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Sunday, August 01, 2010

People is people. And God is God.

In the fourth circle of 'Dante's Inferno',  the punishment for avarice (greed) was having your face 
pressed into the earth for eternity --a reminder that you had cared too much about earthly concerns.

A Baptismal Love Letter for Makayla Noelle
X Pentecost – August 1, 2010
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Dear Makayla,

Hopefully, by the time you read this, you will be preparing to confirm for yourself the vows and promises that are being made for you today.

As for me, I’ll be a just little blip in the history of the church.

I started writing these Baptismal Love Letters eight and a half years ago when I first came to St. Paul’s. This will be my last Love Letter here.

Oh, with God’s help, I’ll still be preaching Baptismal Love Letters for many years to come. This will just be the last one I preach here.

Your baptism has been the occasion of great joy for me, personally. It has prevented me from taking a stroll down Memory Lane and, instead, stay focused on the gospel.

Which, ironically enough, sent me on a path strewn with memories.

Let me explain.

Today’s gospel is a story from St. Luke (12:13-21).Someone in the crowd says to Jesus,
"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
In so many ways, this is a timeless human story. On some level, we understand what Jesus is saying about greed and the “abundance of possessions”.

That was as true in the time of Jesus as it is for us today – and even for you, fourteen or fifteen years from now.

I found myself remembering a sermon I had heard years ago. I’ve told this story just once in the eight and a half years I’ve been here, but it’s one worth repeating, because, I’ve come to understand that the message of this story is the whole of all four gospels.

It was 1986. I was a newly ordained priest, a Chaplain at the University of Lowell in MA.

It was also the first five years of what was to become the AIDS pandemic. I was part of an Ecumenical AIDS Task Force, teaming up with a Jesuit priest to provide education to churches in the area.

It was in that capacity that I first met Fr. Koumranian, the pastor at the Armenian Orthodox Church in Lowell.

For some reason unknown to me, Fr. Koumranian took a liking to me – or, was intrigued by a “woman priest” – and decided that I should learn the “real” liturgy of the church.

So, he took me under his wing in one of the most delightful mentor relationship I have ever known.

He was called “Father” so I, of course, became known as “Mother”. He would call me and, in his heavy Armenian accent, begin, “Mother? Dees is Father. We are having baptism at church. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Mind you, that wasn’t so much an invitation as an expectation. I was thrilled. I went. Every time.

One evening, he called. “Mother? Dees is Father. Der is funeral Wednesday. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Nothing was so important that couldn’t be rearranged so that I could be there.

There was smoke. There were bells. There was chanting. I admit that I loved it all in that beautiful mosaic tile sanctuary.

When it came time for the eulogy, I looked around the church and saw that it was filled with lots of old Armenian men and women, all dressed in black.

I thought sure the eulogy would be spoken in Armenian and I could meditate quietly while he preached. To my surprise, Fr. Koumranian walked into the aisle, near the casket as he began the euology.

“Der are people in dees world,” he said, “who are always making you happy. You see dem walking on de street and your heart leaps for joy, for dey are making you so happy.”

He put his hand reverently on the casket and said solemnly, “Dees . . . is not one of dos people.”

I was, in a word, stunned. I shut my eyes tight. All I could think was, “Don’t let my face show what I’m thinking.” Which was, “What in the heck is he doing?”

When I opened my eyes, I could see the front row of women, including the man’s widow.

They were all nodding their heads in agreement.

Fr. Koumranian continued, “But, isn’t God – our God – so wonderful, dat now – even now – even one such as dees is resting eternally in de arms of Jesus? Because, you know, eets true: People is people. And, God is God.”

And then he said, “Ah-min,” and sat down.

Isn’t that wonderful? ‘People is people and God is God’.

That pretty much sums up just about everything Jesus ever said. These are seven words that sum up the message of all four gospels. ‘People is people and God is God’. That’s really the message of this morning’s gospel.

People are people.

Like the man who asked Jesus to intercede in an argument over inherited possessions, we can be very greedy. We can allow what we have or what we want to define our identity.

As I’ve been packing for my move, I’ve been astounded by my own arrogance. Did I really think that storing up all this “stuff” was going to make me look better to others or feel better about myself?

“’Vanity of vanities! All is vanity’ says the Lord.”

People are people.

Like the man in the parable Jesus told, even the most intelligent among us sometimes do foolish things. Even those who consider ourselves good Christians are capable of unkind, mean-spirited, even despicable behavior. Even at your age, you probably have already learned that by now.

While all that is true, Fr. Koumranian is right: People are people. But God is God.

Here’s the really Good News: No matter how foolish, no matter how unkind or mean-spirited or even despicable our behavior, God is always ready to forgive.

We may not be able to forgive, but what we know of God in Christ Jesus is love and forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.

That is the life you were baptized into, Makayla. The life of Jesus is a life of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.

When you understand this, your life will also be about putting your faith in God into action. This is known as ‘mission’.

It’s the most important thing about your baptism.

It’s part of what Tim and Jon and I have tried to teach the children and young people in this church so that they might grow up and grow into the full stature of Christ.

In a wonderful upside down way, it is the children of this community who have modeled for the adults what it means to put their faith into action and seek the mission of God in the world.

Doing God’s mission – being in service to others, emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus – is what Christians do as a way of expressing our profound gratitude for the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When you know more about Jesus, really take what he has to say and learn the lessons he has to teach, you will find yourself filled with gratitude.

Here’s the real miracle of your baptism, Makayla: the more of yourself you give away, the more of yourself you will have and the more joy you will know.

Not just superficial happiness, Makayla.

Joy. Deep, inexplicable joy – even when your heart is heavy and breaking with sadness.

I don’t know how that works. I only know it to be true.

No one else is responsible for your happiness or your joy. No one. Not your parents or your grandparents, your family or your friends. Not the church. You are. And, the more you follow Jesus in service of others, the more joy you will know.

One day, you, too, will become just a blip in the history of the church. But, God knows your name. God knows who you are. God expects great things from you – as S/he expects from each and every one of God’s creatures.

There is something in this world that only you can do. This is the reason you were put on this earth. This is the reason, ultimately, for your baptism – so you can do something wonderful in this world in the name of Jesus.

And, even if you fall short – even if you miss the mark – when it is time for your time on this earth to end, you are still promised to rest eternally in the arms of God.

Because, Makayla, people are people and God is God. Amen.


Geeklet said...

That sounds like a delightful mentor relationship, and it brings me joy to hear it - much like your story about the Rabbi you met during - a hospital visit, was it? Delight to hear the people of God interacting in such a jovial manner, despite the many distinctions we set up for ourselves.

I suppose people is people - setting up all those boundaries! And God is God - breaking 'em down. :)

IT said...

Okay, did I miss something? Obviously I did, and I try to read your blog regularly. I just thought you had a sabbatical. Moving?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Might as well do this "officially": I'm on a month's vacation. Then, 8 months of sabbatical. Then, 4 months LOA. Then, wherever Jesus tells me to go.

I'll be writing more about this later. You can count on it.

Riley said...

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was feeling out of the loop.
Looking forward to hearing more about your plans.

Pssstt! Jesus says he'd like you to work in the Northern California area after your time off. : )

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I love you, Riley, but Northern California? I know the bishop there. I hope Jesus loves me more than that.

Riley said...

Ooops! Well, how about Montana then? I may be moving back there next year. I also have family who I visit in South Dakota regularly, so either state would be fine with me....I mean, with Jesus. : )

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, you like "Big Sky" country. I like "Big Buildings" city. Sorry, darlin'. I'm an East Coast kinda gal.

IT said...

Well then! That's brave, and spirited (and BP would say, Spirited ;-)

I shall look forward to the tales of your journey ahead....

Joanna Depue said...

It was a wonderful sermon, Elizabeth; wonderfully written and delivered amidst all that was going on. You done real good.

JCF said...

but Northern California? I know the bishop there. I hope Jesus loves me more than that.

Ouch! I live here (again) now. (I coulda sworn Jesus did, too. Well, at least long enough for me to eat him there this morning)

Seriously, though, peace o' Christ in your future plans (which won't be anywhere near me, sadly).

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Amen, Elizabeth. Amen, amen, alleluia.

As for where God lives...I hate to disappoint y'all, but God lives in my backyard, looking out over the rather nondescript pastureland of NE Missouri...everyone thinks God lives in the beautiful scenery places, but who would believe he lives in the boring mundane ones? It's my best kept secret! LOL

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, wait y'all. I never said God didn't live in any place in particular. I said I didn't think Jesus wanted me to work in Northern California. And, if it turns out HE does, he's got an argument on His hands. I got grandbabies, you know. The job would have to come with LOTS of time off. And, a Very Big travel expense line.

harvey said...

The letter/sermon for Makayla is a gem. And the story re Fadder is the core of the gem. Whatever the next months and what follows them bring, keep up your beautiful writing. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Harvey - is that you? From EDS?

Brother David said...

I recently have watched 2012 a few times after buying it from iTunes. There is a large man in the movie, an ex-boxer with a deep Slavic voice. I hear his voice when I read your dialog of Father Koumranian.

I knew that there had to be more to your story lately with all the time that you were being away from your parish. Now I am curious to know more, but more important, I hope and pray that you are well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I have never been better. Stronger. More centered. Thanks, Dahveed.