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Sunday, October 18, 2015

29 Years: Not to be served, but to serve

Pentecost XXI – October 18, 2015 - St. Phillip’s, Laurel, DE 
(the Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton
On the occasion of the 29th Anniversary of my Priestly Ordination 

Every now and again, when we least expect it, God puts us in our place.

It may come at a time when we think we’re doing okay. Or, it may happen when we think we don’t deserve it. More often than not, it may come at a time when even we know – in that place we all have inside of us where we know the truth about ourselves – that we have gotten just a little to big for our britches.

I think, from time to time, we all need this reminder.  To be put in our place. This morning’s Gospel lesson from St. Mark (Mark 10:35-45), James and John, those Sons of Thunder, ask Jesus to put them in what they feel is their rightful place: one at his right and one at his left in glory. Well, it’s not what they expect, but Jesus does just that, saying, “You boys have no idea what you’re asking.”

Later, when the other disciples hear of James and John’s request, they begin to argue among themselves, but Jesus puts them in their place, telling them, “ . . . .whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

This morning’s first reading from the Book of Job (38:1-7 (34-41)
is one of my favorites of all of these reminders. 

For almost 90% of the book, Job has begged God to intervene, implored God to speak. And then, uncharacteristically, God answers.

Job has been anxious to bring his case against God: “I would learn what God would answer me,” Job brashly declared, “and understand what God would say to me.”

But God turns the tables on Job. To quote scripture, which sounds more like a piece of script directed by Cecile B. De Mille, complete with howling wind right from the midst of the whirlwind, God says to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question YOU and YOU shall declare to ME.

Christian author Richard Rohr translates God’s response succinctly as, “Ah, shut up, Job!”

Job has longed for a lovely little chat with God – the sort and manner some of us might wish we could have with God. Perhaps we long for an interview, one befitting Tom Brokaw or Barbara Walters, wherein we lean forward at the appropriate time with an earnest look and softened voice. “So, God,” we say, “let’s start from the beginning,” a slight smile on our lips, confident that God gets – and shares – the subtle humor.

It is not to be so with God and Job. God’s first question is simple. “Were you there? Were you there when I laid the very foundations of the earth?”  

God goes on and lists all of the grandeurs of Creation. Can Job do what God does? Can Job care for creatures the way God does? God lists a variety of animals which God also has created and for which God tends —lion, raven, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the hawk and the eagle – just to name a few.

In the ancient rabbinical teaching, it is noted that when God boasts of God’s handiwork, humanity is only a small part of the wonder of Creation. Indeed, we were the last of God’s creation. From the very beginning, God always has a way of putting us in our place.

God doesn’t seem to be bothered with all of Job’s earlier rantings and arguments. God just wants Job to realize that he is not God. Job doesn’t really receive an answer to his question of why he, or for that matter any human, has to suffer. God instead just reminds Job of the incredible Presence and providence of God. Essentially, God gives no answers. In fact, at the end of the story of Job, we are left not with answers but with more questions!

Because, here’s the bottom line: God is God. Job is not. And, neither are we.

Today is a special day for me – a good day to be put in my place. Today is the 29th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I know. I can hardly believe it myself. I was very young, of course. Twelve, I think. Or, at least, looking back on that time and all I thought I knew and all I now know I didn’t, I may as well have been just twelve years old. 

I want to celebrate by sharing one of my favorite stories about the early days of my ordination. I’ve told this story many times over the years but, for me, it never gets old.  For you, it’s new.

It was 1986. I was a newly ordained priest, a Chaplain at the University of Lowell in MA. And, I admit, I was feeling, well, maybe not in control but at least on top of the word. Truth be told, after three years of seminary and having passed the rigors of the ordination process, I was pretty full of myself.

It was in my capacity as a university chaplain that I first met Fr. Koumranian, the pastor at the Armenian Orthodox Church in Lowell. For some reason unknown to me, Fr. Koumranian took a liking to me – or, maybe he was simply intrigued by a “woman priest” – and decided that I should learn the “real” liturgy of the church. So, he took me under his wing in one of the most delightful mentor relationship I have ever known.

He was called “Father” so I, of course, became known as “Mother”. That’s not what I wanted; it’s what he insisted. He would call me and, in his heavy Armenian accent, begin, “Mother? Dees is Father. We are having baptism at church. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Mind you, that wasn’t so much an invitation as an expectation. I was thrilled. I went. Every time.
One evening, he called. “Mother? Dees is Father. Der is funeral Wednesday. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

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

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

When it came time for the eulogy, I looked around the church and saw that it was filled with lots of old Armenian men and women, all dressed in black. I thought sure the eulogy would be spoken in Armenian and I could meditate quietly while he preached. To my surprise, Fr. Koumranian walked into the aisle, near the casket as he began the eulogy.

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

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

I was, in a word, stunned. I shut my eyes tight. All I could think was, “Don’t let my face show what I’m thinking.” Which was, “What in the heck is he doing?” When I opened my eyes, I could see the front row of women, including the man’s widow.

They were all nodding their heads in agreement.

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

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

Sometimes, when you least expect it – but, often, when you need it most – God brings people into our lives to help put us right into our place. Fr. Koumranian, for me, was one of those people. 

Over the past 29 years, whenever I’ve felt just a little too big for my britches, I remember this important lesson from the early days of my priesthood, and I think about the message God gave to Job as well as the lesson Jesus taught his disciples through James and John.

I am – you are – here not to be served, but to serve. 

Our baptism in Christ makes that clear. Those who are ordained to the priesthood – as the reading from the Book of Hebrews (5:1-10) reminds us, “according to the order of Melchizedek” – are to lead the people of God in servant ministry.

As Jesus himself has said to his disciples, “ . . . .whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

And, as God reminds Job, “I am God and you are not.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite priests, ordained according to the order of Melchizedek, “People is people. And, God is God.”


(PS: I wouldn't take nothing for my journey now)

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