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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Make the people sit down

A Sermon for Pentecost X - Proper XII
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr)  Elizabeth Kaeton

I had the privilege of presiding at a graveside service this week of a young woman who had a particularly pernicious form of Parkinson’s Disease. 

She spent the last few months of her life in an extended care facility, having uncontrollable spasms of her arms and legs and head to the extent that she didn’t get a minute’s sleep and what little she could eat was not enough to nourish her body. She was quite literally skin on bone. 

The constant movement of her body had worn a bald spot in the back of her head and she had developed an open area on her backside, which actually exposed her pelvic bone.

I’ve been doing this work for over thirty years and I’ve never seen anything like that.

We were finally able to get her the right combination of medicine so that her spasms were controllable and she could get some rest but her poor body was so spent from years of fighting the disease that it was clear that the end of her life was rapidly approaching.

The first time I met her, she was having a really bad time with spasms. I introduced myself and explained my role on the Hospice team. 

She told me she was Roman Catholic and I asked if I could get someone to bring her communion. She said that she was getting communion weekly but wouldn’t mind getting it more often. 

I gently explained that I always bring the reserved sacrament with me and I would be happy to provide it to her.

She smiled and said, “Well, that would be nice, but tell me: Do you believe in consubstantiation or transubstantiation?”

I have to tell you that, in all the years I’ve been ordained, no one has ever asked me that question. Not in church. Not in a hospital setting. Not in an ECF. Not anywhere. Not anytime. By anybody.

So, I smiled and launched into my best seminary spiel. “Well, that was one of the hot questions of the Reformation,” I said, clearing my throat in a desperate attempt to sound like I actually knew what I was talking about.

Roman Catholics believed in transubstantiation – that is, that at communion, the prayers of the priest transform the bread and wine into the actually body and blood of Jesus.

Those who protested – The Protestants – believed the teachings of Reformation theologian, Martin Luther, who taught that what happened during the prayers of the priest and people at communion was consubstantiation; meaning that the property of the bread and wine did not change but existed along with (con) the real presence of Jesus.

She smiled and said, “That was quite good, very concise, on point. But, tell me: What do YOU believe?”

I took a quiet but deep breath. I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I would be interviewed about my beliefs concerning communion

“Well, I said, I think both positions have their merit, but they both miss the point.”

“And, what would that be?” asked my obviously highly intelligent, well-read, well educated patient, even as her spasms brought a painful grimace to her face.

“Well,” I heard myself say, “I think that when we focus just on the theology, we miss Jesus. Let me give you two examples."

“When Jesus fed the 5,000 (or the 4,000 in another gospel account), and everyone was worried about how they were going to feed all those people, the first thing Jesus did was to say to his disciples, ‘Make the people sit down’.”

“At that point, everyone was sitting down, probably in their own small circles of family and friends. Everyone was on the same level. In doing that, in making everyone sit down, Jesus sent an unspoken but very clear message about everyone being equal.

Educator and Quaker Parker Palmer says that this is the first biblical evidence of community organizing. He surmises that, once everyone was sitting down and when some baskets of food were being circulated, people started to open up the bags of food they always brought with them when they started out on a journey. 

Sitting down, with everyone at the same level, it was easy to share, to open your bag and take what you have to give to those who don’t. 

And, THAT Palmer says, was the real miracle.

When Jesus was at table with his disciples in the Upper Room during what we call “The Last Supper”, everyone was sitting down. Everyone was equal. Everyone was eating of the same food and drinking of the same drink.

In both stories, Jesus was there, among them – rich and poor, saint and scoundrel, young and old, male and female.

And, it’s true in our lives today when we celebrate communion together. We’re all being fed of the same food. And, Jesus is with us. That’s the most important thing. Well, to me, anyway.”

I looked into her eyes and smiled. She smiled back at me and said, “I’d really love it if you gave me communion.”

At which point, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes and I knew I had to take a moment to compose myself before I made a real fool of myself in front of her. 

I told her I needed to check in with the nurse and I would be right back.

She smiled and said, “Just be careful of the dog on the way out. He will eat your cake if you’re not careful. And, the goose has been known to fly, fly, fly, fly . . . . Here it is, now. Be careful.”

I realized that she was having a hallucination that is commonplace at this stage of the disease process. As I turned to go to the nurse’s station, I could feel the tears falling down my face.

The head nurse was coming toward me in the opposite direction, took one look at my face, and opened her arms wide. I fell into her arms as we wept silently together.

“She is absolutely brilliant,” I sobbed. “What a cruel disease.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, “Although, I’ve never seen one quite as bad as this.”

We talked a bit and I composed myself as we walked back to the patient who was back to herself.   

She said to the head nurse, “The chaplain here is a good friend of Jesus, so she’s become a good friend of mine. Won’t you stay and have communion with us?”

And, I’ll tell you what: theology went out the window. We were simply three souls in different bodies, one of whom had a body who had betrayed her with a disease process that was outrageously, viciously cruel.

Even so, we were all equal and all worthy to be in the presence of Jesus, who was absolutely there as our unseen guest.

In a moment we are going to celebrate Eucharist together. We are going to invite the presence of the Holy Spirit to breathe on these gifts of Bread and Wine that they might become for us the Body and Blood of Jesus. 

At the end of the communion prayer, you'll hear me say the words of the brilliant Anglican compromise of Queen Elizabeth, 
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ (lived and) died (and rose) for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Do you hear it? Do you see what she did there?  


There it is. Transubstantiation AND Consubstantiation. Both. Side by side. 

While it’s important that the Bread and Wine for us are the Body and Blood of Jesus, it all about how YOU are being transformed and how your FAITH is being strengthened.

Because of course, Jesus is truly and fully present to us in the breaking of the bread. Just as he promised. And so, we are truly grateful and give our thanksgiving.

My encounter with that patient reminded me of a quote by Vance Havner: 
“God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce crops, broken clouds to give rain, broken grains to give bread, broken bread to produce strength.”
So, no matter how broken you are, you are still worthy. 

No matter how broken you are, you are still useful. 

No matter how broken you are, you are still capable of being a vehicle of grace and love, compassion and kindness.

It all begins when we sit down, or kneel down – if that’s your preference or ability – and understand that we are all equal in the sight of God. We are all worthy of being fed the bread of heaven and to drink from the cup of salvation.  

We are all made worthy in Jesus to stand before God who accepts us just as we are, without one plea.

All of us. Everyone of us.

All. And, all means all. No exceptions.

And, when we believe that, just like the story in this morning’s gospel, miracles happen.

We are changed and transformed so we can change and transform the world into one where no one goes hungry. Everyone is fed. Because everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

An opportunity for a miracle awaits us, my friends.

Come. Eat. Drink. 

No matter who you are or who you think you are, no matter what you've done or what you've left undone, no matter where you've been or where you'd still like to go, no matter where you'd like to be or you where you actually are on your journey in life, come.

Jesus is here. 



Monday, July 09, 2018

Keep It Simple: Faith and Prayer.

A Sermon Preached for Pentecost Pentecost VII
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
July 8, 2018

Have you ever read the Gospel passage for Sunday and have a single word or sentence hit you smack between the eyes like a two-by-four?

These words slapped me right up side my head:
He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
Right! You guessed it.

I'm an inveterate over-packer. It's all about having options! I need options!

I am not my father's daughter who was all about having "the essentials, the basics". 

That included his use of words.

Every Saturday morning, my father would drive my mother around town to "pay the bills".

My mother believed in seeing the person to whom you owed money and looking them in the eye as you paid them.

She did this with her utility bills, her pharmacy bill, and the clothing she bought for us on layaway at Robert Hall Family Clothing Store.

As soon as they returned home, my father would disappear into the garage.

He had work to do.

For years, every time I asked him what he was doing, it always had something to do with the distributor cap.

It either had to be tightened or cleaned or replaced.

I had no idea what a distributor cap is or does but I knew my father was always working on one.

Years later he bought a new car and I leaned that it did not have a distributor cap.

I couldn't wait for that Saturday afternoon to visit my father in the garage. There he was, car hood open, his body hunched over the engine, a wrench in his hand.

"Hi dad. (A silent nod of the head) Dad? I read that this car doesn't have a distributor cap."

Another silent nod of the head. "Then, Dad? What are you doing?"

Without looking up, my dad said, "Things get loose. Gotta tighten 'em up."

This was his philosophy in life.

I've leaned, over the years, that he was right.

The quality of life is greatly improved by preventive maintenance - regular exercise, a balanced  diet, a good night's sleep.

It also requires disciplined vigilance, a watchful eye. This translates into an annual physical and appropriate diagnostic lab tests and momograms and pap smears for women and prostate screening for prostate cancer for men. And, of course, colonoscopies as advised for men and women.  

And, because of his philosophy of prevantative maintenance, my dad had two simple remedies.

Long before the T-shirts declared it and computer memes shared it, my father's solutions were:

Duck tape and WD40.

If it moves and it shouldn't, DUCK TAPE.

If it should move and it doesn't: WD40.

My theological adaptation of my father's philosophy in life and, in following the admonitions of Jesus, I've determined that that, besides economy in packing, there really are only two things one needs to take on one's spiritual journey.


If your life is chaotic, if things are moving and swirling about, FAITH is the stuff that will give you something to hold onto.

FAITH is spiritual Duck Tape.

If you feel stuck by fear or anxiety or perhaps some situational depression, PRAYER is the stuff that, scripture tells us, moves mountains.

PRAYER is spiritual WD40.

Now, I know. It's a very simplistic approach to life. But, I think I'm on pretty solid ground following the simplicity of Jesus and my father.

And, every now and again, it's nice to hear a simple - and short - message on a gospel that preaches simplicity.

Because, as my father always said,  "Things get loose. Gotta tighten 'em up."

And, when that happens in your spiritual life, all you need is two things:

Faith - to hold you steady.

And, prayer to move mountains.


PS: Sometimes, a preacher has to preach sermons like this. Typically this happens on a hot summer Sunday. In a church with no air conditioning. And, no breeze. From the center aisle. Interacting with the congregation by looking everyone in the eye to make sure no one drowses off from the heat..

Sometimes, it's just too hot to preach anything more complicated than a simple message of faith and prayer. And so, that's what I did.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Compassion and Freedom

Pentecost VI – Proper 8
The Episcopal Church of St. Phillip, Laurel, DE
July 1, 2018
Please pray with me:

*Abraham journeyed to a new country;
Sarah went with him, journeying too.
Slaves down in Egypt fled Pharaoh's army;
Ruth left the home and people she knew.

*Mary and Joseph feared Herod's order;
Soldiers were coming! They had to flee.
Taking young Jesus, they crossed the border;
So was our Lord a young refugee.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts find favor in your sight, O God, our rock and our salvation.  Amen.

There is an admonition some preachers heed which is to “preach the gospel with a bible in one hand and the NY Times in the other”.

These days, I feel like the dog in the cartoon I saw recently in a humorous exchange with his fellow canine companion. He was holding his smart phone in one … um, paw … and he was wearing his Thunder shirt. He said, “These days, I can’t read the newspaper without wearing my Thunder shirt.

I am keenly aware that this weekend – and, probably next – we will be celebrating the Fourth of July. Independence Day. Since July 4th is on a Wednesday this year, some will continue the celebration straight through the week and into next weekend.

Which means, with all of the displays of fireworks, I’m going to have to have the Thunder shirts at the ready for my three pups. (Pray for us.)

It also means that we are invited to view this morning’s lessons from scripture – especially the Gospel lesson from Mark – through the lens of our so-called “independence”.

After all, the founders of this nation were greatly influenced by the writings of philosophers who had, for centuries, expounded on the ideas of liberty and justice.

And, whether or not they were members of a Christian denomination, they were also influenced by the teachings of Jesus, who tempered all of those lofty philosophical ideas with direct acts of compassion.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we meet two social outcasts – an older woman who had been suffering with a hemorrhage for twelve years. It was bad enough that she was a woman and therefore inferior – never mind being unable to bear a child – but she had been bleeding for twelve years and was, therefore, considered “unclean”.

The other is a girl child who is sick unto death. She is just twelve years old and has been alive as long as this woman has not been able to conceive a child. Normally, such a child – a girl child – would not have any worth except for the dowry she might be able to fetch for her father at her betrothal.
I'm sure he loved her and I suppose it is cynical to suggest that, at age 12, she is very close to getting a return on her father’s investment for her family.

But, she is the daughter of Jarius, one of the leaders of the synagogue. I guess, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” is a truth as old as time.

Jesus heals them both, of course. Not happily, it would seem. The healing of the little girl seemed something of a dare or a duty and the healing of the woman seemed to have been done serendipitously. No matter. That’s probably more a reflection of the of Mark’s storytelling than the compassion of Jesus.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but compassion is a natural default setting for Jesus. If the choice is between healing someone or feeding the hungry or tending to those who are considered less-than or unclean or not having any value – OR the rules of the synagogue or the Levitical Codes of Torah, Jesus always leads with his heart.

I think that’s an important lesson for us to remember in these days when the very definition of Christian as well as what it means to be American seems to be up for grabs.

I’ve been hearing folks who look at what’s going on at our southern border and decry, “That’s not who we are.”

Well, our American history has a different story to tell, doesn’t it? We have separated family right from the founding of this country with our treatment of Native Americans. We’ve done the same with African slaves.

The battle for voting rights was hard-fought and well won but voting for minorities remains under attack. I can’t believe that I have to continue to explain to well-intentioned, intelligent people that the saying “Black Lives Matter” does NOT mean that other lives don’t matter as well. Or, that “taking a knee” in silent protest is as American as the National Anthem.

It was in 1920 – only 98 years ago – that women were allowed to vote. The Equal Rights Amendment for Women still languishes in Congress, needing one more vote from one more state for ratification. And, for the life of me, I can’t believe that in the year of our Lord, 2018, we are still talking about women having access to birth control.

Okay, somebody get me a Thundershirt!

The truth of it is that we are all immigrants in this land. Everybody came here from some place else. Many of us claim our ethnic roots in the United Kingdom and places in Western Europe, others from Asia and the South Pacific, and still others from the Caribbean, South and Central America and Africa.

The only ones who are native to this land are the indigenous First People who were here when the Pilgrims landed on the Mayflower.  There’s a reason that it says on the bottom of the dollar bill. “E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.”

Seriously, friends, I think it’s time we get back to the basic principles of the faith which gave shape and form to the principles of this great country.

This holiday weekend, as we talk about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” let the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus be never far from our thoughts.

As we sing, “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” let the song of our faith be always on our lips, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

As we place our hand over our heart to salute the flag, let it beat with the compassion of Jesus.

*God, our own families came here from far lands;
We have been strangers, "aliens" too.
May we reach out and offer a welcome
As we have all been welcomed by you.


*Abraham Journeyed to a New Country
BUNESSAN D ("Morning Has Broken")

Copyright: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, 2010. Tune: Traditional Gaelic Melody.

Text: Throughout the Bible, we see stories of immigrants — people called to settle in new lands and begin new lives for a variety of reasons, people who trusted in God's protection along the way. Abraham and Sarah heard God's promise of a new land. Exodus is the story of God's people being led from slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. 

Later, Ruth went with Naomi, her mother-in-law, because her love of family led her to take risks and leave the home she knew for a new home. 

Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt when his parents had to flee from Herod for his safety. Jesus taught that one of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbors; these neighbors include foreigners (Luke 10:25-37 with references to Leviticus 19:18, 33-34). He also taught that all people will be judged on their compassion for those in need and their welcome of strangers (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Today, people are immigrants for many of the same reasons that these biblical people were. The Church is called to follow the Bible's teachings by welcoming and supporting immigrants today.

The hymn tune, Bunessan, is a traditional Gaelic melody that was originally associated with the 19th century Christmas carol "Child in a Manger," by Mary Macdonald. When Lachlan Macbean translated the Gaelic hymn to English, he named the melody after the small village on the Scottish island of Mull. Eleanor Farjeon wrote a new hymn to this tune, "Morning Has Broken," that was published in 1931.

This hymn is part of "In the Beginning: Genesis in Scripture, Prayer and Song", a service patterned after the Service of Lessons and Carols for Christmas and based on the stories of Genesis (Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Women and Joseph). This creative service is a great resource for a lay Sunday or instead of a guest preacher.

Nine more hymns to support immigrants and refugees are available at