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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Joy to the world!

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us
A Sermon for Christmas I – 12/29/13
All Saints Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

First, a news flash – especially for those who received (or are yet to receive) their Christmas presents through FedEx or UPS or the USPS: Here it is. Ready?

There are Twelve (12) Days of Christmas. 

Yes, twelve. 

That's even four more than Chanukah.

Indeed, this is, actually, the 5th Day of Christmas. So, relax! There’s still plenty of time to celebrate.  In the Anglican tradition, these twelve days are known as Christmastide.

So, on the first Sunday and the fifth day in Christmastide, St. John’s Gospel tells his own Nativity Story, in his own unique, poetic way. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.,” adding, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

While St. Luke’s gospel is my hands-down favorite, I must admit that I’m a big fan of St. John’s version of the good news. His antisemitism is decidedly problematic, but his poetry is often the perfect expression of the mystery and majesty of the Incarnation. 

God made flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. 

How else to express a mystery than through poetry?

During Advent, a small group of us gathered at St. George’s Chapel Parish Hall to consider some of the words we use during Christmas and Christmastide – and, in fact, during the whole Christian year.

We looked at words like joy and peace and love – words we toss around lightly and freely - but we wanted to delve more deeply into these words and wondered how we could put some “flesh” on them.

On this fifth Day of Christmas, I’d like us to look more closely at the word ‘joy’. We say, “Merry Christmas,” and, if we’re Anglican, “Happy Christmas,” but we also sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.”

I wondered about this word, “joy”. How is it different from “merry” and “happy”?

When Mary heard from the angel that she was with child, she was neither merry nor happy. No! She said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and rejoices in God my savior.”

She was joyous! Why in the world would an unmarried teenage girl, reportedly a virgin engaged to a man many years her senior, rejoice at the news that she was pregnant?

I had an idea about that, but words failed to help me express my thoughts. I prayed about it for a while and then, one of my Hospice patients provided me with a story which I would like to share with you this morning.

Some of you know that it is my privilege to work as a Hospice Chaplain. This is one of the many incredible stories I have heard.

I’ll call him “Bob”.  He’s a man in his late 60s who is dying. He has less than 20% of his heart function. It takes great effort for him to get up from his bed and walk with his walker to go to the kitchen or the bathroom. Indeed, it takes great effort for him to talk. But, when he does, there are gems to be found among his words.

I began by doing some “life review” with Bob. That’s Hospice terminology for the practice of helping our patients and their families review the memories of the events of their lives so they can sort through them and choose what they want to let go, decide what they need to forgive or be forgiven, identify those to whom they need to say ‘I love you’ or 'I'm sorry', and what to cherish and take with them beyond the grave.

I asked “Bob” about his earliest memories. He paused for a few moments and then said, “I’m at the kitchen table, doing my homework with my sister. I’m in the second grade. My mother is at the stove, cooking supper.”

“My father walks in from work, looks at us sitting at the table, and starts yelling. ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘I’m doing my homework, Dad’. With that, my father starts yelling, ‘Why are you doing that? That won’t put food on the table or a roof over our heads! It’s a waste of time’. And, with that, he hits me so hard across the head that I literally fly out of my chair and crash into the kitchen cabinet.”

“I don’t remember much after that,” he said, in an unemotional tone, just reporting the facts as he remembered them, “but I do remember he told me that I wasn’t going back to school, and that, from now on, I was going to be helping him on the dump truck. And, that’s the way it was, for as long as I can remember. Oh, I got about an 8th grade education, here and there, in and out of juvenile detention centers and such.”

“But, I vowed, right there and then,” he said, “to never be like my father. I vowed that I would never allow the rage that was in me to erupt onto my family and hurt them. And, I never did. I found a good woman, married, had two kids, and I never laid a hand to any of them.”

“How did I do it?” he asked sadly, “I worked. Two, three jobs at a time. I put all my anger, all my rage, into working to provide for my family. Problem was, I missed out on a lot. I missed out on all the things they did as kids that I never did, either.”

“Anyway, I don’t think I could have stood it,” he said. “I mean, I loved that they were in plays and concerts and sports, but it hurt to go to them and remember that I, myself, missed out on all that. So, instead of getting angry, I went to work. Work, work, work. That’s all I did.”

“And, you know,” he said, “I think here’s what happened. Here's why I think I'm sick today. I think I broke my own heart.”

He stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and to swallow some of his tears. “Don’t,” I said. “Just let it go. Let yourself have a good cry,” I said. “You can cry with me.”

And, he did. He wept for his children, from whom he is estranged. He wept for his wife, who could no longer stand a loveless marriage and an absent husband and father, and finally divorced him five years ago.

When he regained his composure he said, “But, you know, I’m a very blessed man. You Hospice people have taught me how to love again. The nurses’ aid comes here every day. The nurse comes twice a week. The massage therapist comes every week and massages my legs to help reduce the swelling. You come once a week and pray with me and help me remember the old hymns I used to sing in church with my mother – the only time in the week when I knew any kind of peace. And, I find peace, somehow, in hearing you sing those old hymns.”

“But,” he said, “ you don’t just do your jobs. It's not just work for you. You do it with love.  You guys have shown me love and, you know, I love you in return."

"And that,” he said, the tears flowing freely, “brings me such great joy. It’s not about being happy. I know from happy,” he said. “I am happy that I was able to provide for my family. I am happy that they had a better life than I did.”

“But,” he said, “That was happy. But, now, I know joy. For the first time in my life, I know joy.”

“I think,” he said, “that when you know that something is possible, but you’ve never felt it, when you finally do, well,” he said, “that’s joy. And, I can go to my grave having known joy.”

Listen to that: "When you know something is possible, but you've never felt it, when you finally do, well, that's joy."

Do you hear what I hear?

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Because of “Bob” I understand those words in a different way. I hear the joy embodied in the words of the Magnificat. I hear the joy incarnate in the shepherds who heard the angels sing. “Peace on earth, good will to all humankind.”

And, I hear the joy in a 60-something year old man, who knows abuse and anger and rage, and thought he knew love and happiness, and now knows joy.

How do you know the joy of Christmas? How do you know the joy that the disciples first knew? It is possible, you know? To know joy. To embody joy.

It’s pretty miraculous, but you can know joy. In your heart and in your mind and in your soul and in your whole body. It's the fifth day of Christmas. There's still plenty of time for a Christmas miracle.

You have to dig deep to know that sort of joy. Deep. Past the pleasantries and the niceties.  Deep into your own losses and sorrows. Facing your own mortality. Your own finiteness. Your own limitability. Your own brokenness. And, then, embrace them. Embrace your own mortality and finiteness and limitability and brokenness. 

And, accept that, in that emptiness, there are possibilities. And then, you, too, can move beyond mere happiness and know joy. The joy, like peace, that passes all human understanding.

I’ve learned that happiness is a mortal state. But joy? Joy is a state of spiritual being.

So, in these Days of Christmas – this fifth of the twelve days of Christmas – let the world take down the Christmas displays and decorations and put everything on sale, 75% off. They've been up since October, anyway. And let them put up the Valentines Day displays.

It's okay. We know better. We know that there are 12 whole days of Christmas.

So, on this first Sunday of Christmas, here is my Christmastide message to you:

Sometimes, you have to reach way down – deep down where words have become your flesh – in order to touch the stars.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

One true thing

Christmas Day Sermon
All Saint's, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

I have a couple of questions, this Christmas Day, for you to keep and ponder in your heart.

The first is this: What if?

The second is like unto it: Would the significance of this day change if some of the things you know about this day were proven to be untrue or inaccurate?

What if the birthday of Jesus was not December 25th? What if, as some scholars now say, his actual birthday was sometime in March?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

What if the whole ‘born of a virgin’ thing were wrong? 

What if, as some biblical scholars say, the Visitation preceded the Annunciation? What if Mary had been a rebellious teen and ran away from home to go visit her cousin Elizabeth in the high country and, while on the road had been attacked and raped – a very common occurrence in those days (and these, as a matter of fact)? 

What if, as some scholars posit, the words of the Magnificat, which were Mary’s response to her vision of an angel of the Lord who told her that she was with child and that the infant in her womb was God’s child – what if those words and that whole story were the words of a young girl suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome after having been raped?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

Let’s look at this a little closer to home.

What if what you really wanted for Christmas was an iPad or a Kindle or a tablet? Or,an iPhone or some sort of smart phone? Or a specific piece of jewelry or a pair of boots or a kitchen gadget or a power tool?

And, what if you got some wonderful presents but you didn’t get what you really wanted?

Knowing that, would the significance of this day change for you?

What is the one true thing about this day that makes it significant?

If you believe Linus and Charlie Brown, the Peanuts Cartoon Characters, it’s the Birth Narrative from Luke’s Gospel. But, what if that story is not exactly true?

If you believe in Santa Claus, then whether or not you got the present you wanted could really make or break this day.

If you believe in the picture of American family life presented to us by Norman Rockwell, then unless every member of your family was happy to meet in one place at one time, all round the same table, with the same huge turkey and all the extras, and the perfect Christmas tree, and all the perfect presents and all the perfect relationships with all the perfect, smiling, happy people . . . if that’s not going to happen for you today, then, this day might just be torture for you.

What is the one true thing about this day that makes it significant?

I don’t know about you, but here’s the thing for me: Today, this one day, we boldly proclaim and rejoice and celebrate the belief that God became human.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is a very difficult idea for me to wrap my brain around. I confess, I still don’t really understand it. 

I can somehow get that humans can become God. Psychologists have a word for it. It’s called “self actualization”. They say that, when we fully live into our true selves, when we actualize our potential, we are able to possess incredible potential and possibilities – God like and miraculous.

So, I get 'humans becoming God' but 'God becoming human'? Wow! Why would God want to do that? I mean, if you’re God, why would you want to give up all your powers and come and be with mere mortals? 

Why would you want to show them the path so that they might become self-actualized? Why would you want to teach them to be better human beings and live in peace and harmony with each other, when you could just sit on your heavenly throne and smite down anyone who caused trouble?

I submit to you that this one thing – this idea of Emmanuel, of God with us in the newborn flesh and blood of  Jesus, the theological doctrine we call The Incarnation – is the really, truly significant thing about this day.

Everything else – the virgin birth, the trip from Gallille to Bethlehem on a donkey, the shepherds who watched their flock by night and heard voices of angels from on high, the visit of three wise men from the East? – All of that? Details. Important, but just details, really.

Indeed, I’m going to be so bold as to proclaim that The Incarnation is the one, really, truly significant thing about being a Christian. 

The Atonement? The Resurrection? The Ascension? None of those doctrines make any sense – or any real difference – if you don’t first believe in The Incarnation. 

That God became human. And, that this fully human, fully divine God came and dwelt among us.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day, which said, “Instead of putting the Christ back in Christmas, how about we put the Christ back in Christian?” Indeed.

My Christmas wish is that some of the so-called "Christian" leaders in Congress might put the 'Christ back in Christian'. Maybe then, there wouldn't be cuts to Food Stamps, and allocations for war, and tax loop holes for the rich.

Here's my Christmas present to you today. It is a question, perhaps some of the same questions that Mary pondered in her heart as she looked at the newborn child she had just delivered. 

In order to appreciate this gift, you are going to have to suspend all logic and all rational thought. Just for today - just for this moment in time - I'm going to ask you to allow your imagination to roam and let go of old answers and allow yourself to consider these question.

What if The Incarnation were the one significant, one true thing about today? How would that change the way you spend today? How would that change the way you spend your life? How would that change the way you see yourself? How might that change the way you treat others?

What if, in this newborn understanding the Incarnation today, you gave yourself a Christmas present and understood something different about who you are and why you are? 

How might that change and transform you? 

How might that begin to change and transform the world?

If we allowed ourselves to be changed and transformed by the knowledge and mystery and miracle of the Incarnation, might we have a chance to achieve "peace on earth and goodwill" to all?

If those things were to happen, how might the significance of this day change for you?

Merry Christmas and may God bless us all, each and every one.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas at St. Laika's

Can't get to church on Christmas Eve or The Feast of the Nativity? Don't particularly want to? Or, might you want to supplement your liturgical experience of Christmas with something a little different? Something every so slightly unique?

Consider attending St. Laika's

You don't have to don your gay - or straight - apparel if you don't want to. Rather, you can join an online community which is part of the post-denominational, emerging church movement where nobody is excluded because of their personal beliefs or lack of belief.

There are services for you to stream or download to listen to later. There is a daily prayer page to which you can send in your own prayer requests. The music is wonderful and there are lovely pictures by Kevin Johnson from Seattle which capture the spirit of the season. 

There's even a wee (well, for me) meditation by yours truly.

The Priest in Charge at St. Laika's is the Reverend Jonathan Hagger. He is a post-denominational priest (originally ordained in the Church of England) who receives no salary from any church or any other employer. At present his ministry consists entirely of his internet work. So, throw a few shillings or pounds in the plate before you leave.

And, may God bless us, everyone.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Jane the Baptist

It was 3 PM. She was dressed in print pajamas, covered over by a plaid bathrobe, over which was a tattered, soiled apron. Her furry slippers had seen better days, and her hair hadn’t seen a comb or brush in a while.

We had been chatting about this and that at her kitchen table when, quite suddenly, she brushed aside a wisp of her gray hair from her face and giggled like a schoolgirl.

“Oh, dear,” she said. “It seems I’ve forgotten to put in my teeth. I’m so comfortable without them that I never wear them around the house.”

She giggled again, “Sometimes, I even forget to wear them to the market and then, I say something to the young girl at the register and realize, Oops!, I didn’t put my teeth in.”

She giggled again.  “She must have thought me a crazy person.”

“I think,” I said, “At a certain age, you should be comfortable, no matter where you are.”

“Right you are,” she said, “Well said. Women of a …. mmmm . . .’certain age’,” she paused and giggled again, as if the secret of her age were well kept and undetectable, “you earn certain privileges.”

“We women spend all of our younger years dressing to please others – especially men – plucking our brows, wearing lipstick, making sure our gloves match our hat and our shoes match our purse. And then, one day, you grow up and realize that you can do that if – and when – you want. But, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

“Sometimes,” she said, lowering her voice so no one else would hear – even though we were quite alone in her kitchen – “I wear a plaid skirt with a print shirt. Just because I feel like it.”

She giggled wickedly again, as if she were breaking some hard –and-fast rule which carried with it a penalty of corporal punishment.

“Listen, dear,” she said. “I am 86 years old. That’s far younger than you, I’m quite sure. But, I’ve learned that, at a certain age, a person is old enough to be as young as she wants to be."

"I recently drove to Virginia to attend the funeral of my younger sister," she continued. "She was five years my junior in physical age, but she might as well have been 100 years my senior.”

She wiped a tear from her eye, took a deep breath and said, “My sister was always concerned about everyone else. Never herself. She always put her husband and her children first. Indeed, she might as well have been invisible in their eyes. Even at her funeral, all they could ask is, ‘How could she leave us? What will become of us now?’”

“Imagine!” she said. “These are grown adults! Older than you,” she huffed disgustedly. "And I said to them, ‘Well, perhaps now you’ll know just how important and special she was. You certainly didn’t when she was alive.’"

“That’s the other thing that happens when you are a woman of a ‘certain age’. You begin to tell the truth, even if it hurts. Because,” she said, “you know that living a lie hurts more than the truth ever could. In fact, you learn that living the truth is the only way to live your life, because the truth has a way of catching up with you, anyway.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve discovered that.”

“Ah,” she said, “I suspected I might be …. mmmm…. how do you say in your business . . . “preaching to the choir”?

And then, she giggled again. In the midst of that delightful giggle, I could imagine the deep wrinkles in her face fading away, the old, mischievous, wonderful sparkle shinning through the dullness in her eyes, the knots of arthritis disappearing from her hands.

I looked at her again and realized that, while her youthful beauty had faded, the beauty of truth and wisdom that was in her shone through and shimmered with an elegance and grace that had been weathered and honed by the years.

“Here’s an early Christmas present for you,” she said, “Advent, I think you call it. Anyway, here it is: The truth is a terrible thing. And, by terrible, I mean awful. As in ‘awe-full’.  Its power, when you realize it, fills you with awe. No one can ‘own’ it or ‘possess’ it.  That’s because the truth can be two different things at the same time.”

“A paradox, you mean,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “Exactly! That’s the truth about Christmas, you know. It’s a paradox. It is two truths about God that are completely different and yet, both are perfectly true.”

“You see, Christmas is about the truth that God is both human and divine. God is both ancient of days and new as a babe. God is invisible and yet, we can see that spark of the divine in every human being. That is, if we are willing to be less concerned with how we – or others – look and, instead, look for the divine in each and every human being.”

“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I understand.”

“Ah, I knew you would. That’s why you didn’t notice – or, at least say anything – about my not having my teeth in. Or that it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t yet dressed for the day. I thought it might not be just because you are polite and well mannered. A real lady, you are.”

She giggled wickedly again. “And the truth about Christmas,” she said, “makes us all children again. Toothless and wise beyond our years.”

“It’s a miracle,” she said with a surprising joy.

“Yes it is,” I said, “Indeed.”

She whispered again, conspiratorially, “In Advent, everyone is watching the manger and Mary and Joseph. Pshaw!” she said. “We have enough time at Christmas to look at them. In Advent, we should be watching John the Baptist, you know?”

“‘Repent!’ he said.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is near!’ And, no one believed him because he looked crazy.”

“If you want to see Jesus,” she said, “Look for John the Baptist! He’ll lead the way!”

I smiled as I considered her words.

“So, a cup of tea, then! That’s what we shall do! Have a cup of tea!” She jumped up with surprising agility and speed and started to make her way to the stove.

She turned and smiled at me, “Honey?” she asked, “Or, perhaps . . . . . some wild locust?”

She turned back to the stove and giggled again, and in the midst of the music of her laughter, I distinctly heard the voice of John the Baptist say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is near!”

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson and Desmond

I suppose there aren't too many Anglicans who can talk about Nelson Mandela without also talking about Desmond Tutu.

I suspect that Nelson and Desmond stories abound.

Here's mine.

One of our daughters was working at NYU Law and got me an invitation - as part of a birthday present - to a private reception for Desmond Tutu prior to his being given an award for his work chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Before the award ceremony, I got to meet Bishop Tutu and asked him about the progress of his recovery from prostate cancer. He seemed very pleased with the pastoral inquiry.

I asked him about the confluence of his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the onset of his diagnosis and treatment from prostate cancer.

"Excuse me," I asked impertinently, "but what were you thinking? Are you crazy? Taking on cancer along with truth and reconciliation?"

We laughed and he said, "I'm not crazy, but I am obedient. Maybe they are the same?"

He has such a delightful giggle, you know?

He told me a story about "his" president, "You know him? Nelson Mandela?"

This time, I giggled. He couldn't resist and giggled delightfully, too.

He continued, "I had been diagnosed just a few weeks when my president, Nelson Mandela, asked me to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

"I said to him, "'No, no. I am the wrong person. You need someone else.'"

Tutu reported that Mandela pressed him even harder.

"But, my president," I am not fit to do this job."

"Why?" asked Mandela.

"Because," said Tutu, "I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak."

Tutu reports that Mandela looked at him and said, "My dear Desmond. This is why you are perfect for the task. If you can laugh too easily, you know about the absurdity of life (Truth). If you cry too easily, you understand about the fragility of life (Reconciliation). And, if you understand your own weakness, you understand the power of God."

Tutu looked at me, smiled that incredible smile of his and said, "Now do you understand why I love my President?"

"Yes," I said. "Now do you understand why I love you?"

He giggled again and gently held my face in his hands.

I couldn't resist. I gently held his face in mine as we looked deeply into each other's eyes.

It was a moment I will never forget.

I came to understand servant leadership in a whole new way that day.

"I laugh too easily. I cry too easily. I am weak."

Thank you, Mr. President, for being a servant leader to those who strive to be servant leaders.

You have taught us well.

May we learn from your lessons. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Better than a hallelujah sometimes

It is a  perfectly still Advent morning at Llangollen, our wee cottage on Rehoboth Bay.

It is very quiet. A lovely, beautifully deep, full silence surrounds me.

Out on my deck, I am suddenly wrapped in a new but hauntingly familiar autumn sweater.

No gulls crying. No ducks squabbling. No rustle of leaves. No sound of cars on the nearby road.

It is simply, amazingly, exquisitely silent.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

As if the world is, perhaps, in Advent morning meditation, in the midst of that brief, holy moment between a deep inhale and exhale.

Waiting - pausing, expectantly - before turning on its axis again.

It's that mystical moment of which T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets (Burnt Norton (1935))
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.   ...............

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. (V)
So, on this fourth morning in Advent, I reflect in my meditative prayers what I see and hear in the world before me. As the water reflects the sky to itself, I reflect God's presence in my soul to God.

I whisper into my heart the words of Mary: My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And then, I keep silent. Deep breath in. Pause. Deep breath out. Pause.

And, in that pause, I practice the still point and the dance.

I practice expectancy.

I practice spiritual pregnancy.

I practice hope.

It is a labor of love to practice just shutting my mouth and opening my heart to feel exactly what I'm feeling.  To remember, unexpectedly, what surfaces in my mind.

The brokenness. The betrayal. The pain. The grief.

The celebration. The happiness. The laughter. The joy.

And then, I offer it all - ragged, unfinished, nonsensical, illogical - as a prayer to God who comes in very unexpected ways at most unexpected times.

As Amy Grant sings, those kinds of prayers are "better than a hallelujah sometimes."
God loves a lullaby in a mother's tears in the dead of night
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.
God loves a drunkard's cry, the soldier's plea not to let him die
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.

We pour out our miseries, God just hears a melody.
Beautiful, the mess we are.
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah.

The woman holding on for life, a dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes.
The tears of shame for what's been done, the silence when the words won't come
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes.
And so, it is Advent, when the earth seems to know what we humans can only surmise.

Advent, the season of beginnings in the midst of endings.

The season of labor and birth in the midst of dying and death.

The season of preparation and expectancy at the still point and the dance.


It's better than a hallelujah sometimes.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Family Feud

I've been thinking about the recent spectacle of the Cheney family feud.

It's embarrassing, isn't it?

Liz Cheney, daughter of former VP Dick Cheney is running for nomination as the Republican (of course) Senator in the State of Wyoming. Her sister, Mary, is a lesbian who married her beloved Heather Poe in 2012. They have two children.

Last Saturday night, on Fox News, Liz made an appearance, saying that she believed “in the traditional definition of marriage,” prompting Mary’s spouse, Heather, to comment on Facebook. Then Mary reposted Poe’s remarks, prefacing with, “Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree – you’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history.”

Then, the Cheney parents decided to weigh in with this statement:
 “This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public.  Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.  She has also always treated her sister and her sister’s family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done.  Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter and Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.”
They should have stopped after the first sentence.

They should definitely not have included that last sentence.

'Compassion is called for'? What curious language. Like Mary and Heather and their two children are 'poor things' - charity cases - to be pitied and treated as pathetic wounded, deformed creatures?

It reminded me of the "family feud" going on in the church. That's church with a small 'c'.

Recently, a Methodist minister, Fred Schaefer, was tried by an ecclesiastical court of 13 for presiding at the marriage of his gay son and his beloved (Schaefer and his wife have four children, three of whom are gay). He was found guilty on two charges: “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.”

The jury told Schaefer that he was suspended for 30 days, and said that he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

Such compassion, eh? Not to mention generosity.

Schaefer's pastoral assistant at the Zion UMC in Lebanon, PA, preached last Sunday to about 60 congregants, many with tears streaming down their cheeks. “We are a family. Families have struggles. We aren’t the first church to hurt, and we won’t be the last.”

He's right, of course. Two wrongs have never made a right, but I suppose there is some truth to the saying that misery does love company. 

The Episcopal Church's present official stance  from last General Convention, can be found in the language of the resolution in which we allowed trial use of the Supplemental Liturgical texts on the Blessing of the Covenants made between two people of the same gender.

The term used in that resolution is "generous pastoral response".

Le sigh.

I know, I know. They meant well. It's clearly a far sight better than the position of the Methodist Church and eons ahead of the Roman Catholic Church.

That resolution allowed us to take a step forward in the journey to heed the prophetic biblical call to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God."

Yes, the movement toward Marriage Equality is gaining surprising momentum.  In those dioceses where there is no Marriage Equality, it allows churches to provide for some recognition of the sacramental nature of the covenants made between two people of the same gender.

In those dioceses that are in those states where there is Marriage Equality, the Supplemental Liturgical Rites allow us to recognize the sacramental nature of that legal civil right for LGBT people, EVEN THOUGH our marriage canons only allow the institutional church to bestow its blessing on the marriage of two people of opposite gender.

Hence, the "generosity" of that "generous pastoral response." I mean, we ARE slip-sliding around our own canon law, right?

Le sigh.

I have to tell you I find it odious when I'm not embarrassed by it.

Since when does the church allow the state - or anyone else, for that matter - to dictate or define the sacraments of the church?  The law is the law. The sacraments are the sacraments.

Either it's a marriage or it's not.

Either it's equality or it's not.

What part of 'marriage equality' doesn't the church understand?

Recently, the state of Illinois joined 15 other states (and the District of DC) which have marriage equality. I do believe Pennsylvania will be next. There will be more to come. I suspect that by the time we meet in General Convention in Salt Lake City, 25 states - half of this country - will have marriage equality.

State by state, it will happen in these "united states". Predictions are that Marriage Equality will be the law of the land in the next five years. I'm optimistic enough to believe that it will happen, surely within the next decade.

There are two parts to my question about marriage and equality. The first is canon law. I believe we are going to have to think seriously about changing our marriage canons so that they will reflect the equality of civil marriage laws.

My personal opinion is that the church, once again, will be found on the wrong - or, at least the slow - side of history when it comes to the "justice and peace" we proclaim is at our foundation. We could be charged and found guilty by a jury of our peers of duplicity. Thankfully, we also believe in forgiveness of sins.

The second part has to do with the liturgy we use to celebrate and bless the marriage. I have nothing but high praise for the work of the SCLM and the rites of liturgy which they have produced. I think the theology behind the liturgy is more in keeping with an evolved, contemporary understanding of the sacramental nature of marriage than that which is in the Book of Common Prayer.

My personal opinion is that both ought to be offered as viable options for all people - all people - who wish to be married.

My beloved (and most chaste spouse) of 38 years and I were legally married on August 9, 2013 in the First State of Delaware. We thought and prayed long and hard about where to be married.

We have never had the covenant of our marriage blessed by - or in - the church.

We - not our covenant - have been "blessed" in the context of our family and our Massachusetts home by the man who was then our rector 28 years ago. He felt he could not, with ecclesiastical integrity, bless us in the church or even simply bless our covenant. And so it was that the "blessing" was done in the context of a house blessing (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) where he also blessed our family and us. 

It was as compassionate and generous he could be, at that time. 
At that time, we accepted that crumb as the best we were going to get.  
We were still left spiritually - and legally - hungry. I can not even begin to express the anxiety we shared about the fate of our children should either one - or both - of us might have an untimely death. The church did nothing to address that anxiety - spiritually or legally.

Then, when we were living in NJ, Domestic Partnership came to that state and we immediately signed up. At City Hall. The next day. Nine years ago. On July 14, 2004. The receptionist, a member of my congregation, looked up from her desk, smiled and deadpanned, "I guess you're not here for a Yard Sale Permit."

We giggled but we might as well have been. We signed some forms and off we went.

Then, Civil Unions came to NJ. We checked with our lawyer who advised us that, between the Domestic Partnership and our wills and other legal papers, we really needed to do nothing more. He said, "You're covered for now - at least in the State of NJ. Marriage Equality is coming. You don't have to crawl to the altar on your knees, begging for justice."

Then, General Convention decided to have a "generous pastoral response" and allow same-sex couples to utilize the trial use of Liturgical Rites of Blessings for the covenants made between couples of the same gender. We decided to take our attorney's advice and not crawl to the altar, even for the church's blessing.
Then, we moved to DE and, within the year, Civil Unions were not only permitted, but the First State agreed to accept and honor Civil Unions from other states. A little more than a year later, Marriage Equality came to the First State. About two years later, it came to NJ. And now, it's making it's way across the country.

On August 9th of this year, my beloved and I met with three of our very dear friends - two to witness and one to sign the license. We gathered at our very favorite local diner before work at 8 o'clock in the morning. We each ordered our favorite breakfast and told stories of our last 38 years together. We laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed again.

Our friend, Bea, an Irish lass and one of 10 children who had left the convent seven years earlier and has a license as a Justice of the Peace, signed our marriage license, said a prayer, and then toasted us with orange juice. Some of the folks in the diner raised their cups of coffee and glasses of juice.
Having a former nun sign our marriage license felt like poetic justice for these two former Roman Catholic girls. And, that diner filled with scruffy, common folk from Lower Slower Delaware (most of whom had voted for Christine "I'm not a Witch" O'Donnell for Senator a few years earlier), was church. (I think some of them thought that the only man at the table was the 'groom'. Never mind.)

We believe our relationship - and our family - to be our vocation. We believe we have been called together by God to live our lives in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, and we strive to do that in our daily lives and work.

Our children (and children in law) include a CPA, a nurse in an inner city Methadone clinic, an architect, a VP for Development of a major university, an electrician who also moonlights as a graphic artist, a PhD psychologist who runs a community service agency for incarcerated women and their children, a professional stained glass artist, and a Montessori teacher in a school in an inner city in NJ. Our profoundly developmentally delayed adopted daughter works in a bank, sorting coins.

As far as we know, all of them - and our five grandchildren - are heterosexual. I know. We want the best for our children but they can't help it, really. It's just the way God made them.

We believe the covenant of our marriage to be a sacrament. We believe it to be an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace which has blessed us and, we think, our children, our neighborhood, our schools and yes, even the church, for the last 38 years.

As much as we love our little church in the ocean block of Rehoboth Beach, DE and our wonderful rector, we are not sure if we will ever have our marriage blessed by - and in - the institutional church.

Perhaps, one day, if the church changes the marriage canons, we might. We might.

We know the covenant of our marriage is recognized by the state and federal government. We know "the church" - gathered haphazardly as it was that morning of August 9th - recognized and blessed the covenant of our marriage. We know our covenant of marriage is not only legal but a living sacrament.
We are not yet sure what to think about the institutional church. I know. And me, a priest. And, my beloved, the Abbess of the Community of Anamchara Fellowship.

Perhaps, one day - after the marriage canons are truly equal - we'll extend a little "generous pastoral response" ourselves and allow it.
Because we believe in the forgiveness of sins - as difficult as that is - seventy times seven (Mt 18:22).

I trust the Schaefer family and the Cheney family and all the millions of other families with LGBT members who seek marriage equality - as well as the church families of all our respective churches in all our various denominations - will also, one day, find that same forgiveness.

It's really the only compassionate, generous thing to do.

Otherwise, I think Jesus gets embarrassed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lost, and Finding the Stars

I've seen three movies this weekend.

I've been sorta busy, what with Ms. Conroy being hospitalized and still recovering from some serious abdominal surgery. I think I've been trying to make up for lost time.

I've seen Gravity (which I saw in 3-D), 12 Years A Slave, and Captain Phillips.

All three were amazing films, each in their own way.

If you haven't seen any of them, allow me a very brief synopsis. I promise not to give away any information that will spoil the movie for you.

Gravity is about two astronauts who survive the mid-orbit destruction of a Space Shuttle and attempt to return to Earth. I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time, palms sweaty, heart racing.

12 Years A Slave is a 2013 British-American epic historical drama film, an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release.  The story is powerful, but, in this case, the art of story telling through film - in my humble, not well educated opinion - did not do it the justice it deserved.

Captain Phillips is the dramatic portrayal of the true story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009. This was another edge-of-the-seat sitter, with skillful storytelling to rival Argo, the 2012 Academy award winning historical drama thriller film directed by and starring Ben Affleck.

Captain Phillips and the "new captain"
As different as each of these stories is, there is an interesting theme in all three.

Each of the central characters are simply living their lives, doing their respective jobs, when something happens, out of the blue, to change the course of their lives.

You're a woman and a physician, working on an experiment in outer space, when a Soviet space station suddenly destructs and, even more suddenly, debris speeds through space, placing your space ship and - in fact, your very life - in danger.

You're a descendant of slaves, but you're a free man living in a time of slavery who makes a living selling the produce you've grown on the land that you own, augmented by the meals your wife cooks for local taverns and the music you play for rich people and suddenly, you are offered a deal that's almost too good to be true. You take it, not knowing that not only is the deal false but it is the means by which twelve years of your life are thrown into unspeakable, inhuman cruelty.

You're a merchant mariner, living a quiet life in rural Vermont when you're not at sea, earning a comfortable living for your wife and two children when the cargo ship you are sailing as captain is hijacked by Somali pirates and your life and the life of all your crew members is suddenly in danger.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Or, you're a Hospice nurse, not only simply doing your job but doing it with compassion and kindness, transforming your tasks into corporal works of mercy, when suddenly, three ulcers which had been silently brewing in your upper abdomen and esophagus become infected, threatening the rest of your body with peritonitis and septicemia.

In each case, you must rely on the kindness - and skill and abilities - of others to see you through. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails miserably.

But, there are moments when you also have to dig deep into places in your heart and soul and mind and psyche previously unexplored and unexamined and, more significantly, untested. 

I don't think it is a coincidence that there are as many movies as there are right now with this theme. 

There remain greedy people who think of people as possessions and many workers in a variety of industries work at wages so low, and without health care - or any other - benefits, that their poverty begins to redefine a modern system of indentured servitude.

Racism still rears its ugly head, especially visible in the prison industrial complex. It is shocking and sobering to recognize that many prisons have a higher ratio of African Americans in its population than the prisons in South Africa during the height of Apartheid. It is also stunning to learn that many of those who are in those prisons are there for the flimsiest of reasons - tantamount to having been kidnapped off the street in broad daylight.

Drug addiction provides a dependency so strong it has been called "chemical slavery".

12-Years a Slave - The "Soap Scene"
There are Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean who look like elementary schoolyard bullies when compared with corporate pirates who plunder commodities here and abroad and bury their booty in offshore, tax exempt bank accounts.

A sudden health care crisis can throw an entire family into a tailspin of anxiety and worry but, without affordable health insurance, it can also mean bankruptcy and homelessness and hunger and serve as the portal into the endless, boundless abyss of poverty and despair.

If there are lessons to be learned from these three movies, it is about the power of one, yes, but it is also about the power of community - some of whom are complete strangers - to provide solace in inconsolable situations.

It's also about the power of people who are capable of betrayal but it is also about the power of other people to do the right thing, even if it means putting yourself in danger.

It's about the power of people to jump up and down on the arc of history until it bends toward justice.

It's about trusting the message that the lost will, one day, be found even if it means that you find in yourself the power you thought you lost (or thought you never had), to love in the face of hate, to hope in the face of despair, and to find your greatest strength in moments of your greatest weakness.

This weekend, I affirmed three things I've known, but momentary forgotten as I've wander around feeling lost in worry and concern.

There is time that is lost but that can, in fact, be found.

Redemption is not necessarily a solitary act; often it takes a community of strangers.

And this:

Sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch the stars.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive (Luke 20:27-38)
A Sermon by the Rev’d Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach, DE
November 10, 2013 – Proper 27C

Prayer (sung) “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing there will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory.” In the name of Our Risen Lord. Amen.

Well, you'll excuse me for bursting into song like that. It’s just that, when I’m wrestling with the Gospel – or, some of the characters in the Gospel – I sometimes have to sing an old, old hymn in order to stay focused on the Gospel message.

I don’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by the Sadducees in this morning’s Gospel story. They are the very definition of tedious. One of my friends from Texas says that "you can always tell a tedious person because they actually enjoy separating fly poop from pepper".

Isn't that just like a Sadducee?

As you may recall, both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were religious parties in Jesus' day. Both were critical of and were criticized by Jesus.

But, since the Gospel mentions them today, let’s focus briefly on the Sadducees. They thought of themselves as  the "conservatives” of their day. I think of them as the “fundamentalists” of their time. They accepted only the written Law of Moses as authoritative and rejected subsequent revelation.

As a result, the Sadducees denied many of the doctrines held by the Pharisees and by Jesus, including the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and spirits, and the meting out of rewards and punishment after death (heaven and hell). Although a religious party, the Sadducees were more important as a political force.

Is this beginning to sound even vaguely familiar? Who said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? And, just as the fundamentalists of our day are overly concerned – even obsessed – with all things pertaining to sex and sexuality, so too were the Sadducees – the fundamentalists of antiquity.

In this morning’s gospel, we are privy to the first time the Sadducees have come before Jesus to ask a question. Let me point out that this is Chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel. Just to put this in context, let’s briefly review Luke’s gospel to this point.

Let’s set aside the rumors about his birth and his baptism which take up the first couple of chapters of Luke’s gospel, certainly caused a stir. The first time we hear that Jesus is causing a buzz in the community is in Chapter 4 when Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit”, returns to Galilee and preaches his first sermon back in his old hometown synagogue. That sermon, by the way, got so many people so filled with wrath, they rose up and chased him out of the city and threatened to throw him over a cliff to his death.

Then, he went to Capernaum where he went to another synagogue and healed a man with an unclean spirit and healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. He ended the day by healing “multitudes” of people who proclaimed, “You are the Son of God!” That’s just the first 4 chapters.

By chapter 5, Jesus has healed a man with leprosy and even the Pharisees had come out to see the man from Galilee heal a man so crippled by infirmities he had to be lowered in from the roof.

That was the Pharisees. But not the Sadducees. Oh, no. They are nowhere to be seen. They are, no doubt, in the Temple, praying. Like all good pious people should. But, Jesus goes on preaching and teaching, healing and performing miracles, attracting disciples and believers and causing quite a buzz.

Finally, in Chapter 20 (TWENTY!), the Sadducees make their appearance. Which is more than annoying. I mean, you might think they would have ask him something – SOMEthing – about the miracles of healing or the precepts of his teaching. No, here’s what they ask:

"Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."

Honest to Pete! Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me?

I tried to imagine one of the disciples reporting this scene using a Twitter account. I imagine their “tweet” might go something like, “Tedious! All these boyz want to know is which husband will be first in line to have sex with his wife when they are in heaven. SMH (that’s Twitter talk for Shake My Head). #unbelievable. #sexobsessed #bostonredsoxrule.” (Oh, no, wait. That last one was my tweet! Sorry.)

Jesus sets them all straight – but it’s more than 16 characters, so it wouldn’t fit in a Tweet. He brushes aside the foolishness of their tedious question and makes it absolutely clear what he thinks about the resurrection and angels and spirits as well as rewards and punishments.

Jesus says, “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

That’s not only a great Tweet, that’s the sermon. That’s it, right there.

To God, whether we are alive or dead, we are always alive in the Lord of Life. The God we worship, the God to whom we sing praises and hymns, the God to whom we offer our prayers and supplications -  that God loves us, dead or alive.

As a Hospice Chaplain, that’s probably the one thing I hear myself saying over and over again to my Hospice patients and their families. That’s because the one thing Hospice patients are concerned with – in addition to what will actually happen to them, physically, when they die, and whether or not there will be any pain – is this: What will happen after I die?

In that way, we share the same concern with the ancient Sadducees and Pharisees. We want to know if there is life after this life. We want to know if there really is a heaven and hell. We want to be reassured that we’ll see our loved ones after we die – if we’ll all be together again in that great by-and-by.

And, I tell them the truth: I don’t know. No one knows, really. I only know what I choose to believe. And, I believe the teachings of Jesus who says, “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive."

I tell them that they don’t have to believe what I believe, but if they don’t know what to believe, then believe in my belief and that will give them the hope they need. As author Annie Lamott writes, “Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff (actually, she says 'shit') anyone can throw at us.”

You know, I don’t believe God cares two figs about who we married or how many times we married or if we were celibate or sexually active. I believe God cares whether or not we loved one another, and tried to love each other as God loves us.

Dead or alive, God loves us. That’s what I believe. That’s because I believe that God’s love is unconditional. That’s a great mystery to me. God loves me as much as God loves you. And, God loves the Sadducees and the Pharisees as much as God loves the disciples.

I know, right? How can that be? God loves Jerry Falwell as much as God loves Mother Theresa? Why, yes. I believe God does. God loves Gandhi as much as God loves Desmond Tutu? My answer would be an unequivocal and resounding “Yes!”.

Oh, but wait! There's more. You mean, God even loves that foul-mouthed, drunken old coot of an Uncle Arnold and his tedious, persnickety wife Mabel who will be at Thanksgiving Dinner again this year? My answer is “Yes, and not only that, but you better get ready because Uncle Arnold and Aunt Mabel will also be with you in heaven.”

Oh, noooooo!?!?!?

Oh, yeeessssss!!!!!!!

I know, right? When I began to really enter and explore the great mystery of God’s love for me – broken, foolish sinner that I am – I also came to the realization that if God could love one such as me, then God loved everyone. Even people I don’t like very much.

I was doing okay with that for awhile, until I realized that God loved them so much that they were going to go to heaven, too. In fact, like it or not, we were all going to be together in heaven one day. 

Even people I don’t like. Even people who don’t like me.

Wait a minute! How crazy is that? See also: The Great Mystery of God’s love.

As Annie Lamott writes, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

That’s when I realized that I had to learn how to forgive. That holding on to grudges was killing me, and killing my soul. In many ways, I had so much pent up anger that my soul was already dead.  As I learned from one very wise friend in a 12-Step program, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” 

Wen I started to learn how to forgive, I learned to live. And yet, here’s what I learned: dead or alive, God still loved me. That opened my heart to love myself and others.

I think the Psalmist must have been thinking of that Great Mystery of God’s love when she or he wrote down the psalm we heard this morning:

Sing to the LORD a new song, *
                                    for he has done marvelous things

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
                                    lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

When you are confronted with the Great Mystery of God’s Love, there’s really only one thing you can do. Love God and all of God’s creation right back. And that makes you want to sing a new song and shout it out with joy.

Which is why, whenever I find myself in the midst of tedious people, like the Sadducees we encountered in this morning’s gospel. Or, with people who tell me I’m going to hell because of who and how I love. Or, with people who take what they believe and use it to pass judgment on others, telling them with absolute certainty who will get to heaven and who will go to hell.

In that moment, I find myself humming that great old Gospel hymn. And, I find my heart softens and my anger melts. I just imagine being with them in heaven. Both of us perfect. Both of us healed.  Both of us now knowing The Truth. Both of us standing in the radiance of such amazing, divine Love that nothing else matters any more. Not who was married to whom  or how many times they were married or how they prayed.

It won’t matter who you loved. All that will matter is that you loved.

And, dead or alive, God loves you.  And, isn’t that absolutely amazing?

So, I leave you with this thought and this song. It works for me. I hope it works for you the next time you have to deal with a tedious, judgmental person.

“While we walk the pilgrim pathway, clouds will overspread the sky; but when traveling days are over, not a shadow, not a sigh.”

“When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”

Somebody in the church give me an Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

I'm a believer!

It's a New Jersey love story.

After 40 years and two children, Cindy Meneghin and Maureen Kilian are finally married.

In New Jersey.

It was a 10 year legal battle that was fought all the way up to the NJ Supreme Court where Judge Mary Jacobson looked square into the eyes of Governor Chris Christie - and he blinked.

That kind of victory called for a marriage in front of three priests.

We never really doubted it would happen. Okay, so there were moments. Okay, so there were more than a few moments. And, lots of those moments were filled with tears of disappointment and anguished cries of frustration.

But, when you are in the presence of Cindy and Maureen, you find yourself in the presence of such amazing love and devotion to their relationship and their family, you find it hard to believe that anything or anyone could stand in the way of the justice they so richly deserve.

Cindy and Maureen met in high school. It was a Roman Catholic High School in NJ. Yes, they are high school sweethearts. They fell in love right under the noses of their nuns and priests.

Imagine that!

One year there was a Valentine's Day dance at their high school. Cindy and Maureen got all dressed up and went as each other's date.

The good nuns turned them away at the door.

Disappointed and weeping, they got back into the car and started to drive home.

At one point, they pulled over to the side of the road to console each other. Maureen turned to Cindy and said, "I want to dance with you. Right here. Right now."

So, they got out of the car and walked out onto an open field where they embraced to dance.

"But, we don't have any music to dance to," said Cindy, who always has a firm grasp on the obvious.

"Sing to me," said Maureen, who is obviously creative and resourceful.

So, Cindy started singing the only song she really knew.

Last night, after the vows and rings were exchanged and the marriage was blessed, and after the wedding toast was made, Cindy told that story just before their first dance.

Then, she invited all the assembled guests - their children, their Very Large family, their high school friends, they lawyers, the folks from Lambda Legal, their co-workers and so many of us who had walked the journey with them - to join her in singing "their" song.

And so, a room full of over 200 people began to sing, with great joy and gusto:
Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out to the park
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks
I don't care if I never come back
So it's root, root, root for the home team
If no one wins it's a shame
For it's one, two, three strikes you're out
At the old ball game.
There may not be any crying in baseball, but there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Fourteen states  - CA, CT, DE, IA, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VT, and WA - plus Washington, D.C.  - have marriage equality.
Only 36 more states to go, and then everyone can dance to their own unique wedding song.

Because amazing love and deep devotion to family can make believers of us all.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pray Always and Do Not Lose Heart


“Pray Always and Do Not Lose Heart” Luke 18:1-8
Pentecost XXII – Proper 24C – October 20, 2013
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Everything I learned about praying always and not losing heart, I learned from two very different people at two very different stages in my life.

The first person to teach me about prayer was my Grandmother. You think the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel is persistent? Ha! She had nothing on my Grandmother!

When you walked into my Grandmother’s house, you couldn’t help but see the two pictures of the two men my Grandmother considered “The World’s Greatest Catholics.” 

The first was Jesus. I know, right? Who knew Jesus was Catholic? I thought he was Jewish.

The picture was what we kids called his “High School Graduation” picture. You know, the one of him in profile, with his long hair beautifully combed, and the perfect back-lighting? 

The other picture of the other great Catholic? Oh, that would have been John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Of course.

Yes, she did have a picture of the Pope. It was in the bathroom. I never dared asked why.

Walking into my Grandmother’s bedroom was like walking into a shrine – we kids used to call it “Disney World for Roman Catholics”. The tops of all of her bureaus were filled with statues of saints, all of which had small, flickering votive or novena candles in front of them. 

If you lifted up each statue, underneath them, written in Portuguese, were her particular prayer petitions to that particular saint.

In my Grandmother’s world of prayer, one prayed to particular saints for particular things. St. Jude, of course, was the saint of Lost Causes. You prayed to him if you needed a Big Phat M.I.R.A.C.L.E. Someone was gravely ill. In the hospital. Had (said in a whisper, lest on one else should get it) cancer.

St. Joseph was patron saint of Workers. Joe was your guy if your husband or sons or brothers were out of work or there was a strike at the factory. Joe would get them back to work, right quick.

The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) was the one you turned to if your novena prayers had not yet been answered. My Grandmother figured that Mary had the ear of both God AND Jesus, so if you prayed to her, you knew one of the two guys were going to hear about it, big time.

The Infant of Prague was also there. He was Jesus at about 18 months old, decked out in the silliest, ruffliest, fru-fruiest long dress you wouldn’t put on your infant daughter.

As teens, we kids called him “Drag Queen Jesus”. Ruffled cuffs and neck, lace up to his arm pits, a crown on his head, he was usually holding the world in one hand, a wand in the other. You prayed to him if a child was sick.

There were lots and lots of others – St. Martin de Porres, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Lucy, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, Mother Elizabeth Seaton, to name just a few, but the busiest saint was always St. Gerard, the patron saint of families. He was also the one in the most trouble for not answering my Grandmother’s prayers.

If you were a saint, and my Grandmother prayed to you – however many prescribed decades on her rosary for the prescribed amount of days or weeks or months – and you didn’t answer her prayer, you were in BIG trouble.

My grandmother would first yell at the statue. Then, she would blow out the candle. Then, with a great flourish, she would turn the statue to face the wall, saying to him or her in broken English, “And, you gonna stay there until you gonna answer my prayer.”

So, I learned three important lessons about prayer from my Grandmother

First lesson: God is always watching. Never let him catch you not praying.

Second lesson: Don’t put all your prayers in one basket. Spread them around.

Third lesson: If your prayers aren’t answered, pray harder. Louder. Like you mean it.

And then, I grew up.  I learned stuff about the world. I learned that the world I lived in was very different from my grandmother’s world. It was a world she couldn’t have even imagined much less live in, so she kept more and more to herself, speaking only Portuguese. As my world expanded, her world grew smaller and smaller. It was safer for her that way.

Even as my Grandmother retreated from the world, I ran straight to it and found myself moving farther and farther away from the images of God of my childhood. Those images simply didn’t have any relevance to the world in which I was living.

I discovered that God was not a puppet master, pulling every one and every thing on a string. I learned that God didn’t cause tornadoes and hurricanes and tidal waves – the shifting earth did that. Smokey the Bear taught me that only I could prevent forest fires – not the wrath of God. 

I learned that people had heart attacks and strokes and diabetes and even ‘cancer’ because of hereditary and environmental and nutritional considerations, and not because God punished them for sin.

I learned that left-handed people were not sinister, that people with seizure disorder (epilepsy) were not possessed by demons, that women with normal menstrual cycles were not ‘unclean’, and that children born blind or deaf or with a deformity were not evidence that their ancestors had sinned.

For a very long time, all of that knowledge put me in a tailspin crisis of faith. Now that I knew all this stuff about the world, what was I supposed to believe about God?

Well, I learned that my faith didn’t have to stay in a childhood fantasy box. I learned that my faith could grow and adapt and change in order to meet the challenges of the world. 

I learned to take the lessons I needed to learn from the faith my grandmother in order to live my own life, in my own time, in the world where God had placed me. 

It wasn’t until I met a second person in my adult life that I was able to articulate what I knew about prayer and bring it to yet another level.  That person was Bishop Jack Spong.

I had been working for Jack as Canon Missioner for about three years when I discovered a lump in my right breast. The doctor thought it was probably benign but, as he said, “You and I will both sleep better once that lump is out.” 

So, two days before my surgery, I went to my bishop to tell him and to ask him for his prayers.

Jack listened very carefully, as he is wont to do, and then, pastor that he is, he assured me of his prayers. Scholar that he is, he also could not resist asking me a question. 

“Elizabeth," he said, “of course I will pray for you, but, you know, people come to me – as I’m sure they come to you – as if your prayers were some sort of magic. I want you to know that, if it were in my power to cure you of any cancer, of course I would. But you know, and I know, that neither you nor I are that powerful. So, when you ask me to pray for you, what are you asking, really?”

Well, it was the first time I had ever really thought about that. Jack has been called a heretic and an atheist. I can assure you that he is not an atheist. He's more of a modern mystic. And, I’ve come to learn that the people I trust most in the church – people who believe in God and love Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit – are often what many in the church consider heretics. I’ve discovered that that says more about their immaturity and insecurity than what is true about Jack. 

Jack has a way of challenging what you say you believe – not so you believe like him – but so that you can better articulate what you believe. He respects differences and won't hesitate to tell you why he thinks you're wrong.

Always a good bishop, he just wants to make sure you can articulate why you think he's wrong.

I heard myself say to him that when I am anxious or afraid, I often feel much worse because I think I’m all alone in whatever situation or crisis I’ve found myself. I imagine that, in this world, we are all standing on an interconnected web, and each one of us has his or her own thread. 

When I’m anxious or afraid, it gets very dark which makes me feel even more afraid and alone. When I know someone is praying for me or with me, it’s like a light is turned on, and I can see others around me, lifting me up, holding me up in their prayer, and I’m less afraid.

Jack listened very carefully, nodded his head and smiled and said, “What I’ve discovered is that prayer is a paradox - something that contains two opposite statements, both of which are true.

Prayer doesn’t change anything. And, prayer changes everything.

Mostly, prayer changes everything, because prayer changes me. It changes my focus. It makes me less self-centered. It makes me care more about others. And, it makes me aware that I am part of a vast, interconnected network and I’m not alone. People who have come before, people who are here, now, and people who are yet to come are all standing with me. That Jesus is with me because I am with others and they are with me." 

"So,” he said, “Why don’t we pray together, right now?”

And, we did. We held hands. We prayed. Right then. Right there. In his office. No vestments. No saints. No votive lights. No little slips of paper with petitions on them. No prayer beads. And, it was holy. And, it was right. And, it was good. And, I did not lose heart. 

Well, I came through the surgery with flying colors and a benign pathology report. I also came through with a deeper appreciation for the lessons my grandmother taught me about prayer, which I have adapted to suit the world I live in. In my life. In my time. I share them with you as a present.

First lesson: Pray always and without ceasing. Make everything you do be a prayer. If you are mowing the lawn or raking leaves or making applesauce or starting your day of work, dedicate whatever you are doing. Make it a prayer to God.

Second lesson: Pray through a variety of sources and means, without judgment. Whether you use prayer beads or candles or chant, all of it is prayer. If someone tells you that they are sitting Zazen for you, or they lay hands on you and speak in tongues, accept it as prayer without judgement. Everyone prays in his or her own way. It's all prayer. It's all good.

            Third lesson: Pray expectantly, hopefully, persistently, and never lose heart.  Recently, as some of you may know, my beloved was hospitalized. She was very ill and we were very much afraid. One of the great comforts was knowing that this community was praying with us and for us. She is listed in the bulletin as "Sr. Barbara Clare". You may have just looked at the prayer list and said, "I pray for everybody on this list." That was important. To us. We knew we were not alone.

You helped us to pray always and, most importantly, to not lose heart.  And we are, forever and eternally, grateful debtors to that prayer.

So, pray always and do not lose heart. Because, God is listening and waiting for your prayer.

And, because prayer changes nothing. And, it changes absolutely everything.

Except you.