Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Pearls: Mary Antoinette ('Toni') Schiesler

the Rev. Dr. Toni Schiesler
On this the 46th Anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, I want to honor each of those eleven women in the way I think would most please them: by honoring one of the women who came after them who, in her own way and in her own time broke her own barriers, not just for herself, but for other women who came after her.

Mary Antoinette (“Toni”) Schiesler has the distinction of being the second African American woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware. Her life is a study in overcoming adversity at every level, not limited to but most definitely including the institutional church.

Born Carole Virginia Rodez, her mother, Gladyce, was a singer who aspired to perform with the “Big Bands” of the 1930s. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, writes: "Toni remembers sitting on her grandmother's knees by the radio listening to her mother sing, loving the mellow, soothing voice. She aches in knowing that her mother had wonderful talents but was unable to make it as a musician 'because of the circumstances'."

“The circumstances” included something that Carole didn’t learn until she was in her mid-thirties. Carole knew that her mother considered her to be gifted and tried to nurture her talents, but that she had not wanted to have children. What she learned was that her mother Gladyce had moved to Chicago to follow her vocation and sing with a Big Band. While there, she was raped by “a Cuban man named Rodriguez” and became pregnant. That Cuban man named Rodriguez was her biological father.

Carole was raised in poverty by her single mom in her home state of Connecticut, ostracized by her mother’s family because of the circumstances of her birth as well as ridiculed by other children because she was so poor. Her mother’s second husband had a violent temper which matched her mother’s which was “terrible,” according to Carole. Until they divorced, the family home was always tumultuous and violent.

Ordination of The Philadelphia Eleven
In the fifth grade, Carole was so far ahead of her peers in school that she was enrolled as a boarder in St. Francis Academy, a Roman Catholic school for “colored girls,” where life was stable and she was able to get a good education. 

Poverty always haunted her, however, and increased her sense of isolation and loneliness among her mostly middle-class peers. She said, “I always felt inferior because I always felt poor.”

Perhaps that sense of inferiority compelled her to succeed. Perhaps that was the function of her natural intelligence. No doubt, it was, at least at times, a combination of both. She excelled in a course in chemistry in her senior year, which shaped the direction of her academic and professional career.  She graduated from high school at the top of her class.

Although she had entered the Academy as an Episcopalian, she converted to Catholicism after the tenth grade because she was felt she had a vocation to be a nun. At age 17, she entered the Convent of the Immaculate Conception and was given the name Mary Antoinette when she became a novice.  She kept that name for the rest of her life.

Toni’s life as a nun centered around her work as a teacher, but she combined her ministry with her pursuit for academic credentials. She attended the College of Notre Dame of Maryland full time during the summer and graduated with a BA in 1967. She went on to attend the University of Tennessee on a Fulbright Scholarship for an MA in Chemistry. She attended the University of Maryland, earning a Ph.D. in Education and Chemistry.

When she returned to the convent, Toni was undecided about her life, and began looking for ways to take time away from the community which suddenly felt “claustrophobic”. She consulted with a clinical psychologist who advised her that her indecision was the source of her anxiety. In 1971, at the age of thirty-seven and after nineteen years as a nun, she left the religious order to pursue a career in chemistry.

Soon after she left the convent she met Bob
Schiesler, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who had left the seminary and taught school for a while before becoming an Episcopal priest.  They were married on October 20, 1973. Once again, controversy surrounded her as Bob was a white man at a time where interracial marriages were still illegal in some states. Her husband was also fourteen years her junior, but Toni said, “He is perfect for me.”

The religious life always called to Toni, but this time her vocation came to her as a call to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church. That journey was also difficult and challenging. The facts are that Toni was ordained to the Diaconate in June of 1994 at St. Andrew’s Church, Wilmington (Now Saints Andrew and Matthew “St. SAMs”). She was ordained to the priesthood on June 17, 1995 at St. John’s Cathedral, Wilmington (now defunct). However, the backstory to those achievements reveals that she brought into her relationship with the institutional church. a lifetime of lessons learned with adversity.

Alison Cheek, Carter Heyward, Jeannette Picard
Her husband Bob recalls: “She read for Holy Orders, the Bishop saying, ‘Read for the GOEs, and if all goes well, you’ll be ordained.’ She did so under the tutelage of the Chaplain of St. Andrew’s School, Middletown. The Bishop was astounded when he heard that she had passed all seven areas with glowing reports.  He then said, ‘I don’t know what to do with this, I think you still need some work.’ So, he required that she attend Virginia Theological Seminary for a semester, then extended that for another semester, before he would ordain her a deacon. Once she became a deacon, the rules changed again. Instead of serving 6 months before becoming priested, as all of the candidates for the diaconate from the prior year had done, she was required to serve a full year. As an African American, the expectation that she should do more, and then more, and more, was not new to her.”

Toni’s CV boasts an impressive academic career. To briefly mention some of her accomplishments, she was Academic VP at Cabrini University and Program Director of the National Science Foundation under President Carter. She taught at the University of Maryland and served Dean at University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. She was also Dean of graduate research at Eastern Michigan University. She was the senior woman in the administration of Villanova University as Dean of Graduate Research at the time there.

She also served the church as a trustee of the Diocese of Michigan, a board member of the Philadelphia Theological Institute, a member of executive council and trial court for the Diocese of Delaware, and an executive board member of the Episcopal Women's Caucus. She served as associate to the dean at the Cathedral of St. John in Wilmington.

Tragically, she did not have long to fulfill her vocation as a priest. On April 9, 1996, she died suddenly of a brain aneurism after collapsing in the office of her spiritual director. It was Easter Monday, just a few months short of the first anniversary of her priestly ordination. 

the Rev. Dr. Toni Schiesler
In her very brief time as an ordained person, Toni became known not only for her intelligence and academic accomplishment but also for her skills as a pastor and spiritual director. It has been said that when she preached, she shared her experiences as a Black woman. She also agitated, in her forthright yet gentle way, for fuller inclusion of African Americans within diocesan leadership. This did not always hold her in good stead with those in power but earned her the respect and admiration of many.

The life and ministry of Toni Schiesler continues to inspire those who read of her ministry and her accomplishments. Her life is the reason the Philadelphia Eleven and the Washington Four took the risk to pursue their vocation, to be true to their own calling, of course, but also with a keen spiritual awareness about the women like Toni Schiesler who would come after them. 

I believe Alla Rene Bozarth, one of the Philadelphia Eleven, expresses that best in her poem:


You are pearls.
You began
as irritants.

The ocean pushed
your small, nearly
rough body
through an undetected
crack in the shell.
You got inside.

Happy to have a home
at last
you grew close
to the host,
nuzzling up
to the larger body.

You became
a subject
for diagnosis:
invader, tumor.

Perhaps your parents
were the true invaders
and you were born
in the shell —
no difference —
called an outsider

You were a representative
of the whole
outside world,
a grain of sand,
particle of the Universe,
part of Earth.
You were a growth.

And you did not go away.

In time
you grew
so large,
an internal
to the world.
that the shell
could contain
neither you nor itself,
and because of you
the shell Opened itself

Alla Bozarth
Then your beauty
was seen
and prized,

your variety valued:
precious, precious,
a hard bubble of light:
silver, white, ivory,
or baroque.

If you are a specially
irregular and rough
pearl, named baroque
(for broke) ,
then you reveal
in your own
body of light
all the colors
of the Universe.

This poem is from the books, Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey by
Alla Renée Bozarth, revised edition 1988, distributed by the poet;
Accidental Wisdom by Alla Renée Bozarth, iUniverse 2003 and
the audio cassette Water Women by Alla Renée Bozarth, Wisdom
House 1990. All Rights Reserved.

Interactive Timeline of the Ordination of Women

See the breadth of ordained women in the Episcopal Church in this good chronology going back to 1855:…

Toni’s Obituary The Living Church.

Interviews with Rev. Robert Schiesler and Ms. Mary Novello

Please consider becoming a member and supporting The Episcopal Women's History Project. Annual dues are only $25.  Our Mission Statement: The Episcopal Women’s History Project honors women’s ministries in the Episcopal Church by listening, recording, and continuing to tell their stories.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Living the Metaphor

 Living the Metaphor
A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10: Headstrong Daughter
July 26, 2020 - Pentecost VIII - Proper 12-A 

It has been noted that Episcopal clergy are able to wring at least three sermons out of one metaphor without even breaking a sweat.

Some Episcopal clergy boast that they can wring six sermons out of one metaphor three times before breakfast!

This has led some to conjecture that Jesus must have known that one day there would be Episcopal priests. I mean, did you count how many metaphors Jesus has for the Realm (Kingdom) of God? (Matthew 13:31-33,44-52)

There is (1) Mustard Seed. (2) Leaven. (3) Hidden Treasure. (4) A pearl of great value. (5) A net cast out to sea, pulling in “fish of every kind” (6) A master of a household who brings out new and old treasures.

There are AT LEAST 12 sermons in that one passage. I’m exhausted just considering the possibilities. But, I’ll demonstrate some good Anglican restraint, and only give you two possibilities in one sermon, one ancient story and one modern.

I suspect you know that I couldn’t resist continuing the story of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring, Jacob, one of the twin son of Isaac and Rebekah who stole his brother, Esau’s, birthright and tricked his father into blessing him.

You might also remember that Isaac’s birthright as the “firstborn son” has been, is, and forever will be, held in contention with his brother Ishmael, who was his father’s firstborn son with his wife’s servant and surrogate birthmother, Hagar.

That piece of trickery and deception in the family pattern finds continuation in Jacob’s life. As we pick up the story after Jacob left home, he seeks work with his kinsman, Laban, who has two daughters, Leah and Rachel.

Just as Isaac loved Rebekah, Jacob loves Rachel. But, Leah is the eldest daughter and, after working seven years for Laban to make her his wife, Laban tricks Jacob and send in Leah! So, Jacob has to work seven more years so he can make Rachel, the woman he loves, his lawfully wedded wife.

Of such is the Realm of God: It is like a man who, even though he is deceived, labors to repay his debts and twice as long for the one he loves. It is like balancing the scales of justice to compensate for and right the wrongs of the past.

The modern story has to do with a very special anniversary in the life of The Episcopal Church. On Wednesday, July 29, we will observe and celebrate the 46th Anniversary of the ordination known as “The Philadelphia Eleven.”

If their title makes them sound like a band of criminals and desperados, that wouldn’t be unintentional. 

“The Philadelphia Eleven” were eleven women who had been duly ordained to the diaconate, who were now seeking ordination as priests in The Episcopal Church.

I know. I know. It sounds like such a reasonable request. Now. Forty-six years and a few boatloads of misogyny and sexism later. The reasonable request these days is for ordained women to have equal opportunity in church employment and equal compensation for equal work. Which they don’t yet have across the church.

But, I’m getting ahead of the story.

Here’s a very brief context for the event that poet and one of the Philadelphia Eleven, Alla Bozarth, called “The Earth Moving Day”. 

The Lambeth Conference, a meeting every decade or so of the bishops of the Communion, had, in 1968,  found no theological argument against ordaining women. In its first meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, a representative body from each church in the Communion, had also come to the same conclusion, in response to a request from Hong Kong.

The Episcopal Church, for all its vaunted “progressive” “liberal” image, had only allowed women to serve as Deputies to its ruling synod, the General Convention, in 1970. Women regularly began sitting on Vestries only in the 1960s (though a few dioceses began to allow them before then). I person know several churches where today, in 2020, no woman has ever held the position of Sr. Warden.

In 1970, the church also determined that women could be ordained deacons (not “lay deaconesses” as had been the case since 1889). When that happened, it implicitly approved the ordination of women to all three orders of ordained ministry. So, some argued, either God calls, or does not call, people to be set apart for this ministry or the ordained to the rest of the Church.

Resolutions to the 1970 and 1973 General Conventions to permit women to be ordained to the priesthood failed, and the church “fathers” ordered up another batch of ‘Anglican Fudge’ (as in ‘fudging the answer’) and voted, instead, to “further study” the issue of whether or not women could be ordained. 

Or, as one bishop expressed it, whether or not women had “sufficient ontological matter for sacerdotal efficacy.” In other words, did women have “the right stuff” to preside over the sacraments. I’ll leave it to your creative intelligence to determine what that “sufficient ontological matter” that women were missing might possibly be.

The church had been studying the issue of the ordination of women for decades. Some felt the time for action was now. The Vestry of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA, voted to open its doors to the ordination service of these women in what was later determined to be a “legal but irregular” service of ordination.

The Senior Warden of that church also served as the Crucifer for the ordination service. Her name was Barbara Harris, who later became the first woman to be consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

The Philadelphia ordinations were meant to be a prophetic act, not prophetic in the sense of telling the future but rather declaring God’s Word to the powers-that-be. 

The immediate reaction was outrage and anger. Some churches flew the Episcopal flag upside down. Clergy and churches threatened to leave; some did.

Emergency meetings were called where there was much wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, and also much letter writing. Indeed, in the days before email and social media, gallons of ink were spilled in an attempt to express the outrage experienced by many who loved God and Jesus but were not at all willing to admit that ordaining women just might be the work of the Spirit.

The act of ordaining women priests was, like all sacraments, the action of God’s Word and, since the beginning, the decision about who could preside at the sacraments has been solely the right and realm of men.

Never mind that Mary Magdalene had long been considered by church fathers as the first evangelist and “The Apostle to the Apostles”. 

Never mind that scripture is filled with the stories of women who took risks to do God’s will and obey God’s word – women like Judith and Jezebel, Ruth and Ester, Hannah and Jehosheba, Deborah and Ester, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lois, Lydia, Martha and Mary and all the unnamed women known only by their persistence and determination and courage.

Of such is the Realm of God: It is like a woman who hears the call of God and overcomes every barrier to bring the Word of God to everyone, that they may be nourished and fed in this world and the next. 

Here’s the point I think Jesus was trying to make about the Realm of God:
The Realm of God is very near. 

It happens when we understand that we are living the metaphors of our lives.

It’s as near to you as the ordinary person sitting next to you who has an extraordinary story to tell. 

This is especially true when that ordinary person sitting next to you does not look or think or sound or pray like you. You only have to ask. And, listen.

The Realm of God can be seen when those who love the Lord work together for the good of all. 

You know you have come near to it in those who wear masks and keep social distance and wash their hands in the midst of a pandemic. 

The Realm of God can be heard in sighs too deep for words and felt in the firm conviction that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – even ourselves and or the worst of our family patterns – will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Trump's Racism

My friend and clergy colleague, Sandye Wilson, former President of the UBE (Union of Black Episcopalians) and fellow warrior on the fields of justice, posted this on her FB page.

It's hard to read. That is both a warning and an invitation.

It is political in the best sense of politics because it tells the painful truth of a hard story that has been hidden in the shadows of monuments to Confederate soldiers, stymied by the 'convenient complacency' of much of 'polite white' Western Christianity and now demands action.

I think you'll want your friends to read it, too, so you have my permission to share it as widely as possible.

I make no apologies for the 'strident' tone of this piece. A bishop in the church once said that some of the things I post are 'strident' in tone. It was meant in one part a statement of fact and another as a mild admonishment. I take it as a compliment.

It's part of what John Lewis talked about as being "Good Trouble". I have found that it's always good when the institutional church is uncomfortable.

Oh, and white people? Read the books featured below. Both of them. It's one thing you can do, one step you can take, in the long journey to reconciliation and liberation.


President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, has a message for people who are excusing President Trump's racism:

"I had fully intended to ignore President Trump’s latest round of racially charged taunts against an African American elected official, and an African American activist, and an African American journalist and a whole city with a lot of African Americans in it.

I had every intention of walking past Trump’s latest outrages and writing about the self-destructive squabbling of the Democratic presidential field, which has chosen to shame former vice president Joe Biden for the sin of being an electable, moderate liberal.

But I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree' off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency.

Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children.

According to one source, Mary was 'stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.'

God help us. It is hard to write the words.

This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity, and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history.

It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.

When the president of the United States plays with that fire or takes that beast out for a walk, it is not just another political event, not just a normal day in campaign 2020.

It is a cause for shame.

It is the violation of martyrs’ graves. It is obscene graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial. It is, in the eyes of history, the betrayal — the re-betrayal — of Haynes and Mary Turner and their child.

And all of this is being done by an ignorant and arrogant narcissist reviving racist tropes for political gain, indifferent to the wreckage he is leaving, the wounds he is ripping open.

Like, I suspect, many others, I am finding it hard to look at resurgent racism as just one in a series of presidential offenses or another in a series of Republican errors.

Racism is not just another wrong. The Antietam battlefield is not just another plot of ground. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is not just another bridge. The balcony outside Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel is not just another balcony.

As U.S. history hallows some causes, it magnifies some crimes.

What does all this mean politically? It means that Trump’s divisiveness is getting worse, not better.

He makes racist comments, appeals to racist sentiments, and inflames racist passions.

The rationalization that he is not, deep down in his heart, really a racist is meaningless.

Trump’s continued offenses mean that a large portion of his political base is energized by racist tropes and the language of white grievance.

And it means — whatever their intent — that those who play down, or excuse, or try to walk past these offenses are enablers.

Some political choices are not just stupid or crude. They represent the return of our country’s cruelest, most dangerous passion.

Such racism indicts Trump.

Treating racism as a typical or minor matter indicts us."

— Michael Gerson

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Weeds and Seeds

Weeds and Seeds
A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sunday, July 19, 2020 

Have I mentioned before that my least favorite gospeller is Matthew? 

I have, haven’t I? By about the third or fourth consecutive lectionary selection where Matthew’s gospel is featured, I am predictably out of patience with what I perceive to be his tediousness.

Tenacity is fine. It’s his tediousness that undoes me. Every. Time.

Matthew just can’t seem to let a good parable rest. He’s got to explain every detail. 

I have come to believe that this Matthew was, in fact, the ‘tax collector’. Every ‘i’ is dotted, every ‘t’ is crossed and every column of numbers adds up correctly. There’s a place for everything and Good Ole Matt makes certain that everything is in its place. 

Matthew’s gospel is black and white and this passage about the good seeds and the bad weeds is no different. In Matthew’s view, there are Children of the Kingdom and Children of the Evil One. Those are the only two possibilities.  Good and Evil. 

Look, I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t tell this parable. I’m sure he did. What I’m not so certain of is that Jesus did this sort of meticulous explaining afterward. 

Matthew’s world was black and white. Jesus, on the other hand, understood shades of gray. In fact, he embraced them. One only has to look at the 12 Apostles to see the “seeds” he chose and the “weeds” that grew together right alongside each other. 

While it's comforting to think that these two distinct communities never touch each other, in fact, darkness and light coexist everywhere. We hear the Psalmist proclaim,  
“. . .  but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. For darkness and light are the same to you.” (P 139:12)
I have a childhood memory of walking home from church with my grandmother one beautiful spring morning. We took what she called “a shortcut through the field” but, in fact, she wanted to walk among the new grass and wildflowers that were beginning their riotous announcement of the full arrival of a new season. 

I remember finding one plant that caught my eye. It was lacey and delicate and lovely and looked like a piece of one of my grandmother’s tattering. My grandmother treated all of creation as relatives – every creature and every plant under heaven had a name, and she knew them and called them all by name, as if they were old friends.

“VaVoa,” I called, “Look at this! It looks like your tattering.” 

“Ah,” she said, “that’s Queen Anne’s Lace. That’s God’s handiwork. Isn’t she beautiful? Pick three or four of them and I’ll pick some of these Daisies and a few of these Bachelor Buttons and Chickory. They’ll be pretty in the vase on the kitchen table.”

A few days later, I was helping my uncles in the yard. One uncle was mowing and I was weeding, being very careful to pull only the weeds my grandmother had taught me. Another of my uncles came over to join me and I gasped as I noticed that he was pulling up all the Queen Anne’s Lace! 

“What are you doing?” I said, a little more loudly than was respectful for a girl my age to speak to my uncle. 

“What?” he said. “This? Oh, these are just ugly weeds.” And, to my horror, he continued his murderous task.

What was beautiful to my eyes were ugly weeds to his. What I saw as having a place in the garden for its own beauty as well as to enhance the beauty of others, he saw as something evil that needed to be weeded out so that it didn’t overtake the flowers to which he ascribed value and worth. 

The weeds and the good seeds are all around us. 

They are, in fact, within us. 

Some of us have been carefully taught what makes something inherently good and what has the potential for evil. 

Sometimes, that’s absolutely right. But, sometimes, we allow what someone else has labeled ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ to blind us from the potential for good.

Author, activist and Baptist minister, Will Campbell, who died about five years ago just before his 88th birthday, referred to himself as a ‘bootleg preacher’. 

A lawyer once asked him where he went to church. Campbell said, “That depends on your definition of church.”

The lawyer replied that church is a community of baptized believers. 

Campbell said, “Well, the night before last I was in a tavern with a neighbor whose wife had just died. You know, I sat and watched that neighbor get drunk. In fact, I helped him a bit.”

Campbell took a deep breath and said, “I know the people in that tavern. They are all baptized and they are all believers. And, last night, we were a community sitting with a grieving neighbor.”

Campbell was making the point that church is not necessarily in a sturdy brick building with pews and a pulpit, cross and altar. Sometimes, church is where you find it. Sometimes, church is where you make it. Sometimes, church is how you define it.

That has never been more true than these days of COVID-19 Quarantine. One headline I read proclaimed, “The church has left the building.” And, so it has. Some have discovered that is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Indeed, some are choosing not to re-gather in their church building, preferring instead a newly-discovered and different kind of intimacy and deeper, more personal spirituality by participating in their own way in a service of worship that is online. 

Some even confess that they “attend” several churches on Sunday morning. And, they love it and love that they can. One person said to me, “You get more Jesus this way.” 

Turns out, there are shades of gray, even in the church. 

Indeed, as we learned in the first lesson from Hebrew Scripture, Jacob, the scoundrel who stole his brother’s birthright, has a transformative spiritual experience in the midst of a field outside Haran in the middle of the deepest darkness of night, with only a rock for a pillow.

While it’s comforting to think of the world as clearly separated into Good and Evil and that these two distinct communities never touch each other, the truth that Jesus knew is that darkness and light coexist everywhere. 

Exploring the shaded and shadowed areas can be a real act of faith with rich rewards. 

In fact, the church has done some of its best work in the shadows with some pretty shady customers – and some of those shady characters have been deacons, priests, and, yes, bishops!

A great deal has to do with how much we buy into stereotypes and how much we are willing to look for the light in the midst of what has been defined as darkness. 

We learn from Jesus that even bad can be used for some ultimate good. 

At that last supper in the Upper Room with his disciples, Jesus knew what was to happen. He knew that this would be the last time he and his friends would be together. He knew that this night would set into motion the events that would lead to his death, yes, but that his death would be for the redemption of the world. 

And, he knew that Judas was a pivotal person in setting the events of that redemption into action. His last words to Judas were, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)

And, Judas left and went to the Sanhedrin so they might find Jesus and arrest him.

Judas – passionate but fearful, deeply committed but narrowly focused Judas – put his faith in the institution vs. the movement. Judas betrayed Jesus, yes, but he also betrayed the best of himself. 

Even so, that betrayal set into motion the culmination of the work of Jesus on earth in the redemption of the world which was necessary, we are told, because of the betrayal of Adam and Eve in the Garden. 

Many of us share the perspective of St. Matthew. Oh, I sometimes wish life were black and white. Sometimes I long for answers that are definitely this or definitely that. 

What I have discovered, however, is that good seeds and bad seeds grow together everywhere. You find them in classrooms, offices, families, churches, neighborhoods, and, yes, fields.

We search in vain for the pure meadow of unadulterated wheat. The grass always seems greener in the other fellow’s yard. Even in a monastery or convent, we will discover that the holiest monk or nun wrestles with the darkest demons. 

If we're honest, we can see all of that in our own lives.

What I hear Jesus teaching us is not to judge – not others, not even ourselves. It’s God’s job to do the sorting out.  Ours is not to figure everything out or to know every answer to every question.

In my experience, life is best experienced and lived with a few “i’s” not dotted or “t’s’ not crossed and columns of numbers that don’t quite add up.

Our task is to plant seeds and gather the crops – the wheat and tares, the flowers and the weeds.

All of it – all of it: the seeds and the weeds – has a purpose and use in the Realm of God.   

Because all of it – all of it – was created by God.


Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seeds: Nature or Nurture

 A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10 Headstrong Daughter
Pentecost VI - Proper 10 A

I’m going to get to the Gospel – that’s a promise – but I have to spend some time with Isaac and Rebekah and their twin boys Esau and Jacob.   

So, in case you aren't a scripture nerd like me, let me put this family into context. 

Isaac, of course, was the son of Abraham and Sarah. We learn a few interesting details about Isaac which support my theory that he was struggling from PTSD after his father almost sacrificed him to the voices he heard in his head – an “angel of the Lord” he said – which told him to kill his son. 

Turns out, Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. That’s a significant piece of information, I think. It also turns out that family patterns of behavior repeat themselves. 

First of all, we learn that Rebekah has difficulty conceiving – just like her mother-in-law, Sarah, who didn’t conceive Isaac until, we are told, she was in her 80th year. 

Which raises the question if the issue of fertility is not with the women but with, say, low sperm count. I mean, Isaac was 60 when Rebekah conceived. Low sperm count is a definite possibility.

Nah, couldn’t be that, right? Couldn't possibly be the man's fault, right?

And, just as Ishmael had his birthright stolen by his younger brother Isaac, so it is, also, between the twins, Esau and Jacob. 

I’ll get to that in a minute but, oh, my! Doesn’t it seem that the family flair for the dramatic appears to have been passed down from mother to son?! 

We learn that when Rebekah is pregnant with the twins, she is made very uncomfortable by the constant movement in her womb. Any woman who has been pregnant can tell you just how uncomfortable that can be – and, more so with twins. 

With just a touch of dramatic flair, she complains, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” 

I mean no disrespect to one of our ancestors, but it did cause me to giggle, especially when I realized that this flair for the dramatic had been passed down to her son Esau, but with terrible results.

Esau had been working out in the fields and returned home absolutely famished. His brother Jacob had made a potage – a stew – which must have smelled very good to his hungry-man brother Esau. 

Jacob is clever, however, and seeks to use his brother’s hunger to his advantage. He demands that his brother give him his birthright as the firstborn son. 

Esau, clearly the inheritor of his mother’s dramatic flair, says, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 

Don’t you just LOVE it? He sold his birthright for a bowl of potage because of hunger that could have been satiated in other ways? I mean, seriously? Cue Rebekah, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

Thus, another family pattern is seen. Just as Ishmael had his birthright as firstborn son stolen from him and given to Isaac, so has Esau had his birthright stolen from him and given to his twin Jacob. 

What a family, eh? Their story may have been at least part of what was in the back of Paul’s mind when he wrote to the church in Rome about the difference between living “in the flesh” as opposed to “in the spirit”.   

He says that those of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus, “ . . .walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” At least, that’s the hope. 

Or, perhaps Paul had heard of Jesus telling the apostles the parable of the seeds. Jesus tells this story as an illustration of the message he wants to give about how seeds planted in different soil and in different ways bear fruit – or, no fruit at all. 

I’m sure that Jesus used that story because it was a topic very familiar to the ears of his listeners. If Jesus were here today, he'd probably talk about parents working from home overseeing their kids in remote learning. He might mention a ballplayer who has to make a decision whether to play ball this year or stay home for the safety of his family. 

He might put things in terms of whether or not to wear a mask and keep social distancing. He would certainly help people understand these stories with frames of references they can relate to. 

His parable takes an interesting turn when you apply the story of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and their twins, Esau and Jacob. 

Families often talk about the one who is the  “black sheep” or the “bad seed”.  It certainly raises the issue of “nature vs. nurture”. In other words, are we who we are because we’re “born that way” or because of the way we were brought up, the “soil” which nurtured us? 

It reminds me of the book titled, “The Other Wes Moore”. It’s the story of two unrelated young men, born a few blocks apart in Baltimore, MD. Both boys were named Wes Moore. Both boys were brought up by their mothers. Both boys longed for their absent fathers. One Wes Moore grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author; the other is serving a life sentence for first-degree felony murder. 

The book is an attempt by the author to try to understand what made the difference. It makes for fascinating reading. I’m thinking of reading it again in preparation for reading Mary Trump’s controversial book, “Too Much and Never Enough.” 

Is it nature – something in the seed? Or, is it nurture – the soil in which we are planted? Or, might it be a combination of both? 

It’s a question that has made many psychotherapists and psychologists and psychiatrists very wealthy. Indeed, I joked with my last therapist that, by the time our work ended, I had probably paid for the new deck she had built in her back yard. 

Paul’s response, I think, comes closest to where I have landed on the subject. He writes,  
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
As one of my therapists used to say, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” 

Because of Jesus, progeny or geography does not bind us. Although, I admit it: There are times when I open my mouth and my mother’s words and voice come out. I have learned to laugh at myself and not be bound by it.

The same applies to patters of behavior in family systems like churches. I’m convinced that churches known as “clergy killer congregations” or those who have troubled patterns are not always churches with mean people. Rather, I have found that they are church families dealing with undiagnosed, unattended pain and grief.

We do not have to accept our lineage as a life-sentence to imprisonment in a particular way of life. We can make choices to redeem previous bad choices, even if the people we hurt the most refuse to forgive us for the sins of the past. Or, in some cases, the people we hurt are now dead and we can’t seek forgiveness from them in the flesh, as it were. We cling to the promise of perfection in eternity.

As Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.”

The stories of our spiritual ancestors, as we read them in the Bible, show a steady progression of the evolution of people who do not accept the circumstance of their lives – the soil in which they were planted – to write the story of the rest of their lives. 

Over and over again, we see people who make bad choices, accept responsibility for them and allow themselves and their lives to be transformed by the Spirit. 

Turns out, we can, in fact, bloom where we are planted.

The same can happen for you and for me. It’s never too late to transplant yourself out of bad soil and into good spiritual soil, to make a decision to make different choices and not be a slave to either progeny or geography. Contrary to Paul, I don’t think it’s either flesh or spirit. I think we can live in the flesh WITH a new spirit. 

I know. It's a lot to consider. So, I will leave you with these words of Jesus,  
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Meek Are Getting Ready

A Sermon for Pentecost V - Proper 9 A - July 5, 2020
Recorded on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.

That’s what Matthew reports that Jesus said. I don’t know about you but I really need to hear those words today - especially the part about being weary and carrying heavy burdens. And, being given rest.

Our country seems no longer to be a “melting pot” but a boiling cauldron of dissent and divisiveness and I confess I am weary of it all. As of today, there are exactly 122 days to the election. 

I don’t know about you, but that can’t come soon enough. Then, whatever happens, we’ll be able to get on with continuing the great, on-going experiment we call ‘democracy’ – an idea which many will celebrate this long holiday weekend.

We hear an echo of these words of Jesus in Emma Lazarus’ poem which is engraved on the base of The Statue of Liberty. 
It’s these words, this morning, that catch the eyes of my soul and the ears of my heart:

"Takemy yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart." 
That's a difficult message to digest, especially if you confuse meekness and weakness.

My dear friend Louie Clay Crew used to say, “The meek are getting ready.” I never really understood what he was saying until one day I asked him. I learned that there is a big, important difference between being meek and being weak. 

That's what happens when you as an English professor about the English language. 

Louie explained that it takes strength of character to be meek and offer a meek disposition.  It is a deliberate choice to be meek, to not to assert oneself or press an advantage. 

Weakness, by contrast, doesn't have the capacity to assert itself. It's the opposite of strength. 

Take a moment to let the idea about meek vs. weak sink in.

Certainly, meekness seems in short supply in our world today. We tend to be more interested in self-protection and self-centeredness. That often causes us to adopt a defensive posture to our ideas and positions. It takes real strength to deliberately not assert oneself or press an advantage.

There’s a wonderful example of the strength of meekness in the continuing story of the aftermath of the Binding of Isaac inthis morning's lesson from Hebrew Scripture

Isaac was living in the Negeb, having come from Beer-lahai-roi, the spring named by his stepmother, Hagar, in thanksgiving for God saving her life and that of Ishmael, the firstborn of his family and the half-brother of Isaac. 

It is just my conjecture but I imagine that, after his father, Abraham, had tried to kill him, Isaac sought refuge with Hagar and Ishmael and had “settled” into life with or near them. Isaac never saw his parents, Abraham and Sarah, ever again. Even so, Abraham had arranged for a wife for Isaac. He was certain to instruct his servants to make sure that the woman chosen for her son came by her own volition. 

Isaac was out walking one evening when the caravan of camels and people drew near. Rebekah looked up and saw Isaac and immediately asked his identity. When she learned that this was the man she was going to marry, she did what strikes me as odd. 

Scripture says, “Soshe took her veil and covered herself.”

Again, this is just my conjecture, but I imagine that as they travelled, Rebekah had asked many questions about Isaac, the man she had agreed to marry, sight unseen. I imagine she was told about the binding of Isaac and that he had been so traumatized that he never lived with or talked to his parents again.  His mother had just died and he had not even gone home for her funeral. 

I think she knew, intuitively, that Isaac, in addition to deeply grieving his mother’s death, was suffering from a traumatic experience so horrific as to defy imagination. 

So, Rebekah chose to be meek. She chose to cover herself so that Isaac might not feel anxious our immediately pressured to accept her as his wife. 

She wanted his choice to be his, just as her choice had been hers.

Her meekness was a choice. Her meekness demonstrated her strength.

Scripture reports:He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
There are only a few places in scripture where this is said of an arranged marriage, and this is one of them. “ . . . and he loved her.”  Such is the power of meekness to mend a broken and grieving heart so that it may open, once again to love.

St. Paul tells us Jesus had the choice not to suffer a scratch in this world. Whereas a weak person can be victimized by the powerful, Jesus made the choice to lay down his life from a place of strength – his equality to God to which he did not cling.

Meekness is always in charge of the event, not subject to the will of others. 

As Mother Theresa taught her sisters, when you're in the presence of true meekness, you feel like you need to get down on your knees.

I am convinced that the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into in this world is for us to practice meekness. 

We may need to follow the good example of Rebekah and cover ourselves with a metaphorical veil for a time, just until the anxiety level decreases and trust increases.

We most certainly will benefit from following the teachings of Jesus whose time on the cross went from a symbol of religious condemnation to a symbol of salvation for us all.  Jesus said, “ . . . learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.
Jesus also said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

To which I will add my own: Blessed are those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for the meek are getting ready to take on the yoke of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.