Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, January 24, 2021

My whole soul is in this

  

“My whole soul is in this.”

A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 - The Headstrong Daughter

Epiphany III B - January 24 2021

 

It’s hard to miss the theme of these lessons. Jonah is called to “Get up and go to Nineveh.” And Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, and says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

 

Even St. Paul senses a call about “this appointed time” and the Psalmist sings, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”  And, just in case you missed it, the collect is pretty clear: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.”   

 

Hmm . . . lemme guess …. It’s all about call, isn’t it?

 

One of the pastoral duties I’ve found myself called to over these many years, in and out of parochial ministry and in interim ministry is helping people and congregations with discernment of call. Most often, that has been discerning a call to priesthood - or, calling a priest - but there have been more than a few times when it has been my privilege to walk with someone on the journey I like to call “Well, what am I supposed to do now?”

Most often, that’s been after a loss of some kind: A death. A divorce. The loss of a job, either after having been laid off or fired. A career change. The last kid has graduated from high school or college. A move to be with a spouse. And, sometimes, it’s just an “itch” – a vague sense that something needs to change.

Very often the first step on the journey of “Well, what am I supposed to do now?” starts with “But, I can’t . . . .” . Or,  “But I don’t know anything else but what I’ve been doing . . .” Or, “I’m just a ____” (fill in the blank: A mom. A cook. A teacher. A bank teller. A musician. An immigrant. And, in one case, a plumber.)

It’s moments like that I love to pull out something I’ve kept in my file for years. I was delighted to go to my file cabinet and find that it was still there.

It's a little something from Greg Ogden, in his book "Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time." It’s in the form of a letter to Jesus from a management consulting firm which Jesus apparently consulted about his disciples.

Jesus, Son of Joseph
Carpenter Shop
Nazareth

Dear Sir:

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the 12 men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking.

They do not have the “team concept”.

We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.

Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership.

The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty.

Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.

We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau.

James, the son of Alphaeus, as well as Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings. They registered a high score on the manic depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man.

All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new Venture.

Sincerely yours,

Jordan Management Consultants

I also have a similar consultant’s letter about Jesus, which is far less than flattering, but you get the drift. I love to present this to a person in discernment, especially when I get, “But, I’m just a . . .”.

 

As I was listening to Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, I remembered a writing exercise we were assigned in the 7th or 8th Grade English Class. We were to write a 250 word essay on the following question:

 

“Is a man made for the moment, or the moment made for the man?” Let’s update that question for the realities of the Third Millennium and ask, “Is the person made for the moment, or the moment made for the person?”

 

I remembered that question when I heard our newly minted President say this: 

 

“In another January, on New Year’s Day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote: “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act. And my whole soul is in it.”

 

My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

 

And I thought to myself, “He really feels called to this work. He’s a 78-year old man with almost 50 years of service to his country. He has every right to say, “I’m just . . . an old man .  . . .a retired Congressman with a Medal of Freedom . . . I’m just a father and a grandfather . . . What more can I give? What am I supposed to do now?”

 

And, maybe he has said all those things, but he heard yet another call to service. “My whole soul is in this today.”   

 

So, is a person made for the moment or the moment made for the person?

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on that essay, but I do remember that I got an A. And, I think I got an A because I was, even then, a budding Anglican.

 

To my mind, there are times, I think, when a moment arrives that we’ve been waiting for all of our lives – sometimes, we don’t even know we were waiting for it until it arrived – and it is as clear as the Iberian nose in the middle of my face that there is nothing to be done but to step into the moment.

 

There are also times when a moment arrives and it is nothing we could have asked for or imagined and it’s certainly nothing we ever wanted, and we scratch our heads and say, “Well, what am I supposed to do now?”

 

And we spin the wheels in our mind about how we are “just this or that” and don’t have the skills or the training to do any of what is required of the moment.

 

And yet, when we step into the moment, the moment has something to teach us – to give us – and we discover, much to our surprise, that the moment makes something of us we had no idea was even a possibility.

 

And we are changed, and we are transformed, and we will never again be the same.

I'm sure you've all got stories about such moments in your own lives. Sometimes it was good and sometimes, not so good. Mostly they are not dramatic until seen through the rear view mirror of life. But, we all have those stories of transformational moments.

 

One of my favorite stories is about a woman who struggled for years with a sense of vocation, but because she had also struggled with learning, she thought she was, in her words, "a moron, too dumb to be a priest."

 

She saw her skills in the kitchen as her vocation, so she became a caterer, to the raving and appreciative cheers of her clients and customers. "Jesus said, 'feed my sheep'," she said. "I guess that's what I'm doing."

 

But, the "call" wouldn't go away, so she came to me to do some spiritual discernment.

 

It took me some time of gentle persuasion, but I finally got her to confront her presenting "problem". I was convinced that she was not "dumb" but probably had some learning disabilities that had been undiagnosed. We finally found a psychologist who would administer an IQ test.

 

She had her appointment and, a week later, went in for the results. That afternoon, we had a scheduled appointment. She was noticeably pale and seemed stunned. She sat down in the rocking chair and rocked for about 5 minutes before she finally found the words to speak.

 

She started by saying that the first thing the examiner asked her was about her son, which she thought quite peculiar. She asked his age and how he was doing in school.

 

She said, well, he had had a difficult start but once he had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, he got the help he needed and was actually excelling.

 

The examiner asked if anyone had ever asked her if she had learning disabilities. She said her heart sank. No, she answered, I've just never been very good at school.

"Did anyone ever tell you that your son's learning disabilities were probably a familial thing - that it probably ran in her family?"

 

"No," she said. "No, I just thought my son, well, had learning disabilities, as I had been told."

 

"Well," said the examiner, "so do you. Which is why your IQ score can't be accurately measured."

 

She said her heart sank. She just knew that this was where the hammer dropped. She was so stupid, her IQ so low, it didn't even register.

 

She took a deep breath and asked, “So, just how low is my IQ?"

 

"Low?" The examiner put her head back and laughed. "My dear," she said, "your IQ is so high we don't have the tools to measure it here." She added, "You are at the level of genius."

 

As the words of the examiner washed over her, she closed her eyes and, when she opened them, she realized she had gone from a moron to a genius. Just like that.

 

And, just like that, right there in the examiner's room, right in front of the examiner, she heard a voice in her ear say, "I have called you to be one of my priests."

 

She looked at the examiner and said, "Yes," right out loud, as tears streamed down her face. She told me that was the first time she had dared say 'yes' out loud but, she said, "I know I had been saying 'yes' in my heart for years."

 

She said the examiner looked a little confused but understood that something else - something more, something deep, something important - was happening in that room.

 

God speaks to us in various ways - sometimes right into our ear - but sometimes, God speaks through other people, other things. We just have to listen to the varieties of ways God sends messages and messengers.

 

It often starts when we find ourselves scratching our head and asking, “What am I supposed to do now?”

 

I’ve learned, over the years, that sometimes, it takes as much courage to let go as it does to take hold and begin something new, something, as Martin Smith once said, drives us to “the crucifyingly obscure boundaries of faith.”

We are called at many different times in many different ways. The challenge is not just to look but to see, not just to listen but to hear, as St. Benedict wrote, “with the eyes and ears of the heart.”

 

There is another sense of call that I want to leave you with which comes from another moment of the many vocations I heard on Inauguration Day. These are the closing words of the poem by Amanda Gorman, National Poet Laureate:

When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid,

the new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we're brave enough to see it.

If only we're brave enough to be it.

In this season of Epiphany, we are called to be lights of hope, lights of love, lights that lead the weary souls of others, in the words of Amanda Gorman, “to lift our gaze not to what stands between us, but what stands before us” and be part of a people united to “rebuild, reconcile and recover.”

 

Simon and Andrew, James and John, despite all their flaws, were brave enough to see the Light; brave enough to be a light.

 

Are you?

 

Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Disturbance in The Force


 A Sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast
Epiphany II - January 17, 2021

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.”

— the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

You may not have realized this when you got up this morning, but we are in the midst of an incredible moment in history. Let me point out to you some of the events and the energy which is swirling and gathering around us.

 

Eleven days ago, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, the Capitol Building in Washington, DC was attacked and desecrated by insurrectionists. The Capitol Building had been stormed only once before by the British Army in1812.

 

Three days ago, on January 13, the President of the United States was impeached for a second time – this time for incitement of insurrection – the first time in history that a POTUS has been impeached twice.

 

Three days from today, on January 20th, there will be a transfer of power as Donald J. Trump, the 45th POTUS, leaves office and Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is inaugurated as the 46th POTUS.

 

It is yet to be seen whether or not that transfer of power will be peaceful as over 20,000 National Guard troops surround the White House, the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court, and, elsewhere, in State Capitol buildings around the country which also prepare for possible attack by mob insurrectionists more loyal to Donald Trump than to the constitution and law and order of this country.

 

History will also be made, three days from now, as the first woman, who is also the first biracial (Black and Asian) woman will be sworn in as VPOTUS.

 

In this moment in history, we observe two notable events: On Monday, we celebrate the life and work and witness of the great leader of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Also on Monday, we observe the Confession of St. Peter, which begins the Week of Christian Unity, which ends the following Monday with the observation of the Conversion of St. Paul.

 

As Yoda might say, “There is a disturbance in the force.”

 

In the Star Wars series, The Force was a powerful energy field that bound all beings together. The source of the disturbance could be many things, from something new and light and good to something old and dark and dangerous. 


It was a feeling sensed especially by Jedi priests and knights – like Yoda and Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader – letting them know that something was happening elsewhere in the galaxy.

 

One does not have to be a Jedi priest or knight or even an Episcopal priest or Knight of Columbus to sense the energy created by the convergence of all of these events.

 

I will say this, however: This is an amazing time to be a Christian.

 

Into these disturbing and anxious days, in the Season of the Epiphany, the scripture appointed for us to consider this morning asks us to listen to and reflect on the call of Samuel and the call of Jesus to Philip and Andrew and Peter and Nathaniel.

 

Note, please, that the call of Samuel is a quiet call, so much so that Samuel is confused by it; he thinks it is Eli calling to him. God has to call him three times and Eli has to instruct Samuel on how to discern the call from God.

 

In John’s gospel, Jesus decides to go to Galilee where he found Philip and said, simply, “Follow me.”  We’re not privileged to know what was said before that; John simply cuts to the quick, leaving both the conversation and the character and nature of Philip to the religious imagination of those who would later hear the story.

 

Whatever was said must have been pretty convincing because when Philip went and found Nathanael, he told him that he had met a man named Jesus and that “we” – meaning, no doubt, he and Andrew and Peter – had  “found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

 

To that, you can almost hear Nathanael scoffing as he said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And, Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 

 

Come and see. That’s it. That’s all.

 

That’s the first example we are given of what I think is the best evangelism. “Come and see.” No hard pressure sales-technique. No Bible (or Torah) thumping. No threats of doom and gloom or hellfire and brimstone. No yammering about sin and perdition. Not even a real explanation – well, not one that John gives us. Just, “Come and see.”

 

Do not let the simplicity of the invitation blind you from the enormity of the challenge to accept.

 

In 1959, Joan Thatcher asked Martin Luther King Jr. to compose a statement on his call to ministry. He wrote these words:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. . . . It was not a miraculous or supernatural something. On the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity.

 

“An inner urge, calling me to serve humanity.” An inner urge. That sounds to me like a little like what Philip said to Nathaniel “Come and see”. Nathaniel must have felt an inner urge which lead him to walk down to road to meet Jesus for himself.

 

Author Frederick Buechner puts it this way, “It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring of the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts.”

 

I have this sense, this inner urge, that the “disturbance in the force” that many of us are feeling – those waves of anxiety and concern that beset us as we consider the many various things in our midst as we just try to simply live our lives – that inner urge is Jesus in our midst, and Philip is right beside him saying, “Come and see.”

 

I have this lump in my throat every time I watched the chaos at the Capitol Building last week that what we are in the midst of is the beginning of the end of something, something which has to happen in order for something new to begin. The barnacles are being scraped off the boat and we are being asked to set sail into new waters.

 

I have this stirring in my blood to say to you, my friends, that I can’t think of a better time to be Christian. I know. I know. That sounds crazy to say but it’s true.

 

This is the time for which we were baptized. This is the moment. This is the time to put our five baptismal vows into action, especially “to seek and serve Christ” in others and “to respect the dignity of every human being”.

 

Oh, I know. I know. You’re thinking to yourselves, Okay, she’s nice and all but she’s really crazy. She can’t be talking to me. I’m …. (fill in the blank – too old, too tired, not THAT religious, not that great a Christian .  . . .).

 

Well, I want to give you a few more words from Dr. King. In his sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King gave a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct” in which he talked about everyone’s idea of leadership as being someone out in front – someone who leads – someone who’s great. Here’s what he said:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.

 

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

 

If you hang around me long enough, you’ll hear me talk about servant leadership. It’s what is demonstrated in that story we heard from Bishop Quinton Primo*, who had a simple idea of calling together young people of all races to sing and worship God. It started with 100 kids and grew to over 500 young people who gathered together to talk about issues of race and commonalities of their humanity which affected at least two young adults he knew about and no doubt, countless more known only to God.

 

This is that moment – the moment that has the potential to call forth “Jesus greatness” in all of us. This is that moment that calls for servant leadership which, for Christians, comes from having a heart full of the grace of the sacrament of baptism and a soul generated by the love of Jesus deep down in our heart.

 

There was a story told by one of the Capitol Policemen who had been dragged out into the mob and beaten unmercifully with hockey sticks and the poles of American flags. Some in the mob were reaching to get his badge and others were reaching for his gun. He heard a few people chant, “Kill him with his own gun.”

 

And, he said he thought, well, he could get his gun and fire and he would shoot maybe one or two, but that would give them a reason to take his gun and shoot him.

So, he decided to appeal to their humanity. He started to shout, “I have kids.”

 

Suddenly, a few in the mob came to their senses and came to his rescue. They cleared a way for him, and his partner was able to help take him back into shelter. 

 

That was, for him, his moment of servant leadership. That was for his partner, his moment of servant leadership. That was, for the people in that mob, the moment his humanity touched their humanity which allowed them to move through their anger and rage and find the grace and love of servant leadership.

 

This is that moment for us all – to push through our anxiety and anger, our frustration and concern and find grace and love which comes from sharing our common humanity. This is how the barnacles get scraped from the bottom of the boat so we can set sail in new, uncharted baptismal waters. This is how something new comes out of something old.

 

As it was in the beginning, the Holy Spirit comes and broods over the chaos and calls something new into being.

 

Dr. King said, “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.”

 

It all begins with an invitation: “Come and see.”

 

Amen.

 

*A reading from “The Making of a Black Bishop” by the Rt. Rev. Quintin E. Primo, Jr. [1913-1998]:

 

“Thinking of novel ways to serve the diocese (Rochester, NY) ...on behalf of St. Simon’s Young People’s Fellowship, we sponsored an annual diocesan-wide choral evensong service for Episcopal young people. The attendance grew from less than 100 the first year to more than 500. The event was designed to accomplish two purposes: to revive the beautiful and once popular sung evening prayer worship service held in many Episcopal churches during the 30’s and 40-s...; and, to provide safe, congenial, and non-threatening surroundings for black and white urban and suburban, small town and rural, middle-class and underclass, and sometimes ‘no class’ young people to socialize, discuss racial and social problems, and proffer practical solutions. Participating clergy persons, youth advisers, parents and the young people themselves benefited enormously from their open discussions and shared experiences.

 

“For example, one morning in Chicago, a young white priest came to my office and asked my secretary to see me “for two minutes. The thought-to-be- stranger identified himself by saying, ‘Bishop Primo, as a high schooler and teenager, I participated in your yearly choral evensong services for young people at Simon’s in Rochester, New York. I was so inspired by them and you, that I with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decided to become a priest and professional counselor. I want to thank you again, and let you know that I am available to serve as a weekend supply priest should you need me….’

 

“A few weeks later, the incident was repeated. This time it was a U.S. Marine Chaplain form Virginia, who was in Chicago on business. Entering my office, he said, “I have little time as a taxi is outside waiting to take me to O’Hare Airport. However, I felt could not leave Chicago without seeing you and telling you that I was a teenager when you were at St. Simon’s…..Father Dan Bennett brought me up twice to your annual choral evensong service for young people. I learned a lot about racial understanding and tolerance, and now I am a champion of human rights for all.” I was deeply touched by the Chaplain’s surprise visit and testimony of what those evening prayer services, discussions and socializing had meant to him. I knew there were others who had had similar experiences that I would never know about; it supported the fact that if you reach diverse people in their attitude and behavioral formative years and bring them together for positive and enlightening interaction, the seeds of racial tolerance, unity and understanding can be models and references that impact the remainder of their lives and those with whom they come in contact.”


 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Beloved of God

  

"You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased"

A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Epiphany I - The Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2021

 

Well, it’s been quite an eventful first 10 days of the new year, hasn’t it? Our nation seems to have reached a very low point. The images we’ve seen have been enormously disturbing no matter which side of the political spectrum you land.

In times like these, it’s important to remember the basics – the foundational principles of our lives of faith – the things that hold us together while forces are trying to tear us apart. I want to call us to those foundational principles.

 

Over the last several years, the one sacrament that kept me the busiest, besides Eucharist, of course, is Baptism. In my 35 years of ordained ministry, I’ve done hundreds – I’m thinking it may well be more than a thousand – baptisms.

Every one of them has been special. Every one of them has been memorable. Every single one has been an honor and a joy, as is every time I am privileged to preside at Eucharist.

 

There are two that stand out, however. I want to tell you about one of them.

 

There was one family in my congregation who were artists – both parents were very talented artists – with two children, a boy almost 9 (I’ll call him G2) and a girl, almost 12 (I’ll call her G1) who had not been baptized. Their parents were of the mind that they wanted their children to grow up and chose their own religion.

 

However, they had moved from The City to The Burbs and discovered that their theological position was a minority one. They joined the church where I was rector and soon their kids were clamoring to be baptized.

 

I was pretty convinced that the older girl, G1, was in it to be eligible for Confirmation the next year. She told me stories of how some her friends had “made out like bandits” in Confirmation gifts. Her younger brother, G2, however, was very thoughtful and serious-minded and had lots of very serious questions.

G1 was most concerned with whether or not she could have a new dress for baptism. Yes, of course, I told her. Did it have to be white, she asked, because she had seen a beautiful light blue dress with sparkles – lots of sparkles, she said – and her Godmother was going to buy it for her – with sparkly blue shoes to match.

 

I told her that I suspected Jesus would be very partial to a light blue dress – a color his mother often wore – and I guessed he would definitely approve of lots of sparkles.  She clapped her hands and squealed with delight.

 

Her brother, G2, had a very different question. He had heard from one of his Jewish friends who had heard from one of his Roman Catholic friends, that when you get baptized, the church “claims property of your everlasting soul.”

 

G2. was horrified. “Is that true, Reverend Elizabeth?” he asked.


So, over the next few weeks of meeting with them in my office, I labored to find ways to teach my two young students about the significance of the sacrament of Baptism right out of the Book of Common Prayer.

 

That Baptism is one of the two Great Sacraments and Five Sacramental Acts of the Church. That sacraments are the “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” That Baptism is the Entrance Rite into formal membership in the Church, the Body of Christ. That it is our ordination into the Priesthood of All Believers. Etc., etc.

 

The older sister yawned. G2 grew more curious. Indeed, one day, he asked to see me alone, without his sister, so we could talk “without distraction,” he said very seriously.

“So, tell me,” he said, leaning forward in his chair the way I had seen his father sit during Vestry meetings, “What really happens at baptism?”

 

I shot up a quick arrow prayer for inspiration. I pleaded a simple request for a word of knowledge. Almost immediately, that word came.

Now, I confess that I have heard spiritual auditions in the past but it is not often that the response comes that quickly. This was one of those times.

 

And the sacred word I heard? Loud and clear? Just as clear as a bell? That word would have been the word “Pinocchio”.

 

Pinocchio? Yes, Pinocchio. The word came right out of my mouth.

 

“Pinocchio,” I said.

“Pinocchio?” asked G2.

“Yes,” I said wondering where I was going to go from here.

And then I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Don’t worry, I got this.”

 

I heard myself say to G2, “Do you remember that scene in the Disney movie, after Geppetto prays for a ‘real little boy’? And the Blue Fairy comes into Geppetto’s workshop and she stands in front of the puppet Pinocchio and waves her wand and says, ‘Little puppet made of pine, arise, the gift of life is thine.’ Remember?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” said G2, “And then, his strings disappeared and he could move like a little boy.”

 

“Right,” said I, “but he was still a puppet made of pine, wasn’t he? It’s just that his strings were gone.”

 

“Right,” said G2. “So,” he said frowning, “what did that mean?”

 

“Well,” I said, “that’s what Baptism does. It doesn’t change who you are. It just breaks the strings that tie you down and makes you free to be more of who God created you to be.”

 

G2 sat in deep thought about this for a few minutes. When he seemed ready, I continued, “Now, what happened when Pinocchio decided to use his freedom and discover more of who Geppetto created him to be?”

 

“Well,” said G2, thoughtfully, “he skipped school. And then he ran away from home with some kids who were not so nice. And, he joined a circus and he smoked a cigar and he told lies and his nose grew longer, and he even made an ass of himself,” he giggled.

 

“That’s right,” I said but G2 cut me off, “But Geppetto never stopped looking for Pinocchio. He never stopped loving him. And then, when the whale swallowed Geppetto, Pinocchio figured out a way to save him, even though he almost died. And then . .. .” said Gibby, in a burst of insight . . .

 

“…. and THEN….,” his eyes wide, “Pinocchio became a real little boy.”

 

I smiled at G2 and heard myself say, “And that’s the gift of the grace of Baptism. It gives you the strength and courage to make the mistakes you need to make in order to learn who you are so that, one day, you can sacrifice something big for something good.”

 

G2 repeated the words given to me by the Holy Spirit and said them softly, reverently, like a prayer: “… the strength and courage to make the mistakes you need to make in order to learn who you are so that, one day, you can sacrifice something big for something good.”

 

G2 and his sister G1 were baptized. She wore a light blue dress with lots of sparkles – with matching blue sparkly shoes. Gibby wore a lovely blue suit with a natty bow tie. I thought I couldn’t be more proud of them both.

 

Turns out. I was wrong. That moment was yet to come.

 

Eight or so years later, G2 ran for deputy to General Convention from the Diocese. At the diocesan convention all candidates were required to make a 3-5 minute presentation at the Candidates Forum. There were two teen candidates running that year. G2 was one.

 

When it was G2’s turn, he said that there were two issues that were of great concern to him that were going to be discussed and voted on at the next General Convention. The first was the environment, which was very important to him and he listed the reasons.

 

And then, he said, “This General Convention is also going to be discussing Blessing Rites for Same Sex Couples. As a young gay man, I very much want the blessing of my church when I marry the man I love.”

 

Now, I had resigned as rector the year before, having served there nine years, and had moved to Delaware so I was not in attendance at the diocesan convention, but my phone absolutely blew up with text messages.

“G2 came out!” “G2 is my hero!” “G2 did it!”

 

Mind you, G2 had not ‘come out to me’ so this was news. However, I wasn’t surprised, either by his orientation or his honesty.

 

Later that day, when I learned that G2 had been elected deputy to General Convention, I called to congratulate him. “Well, G,” I said, “how do you feel?”

 

There was this little pause and then I heard him say, “Reverend Elizabeth, I think I’ve made enough mistakes to know who I really am. And, I feel like I have finally become a real little boy.”

 

Well, through my joyous tears, I heard myself say to him, “You are a child of God. You are beloved of God. And, with you, God is well-pleased.”

 

I often think of the grace of Baptism the way Garrison Keillor used to talk about Powdermilk Biscuits. He’d say, “. . . made of whole wheat that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Heavens, they're tasty, and expeditious!”

 

That’s as good a way to describe the sacramental grace of God as any I could say.

 

As we head into another 7-10 days that promise to continue to be tumultuous, I find myself getting so angry I could just spit and cuss. It has taken great restraint not to ‘go there’ in this sermon.

 

So, if you don’t remember anything else about the importance of the Sacrament of Baptism, or what is at the center of the foundation of our lives of faith, please remember this:

 

The grace of Baptism gives you the strength and courage to make the mistakes you need to make in order to learn who you are so that, one day, you can sacrifice something big for something good.

 

Amen.

 

 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Some thoughts about The Epiphany and epiphanies


 

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” 

                                                                                                       (Hebrews 10:24-25)

  

A few years back, I heard a story of a priest in England. She had labored faithfully in a small town, and pastored a church there for many years. Though the church never grew to be very large, she was loved by all her parishioners, and had a reputation for being kind and gentle, and a faithful and wise friend.

 

Through the years, she became close friends with a woman in the church. They had both experienced the hardship of losing their spouses, and each had been there for the other, with a comforting word of Scripture, or just a shoulder to cry on. They both took a keen interest in learning the Scriptures, and would often talk into the wee hours of the morning discussing matters of theology in front of the fire, over tea.

 

One Sunday, the priest was surprised to see an empty seat in the pew where her friend always sat. As soon as the service and coffee hour were over, she went over to her friend’s home to make sure nothing was wrong. She knocked on the door, and a few moments later it opened—but just barely enough to see inside.

 

Her friend peered around the door into the priest’s eyes. “I noticed you weren’t at church this morning; I just wanted to make sure you were alright,” the priest said. The woman's eyes shifted downward, and she simply mumbled, “I’ve had a rough weekend. I’ll be fine.” Then she closed the door. Stunned, and a little hurt, the priest walked home, puzzled by the unusual encounter.

 

For the next 6 weeks, the woman’s seat would remain empty. The priest was heartbroken and at a loss for words; what had happened to her friend? Why was she shutting her out? She decided to try to visit her again.

 

She knocked on the door, and to her surprise, her friend opened it and gestured for her to come in. They walked over to the fireplace and sat where they had sat so many times before. Neither one knew what to say, so for quite some time, they simply sat in silence, staring at the fire.

 

After a long while, the priest stood up and walked over to the fireplace. Using the tongs, she reached into the pile of hot embers glowing at the heart of the fire. She pulled out a single ember, glowing red-hot and place it on the stone hearth.

 

Her friend watched, wondering what she was doing, but still said nothing. Both women stared at the ember as it began to fade from glowing red to a dull black. When it had cooled enough, the priest stooped down and picked it up with her hand. She held it for moment, then threw it back into the fire. Almost immediately, it began to burn red-hot again. 

 

Turning to her friend, the priest simply quoted Hebrews 10:24-25. The woman smiled up at the pastor with tears in her eyes and softly responded, “Thank you so much for your sermon. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.”

 

We live in a world today which tries to say too much and often says too little. Consequently, few listen. Sometimes the best sermons are the ones left unspoken.

Epiphanies - manifestations or showings of God - are everywhere. In order to see them, we need to open our eyes and keep our mouths shut.

 

(Sent to me by a friend whose relative sent it to her. The author is unknown to any of us.)

 

George Regas

I was a seminarian when George Regas came out to "the farm teams" to "scout for candidates for the Big League" to work with him at All Saints', Pasadena. It was part of his "East Coast Swing" of interviewing seminaries to select one or possibly two candidates for Assistant to the Rector.

 

I was deeply flattered to have been asked to consider the position but I couldn't imagine how we'd work out all the logistics of moving our rather large family all the way across the country. Ms. Conroy wisely advised that I should "go and see" and if this was an actual call, a way would open where there presently seemed to be none.

 

There's no denying that ASP was, in the words of my bishop when I described it to him, "a social justice candy store." My gracious! There was deep engagement by this congregation on all the major issues of justice - including the most controversial one of LGBTQ rights and rites and the as yet to emerge, important but not yet as visible one of immigration.

 

That was clearly due to the leadership of the Rector, George Regas. I fell in love with him and his obviously prophetic ministry. I also fell in love with this congregation and their passion and commitment to the call of Jesus to do this work of ministry. 

 

They had the sort of "fire in the belly" I could only dream of in a congregation. George had not only inspired them, he equipped them with the tools they needed to do this ministry. Most importantly, they were all grounded in prayer.

 

Here's what tipped the scales: I was there on Shrove Tuesday and there was a wonderful, lively, joyful Pancake Supper in the Parish Hall. After most everyone had finished their supper, George got up and said a few words and then asked, "Do you know what tomorrow is? Do you know why tomorrow is such an important day?"

 

Someone in the back gave a muted response that it was Ash Wednesday. George's voice boomed in the Parish Hall, "That's right! Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday."

At which point, the insistent voice of a little girl could be heard over his voice and the murmur of the crowd: "No, Grampa. No, no, no."

 

A very loud hush fell over the parish hall as George moved closer to his granddaughter. "No?" he said, "Tomorrow is not Ash Wednesday?"

 

"No, silly," she giggled. "Tomorrow is Wednesday and Wednesday is ballet!"

At which point, he scooped her up and they both giggled and snuggled and laughed and, in that moment, every heart in that room, including mine, was stolen.

 

As it turned out, a way didn't open and I wasn't able to join George and ASP. I told him that before he even offered me the position because I felt I owed him that information. I don't know if he was thinking of offering me the position, but he was wonderful in making me think he was disappointed but understanding.

 

I know I made the right decision for my family, and I don't have many regrets, but I do wish I could have worked with this most amazing man. He was a prophet because he was a pastor and a pastor because he was a prophet. By that I mean that his pastor's heart listened to and heard the cry of the people God sent him to tend to, and that drove him to prophetic work, to change systems of oppression and injustice. The more prophetic work he did, the various different cries came to his the ears of his heart which drove him to more pastoral work.

 

As you will read in his obituary, George died Monday at age 90. His wife of 44 years, Mary, was by his side. He had a great run.

 

There is a large tear in the veil created when his spirit, his light, left this mortal coil to go home to Jesus.

 

In my religious imagination, there is an incredible thing that happens when amazing and amazed souls like George return to their Creator. In the mind of my soul and the eye of my heart, there is a moment of darkness as these brilliant souls pass through the veil but that creates an opening for more points of light to pass through from the Creator to continue the work that Jesus, the Light of the World, was sent to do.

 

George's light continues to shine in the heavens. I imagine him now, having brunch with Louie Clay Crew and Harvey Milk and playing tennis with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I have no doubt he went directly to talk with Martin Luther King, Jr. who was hanging out with Barbara Harris and Pauley Murray, Eleanor Rosevelt and Cesar Chavez, Gandhi and Mother Teresa and that those of the Philadelphia Eleven who are among the heavenly chorus were among the first in line to welcome him through the Gates.

 

Shine on, George. Shine on! And, thank you. From my heart and for so many, many others, thank you.

 

Sunday, January 03, 2021

If you want to change the world

  

"If you want to change the world"

A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Christmas II - January 3, 2020

 

In May of 2014, one Navy SEAL and Admiral William H. McRaven, delivered a commencement speech to the 8,000 graduates of the University of Texas. His speech “If you want to change the world” was so well received that it became a book.

 

The book was not titled by the title of his speech. It was titled “Make Your Bed” because of the first piece of advice was this:

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

 

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “Right. Good. That's terrific. But, what does any of that have to do with this Gospel Story of the Three Kings?”   

 

I’m going to get back to this idea, I promise, but first I want to talk about how the world is changed not by gold and incense or power and might but by dreams and intuitions and vulnerability and how, sometimes, we are off by nine miles.

 

Before I begin, I want to credit theologian and author Walther Brueggemann for this idea which I heard him lecture more years ago than I can remember but has stayed with me all these many years later.

 

To begin, it’s important to know that Matthew was not the first to imagine three rich wise guys from the East coming to Jerusalem. The whole story line comes from the 60th chapter of Isaiah in a poem recited to Jews living in Jerusalem. 

 

It was about the year 580 and the Jews had been living in exile in what is now present-day Iraq. After several generations, they had returned to Jerusalem only to find it bombed out, torn down and in despair.

 

Isaiah anticipates that, no matter how bad things look right now, things will change for the better. “Rise, shine, for your light has come,” he invites his depressed, discouraged fellow Jews. He envisions a renewed Jerusalem with a new center of international trade.

 

“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” writes Isaiah.

Isaiah even tells them that there will be caravans loaded with trade goods like gold, frankincense and myrrh, carried on camels, which will come from Asia and bring prosperity and celebration and joy. This is God’s promise, promises Isaiah.

When The Three Intellectuals from the East come and pay homage to King Herod, they ask him  "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

Herod does what all incompetent rulers do when faced with a challenge and a threat to his power and control: He panics.  In his panic, a strange thing happens: Herod invites the leading scholars of Torah and Talmud and Mishnah to tell him about Isaiah 60.

 

They tell him that, well, see, actually, Isaiah was talking about the return of Jerusalem to a place as the center of global economy. The urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and – honestly? – nothing will really change.

 

Well, says Herod, do you have a better text? Well, yes, they say – afraid of their King who is clearly unhinged by the thought of losing his power. However, they are more afraid not to tell him the truth.

See, they say, the more accurate text is Micah 5:2-4:

 

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'

 

This is the scene we pick up in today’s gospel. Herod tells the Three Intellectual Men from the East about Micah’s prophecy and charges them to go to Bethlehem and “search diligently for the child and when you have found him, bring him to me so that I may pay him homage.”

 

Bethlehem is about nine miles south of Jerusalem. It’s a very quick ride. An easy day's walk. Well, it used to be. Now, there’s a wall that physically divides the country, a reflection of the deep divisions that have brought so much suffering and pain to Palestine and yes, even Israel.

 

The traditional intellectuals and scholars that had studied Isaiah but had forgotten Micah had been off by nine miles - nine physical miles and galaxies of thought apart.

 

It’s difficult to fathom how the story might have be different if Herod’s interpreters had not remembered the prophecy in Micah 5 – how the world might NOT have changed.

 

What would have happened if The Three Scholars from Asia had not had a dream about the King’s directions and did not return to Herod, not even with the child?

Indeed, what would have happened if Joseph hadn’t had a dream warning him about Herod and how he should flee to Egypt? 

 

How might the story be different if Joseph hadn’t been later told in a dream that Herod had died and it was safe to return to Palestine, to the district of Galilee to the town of Nazareth?

How might the world NOT have changed? How many more millennia might it have taken for the story of salvation to unfold?

 

Matthew’s story of the Visitation of the Magi (the Epiphany which we celebrate Wednesday, January 6) is, in once sense, the story of these two ancient places: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and the “little town of Bethlehem,” with its modest promises.

 

And, here is the message found in the middle of these two places, separated by only nine miles: We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or, we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions.

 

Isn’t it funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same? How it is that the very choices faced by those in ancient times are not much different from the ones we face today?


Here’s the thing: Most of us are looking for a new start in a new year in the wrong places. We are off by at least nine miles. As we look with joy into the new year of 2021, we find on January 1 that we still have many of the same problems and crisis we knew on December 31st.

There is no magic bullet. No miracle cure. No magic wand
.

 

The pandemic is worse and promises to take even more lives, despite the availability of a vaccine. 

 

White supremacist groups are, even now, gathering in the nation’s capitol for a large demonstration on Wednesday - and they're not there for the Epiphany.  

 

Despite a controversial pandemic relief package, two million people have not regained the jobs they lost to COVID – millions more are facing eviction.   

 

Millions of men, women and children – some of them in our neighborhoods – are living with food and shelter insecurity

 

Into this time in our lives we are invited into a new Epiphany. We are bidden to enter into this story and to travel those hard, demanding nine miles away from self-sufficiency and into mutual dependency which we have had to learn during this pandemic, symbolized most poignantly in the wearing of a face mask.   

 

We are being asked, once again, to join the Jesus Movement and change the world.

 

Which brings us right back to Navy Seal and Admiral William H McRaven’s suggestion that if we want to change the world, we start by making our bed. Here’s what he said:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. 

NB: You can find a transcript of the entire speech here.  Don't miss what he has to say about hope and singing while up to your neck in ice cold mud in the middle of the night.

You have to start somewhere, my grandmother always said, reminding us frequently that the longest journey always begins with the first step.

Scripture is a good place to start, but as this gospel shows only too well, a lot depends on how scripture is interpreted. You can be wise and learned and scholarly, but if you don’t trust your self and take the risk of your own intuition, you can still be nine miles off.

 

A dream is a good place to start but only if you put your dream into a plan and your plan into action. As my grandmother would also say, “Wishes don’t wash dishes.” (usually with a dish towel thrown over her shoulder and one hand in her apron pocket while the other pointed the way to the kitchen sink).

 

I once worked with a hospice nurse who never left a patient’s room without emptying the trash and cleaning off surfaces, sometimes even washing the dishes. I asked her once, while we were walking to our cars, why she did that.

 

She smiled and said, “I had a nursing supervisor who once said to me, ‘If you are not willing to empty the trash for a patient, you better start looking for another job.’ A leader serves. And a servant leader is not above the one she serves.”

 

The voice of Micah is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. 

 

The voice which called to The Three Wise Men is the same which first called to Mary and then to Joseph, and called to Jesus and knocked Paul off his horse and calls to us all: the well-being of a people is not brought by high, lofty, political ambition but by attentiveness to those on the ground.

 

So if you’ve not yet made your New Year’s Resolution, here’s one for you: If you want to change the world and make it a better place, start with yourself.

 

If you want to continue what was begun thousands of years ago with the birth of Jesus, if you want to be like The Three Scholars from Asia, The Three Wise Men, and have your own epiphany and transform yourself, thereby setting in motion your participation in the plan to change the world - or, at least, your role in it - well, make your bed.

 

Amen.