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Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is for you here?

What is for you here?
Pentecost X – Proper 14 A – August 13, 2017
Christ Church, Ridgewood, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

I'm fairly certain that 99 44/100% of clergy who are scheduled to preach this morning are not preaching the sermon they initially prepared.

I had a lovely sermon on "spiritual discernment" which I wrote on Thursday and finished on Friday. I knew Saturday would be spent traveling from my home in DE to visit my grandchildren and then to spend a lovely afternoon at their home with them and then a bit of a trip to the petting zoo.

And then came Saturday evening. And, some time between a lovely afternoon of giggling and reading and petting goats and feeding cows, Charlottesville, VA happened. More specifically, the "Unite the Right" march happened. One woman is dead. Nineteen more are hospitalized.

And, my lovely, neatly typed, double spaced 14 point sermon was tossed into the trash and this one was scribbled on hotel paper at around midnight.

Now, you don't know me and I don't know you but I take my responsibility as a priest and a minister of the Gospel pretty seriously.  When I got back from a lovely day with my family and got into my hotel room, I saw the images on my television screen and immediately became ill.

Then, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing in light of the Gospel and the scripture lessons for today and knew I had to preach this to you today.

I thought the worst that can happen is that you'd listen politely (like good Episcopalians) and then never ask me to come back.

I figured, well, what the heck!?!

What I saw in the disturbing images from Charlottesville, unfolding, before my very eyes, was solid evidence that the very issue which ignited the Civil War in this country, on April 12, 1861 at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina DID NOT END with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

The harsh, painful truth is that we are still fighting the Civil War - and not just in the South or in the North. It is in the very soil of America. Everywhere.

Oh, we've all taken anti-racism training which the diocese and the national church offer. Or, at least, we've had "diversity training" in corporate settings.

I'm not talking about "racism" - as important as that is.

I'm not talking about "inclusion" of "diversity" - as important as that is.

I'm talking about the evil which must be named if we are to confront it.

I'm talking about White Supremacy - the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races - especially the Black race - and therefore, White people should be dominate over all other races.

This domination by Whites extends to the God of their belief - including their own brand of Christianity - which they believe is superior to other religions, and, therefore, anything other than Christianity in general and their unique brand of Christianity in particular ought to be eliminated if not annihilated.

Now, this impulse to dominate and annihilate is not a new phenomenon. It's not even an old phenomenon. It is, in fact, ancient, woven in the earliest stories of humans.

We see this in the first lesson from the 19th chapter of the 1st Book of Kings. We meet up with the Prophet Elijah in a cave on the side of Mt. Horeb. He had retreated there after a confrontation with the forces of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who were devout followers of the God of the Phoenicians, the God known as Ba'al.

Elijah had set up a dueling miracle match of "My God is more powerful than your God" between the Phoenician Ba'al and the Israelites, Jehovah.

In short, Ba'al lost.

The deal was that 850 prophets of Ba'al were slaughtered at Mt. Carmel - but so had thousands of Israelites. Furthermore, when Queen Jezebel learned of the slaughter of her prophets, she vowed to kill Elijah.

So, Elijah leaves Mt. Carmel and retreats - alone - to the south, to Judah, where he then walks for 40 days and 40 nights - reminiscent of 40 years his role model Moses wandered in the wilderness - until he gets to the mountain.

Once there, he collapses in a cave on the side of the mountain and falls into an exhausted sleep. He is awakened by what this translation calls "a sheer silence". Other translations refer to this as "a still small voice". Still others translate it "the voice of silence."

This "voice of silence" asks him "So, Elijah, what is for you here?"

Today's lesson translates that as "What is here for you?" (Hear the nuance of difference?)

The literal translation is "What is for you here?" ("Ma lekah po?")

What is for you here?

You can hear the frustration and annoyance, the disappointment and anger in Elijah’s voice. “I’ve been working my heart out for the God of Hosts” says Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the palaces of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”

He was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”

Elijah looks for God in all the ways he knows God has appeared to Moses, his role model. He looks for God in the midst of the great wind, the way God appeared at Mt. Sinai. But, God was not there.

Elijah looks for God in the earthquake when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses But God was not in the earthquake. And then, Elijah looks for God in the fire, the way God appeared to Moses in the midst of the burning bush that the fire did not consume. But, God was not in the fire.

No God. No great revelation. No tablets. No commandments.

And, after the fire, there was, again, that sheer silence, that voice of silence.

And, what did that voice that made no sound say? 

Again, Elijah was asked, “What is for you here?”

What is for you here, Elijah 

- here in the desert where your righteous anger gets you nothing?
- here in the desert where here are no crowds to applaud your courage and your miracles? 
- here when the wind, earthquake and fire bring no revelation?
- here where you are left befuddled in desert silence, expecting to see God's glory, hearing a silent voice; waiting for an affirming answer, getting a shattering question

What is for you here?

It reminds me of what another Rabbi, one from a little village called Nazareth in ancient Galilee, said to his disciple Peter. 

In Matthew’s gospel version, the disciples are in the boat and Jesus has just come down from a time alone to pray. He was walking on the sea, we are told, which scares the literal bejesus out of his disciples.

Jesus calms them with his assurances but it is Peter who tests Jesus. “If it is you,” he says, command me to come to you on the water.” 

Jesus said, “Come.” And so Peter did and found himself walking on water. 

It was only when Peter was distracted by the wind that he began to sink. Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I hear echoes of that voice that made no sound asking Elijah, What is for you here?” 

- What is for you here, Peter, in the midst of the strong wind battering the boat and the turbulent water? 
- What is for you here in the midst of this miracle? 
- Are there dreams of glory and honor and praise? 
- Honor and praise that are not deserved and so can be blown away as quickly as the next strong wind or washed away with the next wave? 
- Where is your faith?

What is for you here?

We have - or at least, I have - come to this day haunted by this same question.

As we look over the carnage in Charlottesville, VA, as we see that White Supremacy is still alive in this country, we may wonder about the so-called "progress" we have made. Indeed, we may have been fairly smug, thinking that we are the greatest civilized nation in the world.

I'm remembering that a reporter once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. After a few considered moments, Gandhi responded, "I think it's a good idea."

In moments like this our nation begins to face an identity crisis. Is this who we are? Have we been blind to what has been right before our eyes? By ignoring the evil of White Supremacy, have we allowed this cancer to grow? Stronger? And, metastasize?

In moments of identity crisis, faith is also shaken. And, when faith is shaken, we are often confronted, in an entirely new way, by the ancient question in that same still, small voice - that sheer silence - that voice of silence, which asks us:

What is for you here

- here in this country we call the "land of the free and the home of the brave?
- here where riots and violence and hatred spilled out and overflowed onto American streets in Nazi chants of "Blood and Soil" (Nazi chants on the streets of America!!!!)?
- here where we are left confused and befuddled, ashamed and outraged?
- here where we come to church for a word of comfort and an assurance of peace, only to hear a shattering question:

What is for you here?

I'm sorry. I don't have an answer for you.

Each one of us has some soul-searching to do.

Perhaps this is a sermon on spiritual discernment, after all.

Each one of us has to decide how it is that we will commit to dismantling White Supremacy. Because each one of us is convicted by the Gospel of Jesus who gave us the commandment to love one another as he loves us.

St. Paul reminds us that neither God nor Jesus care about nationality - neither Jew nor Greek - or gender - male or female - or rich or poor. God doesn't look on the outward person, but on the inward human being - into the heart and soul of what makes that person a contributing citizen of the cosmos.

Jesus said we are to love one another - as he loves us. Indeed, he said to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength and to love our neighbor as yourself. We know that "neighbor" is not defined as "the person next door or on the same street". The world is the global village of God and we are all neighbors.

I will tell you this: Elijah and Peter did receive a gift from their encounters with the Holy. The answer to the question "What is for you here?" was the same for both Peter and Elijah.

That gift? Humility.

Elijah must now learn the greatest virtue of Moses, his role model - humility.
Elijah, the zealous warrior is given his most difficult mission: to confront his pride and see himself as he truly is.

Peter - the zealous follower of Jesus with his own illusions of grandeur, had to confront and accept his dependence on Jesus. 

What is for you here, Elijah? 

What is for you here, Peter? 

What is for you here? 

On this day after the riots, after the violence, after the hatred, after the "Blood and Soil" I urge you to sit in the sheer silence and seek what God has for you.

Turn off the TV - the continuous loop of doom and gloom from CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and NPR.

Sit in "sheer silence" for a while and let your thoughts be your only companion. Don't look for God in the grand and glorious. Or the dramatic or earth shaking.

Look, instead, for God in the unexpected. In the small and insignificant. In the mist and fog.

Just know this: in that silence, God has never been so close. As St. Paul reminds us "the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."

Listen to the sheer silence - the voice of silence. May we be made humble enough to see and understand and know a deeper truth about ourselves, our world, our God and God's call to us.

Perhaps then, after the fire and the fury, the violence and the hatred, we can surrender to humility and finally - FINALLY - bring an end to the Civil War in this country.

What is for you here?


Sunday, August 06, 2017

Spiritual Intimacy

“The secret of being human is to share the secret of our humanity”
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On this glorious summer morning in August, the Sunday the liturgical calendar calls “Transfiguration Sunday", I want to talk to you about spiritual intimacy.

Let me start this way: Several years ago, I was at a James Taylor concert. I’m a huge fan of Sweet Baby James. As I remember, it was a beautiful summer’s evening. It was outdoors. We were sitting on the grass with a picnic basket filled with cheese and crusty bread, some fresh fruit and, of course, a few bottles of the fruit of the vine.

Before the show and during intermission, the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter and the occasional singing of a favorite JT song. It was also heavy with the smell of a variety of foods and wine and beer all mixed in with human sweat and cigarettes and cigars and, well, let’s just call them “funny cigarettes”.

After intermission, James and the band came back on stage and were tuning their instruments. After a few waves of applause, someone yelled out in a voice thick with alcohol and probably a funny cigarette or two, “I love you, James.”

James Taylor stopped in his tracks and looked into the crowd for a few long seconds. Then, he leaned into the microphone and said, “That’s only because you don’t know me.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. I still carry it with me, all these years later. It sums up for me one of the essential dilemmas of being human. We want desperately to be known and loved.  And yet, being fully known and yet still completely loved is one thing that frightens us to death.

Some of us know instantly what Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden felt, after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Do you remember what they did? They heard the voice of God and they immediately covered themselves.

And, perhaps most foolishly but humanly of all, they tried to hide from God.

In this morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, we read that, after Moses went to speak with The Lord on Mt. Sinai, “his face shone because he had been talking with the Lord”.

Indeed, his face was shining and people were afraid to come near him, so he covered his face with a veil when he was with the people.

Even so, the people could still see that his face was shining. When he went to talk with the Lord, he removed the veil. But, when he talked with the people, he hid his face.

If we only knew what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking what James Taylor was thinking. That if they really knew him, they wouldn’t love him. Wouldn’t follow him. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he was only trying to protect them from the fear he saw on their faces.

Peter’s epistle repeats the story we heard from Luke. While Jesus was praying on Mt. Thabor, he and James and John noticed that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.”

Scripture tells us that Moses and Elijah were leaving Jesus when Peter blurted out that he wanted to build a dwelling for them – one for each of them. Was he frightened or in awe? Was that his clumsy way of holding onto the glory of this amazing moment? Was this Peter’s way of saying, “No, don’t go. Not yet.”

Was he trying to contain their glory? To capture it somehow and tame it? If he could fit the glory of these three into three dwelling places, maybe it wouldn’t seem quite so daunting and scary.

The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one that can be easily turned into a romantic theologizing of his public life. Scholars are also known to want to tame it and control it, to fit it into three neat boxes of his public ministry: the first labeled Baptism, the second labeled Transfiguration and the third labeled Ascension. And then, they package all three boxes up into on packaged labeled “Mystery” so we can study it and learn it and know it.

Except, of course, we can’t.

We get hints and glimmers, a wee peak into the divine nature of God which is glory surpassing our wildest imagination. So, we try to contain it. That way, it’s not so scary.

Presbyterian minister and author, Fredrick Buechner, in his book, Telling Secrets, writes this:
“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.”
How transfigured – how transformed – might we be if we engaged in an intentional effort toward greater spiritual intimacy?

I don’t know but I have a strong hunch that this is the reason this congregation is as close as it is, the reason you all are tenacious, why you continue to be alive and vital, even as you face the gaping hole in the earth that once was the Methodist Church right across the street from you.

It’s because you know some of each other’s secrets. You’ve seen each other at your best and your worst. And still, you love one another.

As a Hospice Chaplain I have come to hear what many people think are their secrets. What is amazing to them – and to me – is how often their families, their loved ones, their friends, are not at all surprised by what they hear from their loved ones. And, how it doesn’t matter. How they love them. Anyway. Or, in some cases, because of the secrets they have kept.

Beuchner wrote the book Telling Secrets after his daughter struggled with depression and bulimia. Only after she was able to tell the secret of her depression which affected her disease was Beuchner able to admit his own depression. He was also – for the first time in his life, able to admit to the secret of his father’s depression and the deeper secret of his suicide.

As Beuchner also wrote:
 “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”
After 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have come to know that the “secret sauce” – the ingredient that makes a congregation “successful” – is not size. It is not the bottom line of the budget or the “ASA” (Average Sunday Attendance) or the amount of the endowment.

I have come to believe that the measurement of success of a Body of Christ is in direct proportion to the level of spiritual intimacy shared among the people of God who call themselves a community of faith. That’s really hard to measure which may be the reason social scientists and church growth guru types never include it in their calculations.

I have come to understand that success in Christian community is the ability to say, “I love you” and to know that you not only have your secrets, you are your secrets and others have theirs. And, as it is often said, we are only as sick as our deeply kept secrets. 

Yet, God knows. God knows and God sees and God loves us.



And, when we do that – when we know our spiritual secrets and still love one another as God loves us – we are not only transformed, we are transfigured, and we shine with the glory of God – naked and unashamed.