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"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, July 16, 2017

When the student is ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An outsider. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, you had some good sowers. Faithful sowers.  

Some of them have even left and then returned.  

Good soil. Good seed. Good sowers.

Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, July 02, 2017

El-roi: The God Who Sees

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

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

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

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

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

Why yes. Yes, she did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing. About Isaac and Rebekah. 

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

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

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

No, Isaac loved Rebekah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God sees.

God knows.

God loves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, 

and whoever welcomes me 

welcomes the one who sent me. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

The One who sees me, lives.



Saturday, June 10, 2017

I'm a fan of Bill Maher

I am a fan of Bill Maher. 

Yes, he's crass and vulgar but he's also politically astute and fearless in exposing hypocrisy in all its many and varied forms - political, religious, governmental, financial, personal, etc.  - and on all sides of the political spectrum - Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

I also appreciate the fact that it is dangerous to stand at the intersection of political commentary and humor. But, Maher doesn't just stand there. He dances - "like a special kind of monkey" - as he describes comedians. He pushes the boundaries of the intersections. 

He's got "ovaries". Or, as my favorite friends in New Jersey would say, "cojones". He makes me think, opening places in my mind with humor that I wouldn't be able to access otherwise.

I was a fan before he said the "n" word last week. 
I am even more a fan after last night's show.

He invited three African Americans to "school him behind the woodshed" on race: Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, actor-rapper Ice Cube, and Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That was after his sincere apology. He also apologized again - and again - and again, to each of the three guests as well as his viewing audience in general and African-Americans in particular. That took enormous courage and integrity. I admire him for that because that set up an opportunity for everyone in his audience to learn along with him.

Yes, what Maher said was racist but he, himself, is not a "racist".  It is important to understand the subtle, often unseen influence of white privilege - especially as more and more of us have deeper, more intimate relationships and friendships with people of color.

No matter how hard we try, there are some experiences we simply do not share - and there are some words that hold those experiences that we can not understand and must never use.

I recently spent some time with two white men - one older, one younger - who are strong allies in the movement for reproductive health, rights, choice and justice. 
They insisted that we should clear the slate and all get on board working for "reproductive justice". 
How white and male of them, right?

Some of us took it upon ourselves to "school" them about the unique movement for reproductive justice which was begun by Black women as the framework from which they work for reproductive freedom. (Google "Sister Song" for a history of this movement and the framework from which it works for reproductive freedom).

It's easy enough to do. We're part of the movement for reproductive freedom. We're working for justice in sme form. So, it's easier to say, "reproductive justice", right? 

And, it certainly doesn't prohibit white women and men and women and men of other races and cultures to work with and for organizations like Sister Song.
Some of us are working on different frames for that freedom.  It's important to honor and respect our differences. It's what helps us work better together. 

Some of us come at it from the issue of health, emphasizing the particular health needs of women and our bodies. Others come to the issue from the perspective of rights, working the legal implications of the moral autonomy of women. 
Still others - mostly white women who stand on their societal perspective of privilege as white women - insist that the issue is that of choice. 
Women of color, who have to struggle for bodily sovereignty and moral autonomy in concert with the struggle against the formidable foes of racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, have their own framework.

We must honor and include all these four frames and the places where they intersect. We are stronger when we do that. We can not - must not, should not - appropriate language that belongs to others - especially people of color.

In listening to last night's program, it became clear to me that Maher's "accidental racism" came not from a place of bad or evil intent but of the assumption of privilege. 
"What made you think you could use that word?" asked Ice Cube. 
"I used it without thinking," said Maher. 

"Some people get too familiar and they cross the line," said Ice Cube. "That's our word and you can't have it back."

I can't imagine a clearer depiction of white male privilege than that. 

(You can watch segments of the program here, )

When the news hit the fan last week, there were good, white, liberal folk who called for Maher's immediate firing. 
The apology was not enough for them. They conflated their disdain for Maher's brand of humor with their disdain for racism and called for his dismissal, thereby killing two birds with one stone. 
I get that. I disagree - I don't think it's right - but I get it.

It's the "holier-than-thou" components of the liberal spectrum which concern me the most. In my estimation, they are no different from the extreme other end of the spectrum on the right. 

In their chants all over social media, from "Bill Maher is a Racist" to "Fire Bill Maher" I distinctly heard echos of "Lock her up."
There is absolutely NO conversation with these folk - on the Right or on the Left. It's hard, you know, when you're sitting on your high horse to allow yourself to come down and talk with folk who hold different perspectives.

What really distresses me is that these righteous Liberals hide behind their good intentions and Christianity to defend and define themselves against those on the radical right. 
It doesn't work. Not with me. It's too important to them to be seen as a politically correct uber-Christian with zero tolerance for prejudice. 

It's interesting to me that people of color are willing to demand accountablility while simultaneously offering forgiveness and seizing the opportunity to use a "teachable moment" - which Maher was obviously not only willing to experience in full public view but requested and used all of his resources to achieve.

We could learn alot by keeping our mouths shut and listening more and learning from people of color and people who are otherwise oppressed. As my blessed grandmother would say, "There's a reason you have two ears and only one mouth."

First thing: Stop appropriating language. And cultural or religious expressions. And, dress. And, land.
Anyone who actually watched Bill Maher's show last night knows that he did not get a "pass". 
It is clear that racism is still with us - will probably always be with us - and that racism is enhanced at the intersection of all the other prejudices, especially white privilege. 
If you were watching and paying attention last night, you might have learned something about Maher's integrity -  as well as your own. 

There were hard lessons to be learned in last night's program, some of which made me embarrassed at my own "benign ignorance" and others which made me laugh - right out loud - at myself and the human condition.

Which is why I'm still a fan of Bill Maher.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost: New ears, new heart, new spirit

Steve Wickham

A Sermon for Pentecost  - June 4, 2017
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, Delaware
(the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton)

What can I say about Pentecost that you haven’t heard before? Maybe 10 times before?

That it’s the birthday of the church? Well, that has always struck me as a little too Hallmark-card sentimental by a half. When we listen to the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, I don’t see anything there that even remotely looks like the church today.

People talking in different languages and yet everyone understands?

Nope. Not in any Episcopal church I’ve ever attended.

Are there Medes handing out bulletins in the back of the church, while the Parthians prepare for the coffee hour and the Cretans and Arabs warm up in the choir? Are there Elamites, Cappadocians and Asians puting on their cassocks and light their torches?

Um, I don’t think so.

It’s also said that this is the day when God’s people received the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul wrote to the ancient church in Corinth that, No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

But, that was back in the day when saying “Jesus is Lord” meant that you were denying the sovereignty of Caesar – a very dangerous thing to do. Seriously dangerous. It could get you killed. So, only by the grace of the Holy Spirit would you even dare to say such a thing. There are still places in the world where saying “Jesus is Lord” can get you killed or tortured or jailed.

But, not here. Not in the United States of America, despite what some people might want to tell you about “religious freedom” by which they mean having the liberty to discriminate against certain people because they claim “the Bible tells them so”.

It’s also a day when preachers like to riff on the themes of peace and forgiveness which we heard in John’s gospel this morning. We also like to sing songs about the Holy Spirit which have lyrics that invite the Holy Spirit with “the murmur of the dove’s song,” and talk about the Third Person of the Trinity as a “Sweet, spirit, sweet heavenly dove.”

Which is not untrue.

The Holy Spirit can be like a dove bringing peace and love and forgiveness and gentleness and sweetness. It’s been my experience, however, that those are the gifts of the spirit. 

We heard some of them in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: 

wisdom, understanding, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, talking in and understanding spiritual tongues – spiritual expressions that seem foreign to us.

In my experience, gifts of the spirit come after the ground is broken open and rocks and old roots are removed and the seed is planted deep in rich, fertilized soil where the seed has to break itself open before new growth can spring forth.

Then, that new growth has to push its way through the hard, dark soil where it must be warmed by the sun and watered by storms that may also bring thunder and lightening and high winds that swirl all around it and above it. And yet, still it pushes its way toward another breakthrough and poke its head above the ground and into a strange new world.

But, that’s not the whole journey. It is still far from bearing fruit. For some plants, it must further transform itself from that small, safe contained seed that put forth a new, green shoot only to go through another yet transformation into a plant. 

That plant must continue to grow and mature, still reliant upon the soil and the sun and the rain to even further dependence upon other creatures like bees to pollinate its flowers. That calls for yet another transformation from flower to fruit or vegetable. 

Sometimes, the fruit or vegetable grows differently. It doesn’t look like the others. Still, it is the same inside. It just looks different. And, it has more work to do, still.

That fruit or vegetable then has to ripen on the vine or tree before it can finally be picked so that it may provide nourishment and sustenance – not for the seed which gave it birth, or the vine which brought it to maturity or the tree on which it ripened.

No, the fruits are to be picked by others and given to others so they might grow and be nourished and sustained. 

Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? That provides, perhaps, one of the first and most important lessons in life: Life is not fair. That’s not “nice” or “gentle” or “sweet”, but it’s what I know to be true. And, somewhere inside you, in your place of knowing, you know it, too.

So it is with the gifts or fruits of the Spirit. They don’t often just fall into your lap, gently descending like manna from heaven. Oh, they may seem to arrive that way, but that’s the seed of the gift. In order to open and use the gift, you’ve got some hard work ahead of you.

It’s more like what the disciples experienced on Pentecost – something like the combination of the strong winds of a tornado mixed in with the teeth-chattering, bone-shaking effect of an earthquake. It can leave you so thoroughly disoriented that you may appear inebriated and intoxicated. Or, at least, you may find that some will seriously question your sanity.

I’m about ¾ of the way through reading “Always Kristen,” a book by one of your former rectors, Rita Beauchamp Nelson. It’s her story of the journey she made with her transgender daughter as she traveled from, in her words, “It’s a boy!” to “Mom, I’m a girl!”

Now, I don't know about you, but I can't even begin to imagine such an event in my life. I would hope that I would act with as much honesty and authenticity, courage and compassion, love and grace as Rita has. 

There’s one moment in the book that strikes me as “Pentecostal” – well, there are a few (life is like that) but I want to talk about the first time her son Christopher came to dinner as Kristen (at the time she called herself Wendy) – dressed as a woman – because that’s how she understood herself to be. A woman.

Everyone at the table tried very hard to keep it light and not too deep but finally, Kristen blurted out, “Mom, I’m a girl.” There followed some very difficult moments with hard-to-ask questions and harder-to-hear answers. And then, Rita writes:

“Finally, we rain out of questions and answers, and the uncomfortable silence around the table was our signal that it was time for us to say goodbye. We walked down the walkway to the elevator and I hugged Christopher especially long and tight as we said our goodbyes and I love you’s this strange night. I desperately wanted this beautiful boy to know that I loved him and that this turn of events would never change that. I wanted him to know that he would be accepted, always. But loving him and accepting him as a girl still had to be sorted out in my heart. I guess I am still sorting it out, because, to this day, I sometimes question if I have accepted his being a girl or am simply resigned to it.

The elevator doors opened, and I watched Christopher walk in and the doors close. Then William and I fell into each other’s arms and, in the solitude of the empty walkway with only the stars to watch, I quietly broke down and cried as he comforted me. It no longer mattered to me whether anyone was watching. I had started out years before with a concern Christopher might be gay, then a cross dresser, both of which were mild compared to what I had learned this evening. Where, I wondered, would we go from here? Where would Christopher go from here? Even now, when I least expect it, a tear will silently slip down my cheek for the son I lost and the son I wish I still had but never will again.”

I know. That’s probably not the Pentecost story you were expecting to hear this morning. It’s probably not a Pentecost story you’ve ever heard before - or, will hear again.

I stand before you to say that this story, for me, is evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. If you take some time to look back over your life with this new lens, you may discover that the Holy Spirit has often appeared in moments that, at the time, neither felt holy or sacred.

But, in that moment, something happened. Something that left you with no more questions to ask - no more answers to give. 

Something that broke your heart, but broke it open so that there was more room than you could have ever asked for or imagined. 

Something that stretched your mind past self-imposed and formerly sacred boundaries. 

Something so strange you didn’t have the words or even a language to express it. 

Something that made you sound crazy or inebriated or intoxicated to others.

Love can do that to you. Love can change you and transform your life. Love is a gift of the Holy Spirit that you don’t always seek much less choose but it, rather it seeks and finds you.

And though you may still have some question – some doubt – about what really happened and why it happened, there is no question that it happened and that your life has been forever changed by it.

That’s not the question. The question is, “What will you choose to do about this moment? With this moment?” 

Will you allow yourself to surrender to the process so that you might continue to grow and be transformed by it so that it might bear fruit? Or, will you let it die?

I will leave you to consider these things and offer a prayer that came to me from a friend. She meant it to celebrate the Feast of the Visitation which, this year, was May 31st

I think it’s an especially appropriate – if not a wee bit unorthodox – prayer for Pentecost. I think it echoes the prayer of Jesus who appeared in that upper room and said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here’s my Pentecost prayer for you. May you hear it with new ears, a new heart, a new spirit.

“May you never be subservient. May you never fall prey to fitting in. May you always swirl in all the directions the sacred winds want to take you. May you never hush your laughter nor your tears. May you breathe without restriction. May you show up every single day to the calling that is you and may you always know the courage of your own heart.”           


Sunday, May 14, 2017


Sometimes, mothers wake up grumpy.

Other times, they wake up in a foul mood.

Sometimes they call to their children from bed,
"There's cereal in the cupboard and milk in the fridge.
Don't spill the milk. I don't want to clean up a mess
When I get up. . . . .
 . . . . ..  . . . If I get up."

Sometimes mothers say stuff that makes no sense
Like, "Eat the old fruit before the new fruit."
And, "Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?"
And, "Are your legs broken?"
And, "Someone better be bleeding."

Sometimes mothers embarrass their children.
in front of their friends
by saying something like,
"Bring your jacket, it's going to get chilly."
And, their kids roll their eyes and say, 

And mothers say, "I'm sorry. 
When you get older,
work it out with your therapist
the way we all have to."

Sometimes, life is hard
and, relationships are complicated
because we're human.

Sometimes we mess up
and betray each other
and our best selves.

Sometimes blood isn't thicker than water.

Being a mother is more than biology.

It's a work in progress best accomplished
in spite of biology, or in the absence of it
not perched on a pedestal
but right here,
in the middle of the middle of life
where the rest of humanity dwells
close to tissues to wipe noses a little too hard
and tie sneakers a little too tight
and button sweaters a little too high
and say, "Don't slam the door" a little too loud
and sometimes forget to say, "I love you"
even when they were thinking it
but were busy putting in another load of clothes.

Being a mother is the toughest job you'll ever love.

I suspect even the Mother of God had her days. 
c Elizabeth Kaeton