Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Devil and Mr. Jones

A Sermon for Lent II – February 25, 2016 
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

In this morning’s gospel from Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples how the story ends. He’s flipped through the pages of the book of his life to the last page and tells him that he is going to be turned over to the authorities, that he will suffer and be killed.

But, not to worry. He’ll suffer and die but there is a happy ending. He will rise again. Because the ending is not always the ending. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning.

Peter is understandably upset. He doesn’t understand. He’s confused. He has left everything behind to follow this man, and for what? For him to suffer and die? 

And, resurrection? What does that even mean, really? In those days, people who claimed to be the messiah and who promoted resurrection were a dime a dozen. All Peter could focus on was the part about suffering and death.

Peter suddenly comes to a startling realization: if that’s going to happen to Jesus, Peter’s own life suddenly doesn’t look so great, either. So, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him to stop saying stuff about death and destruction and all that foolishness about resurrection.

And, what does Jesus do? Jesus yells at him,
“Get behind me, Satan!”
That’s pretty harsh, right? I mean, calling one of his best friends and most ardent supporters and faithful followers, “Satan”?

Well, actually, the Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean “devil” at all. It’s not even a proper name, really. It simply means “the accuser” or “the adversary.”

Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is the Devil or Evil. He’s not saying Peter is “Satan”. He’s saying Peter is ha-satan. Peter is being an adversary, an accuser.

So Jesus tells him, “Get behind me.” Put your protests aside. Don’t oppose me; I have to do this. This is what I’m called to do. Jesus is telling Peter to follow him and be a disciple, get with the program or get out of the way.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

This may come as something of a surprise to you but, long ago in another galaxy far, far away, I was once a registered nurse. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that God called me first to be a nurse to prepare me for what it means to be a priest. And, a mother. And, in fact, a better Christian.

It’s a long story which I’ll share at another time but I want to tell you about the time I was a public health nurse in Maine. See also: long ago in another galaxy far, far away.

At the time, I was living and working in Portland, Maine. I was young and pretty full of myself. I thought I was going to save the world – or, at least, a little corner of the earth and maybe a few people along the way.

My title said it all: I was a High Risk Maternal and Infant Specialist. I worked with very young very new moms – teenagers – some as young as 12 or 13. I visited them weekly, teaching them the basics of childcare as well as providing them information about their own bodies so they wouldn’t get pregnant again – well, at least, not for a while.

I can’t remember the specifics but I think either my census was low or the overall census was high – whatever the issue, I was asked to help out on the medical-surgical team. I was not pleased. Most of the patients were old and dying and, remember, I was young and going to save the world. That’s why I put all my energy and passion into caring for young mothers and their babies.

I was young and arrogant and, despite all my education, quite stupid. I was about to learn a lesson in just how young and arrogant and stupid I really was.

I was asked to see an elderly man, one Mr. LeRoy T. Jones who lived over on A street – affectionately known as “The Alphabet City” – downtown, behind the old Greyhound Bus Station, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.

His street address told me that he was an African American man who lived in the “shabby” section of town. I knew the neighborhood well as a few of my patients lived over in Alphabet City.

It was a hot morning in August when I pulled up A street in my car and I was rendered almost breathless at the corner lot of the home of Mr. Jones. While his home was small and modest, the flowers that surrounded it were an absolute riot of the luxury of color and beauty. It was really an amazing sight to behold amidst the rest of the shabby, almost shanty houses in the neighborhood.

I followed the path around the house and saw that the whole of the backyard was a vegetable garden, filled with corn and carrots, pole beans and tomatoes, potatoes and yams, beets and zucchini.

I stopped to put down my bag and wipe my brow and take in this amazing site when I heard Mr. Jones yell, “Ho! Is that the nurse? I’m over here, near the back steps, by the faucet.”

I looked, and sure enough, there he was. I can still see him. A wee little slip of a man, he sat upright on a wooden box, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie and a proper straw fedora on his head. A large pair of sunglasses completed his dapper summer look.

He greeted me warmly as he dragged another wooden box from behind him and motioned to it for me to sit down, all the while talking about what a beautiful morning it was and how lovely I looked.

This was all quite remarkable to me because, you see, Mr. Jones was blind. He was a brittle diabetic who had lost his sight years ago to the disease – no doubt because he had not gotten proper care, despite the excellent health insurance and pension he received as a former railroad worker. He also had crippling arthritis and had a difficult time moving around and, on bad days, walking.

After we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned the beauty of the garden and how fortunate he was to live in the midst of it – flowers all around and vegetables in the back. He threw back his head and laughed in absolute delight that I had noticed. 

“Whose garden is this? Is this your garden, sir?” I asked.

Again, Mr. Jones threw back his head and laughed. “Whose garden is this?" he roared.

"Why, this is MY garden, of course,” he said.

“Your garden?” I asked. “My, my my!” I exclaimed in wonder. “But, excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Who tends your garden?”

Well, now Mr. Jones could hardly contain himself. He practically fell off his wooden crate, his little body was shaking so hard with laughter.

“Who tends my garden? Who tends my garden? Why child,” he said, “I do. I tend my garden.”

I was momentarily relieved that he was blind and couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face but then suddenly realized that you don’t have to have eyes to see. Still, I pressed on.

“But, Mr. Jones,” I said, “How can you tend your garden? You are blind, sir,” I said almost in a whisper. “How can you tell a weed from a sprout? And your body and hands are all crippled up! How do you manage? Shouldn’t you be taking it easy? I mean, a man of your age and condition?”

(See also: young, arrogant and quite stupid.)

I suppose Mr. Jones could have been angry and yelled at me. Instead, he laughed again and took pity on me, poor young, arrogant stupid soul that I was.

“Well now,” he said with a chuckle “This is when Jesus said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ By which he didn’t mean, devil,” Mr. Jones explained, a far better biblical scholar then than I would ever be. “When Jesus said ‘Satan’ he meant, ‘accuser’.”

Mr. Jones reached behind his wooden crate and pulled out a few old burlap bags. “See these?” he said as he held them up. “Well, I just throw one of these down on the ground there. Then, I just throw myself on top of it. It helps me to glide better through the rows. I suppose I look funny but I can’t see myself so it don’t matter much to me,” he chuckled.

 “I feel around the rows for weeds, and I probably pull a sprout instead of a weed every now and then, but you know,” he chuckled again, “mostly I do alright.”

“See, child,” he said, leaning himself closer to me as if he were going to tell me one of the great secrets of the universe, “this is the work that the Lord has given me to do, now. I used to work on the railroad so products and fresh produce could be delivered to the people of the city."

"Now, I grow beautiful things for my neighbors and I give away most of my vegetables so the children here can grow up strong. Maybe I look like a fool to the folks who don’t know but that don’t matter. It may just look like flowers and vegetables to you, but it’s much more than that.”

“This world can be an ugly place,” he explained, “filled with ugly people who do mean, ugly things. But, the world can also be a beautiful place, filled with flowers and trees and butterflies and bees that make food for the eyes and the soul as well as the body.”

“I want the people here to know that once there was a man who lived among them who chose beauty over ugly, food over hunger, hope over despair. That means I have to die a little bit to myself every day. Got to let my pride die in order to do this work that the Lord has given me to do. Got to suffer a little bit of pain in order for beauty to grow and flourish.”

He lowered his glasses and his cloudy eyes looked straight into mine and asked. “See?”

“Yes, sir, I do, sir.” I answered, “I believe I do. I stand accused.”

“And you have been found guilty,” Mr. Jones said, putting his glasses back over his eyes before he broke into a serious, wide grin, “of having a kind heart,” he laughed.

“Guilty as charged,” he roared, laughing so hard he almost fell off his wooded crate.

And, I laughed right along with him.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear his laughter, and mine, that hot sunny day in August in Alphabet City, over on the other side of the tracks, behind the Greyhound Station in Portland, Maine.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end.

Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning. 

Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something, something inside us – or someone, the person we thought we were – has to die.

Something inside me died that day. I think it was a bit of my youthful arrogance. I came to understand that it had to die in order for something new to be born in me. A new understanding of my life. A new understanding of my vocation. A new understanding of what God was calling me to do.

And, the passion I had was resurrected and transformed into greater compassion.

Before there can be resurrection, something has to die.

Sometimes what looks like the end is just the beginning.

That’s how new life begins. 

That’s how ugly becomes beauty. 

That’s how despair becomes hope.

And, that’s how the accused become disciples.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strong in the broken places

As the reality of the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, FL begins to leave an permanent scar on the soul of our nation, one way for some folks to deal with this overwhelming, unspeakable horror is to assign it to the time-tested but deeply flawed theology of "The Will of God". 

It begins with a statement which defines the very dynamic of faith: "We don't understand, we can't understand, the mind of God."

"All will be revealed," some assert, "and all in God's good time."

So far, not so bad. 

However, the more omnipotence we ascribe to God, two different, opposite things happen at the same time. We become increasingly infantilized while simultaneously becoming omniscient. 

That is to say, we begin to make some incredible assumptions about "The Will of God" for us the "children of God" who, apparently can only learn things through the punishment of tragedy and loss and death. 

And, funny thing: We seem to need to learn the very things that are important to the will of the very people who claim it is also The Will Of God. 

Of course, these are the same people who assert we can't possibly understand the mind of God.

The other day, I heard a woman at the market actually assert that the reason there have been shootings in schools "is because children are no longer allowed to pray in school," she said, adding, "God is angry and is trying to teach us a lesson."

Yes, she was serious. Very serious. 

I suppose, by extension of this .... logic ... this is why there have been shootings in churches.

But, you see, she isn't angry. God is. And she knows this because she sees what's been happening in 'Murica.  No, we can't know the mind of God but we have two eyes in our head, she said. All we have to do is open our eyes and look around, she said. 

I mean, what's wrong with you, she asked?  Wake up, she said.

Le sigh.

As I've thought about this, I thought it might be a good time to bring out some wise words about "God's Will". 

What follows are some excerpts from a sermon by Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City in 1983, ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident in Boston. 


"As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son--Alexander--who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky"--my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. 

When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." 

Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that  
God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.
Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths--I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here--deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist--….

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers--the basics of beauty and life--people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." 

In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends--not many, and none of you, thank God--were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face.  

But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.
And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us--minimum protection, maximum support

I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night

If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall - so let us all - seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is. 


So, while some adults are blithering and blathering nonsense around us, know that they are, in their own way, anxious and grieving. 

Try not to engage them in theological conversation. Instead, try being kind as a response, even if that means you simply share a gentle smile, wish the person God's peace, and move on with the rest of your day. As St. Francis allegedly taught his brothers, you may be the only Gospel anyone ever reads.

I know. It's hard. It's really hard. I'm obvsiously still working out the encounter I had with that person in the market. I walked away but she's clearly been following me around for days.

I urge you to take consolation in the words of this grieving father and caring, sensitive pastor.

You might also want to pay attention to the young survivors of the Florida massacre, and look closely at how they have transformed their grief and "found (at least a measure of) peace in the dazzling grace that always is". 

How else would they be standing there, talking with the POTUS who got into office in part because of a $30 million contribution to his campaign from the NRA and who still thinks arming and training teachers - more guns - is the answer to the gun problem. 

Hemmingway wrote: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." 

May it be so for us as it has for the young people of Parkland and other places around this country that are rising up in dazzling glory to speak truth to power. 

May the scar that is forming in the broken places of the soul of our nation become strong enough to overcome the evils of power and greed. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jesus and Pinocchio

Those who died in Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT 2014

Jesus and Pinocchio
A sermon preached February 18, 2018 - Lent I
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE

Some of us come to church this morning with very heavy hearts.

One of my homiletics professors used to say, “Your call, as a priest, is not to preach the New York Times but the Gospel. Sometimes, however, there is no avoiding the two.”

There is no escaping the headlines of 17 young lives – students and teachers – cut down in Parkland, FL. And, in our grief, we struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable that has happened. Again.

As a priest and as a Hospice Chaplain, I am fascinated by the way the whole spectrum of grief files past our eyes: Denial and isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. These do not happen sequentially and different people will experience them differently and at different times.

If you listen to the radio or television, no matter what station, you will hear anger in the cries for “Someone – anyone, please – to do something to stop this madness!”

We hear bargaining in "If/Then" statements like “If the teachers were armed and trained this never would have happened.” (Despite the fact that there were security guards and a police car on that school campus).

The same folks who say things like that are not aware of their own state of denial when they also make statements like “Well, guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people.” Umm, right. And the point of that is, what? Don’t let people touch guns?

Or, they want to blame it all on “mental illness”. Except, these same people voted to end a law that would have prevented people with mental illness from purchasing guns. They also support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid which fund clinics to treat people with mental disorders.

And, don’t even get me started on “thoughts and prayers” and how it’s not time to talk about gun violence in this country.

I’m not here to argue for or against gun control. That’s preaching the New York Times.

I am here to point out the obvious: We are a nation in deep grief over the loss of seventeen more lives to the senseless violence which has our nation in the iron grip of the cycle of anger, denial, senseless bargaining, isolation, depression and resigned acceptance which allows the foundation to be laid for yet another horrific, evil incidence of gun violence.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

And, in this particular community, we are grieving the unexpected and tragic death of Christine N***, the daughter of Sunny and the sister of Joe B****. 

Parents are not supposed to lose their children. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. So, when children die – no matter how young or old or how or whose they are when they die – there is a kind of indescribable grief that cuts through to the heart.

And so, here we are this morning. The first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent. The cross and shining objects are covered or removed. The liturgical color is a somber yet regal and dignified purple. The hymns call us to remember repentance and the cross. This morning, we began with a Penitential Rite and read the Exhortation and Decalogue, to help us keep in mind who we are and whose we are, and what it is we are doing here in church and why.

Today’s Gospel reading calls us to remember the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. And, when Jesus came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and a Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Every child longs to hear that statement from their parents. Every parent longs to say that to their child. And then, their child grows up and, as we all did – every last one of us in this church today – has to test the limits of what it means to be human; of what it means to be a member of this family; of what it means to be who they are. 

As one of my colleagues once said to me: Adolescence is the time when every child has to cut the umbilical cord for him/herself. And they have to do it by themselves – with their teeth if necessary.

And, they have to draw blood.

And, most importantly, it has to hurt.

I've come to know that having grandchildren is the reward you receive for not having done murder to their parents when they were adolescents.

But, here’s the thing about baptism: It does not make us more divine. Indeed, it makes us more human. 

And, of course, this would be the time I tell you a story about that:

When I was rector at my last church, a young family with two young children – a boy named Gibby who was 9 and a girl named Grace who was 11 – became members of the church. They had never had their children baptized and the kids were curious and asking questions.

Finally, the day arrived when they, themselves, asked to be baptized. I met with them in my office several times after school to explain baptism to them in the simplest possible terms. I mean, they were only aged 9 and 11. 

They both had a few good questions but Gracie’s biggest concern was whether or not she could have a big party and invite her friends. Oh, and could she also have a dress? Did it have to be white? Could it be, like, maybe blue? Like, oh, yes! Electric blue? With sparkles? And, could she please wear a tiara?

I think she ‘got’ that it was a celebration.

Gibbie, however, was much more serious. He said, “Reverend Elizabeth, my friend who goes to the Roman Catholic Church says that when you are baptized, you give your everlasting soul to the church. Is that right? Is that what happens? Because if it is, I don’t want that.”

At that time, I had in my office a lovely lithograph of that Disney movie “Pinocchio”. It was the moment when the Blue Fairy answers father Geppetto’s nightly prayer. She takes her magic wand and ‘baptizes’ Pinocchio, saying, “Little Puppet made of pine, arise, the gift of life is thine.”

I looked at Gibby and said, “And, do you remember what happened then?”

“I sure do,” Gibby said, excitedly, “All the strings fell away from Pinocchio and he could walk all on his own! But,” said Gibby, looking at the picture, “look! He’s still made of wood.”

“Right,” said I. “He didn’t change. He’s still who he is. He’s just alive, now. So,” I continued, “do you remember the story? What happens next?”

“Well,” said Gibby, “he became a real little boy. No strings to tie him down. But, he DID become naughty. He skipped school and went with some bad boys and he smoked a cigar and ran away from home and joined the circus. And, he told lies. And, when he did his nose GREW!”

“Right,” I said, “He didn’t have any strings to tie him down. In being alive, he had the gift of free will. He could make choices about how he spent his life. The gift the Blue Fairy gave him did not take away anything from him. That’s the same way with Baptism. It doesn’t take anything away from you. But, it DOES assure you of the gift you were given at birth: Free Will.”

“And, Jiminy Cricket,” shouted Gibby! “She gave him Jiminy Cricket to be his conscience.”

“Right,” said I. “And, if we follow the teachings of Jesus, we’ll have a conscience. Your parents and Godparents will promise at your baptism to be Jiminy Crickets for you so you can always “let your conscience be your guide.”

Gibby was quiet for a while as he let this all sink in. “So,” he said, in a voice much older and wiser than his years, “All the things that Pinocchio did wrong, they all just made him more and more human. Because, if you are a puppet and someone else pulls the strings, you can only do what the puppet master lets you do.”

“What made him more fully human, Gibby, was that he saved his father from the belly of the whale. Do you remember that part of the story? Pinocchio risked his life to save his father’s life. That’s true love. That kind of sacrificial love is what puts flesh and blood on our dry human bones."

"That kind of love makes us more and more human. "

"Baptism sets us free to be more and more who we are – free to make mistakes and learn from them – free to love so much we’d give our life to save someone else’s life.”

“So we can find our way home, back to God?” asked Gibby.

I looked at him and smiled and said, “I think you are ready for baptism, young man.”

In moments like this in our national and personal lives, when we come to church with heavy hearts, it’s important to remember that, after Jesus was baptized, scripture says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Baptism won’t protect us from the wilderness or help us not be tempted by Satan or shield us from the wild beasts. But, baptism means that there will always be angels to wait on us.

Baptism means that we are those angels for each other. We are here in this community we call “church” to wait on each other, to tend to each other in our grief and sorrow, to hold each other as we cry, to share the gift of laughter and joy, to come together to find ways that protect and defend each other from evil and adversity and to live lives of sacrificial love for each other. 

Baptism is where the gift of free will we were given at birth is reaffirmed and we are not only assured of grace when we fail but also the amazing gift of Life Eternal in Jesus. 

Baptism means that we are a community which knows that God loves us – freely and unconditionally because we have within us the "mind of Christ". 

As my friend Ed Bacon says, "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone." 

Listen to that again: "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone."

And the church, the Body of Christ, is the place where we say to each other - in word and deed - the words God said to Jesus, “You are my Beloved Child; with you I am well pleased.”


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Remember that you are dust . . . . .

One of the members of a clergy social media group recently posted this:   
Am I the only one uncomfortable with the Ash Wednesday Words of Imposition?  I’m usually OK unless it’s telling a child or someone suffering from low self-esteem: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  It’s not that Americans need help denying mortality, it’s just that the statement is half the truth. So, I’m thinking about: "You are dust that God is trying to turn into someone as wise, kind, and brave as Jesus."
While several clergy thought discomfort over the words was "important", several other clergy thought changing the words a good idea (although they didn't really say why), adding their own versions such as:
"Remember you are dust, the universe was made for you."

 “Be dead to your past, the kingdom is in front of you “

 "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." (Taken from the Roman Rite)

"But also remember you are God's dust, and to God you will return."
I was surpised by my reaction to the proposal to consider changing these venerable words - even if unofficially. They are engraved on my heart and I cherish them as part of the beautiful heritage of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and ritural. They sent the tone for a "Holy Lent."

Is it because of my work in Hospice? Is that why these words have such deep meaning for me? Or, have I finally become an old fart?

Here's how I responded:
"Dust" of course, is a metaphor. We use lots of metaphors in the church. It's not about what's true and what's not true. God is neither an eagle nor a mother hen but something quite amazingly like and profoundly beyond those two realities. We use metaphors like "dust" to express the truth of the deep mystery of our human existence which can't be fully known or understood.

I'm a hospice chaplain. I'll be having an Ash Wednesday service at noon for my hospice staff of doctors, nurses, social workers, and aides which will be preceded and followed by brief, abbreviated services at several Extended Care Facilities as well as the individual residences of several hospice patients.
I can almost guarantee that no one will be made "uncomfortable" by the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." That's because they, being closer to death on a daily basis than your average bear, better understand the importance and the meaning of the metaphor than most.
It has always astounded me that the church, which professes a deep belief in both the incarnation and resurrection, is so skittish about issues of intimacy (especially that of the body, read: sex) and death. 
Frankly, we do a terrible job preaching and teaching or even talking about sex and death. 
We're not much better talking about money, either, but, all-in-all, we'd rather talk about sex - especially when we think it's outside of "scriptural norms". At least it keeps us from talking about intimacy or ministering with the poor or welcoming the stranger or .... fill in the gospel blank.

I'm remembering Lane Denson, a wonderful priest and writer, now numbered among the saints, who loved to tell the story of getting on the subway with a large smudge of a cross on his forehead. 
A fellow traveler, in an altered state of consciousness, looked at him and his cross and screamed at him, "Look at you! Look at you! Know what THAT means?" he yelled, pointing to the cross of ashes on his forehead.
"IT MEANS YOU'RE GONNA DIE! Don't believe that stuff about 'dust'. IT MEANS YOU'RE GONNA DIE."
Now, admittedly, that would make even me uncomfortable.
Lane also liked to add his own flourish to the old Irish saying which was repeated by Senator Pat Moynihan on the death of John F. Kennedy. Moynihan said it about being "Irish" but Lane thought it applied to being Christian, as well: 
"There's probably not any point in being [a Christian]," he said, "if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually."

Good luck and God bless your 'holy squirming".
I'm guessing that, as you read this, your forehead has been appropriately smudged with ashes and you have heard those words again this year

So, what do you think?

Would you change those words?

How would you change them?

Why would you change them?

It's been a long time since I've had a conversation on this blog. I'm used to having conversations only on FaceBook - in closer to "real time" as the expression goes.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this conversation will happen both on this blog and on FaceBook - but more the later than the former.

In any event, thanks for thinking this through with me.

With some many other proposed changes in our liturgy, and with the fast-paced changes of the world, I really am curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Brief Ecumenical Service for Ash Wednesday

Note: As a Hospice Chaplain, I am asked to provide a brief - often very brief - service of Ash Wednesday with imposition of ashes but without communion to an ecumenical congregation. The reasons for this are almost always pragmatic: hospice patients (and their fellow residents of Extended Care Facilities) are not able to tolerate lengthy services; neither are staff able to take that much time away from their duties. As for this priest, I will not do "Ashes to Go" (Or, as one of my colleague calls it "Drive-By-Smudges"). "Call me old-fashioned call me what you will, say I'm a relic say I'm over the hill" . . . BUT, I just can't completely separate the ritual from the liturgy. SO, this is as bare-bones as I dare to get. I will use it several times in several settings tomorrow, including with my beloved staff. Depending on the time and location, I may add a very brief reflection after the reading. I wanted to make it as participatory as possible and will ask one of the staff to read the lesson. I also wanted to make it uplifting and inspirational, with an emphasis on our need of each other in community. Please feel free to use it

A Brief Ecumenical Service for Ash Wednesday

The Voice of One:       Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
The Voice of Many:              in the presence of the most high:

                                    To face our ideals,
                                    to remember our loved ones in absence,
                                    To give thanks, to make confession, to offer forgiveness,
                                                to be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
                                    Through this quiet time breathes the worship of ages,
                                                the heritage of generations past.
                                    Three unseen guests attend.
                                                faith, hope, and love.
                                    Let all our hearts prepare them place.

A reading from Holy Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-15

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

Silent contemplation
Ash Wednesday invites us into the Season of Lent, a time to consider more deeply our mortal nature and to more closely examine our relationship with God and each other and the ways we fall short and miss the mark so that we might do better. Please take a moment of silence to consider the limits of our own mortality, the shortness and uncertainty of life, and the ways we might try to exceed even the limits of our own human understanding and imagination. 

The Imposition of Ashes
As a mark of our humanness and mortality, we bear the cross of ashes on our foreheads. If you wish to have ashes imposed on your forehead, please come forward.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” AMEN.

THE LORD’S Prayer  …. “Our Father/Mother/Abba, who art in heaven . . . .”

Closing Litany
One:                We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted
Many                          We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid
We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.
We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone.      
We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.    
We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again.
We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.
            All our lives we are in need of others, and others are in need of us. AMEN.

The Benediction
My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us, so be swift to love and make haste to do kindness; and the blessing of God - who is Love, who is Beloved, who Loves unconditionally - be upon you and all whom you love and pray for this day and fore ever more. AMEN.

The Dismissal:
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to one one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all people. Love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Chaplain Elizabeth Kaeton

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Glory People

A Sermon Preached at 
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
Epiphany VI - February 11, 2018

You can almost see the movie version: Elijah and Elisha parting the waters of the Jordan and crossing on dry land. Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind with chariots of fire and Elisha crying out and tearing his garments on the riverbank.

In Mark’s gospel, there is an equally dramatic scene with Jesus and his inner circle of Peter and James and John on a high mountain. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them and they were blinded by the light. 

When their eyes adjusted, they saw Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus and, just when they were trying to figure out what they should do, a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice say,

"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” 

And then, every thing cleared and everyone was gone and all they saw was Jesus. 

Whew! You know, you just can’t make that stuff up!

Not that I think it’s made up, you understand. Something earth-shattering and amazing and transforming happened in both stories. 

Although I love the excitement and the drama of these two stories, I worry that people will come to think that the only way you’ll know that God’s hand is in something is when there are earthquakes or whirlwinds or dazzling, blinding light. 

It can lead us to believe that something earth-shattering and dynamic has to happen for us to know that we are in the presence of the Divine. 

My dear friend Ed Bacon is a passionate lover of Jesus and has worked many years in the vineyards of the Lord. One of the things I learned from Ed is: 

"Sometimes, in order to be faithful to Jesus, you've got to take a big risk for something small." 

I've never forgotten that. It encourages me to celebrate being a fool for Christ from time to time.

But the thing I really love about Ed is that, when he gets excited about something, when a ministry plan is coming together or when he sees an old friend he hasn’t seen in a very long time, or when he’s heard a beautiful piece of music, or even when you set a plate of food in front of him that makes his mouth water, you can count on Ed to say this: 

“Lord, lord, lord, I’m about to have a glory attack.”

And, you know, in that moment I’d swear he actually glows.

Ed Bacon is one of The Glory People. 

But, you know, that’s not always how the glory of God is made manifest.  Sometimes, it happens in surprisingly small and insignificant ways.

There are other moments of glory that are more subtle – people providing transportation for those who can’t drive themselves to the doctor’s office or chemotherapy treatments or church. 

Others are devoted to making sure that lost pets have food at their local animal shelters. Still others write cards or letters or send special packages to our women and men in the Armed Forces.   

These things are not going to make headlines or be featured on the cover of Newsweek or Time magazine.

In these moments of small acts of kindness, the glory of God is made manifest and little shafts of light pierce the darkness of despair. 

They are The Glory People. They are small but not insignificant manifestations of the glory of God.

Some of us stumble into moments of generosity and light completely unawares. When I was newly ordained, I was Assistant to the Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, MD. One of the tasks in my portfolio was to preside at a weekly Eucharist and pastoral visitation at Memorial House, a newly developed eight-story high-rise senior residence just down the street from the Church.

One of those I visited was a woman named Mrs. Parks. She was an African American woman and part of the Parks family who owned the Parks Sausages business based in Baltimore. (Do you remember that commercial jingle? "More Parks Sausages, Mom. Pleeeease?) Her husband was one of the owners of the business with his brother who was also a Baptist minister and founder and senior pastor of a very large, successful church in Baltimore.

Rev Parks had died suddenly of a heart attack and, shortly after his death, his children tried to convince their mother that she ought not live alone. She resisted. They persisted. Eventually, they sold her beautiful 5-story brownstone home on Bolton Hill and moved her into Memorial House. 

Which made her very, very sad. 

And, very, very angry. 

Ms. Parks rarely came out of her room at Memorial House. She took all of her meals in her room, did not participate in any of the community activities and most certainly did not attend the weekly Eucharist or any other prayer service in the Chapel. 

Her children and the staff of the facility were begining to be concerned. I was asked to visit with Ms. Parks in her apartment after I celebrated Eucharist in the chapel. Of course, said I.

Ms. Parks was very polite but very stiff and formal. I remember that, at the end of my visit, she would ask me for a prayer before I left. And, like a good, newly ordained Episcopalian, I would turn to the BCP and find a suitable prayer. 

And she, being a good wife of a Baptist pastor, would scoff.

“Child, don't you know how to PRAY?,” she’d ask, “Like a regular Christian? Do you have to use THAT book?”

I was enormously embarrassed and appropriately humiliated. The answer was, no, actually. I didn't know how to pray. Not without the BCP. Not publicly. I mean, privately, I would talk my little heart out to God. But, publicly? In front of others? isn't that exactly what the BCP is for? 

And yet, something in me knew she was right. Why couldn't I pray from my heart? Why did I need THAT book?

Finally, at the end of one of my visits, I asked if she would like me to pray. She nodded and I decided, right then and there to take a risk. Indeed, I decided to be very foolish and take a big risk for something small. 

I decided to risk my sense of pride for the small favor of praying for this woman in the way that was most meaningful for her. 

I closed my eyes – tight – and began to pray. Extemporaneously. Without one of the magnificent words of the Prayer Book in front of me. If I remember correctly, I even clenched my fists as I prayed. At the end of which, I opened my eyes and looked at Ms. Parks. 

To my horror and great distress, I found that she was weeping.

“Oh, Ms. Parks,” I said, “I am so very sorry. Did I say something to make you cry?”

Ms. Parks took a deep breath and wiped her eyes, looked at me and said, “Oh no, dear child. You didn’t say anything wrong. It’s just that, when we get to this point in our visit, I realize just how lonely I really am.”

Now, I will tell you that no bright, blinding lights filled the room. There was no whirlwind, no earthquake, no chariots of fire. But, I do declare that there was an undeniable presence of God which humbled and confounded us both.   

And, we were both changed and transformed and never again were we the same.

I'll tell you this: It was shortly after that that Ms. Parks started taking her meals in the dining room. A few months later, she started participating in the community activities. By the fall, she was one of the first ones in line to get on the bus for one of their trips. 

As for me, well, I began to pray privately and pastorally and publicly in a whole new way. I began to take risks and just pray from my heart. That lead me to begin to take some risks with preaching and try to move farther away from a manuscript and preach from my heart as I'm doing right now. 

That may not seem like a lot to you and it has taken me quite a long time - and, in fact, the process is still on-going - but I continue to hear Ed Bacon cheer me on by saying, "Sometimes, in order to be faithful to Jesus, you've got to take a big risk for something small."

Ms. Parks and I became one of The Glory People

There are other moments of glory that are known only by God. These are moments of quiet generosity or kindness. A kind word or a gesture. I don’t know if you know just how much a smile can mean to a lonely person. Or, a touch. Or a kind word or just looking someone in the eye and saying, “Hello”.

Here’s the thing I want you to hear:  

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is transformative. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is transfiguring. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is dramatic and powerful and shines a light on the dullness of our humanity. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is a beacon of hope amidst the occasional dark moments of our lives.

In a few days, we will be observing Ash Wednesday, and The Season of Lent will begin. In the midst of the darkness of the wilderness of the Journey of Lent don’t miss the possibility of your own transfiguration.

Look for it. Look for the possibility of your own transformation.

Look for opportunities to engage in it, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may seem. 

Celebrate it when you see it. 

Be ready to take a big risk for something small: 

A smile when you don't want to. 

Reach out and touch someone when you'd rather be all alone by yourself. 

Do something kind when you'd rather do just about anything else.

It will change and transform your life and you will never be the same.

You will become one of The Glory People. You might even have yourself a good old fashioned Ed Bacon glory attack every now and again and find new appreciation for things you took for granted.

Here's another possibility: You just might hear a voice from a cloud of doubt which lurks over the deep recesses of your innermost soul: 

"You - and YOU - and YOU and YOU and YOU - are my beloved child. With YOU I am well pleased." 

No promises, but I know for a natural fact that it has been known to happen. 

If it can happen for Ms. Parks and me, it can happen for you, too.