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"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, March 31, 2019

On Being Prodigal

Lent IV - Refreshment Sunday - March 31, 2019
Christ Church, Milford, DE

The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So Jesus told them a parable. 

That parable reminded me of a story from my youth.

I must have been seven or eight years old. My brother would have been three or four. There were three girls and one boy in my family and I was the oldest and therefore, responsible for everything.

Or, at least, that’s what I was told. Every day. Sometimes several times a day, depending on what my younger siblings had done wrong. 

“See,” my mother would say, “if you had set a better example, he or she wouldn’t have done that.”

My brother was the only boy and could do no wrong. We girls called him “The Little Prince.” But, not like that. It was always through clenched teeth. “The. Little. Prince.”

Now, I should note that my brother remembers it differently. "Elizabaeth," he says, "you were the star. We all looked up to you."

"Yeah, well," said I, "whenever you guys did anything wrong, Mom blamed me."

Guess it all depends on your perspective, eh?

I remember it was a beautiful Spring day, much like the one we enjoyed yesterday. It was bright and sparkly and when that morning dawned the birds were singing loudly and the sun was warm and the sky was blue and all seemed right with the world.

I remember seeing my brother in the yard. I think I remember him putting dirt or a plant or something in his mouth and I remember thinking “Dumb. Little. Prince,” but then I got distracted by a butterfly or the way the breeze was dancing on the top of the new blades of grass or the way a white cloud billowed against the deep blue sky, as often happens in early Spring and you're a kid.

The next thing I knew my mother was yelling. There was panic in her voice, I could hear that distinctly. She was carrying my baby sister Diane on her hip. My younger sister Madeline was trailing behind her. “John,” she was yelling. “Johnny! Johnneeee!”

And then, the unthinkable:  “Elizabeth, where’s your brother? Have you seen your brother? I can’t find your brother! Where is he?”

And, just like that, the entire neighborhood was OUT. Neighbors from both sides of the street, neighbors on our block, neighbors from the next block – EVERYONE was out, scouring the neighborhood. The air was suddenly filled with the sound of my brother’s name.

I felt absolutely frozen with fear. This had to be my fault, right?

I stood in place as people seemed to be swirling around me. Suddenly, my mother’s face appeared right in front of my face. She was shaking my shoulders and calling my name. She was asking me the last time I had seen my brother? Had a stranger been in the neighborhood? Anyone I didn’t know?

I couldn’t answer her because between the fear in my heart, the noise in the neighborhood and my two sisters crying, I couldn’t hear myself think. She shook my shoulders once more, took a deep gulp to keep herself from crying, hushed my sisters, stood up and squared her shoulders and then took off to try to find my brother.

I don’t know how long this all went on. I really don’t. It could have been 15 minutes. It could have been a few hours. I don’t know why, exactly, but I looked over at the backyard where my grandmother tended her fruit trees. 

There was a picnic table there and the grass had grown up under it. Suddenly, my brother sat up. Apparently, he had crawled under the picnic table and had taken himself a wee little nap. He had awakened when he heard all the commotion.

Still frozen in place, I called out his name and pointed my finger at him and then I yelled, “LOOK!”

It seemed like the whole neighborhood was frozen in place for a few seconds and everyone looked over at my brother. My mother screamed and ran over to him.She was crying. My grandmother was crying. My sisters were crying. My neighbors were crying. Everyone was so relieved and happy and excited.

Not me.

I could feel the fear that had once had me frozen melt away as a slow burning rage over took my body from my head right down to my toes. I didn’t dare move in case anyone noticed that I wasn’t smiling and happy and cheering and crying. I was furious.

They took my brother into the house and fed him ice cream. ICE CREAM!! Before supper!!!

Apparently, ice cream doesn’t ruin your supper if you’re a Little Prince who falls asleep under the backyard picnic table and everyone in the entire neighborhood is in a fevered sweat looking for you and you are found.

My mother also made his favorite meal for supper. Lincoln Log Sandwiches – a hot dog, split open and stuffed with cream cheese on a white bun. And, curly fries. Which no one ever ate unless it was summer. Or, a special occasion. Like my brother’s birthday. Which was in July. And, he always had Lincoln Log Sandwiches. AND, he had ICE CREAM – again – for dessert.

I can’t remember ever being so angry – before or since – but I clearly remembered this story when I read the parable of the ‘prodigal son’.

No, it’s not the same situation. At all. I remembered this story because I can only imagine that this must be what the elder son felt when he saw his younger brother return home after wasting his inheritance.

As the oldest child in my family, I can hear the anger in his voice and feel the pain in his heart when the elder son says to his father:  
“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 
This passage from Luke is titled “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. Jesus told this story as the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Jesus told them this story so they – and we – could understand something about the nature of God. Which is why I think the title of this story is wrong. It is not the son who is prodigal. 

It is the father who is prodigal.

The word prodigal means “extravagant; lavishly wasteful.” And yes, that’s what the younger son has been. But the father in the parable is also prodigal. 

When his younger son returns after years of sin and debauchery, and begs forgiveness, his father is extravagant and lavishly wasteful in his forgiveness of his young son.

And yes, the message of the parable is that God will be prodigal with you and me, the younger siblings of both of those distant Gospel relatives.

But, Jesus told this story because the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

The message of the parable is that Jesus, like God, is prodigal. He is extravagant in his forgiveness; lavishly wasteful in his love for them.

But wait! There’s more! Jesus told this story because he knew that you and I would grumble because he and God welcome sinners and eat with them. Sinners that you and I know. People who get things we think they don’t really deserve.

So, sometimes, when we see someone who is down on their luck, we figure, well, see, I keep my nose clean. I cross all my T’s and dot all my I’s. I wash my dishes and make my bed. I’m a good citizen. I pay my taxes and mow my lawn. I don’t get any extra credit for that.

So, we’re not apt to give any credit – much less extra credit – to anyone who has been wasteful or wonton or fallen into what my mother used to call “fast living”, much less someone who does us wrong or harms us in any way.

Don’t miss the deeper meaning of this parable for you, today. Jesus is not only saying that God is prodigal. Jesus is not only saying that he is prodigal. 

Jesus is saying that because God and he are prodigal, so, too, should we be.

Jesus is saying that we should be absolutely prodigal – extravagant and lavishly wasteful – with forgiveness and acceptance and unconditional love.

I know. I know. Easier said than done. I heard someone say just the other day, 
“Forgiveness is not a destination; it’s a path.”  
 Let me say that again: Forgiveness is not a destination; it’s a path.

This is the fourth Sunday in Lent. We’re halfway through the journey to Easter. This is called “Refreshment Sunday”. It is also called “Mothering Sunday” and “Laetare Sunday” – a day to rejoice in the mercy and forgiveness and unconditional love of God.  

It is time for us, as with the ancient Israelites in the days of Joshua, to eat the produce of the land of Canaan. 

It is time, as St. Paul told the early church in Corinth, to rejoice that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 

We have, says St. Paul, been “entrusted with the message of reconciliation”. 

If you haven’t started on the path of forgiveness – for yourself or someone else – there’s still time. There is still time to be prodigal – lavishly wasteful and extravagant – even with sinners.

Indeed, there’s still time to be prodigal even with younger brothers who, years ago, fell asleep under a picnic table and once were lost and now are found.          


Sunday, March 24, 2019

How to make a fig tree bear fruit

 A Sermon for Lent III - March 24, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

A headline from RNS (Religious News Service) came in my email inbox the other day and caught my eye: “Nones Now as Big as Evangelicals (and) Catholics in US.” 

No, this was not a story about Roman Catholic NUNS but “Nones”. These are Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” because of how they answer the question “what is your religious tradition?”
Under a picture of empty pews in a church in the midst of the Bible Belt, the story      revealed that “According to newly released General Social Survey data analyzed by Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University,— Americans claiming “no religion” …. now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016.
That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious — or nonreligious — groupings in the country.”
I suppose we should have seen this coming. After I read the article, a memory resurfaced of my work in Newark, New Jersey about 15 years ago. 

I used to visit patients at UMDNJ. At that time, there were always two large binders at the Security Desk where clergy were to sign in which contained the computer printouts of the daily census, listing patient names and room numbers as well as “Religious Affiliation,” all separated into tabbed sections.  More than ½ the book listed as Roman Catholics. 

The second largest section was for “Non Denominational”. The third largest section was designated Baptist. Then came Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalians, Jews, and ‘undeclared’ each taking lesser and lesser degrees of space.

However, more than ¾ of the second binder was under the tab “DND”. One day, as I was signing in, I asked the Security Guard what DND stood for. He seemed genuinely embarrassed as he cleared his throat and said, just above a whisper, “Pastor, that means ‘Do Not Disturb’.”

Do not disturb? I practically yelled. What does that mean? He looked at me sympathetically and said, softly, “It means, Pastor, that they do not want a visit from a pastor.” And then, he held my gaze for a few moments, letting the unthinkable – well, at least to this pastor – sink in.

I watched that book over the next two years. The DND tab was clearly the fastest growing segment of the binder. It made me sad but somewhere deep in my heart, I understood. Sometimes, religious people are the worst people to represent what it means to be religious.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. A gardener intervenes with a landowner on behalf of a seemingly unproductive fig tree, asking for one more year of nurture. But the deal the gardener makes includes a dire prospect: if the tree does not flourish in a year, then yes, pull it from the ground, roots and all.

Okay, so I’ll say it: YIKES! What’s worse, there is no tidy ending to this parable. We do not know if manure and a gardener’s touch ends up making any difference whatsoever. Does the gardener just delay the inevitable? Does the gardener hold off for one year the fig tree’s destiny of serving as compost for another, more productive tree? 
The answer is we don’t know. As it is with many of the parables of Jesus, we are left to ponder the dire prospect as a warning to snap out of it and snap to it.

Why is it that people identify as “spiritual but not religious”? Does it have something to do with “DND” – Do Not Disturb? Is it that, like the parable of the fig tree, we don’t tell the end of the story and assure people of God’s grace vs. God’s judgment? 

Do today’s Christians want more than the threat that if we don’t ‘flourish’ within a time certain, we’ll be pulled up from the ground, roots and all, and thrown into a compost pile?

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve considered my own spiritual journey. I’ve thought about all of the components of my faith and the various expressions it has taken over the years – including the obligatory lapse which occurs immediately after confirmation through young adulthood and then marriage and then the “wait till you have your own children, then you’ll see” phase of religious development kicks in and suddenly, church doesn’t seem as bad as it once did.

Here’s what I discovered about my own faith journey – the reason I came back and the reason I stay. You’ve heard me preach enough now to probably guess at my answer. Yes, you’re right. It’s this: Story.

I think stories are the glue that hold our lives together. It’s one of the first things we learn. Want to get a child’s attention? Haul out a book, sit down, open it up and say these three magic words, “Once upon a time.” 

And, just like that, we’re in. We’re quiet. We’re curious. Our minds are alert. Our hearts are open. We travel to a different time in different lands without leaving the room. We laugh. We cry. We wonder. It’s magical.

I think my faith is what it is today because my grandmother used to tell us the stories in the bible. I remember her telling the story about Abraham which we heard last Sunday, when God took him out and showed him the stars in the sky and told him to count the stars, if he could, and “so shall your descendants be” more than all the stars in the sky. 

And then, she would bring out a platter of sugar cookies in the shape of stars and she would tell us that even if we tried, we couldn’t eat as many star cookies as there were descendants of Abraham.

I have a vivid memory of the story of Moses and the burning bush – not only because it’s a great story but because she would always tell us that story when she made the Portuguese version of Flan. She would sprinkle the sugar on top and then, with my grandfather’s butane pipe lighter, set it ablaze until the sugar was brown and caramelized and crisp.

But it was her Bolos do Riso that was, I think, her best story and my favorite of her baking skills.  Well, she called it Bolos do Riso – Portuguese for Laughter Cake – but it’s traditionally known as Simnel Cake – a wonderful concoction of spice cake and sweet butter frosting which is a special, traditional treat for the middle of Lent.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as “Refreshment Sunday”. It’s also known as “Laetare Sunday” (for the first word of the Introit for the day “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”) and “Rose or Mothering Sunday,” probably because in the 16th century, people went to the nearest Cathedral or their "home” – or “mother” – church (which was most likely the Cathedral) for worship. This is why, in some churches, the vestments for this particular Sunday are rose or pink in color.

It was also a time when women employed as domestics were given time off and one of the few times during the year that the entire family could be reunited to share a meal together.

My Portuguese grandmother made Simnel Cakes faithfully. Every year. And, of course, she always told us the story that went with it.

We made the cakes on the Saturday before Lent IV. My grandmother and I would put the raiss to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night. I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived right upstairs, so I was allowed and nobody else was. 

We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.

We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).

And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. Ha! And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe reserved only for sorcerers and magicians.

And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do Riso - "Laughter Cakes". Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes".

After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.

And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again. She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake.

After the cake was baked and cooled and after she slathered a huge vat of butter icing all over the cake, we would put eleven balls of marzipan all around the top of the cake – one for each of the apostles, but none for Judas because, well, you know, he betrayed Jesus. And then, one Very Large ball of marzipan would go into the very middle of the cake, and that was for Jesus.

Before we could eat the Simnel Cake, we had to be able to name all of the apostles, and say a prayer for all the souls in purgatory where she was quite certain Judas was sent to languish for eternity, and then say a loud ‘thank you’ to Jesus for giving us Eternal Life.

When I read stories about the growing number of “nones” I want to gather them round in my kitchen and make one of my grandmother’s Simnel Cakes. I want to tell them the story of Jesus and have them laugh in the batter. 

And then, as we eat the cake, I want to tell more stories about Jesus, starting with Abraham and Sarah and Aunt Hagar, Moses and Miriam, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and all of the many of their descendants as there are stars in the sky.

It’s just my hunch, but I think that if more people knew more about the stories in the Bible and could see parts of themselves in some of the characters, maybe they’d know that Jesus didn’t have to tell the ending of the parable of the fig tree. Maybe they’d know that God’s grace is always amazing and abundant and that, no matter what we do or how far we roam, nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even ourselves.

If we told more stories of our faith, I’m guessing there’d be fewer people who would hang a DND /“Do Not Disturb” sign outside their doors and welcome us in to hear the magic words, “Once upon a time.” And, just like that, they’d be all in, quite, curious, minds alert and hearts open, ready to travel to a different land and a different time without leaving the room. And, we’d laugh and we’d cry and we’d wonder and it would be magical.

A great scientist once said that the universe is made of stories, not atoms. I don’t know this for a fact but I have it on the good authority of my grandmother that at the very center of the universe is not molten lava or hard stone, not layers of dirt and muddy water or slime or sludge – no!

What lies at the very center of the universe is laughter. It is the sound of the joy with which God created the world. It is the sound of the love that defeated evil and the love that triumphs good.

So, laugh, children. Laugh at the Devil. He can’t win.  Only Jesus.

And, if we told that story more often – if we told the stories of our lives of faith more often – I’m thinking there would no doubt be fewer nones, a whole lot less DNDs and lots more fig trees bearing much fruit.  

*Bolos do Riso (Simnel Cake)

1 ½ c. raisins
4 tbsp. (or so) Brandy
1 c. shortening
2 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 c. very fine flour (all purpose will do if you sift)
2 tsp. Baking soda
2 ½ tsp. Cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ground Cloves
2 tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. Salt
1 ½ c. chopped walnuts
zest of one lemon (optional)
2 c. hot applesauce

Soak raisins in brandy overnight.

Mix together in a large bowl - shortening, sugar and eggs. Into that sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Add chopped walnuts and raisins with the brandy. Add 2 cups of applesauce while it is VERY HOT. Blend thoroughly. Add optional lemon zest. Pour batter into 8 ½ x 12" pan (greased and floured.) Bake at 350̊ For about 30 minutes (or until done).

When done, cool cake in pan 5 minutes - then remove to finish cooling on a cake rack. Frost generously with Butter frosting.

Butter Frosting
1/4 lb. (one stick) Butter
1 lb Confectioners Sugar (10-X)
about 3 tbsp heavy cream (or milk)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Blend together the butter and sugar. Add in the cream (or milk) and vanilla until smooth. Makes enough frosting for the cake above.

“Laughter Cake” Traditionally made for “Refreshment (or Mothering or Laetare or Rose) Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Don’t forget to laugh into the batter after you’ve added the hot applesauce, and remember that Jesus has won for us Life Eternal.

A Simnel Cake is traditionally decorated with 11 small marzipan balls (one for each apostle, minus Judas) and one large marzipan ball (for Jesus), but more modern adaptions include ‘peep’ chicks or bunnies, or small Easter eggs, or roses, or your favorite festive way to ‘laetare’ (rejoice) as the Introit for the 4th Sunday in Lent calls us to do.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Spiritual Leadership

Lent II - March 17, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE.

A few weeks ago, it was my privilege to lead a Vestry Retreat on Spiritual Leadership. The rector, a former seminarian of mine, and the Sr. Warden, a very dear friend, had sensed that there was a real spiritual hunger among the leadership – the members of the Vestry and the chairs of the various committees. 

They asked for a retreat designed to help leaders find their own sense of spirituality about the work they were elected, or chosen, to do in the church. 
The first thing we did together was to examine the word Spiritual and the word Leadership. When I say “Spiritual” what words come to your mind? (Prayer Peaceful. Contemplative. Good listener) Now, let’s do the same with the word “Leadership”. (Organized. Decisive. Charismatic. Motivates.)

Notice the differences? “Spiritual leadership” sounds a bit like an oxymoron, right? Like, “Jumbo Shrimp”. It’s a pretty tall order to be both “contemplative” and “decisive,” or, “peaceful” and “organized”. (Although, I’m usually very peaceful after I get organized.) 

Yes, there were areas of overlap and those places are exactly what defines good spiritual leadership. A person who is a good listener is much better able to make good decisions. 
There’s that sort of tension between “pastoral” and “prophetic”.  Many of us are clear that we like our spiritual leaders to be pastoral but we’re not so certain about the “prophetic” part. 

That’s mostly because we’re not really sure what it means to be “prophetic” but if it’s anything like “evangelism” we’re not sure we want that, either. 
Besides, when the word “prophetic” is used, the word “justice” is often hovering close by and “justice” usually means “politics” and politics in church often means trouble. 
“For heaven’s sake,” someone will exclaim, “don’t bring politics into the pulpit. It’s a sure way to empty out a church.”
Well, hold onto your coat check because Jesus is being prophetic this morning. Check it out. 
Some of the Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Hey, you better get out of here. The word is out that Herod wants you dead.” 

Well, maybe Herod did or maybe Herod didn’t. Maybe the Pharisees said that to get Jesus out of their way because he had, after all, just healed a woman who had been crippled for 18 years – and he healed her on the Sabbath, which was against Levitical law.
Jesus has absolutely no intention of leaving or stopping his work. “Go and tell that old fox,” says Jesus, and we all know what foxes do, don’t we? 

Even if we’ve never seen a fox or a hen house, we know from children’s stories that foxes sneak into the hen house and kill the chickens.  Jesus makes a clever allusion to this when he describes himself as wanting to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”.
But, he’s not going anywhere or changing anything because the Pharisees – or the government – want him to stop. 

He’s being prophetic because he’s being pastoral – he wants to care for his people and that means taking a defiant stand against the government. 

He’s being a leader because of his spirituality which moves him to compassion to heal, even on the Sabbath.
I heard a story this week that reminded me of this scripture. It’s the story  - the true story - of WWII.

It’s the story about the country of Bulgaria, which was one of the countries to form an alliance with Nazi Germany.

In 1941, the German government forced anti-Semitic legislation on Bulgaria but the people refused to enforce it. 

In 1943, the German government told the country of Bulgaria to deport all non-Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camp at Treblinka but some high Bulgarian government officials stopped the process from happening.

Finally, the German government demanded at all Jews – ALL Jews – in all of Bulgaria be rounded up and sent to the train station to be deported. 

And, it happened that this time, Bulgaria obeyed.

All over the entire country of Bulgaria, from east to west and north to south, every man, woman and child of Jewish origin was rounded up and marched to the train station where they awaited to be boarded onto a train and deported.

Except, a Bulgarian man from the military, and one from the legislature, and one religious leader who lined themselves up in front of the thousands of Jews who stood at the train station. 

And, they said to the Germans, “You can take the Jews. But, you must kill us first.”

Hear their words again and let them sink in: "You can take the Jews. But, you must kill us first."

And, they wouldn’t move.

They stared each other down, these three men: the military man, the lawyer and the religious leader and the German soldiers. 

And then, they walked through the German soldiers and escorted them out of their country.

And, every year, on the anniversary of this event, the people in the town gather to celebrate what they call, “The Ceremony of the Ungiven.” They say prayers and light candles and sing songs and they remember the three men who put their lives on the line to save the lives of thousands of others.

What would you do? If tomorrow, we received an order to round up all those who were not born in this country and told we had to deport them back to the country of their origin, what would you do? 

If, after that, we were told we had to round up all the Jews and Muslims, everyone who wasn’t baptized Christian, and deport them? What would you do? Would it matter if they were strangers? What if your daughter married a Jew? What if your grandson hadn’t been baptized? 
Would you stand in front of all those people on that train platform? Would you look the soldiers in the eye and say, “You can take them. You can deport them. But, you’re going to have to kill me first?”

I’d like to think that I would do just that. Then again, I remember the times when I saw small acts of ignorance or bigotry and I kept my mouth shut. I remember times when I said nothing because I didn’t want to be seen as ‘political’. I didn't want to cause (gasp!) controversy.

If I can’t trust myself with the little things, can I really trust myself to do the right thing when major things happen?

I remember Bishop Spong saying, “The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.”

Would you be a Spiritual Leader? Would you put what you believe into action, even if it meant risk? That a part of you would have to die that someone might live? 

Would you consider whether your actions were prophetic or pastoral or would you simply do what needed to be done? Would you be concerned about being too political – or, political at all?

The spiritual hunger in our lives is real. It makes us afraid and anxious. We live out of a sense of scarcity in the midst of abundance. We eat the fast-food “Bread of Anxiety” which never satisfies.   

Some of us have been starving for so long we’re numb to the hunger. Or, we think it's normal.

We live in an age of pandemic anxiety and loneliness which, to me at least, suggests a scarcity of people willing to take the risk of giving themselves. 

But, the thing of it is that this – THIS – is the prophetic task of the church.

Author and theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, 
“The prophetic tasks of the church are: to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Let me break that down: To create a safe space where the truth can be told, where grief can be expressed, where hope – which Dickenson wrote is a thing with feathers – can live and thrive and float on the very air we breathe.

If the church is not willing to take the risk of doing these things, who will?

This Lenten Season, I urge you to consider a spiritual discipline that will help us – as individuals and as a Church – to answer that question. Instead of “giving up” something for Lent, why not consider “giving away” something for Lent? Got two (or three or four) coats? Why not give one away?

Got stored up resentment or anger or anxiety? Why not give it away in reading or meditation, exercise or prayer? 

Pay attention to your body. It’s one of the ways you’ll gain awareness about what it going on in your soul.

Do you feel tension anywhere? Work on releasing it. If you feel you fists clench, try relaxing and opening them. If your fist is clenched tightly, it’s probably a good indication that your heart is tightly closed as well.

Make it a practice to say hello to someone who looks different from you. Look that person right in the eye and say, “Good morning.” Say it like you mean it. Practice random acts of kindness with unsuspecting family members. You’ll be amazed at the response.

Yes, Lent is a time for repentance and inward contemplation but it’s not a time to retreat from the world around you.  

No matter where we hide, what our personal preference for peace, solitude, even isolation might be, the true needs of the world seek us out, in time – perhaps not as dramatic as the people of Bulgaria experienced, or as life-threatening as Jesus knew it – but we all confront moments when the world reaches out and compels us to be what God calls us to be: light to the world, which finds and filling its darkest corners not with words, but with the living presence of God in each and every one of us.  

My prayer is that we as individual and together as Christ Church, might find the spiritual nourishment in this Lenten Season to grow into what our baptismal prayer calls “the full stature of Christ,” that all who see and know us will be able to say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Great Temptation of Being Human

March 10, 2019 - Christ Church, Milford

This is a sermon about Temptation.

That probably will not come as a surprise to you, given the Gospel story we just heard. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.  But, at least at first, it’s not going to sound like a sermon on temptation.

I want to start by telling you a story of a woman I saw many years ago during a session of Lenten private confession. I’ll call her Cheryl. That’s not her name but I’ll never forget her. 

She sat straight up in the chair, very proper and formal and, with an almost eerie calm said, “I came to see you because two days ago, my husband got angry with me and pushed me and I fell down the stairs. And, I want to know, do I have a right to have feelings about that?”

I was, of course, as stunned as you are. I asked her a few more questions and discovered that, when she was a child her mother gave her very conflicting information about emotions and life. 

When she would say, “Mom, I’m hungry,” her mother would respond, “No you’re not. You’re just sleepy. Why don’t you take a nap?”

If she was feeling sad about something that happened in school or with her friends, her mother would say, “A smile is an umbrella on a rainy, rainy day.” 

And, if she cried, of course it was not allowed. She heard, “Big girls don’t cry.”

The result was that Cheryl grew up not knowing her true emotions about anything and, in not knowing her emotions, she didn’t know much about herself. 

Because she didn’t know much about herself, she had no confidence and therefore, no ability to make good choices for herself, including the man she married who was frustrated beyond reason being married to a woman who was incapable of making decisions and didn’t know who she was – except to be whatever other people wanted her to be. (Note: This in no way condones his violence.)

This is a sermon about Temptation.

I know you’re asking yourself, what is the temptation here? This is just a very sad story about a very sad woman.

Stay with me, now, as we look at the Three Temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and then look at The Great Temptation of Being Human.

Scholars have debated for centuries the meaning of the Temptation of Jesus. There are parallels to the Israelites’ time in the desert (40 years vs. 40 days. Forty, in Biblical numerology, is another way of saying “a long time”.

Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments. Elijah fasted for 40 days before speaking with God. Fasting also occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures during times of grieving and repentance, all for purification and preparation. The temptation of Jesus has threads of all of these things.

It’s important to remember that Jesus has just been baptized, an act which affirmed his divinity. The fact that he is tempted is also an affirmation of his full humanity.

And, here’s the point: To be tempted is to be human.

Temptation is the desire to do something, and the connotation of that desire is that the object of that desire is something wrong or unwise. 

 Yet all three of the things Jesus’ is tempted with have ends with great potential good — creating food to dispel hunger, gaining power, and proving the power of God. 

From individuals to nations, we often make decisions that allow for evil (or even less-than-good) actions for what we believe is a greater eventual good. 

Some call this “the end justifying the means” but it’s often much more subtle than that.

These temptations echo the ones faced by Eve in the Garden of Eden: it’s the apple instead of the bread; it’s the knowledge she would gain would provide an avenue of power, and it’s that she hoped to prove the power of God by using the gift of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

I submit to you that the reason things ended differently for Eve in the Garden and Jesus in the Wilderness has to do with the Greatest Temptation faced by human beings; which takes us back to the story I told of the woman who didn’t know her emotions and didn’t know herself.

Jesus is very clear about his identity. He knows who he is. He knows why he is here on earth. Because of that clarity he is able to resist the temptation to use the gifts of food and his power as well as the power of God just to please and appease the Force of Evil.

In the Three Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness we see The Great Temptation of Being Human – which is this:  
The Great Temptation of Being Human is the temptation to deny our authentic selves and, instead, become what others expect of us, or think is best for us.
I have met so many people in my years as a priest whose lives are a misery because they were not being authentic and true to themselves. In the process of trying so hard to please others, they lost themselves.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has a wonderful story about this very thing. It’s a lot more fun than the sad story of the woman with which I started this sermon. But, it’s a wonderful story of the temptation not to embrace the unique gifts God has given us.

Bishop Michael’s story is about his first few months as rector of the church to which he had been called in the Midwest.

The church and rectory were built in a former cornfield. So, of course, the first winter in the rectory they were inundated with field mice which came in from the cold to find warmth and food in the rectory pantry.

Bishop Michael and his wife tried everything except poison. They used traps and, of course, prayer, but nothing seemed to work. The field mice seemed to outsmart them at every turn. Finally, a member of the congregation told them about a friend of hers who had a farm cat.

A farm cat!?! Bishop Michael’s wife was opened to the idea but he was most definitely not. He figured he had enough animals he didn’t plan for with the field mice. Besides which, this farm cat had apparently be the runt of the litter and had been picked on by its older siblings.

The catfights were so bad that the cat had not gotten to eat much and so was scrawny and skinny. He had lost an eye and patches of fur on his body and he was, understandably, very timid and shy.

Bishop Michael said that it was the poorest excuse for a cat he had ever seen. To make matters worse, the cat had the most un-cat like name he had ever heard:

Muffin. He called him "Muffin the Ugly Cat".
He could not imagine that Muffin the Ugly Cat would have what it would take to hunt and kill mice but he felt bad for the poor thing and grudgingly allowed him in.

His children fell immediately in love. They patted her and played with him and his cat toys for endless hours. Muffin slowly began to settle in and know that he was loved. He even gained weight and purred loudly when h “family” came home from school or work.

A few weeks after Muffin had come to stay, one night, in the middle of the night, Bishop Michael heard some noise in the kitchen. He decided he needed a glass of water and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to check and see what the field mice were up to.

As he came around the corner into the kitchen, he stopped dead in his tracks. There, in the moonlight that flooded the kitchen, he saw an amazing sight. 

It was Muffin, but it didn’t look anything like Muffin. He looked more like a Ninja warrior. There he was, back arched, muscles rippling, mouth twitching, eyes fixed on a field mouse on which he was prepared to pounce.

And, just like that, Muffin the poor, pathetic, ugly house cat became Muffin, Field Mouse Hunter and Killer Extraordinaire.

After a time of love and food and fun, he found out who he really was and, with that, he found that he could be what he was created to do; to use the skills and gifts God had given him to be who he is.

And, for months, every morning when the family came down to breakfast, there was Muffin, sitting in the midst of the battle field, purring loudly, surrounded by the dead bodies of field mice

This is a sermon about Temptation.

In the Three Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness we see The Great Temptation of Being Human – which is the temptation to deny our authentic selves and, instead, become what others expect of us, or think is best for us.

We are all temped to deny who we are by the usual seductions, to use that which is good for that which is not: to emotionally feed and tend to others at the cost of starving ourselves, to bow to the power of others without empowering ourselves, and to do that which is pleasing to others without considering first if it pleases God.

As we enter the Season of Lent, I urge you to take this time to more thoroughly examine your own life. Here are some questions to take with you on this First Sunday in Lent, as we consider the Temptations of Jesus in the wilderness:

What are your desires? How do you use them for good? How do you deny them?

What if - what if - the deepest desires of our hearts were what God most deeply desires for us?

What have you not done that you feel drawn to do and feel frustrated or annoyed or ashamed or unworthy because you haven’t accomplished it?

Are you living your life or the life someone else determined for you?

What is God calling you to do?

What is God calling you to be?

In Paolo Coelho’s well-known book, The Alchemist, the character Melchizedek says to Santiago, the young Andalusian shepherd boy, 

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
What would you do if you knew before you started that at the end of your journey, you would get exactly what you wanted? Would you be more willing to make the sacrifices necessary?

What would you do if you began the journey and suddenly, the end wasn’t as important as simply being on the journey? Would you continue?

In the introduction of The Alchemist, Coelho writes:
“If you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.”
I welcome you to a Holy Lent. May it be that, when we come to the end of this Lenten Journey, we are changed and transformed and will be more of what God is calling us to be, both as individuals as well as the Body of Christ known as Christ Church.


3/10/19 EMK+

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Ash Wednesday: Snap Out of It!

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Christ Church, Milford

I have two very clear but very different images for Ash Wednesday.

The first is a scene from the movie Moonstruck. Do you remember the movie? With Cher? Olympia Dukakis? Nicholas Cage? 

Remember the wonderfully crazy Italian family? Cosmo and Rose Castorini and their daughter Loretta? And, Loretta had a fiancé named Johnny Cammereri but the man she really loved was his brother, Ronnie Cammereri?

How could it not be a great movie with names like that?

My favorite scene – okay, I have several of them. Like, the one where the old man got the dogs to howl at La Bella Luna.

Or, the one where Rose is talking to her daughter Loretta who returns after spending the night with Ronnie Cammereri, but Johnny Cammereri has returned home from Sicily where his mother has had a miraculous recovery. Rose says to Loretta:  “You got a love bite on your neck, Loretta! What's the matter with you? You're life's goin' down the toilet!”

Oh, and there’s Ronnie Cammereri’s philosophy of life: “Stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to fall in love and to break our hearts.” 

To which Loretta responds by slapping his face and saying, “Snap out of it.

Okay, so the scene that reminds me most of Ash Wednesday is the one where Rose confronts her husband, Cosmo, because she knows he’s having an affair with his secretary. Cosmo is talking with Johnny Cammereri, Loretta’s fiancé but Loretta is out on a date at the Metropolitan Opera with his brother Ronnie. 

Rose interrupts the conversation. “Cosmo,” she says, “I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else."

Cosmo looks at her and you can tell he’s thinking to himself, ‘THIS is why I’m having an affair!’ and he says, “Thank you, Rose.”  

 And she says, “You’re welcome.”

Everyone is going to die. That’s the message of Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? 

We’re to focus on the fragility and frailty of our mortality. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

That’s what I say, that’s what you hear, over and over again. It’s the message of Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? Well, it is, yes. But it’s just one part of it.

The other part of the message is one that doesn’t get much emphasis on this day in many churches. That’s because it takes a child to help us understand. 

That’s where the second image I have of Ash Wednesday comes in.

It was about 10 years ago on a Shrove Tuesday night. The last pancakes had been eaten, the last dead pancake relay race had been run and while the dishes were being washed, I gathered the kids on the concrete steps of the church.

I had set up a stand on the concrete walkway with a large wok in which the kids had placed the palms they and their parents had brought in which they had saved from last Palm Sunday.

The palms were in a lazy circle in the wok but the kids were in an excited, tight line of anticipation, sitting on the steps, waiting for me to set fire to the palms which would burned and the ashes cooled and then ground into the ashes with which I would mark their foreheads the next day.

With the kids a safe distance away, they started the countdown as I lit the match and threw it on the dried palms. 

WOOSH! The dried palms went up in a quick column of flame and then WOOSH! Just as quickly died down in a low flame until there was just a smolder of hot ash with sparks where there was some residue palm oil.

The sparks made an interesting circular sparkle among the ashes, which sparked “Oooh’s and Ahhhh’s from the peanut gallery. 

One little girl, Chloe – a precocious child of five or six – gasped so loudly that every one of the other kids hushed.

“Look!” she said, “Look! Reverend Elizabeth, LOOK! There are stars in our ashes.”

And, indeed, the little sparks of palm oil twinkled in the ashes just like stars in the night sky. “I knew it,” said Chloe. “I knew it, Reverend Elizabeth. You say, ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. I knew it.”

She sat up very straight and announced, “We are star dust and we go back to star dust.”

I think both Rose and Chloe carry the real message of Ash Wednesday.

Yes, we are going to die, just like everybody else. Our mortality is fragile. Limited. We only have so much time on this earth and we don’t know how much time that is, exactly.

And, we all contain a spark of the Divine. We are marked in baptism as Christ’s own forever. Our lives are interconnected conundrums and all wrapped up in a mystery much larger than ourselves. We hurt the ones we love. We are hurt most by the ones we love.

Or, as Ronnie Cammereri says, “Stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to fall in love and to break our hearts."

And, Ash Wednesday smacks us hard across the face and says, “Snap out of it.”

When you come to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes on your forehead, I ask you to keep those two things in mind.

Yes, we are mortal. We are not going to live forever. That’s one part of the cross.

And yes, our lives are a mystery. We are part of a Great Mystery much larger than ourselves. Because of Jesus, we are promised Life Eternal. 

And that is the other part of the cross.

And, in the middle of the cross of the ashes of our mortality and the stardust of the mystery is the reality of our lives which, on this day, this day we call Ash Wednesday, we choose to live in faith and in the shadow of the cross.