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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Healing in the Temple

A Sermon preached by the Rev Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
Epiphany IV B - Januarly 28, 2018

Contemplative theologian Richard Rohr says Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

So, let’s take a deeper look into this morning’s Gospel to see what it is we once thought about God and God's ability to heal, and what it is that is new about God that Jesus came to change our minds concerning the healing power of God.

I’m always fascinated by the healing stories of Jesus. They are always so graphic and often include "unclean spirits" or demons. Talking demons. The demons always recognize Jesus even when the person he is about to heal – or, the people around him – doesn’t know Jesus or anything about Jesus.

Sometimes, the person doesn’t speak to Jesus much less ask him for healing. But the unclean spirits/demons know Jesus. They recognize him immediately.

And, they always seem to know precisely what he is capable of doing.

So, let’s spend just a minute or so inside that temple in Capernaum where we find Jesus this morning. Capernaum was reportedly the hometown of his disciple Peter. Indeed, there’s a church there, in Capernaum, built over the excavated remains of what was reportedly his home. The disciples Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were also from that town, as was the tax collector Matthew.

Jesus did several acts of healing there, in Capernaum. In addition to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the servant of a Roman centurion, as well as the paralytic man who was so desperate for help his friends lowered him through the roof so Jesus could heal him.

But, this particular morning, no one has sought out Jesus for healing. This particular morning, Jesus was in the synagogue where he will teach and preach. It’s early in his ministry, and he has just started to round up his ministry team. It’s the Sabbath so Jesus leads them to the temple.

Frederick Buechner says that the most hopeful part of the church service is the moment the preacher walks to the pulpit and pulls the little chain on the lectern.  It’s in that moment that the congregation waits for a word from God…  maybe, there might be a word for them today.  Maybe, they will hear something to deliver them from whatever they may be facing for that day, that week, that year. 

Maybe that was the atmosphere in the temple that morning. Maybe that’s why, when Jesus did start to speak, they were “amazed by it” and, scripture says, they started talking among themselves. 

I can hear them saying, “Hey, he’s pretty good, isn’t he? He really knows what he’s talking about.” (Scripture tells us they said, “He speaks with authority”.)

Just then, a man ‘with an unclean spirit’ starts to call out, interrupting Jesus. He starts yelling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

You know, that actually happened to me, once. Well, the man didn’t say exactly that but I was once interrupted by a man – a vagabond, a street person – in the midst of a sermon I was giving in a church.
I was a seminarian at the then Mission Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street, a high Anglo-Catholic Church in the middle of Beacon Hill and Government Center (the old Scollay Square) in Boston. 

A man in filthy tatters for clothing came walking up the middle aisle of the church. 

He was smoking a cigarette. 

Which was fine, I suppose, because we used a lot of incense.

I could smell him all the way from the pulpit – a powerfully pungent mixture of body odor and cigarettes and whiskey. He was sweaty and covered with soot. His face was puffy, his eyes two small slits under a dirty woolen cap, and he had huge bleeding knots on his eyebrows and chin.

I don’t remember what he said, exactly. For all I know, he might have been saying, “We know who you are! Have you come to destroy us?” Whatever it was, I only remember that it was slurred and loud. Very loud.

He made his way up to the crossing when he stopped and looked up to gaze at the image of Jesus on the cross hanging above the altar. 

I heard myself gasp just then, along with several others in the congregation, as we suddenly realized how much they looked like each other – Jesus and the vagabond street person. 

He squinted his eyes and moved the greasy strands of hair from in front of his face as his body began to sway.

“Oh God. Oh, Jesus, help me,” he cried out as his knees buckled and he fell to the floor with a loud thud. As some of us raced to help him, his body began to writhe in uncontrollable seizures. 

We gathered around him but it seemed that an invisible force-field-shield had come up between his body and the congregation. We were driven by our desire to help, but simultaneously repulsed by his foul smell and his filth. 

The church was silent except for and occasional primal-sounding grunt and the sound of his head hitting the hard floor every time he seized.

It was just then that Emmett, the rector, seemed to swoop in from seemingly nowhere, silently parting the sea of bodies. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had on his magnificently embroidered vestments. 

He knelt down in front of the man as if he were one of the wise men, kneeling before the manger where the infant Jesus was laid. Carefully, and ever so gently, he cradled the man in his arms and laid his head in his lap.

Softly, softly, he whispered, “I’ve got you. It’s going to be all right. I’ve got you.” And then, he looked up and quietly asked, “Has anyone called an ambulance? Please call an ambulance for this child of God.”

And then, Emmett did something I’ll never forget. Ever. He looked down again at the man and, cradling him in his arms, he gently, sweetly, kissed his forehead. That sooty, filthy, bloody, smelly forehead.

And, here’s the thing: I don’t know about that vagabond man and his epilepsy but I felt the demons of judgment and condemnation leave my body. 

I realized that this was a man whose illness drove him to insanity. Perhaps his illness made it impossible for him to work. Perhaps he got depressed. Perhaps his family couldn’t deal with him any more and sent him to live on the street. Perhaps he could not afford the medication he needed. Perhaps he medicated himself with alcohol.

As each possibility of his story unfolded before me, I could feel my own demons being cast out. 

Someone in the church started singing “Amazing Grace”. 

Pretty soon, the whole church was filled with the harmony of that amazing song. We sang it as the ambulance arrived to take him to Mass General Hospital. We sang the last verse as Emmett took off his vestments, placed them on the back pew and climbed into the ambulance with the man to accompany him to the hospital.

The congregation heard the gospel that day but they didn’t hear it from me. They listened to it and watched it unfold right before their very eyes as a man with a debilitating illness was tended to by a priest in the church. 

And, they also saw the casting out of the demons of others as well as their own demons and we were all healed.

I also leaned that Richard Rohr was right. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

And, when we follow the teaching of Jesus, our human minds are also changed about our own humanity – as well as the humanity of others.


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Walking in Beauty

"Walking, we go walking toward the sun.
Walking, we are walking toward freedom."
Caminando, a Spanish Christmas Song

In August, I signed up for Walk in Beauty: A Pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, October 8-20, 2018. 

It is promised as a "transformational journey" - a big promise to be sure - but it aims to deliver by being lead by a woman named Valarie Brown, a facilitator at Parker Palmer's Center of Courage and Renewal. She is also a Buddhist priest, ordained in 2003 by Thich Nhat Hahn.

I am so excited, I can't hardly sit still.

Just today, I got my "prep package" so I'm ready to walk the 7-10 miles per day, from San Sabastian to Santiago, Spain, the mythical burial place of St. James, who is credited with bringing  Christianity to Spain.

San Sabastian is described as "a lovely seaside metropolis located in the Basque region of the northern Atlantic coast, boarding France, widely considered one of the best places to eat in the world, and home of some of the world’s best restaurants."

Oh, I'm so in. And, yes, I plan to get recipes. 

It continues: "This Pilgrimage to Santiago takes you through beautiful forests, charming villages, and historic towns and cities such as Bilbao, Santillana del Mar, Comillas, Cangas de Onis, and Oviedo. Taking the Northern Route to Santiago de Compostela, this 164 kilometer/102 mile journey, is divided into eleven inspiring walking stages and includes a visit to the Caves of Altamira, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Pilgrimage Resource Guide is packed full of information about walking clothes, shoes, packs as well as books, music, films, etc.

My group of 10 will also have three opportunities, from now until the end of September, to have three Zoom Conference times, so that we can see each other and talk with each other and begin to know who we are individually and collectively and begin to bond.

 The terrain of the walk, they say, will be 
"varied: rural paths, walking trails, small villages, coastal beaches and hilly terrain. Please start slowly and gradually build speed and endurance. This pilgrimage is not a race. We will walk a moderate to slow pace, perhaps three miles per hour, with plenty of time to stop to enjoy the landscape, fellow pilgrims and the local scenery."

You will need only a day pack with essential supplies. Your heavy luggage will be transported to our paradores or country farmhouse inn. The Spanish honor siesta time and we will pause each day for a lovely lunch in a local cafe. Additionally, we have the comfort of a private van, stocked with healthy snacks at our disposal."
So, before you judge me, let me just say that I ain't 20 no more. Neither am I in my 30s or 40s. I've even passed my 50s. So, wait till you're that age before you judge me too harshly. In April, I begin a major birthday so it feels the absolutely right time to make this kind of pilgrimage.

I did walk around my local grocery store with two 5 pound bags of sugar in my backpack. That was when I realized I couldn't do this on my own without some help and began to look for alternatives.

Anyone who knows me knows that I've been planning this for five years. Unfortunately, in those five years, Ms. Conroy had abdominal serious surgery and damn near died. Then, she had both knees replaced. I just couldn't leave her while she was recovering and recuperating. 

Guess what? She, like everyone else, only has two knees. I know, right? So, unless an emergency arises, I'm off from October 8-20, 2018 to Santiago, Spain, for the pilgrimage to prepare for what will undoubtedly be the last quarter of my life.

One of my beloved spiritual guides, Sr. Rosina, OSH, advised me that every journey has three parts. It begins with clarification. Once one is clear about why the journey is necessary, one enters the phase of preparation. After one has prepared, one is able to move more fully into participation.  

When I was on Advent retreat, I got clear about why I needed to do this Camino. Now, comes the preparation so that I am ready to fully participate in the journey. 

I ask your prayers as I begin the preparation phase of this journey.  It's not going to be easy. In fact, it will take enormous commitment and dedication. It will be exactly the kind of preparation I need in order to fully participate in this journey.

Some of the questions I will be taking with me on this juourney include:
What do I need to take with me on the last quarter of my life's journey?
What do I need to leave behind?

What is essential?

What is luxury? 
What is necessary? 

Can I trust my body to have the stamina it needs to complete this journey? 

Who am I, now that I am no longer young and as strong as I once was?

Who is God for me? Has God changed in the same ways I have - physically, intellectually, emotionally,  and spiritually? 

Who are my people? Can I trust in the kindness of strangers?

What is God calling me to do/be as I begin this last quarter of my life?
Part of my preparation will be to begin to live with these questions so that I can walk with them in the hope of walking deeper into the questions in order to find answers. 

I hasten to add that I don't for a minute believe that I will finish the Camino with an answer to these questions. 

That's not what matters. What matters is to be able to make friends with the questions and to learn to love them. 

So, dear friends, that is my prayer request to you: 

Help me to walk with these questions so that I can learn to love them.

Thank you. I so deeply appreciate it. 

I will post more updates as they arrive. 

As they sing in Spain at Christmas:
"Walking, we go walking toward the sun.
Walking, we are walking toward freedom."