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Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Heart Expands



The Heart Expands

A Sermon for Pentecost XV - Proper19 A - September 13, 2020

Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10: Headstrong Daughter


It’s hard to believe but it’s been nineteen years since that September morning when four planes were hijacked. Nineteen years since the beautiful autumn blue sky was marred with planes flying into the Twin Towers in New York City, into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and into an open field in Shanksville, PA, about 60 minutes drive from Pittsburgh, 90 minutes to the Pentagon.


Just two days ago, we marked the 19th Anniversary of that awful tragedy when our country was attacked and almost 3,000 people were killed. At the time it seemed the whole world mourned with us. We had never known such unity, before or since. And, in many ways, we are still feeling the effects of what happened that day, almost two decades later.


I think there is a straight line between the chaos that is our current reality in our country and in the world and what happened on 9/11.


Into this time, comes Matthew’s Gospel on forgiveness. Peter came to Jesus, thinking that he knew the answer to his question. If someone sinned against him, he asked, how many times should he forgive him? Seven times? Seven sounds like a good number. It’s the number of wholeness and completion, isn’t it? So, I’m sure Peter figures that seven is a good guess.


No, says Jesus. Not seven times, but seventy times seven. Even before Peter can do the math and say, “What? 490 times?” Jesus launches into a parable about the Unmerciful Servant.


I’d like to share a story with you about forgiveness which came to me as a parable from a clergy colleague who was working, at the time, in Hoboken, NJ. Her name is Laurie Wurm and she is, in my estimation, one of the most perceptively pastoral priests I know – which leads her to her convictions on social justice which informs prophetic action.


She tells the story of that time after 9/11, in the city of Hoboken, NJ, where she lived and worked right across the river from what became known as Ground Zero. She helped to create a support group for people whose spouses, fiancés and children were killed during the September 11th attacks.


That first year, she heard stories that were unbelievable and shocking because they were the truth. People talked about having parts of their spouses arrive at local funeral homes and being asked if they wanted to be notified if more pieces were uncovered. 


One woman came to the group in tears after cancelling the reservation for her wedding venue. One man was in anguish as he talked about the decision by City Officials to remove the debris from the Towers to the Fresh Kills Landfill because his wife of over thirty years might be there.


The three-year old daughter of one of the group members drew a picture for her therapist of a flower, a tree and a butterfly. She asked the therapist if he liked it. When the therapist said, “Yes.” She took the picture back and scribbled all over it. No one had to help her understand what had happened.


I tell you these things which Laurie reported not to shock you or disturb you but to remind you that this is a sermon about forgiveness and healing.


Six months after they began, a woman named Julie came to speak to the 9/11 Support Group. Her fiancé had been killed in an explosion ten years earlier.   


Laurie reports: “The members stared at her in disbelief. She was like a being from another world because she was a whole person: engaged again, full of compassion and very much alive." "


When members of the support group asked her how this was possible, Julie gave one of the most profound testimonies to the presence of God I’ve ever heard. She said, ‘The heart expands.’”


The heart expands. 


At least, it can. And, it will, if we allow it.


Do you remember what caused the Grinch to be mean – so mean that he wanted to ruin Christmas for every Who in Whoville? Remember? Of course you do: 


His heart had grown two sizes too small.


I don’t remember what it was that caused Mr. Grinch’s heart to shrink. The story goes, “No one quiet knows the reason. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.”


There’s no reason given for what it was that made his heart so small that he just can’t feel love and kindness like the regular Who down in Whoville.  But, you and I know people like this. Well, maybe not as bad as Mr. Grinch but we do know people who live and work among us who just seem to be naturally contrary and easily inspired to do and say mean things.


I have come to know the truth of the old saying that “Hurt people, hurt people.” That becomes the sad reality when hurt people do not have the opportunity – or do not take the opportunity – to heal their wounds.


I once had a Hospice patient – I’ll just call him Jack – who was almost always in constant pain. He refused any of the meds the nurses offered him – except once in a while he’d take a Tylenol. One. That’s it. Nothing more. He was in so much pain that he rarely slept more than an hour or so at a time.


As you might imagine, he was miserable and an exceedingly difficult patient. The nurses were at their wit’s end with him. One nurse finally convinced him to see the chaplain. I was asked to pay him a visit.


I asked her, other than the obvious distress of seeing the man in pain, what her biggest concern was for him. She said something I’ll never forget. She said, “As long as he’s in pain, he won’t be able to let go and die. He’s prolonging his own suffering and death. It makes me wonder if, somehow, he knows this. I wonder if he feels, as long as he’s feeling pain, he’s alive. I wonder if he’s afraid of dying.”


She wasn't far from the truth.


When I first met Jack, I was taken aback by his physical appearance. Being in constant horrific pain meant he had little to no appetite and whatever energy his body had went into feeding the pain and not his body. 


He was stick thin and as close as a person can get to being rude to me without actually being rude but not exactly being polite. 


It was clear he was meeting with me so he could check off a box for his nurse.


With his permission, I made a pot of tea and we settled in to “just talk”. I spotted some navy stuff in the kitchen and asked him about his military service. That opened the door enough to get my big toe in. Turns out, that was all I needed.


Turns out, Jack had been a Navy seal. Viet Nam. I thanked him for his service. He smiled. 


I figured, I had to make my move soon or lose my opportunity completely. 


I took a deep breath and said, “I have friends who served there. The ones who came back came home completely changed."


I paused for effect, looked him straight in the eye and then said, "I can’t imagine the horrors you saw there.”


He looked at me, long and hard, and then he looked through me. Studied me. Carefully. It was easy to see his military training. Then, his eyes filled with tears as he said, “You have no idea, chaplain. What I saw? Ha! That was nothing compared to what I DID,” adding softly, “You have no idea what I did, chaplain. “


He took a few deep breaths to stop himself from sobbing before he croaked out, “No absolution, chaplain. There’s no absolution for me. No forgiveness. No absolution.”


“And, is that why you’re afraid to die?” I asked. He laughed a sarcastic laugh. “Trust me, chaplain,” he said. “I know where I’m going after I die. Whatever pain I’m feeling here is nothing compared to what I’m going to feel after I meet my Maker.”


I let his truth sit in the room with us for a while before venturing to speak again. 


“Well, if I had your understanding of God, I guess I might feel the same way. Jack, I’d like the chance to tell you about the God of my understanding. The God I know. Would it be alright if I came back again and we could talk about that?”


And, wonder of wonder and miracles of miracles, Jack agreed. I guess everybody eventually gets to the point were "enough is enough".


And thus began one of the most important relationships I think I’ve ever had, before or since. There’s lots to say, but I’ll just say this: Jack never forgave himself for what he did, but he came to understand that God did. Or, would. 


Slowly, slowly, slowly, he began to avail himself of pain meds. He began to relax. 


Slowly, he began to allow himself permission to die.


I don’t know how many times Jack had to convince himself that God forgave him. Seven times? Nah, it was probably more like seventy times seven. I do know this much to be true: With each time, he was more loving to his family, more concerned about their reaction to his pain than he was to his pain. 


With each deeper meaning of understanding himself to be forgiven, he was able to be kinder and gentler with himself and then to be kinder and gentler with others.


Simply? Jack’s heart expanded. He knew himself to be loved by his family and friends. He came to understand that God’s love is unconditional and that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 


Not even himself.


“Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”


Of course, the true meaning of Christmas is that God’s love became incarnate, became flesh, and dwelt among us. In Christ Jesus, we know that God does not stand apart from us and keep order. Because of Jesus, we know that God walks with us into the chaos of human misery and sin. God’s love transforms our anxiety and pain. God’s grace transforms our sin into opportunities for love.


Seventy times seven, Jesus says. 


I know this much to be true: Each time we forgive, a part of ourselves is forgiven. Let me say that again: Each time we forgive, a part of ourselves is forgiven. We wouldn't be able to recognize the flaw in others if we didn't know it in ourselves.

Which is why, each time we forgive, the heart expands, and our faith finds the strength of ten Grinches, plus two.  


 Seventy times seven.



Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Celebrating Ralph

  Ralph W. Peters died just as his father's grandfather clock down the hall - the clock he had spent $1,000 repairing after The Fire but was only worth about half that - was striking midnight, taking leave of his time in this life on Sunday, September 6th and ushering in the day he began eternal life on Monday, September 7th.


Death came, as it sometimes does, quickly and yet not fast enough.


Just last Sunday, August 30th, we had been together. We are great fans of and hold season tickets to Clearspace Theatre in Rehoboth Beach. We hadn't been able to attend any of the performances because of the pandemic but had decided to "risk" seeing the play "Constellations" precisely because it was a 90-minute play with two performers and not a musical with folks singing and dancing and twirling on stage. And, the theatre folks at Clearspace could not have been better about taking every precaution to keep us all safe.


After the performance, we stopped for supper over at the outside patio of the Yellowfin, one of our favorite Bistros in Millsboro. Ralph ordered the Fried Oyster Po-boy with a side of Onion Rings and a beer. The man was 87 years old and he wolfed down that meal with all the enthusiasm and relish of a 20-year old, sharing one fried oyster with Rita, his bride of 40 years, and one which had inadvertently fallen to the ground with a neighborhood cat who had come from one of the local condos for a nightly mooch.


We talked and laughed and solved almost all the problems in the world as we most always do when we're together, after which we thoroughly discussed, analyzed and solved all problems in the church. You know, as friends are of't wont to do.


It was a beautiful evening. It was not just good to be together, it was good to be together having been to the theatre and sharing a meal and feeling "almost normal" again. We dined out on that feeling of normalcy as a dessert that capped off a wonderful night out. We didn't want it to end. Indeed, Ralph and Rita were late - very late - when their daughter Kristen came to fetch them and take them back home.


We couldn't have known what was coming next but maybe somewhere, we knew and that's why we lingered so.


In the wee, very early, still dark hours of Monday, August 31st, Ralph became ill. He vomited every hour until late morning when his family finally convinced him to be checked out at the hospital. He was taken by ambulance to the ER and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.


On Thursday, September 3rd, he had surgery for what the doctor felt sure must be some sort of blockage or kink in the intestine which he would remove, sew him back up, and he'd be back home for the Labor Day festivities.


What the doctor found was what no one - not even the doctor - expected. Ralph had metastatic cancer. There was to be no chemo. No radiation. No further surgery. Nothing to do but to stabilize him and send him home to be loved and cared for by his family and his friends and his Hospice Team.


Ralph arrived home on Saturday afternoon, September 5th. He was so very, very happy to be home that his eyes were shining uncontrollably with unmitigated joy. His voice was raspy from having been intubated and having had an NG (nasogastric) tube. He was having a difficult time breathing because he was recovering from aspiration pneumonia. But, he was wearing that marvelous, warm, genuine, authentic Ralph Peters smile.


When I made my way over to the bed to see him, he looked at me and for just a flickering second we saw in each other's eyes the sadness that was an acknowledgment of The Truth. His smile was momentarily overtaken by a thin-lipped resolve and he said, "This is NOT over. I'm gonna fight this thing."


"Absolutely, Ralph," I said. "With everything you've got." We smiled at each other. Knowing. Understanding. Gripping each other's hand in a pact of resolve.


It wasn't a lie; neither was it some cockeyed-optimistic statement of impossible hope. It was, rather, a statement that life is a precious gift, one that is worthy of the fight against any adversary, even the formidable foe of Cancer; not to win but to declare before the whole cosmos that this life, this one, precious life, was not going to be taken easily.


I joined my Ms. Conroy as she did her amazing Hospice Nurse teaching, adding a few pastoral notes when warranted and as necessary. I stepped back several times to marvel again at her skill and expertise and competence, her confidence which instills confidence in the uninitiated and inexperience, and her compassion which communicates genuine care and concern and comfort in knowing they are in good hands.


She really is badass at this, you know?


We may not yet have the credentials but we are, none the less, "End of Life Doulas".


We gathered again last evening, around 7-ish. Not knowing but knowing nonetheless. I brought my communion kit and oils. I went over to Ralph and told him that we were about to say "The Prayers" for him and that I would be anointing him. He was very weak and could hardly speak but he was able to croak out "Yes."


We had Eucharist - my first time presiding and receiving since the Second Sunday in Lent, which would have been March 8th. It was a perfect way to break the fast.


Then, having been spiritually fortified, I lead the family in what the BCP titles, "Ministrations at the Time of Death."


Ralph was anointed for death. Rita and Kristen asked for anointing and laying on of hands and prayers. COVID be damned. There are times when the human touch is absolutely the best medicine - the only medicine - for a heart that is breaking open with love and sorrow.


We all cried. Big, gasping sobs. It was good.


We left around 9:30. Rita called shortly after midnight. We got dressed and came back to the house to say our goodbyes and to keep Vigil until the Hospice nurse pronounced him legally dead and the Mortuary came to fetch his body.


There is a strange aura of peace in the room after a person has fought the good fight and slipped past the veil and stepped into Life Eternal. It's only strange because, as often as you've seen it, you are surprised by its presence.


That peace, that Shalom, is one of the manifestations of "the peace of God which passes all understanding." It is in the presence of death, however, that I understand the deeply layered meaning of Shalom.


In Palestine and Israel, "Shalom" is said as both a greeting and a farewell. The root of the Hebrew word Shalom is Shalam, meaning to be safe or complete. Related words are Shelem (to pay for) and Shulam (to be fully paid). It has many nuanced meanings: completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony.


Shalom. It is now finished. Shalom. It is just begun.


Shalom, goodbye. Shalom, hello.


Harmony. Balance. Completeness. Fullness. Rest.


I will miss Ralph, but I will rest on the promise of the words in the Eucharistic prayer used in the Burial Office, " . . . for we know that life is changed, not ended. . . ".


Enter our new, ancient companion, Grief.


The next few days will be remembered mostly as a blur. That is probably for the best. Grief will usually arrive as an uninvited guest, unannounced but not a surprise. She will take several shapes and forms but she will be our companion for a long, long time, perhaps even walking us to our own graves, comforting us, and whispering to us that we will soon be returning to the ones we've loved and have gone on before.


Grief is proof of love, evidence of a reality that is no more, bearing the credentials of the importance and value of life.


I always welcome her when she comes. She is here now, sitting right beside me. I'm reporting to her the events of the past week even as I am telling them to you. She will sit and stay and then take her leave, arriving again when I don't necessarily want her but often, she will let me know of her presence as a wave rising in my heart, lapping at the shore of my soul.


And then, I will weep. And then, I will dry my tears, wipe my nose, pull up my socks, and get on with it. And then, life will go on with an ever-increasing awareness of just how precious life really is.


Grief will do that for you, if you let it.


Shalom, Ralph. Shalom, Chevarim (my friends).


To quote poet Henri-Frederic Amiel: "Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us. So be swift to love and make haste to do kindness."


"O that today we would harken to his voice." (Hebrews 3:15)




Elizabeth Kaeton

September 7, 2020


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Two sentences, Three Little Words

 A Sermon preached via Facebook Live

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XIV, Proper 18 A

September 6, 2020

I can not tell you how many times over the many years I’ve been ordained that I have read this passage from the 18th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.


I’ve done so in a variety of church settings: the midst of a Vestry meeting as a word of preparation or caution, or between two parishioners – sometimes as part of a marriage counseling session – as a way to resolve conflict and find an avenue of reconciliation and healing. 


I confess I’ve also read it over and over again to myself when someone either in the church or in my family has done or said something that hurt or betrayed, or when I – human and flawed and faulted as I am – have said or done something that hurt or betrayed and I’m looking for spiritual guidance and strength as to how to proceed. 


The process is simple and sound: First, you approach the person and “point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. 


And therein lies the biggest stumbling block to the whole process. Wait! What? Confront someone? The very one who hurt me? Alone? No way! Why? To listen to the inevitable denial? So I can risk being hurt again? Not on your life!


Jesus is a pragmatist. He knows. Because he adds, If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Right! Sometimes, with some people, in some situations, that can be a pretty big “IF”. 


Jesus says that, once you have tried that FIRST and it has failed, THEN, “. .. take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed bythe evidence of two or three witnesses.”


That’s also risky, isn’t it? What if you’ve got it all wrong? What if you misunderstood? What if it really was ‘just all a big misunderstanding’? Now, you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of ‘one or two others’. Now, you are the one who needs to apologize – to the person you accused and in front of ‘one or two others’. 


Well, says Jesus, assuming you ARE right and that intervention failed, the next step is to “tell it to the church.” And, if that fails, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”


Of course, human relationships, especially in times of conflict, can be and often are a bit more complicated and not as cut and dry as the scenario Matthew reports Jesus saying. 


I’ve learned that there are many bumps on the Road to Reconciliation and Healing. There are ruts of grievance and potholes of grudges. There are unexpected diversions, sudden stops or delays and surprise detours. 


I’m convinced this is why Jesus said that forgiveness must be given seventy times seven. I think he wasn’t saying literally that one must forgive 490 times. I think he was telling us that forgiveness is a long process with many layers, and the Road to Reconciliation and Healing is very long with hills and valleys that are filled with many obstacles and hazards.

In my experience, all of those hazards can be overcome by two things, assuming the apology is authentic. 


First, there must be a willingness on the part of the person who has been offended to accept the apology. Fully. No stipulations. No grudges. And second, there must be a willingness on the part of the person who has been offended to accept that they may never get an apology much less an admission of fault. 


Sometimes, the person who has been offended needs to be able to say, “Enough!” In the 12 Step Recovery programs, there’s a saying that “Holding onto anger . . . or resentment . . .  or not forgiving . . .  is like eating rat poison and expecting the other person to die.”


I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but the only petition of the Lord’s Prayer with a condition placed at the conclusion is the one about forgiveness. We pray, “ . . . forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 


Jesus knew forgiveness would always need special emphasis. I suspect that the need for that emphasis will remain till the Parousia, until Jesus returns.


Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: Sometimes, you have to be done. Not mad. Not upset. Just done.

The business of forgiveness often spills over into the corporate sphere. As I have worked with a variety of church over the years, I’ve come to hear no lack of reasons for the seemingly galloping demise of the church. As the sun continues to set on mainstream Christianity – especially, it seems, Protestantism in the West – there is no want of reasons to account for this.

For Robert Wuthnow, Wade Clark Roof, William McKinney and even our own former Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the reason our churches are filled with empty pews is due to “declining birth rates”.

For those enamored of Whoopi Goldberg in the movie “Sister Act,” it’s because our music and liturgy are dull and boring and need to “get with it”. And, our religious organizations are not part of the community much less the effort to improve our neighborhood and the lives of our neighbors.

For Tony Campolo, it’s something he calls “affluenza” (a portmanteau of affluence and influenza), by which he means the negative psychological or behavioral effects of having or pursuing wealth. The priority of having or pursuing wealth, he asserts, defies the essential qualities and purpose of Christianity, which is service to others.

For Martin Marty, it’s simply the modern popularity of “weekend trips”. John Buchanan says that it is lack of “mission” (defined as outreach ministries). Finally, but not exhaustively, it’s Will Willimon who speaks to the modern phenomenon of secular religion, saying simply, “Rotary meets at a more convenient time.”

All of those things may well be true. I take a much more pastoral view and follow the lead of Jesus, especially in this morning’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel. It is, I believe, the lack of forgiveness that belongs at the top of the list.

More than anything else, the unwillingness to perform the difficult task of forgiveness and reconciliation in the love and spirit of Christ is what robs the church of that quality of life which first attracted outsiders. It was that quality of the church’s life that set it uniquely apart from all other attempts at creating community. And, I believe, by the grace of God, it still can.

It is St. Paul, interestingly enough, in this passage from his letter to the church in Rome, who comes closest to the prescription for what ails the church – indeed, what ails our nation as well as individual relationships.

Paul summarizes the second tablet of the 10 Laws Moses took down from the Mountain and emphasizes that it is “love” that fulfills the law. He summarizes Leviticus 19 and reminds us of the final law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It sounds absurd to the modern ear to hear a law commanding us to love. I can hear some asking, “Who can love on command?” Please know that Paul is not talking about sentimental, hormonal or romantic “love.”

The love Paul and the priests of Leviticus are talking about is an act of the will. As N. T. Wright says, this “love will grit its teeth and act as if the emotions were in place, trusting they will follow in good time.”

This love, modeled as it is on the action of God in Christ, is willing to suffer patiently in the unrelenting effort to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation (“Seventy times seven.”). Christians say we believe that cruciform love – love that died on the cross and resurrected for love of us – is both an integral part of Christian community and to the paradoxical power that overcomes the worst impulses of the world.

So the mystery to me is why is it so rarely practiced in the life of the church?

Alas, I don’t have the answer to that question. I have only come to believe that if churches – especially those churches that are literally starving for want of hearing and feeding on the Good News of the Unconditional Love of God in Christ Jesus – were allowed the opportunity to explore their anger and resentment and grief they may well find themselves on the Path to Forgiveness. 

This, I believe, will place them their way to the Road to Reconciliation and Healing.

And, once our communities of faith begin to practice and model forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and hope, well, I can’t imagine a better form of evangelism, no matter the birth rate or condition of affluenza, or weekend trips or church music, or what time the Rotary meets.

I’ve discovered that there are two sentences containing three little words that are equal in power when spoken in truth. The first is, ‘I love you.’ And the second is like unto it: ‘You are forgiven.’

Indeed, I don’t think you can say one without saying the other. At least, one makes it easier to say the other.

I love you.  You are forgiven.  // You are forgiven. I love you.

How different would the world be if we, as individuals, if we, as the church, if we, as a multi-cultural, pluralistic society, said those two three-word sentences more often?

Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly God’s message to us in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus?

We are loved. We are forgiven.

So I leave you with this question: What would the world, the life of the church, our own lives be like if we heard and committed spread that message?


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.


Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”  

A sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XII - Proper 17A

August 30, 2020


Poor Old Simon Peter! Last Sunday Jesus asked the question, “Who am I?” and Peter responded, “You are the Son of God, the Messiah!” Jesus responded by naming him the foundation of the Church.


Seven days later, we hear that this same Simon Peter is a schmuck – an obstacle to the vision Jesus has for his ministry here on earth.


Well, when you think about it, Peter is not much different from the rest of us.  


Peter reminds us that sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between when we’ve slipped over the line between sin and grace. Sometimes, it’s hard to know when a moment of achievement has become a vehicle for sin or when a moment of sin has become a vehicle for grace because we slip between them so effortlessly.


Peter reminds us that you can be a building block one day and a stumbling block the next.


The older I get and the longer I live the more I am drawn to the real characters in life – the ones whose personalities are more complex and complicated – who often slip in the balance between sin and grace.  You know the people I’m talking about. The ones who sound like that verse in Frank Sinatra’s song. You know the verse I’m talking about:


I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king

I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing

Each time I find myself flat on my face

I pick myself up and get back in the race.


That’s life, as Frank would say. Some would say it’s a life well lived.


There are so many people who live their lives balancing on that line between sin and grace, they often slip effortlessly between the two.


There are times when I think of St. Peter in that way. We only hear what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have to say about him, but I’m guessing there was a lot more to the man than meets the eye. Jesus clearly saw something in him – beyond the socially clumsy, awkward fisherman – something about his humanness that inspired Jesus to name Peter as the foundation of the community of faith that would be built in his name.


There are many people who come to mind, but I’m remembering a story told by Jack Spong about the priest who was his role model.


Jack’s father died when he was 12. His mother had not finished the 9th grade in school and thus had little ability to replace his father as the family’s breadwinner.  The family soon fell into rather precarious poverty. For about two years, he says, he was little more than a radically lost, insecure adolescent.


Then someone came into his life through no action on Jack’s part. His church in Charlotte, North Carolina, chose a new rector. The year was 1946, World War II had come to an end, and the man chosen had just come out of the navy, where he had served as a chaplain on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific.


This man was different from any minister or priest Jack had ever known.  He was young – only 32 years of age. As a young boy, he thought that one needed to be 80 years old to be ordained. And, he wore white buck shoes. Everybody knows that priests wear black, lace-up oxfords. 


He also drove a Ford convertible. Definitely not a Volvo or Oldsmobile. Finally, he had a stunningly beautiful wife who was dashing and bejeweled. She even smoked cigarettes in a long golden cigarette holder. Not your typical pastor’s wife – especially not in The Episcopal Church.


Jack writes that he was so deeply drawn to this couple that he volunteered to do anything that enabled him to get closer to them, so he became the only acolyte in the church willing to serve at the 8:00 a.m. communion service.


In order to help the family, Jack took a job delivery the newspaper to about 150 families. He had to get up at 4:30 every morning to do his route which took about two and a half hours. He had just enough time to shower, dress and catch the bus to his downtown church for the 8 AM service.


In those days, fasting before mass was a requirement. However, not having food in his stomach at that hour either made him feel dizzy and nauseous. Every time Jack was acolyte, he either fainted or vomited or had to be carried out of the sanctuary.


Even so, his priest wanted him to continue to serve, so after mass they would walk ½ a block up the street to café and buy him breakfast. There, they would talk. Jack said he never remembered what they talked about, he only knew that this was the only adult he ever remembered who listened to him. He listened deeply enough to ask him clarifying questions and help him think through the questions of his life.


Jack said, “It was such a simple thing to do, such an ordinary thing, but to this lonely and lost fifteen year old boy, it was powerfully important and life-giving. I adored that man and wanted to be as much like him as I could be. He became the model for my life and I found my vocation to be a priest in my relationship with him.”


After Jack graduated from high school and left to go to university, this priest also left to become rector of a church in Louisiana. Unfortunately, while he was there, he fell into addiction to alcohol. Apparently, it got so bad that the man was removed from the priesthood.


The world judged him to be an ordinary man with an ordinary weakness, but Jack said that to him, he was a great person.  That priest died thinking of himself professionally as a failure, but to Jack, he was a vital person, a change agent to Jack who became a change agent in the church and the world.


The truth is that he was just an ordinary man who simply took the time to talk with a lost teenager. It was something that anybody could have done, but he did it.

Jack wrote: “Most of us will not be generals who win battles or elected officials who will rise to political power. We may not become the chief executive of either a small business or of a great corporation, but we can make a difference, a profound difference in the lives of those around us in ordinary ways just by being sensitive, just by being a friend, just by saying the right word at the right time in the right circumstance.”


I see Peter in that way – flawed and faulted, but there for Jesus when he needed him, saying the right word at the right time in the right circumstances. And then, just as easily, saying words that – just like that – would put him on the slippery slope to into a great fall from grace.


There is no magic formula to protect you in life or make you perfect.


 We were not made for perfection. We were made to be human.


Just like Peter. Just like Paul. Just like Jack’s priest. Just like Jack Spong. We are capable of moments of brilliance as well of acts of foolishness for which there are always opportunities for redemption and grace.


Tennis great, Arthur Ashe, was one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS which he contracted from a blood transfusion, but he suffered the same prejudice and bigotry as every other person with AIDS.


Ashe gave a simple formula, an ordinary recipe for an extraordinary life that I think is worth considering. He said:


Start where you are.  

Use what you have.

Do what you can.” 


It’s not a guarantee for a perfect life – no promise to keep you from messing up or sliding that slippery slope from “a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king”.


Like Peter, you can be a building block one day and a stumbling block the next.


But, Ashe’s wise aphorism is one way that ordinary people like you and me can walk the sometimes very fine line between sin and grace. 


Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.”   


And know that, whatever happens in your life – through the good times and bad, when you stay in balance or fall from grace – God loves you beyond your wildest imagination.



Sunday, August 23, 2020




A Sermon preached during a 

Facebook Live Broadcast: Sirach 26:10 

the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton


Note: This is NOT the sermon I preached. When it came time to broadcast, I felt I couldn't preach on authenticity while reading from a manuscript. What I preached has elements of this sermon but it turned out to be much shorter than this.


I try very hard to tell this story only once every three years. I’m afraid I’ve lost track so if you’ve heard me tell it before, well, let me just say that it’s one of my favorite stories so thank you for understanding and I hope you enjoy hearing it again.


So, the story goes that St. Peter decided to take the day off from his official duties of welcoming the newcomers to the Pearly Gates and – what else? – go fishing. Jesus was happy to volunteer to cover for him.


Bright and early the next morning, Jesus appeared at the Gates even before the angels and archangels, the seraphim and cherubim, arrived for their warm up Alleluias. He had put on his special, dazzling-white robe – the one he had worn on Mt. Tabor (or, was it Mt. Hermon?) for the Transfiguration – and his Sunday-go-to-meeting handmade Italian leather sandals.


Suddenly, it was time, and the cherubim giggled as they opened wide the Pearly Gates of Heaven. The first arrival at the gate was a Roman Catholic priest. Jesus gave him a hearty welcome and then said, “Say, I’m wondering if you’d answer a question for me. Who do you say that I am?”


The Roman Catholic priest said, “Well, the Pope says. . . .” Jesus quickly cut him off saying, “I know what the Pope says. I’ve read all the encyclicals of all the Popes. Welcome! Welcome! Come in! Come in! ”


The next arrival was a Lutheran pastor. Jesus also gave him a hearty welcome and then asked him the same question: “Who do you say that I am?”


The Lutheran pastor said, “Well, the Bible says . . . “ Jesus quickly cut him off saying, “I know what the Bible says. I’ve read every bible in every version. Come in! Come in! Welcome! Welcome!”


Finally, an Episcopal priest appeared at the gate. Jesus gave him a warm and enthusiastic welcome and then asked, “Who do you say that I am?”


The Episcopal priest said, “Why, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! The Anointed One! The Christ who is and was and is to come!”


Jesus was absolutely elated. He even did the same little joy-joy-happy-happy dance he gave when Peter gave him a very similar answer. “Yes! Yes! Yes,” said Jesus. “That’s absolutely right.”


And then, the Episcopal priest became a bit pensive and thoughtful and said, “Yes, but others say . . . .”


That is one of my favorite stories not only because it presents, in comic, caricature form, the different Christology (or understanding of Christ) from the various branches of religion, but it does so with a certain amount of authenticity which, I think, gives the story its humor.


If nothing else, we Episcopalians can laugh at ourselves.


It is true that Episcopalians, being Anglicans, adhere to a fairly orthodox view of the humanity and divinity of Jesus while still being open, without judgment, to the interpretation of other perspectives of Jesus.


Someone once said that the Anglican Church is “the roomiest room in all of Western Christianity.” I have found that statement to have more than a thread or two of truth. At least, that’s our goal – to be open to catholic, protestant, evangelical and orthodox expressions of faith which maintaining an adherence to the basic tenants of Christianity.


The point is that, whatever one does, it must come from a place of authentic belief. This is so because, as Jesus said to Simon (who he called) Peter, “ . . . whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”


Those particular words of Jesus, more so than many of the other words of his teachings, have always affected me deeply.


Jesus is speaking, of course, of what he has just said to Simon: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .”


Jesus is making a promise to Simon Peter and, some say, by extension to the other disciples. It’s as if he’s saying, I will build my church on you and you will have the keys to the kingdom – this is my solemn vow.


Think about that for a moment. Jesus is saying something about the nature of a sacred vow. Jesus is also saying that our spiritual lives are not lived in a vacuum. What comes out of our mouths should be at least as carefully considered and what we put into our mouths.


Jesus is saying that heaven and earth are not hermetically sealed apart from one another; that there is an exchange between the two; that promises or vows made on earth are heard and kept in heaven; and that what has been set free on earth is also set free in heaven.


I’d like to think that explains a bit why, in the story I told earlier, the Episcopal priest is hesitant to name his understanding about Jesus as the ONLY way to understand Jesus that has any authenticity or validity.


It’s not just about being “Protestant nice” or “politically correct” or “polite White”. It’s about being confident in your own beliefs without having to be restrictive of the beliefs of others. It takes real emotional and spiritual maturity not to have to be right – especially about God; to be confident enough in what you believe to practice generosity of spirit.


Religious intolerance is part of the reason this country was founded. The Puritans were very narrow in their focus of what they believed about God and who they thought God is and how they wanted to worship God and behave in the world. They fled England to find religious freedom here in this country.


Ironically, Puritans were pretty intolerant of the religious expressions of the Native people – calling them ‘heathens’ – and, in fact everyone else who came to this land who held different beliefs and expressed those beliefs differently.


That intolerance seems to be in our cultural DNA. There are Roman Catholics who can tell you that part of their family story includes harsh treatment and prejudice. Catholics in revolutionary America tended to be wealthy, English speaking, and more focused on private devotions than on public displays of their faith.


Thus the Protestant majority mostly tolerated them. But, by the 1920s, anti-Catholics, including the Ku Klux Klan, believed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy and that parochial schools encouraged separatism and kept Catholics from becoming loyal Americans.


That attitude lingered for many years. I certainly remember it as a young Roman Catholic child, growing up as part of an immigrant Portuguese family in the mill town of Fall River, MA. I was just a small child but I have a clear memory of the intensity of the conversations about whether or not John F. Kennedy was fit to be President of the United States.


Not only was JFK the youngest man ever to run for POTUS, he was (gasp!) Irish. And even more unthinkable: he was Catholic. His family was built on its faith. His campaign for president was almost crushed by it.  People asked 'If a Catholic were in the White House, would that mean the pope would be calling the shots on what went on in the White House?'"


It sounds ridiculous now, doesn’t it? Especially since we have a President in the White House who professes to have been Presbyterian but is now non-denominational evangelical and a First Lady who is a Roman Catholic who attends Episcopal churches and sends their son to an Episcopal school.


We also have a Democratic candidate for POTUS and his wife who are devout Roman Catholics who both publicly support some issues which are in direct conflict with the strong tenants of the Roman Catholic Church. The candidate for VPOTUS grew up a Christian and a Hindu. Her mother was a native of India and her father was a practicing Baptist from Jamaica. She attends a Black Baptist church and her husband, Doug, is (wait for it) . . . . Jewish.


I submit to you that this is much more a picture of religious tolerance than some people are comfortable with. You must believe in THEIR understanding of God and Jesus or you are somehow deficient. Less than. Suspect. Inauthentic. Un-American.


I’ve quoted her before and I’ll quote her again and again. Author Anne Lamott says, “You can be pretty sure you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”


I think the question Jesus asks his disciples is a question with which all Christians must wrestle and answer if their faith is to be authentic.


Who do YOU say that Jesus is? Not what the Bible says. Not what the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury says. Who do YOU say that Jesus is. For YOU?


When we get “real” about our faith, our faith evolves and becomes more real, more authentic. Until one day, we too will stand before Jesus and proclaim, “You are the son of the Living God. You are the Messiah!”


And then we’ll look around at all of the wonderful people from different countries and cultures and creeds who are with us in heaven and know that, while their answer may be different from ours, we are all exactly where we belong – home – with the one who created us from love to love to be authentically who we were created to be: Loving children of the God of Love.