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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Is The Lord With Us Or Not?


Is the Lord with us or not?

A sermon on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XVII - Proper 21 A - September 27, 2020


As we follow the story of the ministry of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves today at a turning point.  Jesus has been in northern Israel and the area of Galilee. The story of the father and sons in the Vineyard is significant because it marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem.


The story also marks a shift in the intensity and trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. Just before this story, we hear that Jesus overthrows the tables in the temple and severely scolds the religious leaders there, reminding them of the purpose of the temple as a house of prayer and not a den of thieves.


Jesus continues by telling the leaders of the temple the story of the two sons. It seems pretty clear that he’s telling the temple leaders that they are not doing a very good job. Indeed, he declares that tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into kingdom before them.


As a reported tax collector himself, this must have been particularly delightful for Matthew to hear. That said, it’s little wonder that the temple leaders hardened their hearts toward Jesus.


As Jesus begins to turn his attention away from northern Israel and toward the urban capitol of Jerusalem, it’s not at all surprising that this story marks the beginning of the turn toward the end of his earthly life and ministry.


So, buckle up everybody. In the next eight weeks, we’re going to be hearing Jesus quarrel with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders in the temple, as he begins to turn his face toward Jerusalem.


Yes, you heard that right: eight weeks. Eight Sundays of testing and quarreling, back and forth, between Jesus and the temple leaders.  Eight weeks of unpleasantness.


If you’re paying attention, that coincides with the unpleasantness of the Presidential Election Cycle, which is projected to be longer than the usual one day. That means there will be no escape from the testing and quarreling, the unpleasant back and forth, either in our country or in church.


Even though you can hear me but I can’t hear you in this Facebook Live Broadcast, I can still imagine your groans in my head. It’s gotten really awful, hasn’t it? The world – our country in particular – seem chaotic and hell-bent on destruction.


It’s not a pretty picture, not unlike the scene we witnessed in the first lesson from the Book of Genesis. The Israelites are finally free. They have made it out of four hundred years of slavery in Egypt after surviving seven deadly plagues and a miraculous journey through the raging waters of the Red Sea that parted for them at God’s command until they were on dry land and free from Pharaoh’s soldiers.


And now, now that they are free, they haven’t stopped complaining. Last week, they complained about hunger and were miraculously fed bread from heaven.


This week, we read that they complained about thirst and quarreled with Moses and tested God saying, “Is the Lord with us or not?”.


But, God had Moses use the same staff which God had commanded Moses to use in the Nile and strike the rock at Horeb. Moses did as the Lord commanded and water flowed from the rock, giving all enough to drink.


Moses named that place near Rephidium “Massah” because they tested the Lord and “Meribah” because the Israelites quarreled with him.


It seems part of the human condition to be incapable of enjoying our freedoms for two long. My grandmother would say, “Some people just have to spoil their bed after they’ve made it.” In other words, some people just can’t leave well enough alone.


“Is the Lord with us or not?” Some of us spoil our bed after we make it to see if anyone notices – if anyone really cares. Sometimes, negative behavior gets more attention than positive behavior, and sometimes, like children, we’ll do something negative just to get the attention.


There was a kid in my junior high school class, a goofy looking kid named Calvin Hopkins. He looked an awful lot like Alfred E. Neuman. People of a certain generation will remember him as the fictitious mascot and cover boy of the American humor magazine, “Mad”.


Except Calvin had blond hair. And, his eyes were blue. But, he parted his hair straight down the middle, had a gap-tooth smile, and big, protruding nose in the middle of his freckled face. His ears stood at an acute angle to his head and his body was scrawny.


Calvin was the 8th or 9th child of a family of 12 or 14. Nobody really knew. In fact, I’m not entirely sure their parents were ever quite certain how many kids they had.

They lived on a big dairy farm with which also produced goat milk and cheese. In the summer, you could always rely on Hopkins Farm Stand for fresh vegetables and some of the best homemade ice cream that ever hit your palate.


With all those kids and all of the work on the farm, I’m quite certain Calvin didn’t get the attention he needed – or, at least, wanted. So, Calvin found that it was just as enjoyable – at times, perhaps more so – to get attention by being a naughty prankster.


Mostly, it was innocent stuff. Goofy kids stuff. Spit balls. Sticking signs on other kid’s backs that said, “Kick me”. Pulling girl’s pigtails and running away. Putting a frog in the toilet in the girl’s room. Smearing the toilet seat in the teacher’s lounge with Vaseline. Stupid stuff like that.


One day, Calvin outdid himself. Almost literally. I’m not sure why but one year, we spent quite a bit of time in the library – study time, even a few classes. Calvin discovered that almost every magazine had a page – some even a few pages – where you could order stuff. Anything from maps of Ancient China to replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.


So, Calvin ordered them. But, he ordered them in the name of the librarian and teachers to be delivered to our Junior High School. Well, it didn’t take long before chaos ensued. The library went into lockdown. All the magazines were removed. Extra teachers were assigned to police the library. And yet, stuff continued to be ordered and delivered to the school. It didn’t stop.


Teachers were being called into the office daily and taken to task for ordering things and charging them to the school. The head of the library, Ms. Thelma Chase, a small, quiet, stereotypical librarian-looking woman, came under heaviest scrutiny because Calvin ordered most of the things in her name.


The bickering and arguing among the teachers could be heard outside the brake room. Then, the word was out that they were looking for a scapegoat among them, which made some of the kids snicker and snort – Calvin the loudest among them. That was when some of us who had been wondering, knew.

Hundreds of dollars were involved before one day, Calvin snickered just a little too loudly and something clicked in the mind of one of the teachers and Calvin was found out. Which didn’t bother Calvin one bit. He saw himself as a rock star for having pulled off his prank for so long without having been discovered.


That wasn’t true for Calvin’s parents who pulled him out of school and put him in a Christian military academy. I often wonder what happened to old Calvin. I also wonder what happened to all those teachers who bickered and argued among themselves, looking for a scapegoat.


Is the Lord with us or not? I believe that God was in that situation with Calvin who tested the limits. I believe that God was in the midst of the bickering and quarreling among students and the teachers. I believe God heard the cries of Ms. Thelma Chase, who practically suffered a nervous breakdown over that foolish but expensive prank.


Is the Lord with us or not? I believe that the same God who was in the midst of the bickering and quarreling of ancient Israelites is the same God who was in the midst of the bickering and quarreling of the religious leaders in the Temple with Jesus.


It is Paul who provides the key to the dilemma of the human enterprise of quarreling and bickering and testing. He says, Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”


Let that sink in for just a red hot New York minute. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” That would be the same mind that was as capable of calling out injustice and corruption when he saw it. He was also capable of calling people to him, calling out the better angels in them, and calling them to their best selves to accomplish things they could have never asked for or imagined.


Is the Lord with us or not?


I believe the same God who was in The Garden as Adam and Eve bickered and quarreled about who gave the apple to whom is the same God who is in the midst of the crisis and chaos and cacophony of our lives today.  


And, what of the next eight weeks of bickering and quarreling in the world as well as what we will hear in the church as we listen to the Gospels and follow Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem?


Not to worry. Or, as Alfred E Neuman would say, "What? Me Worry?" 


God will be there in the midst of us to see us through.


As St. Paul tells us, “. . . .for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”




Sunday, September 20, 2020

It's not fair!


Laborers in the Field - 11th Century Byzantine art

 It’s Not Fair!

A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XVI - Proper 20 A RCL I

September 20, 2020


Excuse me while I stamp my foot with my hand on my hip and say, a little louder than is polite, “It’s not fair.”


No, seriously! This gospel passage is so far from what I’ve been taught – what I suspect we all understand – about what is “fair” that it makes my head spin.


Our first lessons about fairness usually come from our parents about our siblings. We learn to “share, fair and square.” Which means, if you get two cookies I get two cookies.  


Later, we learn, if you have two cookies and I have no cookies, you have to share one with me. Which is fine, until the cookie is in the other hand, as it were. If I have two cookies and you have none, I have to share with you. 


Wait! What? How is THAT fair? Shouldn’t you have to do something – like, maybe, EARN your cookies?


Which surfaces of memory of my kid brother, John. He was about 4. I was about 8. He had two cookies. I had none. He saw me coming and shoved both cookies in his mouth and devoured them even before I got close enough to him to swipe one away or complain to my mother who would slap him upside the head and tell him to share. 


I mean, I AM the oldest. Does seniority count for something? 


Still later, we learn to navigate the cultural layers of what it means to be fair.  


We’ve been trained to believe that seniority is superiority. Those born into privilege would like us to believe that legacy is its own currency. The American ethic is born of the belief that, “If you work hard and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, you too can be successful. 


Unfortunately, very little is ever said about the fact that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length. Or, quality. Or, level of durability. Or, if you even have bootstraps.

Those who know me have heard me tell stories about my immigrant roots. We worked hard. We had a strong work ethic that was actually a source of no small amount of pride. It was not uncommon in my family for people to have two, sometimes three jobs, not counting a side hustle of selling Avon or Amway or Tupperware or Corning ware products, or “stuff that fell off the truck” and found its way into the trunk of an uncle’s car. 


As immigrants, members of my family took jobs in the factories and sweatshops of New England, the owners of which attracted immigrants to this county specifically for their cheap labor and expected grateful silence about unfair wages, long hours and dangerous work conditions. 


Indeed, my uncle Gus, the firstborn son of my grandparents, died in a factory explosion at the age of 19, leaving a young, wife pregnant with a son he’d never live to see. Everyone who was at the factory that day, including the owner and his son, died in that fiery inferno.


My grandfather had identified his son by his shirt and his shoes and socks. Oh, and the handkerchief in his shirt pocket on which my grandmother had embroidered his initials. All they had left of his body was an arm and a leg for a proper burial. 


I remember visiting his grave every year. I remember my grandmother crying and wailing as if he had died just that morning. Seventy years later and on her deathbed, his was one of the names she called.


What the owners of those factories and sweatshops didn’t expect was what my family did about their plight: they became involved in organizing labor unions which advocated for fairness and safety and changed the working environment and the compensation and benefit package for everyone.


So, you’ll understand and forgive, please, if this daughter of Mill Girls has an initial reaction, every time this gospel lessons appears, to cringe as I stifle the desire to yell, “But, that’s not fair!”


Truth be told, that’s exactly the reaction Jesus wants.


As my colleague, Kentina Washington-Leapheart writes, 

This parable is just one example of many in which Jesus uses the power of story to upend the status quo. It’s one that on first reading can feel a bit clunky to understand and apply in our daily lives.”  


“Legacy and seniority don’t matter when you have to take two buses and a train to get to the vineyard. Legacy and seniority don’t matter when your citizenship status precludes you from applying for employment for fear of deportation. Legacy and seniority don’t matter when, in the age of COVID-19, going to work everyday can mean, for the most vulnerable people in our society, the difference between life or death.”


In the parable of the laborers in Matthew20:1–15, the laborers who were hired first are envious. They don’t see why they shouldn’t get more—a lot more—than those hired late in the day. Our sympathies are with them. 


The issue seems one of pure justice: if you work hard and long you get rewarded; if you work just as hard and twice as long you get doubly rewarded.


Indeed, the system of our economy depends on us desiring what we don’t have and acquiring something similar or better of our own. That finds its application in a theology of scarcity which informs our image of God.


But this is a parable. Jesus is upending our social construct in order to make a larger point – beyond mere justice – a theological point with practical implications about the lavish abundance of God’s creation.


What if we thought about “daily wage” differently? What if we understood that the agreed daily wage is forgiveness and eternal life?


Ah, now that makes a bit of a difference, doesn’t it? Remember, it’s a parable; it’s meant to provoke imagination and thought.


If God is “compensating” us, no matter when we “arrive” at the fullness of the gospel life, the only reasonable response is overflowing gratitude and indescribable joy – not envy or greed.


Envy and greed. They are and have always been part of the human condition. These two human dynamics always lead to a theology of scarcity.


We saw it in the first reading in Exodus when the Israelites complained to God against Moses and Aaron. We hear echoes of it in Paul’s letter to the ancient Christians at Philippi. My brother knew it when he stuffed two cookies in his mouth rather than share with me.


The good news is that God’s grace can’t be halved or multiplied. It’s ridiculous to demand “double eternal life” or “triple forgiveness.” There’s only one reason we’d ask for such a thing—even demand it—and that’s because our envy has so consumed us that we can’t enjoy what we have for fear that someone else might have something better.

The good news is that our God is a God of abundance who lavishes the fruits  of creation upon all of God’s children. 


The only reason that a child goes to bed hungry at night, or that some families don’t have their own home, is because we do not trust in the abundance of God. Instead, we allow the dynamics of greed and envy inform the ways in which we live our lives.


What if we lived abundantly? What if we loved lavishly and, in fact, wastefully as God does with us? What if we followed God’s lead and gave what we have and expected nothing in return?


What if we chose to live our lives so generously and lavishly and wastefully that people – God’s children, just like you and me – are no longer hungry or homeless but people call us fools? 


I suspect Jesus would say tous: “Others are envious because you are generous. So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”



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?