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Sunday, August 01, 2021

I love bread

 

“I love bread”

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast on 
Pentecost X - Proper 13 B
August 1, 2021 

 

Have you seen that commercial for Weight Watchers – now known as WW (Which I’ve always considered an unfortunate change because it sounds like ‘Double You. Double You.’ Which is not exactly a good image for a weight loss program.)?

 

Anyway, the commercial features Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically and practically salivating as she proclaims, “I love bread!” The purpose of which is to say that you CAN eat bread on the WW plan and still lose weight.

 

Well, if you love bread, you’re going to love the next three weeks of gospel lessons as they are all from the Gospel of John and are “all bread all the time”. 

 

Yes, for four Sundays in a row, we hear Jesus say he is “the bread of life,” and “the bread come down from heaven,” and claim in two successive readings that “who ever eats this bread will live forever,” before we return to Mark’s gospel and hear the Pharisees complain that Jesus and his disciples had really bad table manners, eating with “defiled hands.”

 

So, I guess we need to pace ourselves through this metaphor of bread, right?

 

I want to start this week by joining my voice with Oprah’s and proclaim, “I love bread.”

 

When I was a kid, my grandmother made great loaves of the stuff every Thursday for the rest of the week. As she got older, she found that it was too much work for her aching, arthritic hands and arms and only made a small batch – just a few loaves a week. After my grandfather died, she stopped making bread all together. I’m not sure why but that’s what happened.

 

But, there was a ‘bread man’ who came to our neighborhood once a week. He had a large truck, the back of which was covered with a large, canvas tarp and filled with baskets of hot Portuguese bread – hard and crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

 

One of my favorite memories of my childhood was the day The Bread Man came. He always came on Tuesday and Friday, but my favorite day was Friday.

 

He would arrive shortly after we got home from school for lunch – back in the days when schools would close down for an hour and everyone went home to eat lunch – and we would race down the stairs, our hands sweaty and tightly closed around the two quarters Daddy had given us to buy two loaves of bread.

 

The Bread Man would lift a warm loaf out of the basket, holding it with a white dishtowel and place it into the dishtowel we had brought. We would then race back up the stairs and put the loaves on the table, waiting for Daddy to break it open for us, clapping our hands together as we applauded the steam that rose from the white, soft inside. 

 

My youngest sister, Diane, always squealed with delight when that happened because she thought that was the Holy Ghost rising out from the center of the bread.

 

Daddy would then slather butter on the hunk of bread and usually place a piece of fried fish or half a cod fish cake or, sometimes, a fried egg into the center of the pool of melted butter in the bread and pass it down for each of the four of us kids to eat.

It being Friday, and being practicing Catholics at the time, we did not eat meat on Friday. Which was just fine. Who needed meat when you had warm bread and butter? Actually, we didn’t even really need fish or eggs. Just fresh, warm bread and butter, please. That’s all we really needed to fill our bellies and warm our souls before going back to the afternoon session of school.

 

I think that’s the point Jesus is trying to make with this metaphor of himself as bread. You really don’t need anything else when you have Him.

 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus had just fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. That night, the disciples see him walking on water. The next day, those same thousands gather again to be fed. Jesus then offers them salvation – eternal nourishment – rather than just temporary sustenance. 

 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

I think I understood this spiritual concept of the church as a child because of my experiences at the kitchen table of my youth. In my experience, even little ones in church get this. They know. They understand more than we give them credit for.

 

In one church I served, there was a ministry of baking communion bread. Folks would sign up on rotation to make fresh bread. It was different every week. Some made a beautiful round loaf – which I can tell you, from personal experience, is NOT the best kind of bread for communion.

 

Yes, it tends to be very crummy, but there is another complication. I remember holding up the loaf to break and discovering that the crusty outer layer made it almost impossible to break open with arms extended. 

 

So, I brought the loaf closer to my chest, but even then I struggled.

It took a few seconds but it seemed like long minutes of struggle until I finally tore open the bread. Looking up at the congregation and seeing some looks of shock on some of the faces, I realized that I was a bit winded and had actually broken a sweat as I lifted the torn bread and proclaimed, “The Body of Christ!” 

 

Wrestling with the Body of Christ, I discovered, does not make good spiritual optics.

 

There were a few times when, for whatever reason, the person responsible for the bread that Sunday was unable to bake bread and had rushed out to the store to purchase some. Typically, it was pita bread. Which was fine. Until the Sunday I noticed a lovely fragrance to the bread and realized someone had hurriedly chosen the garlic and rosemary pita. 

 

There were some very interesting expressions at the communion rail that morning.

 

My favorite was when someone brought in the Hawaiian King Bread. There were lovely smiles on the faces of the communicants that Sunday as they placed the sweet bread into their mouths. 

 

I’ve often thought, since then, that we should make that our official communion bread.

 

But, no matter the size, shape or flavor of bread, the kids always knew that this was the Body of Christ. It was their responsibility, after the service, to come to me to get any left over consecrated bread and bring it outside to scatter it on the protected, raised flowerbed in front of the church to feed the birds.

 

Without any instruction from me, they always formed a very solemn procession line, taking turns as to which one of them was to actually carry the bread out in a white linen purificator. 

 

Rain or shine, shoes, sneakers, snow boots or flip-flops, they processed quietly and reverently, fully aware of the honor they had to carry the Body of Christ to feed some of God’s Holy Creatures. 

 

I’m told that a few of them even repeated, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” as they scattered the bread.

 

They knew. They understood the metaphor – and the reality.

 

I sometimes wondered if their parents understood as much and as deeply as they did what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the bread of life.”

 

So, yes, I join with Oprah when she says, “I love bread.” I do. It remains my favorite food. 

 

I still love a childhood favorite, especially this time of year: sliced peaches on bread slathered with butter. 

 

But, the bread I love the most is the bread that will never leave me hungry or wanting, the one that is manna from heaven and gives life to us that we may feed each other as well as the rest of God’s creation.

 

My favorite image of the church is this: The church is at its best when it is one beggar telling another where he found bread. 

 

With all due respect to the chief gurus of the church, that, for me, is the very definition of church vitality. 

 

That, my friends, is how the church grows.

 

The church grows and is vital when you understand yourself to be a beggar who has found bread and is willing to find other beggars and tell them where you found bread.

 

In the words of one of the blessings we often say in our home as grace before a meal: “God, bless this food we are about to receive! Give bread to those who hunger and give hunger for charity and justice to those who have bread.”

 

Or, you can simply shorten it and say what we call The Oprah Blessing, “I love bread.”

 

Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Five Black Notes

 

"Five Black Notes"
A Sermon Preached at 
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously on 
Facebook Life Broadcast Sirach 26:10
Pentecost IX Proper 12 Year B
July 25, 2021
"Hymn Sing Sunday" 

Well, how about that first lesson, eh? Extra-marital affairs. Pregnancy out of wedlock. Murder and mayhem. It's like "Days of our Biblical Lives". Guess there's a "Young and the Restless" in every generation, eh? I have a great sermon about King David, and Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite but not today. That will have to keep for another time.

Just before and immediately after I read this morning’s gospel, we all sang, “Amazing Grace”. It was one of five songs some of you requested for this morning’s, Hymn Sing. I want to expand a bit on the history of this song to answer the questions: What can God do with five loaves of barley bread and two fish. What are they among so many people?

 

We don’t know much about the origins of the music to this hymn, but we do know that the author of the words is John Newton, an Anglican priest and form slave owner.

 

According to British historian Marilyn Rouse, Newton began to pen these words in early December of 1772 because he needed a new hymn for his service on New Year’s Day at his church in Olney, England. He took for his text 1 Chronicles 17 when King David prays, “Who am I that God has brought me here?” That was an important question for David, a man to ask who slept with Uriah’s wife and then sent him into battle to die so he could have Bathsheba for his own.

 

On January 1, 1773, Newton asked, in his sermon, “Where were you when the Lord found you? For me,” Newton said, “I was a wretch.” And, he used his song to illustrate his point.

 

Newton’s mother had died suddenly while his father was out to sea. When he returned a year later, his father fell smitten to an Italian woman, married quickly and moved to Essex, leaving young Newton, who was still deeply grieving his mother, on his own.

 

Newton hired himself out to work on slave ships, quickly falling into a life of debauchery and calling himself “The Great Blasphemer.” Indeed, he himself had been thrown into chains and forced to work on a small island off the coast of Sierra Leon. After one year in captivity, he was freed but lived what he described as a “depraved life which even shocked his fellow shipmates”.

 

It was on March 21, 1748, that Newton came to call his “Great Turning Day.” He was 22 years old and captain of the ship “The Greyhound” which was sailing off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland. Suddenly, a violent storm hit the ship. As he came up onto the deck from his berth below, he saw no one at the helm; waves were taking other sailors over the side and into the swirling deep.

 

Newton took the helm and for the next eleven hours, he held onto that great wheel, praying fervently this one prayer, “Lord, have mercy on us.” He steered the ship all through the storm and when the storm had passed, Newton found himself a man transformed.

 

His transformation would continue slowly. Newton wrote, “If I had any light then, it was as the first streak of dawn.” Seven years later, at the age of 29, he was learning Greek and Hebrew and was studying with great evangelists of his day, George Whitefield and John Wesley.  He applied for the priesthood in the Church of England but was originally turned down. Eventually, the Bishop of Lincoln took him in, ordained him in 1764, and assigned him to the church in Olney, England.

 

In 1788, 19 years before his death, Newton wrote a booklet entitled, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade,” which provided Abolitionists Wilber Wilberforce with powerful evidence of the depravity of slavery and indentured servitude.

 

Wilberforce allegedly struggled with a vocation to ordained ministry and took counsel with Newton who encouraged him to stay in the political field. Citing the Book of Ester, Newton told Wilberforce, “Who knows, but for such a time as this, God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation?”

 

In 1807, nineteen years before Newton’s death, the British parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, outlawing British Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807. It would be left to the next generation that parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery in all British colonies in 1833.

 

Newton’s words were lost somewhere in England for many years. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have been chanted by the congregation in a Scottish tune popular at the time. In the United States, "Amazing Grace" became a popular song used by Baptist and Methodist preachers as part of their evangelizing, especially in the South. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies. In 1835, American composer William Walker set it to the tune known as "New Britain" in a shape note format. This is the version most frequently sung today.



However, if you go to the Library of Congress and look up Amazing Grace, you will find that the words are attributed to John Newton, but next to the word melody, one will find the word ‘Unknown’. Some say the tune rose up from the West African slaves who chanted “Sorrow Chants” as they labored in the cotton fields in the South.



Evangelist and singer Wintley Phipps maintains that almost all Negro Spirituals are written on the Black notes of the piano. Let’s try it: LEVAS 114 (“Every time I feel the spirit.”) Now try LEVAS 18 (“Swing low, Sweet Chariot”). And now, let’s try LEVAS 181 “Amazing Grace.”

There are five black notes on the piano. This is called the Pentatonic Scale. Five little notes. Five black notes. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement sang “Amazing Grace” while they marched and prayed.

It was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela during the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.

It was sung on Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall came down in East Berlin, Germany.

We heard that song played on bagpipes at every funeral for those who died on 9/11. I can attest that it is the most requested song for funerals. I never tire of hearing it.

 

Five little notes. The power of the Negro spiritual is built on five notes Five black notes, when sung in gratitude to God, can feed the souls of millions, just as five barley loaves and two fish fed five thousand on that mountain by the Sea of Galilee thousands of years ago.

 

Five loaves of barley bread and two fish. Philip asked Jesus, “But what are they among so many people? Six months’ wages,” he said, “would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

 

And Jesus blessed the bread and gave thanks to God and, after everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets of food left over. Five black notes have been feeding millions of souls for centuries, during times of sorrow and sadness, calamity and chaos, redemption and renewal.


In ancient Israel that king and scoundrel, David, asked of God: “Who am I that God has brought me here?” John Newton asked his congregation in Olney England that brand new morning of January 1, 1773: “Where were you when the Lord found you?” 

 

Where were you when Jesus found you and you, and you said to him, “Take my hand, precious Lord. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.”? Where were you when you felt like a motherless child, a long way from home, and Jesus picked you up and put you on his shoulders and led you home, back into the flock? Where were you when the Lord found you?

 

It doesn’t take much for God to bring about a miracle. For some, it takes a little bit of light to begin the miracle of a brand new day. For others, it takes a storm on the rough seas to convert a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. Sometimes it takes the loss of a loved one in this life to gain a deeper faith in life eternal. Jesus says that it takes a mustard seed of faith to move a mountain. It doesn’t take much, but even if we resist, God will continue to send us opportunities for the miracle of transformation.

 

My dear friend, Jerry Richardson, now a retired Methodist minister living in Tennessee, always preached, "Grace is like grits; you don't have to ask for it, it just comes" 

 

Five loaves of barley bread and two fish, lifted to God in gratitude brought about the miracle of feeding five thousand. Five little black notes and a heart filled with gratitude is all it took to feed a wretched, sin-sick soul and bring words and music to be the vehicles of health and healing and wholeness for millions, from generation to generation.

 

I will leave you with the fourth and little known verse of the original words of Newton’s Amazing Grace: “Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”

 

And let the church say, “Amen.”

Sunday, July 18, 2021

"He had compassion for them"

 

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast live on Facebook Sirach 26:10

 

This is a sermon about compassion. It is a sermon about learning that “It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” (Richard Rohr)

 

It seems an important characteristic to talk about, especially at this time in our lives when simple human kindness and Christian compassion seems to be in short supply.

 

Recently, United States citizens have been arrested for offering water, food, and other kinds of help to migrants at the southern border. There are now laws in Florida and Georgia that make it illegal to provide snacks and water to a person standing in line to vote.  I could go on, but I’m sure you can think of very recent examples yourselves.

 

If Jesus were to come to America this morning, I suspect we would see him respond similarly as we hear him do in this morning’s Gospel. When he got out of the boat with his disciples and saw the great crowd had followed them on foot from one shore to the next, Mark’s gospel reports that Jesus, “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Compassion. The original word is a very remarkable one. It is not found in classic Greek. It is not found in the ancient Hebrew texts. Many scholars believe it to be a word coined by the evangelists themselves. It is expressive of the deepest emotion; a striving deep within the body – a yearning of the innermost nature (some translate it “in the bowels” – or deep in your gut) with empathy and kindness that leads to some corrective action.

In this case it was not the sicknesses of the people that moved Jesus, but rather their ignorance and their lack of someone to guide and teach them in the knowledge of God. That they were hungry – famished! – for the Word of God was evident in their following Jesus in the boat to the other side of the shore.

 

Scripture reports that they were like shepherdless sheep. A sheep without a shepherd will wander around aimlessly, ignorant and clueless, and eventually it will starve to death or be attacked and devoured by predators.

 

It wasn’t that the Jewish people did not have leaders at all. In fact, there were Rabbis and instructors in the Scriptures throughout all of Israel. Even most of the smaller villages had a synagogue with a “ruler of the synagogue.” They would meet there and be instructed in the writings of Moses and in the prophets every Sabbath day.

But their teachers and leaders were as clueless as the people they taught. They were the blind leading the blind, and the result was ignorance, and an inability to know the ways of their God. This situation touched Jesus. He was deeply stirred by the spiritual darkness that engulfed the chosen people of God. The result of Jesus’ compassion for them can be found in the line that followed this description: “So He began to teach them many things.”

One of the things that has always struck me about the Little Red Cupboard ministry here at St. Paul’s, is that ¾ of the shelves are filled with food – and often something to drink – but there is another section where socks and, in the winter, mittens are stored. And, there is a shelf where books are placed to feed the mind as well as the body.

 

If you are visiting today and do not know what I’m talking about, when you make your way to the Parish Hall for Coffee Hour, stop at the door leading past the office and look outside to your right. The Little Red Cupboard is right there. You should also know that the entire enterprise is anonymous. No forms are required to be filled out. People are encouraged to take what they need. And, if you happen to be able to and want to give, you can do that, too.

 

Those in need and those who satisfy a need remain anonymous, preserving dignity for one and providing humility for the other. That, for me, is a mark of true compassion. It is important, when we are moved with compassion for the suffering or the deprivation of someone, to maintain their sense of dignity; it is also important not to be motivated by honor or recognition for our deeds.

 

There are two women in my life who have taught me very important lessons about compassion. The first, of course, was my grandmother; although I confess, at first I thought she was being mean and not at all kind, much less compassionate.

 

She had been getting some of her and her children and grandchildren’s clothes ready to donate to the local charity – darning socks and repairing tears – when she inspected a fine winter coat.

I recognized it immediately. It had been my cousin Jenny’s coat, which had been passed down to my cousin Judith, who had passed it down to me, which had then been passed down to my sister Madeline and now, finally, my youngest sister Diane had had her winter season in that same coat.

 

It still had several good winter seasons left in it and would now warm the young body of some young girl whose parents either couldn’t afford a new one or didn’t have family members to provide hand-me-downs. That part was not unexpected. It’s what my grandmother did next that shocked me.

 

She took out a pair of scissors and began, one by one, to snip off the buttons on the coat. When she had gotten half way through and I saw that she was intending to remove them all, I gasped and demanded, “What are you doing?”

 

“Watch,” said my grandmother, not lifting her eyes from her task. 

 

She then gathered up all the buttons and placed them in the middle of a piece of cloth. Then, she took a small spool of thread and put a needle into it. Then, she wrapped the whole thing up in cloth, tied it securely with a piece of ribbon, and put it into the side pocket.

 

When my grandmother looked up from her task and saw the puzzled look on my face, she smiled and said, “Now, you see, I am not just giving this child a coat. I am giving her a sense of ownership and dignity. I will say a little prayer that her mother teaches her how to sew on a button, just as I have taught you how to do, and the coat will not only become hers, it will have been something through which she learned how to take care of herself in some small way.”

 

I thought about what my grandmother said, as I saw the kindness reflected in her face, and asked, “Just as your mother taught you, before she died when you were a little girl?” 

 

My grandmother smiled and said, “Yes, child, just as my mother did for me. So, when someone gave me a coat or a dress, I would snip off all the buttons and sew them on again. And, with each stitch, I would thank my mother for what she had taught me, and then, instead of resenting the fact that I had no mother or that I was poor and in need, the donated clothing would become mine as well as a prayer of gratitude for my mother. Gratitude and Compassion always walk hand-in-hand.”

 

I recently read something written by Richard Rohr, “It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” I think that’s because it is from the place where we have fallen down that we find true compassion. It is from the depths – the bowels – of our suffering and deprivation that we recognize and are moved by the suffering and deprivation of others.

 

The most surprising lesson in compassion came to me from a woman in Ghana, West Africa. I was there as a requirement of ‘cultural immersion’ for my work with Drew University. We began our journey in Accra, the capitol city, traveled up to Kumasi in the middle of the country, and then up to Tamale in the North, which was very poor and, not coincidentally, very Muslim.

 

We went to one village outside of Tamale where the women made pottery and sold it as one way of making the money they needed to survive. They were very excited to show us their newest acquisition – a gift from one of the churches in America. The women placed empty 5 and 10 gallon cans on the top of their heads and led us on the one mile walk to the village well.

 

The object of their excitement was a pump that sat on top of the well. Instead of dropping a bucket into the well and pulling it up to dump into their cans, now they could simply pump the water directly into the containers. Even though they had been doing this for several months, they still laughed and squealed with delight and joy as they pumped the water directly into their canisters.

 

As I watched the process, one woman came to me and said, “Do you have a pump in your well?” I smiled at her and tried to explain the concept of a sink with a faucet that delivered not only cold water but hot water as well. And, not only in the sink, but in the bathtub, shower, and toilet.

 

She looked at me, astounded. I was suddenly filled with shame, thinking I had crossed the line from simply answering her question to bragging about the conveniences of my modern life. I tried to say something but the look of sadness on her face and in her eyes was unmistakable.

 

Before I could speak, the woman said to me, “So, you do not go to the well with the other women?” “No,” I said. “Everyone has water in their own home.” “Ah,” she said, with great sadness and sincere compassion, “but then, how do you tell your stories?”

 

She was genuinely sad and authentically compassionate.

 

Then, the woman reached into her carry sack and fished out her drinking bowl. “Here,” she said, “Please take this. I can always make another. You take this and remember to share your water and your stories with others.”

 

That pottery bowl broke a long time ago, but that woman’s compassion changed my life. I realized the poverty of my own soul and how impoverished we are in our superior modernity. It was then that I committed myself to sharing stories. Stories are the water of life, the atoms that hold us together, like buttons stitched on the front of a coat that make it our own and give us dignity.

 

This is a sermon about compassion, a word coined by the evangelists to lead us deep within ourselves, past the deepest depth of human emotions, deep into the spirit of Jesus and deeper still into the Christ-like calling to take action to change the suffering or the deprivation of others.

 

I have come to know that compassion preserves dignity for the recipient and provides humility for the donor. This is because it is from the place where we have fallen down – our own suffering and deprivation, and our own gratitude for having been helped back up again – that we find true compassion.

 

“It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.” Go to that place, my friends, and drink deeply from the well of compassion.

Amen.

 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A whine about wine

Thus saith the Lord, the God of Hosts: “Go and eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

This also saith the Lord: “Thou shalt not drink wine from a box, for it is an abomination in the sight of the Lord. But for those who drink of the fruit of the vine from an aluminum can, such a thing is an affront to the Lord your God. It offends greatly, so as to cause the nostrils of the Lord to burn as with sulfur and is an affront unto Her countenance of Glory.” (Elizabeth 7:7)

If, however, thou doest find thyself in the airport in one, Charlotte, NC, a place of many men who do not know their left hand and from their right, and also many women and children, thou shalt make a sacrifice unto the Lord; thou shalt suck it up and praise the Lord for the fruit of the vine which as been compromised and compressed and sold in such as does not intend to honor the Lord but rather, satisfy the appetite of the weary traveler who hath been treated as chattel and squeezed into uncomfortable seats and forced to smile and pretend that a train ride would not be quite so dehumanizing and ever so much more comfortable, even if it takes longer and costs almost as much. (Elizabeth 7:11)

I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. So, “go, eat your bread with joy (and your white pizza with jubilation), and drink your wine (such as it is: “creamy yet clean, elevated by sweet citrus fruit and tropical pineapple notes,” (Ecclesiastes 9:7), but “watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you like a trap.” (Luke:21:34)

This saith the Lord, the God of Hosts.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

BBQ and Jesus

I've been visiting with my dearest friend, Lindy. We've been staying in an RV on a bayou on Demi-John Island, not far from Galveston, TX. It's been more than I could ever ask for or imagine. I've been treated like absolute royalty, treated to amazing repasts, and entered into conversations that were even more nourishing and delightful than the food before us. 
 
The food at Gaido's in Galveston, TX was simply the best meal I've had in a long, long, long time. Sweet, fancy Moses!  The crab cheesecake was to absolutely die for! The charbroiled shrimp with Parmesan tomatoes was amazing. And, The Pie of Texas - pecan pie with "Hey Mickey's" ice cream was simply worth the elevated sugar and cholesterol and blood pressure.
 
But, it was yesterday's lunch, at Lou Ella's BBQ in Sweeney, Texas, with Lindy and her mother Rita that just simply topped the entire experience. 
 
Lord, have mercy! 
Christ, have mercy!
Lord, have mercy!

Ms. Lou Ella is not only the proprietor of this local restaurant, she is the First Lady of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in Sweeney, married to the founding Pastor, Darnell. 

Their restaurant is a shrine, an altar, to the ministry they share. 

Again, we were treated as royalty. I asked about BBQ chicken and whether or not it was "on the bone". Ms. Lou Ella asked, from her heart, "If you want BBQ chicken and you want it off the bone as we do the pork, I will prepare it that way for you."
 
I mean, seriously!
 
So, yes. I had the BBQ pulled pork and "pulled chicken" with a side of corn and Dirty Rice which was, in fact, a meal in itself and was the spiciest Dirty Rice I have ever put into my mouth. 
 
No joke. 
 
I thought I had feasted at some of the best of  tables with some of the best of chefs. I mean, I've eaten the food of Paul Boucous in Lyon, France, for goodness sake. I know from Michelin Five Star Dining. 

This would have brought tears unto the eyes of Monsieur Boucous. Seriously. So amazingly good. 

But the restaurant is a shrine to the Lord, Jesus Christ. Every where you turn, there are pictures and quotes from scripture and "encouraging words". 

Here, check it out:


The signs above the slush say "Too blessed to be stressed. Too anointed to be disappointed."

And, "Blessed by the Best."

And, because the church is "in the world but not of the world," they do ID. 

Of course, they do.  They ain't no body's fool.

 
 

They also have a Prayer List up on the wall. You can add your own prayer petition and Mother Olivia will pray for you. 

This is no joke. I mean, I know th list is between an advert for Budweiser Beer, an American flag and a fishing pole, but Ms. Olivia is as serious as a heart attack about praying for those on her prayer list. 

You will also note the quotations from scripture about prayer that surround Ms. Olivia's prayer list. 

This is not just a restaurant but a Holy Place where you can find nourishment for you body as well as your soul.

Straight up. No joke.

And then, there's Ms. Lou Ella's door.

Oh, Lord have mercy!

"Never would have made it without you!"

"If God is for us, who can be against us?"

"Protected."

"God is #1 at Lou Ella's Dot Com".

And, at the doorknob, "Turn". 

But, it might as well say, "Repent, and return to the Lord." Because that's what Ms. Lou Ella and Pastor Darnell are all about. 

 I don't know why one would go to Sweeney, TX, except to visit friends and/or family.  Other than that, there's not another reason I can think of that would inspire a visit or pilgrimage. 

Except for Lou Ella's BBQ.

Make no mistake: It is a holy, sacred experience. 

And, some of the best BBQ you will ever taste in your life. 

Bar none.

I think it makes Jesus proud.



Sunday, July 04, 2021

Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor

 


Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor
A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE 
and via Live Broadcast on Sirach 26:10
July 4, 2021 

 

Thomas Jefferson is considered to be the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but he was assisted by Ben Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.

 

Scholars believe these are Jefferson’s words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The United States of America is the only nation in the world to have as part of what it understands to be human a right – besides life and liberty – the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Think about that for just 5 red-hot seconds. The pursuit of Happiness. A human right.

 

Not only that, but the pursuit of Happiness is an ‘unalienable Right’. Unalienable: that which can not be given away or taken away.

 

Why? Because, we say we believe, we are ENDOWED BY OUR CREATOR.

 

You may not hear it at first, but if you listen more deeply, you can hear the concerns of the founders of this country responding to the monarchy of their former country who believed themselves to be ANOINTED BY GOD as royalty.

 

“Oh, yeah?” says Jefferson. “I see your ‘anointed by God’ and raise you one ‘endowed by our Creator’.” It’s a high stakes gamble between America and Great Briton with nothing less than ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ on the line.

 

Jefferson also gave us the idea of ‘separation of church and state’ – which, contrary to popular belief, is not enshrined in our constitution or written into any law. It’s an operating principle which Jefferson articulated and the founders agreed was a way to avoid a theocracy – a system of government ruled by a particular religious doctrine.

 

We have religious freedom in this country because “we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights”. Which are, they said, “self-evident”. And these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

 

No one can be happy with a particular expression of religion imposed upon them. No one has liberty with the imposition of a particular theology. And, what kind of life can there be if one cannot choose the kind of life one wants or the type of God one wants to worship? Or, have the freedom to not worship any particular God in any sort of way?

 

We have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

 

This morning we hear Jesus say, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown. . .” I want to raise the names of three brave Delawareans who signed the Declaration of Independence: Caesar Rodney, George Read, and Thomas McKean.

 

Their bravery set in motion the Independence we enjoy today. Rodney, Read and McKean put their names onto a document, the last sentence of which is this: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

 

In exchange for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the founders pledged their “Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor”. These were the stakes of their high-stake gamble. And, they never got the same credit given to Jefferson or Franklin or Adams.

 

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

 

I wonder: Would anyone in this church this morning be willing to do the same? Me? You?

 

After the constitution was written, Benjamin Franklin was asked, 'What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?' Franklin reportedly replied, 'A republic, if you can keep it.'

 

Here’s why he said that: A republic is a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives. A democracy is an ideology that helps shape how a government is run. Put another way: a republic is the system of government that allows a country to be democratic!

 

In the midst of all the holiday celebrations this weekend, I ask you to consider all the words in all the documents we’ve heard and all the hymns we’ve sung and ask yourselves: What are you willing to pledge, not just for life and liberty but the pursuit of happiness?

And, not just yours, but that of others – others who don’t get to define your happiness for you, or you for them.


People of different religious creeds and countries of origin. 

 

People of different colors, clans and tribes. 

 

People of different genders and gender expressions and sexual orientations. 

 

People of different ages and incomes and class status. 

 

People of different physical and intellectual abilities.

 

This is what Delawareans Rodney, Read and McKean who joined others from their states pledged their “Lives. Their Fortunes. And their sacred. Honor.” For everyone, not necessarily those of their own family or kith or clan or race or creed.

 

As a republic ruled by democracy, the power of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves and others is in our hands – yours and mine – because these rights have been endowed to us by our Creator.

 

This is what we say we believe. This is what we celebrate today, and why we celebrate in this church service this morning.

 

Let us pray, sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, that our “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” will always be worthy of such a high calling.

 

Amen.


Saturday, July 03, 2021

Sum . . sum . . . sumertime


The caption from this New Yorker cartoon reads: "I love the sound of everyone else getting away for the weekend."
 
Yeah, well, I can't say the same. Being in a resort area, we know the place is not ours for 3 months of the year. But, that means that for 9 months of the year, we get to call this place 'home'. It's not a bad deal, actually. It's only really bad when I forget that we have this place for the majority of the year. And, I have to remember that their vacation dollars help to fuel the economy.
 
In addition to 'impulse buying' at the local shops and boutiques as well as spending tons of money at the 5 - count them, FIVE - discount malls on Coastal Route One - they will consume massive amounts of food and drink, most of it 'fast', highly processed food like pizza and french fries and corn dogs as well as sweets that keep dentists in business like cotton candy and saltwater taffy and thick, gooey fudge and hideously large, brightly colored lollipops. 
 
Some will also frequent many of the higher scale restaurants and dine on exquisite food and drink, but they'll also hit up the places with names like "Crab Barn" and "Crabby Dicks" where they can pound wooden hammers on the crustaceans covered in Old Bay and pick and suck and guzzle massive pitchers of beer just like they think the locals do for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 
 
The worst part is the litter. I don't know what it is that possesses people to come to a place that is so beautiful it makes them sigh with delight and then leave their trash on the sidewalks and streets. Or, the parents with kids in strollers who leave their child's poopie diaper on someone's front lawn. 
 
No, I am not making that up. It happens more often than you think.
 
The other worst part is the traffic. It's not just heavy, it's dangerous. There's something about being near an ocean breeze that causes some people to lose their minds right after their common sense flies straight out the window. They honestly believe that if they weave and bob from one lane of traffic to the next, or run a red light, that they will get to the beach sooner. 
 
I really don't mean to complain. 
 
I know. I am sorta complaining. 
 
Okay, I am complaining. 
 
I shouldn't. I am really blessed to be able to stay in air-conditioned comfort in my Cha-Cha L'mour Sun Room and, with a little bit of planning and forethought, I can do my marketing mid-week and run up the street to my neighbor's farm stand and get fresh tomatoes and corn and avoid all that mishegas on John J. Williams Hwy and Coastal Route One and, God forbid, in the coastal towns of Lewes, or Rehoboth or Dewey or Bethany Beach. 
 
My neighborhood association will have all sort and manner of activities planned right here. We have a Pontoon Boat Decorating Contest. And, a House Decorating Contest (which reminds me, I do have to at least put out the July 4th bunting on the railing of the deck). 
 
We will be treated to 'panasonic and 'stereophonic' fireworks right from our deck. We'll be able to see the brilliant displays of pyrotechnics from Lewes to Bethany while sitting in our deck chairs, sipping our Ice Tea. 
 
Note to self: Get out the Thunder Shirts for the furbabies. 
 
Unfortunately, some of the neighborhood bozos who summer here from PA and some parts of MD, VA, and NJ will have bought their own fireworks. It's illegal to light your own fireworks here in DE. It's not in PA, which is the source of local - albeit illegal here - pyrotechnics. 
 
So the good ole boys who display their "real" patriotism by flying an American flag on the back of their pick up trucks and on the back of their pontoon boats and wear MAGA hats, and who think it is their patriotic duty to decline the COVID vaccine (which they believe is just a hoax created by those they call the DemocRATS - which they think is being too clever by half, to the point of knee-slapping hysteria), also display their 'independence' by thumbing their nose at Delaware laws and lighting fireworks in their own yards. 
 
A few years ago, one of our neighbors had a HUGE party that featured several kegs of beer. Someone got just a little too tipsy and lit a firecracker which rolled under our car and up against our storage shed, searing grass and brush and trees in its path. 
 
Thank goodness I happened to have been out walking the dogs - and was wearing more than flip flops - so I was able to run and kick it away from the shed and stop out the sparks on the grass. The offender and the owner of the house next door appeared shortly after I rescued my own shed. I think I remember emitting a low growl which I thought was better than letting loose with the string of obscenities that was dancing just behind my teeth. 
 
They apologized profusely and it hasn't happened again but this year, a few of us have committed to taking videos of these idiots and calling the state troupers who usually just look the other way, shaking their heads as you can hear them thinking, "well, no harm, no foul and good ole boys will be good ole boys." (See also: tourism dollars.)
 
Our working theory is that if we have pictures and we sorta kinda indicate that we just might send them to the local news outlets their supervisors will not want the company to look bad and they might start to shut down some of these guys by issuing citations and fines. 
 
It's our theory, anyway. We live in sure and certain hope.
 
Meanwhile, life in the fast lane on LSD (Lower Slower Delaware) goes on. July 4th falls on a Sunday where there'll be Big Dooin's in church with special readings and music, followed by an Ice Cream Sundae Sunday, featuring Clayton and Angie's homemade ice cream which will be augmented by homemade brownies. 
 
We're having a few friends over to celebrate tomorrow afternoon after church. I'm making a huge Santa Fe Salad, featuring baby spinach, corn, black beans, baby cukes, homemade salsa, and shrimp marinated and sauteed in Mexican seasonings with a light dressing of freshly squeezed limes and a drizzle of EVOO. We'll also have some steamed corn because it's local and fresh and it's our patriotic duty, we think, to support our neighborhood farmers. 
 
I'm off to put some spit and polish on tomorrow's sermon. Well, it's not really a sermon. And, it's not even long enough to be considered a homily. It's more just a brief reflection. Shorter than this one, in fact. Believe it or not, it is a lot more work and takes a lot more time to write a 3-minute reflection than it does a 10-12 minute sermon. 
 
Have a great holiday, my friends, wherever you are and however you plan to spend it. Our democracy is precious and needs defending now, more than ever. 
 
Just remember: We are the only nation in the world to have as one of its operating principles "the pursuit of happiness". That's right after we claim life and liberty to be precious to us. In fact, we say that these truths are 'self-evident'. And, PS&OBTW, they were "endowed" upon us by our Creator. 
 
Think about that for five and a half red hot seconds. 
 
It's right there in the Preamble to The Bill of Rights. Maybe you could set aside 5 minutes to read it sometime this weekend. Maybe read parts of it as the grace you say before you take part in your holiday feast. (And, you do remember to say grace before your holiday feast, right?)
 
Whatever you do, I hope you make it a great holiday, one that will honor those who wrote: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
 
Today, in our day and time, we can do no less.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Is you da one?

Note:  It's hard to get my head wrapped around this, but I preached this sermon twenty years ago. I think it has held up pretty well. I was recently contacted by a relative of Dr. Murray who had found it reproduced in the journal noted below (I had honestly forgotten all about it.). Dr. Murray's relative hopes to use this sermon to develop a children's book about Dr. Murray, which, she says, will not shy away from her sexuality and gender identity. I'm very excited.

Pauli Murray's Histories of Loyalty and Revolt
Jean M. Humez
Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, 20th-Century Autobiography (Summer, 1990), pp. 315-335
doi:10.2307/3041710
This article consists of 21 page(s).

 

 

“Is you da one?” A Sermon for the Season of Reconciliation at 

The Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ

the Rev’d Canon Elizabeth Kaeton 02/11/01

 

“Wade in the water.  Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”

 

A story is told in The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pitman, that when a child was born on the plantation, the proud parents, within hours of its birth, would bundle the newborn and bring the baby to Ms. Pitman’s cabin.  The parents would place the baby on her lap, and Ms. Pitman would say to the parents, “Name this child.”  When the parents spoke the child’s name for the first time, she would raise the child toward heaven and speak the child’s name to God, adding the great African prayer, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.”

 

Then, Ms. Pitman would cuddle the baby, whispering into the child’s ear, “Is you da one?  Is you da one, chile, who will lead our people out of the darkness of bondage into the bright new day of freedom?  Is you da one?”

 

Although Ms. Jane Pitman was a fictitious character, the hope expressed by her character was quite real.  Her lament for someone to find the road to freedom for those who are held in bondage is but an echo of an ancient cry -- one which is as old and as complex as any other in the anthology of the stories of the human enterprise. 

Is you da one, Pauli Murray?  Is you da one to lead us through the confusing maze of prejudice and bigotry?  Is you da one to untangle the complicated web of sexism, racism, classism and heterosexism which ensnares us and keeps us bound in oppressive systems which kill us slowly –  body, mind and spirit?

 

The life of the Rev’d Dr. Pauli Murray stands as an unlikely beacon in the dark night of the soul of oppression.  Being one of the first to identify herself as “the original ‘uppity Black woman,’ she, no doubt, would not have scoffed at the notion that her life might provide an affirmative answer to the question posed by Ms. Jane Pitman. 

 

Pauli Murray was the granddaughter of a slave and a great-granddaughter of a slave owner who became “the first” to break many barriers. She was rejected as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina because of her race and years later, was rejected as a law student at Harvard  because of her gender.  These rejections did not crush her but only fueled her feisty spirit, allowing her to focus her intelligence and energy to accomplish her tasks. 

 

Central to Dr. Murray’s life is that she refused to be shackled by the regrets –  or expectations –  of the past.  Rather, she seemed to live on the edge of history –  at times,  pulling it along with her.  It is no surprise to note that not only was Dr. Murray the first African-American women to pass the California bar, she also practiced law at a major law firm and earned a renowned professorship at a major university (Yale) before blacks or women did either. 

 

She was a civil rights activist before there was activism.  In 1940, she was arrested on an interstate bus in Virginia for violation of the state’s segregation law.  In 1943, almost twenty years before Dr. King initiated non-violent demonstrations, she and several women students from Howard University organized the first sit-in demonstration that successfully desegrated the Little Palace Cafeteria, a small greasy spoon in Washington, D.C.

 

She was a feminist when feminists could not be found.  She was a personal friend and trusted advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, who sought her council and wisdom on matters of racial and gender equality.  She was one of the founding members of the National Organization of Women where she is fondly remembered as one who bridged the gap between race, gender, culture and class with passion and dedication but without bitterness.

 

In January, 1977, she became the first African-American woman to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.  One month later, on Lincoln’s Birthday Sunday, in February, 1977, she conducted the service and celebrated the Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, in the same chapel where, church records show, her grandmother, Cornelia Smith, “one of five servant children belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith,” was baptized.

 

She was not without personal detractors or  personal demons.  For Murray, differences of culture, appearance, nationality, religion or any other human circumstance were sources of enrichment, not barriers to human relationship.  She was proud of her mixed ancestry – African, Irish, American Indian, Carolina planter – and she claimed each element fully as part of her rightful heritage.  In the early Black Pride Movement, this fierce pride in her heritage earned her the disdain and disapproval of her Black sisters and brothers – and forced her into painful confrontations with the Black Panther presence when she taught at Yale. 

 

I have met African Americans who, to this day, still shake their heads at Murray’s fierce pride in the totality of her heritage.  They remember well her disdain for James Brown’s revolutionary rock and roll song, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” – pointing out with equal revulsion that this was followed almost immediately by his song, “This Is A Man’s World.”

 

“If you call me black, it’s ridiculous physiologically, isn’t it? I’m probably 5/8 white, 2/8 Negro – repeat American Negro – and 1/8 American Indian.”  She says she’s traced her family back to 1809. “I began years before Alex Haley did.  I’m always ahead of my time,” she said, with an inoffensive sort of egotism.  “The difficulty,” she said, “is coming to terms with a mixed ancestry in a racist culture,” adding, “I don’t believe that ‘You came over in chains so how can you feel American?’ That’s poppycock.  Thousands are just like me.  In fact, I probably feel more American than many whites.  I just want this county to live up to its billing.”

 

She was married once, quite briefly, when she was very young.  When asked to talk about this, the normally articulate and eloquent Murray became unusually reticent.  “I’m not at all sure marriage is for everyone,” she said. “My marriage probably wouldn’t have lasted, because I wasn’t going to settle for derivative status, being Mrs. So-and-So.  I’ve missed companionship,” she said, “but so do many wives.”

 

It’s bad enough being an uppity Black.  It’s quite another to be an uppity Black woman. And, the Rev’d Dr. Pauli Murray was the quintessential uppity Black woman.  She forced people to look at the entire picture of the struggle for liberation in the land of oppression.  She insisted that there was no hierarchy of evil when it came to oppression and prejudice.  “Don’t make me choose which issue to fight for,” she once said, “I am as oppressed as a woman in a man’s world as I am a Negro in a White world.”  Some people – men and women, Black and White –  hated her for that. Which is, no doubt, part of the reason her light has not been able to shine as brightly as others. Why, even in ECUSA,  it’s ‘easier’ to remember Absolom Jones than Pauli Murray.

 

She dealt with her anger at the discrimination she encountered through the spiritual discipline of writing.  “Writing is my catharsis,” she said, “It saved my sanity.  In my life, I have never thought, ‘Next, I want to do this.’ The only thing I’ve ever said I wanted to do was write.”

 

Pearl Cleage echos this notion in this morning’s contemporary lesson. “I am writing,” she says in the midst of racism, sexism and violence -- and the epidemic of oppression sickness, “to save my life.”  Murray once wrote, “ But you cannot sustain anger for years and years.  It will kill you.”

 

When I lived in Baltimore, I had the occasional privilege of being supply priest at her last church, Holy Nativity.  I once came across a manuscript of one of her last sermons – how I often wish I had simply slipped those papers into my prayer book! – in which she addressed this concern.  She told the story which was often re-told in slave quarters throughout the South of one plantation which began a special Christmas tradition for slaves.

 

The tradition began with the gift, from the plantation owner to the slaves, of a Christmas log.  The gift was this:  As long as the log was burning, no slave had to work.  Of course, each year the slaves looked for larger and larger trees. Over the years, one special technique developed which insured a long holiday.  Right after Thanksgiving, a large, old tree would be cut down and then soaked in water for a few weeks.  It was then dragged out of the water and allowed to dry just enough so that it would catch fire, but not enough to dry completely.  The wetter the wood, the longer the fire lasted.  The longer the fire lasted, the longer the holiday from work.

 

“That’s how we keep on keepin’ on,” Murray wrote. “The only way to continue the struggle for the liberation of the human spirit is this:  We’ve got to soak ourselves in the waters of our baptism. We’ve got to become drenched in the holy waters of our liberation in Christ.  Then, we can burn as pillars of flame, on fire with God’s passion for justice and peace and become for each other, the best, longest-lasting Christmas present ever.”

 

Is you da one, Ms. Pauli Murray?  Priest, prophet, poet, teacher. Is you da one who can lead us through the complicated web of injustice which we weave with our own hands from threads of prejudice based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability? 

 

Is you da one, Dr. King?  Is you da one, Harriet Tubman?  Is you da one, Ida B. Wells? Is you da one, Jonathan Daniels? Is you da one, Absalom Jones?  The truthful answer is, “Yes.”  And, so are you.  And so is he.  And so is she.  And so am I.  And so are we all who vow in our baptism to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

 

Each one of us takes the other a bit further down the road to freedom.  Each one inspires the next to do impossible things.  Dr. King might have learned a thing or two from Dr. Murray’s early attempts at non-violent protest.  Pauli Murray might have learned from Harriet Tubman  something about “wading in the water”to elude the bloodhounds. Ms. Tubman used to sing out the call that the Underground Railroad was coming in the code song of Wade in the Water:

 

See those children dressed in red?  Must be the children that Moses led. Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.

 

In the same way, Dr. Murray calls to us to wade in the baptismal waters of our faith, that we might cleanse ourselves of “oppression sickness” and burn with the holy flame of God’s justice and liberation and be reconciled to each other and God.

 

Is you da one?  Our baptism compels us to answer for ourselves. Yes!  I am Martin Luther King.  Yes!  I am Harriet Tubman. Yes! The spirit of Johnathan Daniels lives in me. Yes!  I am Ida B. Wells. Yes! The spirits of Abasalom Jones and Pauli Murray live on in my life.

 

Each life of those mentioned, and those whose names are remembered in the heart of God, stands as a beacon of light soaked in baptismal water, which burns on eternally in our own lives. These bright lights of God remind us that, each and every one of us, as God’s holy child, is called to carry on the great work of liberation.

 

Look over yonder, what do I see? You know the Holy Ghost is a’commin’ on thee.  C’mon and wade in the water.  Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water.  God’s gonna trouble the water.