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Sunday, July 16, 2017

When the student is ready

A Sermon preached for Pentecost VI Proper 10 Year A
The Cathedral of Trinity and St. Philip, Newark, NJ
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

For the past six years, I have been living in the First State of Delaware where many people are very proud to claim former VP Joe Biden as our own. We like to repeat his no-nonsense, cut to the chase, get right to the point line. As Joe Biden says, “So, here’s the deal.”

Here’s the deal about Matthew’s gospel in general and this gospel in particular: It makes me grumpy. Matthew likes everything organized, everything neat and tidy. 

There are five distinct divisions to his gospel, with an introductory section at the beginning and a concluding section following the last. The 10 miracle stories are neatly contained in chapters 8-9. The 7 parable stories, like this morning’s gospel, are in chapter 13. 

And, Matthew likes doubles: There are two demoniacs, two blind men and two donkeys. Oh, and, he likes double stories: two requests for a sign, two Beelzebub accusations and two healings of two blind men.

That said, it is, undoubtedly, one of the most important gospels because it contains an extensive account of Jesus' teachings, sayings and discourses. It is no coincidence that the symbol for Matthew is the ‘winged man’ or angel. Matthew wants us to know, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ – fully human AND fully divine.

If Matthew was, as some have surmised, one of the 12 who was a tax collector, well, his tedious attention to detail would make some sense, then, wouldn’t it? 

Nothing against accountants – I am deeply grateful for my accountant keeping the IRS away from my door – but if Matthew was, in fact, a tax collector, it might explain why a person who is used to containing things in neat and tidy rows and columns might tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.

Honestly? I find systematic theology, like organized religion, tedious and boring. 

I rather like what theologian Karl Barth once said about writing theology. He said it was like trying to paint a horse at full gallop. 

Or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, “God is a verb.”

What makes me grumpy about this particular passage is that Matthew doesn’t simply allow Jesus to tell the parable of the sower and the seeds. It’s a good parable, and like a good parable, it teaches indirectly. 

A good parable points to the truth, it doesn’t spell it out in large letters. It doesn’t say, “Here, this is what I mean by the mustard seed.” It doesn’t demand a definition of the Prodigal Son or the Woman and The Lost Coin. It allows you to come to your own understanding of what is being taught.

And yet, Matthew seems compelled to explain the parable, right down to the last tiny detail. Do I believe that Jesus told the Parable of the Sower? Yes. Probably, he did. Do I believe he then explained the parable in great detail? No, no I don’t. I think that was Matthew’s need to keep everything neat and tidy. Which annoys me and makes me grumpy.

Take this line: “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart;” 

I want to scream, “No, Matthew! If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here trying to write a sermon on the Parable of the Sower."

Some people want to take this parable and its meaning as Jesus speaking to the church. 

They look at the various seeds and soil and blame their church growth – or lack there of – on either the seed or the soil – or, in some situations, the sower.

Well, that’s one way to interpret it.  And, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me Very grumpy.

Here’s another interpretation, involving another, more modern parable:

I was brought up a good, Roman Catholic, second-generation Portuguese American child, living in a home and neighborhood where only Portuguese was spoken. Walking to daily 6 AM mass with my Grandmother was required. 

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the gospel read and preached in church. I was listening. I was paying attention. But, it took a long time for me to understand. A very long time. With a long and winding and bumpy road to get there.

Indeed, sometimes I think I’ve reached a particular understanding, only to have life teach me another hard lesson and discover that I had it all wrong. 

That didn't mean that the seeds of scripture was "wasted" on me, somehow. I just wasn't ready. Yet. To hear it and understand more deeply. 

There is an old, wise saying in Buddhism, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”   

Listen to that again: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. 

I think Jesus would have like that interpretation of his Parable of the Sower.

After all these many years of reading the teachings of Jesus and striving to walk with him I think Jesus might agree with Buddha.

There is a parable my father told me that has become very important. 

Now, my father was not a learned man. He only had a sixth grade education and then he was pulled out of school to help his father with the farm. And then, the day after he turned 18 years old, he was drafted to fight in the Pacific Front during WWII.  

I learned from my father that war is an evil bird. He never said that. He didn’t have to. 

I’ll never forget the nightmares he would have – less and less often over the years - but they remain vivid in my mind. His screams would wake up the entire house and rattle the windows and walls. He was always yelling for someone to RUN or GET DOWN and then we’d hear the scream and then my mother’s voice comforting, soothing, saying, “John, it’s alright. It’s okay. I’m here.”

He never talked about the war. Not ever. Except this one time. 

I had been rejected – again – by the girls in my class. We Portuguese were the latest wave of immigrants to work the textile mills in Fall River, MA. Everything about us was different: our skin color was darker than the settled English and Irish, our hair was darker and curlier, our food looked and smelled different and, adding insult to injury, and we didn’t speak the language.

I don’t remember the specifics, but I hadn’t been picked to be a member of something – again! A softball team. A reading or math club. Maybe just to go to the soda fountain after school and hang out. I was blocked again from feeling fully part of the group. 

An outsider. Again.

My grandmother and mother and aunts tried to help. They told me I was beautiful and smart and better than those girls, anyway. I didn’t believe them. What I believed is that they had to say that. 

That’s what family does, right? They protect you. They love you. No matter what.

It was then my father came out to the picnic table where I was sitting – the one under the grape arbor where my grandfather grew grapes. I had my head down and I was sobbing softly. I heard him sit down. Then, I heard the “click” of his lighter as he lit his cigarette and took a deep puff.

And then I heard him tell the story that I didn’t understand in the moment but has become to me a gift of wisdom which has grown more precious each time it has revisited me.

“I was in Manila, in the Philippines,” he began. “It was night. The sky was black except when it lit up with the explosion of gunfire and bombs."

"I and five other men in my battalion got separated from the rest of the troop. We were lost. We stumbled through the thick, dark jungle for what seemed like hours, trying not to be afraid. But, we were really afraid.”

“Finally, we came upon a wall. It was higher than any of us and we couldn’t see the top of it in the darkness. So, we just continued along, feeling our way against the wall. It went on for miles. We couldn’t find the end of it. We couldn’t get around it. We couldn’t get over it. We couldn’t get under it. So, we just kept walking along it, feeling our way in the darkness, cursing it for being there and keeping us from getting back where we belonged.”

“And then, we just got exhausted. Man after man just sat down against the wall and decided to rest. And then, suddenly, sleep came,” he said as he drew a long drag on his Lucky unfiltered cigarette and put it out in the ground. I lifted my head up to watch him tell the rest of the story.

“And then, we awakened to hear voices. It was the Japanese. We poked each other awake and looked at each other for reassurance. We looked up and saw that the wall was very high – at least 10 feet. We looked and saw that just 20 feet ahead, the wall ended. If we hadn’t stopped when we did, we’d have had no protection whatsoever. In fact, we’d probably have been found and shot dead as we slept.”

“Turns out,” may father said, “the very wall that we had been cursing had been the source of our protection. The wall that we cursed turned out to be a blessing. In fact, we used it to walk in the opposite direction. It provided us cover until we got far enough away to find our way back.”

“So,” my father said, looking at me with more tenderness than I ever remembered, before or since, “I want you to think about that the next time you hit a wall. Okay? Sometimes the thing you think is a curse turns out to be a blessing. And, it’s also true that sometimes, blessings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. It’s how you use it that matters.”

Good or bad, it's not what happens to you that matters as much as how you use it that matters.

I didn’t understand – not then – but I never forgot that story. And, it has been the source of comfort and inspiration to me over the years as a person in my individual life as well as a sower of seeds in the various vineyards of the Lord where I’ve been called to serve.

So, here’s the deal, especially for those who want to interpret Matthew's gospel as a parable about the church and the people of God.

It's the message I want to make certain you hear as you find yourselves - once again - in a long period of discernment and interim leadership.

You – YOU – are good soil. You, as a people of God. You, as a church. You as a Cathedral. 

You  - as people of God in a Cathedral church in a city that has never seemed to quite fully pick itself back up after all of the times it has been knocked down - have been planted with good seed.   

And, you had some good sowers. Faithful sowers.  

Some of them have even left and then returned.  

Good soil. Good seed. Good sowers.

Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

I know because I have been a Canon of this Cathedral. I have worked in this city. I have known many of your clergy and and laity. 

Know that curses are sometimes blessings and blessings are sometimes curses. That’s just life. Here’s the deal: Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.

Scripture reminds us that the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Use what you’ve been given. Even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. Even if it's a wall.

Because, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.   


Sunday, July 02, 2017

El-roi: The God Who Sees

A Sermon preached for Pentecost IV Proper 8 A RCL
St. Philip's Episcopal Church - Laurel, DE

I am so excited to preach to you this morning, I could hardly sit still all week long, in anticipation of telling you this story. (Genesis 22:1-14)

It’s the horrifying, disturbing, terrible story of “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”

No, I mean Really Awful. Worse than anything you'd see on TV. Indeed, you'd turn the channel.

So, say what? Did the preacher really say she was excited to preach about this story? 

Why yes. Yes, she did.

I’m excited because I think this story tells us a lot more about God and God’s love than you’ve probably heard before. I think, actually, that it illustrates the Gospel (Matthew 10:40-42) we just heard – and, accomplish that task better than anything I could try to explain.

That is: No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you. . .  God sees.

Remember that: God sees. No matter what. There’s a reason I can say that with confidence. That’s the good news this sermon will try to proclaim.

So, this is not going to be a pithy little five to seven-minute summer sermon on a holiday weekend when low attendance is expected so, the question among preachers is: why bother?

I promise not to go on too long and I promise to try very hard not to be boring, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride, so buckle up.

To get you to today’s story from Hebrew Scripture, you have to understand the context. You’ve probably heard me say that several times before: Context is important. Or, as Blessed Joe Biden would say, “Here’s the deal . . .”

So, there’s Abraham and Sarah – also known as Abram and Sarai. They are very old. And, Abraham does not have a child, much less a son (and we know how important THAT was to the ancients). 

So, Sarah says to Abraham, Here, take Hagar, my Egyptian slave woman, and have a child with her. (Genesis 16:2) Note: And you thought surrogate mothers were a thoroughly modern idea. Not!

Hagar became pregnant and Sarah is immediately overcome with jealousy. However, she complained to her husband that it was Hagar who was becoming haughty, looking upon her with contempt (And, maybe she did, and who could really blame her?), so Sarah treated her harshly and Hagar ran away.(Genesis 16:4-6)

But, an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar, promises her that a son named Ishmael would be born to her and convinced her to return to Sarah. It was then that Hagar did something no one else had done before in all of written scripture.

Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl NAMED God. Yes, she gave God a name. Hagar named God – ready? – El-roi. “You,” she said to God, are “El-roi” – the one who sees. (Genesis 16:7-15)

Remember that: No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you . . . God sees.

She also named the well there “Beer-lahai-roi” which translates to mean The Well of “the One Who Sees Me Lives”!

The One who sees me lives! Remember that. We’ll be coming back to it in a moment.

So, Hagar goes back and has the child and his name is Ishmael – which means, by the way, “God hears” . Abraham is 86 years old. And, life goes on, obladi, oblada.

And then, 13 years later, when Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him and told him lots of amazing things including how he was no longer going to be Abram but Abraham and his wife was no longer Sarai but Sarah. Oh, and BTW:  Sarah was going to have a child. (Genesis 17)

And then scripture says that Abraham fell on his face and laughed. (Genesis 17:17) Yup! Abraham laughed right in the face of El-roi, the God who sees! He laughed because he was almost 100 years old and Sarah, his wife was 90 years old.

Not only that, but when Sarah found out that she was pregnant, she laughed.(Genesis 18:9-15)

But, in fact, Sarah did have a child. God inspired Abraham to name the child Isaac. In Hebrew, Isaac means “He laughs”. 

So, Abraham’s first son is “He hears” and his second is “He laughs”.

(No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me) God sees.

So, Isaac is born when Ishmael is 13 years old. And Sarah can’t stand it. She can’t stand to see the two boys grow close together and play together and – God forbid – be treated as equals.

Indeed, she was really concerned about her son’s inheritance. Ishmael, as Abraham’s firstborn son, was rightly due his inheritance. But Isaac, the firstborn son of Abraham’s "legitimate" wife, also had standing in the line of inheritance. 

Rather than enter into a debate much less a discussion about who has claim to the inheritance, Sarah convinced Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness.

But, of course, God saw all this and assured Abraham that “through Isaac all offspring shall be named for you.” And, as for Ishmael: “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

Oh, by the way and PS, fast forward to today: Isaac is claimed by the Jews as their path to the inheritance of Abraham. And Ishmael is claimed by the Arabs as their path to the inheritance of Abraham. 

And, they are still fighting out this inheritance, even to this very day.

No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me) God sees.

So, back to our story: Hagar and Ishmael were saved and lived in the wilderness of Paran. (Genesis 21:1-21) 

We’re going to put that story on pause for now and go to today’s story from scripture, wherein Abraham believes that God is asking him to sacrifice his son, his only son that he loves. 

Yes, that's right. The son who is named “He who laughs”. The son who brought delight and joy to his parents in their old age. The son for whom he sacrificed his firstborn son so this child would have the inheritance. The son God promised would build a nation in his name. And now, he believes that God is telling him to sacrifice this son.

It makes no sense. Absolutely. No. Sense. At. All.  

But, there is another way to think about the message of this story. 

What if this is not just Abraham's story but God's story? What if God is sending a message for the ages through this story of Abraham?

What if God is making a point that the God of Abraham does not require human sacrifice? Actually, you could argue that this was a point God already made in the 20th chapter of Leviticus. 

What if God is making that point again – loud and clear and undeniably – through his beloved Abraham with whom he is establishing a nation on earth?

Which is to make the larger point of the story: That parents do not “own” their children.  

That was decidedly NOT the prevailing belief of the ancients who bought and sold children as property and used them for sacrifice to the Gods.

The ancient truth is this:  We do not "own" our children.  They are neither property nor commodity.

We do not – we cannot – control what happens to our children. We can try our best to give them the best, but they must live their own lives – no matter what we see in their future. 

The inheritance we are able to provide for them is theirs to spend or squander. It is not our future they must follow, but the vision of the future which God gives to them.

The real inheritance is that of free will. God has given it to us and God gives it to our children as well. And, to our children's children, from generation to generation. 

That doesn't stop bad things from happening. Not everyone "gets a ram" which is sacrificed instead of us. Bad things still happen to good people. And yet, God sees. God knows.

Because, No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me), God sees.

So, let me finish the story for you - because none of it makes sense unless you know how it ends. 

After this terrible, horrifying time, we never hear from either Sarah or Isaac again.  Well, Sarah, not ever again and Isaac, not for a very long time.

The first words of the very next chapter are: “Sarah lived 127 years . .  And, Sarah died in Hebron in the land of Canaan. Scripture says that Abraham lived in Beer-sheba. 

That’s a pretty big blank to fill in, but you get the picture: They didn’t live together after that terrible day known forever as "The Sacrifice of Isaac".

Indeed, it sounds like a whole lot more was "sacrificed" that day than the life of Isaac.

We don’t hear from Isaac again – not even his expected attendance at his mother’s funeral – until he comes out of the wilderness to meet Rebekah, the woman his father has arranged for him to marry from his home in the city of Nahor, near Haran.

Scripture says (Gen 24:62) “Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb.” 

Remember that place? Beer-lahai-roi? It’s the place that Hagar named which means “The Well of “the One Who Sees Me Lives”!

It’s conjecture of course, but one is left to think that perhaps it was not just Sarah who left Abraham. It appears that Isaac left his violent father and petty mother after that terrible moment of sacrifice. Moreover, it appears Issac returned to the one parent on whom he could trust and rely: Hagar. 

Maybe – just maybe - Isaac, the child of his parent’s laughter, went to live with his step-mother and his half-brother, Ishmael, the child of God’s hearing, precisely because he knew he would be loved unconditionally and his lament would be heard. 

Children are not “owned” by their parents. And, family is not defined solely by DNA. Love defines a family. It always has. It always will.

One more thing. About Isaac and Rebekah. 

This damaged young man and this strong woman who independently chose to marry him, became one of the first real love stories in scripture. 

Prior to this, arranged marriages were just that: arranged. For the first time in scripture, we read these words: “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. (Did you hear that? "His mother's tent". Reminds me that Prince William giving his mother Princess Diana’s engagement ring to his beloved Kate.)"
"He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Gen 24:76)

As unbelievable as it seems, for the first time in scripture, we read that a man LOVED his wife. Not just married her. Not just placated her. Not just had children with her. Not just worked with her. Not had other wives besides her. 

No, Isaac loved Rebekah.

The child who could not be owned, who was not God’s image of a commodity to be bought and sold or traded or sacrificed as a “test”; that same child grew to be able to love another human being. To love her as his partner in life. 

And, irony of ironies, that woman was the woman his father chose especially for him. And she, independent woman that she was, chose to marry him. Sight unseen.

This young man, Isaac, this human being with a human heart broken by the human betrayal and violence of his father, and the human pettiness and jealousy of his mother, was able to be healed and made whole and grow to be a tribute to his inheritance, despite the obvious flaws in his DNA. 

One wonders just how much the love of his stepmother and companionship of his stepbrother had in the Healing of Isaac. Think about that for a while and let it sink in.

There is great hope in this terrible story, which is why I am so excited to share it with you this morning. 

There is great hope in all of our stories, if we look for it.

If you hear nothing else – if you remember nothing else from this tragic story – please remember this:

No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you, God – the one and the same God first named El-roi by a frightened Egyptian slave girl who no longer felt invisible, no longer felt unworthy, who went on to save the life of the very child for whom she and her son were sacrificed – that God, THAT ONE GOD, sees. 

God sees.

God knows.

God loves.

God uses us – each and every one of us – broken and hurting and imperfect human beings that we are, as agents of God’s love. 

We are God’s agents in this world. We are God’s hands in this world. We are God’s feet in this world. 

And, in this world, we are the eyes of God who was once named “El-roi”. 

We are the ears of God who named one child “He hears.” 

We are the delight of God who named another child “He laughs.”

Or, as Jesus says to us in this morning’s Gospel from St. Matthew (10:40-42),

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, 

and whoever welcomes me 

welcomes the one who sent me. “

Because we are baptized, Jesus lives in me and Jesus lives in you. And, in the mystery of our faith, Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit are one.

So, the One who sees me, lives – in me and in you!   

We are the well where El-roi lives. We have become the living water of our baptism which is the vehicle of our salvation for ourselves and each other. 

That possibility excites me with hope. The ending of the story is never finally written. Or, as Gracie Allen is quoted as saying, "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."

There is another chapter, another character waiting in another place where there is another possibility for healing. Perhaps not reconciliation, but perhaps another place with other, unexpected, surprising  people who offer the possibility of healing and restoration and hope. 

Because, "No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me), God sees."

The One who sees me, lives.