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, September 16, 2018

Bean Counter Culture


As I prepare to walk the Camino from San Sebastian to Santiago and then on to Finisterra, our group leader keeps reminding us that, at this point, the spiritual discipline is even more important than the physical preparation.

So, I'm being especially intentional about doing a "walking meditation" for today's walk. I'm not going to focus on distance or time or other metrics. In fact, I'm not using any metric at all.

I'm going to focus on what I hope will happen when I reach the "end of the earth" at the end of my pilgrimage.

And, that's the point: We are pilgrims. I am a pilgrim. Not a tourist.

My plane leaves for Madrid, Spain, on October 6th. I arrive October 7th in plenty of time to check into my hotel and catch Mass at the Cathedral around the corner from my hotel.

We start the pilgrimage at 8 AM on Monday, October 8th and end Saturday, October 20th. I'll attend Mass at the Cathedral Santiago on Sunday. I'll leave for Finisterra on Monday and then take the overnight train to Madrid that night.

My plane leaves for home the afternoon of Tuesday the 30th.

I will have walked approximately 167 km on the trail which promises breathtaking vistas of the coastline of Spain.

My friend, Linda MacMillan has written a brilliant blog today which has these lines:
That is not the end of the story, though. In fact, it’s only the beginning. . . .. It’s what happened in the meantime that’s significant.
That is such an important reminder, not only when we read scripture but when thinking about the significance of the holiness of our own personal narratives.

The beginning is important. The end is important. Of course.

It's what happens in the meantime that's significant.

I don't yet know what will happen "in the meantime" of this pilgrimage.

My prayer is that I will return from The Camino with a deeper appreciation for what happens - and has happened - in all of the "meantimes" of my life.

This has become even more important to me this past year. I work for a Hospice Agency that is one of the oldest in the country, which is to say that it was one of the first.

I am completely fascinated - when I'm not utterly annoyed - by the culture of this corporation. They are obsessed with numbers and counting. Seriously. Obsessed.

They count everything. Every. Single. Last. Damn. Thing. The number of patients who have experienced a fall this month. This quarter. This year. Compared to last month. Last quarter. Last year.

The number of patients who have had an infection - and where it is and how it was treated.

The number of patients who had a visit from the Social Worker or Chaplain in the last 5 days of life.

Some of this is required by Medicare, but managers and administration don't seem to mind. Indeed, there is a certain enthusiasm for the task which is completely lost on me.

There is a numbered code for the great variety of tasks one performs in the course of the day, some classified as "productive" (direct patient contact) and others "non-productive" (administrative work). The number of "productive" vs. "non-productive" hours one works in a pay period are counted.

Seriously, what professional person even THINKS this way? Well, I think I have an answer.

But, wait! There's more!

Mileage, of course, is calculated but only from the office to the patient's home and from one patient's home to the next. Exceptional mileage - say, going from a patient's home to a case conference at an Extended Care Facility or Hospital, must be calculated separately and entered in with a special code.

Every patient has an MR# - a Medical Record Number - which, because the computer platform for patient documentation is being revised and revamped, this necessitates printing the patient name and patient MR# on every. single. last page of every. single. last paper of every. single. last page of the volumes of paper one has to complete per patient.

Because of the sheer volume of paperwork required, this means that the chances of making an error - which can be as simple as writing a "5" in such a way that it looks like an "8" or just copying the MR# or spelling the patient's name incorrectly - is great.

Believe it or not, there are people employed for the tedious task of checking for errors (sort of like the task of separating fly shit from pepper) and there is a company policy for correcting that error - and a protocol for how that error is corrected. If the correction is not made ... well, correctly... there is a whole process for dealing with that.

Again, because of the sheer volume of paper that crosses one's desk every day, the chances of papers getting lost or misplace is also great. So, one must paper clip (NOT staple, for goodness sake whatever were you thinking) all of the patient's papers together and, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, place the documentation in a file folder with your name on it.

On Wednesday, however, one must hand all of one's paperwork into the actual hand of the person in charge of the paperwork.

But, because the papers could get lost or misplaced, one must zerox a copy of the charts for one's files. Which means unclipping, zeroxing, then re-clipping all of the charts.

I am not making up any of this.

It's often maddening and deeply annoying but I've come to understand that this "Culture of Corporate Bean Counting" is simply and sadly this: It is a defense against facing the truth about death.

It is a way of managing the anxiety between the expectation of death and reality of life.

The hint came when so many professionals - nurses and doctors - refer to a patient's death as anything but a death.

It is said that the patient "passed" or "passed on". Or, when they want to sound clinical, they say, "expired" - like a carton of milk or a bottle of medicine.

I think we hit a new low on Friday when the weekend on-call nurse (yes, an RN) put out a call for extra help this weekend by writing this:
"It is going to be a busy and challenging weekend but our customers need us and we are up to the task."
CUSTOMERS!?!?!?!? Not PATIENTS!! CUSTOMERS!!!

Some of us have been texting each other all weekend about this. Eyes are rolling so hard, you can hear it all over Sussex County.

I've been explaining it as a defense mechanism against anxiety about death. And, I think that's right.

It's easier, I suppose, for some people to deal with "the expiration of a customer" than the "death of a Hospice patient".

I rush to add that his particular language is not limited to this particular Hospice agency. I hear it from other Hospice professionals around the country. I've just never heard a Hospice nurse use it before. Then again, this particular nurse doesn't care directly for patients. She just triages and assigns those who do.

I have come to understand that this is what can happen when one does not believe, as we say in the Eucharistic prayer during a funeral, that "life is changed, not ended."

It's what happens when your theology of life does not include belief in life eternal. Or, perhaps it does but deep down somewhere inside, in the middle of the middle of what makes you who you are, you really wish you would but you really don't believe it.

It's easier to manage your anxiety when you are counting things and repeating tasks.

I mean, after all, isn't this really what prayer beads are all about? Repeating and counting, counting and repeating?

Doesn't chanting a mantra repeatedly help to reduce stress caused by anxiety?

Isn't repeating "the comfortable words" week after week designed to do the same?

The secular, corporate world manages anxiety by creating a "Bean Counter Culture". Well, at least, this one does.

I've come to manage my own frustration and anxiety about this by changing my perspective. I now see all of these annoying policies and protocols as a form of "Secular, Corporate Prayer".

Except the goal of this particular secular exercise is to have "positive outcomes" which are designed to result in "job satisfaction".

Which makes me laugh right out loud because I recognize the religious parallel.

I mean, let's be honest. At some point in our spiritual lives, didn't at least some of us believe that if we said the rosary enough times on our knees, or lit enough candles, or faithfully did the Stations of the Cross every Wednesday and Friday in Lent, or lit enough Votive Candles and said enough Novenas in front of them, that we'd get what we wanted or needed?

I know I did. So, I really have no room to criticize this form of "Secular, Corporate Prayer".

I do have the responsibility, however, to tend to my own soul.

Which is why I pray for the spiritual strength and maturity to learn to live not so much about the beginnings and endings but the "meantimes" of my life. To drop more of my expectations and live more fully and deeply into my reality. And, in doing so, to derive more "satisfaction" with my life.

I don't know if it can be done, but this is the spiritual energy which is animating my pilgrimage.

I hope to let go of how many steps I've taken or how many kilometers I've walked or how many miles that translates into and just "walk the walk."

I hope not to count the minutes or hours or days of walking and just walk for the sake of walking, to feel the earth under my feet, feel the ocean breeze on my face and take it into my lungs while I open the eyes of my soul to the beauty that surrounds me at every turn.

I hope to take courage from standing in the town of "Finisterra," what the Spaniards considered "The End of the Earth" and knowing that it is just the beginning.

The beginning is important. So is the ending. Of course. But it is the meantime that is signficant.

It is said that a pilgrim is never ready for The Camino but The Camino stands ready for every pilgrim.

May it be so.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Ephphatha! Be opened!

A Sermon for Pentecost - September 9, 2018 - Proper 18 B
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown

This is one of my favorite times of year. There are little hints and glimpses of the inevitable coming change in season.  The weather seems stuck and confused – the mornings are cool but by noon it can be hot and humid. We’ve had some pretty violent thunder and lightening storms and the rain has come down in sheets. 

And, of course, it's "hurricane season," which I like to think of as Nature's little conniption fit because summer is ending.

The spiritual climate at this time of year is supercharged. This weekend, there was a Powwow of the Nanticoke Tribe where they celebrate their identity and culture in dance and drumming and chanting, to recapture their spirituality. The word is derived from the Narragansett word powwow, meaning "spiritual leader". 

This evening begins Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. It’s a time when faithful Jews examine their relationship with God and themselves, their family and friends and the world. Yom Kippur will follow it, a time of atonement and reconciliation. 

In a few days, Hindus will celebrate the god Krishna, whose life and work are often compared to Jesus. This will be followed by a celebration of the Hindu god Ganesha, whom you may recognize as the one with the elephant head, the remover of obstacles and patron of learning. 

No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what particular belief system you follow, all religions provide an anchor in the midst of change. All religions provide stories of mystery and miracle, hope and healing. 

Our Christian scripture this morning provides more than ample evidence of these spiritual gifts. 

A Syrophonecian woman seeks healing for her daughter and finds it, despite the obstacles of hurtful prejudice. A deaf man finds his hearing an ability to speak.

Was it magic? An illusion? Was it a miracle? Was it something, some reality, so beyond our comprehension that all we do is assign it a name that literally means something that can’t be explained. 

“Ephphatha,” Jesus said to the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. To our non-Hebrew ears, it could be a magical incantation like "Open Sesame!"

“Ephphatha,” that is, in Hebrew, “Be opened.”

Be opened. Just as the Syrophoneican woman who, against all the odds of her gender and race and ethnicity and religious difference, was opened to the miracle that Jesus could heal her daughter. She could be opened even though insults were hurled at her. 

He called her a dog, but she kept her mind and her heart opened and when she opened her mouth she was able to provide Jesus with a brilliant reason for him to be open to healing her daughter, sight unseen, who was tormented with illness. 

And, the man who was deaf and had a speech impediment was healed with a combination of dirt and the spit of Jesus - an earthy combination - the stuff closest to us and, even,within us. 

It reminds me of an updated story originally told by Rabbi Bunim about how we must be open to possibility, open to the miracle of bringing our dreams into reality - open to the possibility of miracles near us and within us.

The story goes that one restless night, Benny, who was having trouble making a living, had a vivid dream. His dream showed him, in precise detail, the whereabouts of a stuffed backpack with two million dollars cash, at the bottom of a dumpster on the Virginia shore. He woke from his dream knowing exactly how to find it. 

So, hoping against hope, Benny grabbed his keys from the night table and left his humble home in Minnesota for a two-day trip to Virginia Beach. 

Wearied, but emboldened, he arrived at the location — a US Naval Base — and was elated to see the dumpster waiting for him behind a tall chain-link fence. It was there, just as described in his dream. 

With great anticipation he drove up to the guardhouse at the entrance.

The soldier at the post dutifully asked him for his military ID, which, of course, Benny could not provide.

“I drove two days to come here. Why can’t you let me in for a few minutes? There’s something in that dumpster over there for me.”

“Sir, I don’t care if you drove for two weeks! This Naval base is for authorized personnel only. Please turn your vehicle around.”

“But I dreamed about that yellow dumpster! My fortune is in there!”

At this point the soldier’s stern expression turned to a smirk, and he said, “Sure, buddy. I had a dream of a house in Minnesota owned by some guy named “Benny,” with a million dollar treasure nailed to the bottom of his night table. You think I should abandon my post and go claim it?!” (Based on R’ Bunim Mpeshischa)

Sometimes it is easier to imagine that fulfillment lies across the sea than within reach; that gives us a ready excuse for why we have not yet found it. The search for happiness, knowledge, fulfillment, and healing can lead us in all directions, but ultimately the focus of our efforts must be within.

St. James writes in this morning’s Epistle, 
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? . . .  So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
So, if you seek a miracle, for yourself or others, have faith, yes! but put your faith to work. 

I want to mention the Monarch Butterfly Garden which Charles is starting in the church yard. He was out there at 7:30 this morning, in the pouring down rain, organizing the stones for the landscaping. 

He was joined after 8 o'clock mass by a few others who helped him haul bricks and flag stone. Then he brought in the butterfly "incubator" - a net enclosure with about two dozen larvae and about six monarch butterflies which had already hatched. 

The Monarch Butterfly are endangered, so many people are starting these Monarch Butterfly Gardens in order to help continue the population. 

Charles and his crew are participating in a miracle. They are opened to allowing the power of God to work through them. They are putting their faith to work.

So, if you want to see a miracle in your life, be opened to possibilities. 

Dig deep and find the strength within you to overcome the obstacles in your path. 

Do not believe the insults hurled at you and push past them. 

Clear the fog in your ears and listen to your own wisdom. 

Find your own brilliance. 

Speak in your own voice.

And, miracles – that which we can’t explain – can and do and will happen.

God is as close to you as your next breath. Jesus shows us the way to life and truth.

Ephphatha! Be opened. Find the miracle you seek.   

Amen.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

No cotton

"No cotton. No cotton. No cotton. No cotton."

Our Camino leader must have said those sentences at least five times during our last group conference call.

"Hypothermia is real, people," she said. "Cotton will keep the sweat in. You need material that will provide you with wicking: (synthetic fibers like polyester, polypropylene and natural fibers like merino wool) and dress in layers."

I groaned thinking that I was going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on new clothing for this pilgrimage. 
 
I started making a list of the things I'd need. I always follow my grandmother's Rule of Three: One on your body, one on the line, and one in the drawer. 
 
So, pants, shirts, socks, underwear, bras - pretty much the whole Magilla.
 
Three of each.

Ugh! Ugh! UGH!

I spent HOURS on the internet, checking styles, comparing prices, following leads from some of my FB friends.

The longer I looked and thought about it, the more I realized that, with the exception of underwear, some of the clothing I was seeing looked a lot like some of the stuff I already had in my closet and drawers. Indeed, as I started checking the labels of some of my shirts and pants, it turns out that I'm in pretty good shape.

I'm going to buy a pair (or two) of "wicking" baggy sweatpants (so I can dress comfortably in layers) and some underwear: bras, camisoles, panties, and socks but other than that, I think I'm going to be just fine.

Meditation time is a required discipline, along with physical exercise as preparation for the pilgrimage. I woke up this morning with what the Buddhists call "Monkey Mind." 
My mind was just jumping from one thing to the next and I could not focus. No matter what I did, my mind just kept dragging me back to a cascade of images of "wicking clothing," most of which was the stuff that was in my drawer and closet.

So, I decided to just focus on the things my Monkey Mind was focused on. 
 
Funny how that works. 
 
As I created some distance between my self and my brain, I was able to focus on what was going on in the deeper recesses of my mind. 
 
I came to an interesting insight:

A pilgrimage doesn't start on the road.

A pilgrimage starts within you.

A pilgrimage isn't so much about what you will find "out there" but how being "out there" will lead you to discover more deeply what you already have within you. 
 
I suspect there's another metaphor in the fact that what I need really to invest in are the things closest to my body.

When I realized that the socks I just purchased - "Darn Tough Socks" from VT - came with a 'lifetime guarantee" I laughed right out loud and ended my meditation time.

Our Camino leader said, "No one is ever ready for the Camino but the Camino is ready for you."

I'm ready for what I'm not ready for.

As Cory Booker said in the Senate hearings yesterday, "Bring it!"

But, no cotton, please.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

But wait!



A Sermon Preached for Pentecost XIII - Proper 12 B
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
August 19, 2018

Note: This is my last sermon on John's 6th gospel. I am fresh out of bread, and what little I have si stale. I have discovered I really only have one sermon about bread . Or, Bread. Which is to say, Jesus. I've just tried to say it in different ways over the past four Sundays in three different congregations. There is a small mercy in that no one congregation had to hear this. Well, except you.

Let us pray: + “The love of G-d is broader than the measure of the mind and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” AMEN.

What in the world is Jesus talking about?
Eat my flesh? Drink my blood? 

I've known many people over the years who have been put off or deeply disturbed and confused by this passage.

Sounds like human sacrifice, doesn’t it?

Well, right. That’s exactly what Jesus is talking about. Well, at least in part. 

But, wait! 

Remember, Jesus is talking to ancient Jews whose culture and religion revolved around animal sacrifice as part of worshipping G-d, to appease whatever anger the God of their understanding may have because G-d once sent them off to slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years and, G-d knows, you don't what that to happen ever again. 

I know. I don't get it either. But, living a fear-based faith has never made any sense to me.

But, wait! 

To understand this, as with anything from scripture, you have to understand the context.

We have to go back to the beginning of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. And yes, you may have noticed that we’ve been stuck on this sixth chapter for the last four weeks – and we won’t leave it until the first Sunday in September,.

So buckle up, kids. We’re still talking about bread.

It all began with the Feeding of the Five Thousand – a story we heard at the end of July, just four weeks ago in the first chapter of John’s gospel. Remember?

As the rest of the chapter unfolds, it seems that the crowd has misinterpreted the sign of feeding the huge group with only a little food. 

All of the conversation, since the miracle, has been about bread -- explaining it, defining it, identifying it. 

Turns out, it really has not been about bread at all. It has been about Jesus and who he is. 

The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. 

Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. 

By the end of the conversation, Jesus is telling them that they ate the wrong thing. They ate bread and fish and they should be eating flesh and blood. 

You cannot hear that on a literal level. It is too deep for that.

It’s not about literally eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. 

And it’s not simply about a symbolic meal.  It’s more than that. Much more.

It’s about coming to know Jesus in his fullness and taking him into your heart and your mind and your soul so that you may be able to live out his teachings.

It's not about changing bread and wine. It's about changing your heart and mind.

So, the question each one of us has to ask ourselves is this: Who is Jesus for YOU? 

We have to get out from under the literal words and beyond the symbols and metaphors and LIVE them.

What does it look like to LIVE who Jesus is for us?  I think this story might help:

The Rev. Bill Coffin, former pastor at Riverside Church in NY City, used to tell of an event that occurred one year during a Christmas pageant. It was Christmas Eve and the pews were packed. 

The pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn to Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”

Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of no room, of in-hospitality to the baby Jesus and his parents. 


And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Downs Syndrome.

Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. 


He seemed to have mastered it. So there he stood at the front of the sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. 

They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed, and waited for his reply.

Tim’s parents, the pageant director and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line. “There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed.

But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “But wait!”

They turned back, startled, and looked at him in surprise.

“You can stay at my house!” he called.

Well, Tim had effectively preached the sermon at Riverside Church that Christmas Eve. As Rev. Bill Coffin, the pastor, tells the story, he strode into the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down.

It was, he said, the best sermon he never preached.


Little Tim knew his line. He knew every word of his line. He knew his part in the story of the Nativity of Jesus. 

But, he really lived the Gospel when he stepped out from his part and took the words to his heart. 

He took in the words to his head and when he lived them out, he knew in his heart that something was wrong. And, because Jesus clearly lives in this young boy's heart, he knew what to do - beyond the expectations of his assigned role.

It’s the best example I know of how it is to KNOW Jesus and how it is to LIVE Jesus.

Get out from under the literal words and beyond the metaphors and live them.
 
Stop living a fear-based faith or whatever part you think you have been given to play and step into the fullness of a life of Christ.

Sometimes, that means stripping away the words of Jesus to get to Jesus, the Word of God. 

You can check out Matthew 25 for more detailed instructions. 

Even so, you don't have to get it exactly right. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be super smart. You don't have to be very young or very old. 

You just have to be who you are and be willing to, as our baptismal prayer bids, to "grow into the full stature of Christ."

I began this sermon with a verse from the hymn “There’s a Wideness in G-d’s Mercy”. I’d like to repeat them so you can hear them:
 "The love of G-d is broader than the measure of the mind and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind."
Please don't be put off or disturbed or confused by this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. 

Remember that these words were originally spoken to ancient Israeli and Palestinian people.

Remember that it's not just about changing bread and wine. It's about changing your heart and mind. And, when we do that, we can change this old world of ours. 

Try to remember this: When all else fails, hear little Tim say, "But wait!" 

Take Jesus into your heart and try to be loving. Try to be kind. 

Because that is who Jesus reveals G-d to be - loving and kind.

And, in the end, love and kindness will change the world.

AMEN.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beyond Language and Metaphors

A Sermon for Pentecost XII - Proper 14 B - RCL
The Episcopal Chapel of St. George, Harbeson, DE
August 12, 2018

I want to start by telling you something that Gospel Geeks and Language Nerds and English Majors – past and present – will find interesting. The rest of you may not, but I want you to listen anyway because if you don’t, you’ll miss the point of this sermon and that would be a terrible waste of time on a hot Sunday morning in August, don’t you think?

So, the thing of it is that we are in the third week of five Sundays in a row where the lectionary is stuck on the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel. And, one more time, we hear about Bread. Bread! Five Sundays of BREAD.

So, I confess that it was out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity that I looked up the word “Bread” in the Oxford English Dictionary. I am so blessed and privileged to have this resource in my possession – a gift from a dear friend who wanted to spend his inheritance wisely and decided to invest some in my. Thank you, Jesus! (And, thank you, Scott!)

Turns out, the word we’ve been using all this time for bread is not the ‘original’ word for ‘bread’. That word was, from the Teutonic, ‘hlaf’ or loaf. 

The word ‘bread’ actually comes from the word ‘brod’ meaning ‘piece’, ‘bit’, or ‘fragment’. In fact, the word we use for ‘bread’ to mean a loaf of bread didn’t come into full use until around 1200.

Okay, are you still with me? No one’s fallen asleep, yet?

So, hold that thought for just a minute and listen again to Jesus say, “I am the bread of life.” Makes you sort of wonder what he really meant and what got lost in the translation, right? I know I heard “I am the bread come down from heaven” a little differently after I learned of the origins of the word ‘bread’.

So do you suppose Jesus is saying that he’s a ‘piece’ of God? A ‘bit’ or a ‘fragment’ of God come down from heaven? So that one might partake of that morsel from heaven and not die?

Is Jesus using this metaphor of ‘a bit of the loaf’ to explain his identity to the people?

Okay, hold that thought because we’re going in a little deeper now. I don’t want to lose any of you because this will all come together, I promise. So, here we go from English to take a sharp right turn into Greek and Hebrew.

“I am . . .” says Jesus. “I am” is a faithful translation of the Greek ego eimi. But the Greek, standing in an earlier Hebrew tradition, is much more than a simple self-identification.

When Jesus says “I am,” even before he follows the phrase with a predicate nominative (did you catch that, English majors?), there are gasps from certain members of his audience.

That’s because this is how God described God’s identity to Moses. Remember? “I am Who Am”. Jesus seems to be saying, “Remember that bread that Moses fed you in the wilderness so you would not die? I’m that bread – that piece of the loaf – come down from heaven. Eat of THIS bread and you not die. You will have life eternal.”

John’s gospel gives us lots of metaphors for Jesus besides bread. Seven in total. 

Jesus is the Light of the World.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and The Gate for the sheep.

He’s the Resurrection and The Life,

The Way and The Truth
;

Jesus is The True Vine.

So, I said all of that to ask this. It’s the same question Jesus asked his disciples. He asked,

“Who do the people say I am?” 

And, the disciples said, “Oh, John the Baptist! Or, Elijah! Or, one of the prophets!”

 Jesus asked them: “Who do YOU say I am?”

Who do YOU say that Jesus is? From these seven metaphors, who is Jesus for you? Beyond what may or may not be lost in translation, beyond the seven metaphor, who is Jesus for YOU?

I want to suggest that as you are considering an answer that question, you might want to consider some things about yourself. Because, the thing of it is that, in order to really know yourself in all of your fullness, you need to know yourself in relationship to others.

As far as I can figure out, this is at the center of the reason we come to church. God knows, this is the same reason why some people choose NOT to come to church. Because of who we know ourselves to be in the midst of scallywags and scoundrels and sinners.

Truth of it is, some people bring out the worst in us.

Truth is, those very same people bring out the best in us.

And, we bring out the best and the worst in others. 

Either way, we learn the best and the worst about ourselves in relationship with others.

Let me explain that by telling a story:

My father was an alcoholic. When he drank he was mean. And, violent.  Verbally and physically.

There was so much I didn’t know or, frankly, cared to understand about my father. 

Because, you see, if I knew and understood my father, I would know and understand myself better.

For many years, it was just easier to let my father carry all of that perceived ugliness for me. So I wouldn’t have to.

I remember one day – I was probably around 15 years old or so – and wanting to be out with my friends but my mother had “chores” for us to do. We were cleaning out a room so that my grandmother could stay with us for a while as she recovered from having had a mild stroke.

I was grumpy and steaming with a smoldering resentment, as only a 15 year old who’d rather be anywhere else can be, when I came upon an old photo album. I sat down and opened the album and saw a picture of my father. It was the one the army takes after you finish basic training. He was young and trim and wore a uniform and had a full head of hair under his army hat.

“OhMuhGAWD,” I exclaimed.

“What?” asked my mother.

“This picture of Daddy!” I sputtered. “Look at him! He’s a STONE COLD FOX!”

She looked over my shoulder and smiled wistfully, “Yes. Yes, he was.”

“I don’t EVER remember that Daddy looked like THAT,” I asserted.

She flipped a few pages forward. “Do you remember that?”

There I was. Age 7 or 8. All chubby cheeks, gangly legs and long, disheveled hair, in my PJs, sitting next to my father as he held me close. I looked a bit peaked but he looked, well, strong and young and so very handsome. He was clearly protecting me.

“You had just recovered from the chicken pox, remember? We were so worried about you.”

And then, it all came back in a rush. Now, chicken pox is one of those “childhood diseases” that are spoken of like a rite of passage but, you know, chicken pox was a real misery. 

I was hit with a very bad case – pox in my nose, in my throat, in my eyes, in my ears. I was one massive ITCH. To make matters worse, I ran a fever, which racked my body with shivers.

Mother put cold compresses on me and covered me, head to toe, with calamine lotion. Nothing seemed to work. The doctor said to take some of the baby’s teething medicine – which was paregoric, which, by the way is tincture of opium (OMG!!) – and give me a few drops of it. But, that just made me groggy while I still felt hot and shivery and itchy and miserable.

My father was working the night shift at the factory. It was early morning and he had just come home from work. I hadn’t really slept all night. I think I was whimpering in misery. 

I couldn’t see very well but I sensed my father’s presence. I knew my father’s smell. I could hear his voice but it sounded funny - like he had something in his throat. And, I don’t think I had ever heard him whisper, but he was whispering.

“Oh God,” he was saying. “Oh, Elizabeth. Oh, my baby girl. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

The next thing I knew, my mother was getting me undressed and my father wrapped me in a large towel and carried me to the bathtub where he gently lowered me into a warm baking soda bath. 

He slowly and carefully cradled me in his arms as he washed off all the old calamine lotion, gently compressing the pox on my arms and legs, my face and eyes and ears. I could hear him sniffling and saying soothing things.

The thought crossed my mind that he was crying but well, that just couldn’t be. Not MY father.

The next thing I knew I was in bed, in new PJs, with new clean bed linen. My father was dotting my pox with a new layer of calamine lotion as he sang softly one of his favorite songs, 

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. You’ll never know, dear. How much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

That was my father’s favorite song. It was probably the only song he knew all the words. I only remember him singing it when he was drunk. Or, when one of the babies was teething.

But now, he was stone cold sober. And, he was singing it to me. 

For me.  Just for me. To comfort and soothe me. And, it did.

I opened my eyes and though my vision was still blurry, I could see that he was crying. And, I swear, those tears were the most healing thing I have ever experienced in my life.

After he left, I think I slept the rest of the day, which was the first time I had slept in days. Later, for supper, my father brought me some popsicles, which felt so good. I remember that I ate them down slowly, savoring the coolness, as he read me a short story. Then I fell back asleep.

As I remembered that chicken pox story, I sat in that room, at age 15, weeping. I wept because I believed the story I chose to believe about my father because it was easier than believing what that story told me about myself. 

I believed it because it was easier for me to believe that my father was ill tempered and I was not. That I could recognize his violence because I have the same potential in me. And, that I could recognize his tender compassion because I have the same potential in me, as well. 

It's mine to choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself.

So, I come to you this morning with these two questions:  Who do you say YOU are? Beyond what your family told you about who you are, beyond the narrative you like to tell about yourself, beyond the story you want others to believe about you, who are you, really?

Begin to explore that question as you move beyond the language about Jesus, beyond the bits and fragments of the words about The Word of God, beyond the seven metaphors for Jesus, and ask Who is Jesus for YOU?

What pieces of the Sacred Loaf are you choosing to consume? How does that change you by telling you more about who you were created to be?

Jesus is more than an historical figure – don’t let anyone tell you that that’s all He is. He’s more than the metaphors John gives us. He’s even more than the stories four of His disciples told us about him. 

He is a bit, a fragment of the Sacred Loaf that is God.

And, because he is, in our baptism in him, so we are, too. 

As annoying and aggravating as we can be to each other, we reveal something about ourselves to others and, they, in turn, reveal something about ourselves to us. 

Like it or not.

This is why we can listen to the story of David and his son Absolom and, even  though we can recognize that David was a scallaywag and a scoundrel, we also can hear are are deeply touched by his lament for his son.

We are about to partake in the bread come down from heaven. 

We believe that Jesus is present to us in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. 

We are about to eat a bit of The Bread, a true piece of the true Loaf of God.

In the mystery of the Eucharistic feast, Jesus shows us more deeply who HE is, so that we may become more of who We are.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”        
Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

YOU get bread and YOU get bread . . .


 A Sermon for Pentecost XI - Proper 13 B - August 5, 2018
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church - Laurel, DE


Have you seen Oprah in that commercial for Weight Watchers? The one in which she says, almost lustily, “This is joy for me! I. Love. Bread. I love bread. I now just manage it. I don’t deny myself bread. I have bread every day. I have bread every day.”

I half expect her to say, “And YOU get bread. And YOU get bread. And, YOU . . .”

Well, I’m not as passionate as Oprah, but I do love bread. I come by it honestly. My grandmother made bread. So did my mother and aunts.

I love the smell of bread as the yeast causes it to rise in the pan. I love the “groan-whoosh” sound bread makes as it gets punched down in the pan, only to rise again.

I love the way bread feels when it comes out of the pan and onto the floured breadboard to be kneaded and pounded and patted.

I am convinced that heaven smells like bread baking in the oven.

And, I am quite sure that a bite of warm bread, crusty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, is, in fact, “the bread of heaven”.

Once you’ve had real bread – not that stuff called “Wonder Bread” which only causes one to wonder how that stuff can be called bread – you just can tolerate anything but.

My grandmother loved bread so much she thought the communion wafers they served at church must be an abomination in the sight of the Lord.

She always chuckled when she heard the joke about needing two acts of faith to take communion in the Roman Catholic Church. The first act of faith is that you must believe that the host is the actual body of Jesus. The second act of faith is that the host isn't 'fish food'. 

My grandmother made great loaves of bread at least once a week. It never seemed to last the entire week. She made it more frequently when there were layoffs in the factory or mills or when someone in the neighborhood was sick.

I remember this one time when the factory was on strike. My whole family was involved in union organizing and this was the first test of the strength of the union.

The strike was going on for a long time – longer than anyone imagined it would (13 weeks I seem to recall) – or prepared for. People were hungry. Women and children were showing up at the picket lines, hoping to get a share of the food some were bringing to feed the men.

There were reported tensions and flashes of anger. People were making sandwiches and delivering them to the strike line, only to watch the men give their food to the wives and children.

My grandmother felt called to go and provide food for those men AND their wives and children.

So, we got up very early in the morning to load up my red Speedy wagon which I had gotten for Christmas. In went a huge vat of soup and all those loaves of bread. We covered everything with a large tarp, lashed it down with rope, and off we walked, pulling the wagon the entire six miles to the factory.

When we got to the factory we could see the men walking the picket line, their wives and children were not far away. I was only about 7 or 8 years old but I could sense the tension in the air. I moved closer to my grandmother and held her hand.

The women and children saw us and started to walk towards us, forming a tight, tense ring around us. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces – worried, anxious, hungry faces – some kept looking at the size of the pot and looking around to the size of the crowd.

We had brought a lot of food, but even I wondered whether or not there would be enough.

Just when I figured something Really Bad was going to happen, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She sounded clear and happy but firm and strong. She was asking people to form a single line.

“Get out your cups,” she said, “and don’t worry. We'll have enough. We’ll just add a little water to the soup and we’ll all eat hardy.”

Some people slowly started to move in line, but others seemed frozen in place. Some of the men had left the picket line and had made their way over to where we were.

My grandmother’s voice rang out again, “Don’t worry. There’s plenty for everyone. Besides,” she said, motioning to me to remove the tarp, “we have BREAD!”

At that, even though this was long before game shows on TV, I did my best game show lady and whipped the tarp off the mound of bread.

I will never forget the sound that came from the crowd. It was a sigh of genuine relief, an acknowledgement of a prayer answered, the sound of gratitude mixed with anticipation of relief from the pangs of hunger.

Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray, used to say that "Hope was a song in a weary throat."

I have come to know the sound I heard that day from the people as one of the sounds of hope.

My grandmother served the soup and I broke off pieces of bread to give to the grateful hands that held it as if it were the most precious thing they had ever seen.

As each person came forward, my grandmother said, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus loves you. We’re on the right side of this fight. This is what we're asking the factory owners to do - to share a little of what they have. Don't worry. God will provide. We have to stay together. Don’t lose hope. Keep your eyes on Jesus. ”

The seed was planted in my heart right then and there so that, years later, when I heard a call to priesthood, I knew exactly what I was being called to do.

There is a line in the service of ordination to the priesthood: "In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come."

Whenever I hear that line, I always remember this moment in the strike like with my grandmother. 

I understood clearly this scene from John’s gospel after the feeding of the five thousand, as well as the scene from Exodus with Moses and Aaron..

The Eucharist we celebrate here is one of hope. It’s one which keeps our eyes on Jesus. It’s one in which we are fed so that we might feed those who are hungry and in need.

Jesus knew two things about the human enterprise. He knew that anxiety is at our very core. That is why whenever something is about to happen to people in the bible, when an angel appears, the first words that are spoken are, “Be not afraid.” Jesus even asks his disciples and his followers, “Why are you anxious?” And, he admonishes people several times, "Oh ye of little faith."

We are born anxious. Ever seen a baby minutes after being born? If that isn’t the very picture of anxiety I don’t know what is. And, what stops that baby from anxiety? Being held and loved. Jesus knew that. Which is why he addressed it so many times.

But, Jesus also knew that the antidote to anxiety was abundance. He talked about that all the time, too. You hear him say it in this morning’s gospel story. There’s always more than enough for everyone.

That was my grandmother’s message that morning on the strike line.

I don't know how that many people were fed that day but no one left hungry. All were fed. 

That is the message of our Eucharistic celebration.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

We are fed that we may feed.

And, not just food. We are fed that we might feed the minds of children and adults with intellect and curiosity and creativity.

We are fed that we might feed the hearts of others with kindness and compassion.

We are fed that we might feed the souls of others with inspiration and light and hope.

The Eucharist is the bread of joy.

It is the bread of hope. 

It is the bread of this world which points us to the bread of life eternal. 

The Eucharistic bread is the leaven in the loaves of our lives, lifting us up from our present reality and expanding our awareness to the lives of our neighbors and our world.

In it and through it, we rise!

It kneads us and plies us and stretches us to feed as we are fed.

So, like Oprah, we can leave the church after communion and say, “And YOU get bread. And YOU get bread. And YOU . . . . .”

We are fed so that we may feed others.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

Come. Jesus is waiting to bless us and feed us.

Amen.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Make the people sit down


A Sermon for Pentecost X - Proper XII
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr)  Elizabeth Kaeton

I had the privilege of presiding at a graveside service this week of a young woman who had a particularly pernicious form of Parkinson’s Disease. 

She spent the last few months of her life in an extended care facility, having uncontrollable spasms of her arms and legs and head to the extent that she didn’t get a minute’s sleep and what little she could eat was not enough to nourish her body. She was quite literally skin on bone. 

The constant movement of her body had worn a bald spot in the back of her head and she had developed an open area on her backside, which actually exposed her pelvic bone.

I’ve been doing this work for over thirty years and I’ve never seen anything like that.

We were finally able to get her the right combination of medicine so that her spasms were controllable and she could get some rest but her poor body was so spent from years of fighting the disease that it was clear that the end of her life was rapidly approaching.

The first time I met her, she was having a really bad time with spasms. I introduced myself and explained my role on the Hospice team. 

She told me she was Roman Catholic and I asked if I could get someone to bring her communion. She said that she was getting communion weekly but wouldn’t mind getting it more often. 

I gently explained that I always bring the reserved sacrament with me and I would be happy to provide it to her.

She smiled and said, “Well, that would be nice, but tell me: Do you believe in consubstantiation or transubstantiation?”

I have to tell you that, in all the years I’ve been ordained, no one has ever asked me that question. Not in church. Not in a hospital setting. Not in an ECF. Not anywhere. Not anytime. By anybody.

So, I smiled and launched into my best seminary spiel. “Well, that was one of the hot questions of the Reformation,” I said, clearing my throat in a desperate attempt to sound like I actually knew what I was talking about.

Roman Catholics believed in transubstantiation – that is, that at communion, the prayers of the priest transform the bread and wine into the actually body and blood of Jesus.

Those who protested – The Protestants – believed the teachings of Reformation theologian, Martin Luther, who taught that what happened during the prayers of the priest and people at communion was consubstantiation; meaning that the property of the bread and wine did not change but existed along with (con) the real presence of Jesus.

She smiled and said, “That was quite good, very concise, on point. But, tell me: What do YOU believe?”

I took a quiet but deep breath. I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I would be interviewed about my beliefs concerning communion

“Well, I said, I think both positions have their merit, but they both miss the point.”

“And, what would that be?” asked my obviously highly intelligent, well-read, well educated patient, even as her spasms brought a painful grimace to her face.

“Well,” I heard myself say, “I think that when we focus just on the theology, we miss Jesus. Let me give you two examples."

“When Jesus fed the 5,000 (or the 4,000 in another gospel account), and everyone was worried about how they were going to feed all those people, the first thing Jesus did was to say to his disciples, ‘Make the people sit down’.”

“At that point, everyone was sitting down, probably in their own small circles of family and friends. Everyone was on the same level. In doing that, in making everyone sit down, Jesus sent an unspoken but very clear message about everyone being equal.

Educator and Quaker Parker Palmer says that this is the first biblical evidence of community organizing. He surmises that, once everyone was sitting down and when some baskets of food were being circulated, people started to open up the bags of food they always brought with them when they started out on a journey. 

Sitting down, with everyone at the same level, it was easy to share, to open your bag and take what you have to give to those who don’t. 

And, THAT Palmer says, was the real miracle.

When Jesus was at table with his disciples in the Upper Room during what we call “The Last Supper”, everyone was sitting down. Everyone was equal. Everyone was eating of the same food and drinking of the same drink.

In both stories, Jesus was there, among them – rich and poor, saint and scoundrel, young and old, male and female.

And, it’s true in our lives today when we celebrate communion together. We’re all being fed of the same food. And, Jesus is with us. That’s the most important thing. Well, to me, anyway.”

I looked into her eyes and smiled. She smiled back at me and said, “I’d really love it if you gave me communion.”

At which point, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes and I knew I had to take a moment to compose myself before I made a real fool of myself in front of her. 

I told her I needed to check in with the nurse and I would be right back.

She smiled and said, “Just be careful of the dog on the way out. He will eat your cake if you’re not careful. And, the goose has been known to fly, fly, fly, fly . . . . Here it is, now. Be careful.”

I realized that she was having a hallucination that is commonplace at this stage of the disease process. As I turned to go to the nurse’s station, I could feel the tears falling down my face.

The head nurse was coming toward me in the opposite direction, took one look at my face, and opened her arms wide. I fell into her arms as we wept silently together.

“She is absolutely brilliant,” I sobbed. “What a cruel disease.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, “Although, I’ve never seen one quite as bad as this.”

We talked a bit and I composed myself as we walked back to the patient who was back to herself.   

She said to the head nurse, “The chaplain here is a good friend of Jesus, so she’s become a good friend of mine. Won’t you stay and have communion with us?”

And, I’ll tell you what: theology went out the window. We were simply three souls in different bodies, one of whom had a body who had betrayed her with a disease process that was outrageously, viciously cruel.

Even so, we were all equal and all worthy to be in the presence of Jesus, who was absolutely there as our unseen guest.

In a moment we are going to celebrate Eucharist together. We are going to invite the presence of the Holy Spirit to breathe on these gifts of Bread and Wine that they might become for us the Body and Blood of Jesus. 

At the end of the communion prayer, you'll hear me say the words of the brilliant Anglican compromise of Queen Elizabeth, 
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ (lived and) died (and rose) for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Do you hear it? Do you see what she did there?  

“Feed on him IN YOUR HEARTS. BY FAITH.

There it is. Transubstantiation AND Consubstantiation. Both. Side by side. 

While it’s important that the Bread and Wine for us are the Body and Blood of Jesus, it all about how YOU are being transformed and how your FAITH is being strengthened.

Because of course, Jesus is truly and fully present to us in the breaking of the bread. Just as he promised. And so, we are truly grateful and give our thanksgiving.

My encounter with that patient reminded me of a quote by Vance Havner: 
“God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce crops, broken clouds to give rain, broken grains to give bread, broken bread to produce strength.”
So, no matter how broken you are, you are still worthy. 

No matter how broken you are, you are still useful. 

No matter how broken you are, you are still capable of being a vehicle of grace and love, compassion and kindness.

It all begins when we sit down, or kneel down – if that’s your preference or ability – and understand that we are all equal in the sight of God. We are all worthy of being fed the bread of heaven and to drink from the cup of salvation.  

We are all made worthy in Jesus to stand before God who accepts us just as we are, without one plea.

All of us. Everyone of us.

All. And, all means all. No exceptions.

And, when we believe that, just like the story in this morning’s gospel, miracles happen.

We are changed and transformed so we can change and transform the world into one where no one goes hungry. Everyone is fed. Because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

An opportunity for a miracle awaits us, my friends.

Come. Eat. Drink. 

No matter who you are or who you think you are, no matter what you've done or what you've left undone, no matter where you've been or where you'd still like to go, no matter where you'd like to be or you where you actually are on your journey in life, come.

Jesus is here. 

Amen. 

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