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Sunday, May 31, 2020

From every nation under heaven

A sermon preached on Facebook Live
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter
The Feast of Pentecost - May 31, 2020

This sermon can only be described as Pentecostal. It began innocently enough in one place and then, without warning, the wind blew and I swear the earth shook and suddenly, I was in a place I didn’t intend to be but landed right where I should.

It began when a clergy colleague of mine asked an interesting question. If you could be present at any event in scripture – in the Hebrew Scripture or in any of the Gospels, or with the early church in the Book of Acts or with any of the writers of the Epistles – where would you be?

So many choices, right? How about a front-row seat to watch creation come together? Perhaps you prefer being in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born? Or, would you rather have been right by the side of Mary Magdalene when she peered into the empty tomb and spoke with the newly resurrected Jesus?

There are many, many other choices, of course. What are yours?

As I listen to Luke’s account of Pentecost in the Book of ACTS, I didn’t have to wish to have been there. I could see it and feel it and smell it.  
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  
Luke goes on to say that there were people in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” and they were “amazed and astonished” because they were all speaking in their native tongue and yet everyone understood.

Some thought everyone had had too much wine, even though it was just nine o’clock in the morning. Others asked, “What does it mean?”

Some scholars see what happened at Pentecost as a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis11:1-8) in the ancient city of Shinar, which came to be known as Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia, which is now located in present-day Iraq.

It was some 100 years after Noah landed the Ark after the Flood when, we are told, all the people spoke the same language.  Noah’s descendants wanted to build a tower so they could “make a shem for themselves”

“Shem” is Hebrew for ‘name’ but like many words in ancient languages, a “shem” does not just translate as “name”. Shem is not just a means of identification.

In antiquity, a person’s name was their identity. It’s what they stood for. So the Tower was to be a monument to themselves and their skill and their technology. It was an attempt to maintain their legacy and preserve their posterity for generations apart from God. 

But, what really distressed God is that “the people were ‘echad” – which is the Hebrew word for “one”. Yes, that’s right. God was distressed because the people were one. Now, why in heaven’s name would that be distressing to the God who makes such a big deal about being “one”? 

Well, if you remember the context of the story, these were the descendants of Noah. If Noah had any one characteristic, it was that he understood his total obedience to and dependency upon God. 

And now, here they were, several generations later, and the very people that God had saved from the Flood had lost the understanding of God being at the center of their lives. 

Instead, they were building a Tower – a monument, a false idol – to their own name and their own skills and abilities to create something magnificent.

So, God confused their language so they would no longer be united as one people. God confused their language so the people would learn their dependence on God so that they might become united as one people – one nation – under God.  

Well, at least, that’s how the ancients understood the reason that, while they had come from the same people who spoke the same language, so many different languages came into being.

The ancient understanding was that, in the Tower of Babel, “the human spirit” was the driving force behind the construction of the Tower. On the day of Pentecost, it was the Holy Spirit calling all people to be one, as God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one. (More on this next week – Trinity Sunday).

As I reflected on the images of these two stories, I came back to my friend’s question: At which story would I prefer to have a front-row seat: The Tower of Babel in ancient Mesopotamia after The Flood or the Upper Room in the City of Jerusalem, fifty days after The resurrection of Jesus?

It was just about the same time that a strange wind began to blow and I began reflecting on the images coming across the screen of my laptop and then my television. 

At one point in one of the newscasts, there was a split-screen. On one side were the statistics and images of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who have died in the pandemic, in this country, and around the world.

On the other side of the screen were the images of the protests and demonstrations, followed by the riots and looting that were in response to the murder of George Floyd – and, truth be told, the culmination of years of anger and frustration about the violent deaths of Black people and the persistent rise of racism in this country.

I began to wonder if I had a front-row seat to a modern, confusing Tower of Babel with Anarchist groups and White Supremacist groups sewing seeds of destruction and chaos, hatred and division by night with those who, by day, wanted to raise their voices and their concerns in the same sort of peaceful protests that have been and are the mark of a well-functioning democracy.

As I considered the images on the other screen, I wondered if I was witnessing the Spirit of Pentecost, with the blazing winds of change roaring through every nation under heaven, creating a new reality in which we all have to work together and sacrifice for the common good; where words like COVID and virus, quarantine and mask and self-distancing are understood no matter what language is being spoken.

It was the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the ancient church in Corinth which have haunted me all week. In this weeks session of prayer with Anglican Prayer Beads, I used them as the mantra prayer of the seven “weekly” beads:  
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Cor 12:13)
It seems to me that we are involved in two simultaneous epidemics in this country – Racism and COVID-19. 

One is an ancient disease, one is a brand new virus. Racism is a disease that is the result of the infection of racial superiority. 

It grows stronger in the absence of awareness that we are all – each and every one of us, male and female, young and old, of every nation and creed and tongue – created in the image of God. 

“And, we are all made to drink of one Spirit”. 

When we forget that, we construct our own modern Towers of Babel, false idols to our own cleverness and skill, and thus sew the seeds of our own destruction.

We are also in the midst of a worldwide pandemic which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and approximately – at least – 370, 000 people worldwide. 

The Coronavirus has swept through every nation under heaven and has not only taken lives but it has changed our lives forever, exposing the holes and tears in the fabric of our common humanity, leaving the weak and those who are vulnerable, the poor and those who are oppressed, in even more perilous condition.

And, for those on whom the flames of the Spirit have lighted, this Pentecostal wind has inspired insight and awareness, leading them to acts of selflessness and courage, service and generosity, compassion and mercy, and taught us the common language of kindness and care.

Turns out, we don’t have to leave our homes to have a front-row seat to some of the scenes from the Bible. They are happening all over again, right before our very eyes. Santayana was right: Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

Today is Pentecost, the day we remember and celebrate the gift of the resurrection of Jesus that he named The Holy Spirit. 

Today is the day Jesus appeared to the disciples one last time in that Upper Room where they had gathered to share one last common meal with each other. Jesus said to them,  
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
May the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples so many years ago be spoken into our hearts today, so that we, like the disciples, may know ourselves to be forgiven and free.

May we be inspired to follow the example of the first disciples and live boldly and hopefully into creating a new world, from every nation under heaven, because we were made to drink of one Spirit. 

May we, too, be amazed and astonished by what we are able to achieve when we allow the power of the Spirit of God to work through the power of possibility in the human spirit.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

These Nine Days

These Nine Days - A Sermon Preached on Facebook Live
Easter VII - May 24, 2020
The lectionary lessons can be found here
There’s a cartoon making its way around Episcopal circles on Social Media which makes light fun of the Ascension scene which is depicted in the first reading from the Book of Acts. The first panel depicts Jesus saying to his disciples, “Okay, boys. Gotta go. Remember everything I taught you.” 

The second panel depicts the feet of Jesus at the top of the frame while the disciples say, “Bye, boss.” In the third panel, one disciple asks another,  “Wait, what did he teach us?” And, one answers, “Well, it was pretty much to love one another as he and God love us.” 

A third says, “Well, that ought to be easy enough.” In the fourth panel, some very learned looking men in academic robes are making their way up the hill toward them. 

One of the disciples says, “Uh-oh! Here come the theologians.”

Jesus was always breaking things down for us, telling us stories to try to illustrate the point he was trying to make. When you contrast some of the stories of Jesus with the accounts of some of his last earthly prayers as reported in John’sgospel, well, it can get a bit murky if not downright confusing. (John 17:1-11)

Luke’s account in the Book of Acts (Acts 1:6-14) tells a story that makes things much clearer in my mind. 

Some folks who love Jesus don’t pay much attention to the Feast of the Ascension – which was celebrated just this past Thursday. 

Other Christians see it as such a major event in our journey in faith that they take the period of nine days – the time from the Ascension of Jesus until he sends the gift of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday as the Feast of the Pentecost – as a time of specially dedicated prayer. 

We read in the first lesson from the Book of Acts (1:6-14) that, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples left the Mt of Olives in Bethany and gathered back in the Upper Room in Jerusalem where they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”

There are many members of the church here and around the world who are dedicating themselves to a nine-day period of prayer, known as a “novena,” (from ‘novem’ Latin for nine) in anticipation of and preparation for the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The disciples in that Upper Room were praying for the strength and guidance to figure out how they were going to live out the teachings of Jesus after the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension.   

Many faithful disciples today are praying for the strength and guidance to figure out how it is we are to live in this world in the midst of and after the cataclysmic event of the pandemic. 

How are we going to be the church when we can’t gather in our church buildings? 

And, after the pandemic has passed, how will we reimagine ourselves as Church, as that community of baptized believers who are sent to recreate the world? 

How are we to become what our Prayer Book defines the church as: “the community of the New Covenant,” the “Body of Christ,” “the People of God,” the “New Israel”, a “Holy Nation,” the “New Jerusalem” a “Royal Priesthood,” and the “Pillar and Ground of Truth”? (p 854)

With so many different theologians expressing often wildly diverse theologies, how can we become what we pray in the Creeds: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”?

Some of you know that one of my favorite ways to pray and meditate is to walk. Something happens when my feet are on the ground and I am in the midst of God’s creation. This is why I love the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage – walking in places where other people have walked, bringing their questions of faith. 

As I walked this week and thought about these nine days, I remembered a conversation I had just last year, while I was on pilgrimage in Scotland. It was the day before I left for the sacred isle of Iona, one of the "thin places" of Celtic spirituality. 

I had been visiting friends in Glasgow and took an Uber back to my hotel room. My Uber driver was a lovely man named Mr. Patel.

Although he was from South India, he spoke with a decided Scottish accent, which I found disconcerting, so I paid even closer attention to him.

This is what I wrote in my journal after I got back to my room.

M.P.: I am Hindi. Our 'big thing' is karma, you know.

Me: I understand. I am Christian. Hmmm . . . I guess our 'big thing' is sin.

M.P. Which is not the same as karma.

Me: Yes, I'm sorry. I made a bad joke.

M.P.: Yes, but it is true. Christians talk a lot about sin, but usually, it is about someone else's sin. Not their sin.

Me: Yes, I'm afraid that's true.

M.P.: If Christians were more concerned about their own sin rather than worry if someone else is sinning, the world would be a better place, you know?

Me: Indeed.

M.P.: And, Ma'am, if you don't mind me saying, I think if Christians stuck with the basics of their religion, and taught the basics of their religion, they would be better Christians.

Me: How do you mean?

M.P.: Stay with the basics: God is Love. Jesus is love incarnate. The Holy Spirit will guide you in Love. Judge not lest ye be judged. Love your neighbor as yourself. When you sin, when you fall short, repent and God will forgive you because God loves you. Forgive as you have been forgiven. And, be thankful. Always. Always. Be thankful. If you have thanks in your heart, you can not help but love others as God loves you. To forgive others as God forgives you. To worry more about your own sin than if someone else is sinning.

Me: You speak such truth it warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes. I think you are a better Christian than I am.

M.P.: Well, I went to Christian school in South India. I know about the teachings of Jesus. But the brothers and sisters who taught me cared more about nourishing my mind and feeding my body and tending my soul than whether or not they could convert me to their beliefs. 

So, my way of life is Hindu and I try to practice the basic teachings of Jesus. He was a good man. A very, very good man. He knew the Ten Commandments and the Sanatana Dharma. You can hear it in the prayer he taught his disciples and the New Commandment he gave them. If some of the people who say they are Christians would actually follow his teachings, well, it would be good. It would be very good.

Me: Hmmmm . . . . Less sin, more Dharma.

M.P.: Ha! I think that would make a good bumper sticker.

Me: Indeed. I'm so glad I came here to Glasgow. I was supposed to go to Edinburgh today. I think part of why I'm here instead is to meet you.

M.P.: I am so grateful that God has put you in my path. I am so grateful to the Christians who gave me an education. You make me think that maybe Christianity has a future.

Me: Well, there are some days when I worry about that.

M.P. Worry less. Be more of who you are, more of the time. Let your light shine. Others will follow. That's how it worked for Jesus, right?


I have come to call that  story "When Jesus met Krishna in an Uber in Glasgow."

If ever there was evidence of the gift of the Spirit, I experienced it while on that Uber ride with Mr. Patel in Glasgow. Indeed, I often wonder if that wasn’t Jesus disguising himself as Mr. Patel.

As we live out the remaining seven of the nine days of this time between the Ascension and Pentecost, I ask you to consider the words of Mr. Patel. It would be well, I think, to consider and meditate and pray how it is we get back to basics of our faith. 

What are the basics of your faith and how are you faithful to them? 

How are you being the church in the world – even without a church building? 

How can you make sure that Christianity has a future? 

How can you be more of who God created you to be? 

How can you let your light shine in the darkness of this time so that others might follow the Light of God and find their own spark of divinity within? 

Because all of it really does come down to this, “Love one another as God and Jesus have loved us so that we all may be one.”

Amen. Or, as my friend Mr. Patel would say, “Namaste.”

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Things seen and unseen

A sermon preached on Facebook Live
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter
Easter VI - May 17, 2020

One of the ways I’ve been passing the time I have had on my hands since the pandemic has been “window shopping online”. Be it groceries or utensils, gadgets or clothing, I love nothing more than a good sale.

Indeed, I have banished myself from Thrift Shops where one can purchase for less than a tenth of the original price a wonderful skirt or an amazing blouse – or a cake plate or garlic press – even if you don’t really need it. Because, well, it’s on SALE!

These days, however, with my favorite Thrift Shops being closed, I hesitate to open my laptop because I’m certain to be tempted by something new and shiny and, God help me, on sale. “Everything reduced!” shouts one advert. “Take an additional 50% off,” lures another. And, the pièce de resistance, “Free shipping.” Well, what’s a girl to do but click on the link?

I confess I love shopping for something new, even if it’s old. So, it was with that lens that I read the account of Paul’s preaching in the Book of ACTS and this passage from John’s Gospel

The verse leading up to the lectionary reading from the book of ACTS tells us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). 

So the crowd was drawn to the Areopagus, the Hill of Ares, a prominent rock outcropping which is located northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, to hear a “new teaching” about Jesus.

You may remember that in Greek mythology, Ares was the bloodthirsty god of war, the son of Zeus and Hera. You may also remember that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill, killed Ares. Apparently, it takes a great deal to put an end to war. That said, Athena simply knocks out Ares with a large rock.

The city of Athens, we’re told, was “full of idols”—each new god, each new philosophy added to the last, so that the streets (not unlike our own) offered a plethora of religious products ready for consumption. If one god failed you, or just bored you, there was always another.

Altar to an Unknown God
What I’ve always loved about this story is that, while “deeply distressed” by all this, Paul does not judge the people of Athens. No, instead, he turns their fascination with all the new and various “idols” or gods into a compliment of sorts. Indeed, he proclaims them to be “extremely religious.” 

Now, perhaps he was being just a bit sarcastic, and I suppose he was not quite slick enough to be an equal to the modern televangelist but well done, nonetheless, Paul of Tarsus. Well done.

Paul goes on to quote their poets and philosophers and then notes that they even pay homage in an altar to “an unknown god”. He does not judge or ridicule them for this; instead, he applauds them on their admission that there are things that they do not know and cannot see.

I’m reminded of an old, dear friend from ‘da Bronx’ who once said to me, “Ya know, I gotta give youse Christians credit. You don’t really know that Jesus was the Son of God. You just ASSUME it. And then, you celebrate it.”

“Really?” I said, “How do you mean?”

“Well,” he said, “you have a Feast of the Assumption. Oh, I love that feast in my neighborhood. Always great meatball sandwiches and amazing Zeppole”

I didn’t bother to tell him that the Feast of the Assumption celebrates when Mary, the Mother of Jesus, ascends (is ‘assumed’) into heaven at the end of her life. (It’s very important to Catholics and Orthodox. It’s August 15th, in case you were wondering.)

Paul recognizes that the attraction the Athenians, like all humans, have to that which is new goes hand in hand with the lure of visibility. The novel attracts us only insofar as it is easily grasped. If “seeing” a new truth requires time and training, the novelty inevitably wears off before truth is found. By proclaiming the invisible and the unknown, Paul refuses to let God become just another novelty, just another idol.

In his farewell discourse in John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that the world will not be able to see the Spirit nor will it see Jesus, but the disciples will see them both. “Seeing” God is made possible by obedience to the command of Christ to “love one another as God and Jesus love us”.

It’s about more than visibility. Jesus comes into the world “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Our expectations about visibility are reversed. Seeing God turns out to be more difficult than one might have thought, and in fact believing that one can see God (as did the Athenians) proves only that one is blind.

There is much in the world today that is unknown and unseen and unsettling. While there have been some improvements, we are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, fighting a lethal virus that cannot be seen with the human eye. It’s a new virus – a nova coronavirus, the 19th in its strain – which does its deadliest work cloaked in invisibility and when we’re least aware.

I suppose we should not be surprised that one of the ways we attempt to deal with the anxiety of the unseen is to try to capture it in numbers and picture graphs, and attempt to “flatten the curve(s)” we create to track the virus. 

Although we can’t actually see the virus, we want to see – to make visible – the devastation of this horrible, merciless creature in the even more frightening number of those who are infected, hospitalized, on ventilators, or those who have died.

And, of course, this gives rise to all sort and manner of philosophies and theologies about why this is all happening in the first place. conspiracy theories abound. The internet has become a virtual repository of the newest idea about where this virus originated and why.

I won’t rehearse all of them for you. They are the usual scapegoats for God’s punishments, pronounced upon by those who believe they have seen God and thereby prove their own blindness.

Rachel Held Evans was a Christian author who famously left her evangelical church and joined The Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, she died on May 4th, just a year ago, at the age of 37, after suffering a severe allergic reaction to an antibiotic she was given.

On May 14, 2015, she wrote on her Facebook page: 
“It's a frightful thing - thinking you have to get God right in order to get God to love you, thinking you're always one error away from damnation. It's a kind of legalism, really. And to this day, I fight like hell to prove I'm right about religion and politics, partly because in the back of mind I sense there are dire consequences to being wrong. How ironic. The very condition of humanity is to be wrong about God. The moment we figure God out, God ceases to be God. Maybe it's time to embrace the mystery and let ourselves off the hook.” 
The very condition of humanity is to be wrong about God. Think about that for half a red-hot New York minute. Isn’t that just so true? So profoundly true?

I think we’re far better off to have at least an annual Feast of the Assumption where for one day a year we can let ourselves off the hook and embrace the mystery that is central to our lives of faith. 

Maybe we can be like Athena and take a rock and knock off all the old gods we formerly worshipped so we can live more fully into the mystery of our faith.

A day we can eat meatball sandwiches and Zeppole to our heart’s content and pay homage to a God we see and know every time we “seek and serve Christ in others”.

That’s not a new idea. Indeed, it’s a very old one. In fact, it’s part of the five promises we make when we are baptized or reaffirm our baptismal vows.

Sometimes, it takes fighting an invisible virus to let go of our old images of God in order to embrace the life-giving mysteries of God. Sometimes, it takes having our beliefs shaken and tested to believe that, while we may never fully know God, we are known and loved by God. And to believe that is enough.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

Come home to the Jubilee

Levites Sound the Trumpet of Jubilee (1873)
A Sermon Preached on Facebook Live 
Easter V - Year A - May 10, 2020

This morning, we hear Jesus say, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places (or, rooms)”. (John 14:1-14). I can’t remember how many times I’ve preached on this passage – mostly as the text chosen by grieving relatives at the funeral of their loved one. 

This week, I’ve been thinking about this passage from John’s gospel very differently. Maybe it’s the time of pandemic. Maybe, as one of my friends recently suggested, we’ve all got too much time to think. 

There is something compelling, however, during this time when we’re virtual prisoners in our own home, and the death tolls are reported daily as a somber journalistic obligation, to think about ‘home’.  

When the character ET croaked out the words, “ET phone home,” most of us looked past the full moon and starlit sky to which he was pointing and intuitively knew the emotional significance of those words. 

When ET and Elliott have to say their final goodbyes before ET has to board the Mother Ship. ET’s heart glows and he points to his temple and touches Elliott's forehead saying, “I’ll be right here.” 

In that moment, no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie, a lump forms in my throat and I start to get all gurly-burbly. I’m confronted by the eternal truth that for many of us, there is “home” and then there is “home.”

For many people "home" is a word jam-packed with emotion – good and bad. Robert Frost famously said, Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

And, for many of us, that’s true. We hold onto the belief that, even if we err and stray like lost sheep, our parents will take us in. Or, for some adults who have had a difficult row to hoe in life, that their children will forgive them.

Today is Mother’s Day – a date on the calendar that is as jam-packed with emotion, good and bad, as the word “home”. For many, the two are inextricably linked, providing a double whammy of emotional punch. 

Over the thirty-plus years I’ve been privileged to be a priest and pastor, I’ve heard lots of stories, many of which are wonderful and inspiring. I’ve sat with men and women grieving the loss of their mother, sometimes weeks after her death and others for whom the grief is decades old but almost as fresh as the day their mother died. 

I’ve also sat with men and women who are grieving that they aren’t grieving their loss of their mother, a woman who fell short of their expectations or could never have lived up to their expectations or failed so miserably at her role that their sorrow is that they can’t simply ‘forgive and forget’ and so the emotional pain continues unabated. 

And, as the saying in my business goes, "Hurt people hurt people."

On the other side, I’ve sat with mothers who are filled with guilt and regret and remorse that this day on the calendar is filled with paralyzing dread. 
+ Mothers who were never able to carry a child to term.
+ Mothers who placed their child for adoption. 
+ Mothers who miscarried or aborted their pregnancies. 
+ Mothers who fell into drug or alcohol addiction or became mentally ill or incapacitated and had their children taken from them. 
+ Mothers who discovered themselves to be lesbian after having children, only to have a court deny custody of them during a horrific divorce battle. 
+ Mothers who had to be both mother and father and found the task overwhelming and feel a total failure.
At one point in our early years together, when we lived in Maine, Ms. Conroy and I took in foster children. 

We did so because we felt a large part of our vocation – our calling – was to be mothers. More importantly, we felt a strong vocation to family. 

Always have. Always will. 

I wish I could say foster care was a wonderful experience. Oh, there were moments for which I will always be grateful but the overwhelming emotion of trying to provide a home for children who only want home to be wherever their mother is proved to be what John Snow called ‘an impossible vocation’ -  heartbreakingly impossible. 

You know. Like being a mother. Only even more difficult.

There was this one call that came right after supper on a Friday night. The social worker called us from the ER at Mercy Hospital. A little boy. Christopher. Eighteen months old. Mother was 17. Boyfriend had abused her and sexually abused the baby. He needed medical care. The mother had no place to go, having been kicked out of her home by her mother when she was pregnant. 

So, she was scared. Very scared. She was insisting that this was all a mistake. Just a big misunderstanding. Please, just let her go back to their apartment. It would be okay. It always turned out okay. She would apologize to him. He would take her back. It would be okay. Honest. 

The social worker was placing the mother in a woman’s shelter while the police searched for the man who abused her and sexually abused their son. Would we take the baby? Just for the weekend? Please? We have nowhere else to place him? He needs a ‘home’. Please?

Of course, we took him in. Turned out, Christopher stayed with us for almost a year. In that time, we also worked with his mom. So did the social worker. And, lots of childcare workers. 

It was hard work. It was some of the hardest work we’ve ever done. 

Eventually, she reconciled with her mom and arrangements were made for her to take Christopher “home”. Back home. To make a new home with her mother and her and this absolutely adorable little boy. 

The day we brought Christopher to his new ‘home’, he cried. She cried. We cried. It was wonderful. We had achieved what we had hoped for and dreamed about and worked hard to achieve. 

And, it was gut-wrenchingly awful to let Christopher go. 

Which, of course, is the real stuff of miracles, not one of us thought possible. 

After Christopher had gone into his new home with his grandmother, Christopher’s mother thanked us, gave us a hug and then presented us with a single red rose, saying, "I'm finally free to be a better me. I am free to be a better mom. And, I'm free to be a better daughter."  

It was a holy, sacred moment. 

As I look back on that memory, that death and resurrection moment, I hear the words of John’s gospel in a new way. I hear all of the nuances of ‘home’ and how important that is to all of us. 

I hear that there are many different kinds of “homes” and God makes room for them all, if we are open to entering them.

I hear that sense of home being “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

Miracles. Miracles are absolutely possible. 

Jubilee is not just a scriptural or theological concept. The captives are set free. We do find our liberation in Christ.

As I look back on that moment, I also hear the words to a song written by Mary Chapin Carpenter called Jubilee.
And I can tell by the way you're talking
That the past isn't letting you go
But there's only so long you can take it all on
And then the wrong's gotta be on its own
If you are struggling this Mother’s Day – as a daughter or a mother or a son or a father who also had to be a mother– I hope you find some comfort in today’s Gospel. 

I hope you know that, with lots of work and equal large amounts of emotional equity, miracles can happen. 

I hope you know that there are many places in which to dwell in the Household of God – some of them just don’t look like what you had expected and the road to get there is far from the beaten path. 

Sometimes, you just have to admit that you can’t take it all on and let the wrong be on its own. 

You are not alone in that work. I know that because I know I’m not alone in that work. And, I know that God in Christ Jesus loves you – loves us – more than our wildest imaginings. 

So, I’ll leave you with the last words from Jubilee:
And I can tell by the way you're searching
For something you can't even name
That you haven't been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came

When you feel like this try to imagine
That we're all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light
Announcing the jubilee

And I can tell by the way you're standing
With your eyes filling with tears
That it's habit alone that keeps you turning for home
Even though your home is right here

Where the people who love you are gathered
Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered then straight on delivered
Down to the jubilee 

Because people who love you are waiting
And they'll wait just as long as need be
When we look back and say those were halcyon days
We're talking about jubilee.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Gates and Latches

A sermon preached via Facebook Live Stream

When I was a child, my family lived in an apartment above my grandparent’s home. The house was surrounded by a large yard that was surrounded by a wooded fence. At the entrance to the yard, was a metal gate with a metal latch. One had to lift the latch to open the gate. 

As the gate closed, gravity would pull on the latch down and it would fall with a loud clang and secure the yard from unintended or unwanted intrusion by a wandering person or animal. 

My grandmother knew, just by the sound of the “clang” of the latch, just who was coming into the yard. She would hear the clang and, not even looking up from her task, would say, “That’s your Uncle Edmond. He’ll want some coffee. Get a mug out for him.” 

Or, she’d say, “That’s your Aunt Linda. I’d better lower the heat on these vegetables. She’ll say she’s only got a few minutes and two hours later she’ll finally leave.”

She even knew the sound of the two men she called “hobos”. They were not “tramps” or “bums”. They were migrant workers, many of them immigrants who would offer their services in exchange for a meal.   

Some people gave them money, but not my grandmother. She’d shake her head and say, “They’ll only spend it on whiskey.” 

In exchange for an hour or so of work, weeding her flowerbed or mowing the lawn, picking the ripe fruit off one of her fruit trees, or moving a wheel barrel of dirt around for her, or cleaning out the garage, she’d give them each a bowl of hot soup and a large chunk of homemade bread. 

Sometimes, she’d also send them off with a sandwich and a piece of pie ("for later") and a saying from scripture. Sometimes, she'd give them my grandfather's old shirts or pants that she had cleaned and mended. She knew great long passages from scripture but the psalms were her favorite. 

She often greeted people with a line from Psalm 118 (v 24) “This is the day the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Or, 

Psalm 121 “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” 

The 23rd Psalm was her favorite. She would often quote the entire psalm from memory. The King James Version. Of course.

But, she knew by the sound of the latch on the gate that it was “the hobos” and head straight for the back door where she knew that they knew to knock. 

As a young child, I hated that latch. It was heavy and I had a hard time lifting it. I remember this one time my mother had sent me on my bike to pick up a few things at the market. I loved going to the store because as a reward, I got to keep the change. 

Well, I rarely kept it. Often, there was enough money left over to buy a whole candy bar. Baby Ruth was my favorite, second only to Mr. Goodbar. 

I remember reciting the last line of the 23rd Psalm as I finished the last morsel of my candy bar reward: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

But, this one time, danger was lurking. 

Mr. Avila lived at the end of the block. His house was right on the corner of Jefferson and Renaud Street, where I lived. He had a dog named Rex, a German Shepherd, who was always chained to a stake in the side yard. 

He started barking at me as I made the turn from Jefferson and up the hill to Renaud, his heavy chain scraping along the grass and the concrete as he followed me on my bike for the length of his yard. 

This was nothing new. He did it every time. To every kid on a bike.

This time, however, the chain broke off the stake, and Rex was suddenly hot on my trail, his heavy chain dragging along the street pavement. 

I always had a difficult time peddling up that hill but as I looked back and saw Rex’s mouth and teeth lathered with foam and froth, I got a burst of adrenalin and made it to the crest of the hill without even breaking a sweat. 

Thankfully, the chain slowed him down a bit, too. 

Perhaps it was the combination of the adrenalin, the chain and a bit of a sugar high from the Baby Ruth, but I was able to make it to the gate, drop my bike and the groceries, lift the latch, squeeze through the gate and latch it before Rex charged the gate. 

I can still see his teeth and the pink of his tongue as he growled and bit the gate. 

My grandmother appeared from out of nowhere with her broom held high over her head, running like an ancient princess warrior to charge the barbarians at the gate. She was shooing him away just as Mr. Avila came running up the hill, cursing and yelling at Rex, who immediately cowered and whimpered. 

Mr. Avila untangled Rex’s chain from my bike, apologized profusely to my grandmother (but not me) and led Rex back to his house, muttering and cursing at the dog the whole way back down the hill. 

It wasn't until years later, when I looked back on that scene of Rex cowering and whimpreing as Mr. Avila muttered and cursed that I understood a bit better and felt compassion for poor Rex. 

My grandmother brought me in the house, washed off my scraped knees and elbows, and painted them with the wonder drug of my youth, Mercurochrome (well, besides Vicks’ Vapor Rub and Robitussin). 

Then, she sat me down and read me this passage from John’s gospel (John 10:1-10), about Jesus being the gate. She said, “Jesus is the gate. Open the gate and come into his pasture and He will always protect and defend you.” 

I was glad for the gate - very glad for the gate, in fact - but as often as I had cursed the latch, I was never more grateful for it. Because of that latch, the gate was able to protect me from Rex and his teeth. 

The weight of the latch suddenly made sense to me and I praised God for inventing gravity and giving human minds the capacity to have it work in our favor. 

“I am the gate” is one of seven “I am” statements Jesus makes in John’s Gospel. Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the light." ( (John 14:6). "I am the resurrection and the life." ( I am the Light of the World.  (John 11:25). "I am the Good Shepherd."(John 10:11) "I am the Bread of Life."(John 6:35) "I am the True Vine.”  (John 15:1).

Later in John's Gospel, he simply says, "I am." (Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58)

I don’t know how any of these metaphors – these “figures of speech” – work for you, or how this particular one of “I am the gate” translates in your mind.  But, when I think of Jesus as the gate, I think of my grandmother’s house and the fence that surrounded the yard. I think of that metal gate and that heavy metal latch. 

And I remember the time I was chased by Rex, the German Shepherd, and how the gate protected me from his attack but first, I had to lift the latch. And, I am filled with gratitude for both gates and latches.