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Sunday, August 11, 2019

People get ready

Icon: Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence. Written by Mark C E Dukes*

A Sermon Preached for Pentecost VIX - Proper 14 C
August 10, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

I have some clergy colleagues who call this passage from Luke’s Gospel, “Boy Scout Jesus.” The Boy Scout motto, of course, is “Be prepared,” which means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is comforting the people and then tells them a parable about a bridegroom (some translations are "master" but others use "bridegroom"). Now, that’s a very interesting image for Jesus to use. A bridegroom. 

Indeed, a bridegroom who has just returned from the wedding banquet. It’s in the middle of the night. One can only imagine that what is on the mind of a bridegroom (ahem) is NOT serving his servants.

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus tells us we should do. Be Boy Scouts. Be prepared. Be always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.

As I’ve considered this Gospel and what message it might have for us today, with all that is going on in this country and the world, I’ve heard a few songs  from the 60s in the back of my head. 

Now, there is a saying about the 60s that rings true with me. It’s that, if you can remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there. And, if you don’t get that joke, well, we’ll talk after church.

I was an infant (ahem), of course, but these days, nostalgia for that decade is running high.  Whether you were there to witness it or not, many of us celebrated with great pride the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last month. 

The "Summer of Love," Woodstock's anniversary, is this week. 

Mets fan will be hard pressed to forget that ‘miracle run’ when they won the World Series over the Baltimore Orioles in 1969. Or, at least, the Mets fans in my life won’t ever let me forget.

Those were also turbulent years of student revolution, four dead in Ohio, the Vietnam War, the riots against the injustice of racism and protest marches for Civil Rights, the bra burning of the early Women’s Movement, the Stonewall Riots, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK and RFK, and the watershed moment of the church, Vatican II, which also deeply affected The Episcopal Church and planted the seeds which resulted in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the 1982 Hymnal.

Friday, August 9th, marked the 45th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Millhouse Nixon. This week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatle’s White Album, with the now iconic picture of the Fab Four walking across Abby Road.

In my view, that decade produced some of the best music as the relatively new genre of rock ‘n roll began to mature and deepen and fuse with rhythm and blues and jazz and soul. A few of those songs have come to visit me this week, to help me make sense of senseless acts of cruelty and bigotry.

I’m remembering Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and his silken voice singing, 
Mother, mother 
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother 
There's far too many of you dying 
You know we've got to find a way 
To bring some lovin' here today.”
It was when I heard Marvin’s plaintive voice that I found permission to weep openly for a country that I deeply love. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I love this country.

That love was instilled by my grandparents and parents, immigrants who fled their beloved country of Portugal, looking for a better life for themselves and their children and grandchildren. I stand before you today, in this pulpit, a grateful debtor who will never, ever forget their sacrifice and hard work. I am here today because of them and their sacrificial love.

I'm  sure there are those of you here in church this morning, who have your own stories from your immigrant parents or grand or great grand parents. Everyone in America – except for those who are indigenous to the land – came here from a different place. 

They may have come here intentionally or they may have been brought here forcefully against their will, but all of us have roots in other lands.

If you don’t know your story, ask about it. Study it. Learn it. Become a grateful debtor to their sacrificial love.

As I wondered, with Marvin, “What’s going on,” I began to hear Paul Simon’s words in his song, “American Tune,” which he wrote after the election of Richard Nixon. The tune is actually one we sing every Holy Week, “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” 
Don’t know a soul who’s not been battered 
Don’t have a friend who feels at ease 
Don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered 
or driven to its knees. 
But it's all right, it's all right 
We've lived so well so long 
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on 
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.
One of the great civil rights songs – part of its spirituality, really – was sung by a man named Curtis Mayfield, People Get Ready.  

If you don’t know Curtis Mayfield you’re either too young or frankly, you may be too white. You certainly need to spend more time listening to and being inspired by Gospel music. 

Google him. Listen to his music. I’ve been thinking of the haunting lyrics of that song, especially for today’s Gospel lesson:
People get ready, there's a train comin'  
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board 
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'  
You don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord.
There were many reasons to be anxious and fearful during that decade, but Mayfield understood that there was something greater on the horizon, and you could hear it like a distant train.

Or, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." 

And, Jesus said, Don’t be afraid. Be ready.

We are in another time of deep social unrest. There are many reasons for many of us to be anxious and fearful. According to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country, as of August 5, which was the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S. Just in the last past two weeks, more than 100 people have been shot!

The Justice Department defines a mass shooting as any single incident in which at least four people were shot, excluding the shooter. So, while the 7 random deaths in Chicago to gunfire over that same weekend are included in the body count, they do not count as ‘mass shootings’. 

Think about that for a minute. Can you hear Marvin singing, "What's going on?"

On Wednesday, 680 undocumented immigrants were rounded up in a massive enforcement sweep throughout six Mississippi cities. It was the first day of school, so their children were left weeping for their parents on the street. As of this morning, not one of their employers or the plant owners, who illegally employed these undocumented immigrants, was charged with any offense. 
On Thursday, a home in Sterling, OH – a small town about 25 miles outside of Akron – was leveled and completely destroyed by an explosion. It was home to an interracial couple who were one year away from paying off the mortgage. It is being investigated as a possible hate crime after officials found a crude swastika and misspelled anti-Black slur spray-painted nearby. 

This is 2019. Not 1959. 

Can you hear Marvin’s plaintive voice asking, “What’s going on”?

To which Jesus answers in this morning’s gospel, Don’t be afraid. Be ready.

Let me inject a personal note here to say that this sermon is most definitely not a partisan political tirade. You are hearing the words of someone who cares desperately for all – ALL – of the children of God.  As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said,

“Preaching that we are to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger and stand up for the marginalized does not mean that you are making political statements. It means you are making biblical statements.”

So, how are we to respond to these words of Jesus? How can we turn our fear into courage? How can we transform our thoughts and prayers into meaningful action?

There are many ways we can help – almost too numerous to include in any meaningful way in this sermon. 

Our own bishop, Kevin Brown, has released several really strong video blogs, calling us to prayer and action, including going to the web pages of those dioceses that are on the Southern Border, and web pages of The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and the Episcopal Migration Ministries and web page of the more than 100 bishops, including Bishop Brown, who are members of the Episcopal Bishops United Against Gun Violence and supporting or joining in their ministries.

But, here’s what I want to say. Here’s how I hear the words of Jesus when he says, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”

I want to say that I and many others in this congregation here this morning lived through the turbulent 60s and 70s. 

We lived through the 80s  “conspicuous consumption” with big hair and disco and MTV and HBO and over-inflated budgets and the cruelty of the early days of the AIDS pandemic. We saw the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media, and the grunge and rave and hip hop musical movements of the 90s and yes, we survived. 

And yes, we survived the Unholy Trinity of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA, and in the 18 years since then, we’ve been struggling to regain our balance.

I want to say that this is not a political problem. 

It’s not a Republican or Democrat or Independent problem. Indeed, if you are a Christian and a Republican, you should be intentional about making friends with a Democrat. And, if you are a Christian and a Democrat, you should be intentional about making friends with a Republican. And, if you are an Independent, make it a point to make friends with EVERYBODY!!

It’s not a conservative or liberal problem. 

It’s not an economic or immigration problem. 

It’s not a black, white, brown or problem of any other flesh tone. 

It’s not a problem of video games or mental illness, and serious problems they are. 

It’s not a problem of how we pray or to whom we pray or where we do or don’t pray or the name by which we know and name God - or whether or not we even pray at all.

No, the problem facing our country today is a soul problem. 

It’s a moral problem. 

It’s a values problem. 

And, if the church and her ministers can’t speak to the soul, if the church and her ministers can’t speak to what’s right and what’s wrong, if the church and her ministers can’t call us back to the values we say we hold dear, then we might as well close the doors and go home because we are not being the Body of Christ, the New Jerusalem, the People of the New Covenant, the Priesthood of All Believers, the church which we profess.

I want to say that when I hear Jesus say to us this morning, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready,”  I hear it as a call to the very soul of the people of this country. 

I hear it as a voice saying that we may have gone astray, but we still know the way. For us, Jesus is the way. 

We may not be out of the woods, but we’re on the path. Jesus is that path. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an on-coming train. No, the light at the end of the tunnel is Jesus, the Light of the World, and the distant sound of something like a diesel train hummin’ is the sound of faith - which is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen".

And, if you can’t remember any of that, remember the words of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who famously said, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

Let those words be your guide through the turbulence of these dark, troubling days.  Let them inform the choices you make in your life, with your family, in your work, with your neighbors.

In the late 60s, Curtis Mayfield sang, People get ready / There's a train to Jordan / Picking up passengers/ From coast to coast / Faith is the key / Open the doors and board them / There's room for all / The loved, the lost.

You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

Marvin Gay sang, You know we’ve got to find a way to bring more lovin’ here today.

And, this morning, Jesus says to us, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready. ”  

So say it with me, church, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”  

Now, turn to your neighbor and say, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.” 

And, now say it again to yourself so you can hear yourself say it in your own heart and let the words move down into to your very soul wherein lies your spiritual treasure, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”

As Jesus also teaches: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”


* Commissioned by Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, who comments:

Mothers, like Rachel, weep and weep and weep
Their hearts break
The killing is senseless: here, there, and everywhere
We are killing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, friends.

All the dead are these
The living and dead weep and say, How long?
Everywhere mothers are weeping....
Dead mothers are weeping too...

Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence has one plea to all humanity,
“My children - hands up, don’t shoot!!!”

Keep your hands up, because we won’t give up this fight to end gun violence
Keep your hands up, because the crazy laws that allow so many guns must end
Keep your hands up, because we need all the voices and hearts to keep saying, “Don’t shoot...”
Keep your hands up, because we won’t stop believing that we will put an end to violence ...
Keep your hands up, because prayer means we will give our lives if necessary to end the violence, end the shootings.

Our Lady has her hands up
The victims have their hands up

We must keep our hands up and march, vote, advocate, resist, preach, witness, change laws, change lives ... save lives.

We keep our hands up, because we will not give up the fight (no matter how long it takes) until humanity stops shooting.

Hands up America, don’t shoot
Hands up
Hands up America, don’t shoot.

Stop shooting

Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence has one plea to all humanity,

“My children - hands up, don’t shoot!!!”

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Where there's a will . . . .

A sermon preached at Old Christ Church, Laurel, DE
August 4, 2019 Pentecost VIII Proper 13 C

Note: Within 24 hours of each other, this country suffered two tragic acts of National Terrorism based on the toxic rise of White Nationalism, condoned at the highest levels of our government. I was tempted to scrap this sermon and preach on what happened in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH, but, instead, I chose to begin the service with a strong statement about the tragedy and a request for a moment of prayer for an end to gun violence, for an increase in tolerance of differences and for God to open our eyes to see the spark of divinity that exists within all of God's people. 

As we mourn for those affected by these tragedies, I invite you to join in praying these words adapted from the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice:

Lord, in our shock and confusion, we come before you
In our grief and despair in the midst of hate
in our sense of helplessness in the face of violence,
we lean on you.

For the families of those who have been killed we pray.
For the shooters—help us to pray, Lord.
For the communities that have lost members—their anger, grief, fear—we pray.
For the churches striving to be your light in darkness beyond our comprehension, we pray.

In the face of hatred, may we claim love, Lord.
May we love those far off and those near.
May we love those who are strangers and those who are friends.
ay we love those who we agree with and understand,
and even more so, Lord, those who we consider to be our enemies.

Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.
Heal our sin-sick souls.
Make these wounds whole, Lord.   Amen

Here is the sermon I preached:

It was 1997 and I had had an annual, routine mammogram which revealed a small lump. My doctor was not overly concerned but sent me to a surgeon for a consult. My surgeon was also not overly concerned but said, “You know, you and I will both sleep a lot better as soon as that lump is out.”

He was right. Now, before I go any further, the surgery was scheduled and done and the lump was benign and I really slept well after that. 

Before that all happened, our family had an opportunity when we were all together. After dinner one night, I let them know what was happening. They were concerned, of course, but as hopeful as I was.

Because they are my kids, they decided to shift the mild anxiety that was floating in the room with some humor. 

One of the kids said, “So, mom, if this doesn’t work out, can I have your car?”   

Someone else said, “No, I’m older, I get the car.”

It went on like this for a bit until my own anxiety kicked in and I heard myself say, “Well, wait. This may be a good time to talk about this, anyway. So, who wants the Lennox china?”

Crickets. Kids looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders.

“C’mon,” I said. “I bought that china place setting by place setting. Nobody?”

Uncomfortable silence. “Okay, the silverware. Someone wants that, right?”

The only thing I could hear were people shifting in their seats and shuffling their shoes. 

Finally, one of the kids piped up, “I know! I know! I want the Disney collection!”

“What?” I laughed, thinking this was more of their attempt at humor. 

“No, you know, all the VCRs of all the Disney movies. Those are going to be worth something one day. I’ll take those!”

“No,” came a voice, “I’m the youngest. I should get the Disney movies.”

“Okay, you get the DVDs, I get the VCRs,” said another. 

And then, suddenly - to my utter astonishment - all the kids were squabbling over the Disney movies. 

Not the Lennox. Not the silver. Disney movies!

We all have our ‘stuff’. Some of us have “collections” of this and that, from stamps or coins or special cut glass pieces, or toy cars or porcelain dolls or holiday decorations and ornaments – especially Christmas (I know that’s my biggest flaw).

I have one friend who lives in a small apartment with not a lot of storage space, so she actually rents a storage space a few miles from where she lives to keep all of her seasonal decorations for her home. Talk about creating space just to store your “stuff”.

That’s what this morning’s gospel story is all about, isn’t it? It begins with a squabble between two siblings over an inheritance. It’s a scene that clergy in parish ministry know well. 

Indeed, we have a saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a relative.”

Jesus then tells the crowd a powerful story about the rich man whose land has produced a bountiful harvest and instead of enjoying and sharing it now, he spends all of his time tearing down his barns and building bigger ones to store more "stuff." 

Jesus tells the story in order to caution the crowd not to pin their hopes on a future inheritance. It’s not that planning for the future is not important. It is. 

What Jesus is saying is that it’s not smart to place your hope in “stuff”.

Parish ministry also provides an interesting vantage point to watch the downsizing we all go through at various points in our lives. At some point in our lives, the things we’ve collected become more of a burden than a joy as they lose the significance or value they once had.

Churches that operate thrift shops or have rummage sales are often the recipients of the products of that winnowing process which includes furniture, dishes, Christmas ornaments, sports equipment, electronic devices, etc. 

And, clothes – lots and lots and lots of clothes – some of which really ought to have gone into the rubbish. It’s funny, but even more than ornaments and collections, people have the hardest time letting go of their old clothing. I’m not sure why that is; I only know that it’s true.

It’s also true that every day, people here and around the world are victims of tragedies like floods, fires, hurricanes and tornadoes. They lose their homes and all their personal belongings. 

When they are interviewed on the television, we see their grief, but so many of them also say, “We were left with nothing. We are going to have to rebuild. But, we have our lives. We have each other. Things are replaceable. People are not. Thank God we have our lives and each other.”

Sometimes, it takes the crisis of a tragedy for some of us to get our priorities in order. That’s really the message Jesus has for us this morning. He’s telling us to be rich in the things that really matter. 

St. Paul gives us the short list: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is that which is invisible to the eye, as the children’s story of the Little Prince reminds us.

It is love, of course. In the end, it really is all that matters.

I often tell grieving Hospice families that they are their loved ones greatest legacy. It’s not the ‘stuff’ we leave behind. It’s not the schools we were able to attend or the degrees we were able to achieve. It’s not the positions we held or the awards we won.

The real value – our real, lasting legacy – is the love we have created that lives on after we have left this earthly plane. 

That is what makes life worth living – the memories of the love we create and which lives on after we die. There is no dollar amount anyone can put on that love. 

No one can ever take that away from you.

So, yes, plan for the future. But, do not put your faith in your stuff. Trust in the gift of love, for scripture tells us that “all love is of God”. 

The love which God gave to Jesus is meant to be shared the way Jesus shared His love with us: abundantly, sacrificially, lavishly, and wastefully.

It is the wise person who stores up and invests in the inheritance of God, for that investment will not only yield great rewards, it will be blessed with a love that lasts through eternity.


Friday, August 02, 2019

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Well, Good Friday Morning, kids. I've had a little something on my mind and I'd love to hear what you think about it.

Many of you who know me know that it's no secret that while I love The Episcopal Church, I struggle with the Institutional Church vs. the church as the Body of Christ. 

Always have. Probably always will.

On the one hand, the institutional church is its own entity - separate and apart from the people. It has, necessarily, rules and policies, doctrine and canons, as well as its own hierarchy. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It's just that I wonder, more and more, what all of that has to do with Jesus and the movement He started.

Indeed, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night (as I did last night) and hear Tina Turner singing "What's love got to do, got to do with it?" I'm talking about the institutional church, of course, which often does not seem very loving to the People of God. And, in turn, sometimes the People of God can be very harsh and sometimes even cruel to others of God's children.

Oh, yes, there are the terrible cases of "clergy boundary violation" - sometimes referred to in shorthand as "Title IV" because that refers to the Church Canons developed specifically to deal with clergy who violate boundaries of professional behavior. That involves everything from breaking confidentiality to sexual abuse/rape and pedophilia. 

I know one complaint of Title IV which involved "cyberbullying" (True. Hand to Jesus!)

But, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about what some people refer to as "Christianity vs. Churchianity". By that, they mean that the institutional church becomes more important than Jesus; more important than being The Body of Christ.

Some examples:

1. In more than one Christian community I've heard people complain that the service takes longer than an hour. When I ask them, in essence, "What's the rush? Where do you need to be after church?" I generally get a blank stare and either "I need to get on with my day." OR: "Sunday is really my only day off." OR: "The previous rector always got us out in an hour. YOUR services always take an hour an 10 or 15."

2. In more than one Christian community, some of God's people have taken a less direct approach, asking, " Do we HAVE to pray for EVERY person on the Prayer List?" Or, "Do we HAVE to sing EVERY verse of EVERY Hymn?" Or, "You know, if you can't say what you need to say in a sermon in 10 minutes, you're message will be lost. " Ten minutes, I've asked. "Yes, that's longer than any TV segment before the commercial break," comes the answer.

3. In more than one Christian community, some of God's people have said, "I hate it when we go to 'summer hours' and only have one service. I like my 8 o'clock Rite One, no music. That's why you won't see me in the summer months. I'm giving God a vacation."

These are some of my own personal experiences of "Churchianity vs. Christianity." I'm sure you can provide some of your own. (Like the time a new organist - who happened to be a Millennial - decided to select hymns for Easter that didn't include "Hail tee festival day" or "Welcome Happy Morning" or "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." and that's all anyone could talk/complain bitterly about on their way out of the church as they headed toward the Traditional Annual Easter Egg Hunt after the service. Sorry, that was years ago and I'm obviously still recovering.)

Millions of people are leaving the church. MILLIONS. That's no exaggeration. We call them "The Nones" or "The Dones".

We blame it on church music. Or, the language of the service. Or, the music. Which we should change and make "more relevant" and/or "more modern/contemporary".

We blame it on generational divides, which are completely the distinctions of some social scientiests, which then become "proxy wars" for the real issue of "Churchianity vs Christianity".

So, obviously Boomers have "ruined the church" with "identity politics" and their ridiculously desperate need to "attract" Millennials with "modern language and contemporary music" because EVERYONE (Oops, now I've pissed off a Millennial b/c all caps means YELLING) knows that Millennials like ancient ritual - even Rite I (DUH! What's wrong with you that you don't know that?).

Besides, Millennials would change it if they could but there are still too many Boomers and Gen-Xers who control EVERYTHING like liturgy and governance and when governing bodies meet and for how long and they do this intentionally to keep Millennials out of the decision-making process (insert favorite Gif here because, you know: Millennials).

It seems to me - but what do I know because I'm just a Boomer female, you know, who has already ruined the church - that we are fighting each other when what we SHOULD be asking is "What's love got to do with it?"

It seems to me that the generational infighting is just a proxy war between "Churchianity and Christianity". 

It seems to me that the questions about the length of the service or the time of the service or the fact that most church budgets have higher line items for clergy compensation packages OR the highest line item is building and grounds maintenance and repair (even more than clergy compensation which is reduced to seriously part time or simply supply), each one of these being larger amounts than the line item for mission (or outreach), is yet another indication of the sad fact that we value Churchianty over Christianity.

So, there is an entire movement called "Unchurching" which is developing a fair amount of steam. It mirrors the "home schooling " movement and is pretty much based on the same philosophy. A man named Richard Jacobsen has developed a blog and then a webpage and, of course, a FaceBook page which produced a comic book and a book, and, by modern necessity, a TED talk.

It is now a bona fide thing. "Unchurched" is a movement. People are being "fed" and "nourished" on The Word in their homes with their families and friends. Just like the early church. Not in "church".

So, what are we to make of all of this? We who are supposed to be about 'evangelism'? Are we to be more concerned with bringing more souls to Jesus or putting more 'bums' in the pews' and 'green stuff in the plate'?

I'm thinking that before we embark on any serious effort of evangelism, we need to get very clear about what we're doing and why.

I'm thinking we need to move past demographic charts and community development growth projections and ask questions that have more to do with The New Commandment Jesus gave us to "love one another as God loves you."

I think we need to ask, "What's love got to do with it?"

And, the second is like unto it - especially for the institutional church which is so good at defending itself against vulnerabilities with rigid doctrines and rules.

"Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?"

I'm excited to hear your thoughts. You might have noticed that I have some of the smartest friends on FaceBook - and this blog.
Let me hear from you . . ..