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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The forgiveness connection

Pentecost XIV - Proper 19A - September 14, 2014
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

N.B. I preached this morning, as Herb O'Driscoll says, "from a prepared heart". I did not have a manuscript in front of me - Which, you must understand, is absolutely terrifying to me. The good folks at St. Paul's, however, make it so much easier. What follows is what I remember saying. 

Track 1

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

So, I'll start with a confession.

On October 18th I will celebrate the 28th Anniversary of my my ordination to the Priesthood.

As you may know, the Eucharistic lectionary runs in a three year cycle (Pragmatically and without a hint of dramatic flourish  known as Years A, B and C). So, if  you do the math, you will see that I have preached on this set of lessons .... well, more that a few times.

Sometimes, the three lessons fit together like the proverbial hand in a glove.  There's some theme that connects them all, and they are reflective of each other.

And then, there are times like this morning.

Here's my confession: For the life of me, I can't tell how it is that the story of The Parting of the Red Sea fits with the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. And Paul's Epistle about judgement really doesn't give us much help.

Can you? Can anybody here give me a clue? No? Well, okay, then. I guess that old saying is really true: Misery does love company.

Except, I had a bit of an epiphany this morning at the eight o'clock, thanks to something Gerry said, bless his heart. But, I'll get to that in a minute.

So, here's the thing: Jesus says that we must forgive not seven but seventy-seven times. What does that mean, do you think? Someone is saying that it means that forgiveness sometimes takes a long time. Yes, I think that's true, depending on the offense.

Someone else is saying that it means that forgiveness is what all Christians have to do. That's true enough. Someone else is saying that forgiveness is hard work.  In my experience, that's also sometimes true. Sometimes, the offense is so minor as to almost be understandable and it's easy to "forgive and forget". Other times, it confounds us how someone could behave in that way towards us and so it takes a lot longer to forgive.

This weekend, I spent some time visiting a dear friend in New Jersey who is having some difficulty in his family which has been going on for the past year. Not surprisingly, with the conflict still ongoing, he's having difficulty finding forgiveness.

On the three and a half hour drive home (I have to stop a few times along the way), I listened to a few Public Radio Stations and heard two modern stories, seemingly unconnected, that shed a great deal of light on this morning's two ancient, seemingly unconnected stories.

The first story came as a surprise in the midst of an interview with Maureen Corrigan, about a book she has recently written: "So we read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures."

Corrigan just happen to mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, in his lover's apartment in LA. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Maryland would not allow his body to be buried in the family plot in the Roman Catholic cemetery, she said, because the Archbishop declared, in a great religious euphemism, that  he was "not a practicing Catholic at the time of his death."

Meaning, of course, that he was a heavy drinker and was unfaithful to his wife, Zelda.

He was buried in "a Protestant cemetery" - I don't know which one, which one would be your guess? Right! - until 1975 when his daughter convinced the Bishop that his body ought to be exhumed and allowed to lie at rest with the rest of his family.

I thought to myself, my goodness! Thirty-five years is a long time for a religious institution (and, trust me, it's not just the Roman Catholics) to hold a grudge! They are no better than the slave in today's Gospel who demanded mercy and forgiveness for himself, but would not provide the same for one who was in his debt.

I wondered if that's what Jesus meant by "seventy-seven times" of forgiveness, for surely, that's what the church needed to do in order to forgive Fitzgerald as well as their own rigidity.

I mused over this story about F. Scott Fitzgerald and then, about an hour and a half more down the road, came another story, seemingly disconnected to the one that continued to run through my head.

The second story involved four GIs during WWII who were, as they say, "a band of brothers". They were from all over the country and forged their relationship in the rigors of boot camp of Ft Dix and the fox holes of the European Front.

During a particularly fierce battle on a field in the countryside north of Paris, one of them took a bullet and died. The three remaining friends were bereft and did not want to leave their comrade on the battlefield. Looking up, they noticed that there was a small Roman Catholic church on the rise of the hill which was surrounded by a cemetery.

The three men gathered up their friend's body and carried him to the church. Knocking on the door, they begged the priest to buy their friend in their graveyard, for which they would pay the good cleric whatever he asked and promised that, after the war, would return to pay any outstanding debt as well as their final respects to their friend.

The priest only had one question: Had the soldier been baptized?

The three soldiers were confounded. They had talked long hours into the night about their childhood, their families, their homes, their dreams, even politics. But, never religion. They thought he was a Christian but had no idea if the man had been baptized, much less what particular religion he practiced, if any.

The priest said, sadly, that he could not bury the man in the consecrated ground of this cemetery.

The three soldiers were shocked and horrified. How could this be? How could this man of God, of whatever religion, make such a coldhearted decision? They pressed upon the priest to make some kind of accommodation, please, for the love of God!

The priest finally conceded that he would bury the American soldier - outside the fence that surrounded and enclosed the cemetery.

The soldiers gladly accepted the compromise, paid the priest, and said their goodbyes to their friend.

Five years later, the soldiers returned to the cemetery, looking to pay respects to their friend. Alas, they could not find the grave. They searched and searched but could not find a gravestone outside the parameter of the cemetery fence.

Trying hard not to let anger rise, they knocked on the door and asked for the priest. "Where is he?" they demanded, "What did you do with our friend? He's nowhere in the cemetery!"

The priest looked down at the floor, then looked up at the soldiers and said, "I thought a great deal about what you said. And, I considered carefully what you did for your friend. And," he added slowly, "I moved the fence."

I don't know when, in those five years, the priest moved that fence. I wondered how many shovels full of dirt - more than seventy-seven, no doubt - it took to accomplish the task.

I do know that the priest had to forgive the soldier for not letting anyone know whether or not he was baptized. And, he had to forgive himself for not assuming the best and bury him in the cemetery.

The two stories, years and continents apart, were, nonetheless connected to each other and the Gospel story about forgiveness.

And then, all of a sudden and from out of nowhere this morning, I "got" the connection with the story of the Parting of the Red Sea.

At least, I think there's a connection there, and I don't think I'm stretching the metaphor beyond credibility.

You see, many of the Israelites believed that their time of bondage in Egypt must have been because of something they did that was so very wrong, it displeased God so much, that God allowed them to be slaves to the Egyptians.

Indeed, many scholars see the Levitical Codes as the way the nation of Israel made absolutely certain that, not only would they would regain their identity as a people, but they also set a standard of life so "pure" that they would never again anger or disappoint God. Hence, "The Purity Codes" of Leviticus.

The story of the Parting of the Red Sea is evidence, proof-positive, that God loves us so much that God will go to any length to provide a pathway for us to find forgiveness and salvation for ourselves. God will even push back the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass into liberation and then, in those same waters of liberation, drown the Egyptians, the vehicles of their oppression.

Forgiveness does not just happen. It is a process. Sometimes a long process that takes hard work, shoveling through the dirt and very ground of our beliefs. Or, parting the baptismal waters of our faith and drowning the anger that has enslaved us in them.

It's something we do, not just for the one who hurt us, but mostly, in fact, for ourselves. For the health and well being of our own souls and hearts and minds and yes, bodies.

There's a saying in the 12-Step Program that, living with anger towards someone who has hurt us is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.

That's certainly been my experience.

There is an unmistakable connection between our anger and our ability to forgive - but sometimes it as difficult to find as the connection between the stories of the Parting of the Red Sea and the Gospel Parable of the Unforgiving Debor. 

The thing to remember about these words of Jesus - that we must forgive seventy seven times - is that it's not an invitation or a suggestion.

It's a statement of reality.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen years later

Every year on this date, I wake up and find it difficult to catch a full breath. And then I look at the calendar or my iPhone and I remember.

It's September 11.


Today is the 13th Anniversary of that awful day that changed so much in our lives that we had taken for granted and didn't know we'd miss until after their absences became part of the "New Normal, Post 9/11 Reality".

The 'Patriot Act" (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, and with it, we began living into the bizarre notion that giving up some of our personal freedoms - our "inalienable rights" - would keep us "safe".

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by the United States Congress on September 14, 2001, authorizes the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001. The authorization granted the President the authority to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those whom he determined "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11th attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups.

The AUMF was signed by President George W. Bush on September 18, 2001.

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp ("Gitmo") was established in January of 2002 "to detain extraordinarily dangerous prisoners, to "interrogate" prisoners in "an optimal setting", and to prosecute prisoners for war crimes. Detainees captured in the "War on Terror", most of them from Afghanistan and much smaller numbers later from Iraq the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia were transported to the prison.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA)  was signed into law by President (you guessed it) George W. Bush in November 2001. Originally part of the US Department of Transportation the TSA was moved to the Department of Homeland Security on March 9, 2003.

In November of 2002, The Homeland Security Act was passed to "make America secure from terrorist attacks."

In effect, TSA and Homeland Security have made the experience of air travel completely odious and noxious in particular and life in general in these United States less and less united about more and more things we once simply understood to be part of what made us Americans. 

In the almost predictable but always foolish wave of jingoism fueled by revenge that followed, we were plunged - or, allowed ourselves to be plunged - into two wars - Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars were supposed to have ended once we "got" Osama bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein - but have not.

I really believe The Tea Party was born on 9/11/01 and, with it, the beginning of the War(s) on Women, Reproductive Justice, The Voting Rights Act, and Immigration.

The budget appropriation for the NDDA (The National Defense Authorization Act), which specifies the the budget and expenditures of the United States Department of Defense, increases ($607 billion for 2014) every year as the budget for programs to help the poor have the basic human rights of food, clothing and shelter is slashed - year after year after year.

In June of 2014, the NDDA was expanded and passed by Congress so that detainees may be brought to the United States for "detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF). In plain English, that means the policy of indefinite detention by the military, without charge or trial, can now be carried out here at home.  

And, don't even get me started on the National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance and "domestic government spying".

I think the reason I wake up every year on this date and find it hard to catch a full breath is not just because of my memories of that day and the days that immediately followed.

Somewhere, deep in my heart, I'm really afraid that the terrorists have won, after all.

We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because "they hate our freedom".

Well, we seem to have given up quite a bit of it to prove "them" wrong.

In the raw, gaping holes and broken concrete and twisted steel left in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania terrorists seem to have exposed the dark underbelly of this country.

They have revealed to us that we are, in many ways, still fighting the Civil War.  Tribalism. Racism. Sexism. Greed. Slavery. All these things still exist and we are still doing battle with them.

It's no surprise - well, not to me, anyway - that with the recent war and now tenuous truce in Gaza and the rise to power of ISIS/ISIL and their barbaric beheading of two American journalists, many religious folk are using this 13th Anniversary to talk about The End of Time.

The Apocalypse.

The Parousia

It's not a surprise to me because I think a sad reaction and result of "Never Forget(ing) 9/11" has been that on focusing on the destruction and the deaths that happened on this day, we've not allowed ourselves to heal. Not even "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" which some thought we'd achieve in the brutal death of Osama bin Ladden and Saddam Hussein have "settled the score".

Some will argue that we haven't yet had enough time to heal. Perhaps. I would argue that as long as we keep focusing on what "they did to us" as opposed to working to right the wrongs in the systems of our own country, we will continue to use 9/11 as an excuse to water our own seeds of prejudice and oppression and violence and we will never heal.

In the meantime, we are loosing - if some of us have not already lost - our souls.

Henri Nouwen says something very interesting about end time behavior in his book, "Bread for the Journey":
The great danger of the turmoil of the end-time in which we live is losing our souls.  Losing our souls means losing touch with our center, our true call in life, our mission, our spiritual task.  Losing our soul means becoming so distracted by and preoccupied with all that is happening around us that we end up fragmented, confused, and erratic.  Jesus is very aware of that danger.  He says:  "Take care not to be deceived, because many will come using my name and saying, 'I am the one' and 'The time is near at hand'  Refuse to join them" (Luke 21:8).

In the midst of anxious times there are many false prophets, promising all sorts of "salvations."  It is important that we be faithful disciples of Jesus, never losing touch with our true spiritual selves.
I think that means that it is important - now more than ever - for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, that we get on with the work of the Gospel.  You know, the "Good News". 

Thirteen years later, I am hearing the words in Philippians 4:8-9 in a new, more compelling way. I am hearing them as a way to honor the 2, 976 lives of those who died on 9/11.

So, I leave these words with you as a way to get through this sad anniversary in our common lives.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
With that as the "new normal", I do believe I'd wake up on this anniversary able to catch a full breath.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

What you say to one another is eternal.


Pentecost 18A – September 7, 2014 
St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton 
Track 1

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 149

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

So, let me put this morning’s gospel into context for you.

Jesus and his disciples have been traveling all over Israel. They’ve been up to the very northern part of the country, way up in Caesarea Philippi – an area known for pagan worship where, interestingly enough, Peter made his confession that he thought Jesus was the Messiah (we heard that story last Sunday). It's also where Jesus took a few of the disciples alone to a mountain top and he was Transfigured.

After that, they returned south to the region of Galilee, stopping at Capernum. All along, Jesus is teaching his disciples by parable and ‘ground rules’, about what it means to be his disciple.

They are now back in Judea, making their way beyond the Jordan, on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus gives them the ground rules for resolving conflicts among church members.  This is so important to hear, I want you to listen to this passage again, this time in Eugene Petersen’s translation which we find in The Message:
Matthew 18:15-20 (The Message)

   15 "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. 16 If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. 17 If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.

   18 "Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. 19 When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. 20 And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
So, this passage is important because it provides the ground rules for resolving conflicts among members of the same community of faith. The Body of Christ. The Church.

Wait a minute! Hang on!  Church members have conflicts?!?!

Get out of town! Church members don’t’ have conflicts! Right? That’s just for people on Soap Operas or SitComs or Reality TV like The Kardashians, or the Atlanta or New Jersey or LA (or wherever) Housewives, right?

Any actual, true, followers of Jesus have so much love in their heart and peace like a river flowing in their soul and the sweet song of Kumbya on their lips that there are no conflicts in church!!! 

There's no conflict in church, just like there’s no crying in baseball!!!


Ahem! WRONG! (Especially if you're a Red Sox fan but we'll talk about that later.)

For some reason, people - even people in the church - think that following Jesus is easy.

Everything Jesus ever taught is easily understood by one and all; easily agreed on by one and all; and all the consequences and specific actions are easily followed by one and all. Right?

And our individuality is washed away at baptism and we leave our intelligence on the church steps and we all think alike and act alike and walk alike and talk alike and become cookie cutter clones of one another.  Right?

Ahem! Not so! Well, maybe in a cult somewhere, but clearly not in The Episcopal Church..

Here’s a newsflash: Real churches have - or should have, actually - real conflicts.

Partly these will arise from individual human faults and failings that need to be confronted for the sake of the well-being of the community.

And partly these will arise from good people simply disagreeing about exactly what following Jesus requires of them in their particular context.

The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts.

UMC pastor and writer David Ewart writes “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches. And, in fact, Jesus knows this, and gives specific instructions for dealing with conflict and offensive behavior - including telling members to leave as a last resort.”

This is an especially important ground rule because, as I mentioned, Jesus is coming from the northern parts of Israel down to Judea on his way to Jerusalem. And, we know what is going to happen in Jerusalem, right? There will be conflict of major proportion. Indeed, the disciples will squabble amongst themselves and abandon Jesus in his hour of need, Judas will betray him and Peter, who we heard last week confess Jesus as Messiah will deny him, not once, but three times.

Jesus will be charged with blasphemy by the religious leaders of his day and trumped up charges of treason by the political leaders of his day. He will be beaten, mocked and tortured, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem while being whipped and made to carry the cross on which he will be crucified and on which he will die.

Conflict? In the church? The Body of Christ? 

It’s in our DNA.

As Pastor Ewart says, “Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches.”

As many of you know, I’m a Hospice Chaplain. When someone asks me what I do, I often find myself offering a list of activities.

Well, I have lots of patients - most, actually - who aren't Christians, or who disavow themselves of any denomination or set of beliefs. Lots of "former Roman Catholics". Or, "Well, I was baptized in a non denominational evangelical church and I love the Lord, but I don't go to any church."

And, why is that so? Mostly they've left the church because - you guessed it - conflict.

What I hear myself say for those who are Christians, and for those who request them, is that I administer the sacraments, I anoint dying persons and hold prayer vigils at their bedside with family members.

But, you know, I have found that, for lots of Christians – even some who have gone to church all their life, including some Episcopalians – it’s not the “activities” of the church – the sacraments and anointing or even the prayers, that bring comfort and lead them to a peaceful death.

I have found that what people want most – for themselves and for others – is precisely what Jesus is talking about this morning. It’s all about forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Dr. Ira Byock, in his book, “Dying Well," writes that there are five key things that people need to say before they die. They are:
I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.


Saying “I love you,” is, not surprisingly, the easy part for most people. Which is good, because that’s an important place to begin. It’s the next two – the, “Please forgive me” and the “I forgive you,” – that often provide the most difficult terrain and landscape to travel in the last days of our earthly journey. They are important, however, if a person – the one with the terminal illness, is, as well as the people who are left behind are – to get to a place of gratitude for what has been in order to find the strength and courage to say “Goodbye”.

Last year, I was visiting a patient, an elderly man with cancer, who was very near death. He had stopped eating and was sleeping a great deal, but was having moments of being awake and alert. His wife had called me because, she said, her husband wanted to talk with me and it seemed important.

When I arrived, he had been sleeping, but, after a few moments, he was awake and smiling. He asked his wife if he could have a cup of tea – and one for the chaplain and you, please. His wife smiled at me sadly, knowingly. Clearly, whatever the man wanted to tell me, he didn’t want his wife to hear. She left the room quietly, and I could hear her putting the kettle on and fixing a tray with the tea pot and china.

The man looked at me and said, “I want you to promise me something.”

I smiled and said, ‘You know, I learned long ago never to make promises I know I can’t keep. So, why don’t you tell me what you need to tell me and I’ll let you know if I can promise it.”

“Well,” he said, “I want you to tell my wife that I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. You see, about 25 years ago, I had an affair with someone in my office. My wife never knew about it. It didn’t last long. It was just . . .something stupid . .. .but, I’ve felt guilty about it all these years and I want to tell her how very sorry I am that I did that and betrayed her and my marriage vows to her.”

I looked at him sadly and said, “You know, that’s not my story to tell your wife. It’s not my confession. It’s not my place to ask her for her forgiveness for you. You still have time to tell her and ask for her forgiveness. But, you know, I suspect that, if she knew of your affair, she already has forgiven you. She obviously loves you and has taken such very good care of you these past few months. That wouldn't have happened if she were hurt or feeling betrayed.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“From what I've come to know about your wife, she's a very loving, very forgiving woman,” I answered, “But you really need to tell her what's on your heart, so you can be at peace and leave this earth with a heart filled with gratitude for the life you’ve been given to live.”

“Here’s the one thing I can promise,” I said, “You have expressed remorse for your deeds. God has already forgiven you for what you did. That’s a promise you can take to heaven with you. I have every confidence that one of the first things that Jesus will do when you get there is to open his arms widely and say, “I love you. All is forgiven.”

Just then, I heard his wife coming back into the room. She was having a bit of trouble juggling all the things on the tray so I got up to help her. It only took a few minutes but when we got back to the bedside, it was clear that her husband was taking his last few breaths.”

We stood there, she and I, each holding one of his hands while we held each other’s hand. His wife wept softly, said, “I love you,” a few times while she brushed away the tears. Then, she sighed deeply and said, “Oh, I wish I had told him that, long ago, I forgave him for that silly affair he had with that woman in his office.”

I smiled at her and said, “You know, the nurses I work with say that the ability to hear is the last sense to leave the body. Why don’t you tell him yourself?”

She looked at me a bit quizzically but then she turned to her husband and told him that she knew about the affair.  And, she said, “I forgive you.” And, she said, “I love you.” And, she said, ‘I’m so grateful for everything we had together – the good stuff always outweighed the bad.”

And then, he took his last few breaths and died. And, we said goodbye.

After she composed herself, she said to me, "Do you think he heard me?"

"Well," I said, "we'll never know for certain, but I just love the thought that the last thing he heard before he left this earth was your voice saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.' And, the first thing he heard when he got into heaven was the voice of Jesus saying, 'I love you. I forgive you.'".

"I love that, too," she said, as she squeezed my hand and dried her tears.

This morning, Jesus offers us some ground rules for living together as a beloved community of his disciples. He doesn’t promise us nirvana. He doesn’t promise us paradise – not while we’re on this side of Eden.  

 Because Jesus understands our humanity, and understands that there will always be conflict among us, he offers us a way to find forgiveness and reconciliation.

And, because he understand that we all have a divine spark within us, he reminds us that ”Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.”

Or: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”

There’s still time. Don’t wait till the last minute. Make sure you seek forgiveness of any wrong you have done. Make sure you offer forgiveness for any wrong done to you.

Jesus has given us the structure – shown us the way – to find the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation, which are pathways to gratitude. And, a heart filled with gratitude is a heart that which understands a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” which is the very heart of Eucharist..

It is in that heart-breaking place of praise and thanksgiving and Eucharist that we are able to have a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us in heaven where, we are promised, we will find forgiveness and reconciliation and feast on Divine Love for eternity.

Yes, we all believe that are still many miles left to our earthly journey. It’s also true that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is promised to no one. All we really have is today. This day. The present. Which is why it is such a gift.

All we get is this one life, here on this earth, before we complete our earthly pilgrimage and return to the One who loved us into being, loves us unto death, and will love us for eternity.

It’s not too late. You still have time. You don’t have to have a diagnosis with a terminal implication to say the Five Key Things everyone needs to say before they die.

I love you.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.


If you can't remember all that, remember the words of Jesus: “A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal.”