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Sunday, August 11, 2019

People get ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is 2019. Not 1959. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a conservative or liberal problem. 

It’s not an economic or immigration problem. 

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

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

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

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

It’s a moral problem. 

It’s a values problem. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop shooting

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

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

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Where there's a will . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the sermon I preached:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the Lennox. Not the silver. Disney movies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one can ever take that away from you.

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

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

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


Friday, August 02, 2019

What's Love Got To Do With It?

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

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

Always have. Probably always will.

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Here I am

St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

When I was working full time as a Hospice chaplain, I must have prayed the Lord’s Prayer at least six or seven times a day. Every day.

No matter if I’m working that day or not, I say it every morning when I say Morning Prayer and every night when I say the ‘little office’ of Compline.

I confess that I am not always ‘fully present’ to the prayer when I say it. Sometimes, I repeat the words by rote, the way I say The Pledge of Allegiance or The Confession of sin or The Nicene Creed on Sunday.

Some folks like to say that The Lord’s Prayer is the most ancient of prayers, but there are scholars much smarter than you and I who say that, if prayer is a direct response to a call from God, then the first prayer in Scripture can be found a lot sooner than when Jesus prayed.

They note that, in the 22nd Chapter of the Book of Genesis, an angel of the Lord called out to Abraham and said, “Abraham!” And, Abraham said, “Here I am!”

In the 3rd Chapter of the Book of Exodus, God called to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses said, “Here I am!”

That was also the response of Samuel and Saul , Jacob and Isaiah. “Here I am.”

Those three words, some scholars say, are the most ancient words of prayer. Here I am.

In Hebrew the word is 'Hineni' which some scholars say can also be translated as "At your service."

Hineni is being fully present to God, ready to serve God, even though you know you have sinned.

It is very telling that when God called out to Adam after he had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, Adam did NOT respond "Hineni," "Here I am." Instead he hid himself and made some weak pathetic excuse for hiding.

Those three words, some scholars say, are the first words of prayer as a direct response to a call from  God:   Here I am. 

It is being fully present to God, even though you know you have sinned. Even though you don't know what you will be asked. Even though you don't know how you will respond. Even when you don't know what comes next.

It’s a powerful thought, one I’ll come back to in a bit.

I do love the exchange between God and Abraham from Genesis which we listened in on this morning. God wants to know what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah (as if God can’t already see what’s going on) so God sends a few men to check it out. 

Meanwhile, Abraham enters into a plea bargain prayer with God.

Abraham knows that the cities are in big trouble so he begins to ask, well, if there are 50 righteous men left in the city, will you forgive the whole place for 50 good men? And God says, sure, if there are 50 righteous men, I’ll spare the whole place.

People of ancient cultures are known and admired for their bartering, so we should not be surprised that Abraham says, “Well, what if five of those fifty are lacking?” And God says, “Okay, I won’t destroy the whole city for forty-five righteous men.”

Abraham decides to push his luck – okay, how about 40? 30? 20? How about 10?

In my imagination, I see God smiling at Abraham with great love and affection. I hear God thinking to Godself, “This dear man doesn’t understand that if there’s just one person worth saving, I’ll save the whole entire world for the hope I can see in one righteous person.”

Now, be honest – if not with me, than with yourself – haven’t you prayed a prayer like Abraham? I know I have. “Oh, please, God,” I pray, “If I promise to do ‘x’ will you please do ‘y’? Okay, how about if I do ‘w and x’? Will you do ‘y’?  Okay, okay. How about ‘v and w and x’? THEN, will you do ‘y’, and maybe you could squeeze in a ‘z’?”

I hear some of you chuckling because you have prayed that same prayer, haven’t you?

I’ve certainly heard that sort of plea bargain prayer from my Hospice patients. Sometimes, I hear that prayer from my Hospice families on behalf of the Hospice patient. “If God lest him or her live until after my daughter has her baby, I promise to name the baby after him.” Or, “I promise to do something I know I should have done a long time ago but I’ll do it now.”

I think God must smile the same loving smile on us as God did when Abraham prayed like that.

But, the Lord’s Prayer is different. Very different.

I've said The Lord's Prayer holding the ancient hand of a person who, just minutes before, couldn't put four words together to make a coherent thought and yet, there s/he is, reciting every word. Eyes closed. Head bowed reverently. Really. Praying. And, I’m astonished.

I've said The Lord's Prayer at the bedside of a dying person, surrounded by family and friends of all ages who gulp out the words between sobs and dabs of tears. And, I’m humbled.

I've said The Lord's Prayer with people – young and old – who have told me that have no faith, or have lost their faith, or confess that they haven't been to church in years and don't know what they believe anymore. And yet, there they are, praying earnestly, with their whole heart and soul and mind, believing every word they are saying. And, I am inspired.

Now, don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me but you have probably heard that some scholars say that Jesus never really said this prayer. I remember looking at a Jesus Seminar version of The Lord's Prayer, with the words that Jesus almost certainly said or did highlighted in red; and in pink, words that he "probably" said.

The words in red were: "Our Father......". Everything else? Hmmm.. maybe, maybe not. Does that matter, really? Do the words of a few scholars really make any difference to your faith? 

I don't have to cross my fingers behind my back when saying this prayer. Some of my Jewish friends
tell me that The Lord's Prayer is all the evidence they need to know that Jesus was a good Rabbi. It's a solid Jewish prayer, they tell me, reflecting all of the values that Jews cherish.

Indeed, you don’t have to be Christian or Jewish or any particular faith to pray  the words of this prayer.

To me, this prayer contains everything I need to know. It has everything I need to get me through the day – to get me through the worst parts of any day or week or month of the year.

I don't know that my prayer - this prayer - is always answered. 

I only know that the answer to the problem of poverty and hunger and injustice and forgiveness come in being cognizant and aware of the existence of these wages of sin by being mindful enough of them to pray about them. 

And, in trying to live out the words of this prayer, so that they’re not just words to be said by rote but with feeling and intention.

Author Ann Lamott says that you only need to know two prayers. The first is to be said every morning. 

That prayer is: “Please, please, please.” 

The second is to be said every evening before you go to bed. 

That prayer is “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

She maintains that all God every wants to hear is for us to ask for what we need and to be grateful for what we’ve got. I don’t know about you, but I think she may well be right.

I want to come back to that ancient  prayer, "Here I am" because I think it’s important to pray that prayer before we pray The Lord’s Prayer – or, before we say any prayer, formulated or one that arises spontaneously from our heart in response to God.

Before you pray, take a moment to stop and center yourself. Pay attention to your body, and allow yourself to feel a sense of gratitude for being alive. 

Notice the way your breath flows in and out of your nose and mouth and allow yourself to be thankful for each breath. Feel yourself sitting in your seat or standing wherever you are and consider your estate the same as Abraham who said to God, “Who am I but dust and ashes?”

And then, before you say another word, say, “Here I am.”  

You know what? Let’s try that right now. Let's pray the way Abraham and Moses, Samuel and Saul, Jacob and Isaiah prayed before we pray the way Jesus reportedly taught his disciples to pray.  

Bring your whole self to this prayer. It doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are. It doesn't matter where yo've been or haven't been; what you've done or haven't done. 

Bring your whole self, just as you are, withut one plea

First, get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes. 

Now, inhale and say to yourself, “Here”

Now exhale and say to yourself, “I am.” 

Do that again. 

Inhale: "Here." Exhale: "I am.” 

Now that we are all more fully present to God, I ask you to open your hearts and pray with me, church – if you like, hold the hand of the person next to you – and say with me some of the words Jesus taught his disciples saying,
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
One final thought: I think this prayer, whether or not Jesus explicitly taught it to his disciples as a prayer, may not have been so much our prayer to God, but God’s prayer for us.

To which I respond saying, “Here I am.” 


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Martha, Martha

A Sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church,
Milford, DE
Pentecost IV - Proper 11 C

Apparently, this is the summer of The Gospel Greatest Hits.

Last week we heard the well-known and of't preached story of The Good Samaritan. 

This week the story of Mary and Martha - those two wild and crazy girls from Bethany - is on tap. 

I don’t know two other women – sisters – who, in the history of scripture stories about women, have been more seriously stereotyped.

Some sermons – even some of my own in the past – at least try to avoid the whole stereotype thing by encouraging us to find “balance” in our lives. 

When we haven’t been told that to sit at the feet of Jesus is much to be preferred than the busyness of Martha, we’ve all – male and female – been admonished to find ‘balance’ in our lives – between the busyness of work and the demands of family life with the need to nourish and care for our souls.

Which, of course, is good advice. If only if it were that simple, right?

My dear and good friend, Lindsay Hardin Freeman has written a couple of books* about women in scripture. I love the way she portrays Martha.  She writes that Martha has the likely characteristics of being “practical, hardworking, outspoken, domestic, hospitable, faithful, loving and . . . (my particular favorite) . . . 'tenacious’”

She sounds like lots of women I know and love – many in my circle of family and friends.

Lindsay asks that we put ourselves in Martha’s place, and imagine
You are making dinner for Jesus and his friends, which is over a dozen people. You were the one who invited them but it’s a much larger group than you thought.

You can tell they haven’t had a good meal in weeks. They’re ravenous. Andrew and Bartholomew are already nodding off in the corner. Let’s see…. food for fifteen. Fish would be good… we’ll have to get that, and lots of water at the well. Maybe some pickled herring and pretzels. Wine? Someone will have to run and get it. Jesus turned water into wine once, but his mother isn’t here to make him do it now. Figs. Figs would be good after dinner.

Soon the floor becomes more crowded, for in first-century Palestine, it is normal to stretch out on one’s side to eat. You need help. Where is Mary?

Ah, of course: at Jesus’ feet. You tilt your head, showing Mary that you need her. Nothing. You gesture with you hand. No response. So you ask for someone to be the bad cop. “Jesus, tell Mary to help me, would you?”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies, “Your distractions overpower you. One thing for dinner is enough; one stew pot is plenty. Mary has chosen the better part.”
Found on the Internet. Can I just say, "UGH!"?
Not moi, of course but some biblical scholar have described this scene as the first recorded incident of ‘mansplaining’ (Although, I wish I had thought of that.)

Okay, you can groan. In Jesus’ day, that was just the way it was. He didn’t know about ‘multitasking’ or I’m sure he might have re- framed what he said to Martha. 

Because, although it was ancient Palestine, I suspect Martha, being 'tenacious' might just  have clocked him with a water jar.

I grew up in a houseful of Martha’s. Those women knew how to multitask. One of my favorite memories from my childhood is that of the women in my family. At one point or another, they all took the same stance which they learned, of course, from their mother, my grandmother.

That stance would be standing in front of the stove, at least three pots going on at once – one in the front in a full boil, the back two on simmer, which she would give an occasional stir.  

She would have had a baby on her hip, a child sitting on the floor at her feet with a step stool as a desk of sorts while she drew on the blank back of an old calendar (which my grandmother and every woman in my family saved for just such a purpose). 

She would also be pulling a third child out from under the table, most likely a kid who had snatched a cookie or something from the pantry or who had had a ‘hit and run’ with another child and was hiding under the table.

Oh, and she did all of that while either reading or reciting a bible verse – the bible propped up on the shelf above the stove – or, perhaps, singing a hymn, and, in the process, teaching us about Jesus and his unconditional love for us. 

She did this not only by telling us and singing for us the stories of Jesus, but by the lives of faith she lived. 

You could miss that last important bit of the story by focusing only on the busyness of the work required of women who are mothers and homemakers and, well, multitaskers. They understood that it was all part of the whole. That caring for children, and cooking for their families and any work that they did outside of the home and studying scripture is ALL the work of ministry.

It’s all about caring for the people of God as a way to serve God.  

The women in my family taught me that a holy life is one that is integrated – the bitter with the sweet, the hard work with the fun, the drudgery with the laughter, the ridiculous with the sublime

Here’s the thing that gets lost in the story of Martha and Mary and the squabbling we imagine and stereotyping to which we fall prey. 

Jesus was doing a very radical thing. 

Not only was he allowing a woman – Mary – to sit at his feet and learn about God along with a roomful of men, he was, in his own way, gently teasing way, inviting Martha to do the same.

I want us to stop and appreciate that for one minute. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age just how outrageous and scandalous that was for him to have done, but it was.
My friend Lindsay notes that 
..... tradition has it that Martha went on to become a missionary, traveling as far as modern-day France, intent on spreading the word about Jesus and protecting his people. Often pictured with a dragon at her feet and an asperges (a container used to splash holy water), she is credited with saving the people of Aix (en Provence) from a dragon hiding on the banks of the Rhone River.

Ah, Martha, Martha. For Jesus, she would do whatever needed to be done: make meals, sweep the floor, shelter the disciples, proclaim Jesus as Lord – even kill dragons.
Many of us do the same sort of multitasking. And, yes, it is important to find a balance in our lives. 

Even more important, however, is to learn what the women in my life knew and taught me: integration

It is possible to do more than two things at once. Don’t let life’s distractions overpower you. 

The trick is this: to understand it as all being connected to each other and to God.

One of my favorite memories of my grandmother was that she would hold up her hand and say, “I have four fingers and a thumb. Each one is different from the other, yet they all belong to the same hand. And, the hand is poorer if one is hurt or injured or lost. Just like a family. Oh, we can adapt and adjust, but we can be so much better if we work together.”

So, here’s a question - or more: How different would your work be if you understood it as part of your ministry? 

Or, if, perhaps you considered that the work you do IS your ministry – that it  is what you do in the world in order to serve God? 

Whatever it is, in whatever profession or industry, if you are doing it because you are using the gifts and skills with which God has graced you and your find satisfaction in it, you are doing the work of ministry.

Perhaps you aren’t in a traditional ‘helping’ industry, but if you think about it, there is something that you do that helps improve the lives of people. 

If you are a manager, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day when you help inspire an employee – professionally and personally.

Perhaps you are called upon - in some big or even seemingly insignificant way - to make an ethical decision or a moral choice. Surely, you are bringing your Christian ethic into the workplace. 

If you are “just” an employee, I have no doubt that there are moments in your day, when you do something small, something seemingly insignificant, which makes a difference either in the life of a fellow employee or even your boss.

If you "just volunteer," you obviously don't do it for the pay. You do it for the satisfaction. 

If you think about the parts of your job that give you the most satisfaction, you will find there some of the gifts and skills which God has given you. You’ll find there your sense of vocation.

I know I know. That’s not what you’ve been told. You’ve probably understood that work has to be hard.

But, what if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you? Does not the Psalmist say, "Delight yourself also in the Lord: and you will receive the desires of your heart?" (Psalm 37:4)

What if your heart’s desire – that which gives you the deepest satisfaction – is, in fact, your vocation, your calling?

Perhaps you are a parent – a grandparent – an aunt or uncle or cousin. I happen to believe with all my heart that family life is a vocation. It’s a calling to a life of sacrificial yet deeply satisfying love. 

It is in the Petri dish of family that we come to know and love ourselves by knowing and loving others – or, sometimes, not. 

Family life is the ultimate balancing act – which is why so many of us fall and get bumps and bruises – and yet somehow, we find what it takes to get back up and multitask and integrate our way back into some semblance of normalcy.

We are all, each in our own way, male and female, both Mary and Martha. Sometimes we need to balance. Sometimes we need to multitask. 

Sometimes, we allow the distractions in life to overpower us.

But the women in my life taught me that we are at our best when we integrate all the different and varied parts of our life into an understanding of ourselves as children of God, one part of the family of God, each doing a part of the work that will make us, and our world, whole. 

And, when we are whole, we are more of the person God created us to be; we are holy.

I have come to believe that the ‘better portion’ scripture talks about is made even better with a little bit of both the Mary and the Martha who lives in us all.