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Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Bookkeeper Who Planted Azaleas in an Asylum

 

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and Broadcast via Facebook Live: Sirach 26:10
Easter VII - May 16, 2020
 

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into theworld.” Jn 17:19

 

On May 15,1813 the Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason was founded in Philadelphia. It was the first private mental health hospital in the United States. 

 

The Asylum was founded by a group of Quakers, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, who built the institution on a 52-acre farm. It is still around today. The name was changed to Frankford Asylum for the Insane but for many years it has gone by the name Friends Hospital.

 

At the time that Friends Hospital was founded, mental illness was widely misunderstood and treated as criminal behavior. Mentally ill people were tied up, put in chains, isolated, or beaten. The Quakers wanted to model a new type of care. 



They wrote out their philosophy in a mission statement for the hospital: "To provide for the suitable accommodation of persons who are or may be deprived of the use of their reason, and the maintenance of an asylum for their reception, which is intended to furnish, besides requisite medical aid, such tender, sympathetic attention as may soothe their agitated minds, and under the Divine Blessing, facilitate their recovery."

 

This was 1813.



In 1831, they instituted “Pet Therapy” bringing small bunnies and lambs onto the property, allowing the patients to tend to them which they found reduced anxiety and helped to lift depression. They also established a greenhouse in 1879 where patients worked. In 1889, the first institutional gym was built and included as part of the therapeutic program.

And, in 1922, when some asylums were lobotomizing patients, Friends Hospital established an alternative hydrotherapy unit, using water and swimming as part of their therapeutic approach. Today, Friends Hospital specializes in adolescent and adult psychiatric care and crisis intervention.

 

The group purchased the original 52-acre farm for less than $7,000, and tried to create a beautiful place with gardens and lots of outdoor space. Today, the hospital occupies 100 acres, which include flower gardens and about 200 varieties of trees.

 

Much of this was the work of one man who started out at the hospital as a bookkeeper in 1875 and ended up working there and managing the grounds until his death in 1947.

 

One day, he found an azalea that a family member had brought for a patient and someone had tossed out. He tended it in the greenhouse until it was healthy again, took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.

 

I love that story about the bookkeeper who saved and planted azaleas in an asylum. I have loved it since I first read about it in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac about 10 years ago. I’ve not been able to find his name but I figure, well, he joins millions of women throughout history whose deeds are known only as having been accomplished by “anonymous.”

 

I love the story as it not only says something about the Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday and honor today, but it also is a wonderful illustration of the High Priestly Prayer which we hear from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel from St. John.

 

The Ascension was once a major feast in the church, and still is although because of the demands of our modern lives, it is the rare church which celebrates it on the 40th day after the resurrection. Besides, say modern minds, the Ascension just isn’t logical. Heaven really isn’t ‘up’ they say. We don’t know where heaven is, exactly, they say. Or even if there IS an actual place called ‘heaven’.

 

And, ‘they’ may be right, but one can be right and still miss the point. And, the point is that, after making the point that Jesus was, in fact, resurrected in the flesh, He now has to leave, to return to the place from whence he came.

 

The point is that Jesus is now delegating the work of continuing His ministry of reconciliation and healing and miracles to us. He is entrusting this work to us.

 

The point is that Jesus is sending the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to guide us and continue to teach us so that we might become the Body of Christ here on earth. This is what we hear Jesus pray in this morning’s gospel.

 

Jesus ostensibly prays what is called “The High Priestly Prayer “for his disciples, encouraging them to confidence and hope in the face of his imminent “departure” from them. 

 

Although the narrative is ostensibly set prior to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death on the cross, it well placed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It is transparent in its presentation as the words of an already resurrected Lord who now encourages a company of disciples, including modern hearers, living today, in light of the resurrection promise. 



As Easter people, we are encouraged not to dwell in feelings of abandonment or despair, but to hope in the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence, now that the work for which he was sent has been accomplished.

 

And that work can feel much like the work of an anonymous bookkeeper who planted azaleas on the grounds of an asylum among the humans whose lives had been deemed without beauty or worth. 

 

The azaleas, no doubt lovingly plucked from the family garden of one of the patients and brought to them at the asylum, were tossed out. Who knows why? Was it too much a sign of hope in the midst of despair? Did it bring back painful memories of home? Perhaps the patient or one of the other patients or staff were allergic?

 

No matter. Something of fragile beauty was disregarded. That proved to be too much to bear for our friend, the bookkeeper who became a gardener. So, he rescued and saved it, tending to it until it was healthy again. He took cuttings, and planted those, and from that one plant more than 20 acres of the Friends Hospital are now planted in azaleas.

 

I can’t think of a more apt description of the role of the church, the Body of Christ. In this week’s class on an Instructed Eucharist, I talked about the role of the priest in the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. For me, it is about being a vehicle of transformation.

 

The role of the priest is to listen carefully to your conversations and even more intently to the Prayers of the People. These are the discarded elements of the world in which we live, where everyone is supposed to live perfect lives and have perfect jobs and come home to perfect houses and be perfectly happy. 



Except we know that that is a perfect load of hooey. No one is perfect. No life is perfect. We all come to church carrying the burdens of our own brokenness, our own sorrows, our own neurosis, and all the things which can make us feel crazy in this life. 



In church, the priest then bundles together all of the concerns, all of the struggles, all of the pain – expressed in words on human lips or in “sighs and groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26)– and  presents them on the altar of God, along with the other offerings of a tithe of our wages and the bread and the wine to be blessed by God. 

 

And, through the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” in a moment of kairos – of God’s time, when past and future fold into the present, together with those who have come before and those yet to come join us in the now – we believe that all of these things are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the real, living presence of Jesus.

 

I know. I know. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? That God would find enough value in our suffering to transform it? Makes us sound like crazies and fools! And, you know, maybe that’s exactly right. Maybe that’s the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

 

At the end of his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

 

For some of us that means carrying on His work of prayer. For others, it means some other specific work of ministry such as being a teacher or a member of the medical profession, or a lawyer or a bookkeeper or accountant, or a musician or an artist or an engineer or mechanic or a jeweler or baker or chef or wait staff or small business owner or student and/or a spouse, parent, sibling.

 

Whatever that work is, we are to do it with an understanding that we have been sent into the world by Jesus to “seek and serve the Christ in others,” to treat everyone with “dignity and respect” and to work for “justice and peace”. 

 

In a world that is beset by turmoil brought on by greed and disinformation and burdened by religious wars and terrorism, domestic and foreign, being a Christian can make us look like crazies and fools. Not to mention believing in the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

 

Indeed, being a follower of Jesus can make us look as crazy as a bookkeeper, rescuing an azalea from the trash and planting it in the yard of an asylum among humans whose lives had been deemed as being devoid of beauty or worth, and one day, finding yourself surrounded by 20 acres of beauty.

 

Amen.

 

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Abide in my love

 

 

A Sermon preached for Easter VI 
Rogation Sunday - Mother's Day
May 9, 2021
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10
 

That’s what Jesus said. And, he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and thatyour joy may be complete. He also said, I am giving you these commandsso that you may love one another.”

 

This is Rogation Sunday, a day when we ask (‘rogare’ is Latin for ask) God’s blessings and, in the old days of the church, an appeasement of God’s wrath and for protection against calamities. For those whose spirituality is ennobled by these things, it is their practice to fast on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for the observance of the Ascension of Jesus in to heaven on Thursday, May 13th, which is 40 days exactly from the Resurrection. 

 

At the end of this service, we’re going to process outside to “beat the bounds” (boundaries) and ask (rogare) for God’s blessings on the four-corners of the church property. I hope you’ll stay and join us. St. Paul’s is back and livin’ the dream of the gospel. 
 

This is also Mother’s Day, a special day, to be sure, which, alas, is NOT on the Church Calendar. I know you’ll be shocked to learn that there are no special observances or even a special collect prayer to be found in the BCP. However, many in Mother Church acknowledge that we ignore Mother’s Day at our own peril. 

 

And, as you may have noticed, my momma didn’t raise no fool. 

 

There will be carnations. Red. It’s a tradition and we know how important tradition is in the church.

 

Abide in my love. That’s what Jesus said. What does that mean? In this sense, abide means to rest, to wait, to stay – to build an abode – a home in our hearts – in the love of Jesus. 

 

Abide in my love. That’s what Jesus said. As we consider his commandment, to love one another as he loved us, what might that sort of ‘abiding in love’ look like? 

 

For many, Mother’s Day is as easy an analogy of abiding love as picking low hanging fruit. However, this day is terrible for those who mourn a mother now gone, and also for those whose mothers were just not equipped to nurture a child. It’s terrible for women who desperately wanted to be mothers but couldn’t be, and also for women who didn’t want to be mothers but are too often vilified for that perfectly reasonable choice. It’s beyond terrible for women who have lost a child.

 

As painful as Mother’s Day can be for some, it is also an occasion, especially this Rogation Sunday, to understand how much we share in an innate sense of the abiding love of a parent with our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom.


I live on one of the marshes which are a part of one of the estuaries of Rehoboth Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula. Every day, I am blessed to have a front row seat to nature. The red-winged Black Birds arrived not long ago and every time I hear their angry cry, my heart leaps in anxiety that a sea gull has come too close to their nest in the marsh. I cheer on the angry father Black Bird as he swoops and charges the intruder and predator. I shake my fist and say, “You tell ‘em!”
 
 

There are several Canada Geese who are my neighbors. Every now and again, Mother Nature’s timing is off and a storm will arrive shortly after a mamma geese has laid her eggs. The sound of the mamma and papa geese, calling up and down the marsh, looking for their lost eggs is enough to break open even a heart of stone. 


As difficult as it is to hear the grief of another of God’s creatures, I find it comforting to know that humans are not alone in our grief and that we all need and seek solace. I don’t know if you’ve read Rosamund Young’s memoir, “The Secret Life of Cows” but I’m reminded of the story she tells of a grieving young mother cow whose calf was a stillbirth. 

 

That cow sought her own mother for comfort and solace, from three fields away. Imagine!

 

Perhaps you remember the story of the orca (sometimes called “Killer Whale”) who carried her dead calf for 17 days – 17 days! – across a thousand miles of ocean because she could not abide to let the baby go. Apparently, the calf was born alive and lived for 30 minutes but then something happened and the calf died and she grieved while holding her calf for 17 days.

 

No matter your gender or if you have not suffered a stillbirth or lost an infant or child, there is something profoundly moving in that image of that orca. Yes, grief is universal and recognizable, but I think we can all recognize an image of ‘abiding love’ – a love that begins before we are born, stays with us for as long as we live, and follows us even to our grave. That is the kid of love in which Jesus asks us to abide. (BTW, I understand that that orca gave birth again, this time to an apparently healthy calf.)


 
I have one more image of abiding love I want to share with you. Some of you may know that I am an Associate of the Order of St. Helena. The sisters of OSH have been my spiritual guides for over 35 years. I am the priest I am today in large part because of the discipline of a life of prayer which I learned from them. They have played an enormous role in my formation as a Christian who is privileged to be a priest.  They are my spiritual mothers, sure and true.

 

One of the sisters, Sr. Ann, has asked for prayers for one of the families she knows. This young couple has two delightful sons, Jack and Archer. 

 

Jack is the older boy who is bright and inquisitive, sensitive and compassionate. Archer was born with a multiplicity of life-threatening syndromes, most of which are difficult to comprehend, much less pronounce. To put a very complicated medical situation very, very simply, Archer was born with a heart deformity and has had several strokes that left him with a seizure disorder which has been difficult to control.

 

I want to share with you one of his mother’s recent posts on Facebook to those of us who have been praying for him.

“I came home from work and this is what I saw. I see it all the time but for some reason it hit me especially hard tonight.

 

Jesse on the phone with neurology (literally his *15th* complex medical phone conversation of the day), Archer's nurse logging all his feeds and meds, his occupational therapist hard at work teaching him how to drink and Jack playing dinosaurs in his bedroom........

 

It took us a long time to get Archer the in-home therapists and nurses he has now. They're truly incredible and they help us so much. I'm grateful to live in a society where we have such advanced medical technology, treatments and therapies available to us.

 

But some days it hits me. How much I wish we didn't need them. How much of our life revolves around hospitals, therapies and medications. How I feel guilty sometimes for just snuggling or being silly with my baby when I should be working on therapies. How every medical decision feels like it could make or break his future. How I'm scared to be alone with him sometimes because I don't want to deal with a seizure or stroke on my own.

 

So yeah, when I look at this photo, I feel sadness. But I also feel so much gratitude. For a husband who fights for our family so fiercely every day. Today a vital medical treatment was late and he spent hours making sure it got here in time. All the while playing with Jack every spare second he could.

 

Grateful for friends and family who pray for us, help us and give encouragement.

 

Grateful for the medical team that keeps Archer's little heart beating.

 

And grateful for a God that accepts both the sorrow and gratitude that coexist in my heart. I never have to hide from him (God). 

 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think there can be no clearer picture of abiding in God’s love than the one Archer’s parents provide for us. 

 

Did you hear what she said? God loves us so much that God accepts both the sorrow and gratitude that coexist in our hearts. Just hold that thought in your mind for a second. God accepts our sorrow and God accepts our gratitude. God knows how we struggle with conflicting thoughts because God once put on human flesh and dwelt among us – fully human and fully divine. 

 

And, she said, we never have to hide from God. That would be an exercise in futility anyway, because the Psalmist promises that “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.” (Psalm 139:8). 



I think that mother orca knew that when she swam for 17 days – one day for every month she was pregnant with her calf – to grieve its loss. I think that mother cow knew that when she called for her own mother several fields away when she lost her calf. 

 


Mother’s Day has been criticized as a saccharine invention, a national fairy tale in a nation that does almost nothing to support mothers. But this Sunday, this Mother’s Day, this Rogation Sunday, we can make time to contemplate the ways in which we’re connected to one another, through times of joy and times of sorrow, across time and even across species. 
 

The mystic St. Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), whose feast day was yesterday, wrote in her book, Revelations of Divine Love: 


"It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. The mother,” she wrote, “can give her child her milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself… All the debt we owe, at God’s bidding, for his fatherhood and motherhood, is fulfilled by loving God truly; a blessed love which Christ arouses in us.” (Divine Revelations, pp. 141-142.)

 

“Abide in my love,” Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” And, he said, I amgiving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

 

That sounds an awful lot like what a mother would say, don’t you think? 



Amen.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

A tree with strong roots laughs at storms


A Sermon preached at 
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and via Facebook Live Broadcast
Easter V - May 2, 2021

 

The image of vine and branches is one that brings me comfort. It also inspires and challenges me.

 

My father loved nothing more than to have his hands in the soil. He had a rather large garden on the side lot of our property. He also planted a grape arbor as well as an apple and pear tree in our yard.

 

He fed the trees a mixture of his own compost which I vaguely remember including coffee grounds, eggshells and fruit rind and vegetable peels along with some manure. He would explain that it was important to feed the roots as a prelude to one of his favorite sayings about the nature of creation and the nature of individuals and families: “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”

 

He was talking about the tree, of course, but he was also using the image of the tree and branches in the same way we hear Jesus use it in today’s gospel reading. Jesus say, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” There is great comfort in knowing that we are the branches of the True Vine of Jesus which, by the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, is rooted firmly in and connected to God.

 

The first letter of John amplifies this message by assuring us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  And, We love because he first loved us.”

 

Which is comforting and reassuring. However God does not rest there. This is not just about “me and Jesus” or “you and God.” Remember, there is a root and there is a vine, but there are branches. Plural. That means that ours is not an individualistic faith. No, our faith tosses us directly into community.



It is no surprise, then, that John continues, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  (emphasis on "commandment" and ‘must love’ mine).

 

If you find yourself slightly uncomfortable and beginning to squirm in your seat, you would not be alone. Generations of people before us have felt the same way. Indeed, church has probably been the worst offender. I don’t know one church – no, not one – that doesn’t like to describe itself as “warm and welcoming”. More recently, we Episcopalians love to champion the fact that we embrace “diversity” and are “inclusive.” And, for the most part, we are. Or, try, anyway.

 

I think it must be going on 20 years or so now, when the term “inclusive” really started to gain traction in Episcopal Church circles. I’m remembering a particular reaction from one of my brother priests, Juan Cabrero-Oliver, who had had just about enough of being “included”.

 

We were at some meeting or another when I remember that he practically roared, “Included? INCLUDED? Do you not know that I am baptized? I am already included. Jesus has ‘included’ me by my baptism. "

And then he asked the real stopper of a question: "Whose house do you think this is, anyway?”

 

Well, that set a few people in the room back on their heels. Including, I confess, me. I have learned a few lessons since then about honoring the branches which come from the same root of God’s love.

 

I want to tell you a story which involves another of my clergy colleagues, Laurie, who is one of the best priests I’ve ever known in The Episcopal Church. 

 

I first met Laurie after she had just graduated from Princeton Theological School with a Master’s degree in Divinity and had just moved with her spouse to Hoboken, NJ. She was sure she was called to ministry, but she didn’t know what kind, actually. She thought she might be called to ordained ministry but the idea terrified her. She wasn’t sure she was ready for the institutional church – or, if the institutional church was quite ready for her. (It was not. Still isn't. Which is wonderful.)

 

She was discussing her quandary with her rector, Geoffrey, another stellar priest in the church, who listened carefully and then said, “You know, what? I think you’d make a brilliant Missioner to the West End of Hoboken.”

 

Now, some of you may know that Hoboken, NJ, is the birthplace of baseball as well as the hometown of Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. You may not know that it is one mile in each direction, north to south and east to west. If you walk or drive down the main street – which is Washington St – Hoboken looks for all the world like a yuppy/buppy city whose residents mostly take the ferry across the Hudson River every day to work on Wall Street or in the Fashion District or high-powered law offices.

 

The West End of Hoboken is designated for the Section 8 Housing. That’s government code for “where the poor people live”. Which is also code for “where people of color live”. In their own little corner. Tucked neatly out of sight. On top of each other in tall apartment buildings.

 

“What do you want me to do?” asked Laurie.

 

“Be a missioner,” answered Geoff.

 

“But, what does a missioner do?” she asked.

 

“Listen to the people,” said Geoff, “they’ll tell you.”

 

So, for the first two weeks or so, Laurie wandered around the West End of Hoboken, listening to the sounds, paying attention to the rhythms, taking in the sights. One day she found herself asking someone, “So, if I wanted to talk to someone in charge, who would that be?” It didn’t take that person half a second to respond with one name. “Rosie.”

 

Laurie found her way to Rosie’s apartment. It was not hard. It was the one with the door open and people coming in and out. Rosie was sitting at her kitchen table in front of her sewing machine, while yelling at someone to stir the soup and then pulling a kid out from under the table.

 

Laurie sat down and introduced herself and talked about why she was there. She explained that she was from the church and wondered if there was any way the church could help.


Rosie never looked up, never stopped working at her sewing machine. “You know,” continued Laurie, “maybe start an after school program? Maybe a computer skills lab? Oh, how about a basketball court?”

 

Rosie kept her head down and kept working. Just when Laurie thought she couldn’t stand the silence any longer and should probably leave, Rosie said, “You wanna help? Okay, here’s what you can do to help. For one night – just one night – gimme your church.”

 

Laurie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “The church? You want the church?”

Rosie steadied her gaze and nodded her head.

“SooOOoo, what will you do with the church," asked Laurie, "because, you know, I’ll have to tell Geoff, the rector, the priest, you know, the Padre.”

 

Rosie leaned back in her chair and smiled, “Tell your Padre that we want the church for one night so we can have a fashion show.”

 

Laurie heard herself gulp. “A fashion show?  Of course. A fashion show. Sure. Let me tell … er.. Padre . . . Geoff and then I’ll get right back to you. Thank you.”

 

Geoff was out in front of the church when Laurie walked by and greeted her with, “Hey, how’s it going?” Laurie figured that once she told him what Rosie wanted she’d be fired so she took a deep breath and said, “Fashion show. They want a fashion show.”

 

Laurie was stunned when she heard Geoff say, “A fashion show? That’s great. Let’s get a date on the calendar! Let’s do this!”

 

The next month was a bee-hive of activity. Geoff had long ago removed the ancient, uncomfortable pews and replaced them with comfortable, movable pew-chairs. Some of the men from the West End came in and built a runway which came from the front step at the altar and extended itself down the center aisle. The side altar was converted into a waiting area and make up room.

 

The women of the West End were also busy, making beautiful gowns and outfits for their daughters and shirts and ties for their sons. The local florist, who lived in the West End, donated the flowers. The church’s sound system was adapted to be able to play some soft Hispanic background music.

 

There was a rehearsal, of course. As the girls and their escorts practiced walking down the runway, Rosie described the outfit she would be wearing that night. Suddenly, she stopped and stood in front of the girls. 



“Why are you walking like this?” she demanded as she mimicked their heads down and stooped shoulders. 



“I want you to walk like this,” she said as she held her head high and her shoulders back, “like your mama walked in front of your papa when she wanted him to notice her.” 

 

The evening of the West End Fashion Show arrived and the air was electric with nervous anticipation and excitement. Laurie had bitten down every last nail and was now gnawing on her fingertips. No one could have anticipated the many small miracles that were about to happen.

 

Each young girl emerged from the side chapel looking resplendent in her new gown or outfit that had been made especially for her. The young man who escorted her did so as if the Princess of Puerto Rico was on his arm, as if she were the most beautiful girl in the whole world.

 

That was enough of a miracle, but the best was yet to come. Out from the darkened back of the church, a man stepped out and stood at the end of the runway. The young girl gasped. “Daddy,” she whispered as tears began to well in her eyes. Her father, whom she had not seen since her parents split up, held up a single rose which he gave to her when she arrived at the end of the runway.

 

This happened to each girl. One after another, escorted like a beautiful princess down the runway on the arm of handsome young man, to be greeted by her father and given a beautiful long-stem rose.

 

I am telling you, there was not a dry eye in the house.

 

And, if one of the girl’s fathers was not able to be there because of immigration or work or death or incarceration, an uncle or a neighbor stood in for him. Each young girl and each young boy was treated with respect and dignity and love.

 

All of this took place at a fashion show. In front of God and everybody. In the church. And, it was church – in the best sense of what church means and can be. 



Transformation happened. Those kids were changed. They began to see and understand themselves in new ways. They began to see and understand their connections to each other and their neighborhood and the world.

 

At the end of the evening, Rosie came up to Laurie and they each fell into each other’s arms, crying tears of joy.

Laurie had moved beyond mere inclusion and straight on into Gospel love. She had been changed and transformed and began to trust God's call to her.



Rosie had provided an opportunity to live into the words of scripture, “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”   Rosie was also transformed as she began to trust the institutional church.

 

Our baptism connects us as siblings, places us in relationship and community with each other, and makes us the branches of the True Vine. And that relationship changes and transforms u.

 

The branches of those who take the risks of the gospel yield the fruit of miracles.

 

We are strengthened – strengthened, not weakened – by honoring the unity of our diversity because we honor the source of our strength which is God.

 

And, God our Creator is love. Jesus, who is Incarnate Love, is the root of our lives of faith. And the fruit of our faith is Love. Trust. Respect. Dignity. Community. Equality. Equity. Justice.

 

I can hear my father saying, “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”

 

And Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” 

Amen.

 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Episcopal Sheep

 

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” John 10:11-18

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 
Georgetown, DE and 
Broadcast live at Sirach 26:10 Facebook page
Easter IV - April 25, 2021

 

The fourth Sunday of Eastertide is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s one of the seven “I am” ways that Jesus describes himself in John’s Gospel.

I am, he said . . . the bread of life (Jn 6:35), the light of the world (Jn 8:12), the door (or, the gate) (Jn 10:9), the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25), the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6), the true vine and my Father is the vine dresser (Jn. 15:1) and this, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11).

Actually, there is an eighth but while it’s not metaphor it is more profound. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58). When he said this to his fellow Jews, they picked up stones to throw at him. But, that’s a whole ‘nother sermon for a whole ‘nother Sunday.

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” That’s a lovely pastoral message of identity and relationship but it begs the question, If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, what, then, does that make me?

The short answer? Sheep. It makes us sheep.

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd then we are the sheep. Suddenly, that doesn’t feel quiet so pastoral and caring, does it? Well, not to me, anyway.

I, like most Episcopalians I know, are not fond of being considered just another dumb sheep in the flock of Jesus. I mean, seriously? In fact, I don’t know too many Lutherans or Presbyterians or Methodists who would warm up to the identity of being dumb sheep.

So, if the metaphor of dumb sheep doesn’t work for an Episcopal identity, what does? What image or metaphor would you use to describe yourself as an Episcopalian?

As I scoured the Internet, I found some wonderful old jokes about Episcopalians and decided, right there and then, that we needed a little whimsy on this fourth Sunday in Eastertide.

Of course, there is the one about Episcopalians being “God’s Frozen Chosen”. Or, that there is a special place in hell for Episcopalians who can’t tell their dessert fork from their dinner fork.

(NB: Proving that, contrary to popular mythology, Roman Catholics don't have a sense of humor about themselves, I learned as a child that there is a special room for Roman Catholics that everyone has to tip-toe by because Catholics think they're the only ones allowed in heaven. I think I was a teen before I got the joke.)

And, of course, there's this old favorite about Episcopalians:

Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? (in ascending order)

A: Two. One to mix the martinis, and one to call the electrician.
A: Ten. One to change the bulb, and nine to say how much better they liked the old one.
A: Twelve. One to do the work and eleven to serve on the committee.
A: Change the light bulb?! My grandmother gave that light bulb!

I also found some stuff written by Garrison Keillor, who used to have a show called “ A Prairie Home Companion” on Public Radio until some past indiscretions caught up with him and he was banished. He’s still a really great talent and storyteller. Keillor grew up Plymouth Brethren, a very conservative Evangelical Christian Movement which he left as an adult to become Lutheran.

Here’s his comparison of Lutherans and Episcopalians:

Episcopalians are proud of their faith,
You ought to hear ‘em talk
Who they got? They got Henry the 8th
And we got J.S. Bach.
Henry the 8th he had six wives
Trying to make a son.
J.S Bach had 23 children
And wives, he had just one.
Henry the 8th’d marry a woman
And then her head would drop
J.S. Bach had all those kids
Cause his organ had no stop.
Praise heaven, I believe
Praise heaven, I believe
I’m a Lutheran, a Lutheran, it is my belief,
I am a Lutheran guy.
Episcopalians I don’t mind
But I’m a Lutheran ‘til I die.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t. After his second divorce, Keillor moved to NYC and began attending Episcopal Churches. He was sometimes seen attending midweek services at St. Michael’s on the Upper West Side. He famously attended Sunday services at Holy Apostles in the Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan.  

Here are some of the things he’s said about what it means to be Episcopalian

  • Episcopalians believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.
  • Episcopalians like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
  • Episcopalians believe their Rectors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there. (#Fact)
  • Episcopalians believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate. (Also #Fact)
  • Episcopalians drink coffee as if it were the Eighth Sacrament.
  • Episcopalians are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at church.

And finally, you know you are a Episcopalian when:

  • It’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.
  • You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.
  • When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” you respond, “and also with you.” 

And lastly (PS: Especially in THIS church), it takes ten minutes to say good-bye.

Now, I don’t think you can agree with any of those things – or even some of those things – and consider yourself a dumb sheep. That said, it’s what Mr. Keillor wrote a few years back about attending church on Easter that really struck a deep cord of truth:


Resurrection is not something we Christians talk about in the same way we talk about our plans for summer vacation or retirement, but it is proclaimed on Easter and the hymns are quite confident (with added brass) and the rector seemed to believe in it herself and so an old writer sitting halfway back and surrounded by good singers has to think along those lines. It’s right there in the Nicene Creed and in Luke’s Gospel — the women come to the tomb and find the stone rolled away and the mysterious strangers say, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

And then, on my way back from Communion, the choir struck up a hymn, “I am the bread of life,” with a rocking chorus, “And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up. And I will raise them up on the last day.” As the congregation sang, a few people stood and some raised their hands in the air, a charismatic touch unusual among Anglicans, and then more people stood. I stood.

I raised my right hand. I imagined my long-gone parents and brother and grandson and aunts and uncles rising from the dead and coming into radiant glory, and then I was weeping and my mouth got rubbery and I couldn’t form the consonants. I stayed for the benediction, slipped out a side door onto Amsterdam Avenue, and headed home.

That’s what I go to church for, to be surprised by faith and to fall apart. Without the Resurrection, Episcopalians would be just a wonderful club of very nice people with excellent taste in music and literature, but when it hits you what you’ve actually subscribed to, it blows the top of your head off.

Here’s what I think: I think it’s good Anglican theology to think both/and instead of either/or. By that I mean that I think we can know and believe that Jesus is the Good Shepherd without needing to think of ourselves as sheep – dumb or otherwise.

You know, I hear people say they are very concerned that, because of Zoom and FB Live Broadcasts, people won’t come back to church.

I have to tell you, I hear the concern but don’t think that will happen.

If anything, I think people will stay home just as often as they used to, but at least now they have a way to stay connected to a worshiping community. And that will make all the difference in their lives of faith. And, ultimately, in the church and in the world.

We follow a Risen Savior, a Resurrected Lord, whose name is Jesus. Some call him the Good Shepherd, for others he is the door. Some say he is the way and the truth and the life, and others say he is the Light of the World.

The truth of our faith is that He is all those things and more. If we follow him we will not be lead into simple, easy answers to life’s questions; rather, we will be led deeper into the questions that are at the center of the mystery that is our one, wild, precious life here on what the Prayer Book calls “this planet earth, our island home”.

Sometimes we follow him blindly, yes, sometimes like lost sheep who are mindless and aimless. And then, there are moments when it hits us – seemingly from out of nowhere but usually in church, surrounded by others who also may not be fully aware why we are where we are – and, we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own andmy own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I laydown my life for the sheep.”

And in the midst of the incredible depth of the mystery of those words, we understand something – not only in our heads but deep in our hearts – just who Jesus is and who we are because of Jesus. And then we are surprised by faith and fall apart, knowing that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is always there to catch us and help us get back together again.          

Amen.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Let the Wild Rumpus Start

Note: This was posted on Facebook on April 12, 2021. I am posting it here for easy future access
 
Well, so I just realized that it was 35 years ago today that I was ordained to the transitional diaconate at the Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, ME by the Rt. Rev'd Frederick Barton Wolf. It was his birthday. It was also the birthday of Ruth Pillsbury, head of the Altar Guild at the Cathedral and one of the first models of strong women in leadership in The Episcopal Church. I still do things exactly the way she taught me. E.X.A.C.T.L.Y.
 
I am so grateful for all the wonderful saints who were and are and are still yet to come who shaped and formed me for this impossible vocation. I am especially grateful for those who carried me through "The Process" for, in those days, I surely could not have done - and didn't do - it all by myself.
Looking back, I wonder how I made it through. The odds were clearly stacked against me and so many other women who were - and still are but were never ordained - called to this work in the institutional church.
 
I've told this story before but it's worth repeating: I remember the then President of the Standing Committee - the then rector of one of the wealthiest churches in the diocese, and someone we all 'knew' (wink, wink) was gay - saying to me, "Well, now, Elizabeth, if we allow your ordination to proceed, what will you do to help the church . . . adjust . . . to the fact that you are a woman and a .... a.... lesbian?"
 
"You know," said he, clearing his throat after having said such a vile word, "when the first 11 were ordained, they did nothing - absolutely nothing! - to help us adjust. Indeed, one of them said that it was our . . . OUR . . . responsibility! (Raising his voice at the end to emphasize such a preposterous notion, while others around the room nodded in solemn agreement.) WHAT (he asked, peering over his glasses) will YOU do to help us?"
 
I remember looking at him and saying, "I promise to be a good priest, faithful to my vocation and ordination vows, and to model my life after the teachings of Jesus. Just as you have done, sir. What more is there to be done? What more would you like me to do?" (I remember working very hard to keep my Portuguese temper in check and my voice well-modulated.)
 
 
And, he stared at me, slack-jawed, for what seemed like a full minute, cleared his throat in the way men often do who believe themselves to be more important than they really are, and said, "Well, yes. I suppose that will be sufficient." 
 
And then I was dismissed.
 
Ten years later, when I was Canon Missioner to The Oasis, we developed a discussion guide for congregations to talk about human sexuality and homosexuality. We called it "All Love is of God". ( https://oasisnewark.org/). 
 
When the first copies came into the office, still hot off the press, I put a congregational workbook and leader's manual in a manila envelope and addressed it to him, at that time Dean of the Cathedral, with a little note saying, "Remember you asked me what I was going to do to help the church ... "adjust"? Here you go. I trust you will do your part."
 
I never got an acknowledgment. No surprise. Not really.
 
I later learned that he moved his "lover" (that's how he was described) into the deanery. Nothing was said, of course. Just this man was now living with the dean. Shortly after his retirement, however, he "officially" came out. 
 
There's more to that story which is very sad and, in fact, tragic, but, suffice it to say, being in the closet is toxic, and internalized homophobia destroys brain cells. 
 
'Nuff said.
 
You know, there's a little place in my heart that still rejoices whenever I read Romans 8:28 "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
 
That's the hope to which I clung during my difficult, often painful, and very costly ordination process. I've had moments of doubt, of course, but that is what I still believe about my ordination. I only regret the cost exacted on my family for those difficult years of institutional abuse. 
 
I am grateful to so many for so much - including the bishop and the Altar Guild Directress and the Philadelphia 11 and the Washington 4 and courageous members of Commission on Ministry (which cost one of whom his position as rector when he, too, came out) and the Vestry and the Cathedral congregational members and family and seminary professors and field education supervisors and CPE Supervisors and church members and congregations "brave" enough to call me as vicar/rector/priest-in-charge and colleagues and, of course, Ms. Conroy and our children and so many unnumbered saints who believed in me when I doubted myself.

And, now, Thomas James Brown is the 10th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, the second gay man to hold that position but the first to be able to be open and honest about the fullness of his being. I can not even begin to express the joy that is still in my heart after attending his consecration two years ago.
 
See also Romans 8:28. 
 
For all that has been, is now and is yet to come: Soli deo gloria, which, roughly translated, means "Let the wild rumpus start".

The Circle Will Not Be Broken

 

Note: I posted this reflection on Facebook on April 7, 2021. I'm posting it here, now for ease of access later. 
 
 
 Oh, Lord have mercy but look at the gift this Easter Wednesday has brought! Does this man look familiar to you? This is none other than my sweet brother in Christ, Barry Stopfel.
 
 You may remember his name from the infamous Walter Righter Heresy Trial. Heresy, you ask? What could possibly constitute heresy in The Episcopal Church? Well, Bishop Righter had ordained Barry who is (as was said back in the day) “openly gay”. Seems hard to imagine now, doesn’t it?

Trust me on this: It happened.

One of the highlights of my life was preaching at the Sunday night evensong at St Luke’s, Montclair the night before the start of the heresy trial. As Barry said to me that night, “There was a lot of mojo in that sermon.” That’s because I just transcribed it directly from Shekinah Spirit.

Here it is here, from May 1996: https://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/.../wade-in-water.html

We had an amazing several hour lunch over which we told stories and "remembered-when" and caught up with all the "what are you doing now" and finally came to the conclusion that we both still have a bit of PTSD from that time and that the costs were uncommonly high but, as that old Gospel hymn goes, neither one of us “would take nothing for my journey now.”

And, we agreed, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jack Spong who was Bishop of the Diocese of Newark and opened a space through which the Holy Spirit could move in us and through us.

Our hearts are filled with gratitude, full to the brim, pressed down and overflowing.

Do you see how happy we are? Indeed! We promised each other that it wouldn’t be that long until our next reunion. My heart is leaping with joy at the mere thought of it.

Christos Anesti! 
 
Alithos Anesti!

Mint Tea

 

I often have a cup of tea in the afternoon. It’s something my grandmother did every day, usually at around 3 pm. She would sit down in her rocking chair to relax before she started preparing supper.

On the metal folding table near her chair was a wooden tray with a pot of steaming hot tea with some biscuits (plain vanilla cookies like Nabisco Nilla Vanilla Wafers) and, sometimes, for a rare treat, a small dish of orange slices. 

 

The wooden tray also had our porcelain bone china cups into which my grandmother would place a sprig of fresh mint which she had just picked from the herb garden she grew near the kitchen window. She would place a strainer over the cup and pour the tea from the pot over the strainer to catch any tealeaves and let it steep over the springs of mint.

 

The smells of the mint mixed with smell of the oranges and the vanilla biscuits which was a delicious bit of luxury which marked the ending of one part of the day’s work and a pause between the beginning of another.

 

The smell of mint always bring me right back to my grandmother’s house, to her rocking chair and our afternoon tea. I forgot that I had some springs of mint in the refrigerator, left over from the Easter meal.  As soon as I smelled it, I knew that I had to make a pot of tea and although I didn’t have any Nilla Vanilla Wafers, I did have an orange I could slice up to have with my tea.

 

I gathered everything together on my tray and when I sat down in my chair – and, just like that – the whiffs of the mint in the tea brought me back to my childhood conversations with my grandmother. We talked about what we had accomplished during the day, what she was making for supper, and the chores she had in mind for tomorrow or the rest of the week.

 

The centerpiece of our time together, however, was for her to read a passage from her bible and then talk about the story and what it might have meant for the people who first heard it and what it might mean for us. There was usually a story my grandmother told about her life in Portugal – her mother who had died when she was 12 years old, her father and her brothers and her childhood friends - which was a reflection of the gospel story. Our time would end with prayer.   

 

Little did I know that this was a method of Bible Study I would actually learn in seminary. It was also one of the methods I learned for sermon preparation.

 

All of that came back to me this afternoon as I sipped my mint tea and enjoyed a few juicy slices of orange. It’s probably should not be a surprise that, as I read over the John’s Gospel for Sunday, I had a whole new inspiration for what I wanted to say about Jesus as The Good Shepherd. After I did the dishes, I sat down at my laptop and an entirely new sermon came together in under two hours.

I have enough mint left in my refrigerator to get through this week, but I’ve already put it on my shopping list. I want to be certain to have enough for a walk down memory lane, which, with any luck, may lead to fresh new insight and inspiration for next week’s sermon.

 

But, you know, it’s okay if it doesn’t. The memories are delightful, but the relaxation and enjoyment of fresh mint in brewed tea is its own reward.

 

 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

A Birthday Reflection

About six years ago, Louie Crew Clay sent me this picture for my birthday (April 21). That's me at General Convention 2006 speaking at the microphone for or against a particular resolution.

I was only first in line because Louie had been watching the proceedings and about 20 seconds before he knew things would commence, motioned for me to run to the microphone.

It takes all sorts of mad skills to be a leader in the church.

Louie said I was his "bodyguard and spiritguard". I earned those titles when Louie and I were traveling around the country - well, Louie was 'traveling' and dragging me along with him - trying to do whatever we could to "Stop the Schism" in something we called "The New Commandment Task Force".

I didn't think we had a prayer of stopping the inevitable departure of those who would not - could not - imagine a church with people like Louie and me in it.

I am remembering a General Convention - it was in the early 2000s, they all start to blur together after awhile - when David Anderson, a priest from Newport Beach, CA who was then President and Executive Director of the ACNA, one of the Anglican dissident groups and later a bishop in it, who came up to Michael Hopkins, then President of Integrity and said, "You guys really mean it, don't you? You're not leaving the church, are you?"

Michael smiled that lovely, gracious smile of his and said, "Of course not." By which he meant it as a blessed assurance. Which David, of course, heard as an evil threat. I knew in that very moment that "they" would leave but not without first building the case that it was because "we" were not leaving and the rest of the church was not going to force us out. (Where have we seen this dynamic before? More on this later.)

So, off we went, inviting ourselves into Episcopal churches all 'round the country, gathering up equal numbers of liberal/progressives, moderate/movable middle, and conservative/orthodox bishops, priests, deacons and laity, in a last-ditch effort to try to find some common ground, to draw the circle large enough so that we could all stay.

The 'orthodox' folks were not having any of it. After a while, I used to joke with Louie that after more than a year of talking and listening, we could probably write each other's scripts.

If he were around today, we'd probably both agree that these are the same people who are part of the political party known as MAGA, whose slogan is "America, love it or leave it" - by which they mean anyone who doesn't subscribe to their theocracy ought to leave. Well, at least in the church, we know how those kinds of ultimatums end.

It's all part of "the power of being victim". For many Christians with a certain understanding of how God works, martyrdom is proof positive of the conviction of your faith and belief.

I was remembering all of this last night when I got a wonderful surprise call from Jack Spong. He said, "I'm going to be 90 in two months. Can you imagine?"

To be honest, I can't imagine myself being my own age. Except for a few aches (but no pains) and some stiffness here and there when I first get out of bed in the morning, I'm in excellent health. I'm not fond of all the wrinkles but I've earned every last damn one of them.

My once 'blue black' hair is becoming grayer and grayer, but thanks to a healthier diet and preparing for pilgrimages, I still fit into the winter-white suit I wore 35 years ago at my priestly ordination and I'm planning another pilgrimage in Egypt ("The flight of the Holy Family" led by Sr. Joan Chittister) in October, God willing and the COVID positivity rate don't rise.

I did hear myself say to Jack, "You know, Barry Stopfel and I met for lunch a few weeks back and we both agreed that, as we look back over where the church was 40 years ago and where it is now, we could not imagine any of it having been possible without you."

And that is the absolute gospel truth. Jack loved and supported each one of us so we could respond to the call of the Spirit to serve the people of God through The Episcopal Church, each in our own unique, authentic vocational way.

I remembered one day when I was working as Jack's Canon Missioner, when I did something wrong. Or, said I was going to do something and then forgot. Or, something. Whatever it was, it wasn't catastrophic but it was enough that Jack called me up to his office. I stumbled and stammered my way through an explanation and an apology.

Jack looked at me and said, "Well, Elizabeth, my job as your bishop is to love you and support you enough to let you make the mistakes you need to make in order to be the best priest you know how to be."

I was astounded by his graciousness and generosity of spirit. That was the first. It wouldn't be the last.

That was not my experience of men in general, but especially men in the church. What Louie pointed out to me about this picture he took is that it's pretty emblematic of how both he and I and other .. "others" . . . mostly felt in the institutional church. Some of us still do, alas, and with good reason.

There's one man - the first one in line - who at least looks like he's listening to me. To no one's surprise, that man would later become a bishop in the church.

But the rest of the men are doing what lots - not all, certainly but lots - of men in the church do when they're waiting for their chance to speak: Posturing.

They did it pretty much without thinking. You don't have to when you possess assumed, unexamined privilege. And, at least at that time, that was about the ratio of ordained women to ordained men in the church. There really is power in numbers.

Both Louie and Jack knew that. They knew the odds women were/are up against. And, they made it their business to make sure that women like me got the love and support we needed in order to be the best priests we could possibly be.

And that, my friends, is how justice gets done. It does not assume that the person being oppressed has the responsibility to saw off their own shackles as they are teaching their oppressor how not to oppress. Rather, it is the ones who use their positions of power and authority to remove barriers and reverse the devastating effects of bias and prejudice.

"When you know better, you do better."

So, today, on this particular birthday celebration, I'm grateful for this picture Louie gave me years ago as a birthday present which reminds me of the way we were then and the way we are now. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to have been part of that journey, that movement to move the church "beyond inclusion' despite the professional and personal costs.

As the old hymn goes, I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now.

I'm deeply grateful for the clarity that opportunity has given my life. Clarity is such a rare gift in the institutional church. I have been blessed to have been in the company of so many amazing people - men and women, lay and ordained - who have had such clarity about the Gospel and their vocation to live it and preach it that they were willing to take costly risks required of 'obedience'. I'm deeply grateful for all of the fellow pilgrims I've met along the way on the road that leads to the line that forms to help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Not too long ago, I was in conversation with a fairly new male bishop in the church who asked my position on something and, after I gave it, sighed and said I was being "pretty strident". I was so glad we were on the phone and he couldn't see me smile.

Strident! He said strident! It had been a long time since I had heard that word or felt so highly complimented. I remember thinking, "Well, kiddo, you still got it."

When I answered the phone last night, I heard Jack say what he always said when he called me on Sunday afternoons, in between his morning parish visitation and afternoon visitation. "Elizabeth Kaeton," he would drawl, "have you preached the gospel of Jesus Christ today?"

And I heard myself say what I used to say to him, "Yes sir, with my whole heart and my whole mind and my whole body and my whole soul and my whole life."

"Atta girl," he said.

May it be so until I draw my last breath on this earth. I am so very grateful for all that has been and enormously excited about what is yet to come.

PS: I just this second noticed what is written on the far wall: Sandwiches. Ha! How absolutely apropos of that time in the church, and that moment at General Convention.