry” and “happy”?

When Mary heard from the angel that she was with child, she was neither merry nor happy. No! She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and rejoices in God my savior.”

She was joyous! Why in the world would an unmarried teenage girl, reportedly a virgin engaged to a man many years her senior, rejoice at the news that she was pregnant?

I had an idea about that, but words failed to help me express my thoughts. I prayed about it for a while and then, one of my Hospice patients provided me with a story which I would like to share with you this morning.

Some of you know that it is my privilege to work as a Hospice Chaplain. This is one of the many incredible stories I have heard.

I’ll call him “Bob”.  He’s a man in his late 60s who is dying. He has less than 20% of his heart function. It takes great effort for him to get up from his bed and walk with his walker to go to the kitchen or the bathroom. Indeed, it takes great effort for him to talk. But, when he does, there are gems to be found among his words.

I began by doing some “life review” with Bob. That’s Hospice terminology for the practice of helping our patients and their families review the memories of the events of their lives so they can sort through them and choose what they want to let go, decide what they need to forgive or be forgiven, identify those to whom they need to say ‘I love you’ or 'I'm sorry', and what to cherish and take with them beyond the grave.

I asked “Bob” about his earliest memories. He paused for a few moments and then said, “I’m at the kitchen table, doing my homework with my sister. I’m in the second grade. My mother is at the stove, cooking supper.”

“My father walks in from work, looks at us sitting at the table, and starts yelling. ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I’m doing my homework, Dad’. With that, my father starts yelling, ‘Why are you doing that? That won’t put food on the table or a roof over our heads! It’s a waste of time’. And, with that, he hits me so hard across the head that I literally fly out of my chair and crash into the kitchen cabinet.”

“I don’t remember much after that,” he said, in an unemotional tone, just reporting the facts as he remembered them, “but I do remember he told me that I wasn’t going back to school, and that, from now on, I was going to be helping him on the dump truck. And, that’s the way it was, for as long as I can remember. Oh, I got about an 8th grade education, here and there, in and out of juvenile detention centers and such.”

“But, I vowed, right there and then,” he said, “to never be like my father. I vowed that I would never allow the rage that was in me to erupt onto my family and hurt them. And, I never did. I found a good woman, married, had two kids, and I never laid a hand to any of them.”

“How did I do it?” he asked sadly, “I worked. Two, three jobs at a time. I put all my anger, all my rage, into working to provide for my family. Problem was, I missed out on a lot. I missed out on all the things they did as kids that I never did, either.”

“Anyway, I don’t think I could have stood it,” he said. “I mean, I loved that they were in plays and concerts and sports, but it hurt to go to them and remember that I, myself, missed out on all that. So, instead of getting angry, I went to work. Work, work, work. That’s all I did.”

“And, you know,” he said, “I think here’s what happened. Here's why I think I'm sick today. I think I broke my own heart.”

He stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and to swallow some of his tears. “Don’t,” I said. “Just let it go. Let yourself have a good cry,” I said. “You can cry with me.”

And, he did. He wept for his children, from whom he is estranged. He wept for his wife, who could no longer stand a loveless marriage and an absent husband and father, and finally divorced him five years ago.

When he regained his composure he said, “But, you know, I’m a very blessed man. You Hospice people have taught me how to love again. The nurses’ aid comes here every day. The nurse comes twice a week. The massage therapist comes every week and massages my legs to help reduce the swelling. You come once a week and pray with me and help me remember the old hymns I used to sing in church with my mother – the only time in the week when I knew any kind of peace. And, I find peace, somehow, in hearing you sing those old hymns.”

“But,” he said, “ you don’t just do your jobs. It's not just work for you. You do it with love.  You guys have shown me love and, you know, I love you in return."

"And that,” he said, the tears flowing freely, “brings me such great joy. It’s not about being happy. I know from happy,” he said. “I am happy that I was able to provide for my family. I am happy that they had a better life than I did.”

“But,” he said, “That was happy. But, now, I know joy. For the first time in my life, I know joy.”

“I think,” he said, “that when you know that something is possible, but you’ve never felt it, when you finally do, well,” he said, “that’s joy. And, I can go to my grave having known joy.”

Listen to that: "When you know something is possible, but you've never felt it, when you finally do, well, that's joy."

Do you hear what I hear?

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Because of “Bob” I understand those words in a different way. I hear the joy embodied in the words of the Magnificat. I hear the joy incarnate in the shepherds who heard the angels sing. “Peace on earth, good will to all humankind.”

And, I hear the joy in a 60-something year old man, who knows abuse and anger and rage, and thought he knew love and happiness, and now knows joy.

How do you know the joy of Christmas? How do you know the joy that the disciples first knew? It is possible, you know? To know joy. To embody joy.

It’s pretty miraculous, but you can know joy. In your heart and in your mind and in your soul and in your whole body. It's the fifth day of Christmas. There's still plenty of time for a Christmas miracle.

You have to dig deep to know that sort of joy. Deep. Past the pleasantries and the niceties.  Deep into your own losses and sorrows. Facing your own mortality. Your own finiteness. Your own limitability. Your own brokenness. And, then, embrace them. Embrace your own mortality and finiteness and limitability and brokenness. 

And, accept that, in that emptiness, there are possibilities. And then, you, too, can move beyond mere happiness and know joy. The joy, like peace, that passes all human understanding.

I’ve learned that happiness is a mortal state. But joy? Joy is a state of spiritual being.

So, in these Days of Christmas – this fifth of the twelve days of Christmas – let the world take down the Christmas displays and decorations and put everything on sale, 75% off. They've been up since October, anyway. And let them put up the Valentines Day displays.

It's okay. We know better. We know that there are 12 whole days of Christmas.

So, on this first Sunday of Christmas, here is my Christmastide message to you:

Sometimes, you have to reach way down – deep down where words have become your flesh – in order to touch the stars.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

One true thing

Christmas Day Sermon
All Saint's, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

I have a couple of questions, this Christmas Day, for you to keep and ponder in your heart.

The first is this: What if?

The second is like unto it: Would the significance of this day change if some of the things you know about this day were proven to be untrue or inaccurate?

What if the birthday of Jesus was not December 25th? What if, as some scholars now say, his actual birthday was sometime in March?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

What if the whole ‘born of a virgin’ thing were wrong? 

What if, as some biblical scholars say, the Visitation preceded the Annunciation? What if Mary had been a rebellious teen and ran away from home to go visit her cousin Elizabeth in the high country and, while on the road had been attacked and raped – a very common occurrence in those days (and these, as a matter of fact)? 

What if, as some scholars posit, the words of the Magnificat, which were Mary’s response to her vision of an angel of the Lord who told her that she was with child and that the infant in her womb was God’s child – what if those words and that whole story were the words of a young girl suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome after having been raped?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

Let’s look at this a little closer to home.

What if what you really wanted for Christmas was an iPad or a Kindle or a tablet? Or,an iPhone or some sort of smart phone? Or a specific piece of jewelry or a pair of boots or a kitchen gadget or a power tool?

And, what if you got some wonderful presents but you didn’t get what you really wanted?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

What is the one true thing about this day that makes it significant?

If you believe Linus and Charlie Brown, the Peanuts Cartoon Characters, it’s the Birth Narrative from Luke’s Gospel. But, what if that story is not exactly true?

If you believe in Santa Claus, then whether or not you got the present you wanted could really make or break this day.

If you believe in the picture of American family life presented to us by Norman Rockwell, then unless every member of your family was happy to meet in one place at one time, all round the same table, with the same huge turkey and all the extras, and the perfect Christmas tree, and all the perfect presents and all the perfect relationships with all the perfect, smiling, happy people . . . if that’s not going to happen for you today, then, this day might just be torture for you.

What is the one true thing about this day that makes it significant?

I don’t know about you, but here’s the thing for me: Today, this one day, we boldly proclaim and rejoice and celebrate the belief that God became human.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is a very difficult idea for me to wrap my brain around. I confess, I still don’t really understand it. 

I can somehow get that humans can become God. Psychologists have a word for it. It’s called “self actualization”. They say that, when we fully live into our true selves, when we actualize our potential, we are able to possess incredible potential and possibilities – God like and miraculous.

So, I get 'humans becoming God' but 'God becoming human'? Wow! Why would God want to do that? I mean, if you’re God, why would you want to give up all your powers and come and be with mere mortals? 

Why would you want to show them the path so that they might become self-actualized? Why would you want to teach them to be better human beings and live in peace and harmony with each other, when you could just sit on your heavenly throne and smite down anyone who caused trouble?

I submit to you that this one thing – this idea of Emmanuel, of God with us in the newborn flesh and blood of  Jesus, the theological doctrine we call The Incarnation – is the really, truly significant thing about this day.

Everything else – the virgin birth, the trip from Gallille to Bethlehem on a donkey, the shepherds who watched their flock by night and heard voices of angels from on high, the visit of three wise men from the East? – All of that? Details. Important, but just details, really.

Indeed, I’m going to be so bold as to proclaim that The Incarnation is the one, really, truly significant thing about being a Christian. 

The Atonement? The Resurrection? The Ascension? None of those doctrines make any sense – or any real difference – if you don’t first believe in The Incarnation. 

That God became human. And, that this fully human, fully divine God came and dwelt among us.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day, which said, “Instead of putting the Christ back in Christmas, how about we put the Christ back in Christian?” Indeed.

My Christmas wish is that some of the so-called "Christian" leaders in Congress might put the 'Christ back in Christian'. Maybe then, there wouldn't be cuts to Food Stamps, and allocations for war, and tax loop holes for the rich.

Here's my Christmas present to you today. It is a question, perhaps some of the same questions that Mary pondered in her heart as she looked at the newborn child she had just delivered. 

In order to appreciate this gift, you are going to have to suspend all logic and all rational thought. Just for today - just for this moment in time - I'm going to ask you to allow your imagination to roam and let go of old answers and allow yourself to consider these question.

What if The Incarnation were the one significant, one true thing about today? How would that change the way you spend today? How would that change the way you spend your life? How would that change the way you see yourself? How might that change the way you treat others?

What if, in this newborn understanding the Incarnation today, you gave yourself a Christmas present and understood something different about who you are and why you are? 

How might that change and transform you? 

How might that begin to change and transform the world?

If we allowed ourselves to be changed and transformed by the knowledge and mystery and miracle of the Incarnation, might we have a chance to achieve "peace on earth and goodwill" to all?

If those things were to happen, how might the significance of this day change for you?

Merry Christmas and may God bless us all, each and every one.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas at St. Laika's

Can't get to church on Christmas Eve or The Feast of the Nativity? Don't particularly want to? Or, might you want to supplement your liturgical experience of Christmas with something a little different? Something every so slightly unique?

Consider attending St. Laika's

You don't have to don your gay - or straight - apparel if you don't want to. Rather, you can join an online community which is part of the post-denominational, emerging church movement where nobody is excluded because of their personal beliefs or lack of belief.

There are services for you to stream or download to listen to later. There is a daily prayer page to which you can send in your own prayer requests. The music is wonderful and there are lovely pictures by Kevin Johnson from Seattle which capture the spirit of the season. 

There's even a wee (well, for me) meditation by yours truly.

The Priest in Charge at St. Laika's is the Reverend Jonathan Hagger. He is a post-denominational priest (originally ordained in the Church of England) who receives no salary from any church or any other employer. At present his ministry consists entirely of his internet work. So, throw a few shillings or pounds in the plate before you leave.

And, may God bless us, everyone.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Jane the Baptist

It was 3 PM. She was dressed in print pajamas, covered over by a plaid bathrobe, over which was a tattered, soiled apron. Her furry slippers had seen better days, and her hair hadn’t seen a comb or brush in a while.

We had been chatting about this and that at her kitchen table when, quite suddenly, she brushed aside a wisp of her gray hair from her face and giggled like a schoolgirl.

“Oh, dear,” she said. “It seems I’ve forgotten to put in my teeth. I’m so comfortable without them that I never wear them around the house.”

She giggled again, “Sometimes, I even forget to wear them to the market and then, I say something to the young girl at the register and realize, Oops!, I didn’t put my teeth in.”

She giggled again.  “She must have thought me a crazy person.”

“I think,” I said, “At a certain age, you should be comfortable, no matter where you are.”

“Right you are,” she said, “Well said. Women of a …. mmmm . . .’certain age’,” she paused and giggled again, as if the secret of her age were well kept and undetectable, “you earn certain privileges.”

“We women spend all of our younger years dressing to please others – especially men – plucking our brows, wearing lipstick, making sure our gloves match our hat and our shoes match our purse. And then, one day, you grow up and realize that you can do that if – and when – you want. But, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

“Sometimes,” she said, lowering her voice so no one else would hear – even though we were quite alone in her kitchen – “I wear a plaid skirt with a print shirt. Just because I feel like it.”

She giggled wickedly again, as if she were breaking some hard –and-fast rule which carried with it a penalty of corporal punishment.

“Listen, dear,” she said. “I am 86 years old. That’s far younger than you, I’m quite sure. But, I’ve learned that, at a certain age, a person is old enough to be as young as she wants to be."

"I recently drove to Virginia to attend the funeral of my younger sister," she continued. "She was five years my junior in physical age, but she might as well have been 100 years my senior.”

She wiped a tear from her eye, took a deep breath and said, “My sister was always concerned about everyone else. Never herself. She always put her husband and her children first. Indeed, she might as well have been invisible in their eyes. Even at her funeral, all they could ask is, ‘How could she leave us? What will become of us now?’”

“Imagine!” she said. “These are grown adults! Older than you,” she huffed disgustedly. "And I said to them, ‘Well, perhaps now you’ll know just how important and special she was. You certainly didn’t when she was alive.’"

“That’s the other thing that happens when you are a woman of a ‘certain age’. You begin to tell the truth, even if it hurts. Because,” she said, “you know that living a lie hurts more than the truth ever could. In fact, you learn that living the truth is the only way to live your life, because the truth has a way of catching up with you, anyway.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve discovered that.”

“Ah,” she said, “I suspected I might be …. mmmm…. how do you say in your business . . . “preaching to the choir”?

And then, she giggled again. In the midst of that delightful giggle, I could imagine the deep wrinkles in her face fading away, the old, mischievous, wonderful sparkle shinning through the dullness in her eyes, the knots of arthritis disappearing from her hands.

I looked at her again and realized that, while her youthful beauty had faded, the beauty of truth and wisdom that was in her shone through and shimmered with an elegance and grace that had been weathered and honed by the years.

“Here’s an early Christmas present for you,” she said, “Advent, I think you call it. Anyway, here it is: The truth is a terrible thing. And, by terrible, I mean awful. As in ‘awe-full’.  Its power, when you realize it, fills you with awe. No one can ‘own’ it or ‘possess’ it.  That’s because the truth can be two different things at the same time.”

“A paradox, you mean,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “Exactly! That’s the truth about Christmas, you know. It’s a paradox. It is two truths about God that are completely different and yet, both are perfectly true.”

“You see, Christmas is about the truth that God is both human and divine. God is both ancient of days and new as a babe. God is invisible and yet, we can see that spark of the divine in every human being. That is, if we are willing to be less concerned with how we – or others – look and, instead, look for the divine in each and every human being.”

“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I understand.”

“Ah, I knew you would. That’s why you didn’t notice – or, at least say anything – about my not having my teeth in. Or that it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t yet dressed for the day. I thought it might not be just because you are polite and well mannered. A real lady, you are.”

She giggled wickedly again. “And the truth about Christmas,” she said, “makes us all children again. Toothless and wise beyond our years.”

“It’s a miracle,” she said with a surprising joy.

“Yes it is,” I said, “Indeed.”

She whispered again, conspiratorially, “In Advent, everyone is watching the manger and Mary and Joseph. Pshaw!” she said. “We have enough time at Christmas to look at them. In Advent, we should be watching John the Baptist, you know?”

“‘Repent!’ he said.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is near!’ And, no one believed him because he looked crazy.”

“If you want to see Jesus,” she said, “Look for John the Baptist! He’ll lead the way!”

I smiled as I considered her words.

“So, a cup of tea, then! That’s what we shall do! Have a cup of tea!” She jumped up with surprising agility and speed and started to make her way to the stove.

She turned and smiled at me, “Honey?” she asked, “Or, perhaps . . . . . some wild locust?”

She turned back to the stove and giggled again, and in the midst of the music of her laughter, I distinctly heard the voice of John the Baptist say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is near!”

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson and Desmond

I suppose there aren't too many Anglicans who can talk about Nelson Mandela without also talking about Desmond Tutu.

I suspect that Nelson and Desmond stories abound.

Here's mine.

One of our daughters was working at NYU Law and got me an invitation - as part of a birthday present - to a private reception for Desmond Tutu prior to his being given an award for his work chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Before the award ceremony, I got to meet Bishop Tutu and asked him about the progress of his recovery from prostate cancer. He seemed very pleased with the pastoral inquiry.

I asked him about the confluence of his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the onset of his diagnosis and treatment from prostate cancer.

"Excuse me," I asked impertinently, "but what were you thinking? Are you crazy? Taking on cancer along with truth and reconciliation?"

We laughed and he said, "I'm not crazy, but I am obedient. Maybe they are the same?"

He has such a delightful giggle, you know?

He told me a story about "his" president, "You know him? Nelson Mandela?"

This time, I giggled. He couldn't resist and giggled delightfully, too.

He continued, "I had been diagnosed just a few weeks when my president, Nelson Mandela, asked me to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

"I said to him, "'No, no. I am the wrong person. You need someone else.'"

Tutu reported that Mandela pressed him even harder.

"But, my president," I am not fit to do this job."

"Why?" asked Mandela.

"Because," said Tutu, "I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak."

Tutu reports that Mandela looked at him and said, "My dear Desmond. This is why you are perfect for the task. If you can laugh too easily, you know about the absurdity of life (Truth). If you cry too easily, you understand about the fragility of life (Reconciliation). And, if you understand your own weakness, you understand the power of God."

Tutu looked at me, smiled that incredible smile of his and said, "Now do you understand why I love my President?"

"Yes," I said. "Now do you understand why I love you?"

He giggled again and gently held my face in his hands.

I couldn't resist. I gently held his face in mine as we looked deeply into each other's eyes.

It was a moment I will never forget.

I came to understand servant leadership in a whole new way that day.

"I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak."

Thank you, Mr. President, for being a servant leader to those who strive to be servant leaders.

You have taught us well.

May we learn from your lessons. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Better than a hallelujah sometimes

It is a  perfectly still Advent morning at Llangollen, our wee cottage on Rehoboth Bay.

It is very quiet. A lovely, beautifully deep, full silence surrounds me.

Out on my deck, I am suddenly wrapped in a new but hauntingly familiar autumn sweater.

No gulls crying. No ducks squabbling. No rustle of leaves. No sound of cars on the nearby road.

It is simply, amazingly, exquisitely silent.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

As if the world is, perhaps, in Advent morning meditation, in the midst of that brief, holy moment between a deep inhale and exhale.

Waiting - pausing, expectantly - before turning on its axis again.

It's that mystical moment of which T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets (Burnt Norton (1935))
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.   ...............

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. (V)
So, on this fourth morning in Advent, I reflect in my meditative prayers what I see and hear in the world before me. As the water reflects the sky to itself, I reflect God's presence in my soul to God.

I whisper into my heart the words of Mary: My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And then, I keep silent. Deep breath in. Pause. Deep breath out. Pause.

And, in that pause, I practice the still point and the dance.

I practice expectancy.

I practice spiritual pregnancy.

I practice hope.

It is a labor of love to practice just shutting my mouth and opening my heart to feel exactly what I'm feeling.  To remember, unexpectedly, what surfaces in my mind.

The brokenness. The betrayal. The pain. The grief.

The celebration. The happiness. The laughter. The joy.

And then, I offer it all - ragged, unfinished, nonsensical, illogical - as a prayer to God who comes in very unexpected ways at most unexpected times.

As Amy Grant sings, those kinds of prayers are "better than a hallelujah sometimes."
God loves a lullaby in a mother's tears in the dead of night
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.
God loves a drunkard's cry, the soldier's plea not to let him die
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody.
Beautiful, the mess we are.
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah.

The woman holding on for life, a dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes.
The tears of shame for what's been done, the silence when the words won't come
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes.
And so, it is Advent, when the earth seems to know what we humans can only surmise.

Advent, the season of beginnings in the midst of endings.

The season of labor and birth in the midst of dying and death.

The season of preparation and expectancy at the still point and the dance.


It's better than a hallelujah sometimes.