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Sunday, October 27, 2019


Pentecost XX - Proper 25 C
October 27, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

This is a sermon about humility. Which is a very difficult conversation to have in the church. It’s almost as difficult as talking about money but not as difficult as talking about sex – well, as long as it’s someone else’s sex life we’re talking about. 

The difficulty in talking about humility is in the very last part of the very last sentence, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, it would seem that if you WANT to be exalted you have to humble yourself, but if you exalt yourself you will be knocked off your high horse and humbled – or even, perhaps, humiliated.

 The word humility of course, comes from the Latin humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", or "from the earth". 

When someone displays the distasteful characteristic of arrogance, the antidote is always to call that person to humility. That’s what we witness in the Pharisee of this parable of Jesus as reported in Luke’s gospel (18:9-14). But, what if the person’s characteristic is the opposite of arrogance? What if the person is someone who gives a new definition to “low self-esteem?” 

I once worked with a nurse who, every time she bumped into something said, out loud, “I’m sorry.” This was a woman who was an amazing nurse. Skilled. Experienced. Compassionate. An excellent clinician and diagnostician. 

I stopped her once, after she had apologized to a chair, and gently asked her, “Did . . . did you just apologize to that chair?” 

She became a bit flustered and admitted, sheepishly, “Why, yes, yes I suppose I did.” 

“Do you realize that you always apologize to every inanimate object you happen to bump into?” I asked her.

Her face blushed as she said, “My mother always told me that I was a clumsy oaf. She used to make me walk with a book on top of my head with an apple on top of the book. I could never make it across the room without either dropping the apple or the book. She even took me to ballet lessons so I’d learn some grace, but it didn’t work. I’m just a clumsy oaf, and . . .” she added just below her voice, “stupid. That’s what mother always said,” shaking her head, “clumsy and stupid.”

“But you’re not,” I said. “You’re neither clumsy nor stupid. You’re a brilliant nurse who moves with the skill and grace of an angel at the bedside, tending to your patients and their families.”

At which point, my friend started to cry. “No one has ever said that to me before,” she sniffed. 

“Then I’m going to say it to you every time I see you,” I said.

I wrote the words down on a piece of paper and said, “I want you to tape this to your bathroom mirror and read it every morning. 

Say it out loud, ‘I am a brilliant nurse who has the skill and grace of an angel as I tend to my patients and their families.’”

She blushed again but looked me straight in the eye as I handed her the paper and said, “I will do that. I will say this out loud to myself every morning. Thank you.”

Funny thing. Three months later she was still occasionally bumping into things, but she no longer apologized to inanimate objects. She had more confidence and provided excellent patient care. 

Sometimes, exalting yourself IS an act of humility, especially if you have had your self-worth and self-esteem bullied out of you by well-intentioned people.

The important thing to remember is that, while arrogance is as troublesome and concerning as low self-esteem, they are flip sides of the same coin. I think it helps to remember that humility means “grounded” or “from the earth”.

The word ‘humility’ helps us to remember that we are human – we are from the earth and connected to the earth and to the earth we shall return. For me, humility is a reminder that I am human, a mere mortal, which means I am not defined by my worst characteristic. Neither am I defined by my best characteristic. Rather, I am the sum total of all my parts. Good and bad. Warts and all.

I see the prayers of the Pharisee and those of the Tax Collector as being equal. Oh sure, I’m annoyed by the Pharisee’s prayers but only because he didn’t balance it out with his flaws. I have pity on the Tax Collector because he knew only too well his flaws. 

As a Tax Collector, he knew the hatred and the revulsion of the people – a Jew doing the work of the Roman Oppressor. Which leads me to ask what he was doing to change his lot except to ask God for mercy only to go out and do it all over again.

Humility isn’t a contest to see who is the most humble. I am reminded of that old story of a priest who came into the church, knelt before the altar, beat his breast and said, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”   

A few minutes later, another priest came into the church and saw the priest at the altar, beating his breast and joined him on his knees at the altar rail, crying out even louder, “Have mercy on my Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”

Just then, the sexton came into the church. He saw the two priests kneeling at the altar and decided to join them, beating his breast and crying out for mercy. One priest turned to the other and said, “Well, great! Now EVERYONE will want to be exalted!”

Author Rachel Held Evans wrote this in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
“Some rabbis say that, at birth, we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks. To those who repent of their sins, especially in the days of Rosh Hashanah, God sends the angel Gabriel to make knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God. Because each one of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness from time to time, our strings are full of knots. But, the rabbis like to say a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots. So the person with many sins but a humble heart is closer to God.”
No, the Rabbi isn’t saying that we should, therefore, go out and sin so that we can be closer to God. 

For me, the Rabbi’s story is one that amplifies the message of Rabbi Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

Humility is telling the truth about ourselves, and sometimes, it’s harder to admit our attributes than it is to admit our faults. The person with many sins but a humble heart is close to God. And, the person with many attributes but a humble heart is also close to God. 

Humility is not about how good or bad we are. Humility is about having a humble heart and telling the truth about ourselves.  One of the aphorisms of the12 Step Program is “If you see more than three people in one day who cause you to say, ‘Jerk!’ it’s time to look in the mirror.”

Humility calls us to acknowledge that we are all sinners, yes, but not one of us is beyond the redemption of God. Humility is reaching way down into the depths of our souls and putting our hands and fingers into the rich soil, the fertile earth of our humanity. 

The religious paradox is that staying connected to the earthiness of our humanity helps us to grow wings to fly closer to God. Sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch a star.

I am convinced that the church which does not offer a quick fix or an instant cure, the church which offers the unspeakable joy of the miracle of death and resurrection, the church that is a vehicle of the grace to do the hard work of reconciliation is the church that will grow and flourish and thrive because it is closer to the Gospel truth than those who sell or market the Gospel with happy, shiny, put together people as proof that “hey, this Jesus stuff works!” (to paraphrase Rachel)

Rachel also wrote: 
“This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”
As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife . . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”

That’s what humility looks like. Or, as D.T. Niles once wrote in the New York Times, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

Rachel Held Evans died this past May of an allergic reaction to a medication for an infection. She was 38 years old, the mother of two small children and the spouse of a devoted husband. 

At her funeral, fellow author and friend Nadia Boltz-Webber gave this benediction, which summed up Rachel’s understanding of the Gospel.

I give it to you now as an example of the best sort of humility. I believe Jesus blesses it when we tell the truth about the fullness of being human because that is the way God created us.

The Benediction from Rachel Held Evans’ funeral:
Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude— God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.

Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story. Amen 
And, let the church in all humility say, “Amen.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prayer changes nothing - and everything

Pentecost XIX - Proper 24 - October 20, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, De

Everything I learned about praying always and not losing heart, I learned from two very different people at two very different stages in my life.

You are not going to be surprised to hear this, but the first person to teach me about prayer was my Grandmother. You think the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) is persistent? Ha! She had nothing on my Grandmother! In fact, I’m told that the best translation of the phrase, “she will wear me out etc." is actually a boxing term in Greek for giving someone a black eye. 

Yup, that would be my Grandmother.

When you walked into my Grandmother’s house, you couldn’t help but see the two pictures of the two men my Grandmother considered “The World’s Greatest Roman Catholics.” 

The first was Jesus. I know, right? Who knew Jesus was Roman Catholic? I thought he was Jewish. The picture was what we kids called his “High School Graduation” picture. You know, the one of him in profile, with his long hair beautifully combed, and the perfect back-lighting? 

The other picture of the other great Catholic? Oh, that would have been John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course.  Yes, she did have a picture of the Pope. It was in the bathroom. I never dared asked why.

Walking into my Grandmother’s bedroom was like walking into a shrine – we kids used to call it “Disney World for Roman Catholics”. If you didn’t grow up Roman Catholic, you might not understand, but let me try to describe it to you, anyway.

Oh, and, just in case there’s any question or doubt: I cherish my Roman Catholic upbringing as I do my Portuguese heritage and I mean absolutely no disrespect to either. This is part of what makes me uniquely me – warts and all – and I am deeply grateful for it all.

So, to my grandmother’s house. The tops of all of her bureaus were filled with statues of saints, all of which had small, flickering votive or novena candles in front of them. If you lifted up each statue, underneath them, written in Portuguese, was a slip of paper with her particular prayer petitions to that particular saint.

In my Grandmother’s world of prayer, one prayed to particular saints for particular things. St. Jude, of course, was the saint of Lost Causes. You prayed to him if you needed a Big Phat M.I.R.A.C.L.E. Maybe someone was gravely ill? In the hospital? Maybe he or she had (said in a whisper, lest on one else should get it…. shhhh . . . .) cancer? Better petition St. Jude.

St. Joseph was patron saint of Workers. Joe was your guy if your husband or sons or brothers were out of work or there was a strike at the factory. Joe would get them back to work, right quick.  The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) was the one you turned to if your novena prayers had not yet been answered. My Grandmother figured that Mary had the ear of both God AND Jesus, so if you prayed to her, you knew one of the two guys were going to hear about it, big time.

There were lots and lots of others – St. Martin de Porres, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Lucy, St. Elizabeth of Portugal (+ my patron saint), Mother Elizabeth Seaton, to name just a few, but the busiest saint was always St. Gerard, the patron saint of families. He was also the one in the most trouble for not answering my Grandmother’s prayers.

If you were a saint, and my Grandmother prayed to you – hwever many prescribed decades on her rosary for the prescribed amount of days or weeks or months – and you didn’t answer her prayer, you were in BIG trouble.

My grandmother would first yell at the statue. Then, she would blow out the candle. Then, with a great flourish, she would turn the statue to face the wall, saying to him or her in broken English, “And, you gonna stay there until you gonna answer my prayer.”

So, I learned three important lessons about prayer from my Grandmother

First lesson: God is always watching. Never let God catch you not praying.

Second lesson: Don’t put all your prayers in one basket. Spread them around.

Third lesson: If your prayers aren’t answered, pray harder. Louder. Like you mean it.

And then, I grew up.  I learned stuff about the world. I learned that the world I lived in was very different from my grandmother’s world. It was a world she couldn’t have even imagined much less live in, so she kept more and more to herself, speaking only Portuguese. As my world expanded, her world grew smaller and smaller. It was safer for her that way.

Even as my Grandmother retreated from the world, I ran straight to it and found myself moving farther and farther away from the images of God of my childhood. Those images simply didn’t have any relevance to the world in which I was living. 

I discovered that God was not a puppet master, pulling every one and every thing on a string. I learned that God didn’t cause tornadoes and hurricanes and tidal waves – the shifting earth did that. Smokey the Bear taught me that only I could prevent forest fires – not the wrath of God. 

I learned that people had heart attacks and strokes and diabetes and even ‘cancer’ because of hereditary and environmental and nutritional considerations, and not because God punished them for sin. I learned that left-handed people were not sinister, that people with seizure disorder (epilepsy) were not possessed by demons, that women with normal menstrual cycles were not ‘unclean’, and that children born blind or deaf or with a deformity were not evidence that their ancestors had sinned.

For a very long time, all of that knowledge put me in a tailspin crisis of faith. Now that I knew all this stuff about the world, what was I supposed to believe about God?

Well, I learned that my faith didn’t have to stay in a childhood fantasy box. I learned that my faith could grow and adapt and change in order to meet the challenges of the world. I learned to take the lessons I needed to learn from the faith my grandmother in order to live my own life, in my own time, in the world where God had placed me. 

It wasn’t until I met a second person in my adult life that I was able to articulate what I knew about prayer and bring it to yet another level.  That person was Bishop Jack Spong.

I had been working for Jack as Canon Missioner for about three years when I discovered a lump in my right breast. The doctor thought it was probably benign but, as he said, “You and I will both sleep better once that lump is out.” 

So, two days before my surgery, I went to my bishop to tell him and to ask him for his prayers.
Jack listened very carefully, as he is wont to do, and then, pastor that he is, he assured me of his prayers. 

Scholar that he is, he also could not resist asking me a question. 

“Elizabeth," he said, “of course I will pray for you, but, you know, people come to me – as I’m sure they come to you – as if your prayers were some sort of magic. I want you to know that, if it were in my power to cure you of any cancer, of course I would. But you know, and I know, that neither you nor I are that powerful. So, when you ask me to pray for you, what are you asking, really?”

Well, it was the first time I had ever really thought about that. Jack has been called a heretic and an atheist. I can assure you that he is not an atheist. He's more of a modern mystic. And, I’ve come to learn that the people I trust most in the church – people who believe in God and love Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit – are often what many in the church consider heretics. I’ve discovered that that says more about them than what is true about Jack or any heretic. 

Jack has a way of challenging what you say you believe – not so you believe like him – but so that you can better articulate what you believe. He respects differences and won't hesitate to tell you why he thinks you're wrong. Always a good bishop, he just wants to make sure you can articulate why you believe what you say you believe.

I heard myself say to him that when I am anxious or afraid, I often feel much worse because I think I’m all alone in whatever situation or crisis I’ve found myself. I imagine that, in this world, we are all standing on an interconnected web, and each one of us has his or her own thread. 

When I’m anxious or afraid, it gets very dark which makes me feel even more afraid and alone. When I know someone is praying for me or with me, it’s like a light is turned on, and I can see others around me, lifting me up, holding me up in their prayer, and I’m less afraid.

Jack listened very carefully, nodded his head and smiling, said, “What I’ve discovered is that prayer is a paradox - something that contains two opposite statements, both of which are true.”

“Prayer,” he said, “doesn’t change anything. And, prayer changes everything.”

“Mostly, prayer changes everything, because prayer changes me. It changes my focus. It makes me less self-centered. It makes me care more about others. And, it makes me aware that I am part of a vast, interconnected network and I’m not alone. People who have come before, people who are here, now, and people who are yet to come are all standing with me. That Jesus is with me because I am with others and they are with me.”

"So,” he said, “Why don’t we pray together, right now?”

And, we did. We held hands. We prayed. Right then. Right there. In his office. No vestments. No saints. No votive lights. No little slips of paper with petitions on them. No prayer beads. And, it was holy. And, it was right. And, it was good. And, I did not lose heart. 

Well, I came through the surgery with flying colors and a benign pathology report. I also came through with a deeper appreciation for the lessons my grandmother taught me about prayer, which I have adapted to suit the world I live in. In my life. In my time. I share them with you as a present.

First lesson: Pray always and without ceasing. Make everything you do be a prayer. If you are mowing the lawn or raking leaves or making applesauce or starting your day of work, dedicate whatever you are doing. Make it a prayer to God.
Second lesson: Pray through a variety of sources and means, without judgment. Whether you use prayer beads or candles or chant, all of it is prayer. When I am on pilgrimage in Palestine this January, I will carry each one of you with every step I take because, for me, I pray best with my boots on and my sleeves rolled up. If someone tells you that they are sitting Zazen for you, or they lay hands on you and speak in tongues, accept it as prayer without judgment. Everyone prays in his or her own way. It's all prayer. It's all good. I mean that: It’s all good.
            Third lesson: Pray expectantly, hopefully, persistently, and never lose heart.  Know that we are all interconnected in an amazing network of relationships. And, we are all connected to a great mystery that scripture calls “a great cloud of witnesses.” People who have gone before us and people who are waiting to be with us along with the people you love who are near or far from you are also in that cloud. The church calls it “the mystic sweet communion” which we call upon when we make Eucharist together. We are never alone.

Pray always and do not lose heart because prayer is a paradox. Prayer changes nothing. And, prayer changes absolutely everything. Prayer changes the question, often from “Why me? Why now?” to “Okay, me. What now?”

And, most importantly, prayer changes the one who prays. I’ve learned that courage is just fear that you walk through, anyway.

Pray always and do no lose heart because prayer changes me and prayer changes you, so that, no matter what life throws at us, our faith is strengthened and our relationship with God is deeper.



Sunday, October 13, 2019

There is a field. I'll meet you there.

St. Philip's Episcopal Church,  Laurel, DE
October 13, 2019

Tonight at sunset, observant Jews here in Delaware and all over the world will begin the celebration of Sukkot, which commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions. (Leviticus 23:42)

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. The word sukkot means huts (some translations of the bible use the word booths), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival.

Every Jewish family will build an open-air structure in which to live during the holiday. The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

The Sukkot ritual is to take four types of plant material: an etrog (a citron fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and rejoice with them. (Leviticus 23: 39-40.) People rejoice with them by waving them or shaking them about.

Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, Program Director, Project Genesis, explains that when a family lives in a Sukkot for 7 days, they learn not only to appreciate not just their history as a people, but they gain deeper appreciation for the simpler things in life – time with family, meals together, talking together instead of typing a text or email, time away from the TV and reading a book. 

There is also time to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, the vast expanse of the sky and the multitude of stars, the crisp smell and the chill in the autumn air. 

The operating theory, of course, is that by doing without, we will better appreciate what we have. 

That has been the basis of some forms of parental discipline for generations upon generation, everything from “time out” to “you’re grounded” to “no TV for you, young man” to “hand over the car keys, young lady.” 

Sukkot is not a punishment, it’s a spiritual discipline. 

Jesus, our Rabbi, turns that teaching on its head in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke (17:11-19). The gratitude expected comes not from having to do without but from having been given something or having something restored. 

Jesus was traveling with his disciples between Samaria and Galilee. Now, let me set that in context for you. Samaria is a city in ancient Palestine, now called The West Bank. Samaria lies in between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.  Galilee, of course, is known for Nazareth, where Jesus and his family lived. Judea is home to the great city of Jerusalem. 

Samaria and Galilee were both considered inferior by Judean Jews. Galileans were known to speak with a distinct accent which disqualified them from reading Torah in the Temple during public services of worship. Samaritans were known to intermarry, leading them to be considered the ‘mongrels’ or the ‘half breeds’ of the Hebrew people and therefore, inferior. 

Indeed, as distasteful as the Judeans found the Samaritans, the hierarchy of prejudice and bigotry found the Galileans to at least be above the Samaritans. No one expected anything good to come from a Samaritan – a foreigner! – not even a Galilean like Jesus. 

We are told that Jesus encountered ten lepers as he was walking in the region between Galilee and Samaria. We do not know their identity. Perhaps there were some Galilean and some Samaritan. 

We don’t know. 

We only know that they were ten men (but, who knows, there might have been some women) and that Jesus had mercy on them as they called to him and healed them all, sight unseen, identities unknown. 

What we do know from Luke’s account of this story is that of the ten who were healed only one returned to give thanks. 

And, he was a Samaritan.

It is twice in this story that Jesus turns our expectations upside down and right side up. Not only was the one who showed gratitude a mongrel, half-breed Samaritan, he was grateful not because something had been taken from him; rather, he was grateful for what he had been given. 

Today’s gospel asks us to consider the gratitude of the lepers. I have no doubt that all ten lepers were deeply grateful for the healing they experienced. Only one had an “Attitude of Gratitude”. 

And, he was a Samaritan. 

Now, it’s easy to see this gospel only in that light. Ah, yes, we think. This is about being grateful. Check. 

Thanksgiving will be here in less than two months, providing another opportunity to be grateful. Check. 

And then we’ll no doubt be hearing about Stewardship and how we need to be grateful for all we have been given and return a portion to God as our tithe or our pledge. Check. 

I want to suggest that, while important, all of that is low-lying gospel fruit – it’s easy pickins. 

I want us to stretch a little – go up a bit higher where the sweeter gospel fruit is waiting for us. I want us to spend a little time with Jesus in that land in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”. 

Jesus has grown up being carefully taught about the Samaritans. He knows they are considered inferior. Indeed, although they had the same scriptures and purity codes, Samaritans rarely went to Jerusalem during the High Holy Days, which was considered heretical. 

And yet, Jesus seems to place himself intentionally in this area between what he has been carefully taught is right and amidst a people who do things all wrong. In this place, he is most certain to encounter not only Galileans but those unlike him, people considered unclean and inferior. 

If any of you have watched Star Trek, you know that there is always a Neutral Zone, a place to create distance between warring factions. It’s a place where you’re really not supposed to be, and, if you do go there, you’d better not have your photon torpedoes armed.

Many mystics have written about this Neutral Zone. The Celts call it “a thin place” – a place close to the veil between heaven and earth. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic theologian and poet, writes about this Neutral Zone as a “field”. He writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, 
there is a field. 
I’ll meet you there. 
When the soul lies down in that grass, 
the world is too full to talk about 
Ideas, language, 
even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make sense.
For Rumi, that field, that thin place that is too full to talk about is a place where those with opposing ideas might discover that they have something in common. 

Indeed, they may discover that their differences aren’t really all that important in the presence of the Divine.

Actually, I’m not sure that expressing gratitude is all that important to Jesus. It’s clearly important to Luke who is telling the story, but I’m not absolutely certain that it’s important to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t condemn the nine or take away their healing or punish or curse them. What he does do is to lift up the one who does return to him. Which makes me curious to know more.

There is no one that Jesus could have hated or feared more than this 10th leper - hated because of his beliefs and feared because of his disease. And yet, Jesus meets this leper in this Neutral Zone, this thin place, in this field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and heals him and then greets him when he returns to give thanks and praise. 

“Get up,” Jesus says to him, “and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” The word Luke uses for ‘well’ here is the same word that’s used for ‘salvation’

Do you hear that? Let’s reach a little higher and pick this higher gospel fruit that this leper – this unworthy, unclean, wrongdoing, wrong-thinking, sick, Samaritan leper – is not only healed of his disease, but he is also made whole and transformed in the presence of God. 

Saying thank you is a nice, social pleasantry. It's important to be polite. But what Jesus is talking about is not just being polite. Jesus is talking about the spiritual disciple of gratitude.  

Being polite makes you nice. Being grateful makes you spiritual. 

It's a little more difficult. You have to reach higher. You can be polite just by habit. Being grateful means your heart and soul are moved.

Which also makes me wonder if the thing Jesus is asking me to reach for – this higher gospel fruit – is to consider who it is I am avoiding meeting in that field. 

Let me explain it this way. There’s a theologian who has written a book on conflict mediation whose name is David Augsberger. I don’t know if the Sr. Warden who has a degree in conflict mediation has read this particular book but I’m sure the theory won’t be strange to him. 

Augsberger suggests that, “Conflict arises from the competition of same and other.” 

Those who are the same, those who see themselves on the side of right-doing, seek to control, subordinate, exclude and destroy those they see as other – those who are seen on the side of wrongdoing. 

It’s easy to spot that exclusion and subordination and destruction of ‘the other’ in the Bible. Scripture is filled with stories of tribal warfare and those who think God is on their side or take defeat as having disappointed or disobeyed God in some way. 

We see it, too, in our own day and time. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV or radio and you’ll hear the heartbreaking stories of the Israelis and Palestinians and the heartbreaking wall in modern day Samaria. 

Or, the Kurds and the Turks doing battle in Syria as the threat of Isis rises once again. There’s a lot more, even in our own country, but you get the picture.

Augsberger goes on to ask some very difficult questions, “What if the other is necessary to us, part of us, completing us, redefining us, capable of transforming us? What if the other we fear is the bearer of our healing, our hope, and our health as a human race?”

Let me bring those questions to this Gospel lesson: What if the Samaritan leper, the person I most hate and fear, is the bearer of my own healing? What if meeting that person in the field is the key to the healing of humanity and the transformation of the world?

That makes me think that picking the gospel fruit of gratitude is a far simpler task than picking the higher gospel fruit of healing and transformation in the Open Field of Possibility.

It also makes me think that we could all benefit from spending some time apart in our own Sukkot or hut, with an open roof so we could look out and contemplate the vastness of God’s creation. 

Speaking for myself, it just might move me not only to feel gratitude, but to see just how small and insignificant I am in relation to the enormous variety of all of God’s creatures and creation.

Perhaps we all need some time apart, to live more simply and reflect on our place in the world and role in the family of God before we find the courage to enter that Neutral Zone, that thin place. There, we might discover what Vendantan Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi taught.

When asked, “How are we supposed to treat others?” the Maharishi answered, “There are no others.”

So, I will leave you to ponder these questions: Who is the Samaritan for you? Who is the outcast, the one you fear and hate? Jesus invites us to meet that person in that region between Samaria and Galilee – that space between wrongdoing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us to find our healing and salvation – and theirs.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Out in the area between Samaria and Galilee, there is a village. Let’s meet there. 

We’ll build a booth - a small hut - in that thin place, and stay a while. In the fullness of silence, we’ll learn to appreciate each other – where even ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense because, in the sight of God, there are no others – and be grateful for all we have been given. 

And then, we shall return, each to our homes, to give thanks and praise.

And in that act we shall be changed and transformed and never again be the same, for we shall find the path to our salvation and be made whole.


Sunday, October 06, 2019

A Mustard Seed of Faith

October 6, 2019 - Pentecost XVII - Proper 22 C
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

Let’s start by putting this into perspective. As we heard that old country lawyer and prophet, Habakkuk, say this morning,
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
Sometimes, you know, you have to see it to believe it. So, I went to my local health food store and got some mustard seeds. I have them here in this jar which I want to pass around so you can see what it is Jesus means when he talks about the size of a mustard seed.

Mustard seeds are beyond small, right? They’re not even “tiny” Mustard seeds are flat-out “teeny-weeny-tiny”. And yet, Jesus says this is all the faith you need in order to move a mulberry tree.  Just that teeny-weeny tiny amount. 

My grandmother always had a jar of mustard seeds in her seasoning cabinet. She used them for cooking but mostly for pickling. She'd always put some mustard seeds in the pickle jar. 

And, if you had a bad cold and were very congested, she would grind them into a paste and smear some on one of my grandfather or uncle's old flannel shirts. She called it a "Mustard Plaster." 

I'm not sure how it worked, exactly. All I know is that after 24 hours of wearing that Mustard Plaster, you'd be breathing freely again. Well, that and sitting at the table hunched over a steaming hot bowl of water into which my grandmother would float a big glob of Vicks Vapo Rub, sitting under a 'tent' of a thick terry cloth towel or a flannel shirt. 

Come to think of it, maybe it was the flannel that had medicinal properties.

Anyway, the other thing to know is that that teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed produced one of the largest trees in the plant kingdom. I'm talking HUGE. Ask the kids in the Church School. I just showed them a picture. 

So, Jesus is saying that we need a teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed that will grow into a huge tree that will be no match for the mulberry tree. 

So, let’s talk about that mulberry tree. 

I have a friend who lives in Paterson, NJ who tells me that there are lots of mulberry trees in that city. Apparently, they were all planted in the 19th century.  

Back when Paterson was the "Silk City" and producing more silk than any other American city they decided to raise their own silkworms rather than purchase them from Europe or Asia. He tells me that the ONLY food silkworms will eat is mulberry leaves. 

Alas. the climate in NJ was too extreme for silk works and the experiment failed, but the trees continued to grow and flourish, much to the consternation of many. Mulberry trees are VERY messy trees (the mulberries drop all over or are picked up by birds and the berries and bird droppings stain wherever they fall).  

The roots of the mulberry tree go deep and if you cut it down, the remaining trunk will grow another tree so if you want to get rid of it you have to pull it up from the roots and dig around to make sure all the roots are gone.  

It’s also true that if you attempt to cut down a tree it will only spring up again; and they grow quickly!

So, what Jesus is saying to us is that a teeny-weeny tiny seed of faith like a mustard seed is all the faith you need to move a hardy, stubborn, messy tree like the mulberry. When you think about that for half a minute, that’s pretty amazing.

St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, (2 Timothy 1:1-14) writes,  
I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you. . . .”. 
We often sell ourselves short but we all - every single last one of us -  have this gift of at least a mustard seed of faith within us. There are ordinary people – just like you and me – who do extraordinary things.

The news is always all bad - it's what sells paper and airtime - so we may not pay it much attention, but, just this week, there were several stories about ordinary people who put their mustard seed of faith into action, with some pretty amazing results.

There was an incredible story in the news this week about Mr. Jim Freeman, who is a teacher in Kentucky. One of the classes in his school was taking a field trip to explore a fossil bed in nearby Indiana. Unfortunately, Ryan Kelly, a 10 year old girl in that class had a birth defect which confined her to a wheelchair, which prevented her from this class adventure.

Except, the teacher, Mr. Freeman, was moved by her story. So, he put his faith to work with his intelligence and creativity and figured out a way to make that class field trip possible for her.

Mr. Freeman made a carrier for Ryan - sort of like the ones parents use for little kids - and carried her around on his back all day. That made  it possible for her to explore the fossil bed in the riverbank alongside the other teachers and her fellow students and classmates.
As if that weren't enough for one week, there was also an incredible scene in a courtroom in Dallas, TX. It came during the victim impact portion of the murder trial of Amber Guyger who had been found guilty of murdering Botham Jean whom she had mistaken as someone who had broken into her apartment.

What we witnessed was nothing short of amazing. Botham’s, 18-year old brother, Brandt, took the stand and said, “If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.”

And then, he told her that if she “gave her life to Christ, that would be the best thing Botham would want for you.” And then he asked if could give her a hug. 

To the amazement of everyone in the room, he did just that.

But, it didn’t end there. After she pronounced her sentence, Tammy Kemp, the State District Judge, gave the prisoner a bible. She said two words, “Read this.” And then, the judge gave the woman she had just sentenced for the murder of an innocent man, a hug.
Now, I know there has been some controversy around that and her sentence which is no doubt warranted, but for purposes of this sermon, I want us to focus on what this young man and that judge felt called to do even in the face of what they knew would be controversial. 

I'm quite certain that they knew that their embrace of a murderer would bring them criticism. They knew what they were doing was controversial. And yet, they did it anyway. 

It reminds me of the story many of us heard this week on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi who came upon a leper as he rode around the countryside. According to the story, Francis got off his horse and met the leper. He embraced him and gave him a kiss of peace - some say, he kissed him on the mouth - and then the leper embraced him in return. 

I don't know whether or not that story is true, but I do know that the three stories I saw unfold on my television set were true.

How is it that these three people, three ordinary people – a teacher, an 18 year old boy who was grieving the loss of his brother, and a judge – all found the strength to put their faith into action?

Jesus tells us that all they needed – all we need – is faith the size of a mustard seed. 

That was enough to allow a teacher to move a handicapped student to be with the rest of her classmates to explore fossil beds – but more importantly, to feel normal. 

Just a teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed of faith allowed a young man to be moved to hug the woman who killed his brother and, even though she had just sentenced her to prison, allowed her to feel the unconditional love of God. 

And, it only took that much faith for a judge to be moved to give a convicted killer a bible – and a hug and allowed her to feel like a child of God.

And, here’s the thing: These extraordinary accomplishments were achieved by ordinary people like you and me. St. Paul reminds Timothy and he reminds us, . . .to rekindle the gift of God that is within you. . . .”.

If a teacher, a young 18 year old man and a judge can move the modern equivalent of a mulberry tree with just a mustard seed of faith, what is possible for you – individually as children of God and together as a Body of Christ?