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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.          


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". ( 
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:

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.


Sunday, April 18, 2021

You are witnesses of these things

Image: Nick Thompson.

"You are witnesses of these things."
A sermon preached on Easter III - April 18, 2021
St. Paul's, Georgetown, DE and
Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10
The gospel stories for the first weeks of Eastertide seem bound and determined to have us believe – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that Jesus is resurrected. In the flesh. Skin and bones, tongue and teeth. His whole body. Whole. Complete with the holes in his hands and side.


And, just so we know this is not a ghost, Jesus expresses hunger. “’Have you anything here to eat?” he asks. They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence.“


Obviously, ghosts don’t do that. Jesus also wants to assure us of two things: God’s forgiveness and God’s love.

Jesus says,
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

My work in Hospice has taught me that there is no greater evidence of the divinity and humanity of Jesus than his exquisite understanding of this human need and extraordinary tending to it.


In Hospice, I’ve learned that the spiritual work of dying revolves around four questions one must answer before leaving this good, ‘round planet in peace. There are two, actually, each with separate, equal but different facets.


The first is: “Am I forgiven?” Of all the dumb and stupid things I've done in this life, have I worked to make amends?" And, the second is the other side of it: “Do I need to forgive?” Has someone hurt me and I need to let go of that hurt, unconditionally?

The next two questions are also crucially important. They are: Am I loved? And, have I loved?


From my experience, while I think that, in many ways, the second question is more important than the first, knowing that we are loved is an important precedent to being able to love others. As the verse from 1 John 4:19 reminds us, “We love because God first loved us.”

God is love, created love, and loved us first. We are not to take credit for the love we have and show to others. God loved us, before we were capable of loving God, and we can only love others because of what God has done in our lives.


Am I loved? Have I loved? Indeed, the answers to these two questions provide the groundwork for the first: Am I forgiven? Do I need to forgive?


Here’s one story from my Hospice experience: I had been visiting with a lovely elderly couple, both in their mid 80s. They had been farmers all their lives - raising chickens as well as cash crops like corn and soy - and had also raised four children, now adults with families of their own who were beginning their own families. 


Jack was my patient. He had been diagnosed six months before with prostate cancer which had metastasized to his bones and lungs. He winced often. His pain, which was pretty intense, was being managed with morphine which he took in liquid form, under his tongue. 


SueEllen, his wife, came into the bedroom from the kitchen.  She was almost a vision out of a 1940s magazine "The Farmer's Wife". Gingham dress. Print Apron. Gray hair pulled back in a bun that danced on the top of her head when she talked or laughed and she laughed often. Her smile was warm and genuine.

"I've made some tea. Please join us," she said.


I assured her that I would be delighted to have a cup of tea with them. "How 'bout a brownie," she called over her shoulder. "Fresh from this morning."


"Twist my arm," I called to her and we both laughed.


She was no sooner over the threshold when Jack took my hand. "Promise me," he said. I looked at him quizzically and before I could speak he said, "Look, I really don't think I have much time left, so I need you to do something for me while you're here."


"I made a huge mistake,” he continued. “SueEllen doesn't know about it. I never told her, but she needs to know. Before I leave, she's got to know." I nodded my head for him to continue. "Look, I didn't mean for it to happen, but it did."


His words came out fast now, "I had an affair. It only lasted a few months because I just couldn't go on with it. She worked at the weigh station when I brought in the chickens. I didn't mean for it to happen but it just did. Before I leave, SueEllen needs to know that it happened. It’s important that she know that I'm so, sorry."


"Of course," I said. "I will be here. I'll help you tell her."


"No," he said, and he coughed and then went into a spasm of coughing which triggered his pain. SueEllen came in from the kitchen and said that it was time for him to have his morphine, anyway, and helped him take his medicine after the coughing stopped.


When she went back into the kitchen, Jack said, "No, I can't tell her. I want you to promise me that you'll tell her. Tell her what happened. Tell her I'm sorry. Tell her I love her. Please, Chaplain, promise me you'll tell her."


I looked at him kindly and said, "Jack, I can't promise that. I can promise that I'll help you tell her. It's important that she hear the truth from you."

He looked crestfallen. "Please. Please promise me. It's all I ask. It's my dying wish."


At that moment, I could hear SueEllen in the hall and dishes and cups rattling on the tray. I got up to help her. I took the tray from her and set it on the floor and then steadied her with both hands on her shoulders. 


"I just got a little dizzy spell, but I'm okay now," she said. She took a few deep breaths and when I was sure she was okay, I left the tray on the floor and said, "I'll come back and get that as soon as I get you’re seated in your chair."


She put her arm through mine and we were chatting and laughing as we walked slowly into the bedroom. When we looked at Jack in the bed, we both stopped in our tracks. 


Jack was gently gasping for air. As we made our way to the bed, he took a few last gasps and then slowly, slowly, slowly, stopped breathing. 


SueEllen sat on the bed, and holding his hand, started to weep softly. "He's gone, isn't he, chaplain?" she asked. I said I couldn't be sure but it certainly seemed that way. I said I would call the nurse, who was the only one who could legally pronounce someone dead.


When I returned to the bedside, SueEllen looked at me and then him and said, "Jack, you damn fool. You left before I could tell you that I had forgiven you for that affair you had."

She looked at me and said, "He thought I never knew, but a wife knows these things."


"I had hoped to tell him that I knew and that I had forgiven him, and still loved him, but he left and now he'll never know. What a damn fool. Always was. Is now. Even in death."


I'm not really sure why, but the words came to me with some urgency. I said, "You know, the nurses tell me that hearing is the last sense to go after death. I don't know for sure, but he still may be able to hear you. Why don't you tell him that you forgive him and that you love him? He might hear you. We can't know for sure, but it may be the last thing he hears before he takes his leave.  You just can't give a person a more perfect gift than a sense of love and forgiveness and peace."


She looked at me and then turned to Jack and told him that she knew about his affair and that she forgave him and loved him and hoped he would be at peace when he came face to face with Jesus, who she was sure had already forgiven him years ago.

I can't be sure, but Jack seemed to be at peace. When I looked at SueEllen, she smiled and said, "I think he heard me, Chaplain. Look at him. He's at peace. And, so am I."


What I learned in Hospice is that, part of the work of dying involves two things: Forgiveness and Love.  A person may need forgiveness or they may need to forgive. 

Yes, a person needs to do that spiritual work in order to die in peace. But a person also needs to do that spiriual work in order to live in peace.

A person may need to feel loved or they may need to tell someone they love them. "I forgive you." "I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?" "Do you love me?" "I love you." These are important words to say and hear anytime but especially before we take our leave from this life.


And, in life, I've discovered that there are no more powerful, healing words than these three: I am sorry. 


Second only to I forgive you. 


But the greatest of these three words is "I love you."


Sometimes, it's as clear as it was with Jack and SueEllen. Other times, people never get to that point, no matter how hard I've tried to coax the story that they've locked so deep in their hearts they've even forgotten it's there. 


Jesus knew that about himself and his life as well as the lives of all human beings. For me, this is proof enough of his resurrection: That he made his way back out of the darkness, after he had released all the captives from Sheol, because he wanted to make certain that we know that we are forgiven and loved – that this - THIS! -was the whole point of his life. And, he wanted to make certain that we forgive and love others as we are loved and forgiven – even if that means we must put our hands right into the messy, raw flesh of human life so we may believe.


Luke’s gospel reports that while the disciples were beside themselves with joy at the resurrection, “they were disbelieving and still wondering”. Some of us may feel the same way today. It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it? And yet, we are assured by all four evangelists of that the resurrection is both Good and True.


Here’s the thing Jesus knew about resurrection: It’s much easier to fly when you don’t have a lot to weigh you down. So, what are you waiting for? If you love someone, tell them. Today.

If you forgive someone, tell them. If you need forgiveness – or at least to express your regrets – make amends. If not right now then soon.

Let go of the secrets you have hidden in your heart. You’re going to have to, eventually, if you want to fly with the angels and leave this life in peace. Indeed, your life will be a lot burdensome if you do this while you are still alive.

Don’t be afraid. Love and forgiveness are the gifts of The Resurrection.


Jesus lives! We sing that great hymn during Easter. We sing so many songs that rejoice in that truth. Now, I'm asking that you live your life as if you believe it.


You are witnesses of these things.    




Sunday, April 11, 2021

Oh, whatever, you can come in


A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 
Georgetown, DE
and Broadcast live on Facebook Sirach 26:10
Easter II - April 11, 2011

Sometimes, faith can best be described as Ms. Emily Dickenson described hope – as “a thing with feathers”.


Other times, faith can be better described as the best-known hymn of Edward Mote – “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” (Which he originally titled, “The Immutable Basis for a Sinner’s Hope.” ). Not exactly catchy but very Baptist, which was Pastor Mote’s faith.


The words and the tune exude absolute, unshakable confidence. The refrain is “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”


Truth be told, it takes a while for some of us to get there – to that level of confidence and strength.


Some of us do fairly well, balancing ourselves on that sinking sand. Sometimes, we can maintain that balance fairly well and other times we sink like a stone. And then, one day, some of us just simply stop resisting and gradually surrender. And, when we do, ironically, we find enormous strength in that surrender.


One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, writes of the time in her life when she had reached a certain level of success in her career, having published a few novels that were selling well. 


However, she was drinking. Alcohol. A lot. It got so bad that every morning, she would have to call her friends to find out what had happened the night before, because she couldn't remember.


One day, when she was really hung over, she heard some old spirituals coming out of a little Presbyterian church in Marin City, California, so she went inside to listen to the music. She went back the next week, and the next, but she never stayed for the sermon.


Gradually, she began to feel the presence of Jesus around her. "It would be like a little stray cat.", she said. "You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, 'No,' because you can't let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, then you have a little cat, and I didn't want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: 'Oh, whatever. You can come in.'”

That may ring true for your own experience of coming to faith – or, it may sound like one of your friends or relatives. We all have our own way of seeking and finding Jesus.

More of us than care to admit come to our faith much like the Apostle Thomas. We have to do it our own way. We insist on signs and showings and irrefutable evidence. We have to see and feel and know for ourselves – not trust someone else’s word for it. We have to get our hands wrist-deep into the pain – the pain of our own or someone else’s wounds – before we are convinced that what seems too good to be true really is both good and true.


Thomas was called the Twin. He is probably best known as Doubting Thomas. When I was a kid growing up in Roman Catholic School, Thomas was a villain of sorts. The nuns would read us the story of Thomas and when we got to the part where Thomas says, “"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," we were encouraged to boo!


Boo, Thomas! Boo on you for not having any faith! Boo on you, we all called out as the nun said, “Now don’t YOU be a Doubting Thomas.” She reminded us that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."


Which was all fun and games until life dropped our first crisis in our laps and we discovered that, while we may have believed that there is a Christ in me and a Christ in you, we also harbor deep in our souls the very self-same Doubting Thomas that the nuns of our youth warned us about.


There are so many – so very many people in my ordained life – who, even though I did nothing to deserve their trust about their doubts, entrusted me with the privilege of their questions and doubts, anyway.


I’m thinking of this young woman who came into my office where I was Chaplain at University of Lowell in Lowell, MA. She was a student in the chemical engineering course. Smart. Confident. Raised  “strict” Roman Catholic, she told me, but now she declared herself an atheist. She knew who she was and who she wasn’t and who and what she could trust. 


Or, so she thought.


Numbers were reliable. Chemicals were predictable. The lab was her church – her sanctuary – where there was no judgment for the nature of a chemical mass or mixture and there was no failure – only an experiment from which to learn a lesson and to repeat, without criticism or harsh judgement.


I confess I don’t remember her name so I’ll call her Lisa. I will never forget her face and her words to me that morning in my office.


She had gone home over Thanksgiving and – just like that – her entire world collapsed. Her parents informed her that they were divorcing. In fact, they had been waiting years for her to go off to college so that they could divorce. She demanded to know, “So, all those supposedly happy times we had were just performance?” Her parents looked down at their shoes in quiet humiliation.


Oh, and there is one more thing, they said. You should know that you were adopted. They had just a few pieces of information about her birth mother – just what was written on her birth certificate – and this blanket which the adoption agency told her she was wrapped in when she was dropped off at the convent.


Her adopted parents gave her an envelope with her birth certificate, her adoption baby picture and her blanket. Lisa placed the envelope on my desk and said, “Look, I don’t believe in God, but I know you do so I don’t know who else to ask so I’m asking you: Would you help me find my birth mother? I mean, if you believe in God, anything is possible, right?”


We both laughed at her sincere attempt at what was the Humor of The Desperate.


That question set us both off on quite an adventure that, over the next six months, I served as her touchstone and guide and cheerleader as she searched documents in churches and convents as well as town registers and graveyard records.


To make a very long story very short, we did eventually find her birth mother who had died of an apparent overdose of heroin when she was still an infant. Her body had been interred in a pauper’s grave in a small, mill town in Western MA. Lisa wept and wept and sobbed for the pain her mother must have experienced. She wondered what had made her life so painful that she tried to stop it with heroin? 


Finding that her mother was dead only opened up more questions. Lisa was consumed by the larger questions of her mother’s life. Who were her parents? Did she have siblings? Who was her father? What was the story about their relationship that led to her placing her child for adoption?

Before she could go on, however, she asked me if I would come with her and “do a proper burial for my mother. I can’t give her much, but I can give her that.”


So, off we went, one Saturday morning in early May. The secretary in the cemetery office directed us to the “general plot” where she and other “paupers” were buried.

Actually, the secretary didn’t say ‘buried”; she said, “laid to their final rest, poor souls,” as she blessed herself. Lisa rolled her eyes.

We found the plot by its number. No names were listed. Lisa sat on the ground and started to talk to her mother about her life with her adoptive parents and what she planned to do with her life presently and into the future. 


She thanked her for placing her with “good, kind, decent people” who “raised me right but they still messed up, you know? They weren’t perfect but then, neither were you and, in fact, neither am I."

"I wish you could see me. Now," she said. "I wish I could see you. Now. But, this will have to be good enough. For now. Because the chaplain tells me I’ll see you on the other side. Whatever that means.”


I took out my BCP and holy water and blessed the grave and said the prayers.  As I was saying them I thought again of the marvel of our Prayer Book - no matter whether or not you are a saint or a sinner, a prince or a pauper - you still get the same beautiful words prayed over your earthly remains.

I also thought to myself that this was the church at its best: Saying prayers for a woman I had never met and would never know, but commending her to God, so her daughter could begin to find the peace and quiet confidence she needed in order to continue to do the work she needed to do to find the peace and confidence in her life that her mother had never known in hers.


As a final blessing at the grave, I heard myself say the words that Jesus said in that Upper Room to the 10 Apostles, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."


Lisa smiled. When we got back into the car she turned to me and said, “Okay, chaplain. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I know you believe in this Jesus, so why don’t we start by you telling me about him?”

I chuckled as I heard Anne Lamott say in a distant part of my head, “
Oh, whatever, you can come in

Sometimes, faith, like hope, is a thing with feathers. Other times, it is a solid rock. Sometimes, faith comes through surrendering the resistance.  Other times, faith is a gift that comes wrapped up in doubt and pain, and some of us have to put our hands right into the gaping wounds of life before we believe. 

Still other times, faith comes to us in unexpected places, like a mass grave where those buried there may not have their names identified on a tombstone, but their names are, nonetheless, written in the palm of God’s hand.

For it is thus promised in scripture, and so we believe. And so, we have faith.


I’ll end by paraphrasing St. John: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his first disciples and those who have followed them down through the ages, which are not written down. But this story is being preached so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One sent by God, and that through believing you may have life in his name – in this life and the life to come.

The thing is this: Faith is a journey. Doubt is not a villain. Doubt is part of a faithful journey. Like Thomas who doubted and Peter who denied Jesus not once by three times, and Paul who had to get knocked off his high horse, we all come to faith in our own way, in our own time.  And, Jesus blesses it all. 


Here's the thing: It’s Jesus who said to the apostles then and says to us now, “Oh, whatever, you can come in.”


Jesus never turns anyone away - no, not one, not even a stray cat who's come only to mooch a saucer of milk.


As for me, well, I think I’ve gone through all those phases - sometimes three or four in the same day - and a few more I haven’t mentioned. 


Today I can say that, thanks to Grace, I’m an unashamed, self-avowed, unrepentant Jesus Freak. And although I am a confirmed Episcopalian, I can sing this song and hold my own with any Baptist:  On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.  


And,  you know what? Even when life throws me a curve out of left field and that once solid ground starts sinking, Jesus always stands at the other end, offering me a hand and saying, "Oh, whatever, you can come in."



Sunday, April 04, 2021

Who will roll away the stone?



Who will roll away the stone?

A Sermon preached for Easter Day April 4, 2021

St. Paul's, Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE


I’m just going to say it one more time, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!” (And you say, “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”)


This morning was one of those Easter mornings when my mind wandered back to my first Easter in parish ministry. I was Assistant Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland and, while I had been there for a while, I was meeting some of the faithful members of the church for the first time. These would be the C&E Christians – that would be Christmas and Easter. (You know who you are.)


I was in the reception line, greeting people at the end of the service as they were leaving the church when one man introduced himself in that wonderful gracious, slightly flamboyant, subdued but gregarious way of a Southern Gentleman, and assured me of his approval of my . . what he called … “performance”.


He then leaned in and lowered his voice and said, “Now, maybe you’re just the one to bring some changes ‘round here. And, I know just where you can start.”  


I held my breath.


He cleared his throat and said, “Now, I don’t come here near as often as I’d like but I’d love it if you talked to some of the ladies on the Altar Guild about these flowers.”


“Of course, sir,” I said, “but what is wrong with the flowers?”


“Well,” he said, “they are stuck in a rut. They thoroughly lack imagination. It’s always the same thing. Every time I come – and I admit, it’s not near as often as I’d like – but it’s always the same thing. It’s either poinsettias or lilies.”


I believe that was the first time I had met an actual Christmas and Easter Christian.


It was also at that church that I met one Ms. Ditty Smith, who was originally from Mississippi but “moved up north” to Baltimore after she married. Her real name, she told me, was Elizabeth, but she was born prematurely at home and she was so small that the Doc who came to tend to her mother and her after her birth prepared her parents for her early demise.


“So,” said Ms. Ditty, “they put me in a shoe box and kept me over near the wood stove and named me after my grandmother, Elizabeth. But, when Daddy came home from the office – daddy was a lawyer – he looked at me in that shoe box and said, ‘Why that child ain’t no bigger than a little ditty.’ And so, that’s what they called me. Ditty. And, as you can see, I survived to be 97 years old.”


Ms. Ditty felt it her duty to prepare this New England girl for life in the southernmost state she had ever lived. She asked me what I had noticed about Baltimore. “Well,” said I, “for one thing, people in Baltimore do not drive like people in Boston.”


“Do tell,” said Ms. Ditty.


“Well, for one thing, where I come from, the meanings of the colors of traffic lights are pretty clear. Red means stop. Green means go. And, yellow means proceed with caution. But not here, apparently. When people in Baltimore get to a yellow light, they speed up. I’ve actually stopped at a yellow light and had people honk their horns and cuss at me.”


Ms. Ditty chucked and said, “Why child! That’s because, in the South, yellah means trah (try). But you can’t see that if you look at things with Northern eyes.”


Sometimes when I consider this morning’s gospel scene, I imagine Ms. Ditty being among the women who gathered before dawn to go to the tomb to tend to the body of Jesus. It’s Ms. Ditty’s voice I hear when I read that the women “…had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”


And, in my mind, I hear that young man who was sitting in the tomb saying to them, “Why child, in the Resurrection, all the stones are rolled away.”


When the women are alarmed to see him, I hear him say, “You think this tomb is empty, but it’s not. There are no empty tombs in the Resurrection. If you look around, you’ll see that this tomb is quite full. But, you can’t see that if you look at it with eyes filled with tears and sorrow. You have to look at the tomb with eyes that are filled with all the things that Jesus taught us when he was here. And then, you’ll not see death but life. You’ll see hope because you’ll see possibility. You’ll see that the world is changed and transformed and will never again be the same.”


Scripture says that terror and amazement seized them. Mark says that they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid, but John reports that Jesus spoke with Mary Magdalene and she became the first evangelist of the Resurrection.


In Matthew’s version there is a violent earthquake as an angel comes down from heaven and rolls back the stone. The angel tells the women what has happened and tells them to tell the Eleven.

In Luke’s version, two angels ask the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And, when the women went back to the Eleven, they told them everything they saw but the men did not believe them. Peter, however, “ran to the tomb and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves and he went away, wondering what had happened.”


I suspect that some of us can relate to the various scenes pictured here this morning. Some of us may feel not at all like that C&E Christian who complained about the monotony of poinsettias and lilies and find great comfort and relief and even joy in seeing them everywhere in the church.


Others of you may be feeling a bit awkward, hearing the familiar hymns but not being able to sing. At first, you can’t really tell who that is behind that mask. You may feel frustrated that when we come to the Peace we won’t be able to exchange it in the same way. We’ll say ‘Peace’ but will it mean the same thing if we aren’t hugging one another?  (“Yellow means caution but Yellah means trah.”)


Some of us came here asking, “Who will roll away the stone?” And, like Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, along with Salome and Johanna, we will find our question answered with another question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” 


You see, there is no stone that can contain the power of the resurrection. Remember how Jesus told us, when he was still with us in Galilee, that on the third day he would rise from the dead? 


This is that day. This is the day of the Resurrection. Promises made. Promises kept. This is the day the stone is rolled away – it doesn’t matter if it was an earthquake or if an angel came down from heaven or Jesus himself moved the stone on his way out of the tomb.


There is no need to explain a miracle. There is only joy that what was once blocking us is no more. And that which was thought too tiny to grow into its own name – too fragile to live – will thrive and grow from a sweet little ditty into a great hymn of praise.


This is the day the tomb may look empty to others but we see it filled with hope. We can imagine possibility. We can fire up our sense of creativity and dream new dreams into being.


And, we will be changed. Forever. Ready or not. Like it or not. We will be changed.

It’s a new day, my friends. Once again we begin a new journey into a new life with Christ. We will learn a new way of living, the guide for which is in our baptismal vows.


If we, with God’s help, seek and serve Christ in each other, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, our eyes will be open and we will find ourselves on that road to Emmaus, walking with Jesus, on another journey into a life of deeper meaning and purpose and love with God.


So, you’ll excuse me if I just have to say it again, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”


And, you say, “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!”