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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Let Me Tell You Why You Are Here

Let me tell you why you are here.

Epiphany V - February 5, 2023

St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Lewes, DE

I have a friend named Judy – she’s one of my favorite agnostics – who says that her favorite part of church is “story”. To her ears, church sounds like this: “Blah, blah, blah STORY. Blah, blah, blah, STORY. Blah, blah, STORY.”


One of my favorite names for the church is “Keeper of the Ancient Stories of Faith.” Now, you won’t find that in our Catechism or Outline of Faith. It’s not there (BCP 854) along with the other descriptive terms like “The People of God,” or “The Body of Christ” or “The Royal Priesthood” or lofty sounding- bordering on the pretentious “The Pilar and Ground of Truth”.


Nevertheless, “Keeper of the Ancient Stories of Faith” we are. We heard three of them just this morning. Isaiah tells us the story he told to the ancient Israelites of what God revealed to him in prayer about how we should live justly. St. Paul does the same concerning the early church in Corinth. And Matthew tells the story of how Jesus explained all that to the disciples in words and images that were pertinent to them in their time – namely salt and light.


Some of you may be familiar with Eugene Peterson’s translation of scriptures in his version known as “The Message”. He begins Matthew’s gospel story with Jesus saying, “Let me tell you why you are here.” That sounds close enough to my ears to echo the favorite words of my childhood: “Once upon a time . . .”


“Once upon a time” was magic to my ears. Wherever I was in the library or the schoolroom, when I heard “Once upon a time .  . .” I would make a bee-line to my place on the braided rug, sit cross-legged with my back straight – just like Mama taught me – waiting for the teacher or the librarian to open the book and transport me to another time and meet new people and learn new things.


“Once upon a time” was as magical to my ears as “Abracadabra!” “Once upon a time” meant that time was somehow suspended and a portal would appear and I could enter into the past and live there for a while, and I’d learn things I wouldn’t . ..  couldn’t . . learn from anyone else in my present life.


So, as a follower of Jesus I want to tell you a story about a man from whom I learned about salt and light and how to live life as one loved unconditionally by God.


Ready? Let me tell you why you are here. Once upon a time . . .  . It was 1986 and I was a newly ordained priest in my very first call as Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Lowell – otherwise known as “the poor man’s MIT” – in Lowell, MA.


As Chaplain, one of the first things I did was to call together a group of students who would help me put together an Ecumenical Worship Service that would be meaningful to students of all denominations – or no religious persuasion or experience at all.


Part of our learning was to attend different churches in Lowell – Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and we were very lucky to have in Lowell both Greek and Armenian Orthodox – and then gather together with the priest or minister or pastor after the service to talk about what was important or different in their religious and liturgical expression.


That’s how I met Father Koumaranian. When we first met, he took one look at this young, 33 year old woman with an overly enthusiastic smile and earnest eyes and a (then) skinny neck in a wide white clergy collar and immediately took pity on me.

He studied me carefully for a while before announcing in his deep, rich voice which was thick with his Armenian accent. “I see . . . I see,” he said, stroking his long, scraggly beard and then, without a hint of surprise or sarcasm but a genuine observation said, “I see the light of Christ in you.” (Whew! When I considered the options of what he might say, that was a huge relief!)


Which seemed to justify his decision which he then announced loudly. “Come. You come to church. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. Come. You come.”


Understand, please. This was not so much an invitation as it was an order to be obeyed. With which, I’m happy to say, I was happy to comply. I mean, holy moly! The church was one huge mosaic. The stained glass windows were all Tiffany. The vestments were amazing works of art. There were great billows of incense that lingered and danced at the high vaulted ceiling for days after mass. And – TJ, you’d love this – they chanted everything that wasn’t nailed down.


I have lots of Fr. Koumaranian stories, but this is the one I want to tell. One Monday morning, Fr. called me, “Mother,” he said. (He always called me, “Mother,” which always made me giggle. I mean, for Jimminy’s sake, I was 33 years old! Anyway, “) Mother,” he said, dees ees Father. We have funeral on Wednesday. It will be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It will be good for my people to see woman priest. Come. You come.”


Of course I came. Are you kidding me? Well, I did get the hairy eyeball from the woman who was the head of the altar guild and the male acolytes ignored me buy I got to wear one of those fabulous brocade vestments. The incense was thick enough to cut with a knife and the chanting was almost nonstop with more Alleluias than we’re apt to hear on Easter Day.


And then, it came time for the eulogy. I looked out into the congregation which was pretty good for 9 o’clock on a Wednesday morning but even 80 or so people looked lost in that cavernous church. In the front row on the gospel side sat the widow and the family. The front row on the epistle side sat All The Other Widows in Greater Lowell and surroundings – all dressed in black with black scarves covering their hair and tied tightly under their several ample chins – rocking and wailing in a non-harmonious counterpoint to the chanting.


I thought sure Father would be speaking to them in Armenian so I was very surprised when he moved toward the casket and started to preach in English.

“There are people in dis world,” he said, “who are always making you hoppy. Oh, you see dem walking across the street from you and your heart leaps in your chest, so hoppy are you to see dem.”


He moved closer to the casket, put his hand gently on it and said, “Diss . . . diss is not one of dose people.”

I don’t think I gasped but I do remember gulping and shutting my eyes and praying, “Oh please, God, don’t let my face show what I’m really thinking right now.”


When I opened my eyes I looked over at the first row on either side of the church and the entire row of women and the men and women behind them were all nodding their heads in sad agreement with Fr. Koumaranian.


And then Fr. opened his arms wide and said, softly and tenderly, “But! Isn’t Gawd, our own Gawd, isn’t diss Gawd so wonderful? Isn’t diss Gawd so amazing, dat now, even now, even one such as diss is resting eternally in de arms of Gawd.”And then he lowered his voice and said, “And dat, my friends, is because of diss . . . “Gawd eess Gawd. And, people eess people.”


And then, he turned around and sat down. And I marveled and said to myself, “Someday, I’m going to be a priest just like Fr. Koumaranian. I’m going to have one point, I’m going to make it, and then I’m going to sit down and shut up.”


Well, sorry, but that day hasn’t arrived. Not quite yet. I’ve still got one or two more things to say, so just hang on another couple minutes and I’ll be done right quick. I promise.


“Let me tell you why you are here.” As Eugene Peterson translates this passage from Matthew:  “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”


The great theologian of the Reformation, Martin Luther, is said to have preached that salt has three purposes. The purpose of salt is to preserve. The purpose of salt is to bite. And, the purpose of salt is to bring pleasure and tastiness to life.


We are here to be seasoning for each other. We are here to preserve the best of what each of us was given at our conception. But we are also here to sometimes be the salt in each other’s wounds – to speak the truth in love even when that ‘bites’.

One of my Spiritual Directors told me once, as I complained about my annoyance with one colleague or another coworker, that God intentionally places people in our lives to “rub us the wrong way”. She called them “Divine Sandpaper”.  Isn’t that great? Divine Sandpaper. She said, “People who ‘rub us the wrong way’ bring out our authentic grain. And, just like sandpaper on wood, Divine Sandpaper helps to bring out our natural shine.”


Peterson says, “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.”


We are here to preserve the best about ourselves and each other so that we might find pleasure in each other and in life. We are here to bring out the God-colors in the world, so that God is “not a mystery, not a secret to be kept”.


Jesus, like Isaiah before him and Paul after him, is telling us a little story about how to live our lives. Shine, says Jesus! “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God,” who is generous beyond measure.


Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1966-1973) wrote a poem titled ODE TO THE SALT which ends with these words: and so the minimum, / the tiny / wave of salero (salt) / teaches us  . . . . the central flavor of infinity.


Salt teaches us the central flavor of infinity. That becomes an even more powerful idea when you consider that Jesus is telling us that WE are salt. WE are the “central flavor of infinity”. When we look into the face of another, we are getting a taste of the central flavor of infinity.


Jose Maria Castillo writes, “What Jesus wants is that we live in such a way – and that our behavior be of such a nature – that people, when they see us, feel better, feel happy, and feel eager to have faith in God.”  . . . . Jesus wants us to feel eager to feel on our lips, on our fingers, in our hand, in our heart, in our whole being, the central flavor of infinity.

And that will only be possible by being salt and light – through the spirituality of hospitality and trust, the spirituality of compassionate listening and truth-telling and supportive tenderness, and by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly – attentively – with God.


Matthew begins the story of how Jesus teaches us to live by saying, “Let me tell you why you are here.”  Once upon a time, an Armenian Orthodox priest named Father Koumaranian saw potential in a new, young Episcopal priest, who was long on enthusiasm and very short on experience, and helped her to better understand the mystery of the relationship between God and the people of God, and why we are here saying, “God is God, and people is people.”

I’ve learned over the years that that’s a good and helpful mantra to learn so you can use it the next time God sends you some Divine Sandpaper.


And, let the church, the “Keeper of the Ancient Stories of Faith” which inspires us to see the stories of our lives as part of the ongoing story of God’s unconditional love for us, let that church say, Amen.


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