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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Comfort and Truth

A Sermon for the XVI Sunday after Pentecost Proper20
September 24, 2017 - St Phillip's, Laurel, DE

There’s a great story my family - especially my mother - loves to tell on my grandmother. Although I was a child of about seven or eight, I do remember the event, if not all of the details.

It was the day of my grandfather’s funeral. We had just returned home from the funeral to a traditional Portuguese ‘funeral repast’ – which meant a house full of family, friends and neighbors, all feasting on the food my grandmother, aunts and cousins had made.

As is the custom for Portuguese women, my grandmother was all dressed in black and wailing inconsolably in her rocking chair in the parlor, attended to by various women – themselves widows in black – who, by some seemingly well choreographed turns, fanned her, mopped her brow, patted her hand, stroked her hair, and softly whispered consoling words and prayers.

It was, as my mother liked to say at this point in the story, “quite a scene”.

In her grief, my grandmother rocked harder and harder as her voice got louder and louder. She cried out to God in heaven, “Why did you take him? He was a good man, good provider for his family. Who will provide for us now? Why did you take him? Why? Why didn’t you take me, instead? Take me, Lord! Take me! I can’t be here alone without him! Take me!”

And, on that last plea for God to “Take me!” her rocking chair, straining under so much vigorous rocking, let forth a mighty groan and CRACK! 

Suddenly, she was on the floor, sitting in the middle of broken, splintered pieces of wood. 

There were gasps and cries from every corner of the house and then silence as we looked in past all the round bodies of the women who surrounded her to see if she was okay. Just then, in the midst of the silence and from middle of that heap of humanity, came my grandmother’s voice, 

“Oh, God! I didn’t mean it! Let me live! Let me live!”

My mother would finish the story by saying, “So, now, remember: Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”

I thought of my mother’s telling of my grandmother’s lament as I read over the scriptures for today. I heard it especially in Paul’s letter to the Church in Phillipi: 
 “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.    
We actually have two choices for today’s Hebrew scripture: The first is the story from Exodus about manna from heaven and the second from the story of Jonah. The scripture chosen by this particular lectionary insert series this church uses is the one from Jonah but I'll talk briefly about the Exodus passage as well.

In that story, the Israelites are complaining bitterly to Moses and Aaron that they have no bread. These were the very people who hungered for their freedom and had been miraculously brought through the plagues of Egypt and walked through the equally miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea! Apparently, they still thought there were limits to the power of God. 

“Oh!” they said, 
If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Imagine! Hungering for a return to slavery rather than accept the temporary sacrifices necessary to enjoy the fruits of freedom!

The other possible selection from Hebrew scripture, the story from Jonah, is no better. We heard it as this morning's first lesson but let me briefly recap.

Jonah is sent to Nineveh to tell them to repent of their wicked ways. He runs away at first, going to Joppa to sail to Tarshish, but his boat capsizes in a storm and Jonah is devoured by a whale. He prays fervently to be released, promising God he will go to Nineveh, and, after three days, the whale spits him out. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches repentance which the people heed and the whole city – even the sheep – repent.

But, Jonah is angry. He wanted to see fire and brimstone and punishment. He goes and sits and sulks under a bush which is infected by a worm. Now he has to stew in his anger with the full force of the sun. He’s angry enough to want to die. God says to him, 
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Are you getting the message here? It’s just as my mother said. “Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”

Both stories, as well as the parable we heard in this morning’s Gospel, highlight the two things people seek from their religious experience.

One is comfort.

The other is truth.

We want to be comforted by God. And, the religious journey is always about discovering deeper layers of truth for our lives of faith. 

And yet, there is sometimes an unstable relationship between the two.  What's that old saying? The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Sometimes, that happens.

And, the truth can also set you free and place you on a path to a richer, fuller, more authentic life. Sometimes, that happens, too.

There is, however, this tension between truth on one hand and comfort on the other. That’s really the unstated theme of the parable from this morning’s Gospel.

We are comforted in knowing that, after we die, we will be in heaven. We’ve tried to live good lives – well, falling short every now and again but – always depending on the grace and forgiveness and unconditional love of God.

But, what of the scoundrel? What if a person has been a ne’er do well and a reprobate scallywag all his life – or, worse, a dotard – and, 10 minutes before closing his eyes in death, repents and makes a hearty contrition? Does that person get into heaven, too?

Well . . . . actually . . . . yes, says Jesus. If you concentrate on this parable as one about wages and fair labor practices, you'll miss the fuller, deeper meaning of the parable.

If you read Matthew's version of this parable and replace “wages” with “forgiveness” you'll get a better understanding of what Jesus is trying to say. Take the lectionary insert home with you and read it again, substituting “wages” for “forgiveness” - it’s a parable so you can - and see what I mean.

That might not provide you with much comfort, but it is the truth.

And, the unvarnished truth in each of these stories is this: When it comes to sin and redemption, salvation and grace, God is in charge. Not you. Not me. God.

We often repeat that truth without fully understanding what that means.

And some of you here in this church this morning take comfort in the fact that you won't be seeing some people in heaven. You know who you are. Well, I'm here to tell you that you may well be in for quite a surprise. So will I, I suspect. 

As Jesus is quoted as saying,  
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 
Whether it’s manna from heaven which comes down like a layer of dew on the wilderness, as fine as frost on the ground; or whether God redeems those you thought were beyond redemption - even though you had been good and obedient all of your life and they had been scoundrels - God always answers prayers. 

The point is God answers your prayers the way God decides. God just may not answer your prayers in the way you thought God might. Or, should.

Like, giving you the bread of freedom instead of the bread of bondage.

Like, giving you a tree for shade and then taking it away for you to steam in the hot sun until you come to your senses.

Like, humbling you by telling you – you who have actually started to believe your own press releases about yourself – that same arrogant you: “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

What’s that song by the Rolling Stones?: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Or, as one wise person once said to me, “You don’t always get what you want. And, you don’t always get what you need. You get what you get and then you make the best of what you’ve been given.”

It’s that old tension in religion between comfort and truth.

Or, as my mother always said, “Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Heaven and Earth

A sermon preached at St. Philip's, Laurel, DE
September 10, 2017 - Pentecost XIV - Proper 18 A
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Well, as I stand here, the country is in notable high anxiety about hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, on the East Coast and forest fires ablaze on the West Coast.  Some of you may have family or friends who live in the midst of one of these "natural disasters".  

Let's take a moment to actually and with great intention send our thoughts and prayers to the folks who are in harm's way. Amen.

I think this is my absolute all-time favorite story of "Theology of Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters".

When a series of hurricanes were predicted to tear up Florida, journalists asked a Roman Catholic priest, an Evangelical minister and then Episcopal Bishop Leo Frade why each one thought there were so many hurricanes hitting their state.

The RC priest said it was evidence of God's wrath for the sin of abortion.

The Evangelical minister said it was proof of God's punishment for homosexuality.

Bishop Frade said, "It's hurricane season."

We do love to blame others or God for whatever ills befall us. It’s been that way since the beginning. 

As early as the story of the Garden of Eden, God asked Adam how it was that Adam knew he was naked and Adam said, “Umm . . . it’s Eve’s fault. She gave me the apple to eat.” And, Eve said, “It’s the snake. He told me to eat it.” 

We look around and see the destruction in the path of Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma – with Hurricane Jose hot on her heels – and we think, well, at least some of us think, “Is this God’s punishment for something we’ve done?”

We ask this question from a place of fear and fear often infantalises. I recently had a health issue that was making me anxious. If the treatment plan was an injection of steroids, it meant pain. If the treatment plan was surgical intervention, there would definitely be pain.

Either way, the anticipation of pain as part of the remedy made me anxious. Which is completely understandable. 

I began to wonder what I might have done to bring this about. No, I didn’t ask if God was punishing me but I confess the question of an association with cosmic retribution for the way I might have abused my body kept dancing behind my thoughts. After so many years of reading ancient sacred texts, that sort of theology gets under your skin.

To distract myself I found myself scanning the walls of the doctor’s office. I didn’t want to see images of bucolic pastures with grazing sheep or cow, much less images of placid lakes. I wanted to check his credentials. Suddenly, it became a matter of urgent importance to know where he went to school. And, if he were board certified in his specialty. And, did he have membership in a prestigious fraternity or medical society?

In my anxiety and in my sense of vulnerability, if I was going to be dependent upon this doctor – this father figure I was asking to work a miracle of medical science – he had darn well better be the absolute best in his field. 

One of dear friends often reminds me, “Fifty percent of all doctors graduated in the lower half of their class.” Another always says, “Question: What do you call a physician who graduated last in his or her class in medical school? Answer: Doctor.”

The question of divine retribution is an ancient question, one which is answered in many of the stories of the Hebrew Scripture. We read that in the story of how the Israelites, who were held in bondage in Egypt, understood the history of their salvation. God sent the plagues to the Egyptians as a demonstration of God’s power. And, God’s wrath. 

Moses, God’s prophet, knew the secret to keeping away the last plague from the Israelites – a special dinner of lamb, prepared in a precise way; and then, the smearing of the lambs blood on the doorway of the house, so that God would “Passover” and spare the Israelites. 

The Prophet Ezekiel from whom we heard this morning – like many of the prophets – makes a very clear and direct line between the “wickedness of the people” and divine retribution and punishment for those sins. Even so, says the prophet, God does not want to punish people; God wants people to turn away from sin and save themselves. 

That is a bit of an evolution in the thinking about prayer and our understanding about God's punishment and our responsibility in our own salvation.

In this morning's pericope – the section of scripture – we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, we see a further evolution of the idea of sin and retribution. Jesus gives us guidelines for how to handle conflict in community, giving us a deeper, more mature spirituality about sin and salvation and God’s role in the brokenness and sin of our lives. 

Jesus says, “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is  loosed in heaven.” 

Do you hear the difference? It isn’t that God is acting independently or perniciously or malevolently; it’s that God is as affected by our behavior as we are affected by our understanding of God’s action in the world. 

Let me say that again: God is as affected by our behavior as we are affected by our understanding of God’s action in the world.   

The two realities – heaven and earth – do not exist independently or in isolation. In the new Christian cosmology, Jesus teaches that heaven and earth are mutually interdependent. 

My mother’s favorite saint was St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa once wrote:  
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Do you hear in her words an echo of the words of Jesus? 

We are not alone in this enterprise we call human existence. God is right in the midst of it with us because, through Jesus, we are His body incorporate here on earth. What we do affects God and what we know of God, through Jesus, affects us.

So, rather than blame the violence of the world on the violence of God, God wants us to take responsibility for our own violence. Rather than blame God for the tragedies in life, God wants us to look at what we’ve done to contribute to those tragedies and to make amends for them – as individuals, as a community, as a nation, as the world.

It’s very easy to blame and scapegoat others for things we don’t understand. When we do that, however, even with God, we allow others to hold our sins for us which conveniently prevents us from ever having to deal with those proclivities and character flaws in ourselves.

An example: Less than two weeks before my father died, I went to visit him in the extended care facility where he was recuperating from congestive heart failure. He was also struggling with dementia which was simply heartbreaking to see.

He would have some moments of clarity, however, and I was fortunate enough to share a moment like that with him during my visit. My father was an alcoholic who became verbally abusive and physically violent when he drank. I had held enormous amounts of anger for my father and often blamed him for whatever there was that was wrong in my life.

I was walking with him in the hallway and I said to him, “Daddy, I want you to know that I have forgiven you.” My father stopped cold in his tracks and looked at me with such clarity and awareness it was startling. Then he smiled and said, “Well, good, because I forgive you, too.”

And then, it all washed over me in a sudden insight: I had not exactly been a model daughter. I had certainly done things that hurt him – hurt others. Not that I intended it but that was the natural consequence of the choices I had made. I felt, all at once, the sting of shame and guilt and the joy of forgiveness and freedom.

The truth of it was this: I needed his forgiveness, too, and I didn’t even know it. As long as I allowed him to hold anger, I never had to deal with my own. As long as I allowed him to hold violence, I never had to deal with my own. As long as I allowed him to hold addiction to alcohol, I never had to deal with my addiction to food or other sources of comfort.

My father had been my scapegoat. It was easy to do. I had learned to “blame” things that were not in my control on “God the father”. Blaming my father for the things I didn’t want to work on came just as easily. That was so until I realized that God is not just my father; God is my mother and the source of my life, the Source of All Life. God is my brother in Jesus. God is the Spirit of Life – the Guide of life – the one who opens our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds.

In that one moment of clarity, what was loosed on earth was loosed in heaven. I think my father and I both felt free – freer than either of us had been in a long, long time.

Jesus is calling us to a deeper, more mature relationship with each other and God. 

God is calling us to forgive others as we are forgiven. 

And, God is calling us to forgive ourselves so that we can forgive others and be in relationship, one with another and be at peace within ourselves so there will be peace in the world.

What is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.

Hurricane Harvey has left. Hurricane Irma is here. Hurricane Jose is on his way.

God is not punishing anyone for any reason.

It’s hurricane season.   

Buckle up.


Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Sacredness of Work

Pentecost XIII Proper 17 A - September 3, 2017
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

 I’m going to do something the good Roman and Anglo-Catholic mentors of my youth said a preacher ought never do: I’m going to preach about a secular observance in church. 

The impulse for the admonition to “keep holy the Sabbath” was very pure: The priests and nuns of my youth believed that Church was the place to retreat from the world and all of its corruption;
a place to find hope from heaven in the face of human misery; 
a place where one could find the strength to lift up one’s head and straighten one’s back from the oppression of the world; 
a place where wealth and prosperity were weighed and measured not by dollars and cents but by prayer and devotion.
That meant that everything about the liturgy of my youth pointed to The Great Mystery of God: 

There were billowing clouds of incense which floated up, up, up to the bowed roof of the church, designed to recall the up-side-down bottom of Noah’s Ark, a reminder of God’s promise never again to destroy the earth. 

Icons and stained glass windows were there to remind us of the stories of our salvation. 

Psalms and scripture and prayers were sung in chant, a form of music whose very structure gracefully danced its notes up and down the image of Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth.

These good, devout, noble Roman and Anglo-Catholic priests and nuns decreed that there was to be no mention – much less celebration – of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in church. No birthday celebrations except that of Jesus. No anniversaries except the anniversary of the death of the saints and martyrs. 

Coffins are covered with palls to keep the faithful focused on the resurrection of the body and not the grandeur or simplicity of the casket. No preaching on national holidays like Independence Day. 

And, for God’s sake – literally – keep politics out of the pulpit.

However, that did not mean that the church was not to be involved in the world. 

Indeed, the church of my youth was intimately involved with the cares and troubles and suffering of the world. 

The priests and nuns of my youth were always seen advocating for the poor, speaking out publicly against economic oppression and marching against prejudice and for civil rights.

This always seemed a bit schizophrenic to me – this separation of what we did in church on Sunday and what we did in the parish hall and in the streets the rest of the week. 

Much later, I met Bishop Frederick Barton Wolf of Maine – a devout Anglo Catholic man who could swing a mean pot of incense and chant anything that wasn’t nailed down. He would become my ordaining bishop. 

He also preached from the pulpit about justice and called us to take a stand against prejudice and bigotry and oppression because, he said, quoting Psalm 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne; love and faithfulness go before God.”

In one particularly inspiring sermon I heard him say, 
“Scripture tells us that the church is not OF the world but it’s also true that the church is IN the world; and because the church is IN the world, some of the world will always be IN the church, so the best of the church can also be IN the world.”
Now, I agree that it is probably good to keep politics out of the pulpit. That said, it must be noted that Jesus was a very political creature. He railed against the oppressive powers of the occupation of Israel by Rome and the participation in that oppression by the religious leaders of his day.

No, I’m not going to talk politics, but I do want to talk about the holiness of work. Because, you may have noted, this is Labor Day. Some prefer to call it “The Last Weekend of Summer”. Except, of course, it’s not. That will come later this month, on the 22nd, at the equinox which begins the official season of Autumn and, of course, that will be the end of summer. 

Still others will see a link between Labor Day and patriotism and even a parade. Many will simply know that this is long weekend away from work, a time for a mini-vacation to travel to a national park or to the home of a friend or relative for one last summer barbecue – hot dogs and hamburgers and pulled pork and crabs and corn and watermelon, and soda and beer.

Many of us have forgotten that this long weekend was brought to us by the Labor Movement

The history of that movement is very much mirrored in the situation we find ourselves in today. 

There are many strands to the movement but the “official launch” began in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, where a parade and a picnic were held to bring together the city's workers.

The late 19th century, of course, was the Gilded Age and there was great tension around immigration. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar). 

The question was: To what extent could all these masses of unskilled workers teaming in from southern and eastern Europe join with the native-born white skilled trades who sort of had a lock on the labor movement at that time? 

Complicating this dynamic was the fact that many of these immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were Roman Catholic or Jewish. Many of the "landed gentry" in America were proudly Protestant who feared that the Catholics were here to take the land for Rome. The Jews were seen with suspicion because, well, they weren't Christian. So there was a religious dimension to the tensions around immigration. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.)

The Pullman Railroad strike – during which 12,000 troops were called out by President Grover Cleveland to suppress the riot and the reason the president authorized the Labor Day celebration in NYC, to bring about peace – demonstrated that the unskilled and the skilled could come together to organize an entire industry for things like work place safety and fair wages. 

That miracle union of immigrant and citizen, of skilled and unskilled worker, working together to achieve a common goal of justice was due, in large part, because of the glue that held the Labor Movement together. What was that glue? It was a faith which flowed from a variety of religions with similar beliefs about God as the source of life and work and purpose.

Now, a confession: I am from one of those immigrant, unskilled worker families. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins were all part of the Labor Movement in the textile mills of New England. Some of my early memories are of family and friends and neighbors gathered ‘round my grandmother’s kitchen table, or setting up boxes for people to sit on in my grandfather’s garage where the workers plotted strategy for a negotiation or demonstration or a strike.

I have other, very clear memories of being in the kitchen of the parish hall of our neighborhood church, helping to cook and serve great pots of soup and loaves of bread for the workers who were on strike. 

“Father” would always be there, in his cassock and collar – as would Mother Superior or Sister in their habit – giving the people hope, praying with the people, pointing us to a picture or statue of Jesus while reminding us that there was no greater sacrifice than people lay down their lives for others.  

 I remember this morning’s gospel being quoted: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Our priest also reminded us that, in the beginning, God formed us lovingly out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into us the breath of life and gave us work and purpose for living. God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it. 

Through our work, God has made us co-creators with God, giving us the ability to shape the world in which we live. And, God gave dignity to our labor by sending God’s Son to labor with us; with his hands; as a carpenter. 

As a symbol of this belief, my father wore a cross which he fashioned himself out of nails. He wore it to remind himself and anyone who saw it that Jesus was a common laborer. That was important to him as a factory worker.

In late September of 1997, my father suffered a small stroke. He had been preparing his beloved garden for winter. The doctor told him that this was going to have to be his last garden, that his 84-year old body could no longer tolerate the work required to tend a garden. 

I saw him a few weeks after that. He was standing in front of the window, hands in his pockets, looking with great sadness at the plot of land from which he had lovingly tended and had fed his family for many years. 

I came up beside him silently and simply stood there with him. After a while, he looked at me and said, “Doc says I can’t have a garden. What am I supposed to do? If I can’t feel the dirt in my hands, if I’m not pulling up crops from the ground, well . . . what’s the point of living?”

By February 1998, less than five months later, he was gone. 

My father worked in a factory all of his life – Firestone Tire and Rubber – but gardening was my father’s life work. It was what he loved to do. He worked hard at it. Sweated and strained and pulled muscles - gladly. He was a poor man but that work ennobled him. Through it he felt a co-creator status with God. The work in the factory was what he did to support his family, but the work in his garden was what he did to honor God. 
I sometimes wonder if at least some of the problems we face in the world today aren’t due to the fact that we have become a nation where labor is cheapened and leisure is glorified. I wonder if we haven’t subverted our priorities and made ourselves, as individuals and as a nation, sick unto death. 

The Dali Lama is quoted as having said, 
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
I hope we are able, this Labor Day weekend, to spend just a little time thinking about the source and value of labor. Indeed, I hope I may have inspired you to think about the value of labor and the balance of leisure. 

About the dignity and value of work. 

About the way our understanding of the tenants of our faith translate into social programs like unemployment insurance, old age pensions, social security, government relief for the destitute, safety regulations, and – above all – wage levels that mean not just survival but a tolerable and even enjoyable life. 

A living vs. a minimum wage.

Jesus says to us this morning, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

That means that we may sometimes find our lives at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane, the secular and the spiritual. We may find ourselves like Moses, discovering the holy in the midst of the common, the seemingly unimportant, the unexpected. And, that salvation may be found in the work of the church outside the walls of its buildings and grounds, in the work of justice and peace.

Or, to quote Bishop Wolf, 
“Scripture tells us that the church is not OF the world but it’s also true that the church is IN the world; and because the church is IN the world, some of the world will always be IN the church, so that the best of the church can also be IN the world.” 
May the best of the church be in your celebration of Labor Day. May your baptismal vows inspire you to honor and respect the dignity of every human being. Amen.