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Sunday, May 28, 2023

PENTECOST: The Language of Love

St. Martha's Episcopal Church
Bethany Beach, DE
Pentecost - May 28, 2023 

I suppose I was about six years old. I don’t remember the exact age but I had started school, I know that. And, I was under the kitchen table in my grandmother’s kitchen. 


As I reflect on that time - that particular memory - I think I've come to understand a bit better at least some of what happened at Pentecost.

I was hiding there, under that kitchen table. I remember seeing legs – lots of legs. And shoes. Men’s legs. Men’s dress shoes and sneakers.

Women’s legs, every one of them clothed in what my mother always called “silk stockings” even when they were clearly no longer made of silk; but the kind favored by the women in my family still had the distinctive black seam up the back.

And, high heels. No square proper Episcopal heel for the Medeiros women, but not exactly stilettos either. And, they favored the open-toe style worn by their sheroes, Betty Davis and Rita Hayworth.


I loved these people – my uncles and aunts and cousins. They were my family. But, in that moment, I was ashamed of them. Because, I was ashamed of me. I was ashamed because they were all talking in a mixture of Portuguese and Azorean.

There was some English spoken by my younger cousins but it was discouraged so my grandmother could understand what was being said. Over in the corner, my uncle’s mother-in-law and his wife, were having a conversation in Syrian and then that was translated, back and forth, between Portuguese and Syrian and some English.


I was under the kitchen table not because I was afraid but because I had to be there – it was required, the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Miss a Family Gathering – but I was ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed.

I had just started school and my English was deemed to be insufficient for the comprehension necessary for the level of my classmates.

So, I was placed in a “special needs” class. No, that’s not what we called it back then. Back then, the school system used words like “low functioning” and “retarded” and they had been mandated to provide public education for that demographic of children.

Clearly, no one liked that new mandate. And, it showed.

The school system didn’t know what to do with immigrant kids like me so they placed us in the classroom with the kids who were otherwise functioning at levels on lower par than the rest of the kids.


I remember my parents being told about my class placement. I remember my parents being FURIOUS. I remember my parents being ashamed. My mother declared, right then and there, that even though we lived in the apartment above my grandmother, henceforth, furthermore and For Ever, in HER house, we were going to speak only English. No Portuguese speaking allowed.

And, so it was.

I was hiding under the kitchen table because I didn’t want to speak Portuguese, or have my Portuguese translated to Syrian. I didn’t want to talk because I was ashamed to speak. I knew my role was to live out The Great American Dream for my family and I felt deep shame that before it even began, my academic career was an enormous failure.

Remembering that time in my life has led to an insight about our reading this morning from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.

We are told that the apostles were hiding in that Upper Room with the door locked for fear of the religious leaders of Israel.

Oh, I’m sure they were afraid. Shocked. Stunned, no doubt, and they also wondered, I’m sure, if what had been done to their Lord might also be done to them. Never mind fear! Oh, the horror! Oh, the sheer terror.

But, I suspect that there was also some shame involved. I have a feeling they suspected that they had failed in their mission. They were supposed to be part of the building of a whole New World, one where the highest standards were love and peace. Instead, they had watched in horror as their leader was led to his death with intense hatred and violence.


Could they have done anything to stop it? Why, oh why, had they fallen asleep in The Garden? If they had had a clue, would someone have considered the betrayal of Judas and talked him out of it?  If they had been on guard, might they have seen the soldiers coming?


Fear, yes. Of course. But, more. Guilt. Shame.

So, when Jesus says, "Peace" to them, not once but twice, I’m sure he was saying that not directed so much at their fear as their shame.  I think this is why, after he breathed the Holy Spirit on them he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”


And, there it is: Absolution. No guilt. No shame. No fear. Just the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I remember two moments of absolution for my shame and fear and guilt. The first was from my Aunt Jackie, the wife of my Uncle Gilbert who was the youngest and the shortest which led some of his brothers to call him “Runt” but everybody else called him “Shorty”. He was, affectionately, "Uncle Shorty".


My Aunt Jackie had been looking for me. She liked talking with me and I with her. She found me interesting. She liked my ideas. She liked the books I was reading, took the trouble to read them too, and took me to the library to get new books. She understood my sense of humor.

Suddenly, the table cloth swooped up and she came crawling in under the kitchen table and sat down next to me.

I said nothing.  Mercifully, neither did she.

Then, she leaned in and said to me in a low voice, “Hey, kiddo. Your mom told me what happened to you in school. Well, you are going to think I’m crazy for saying this but, when you are older – not too old, maybe even before you are my age – you are going to see that this may have been the best thing that ever happened to you.


I raised my eyebrows and my mouth opened in disbelief.

“I know, I know,” she said. It doesn’t seem that way right now, but I’m telling you that right now you feel sad and I understand that. But, listen to me.  You haven’t let anyone down. We know you are smart. The teachers at your school are not smart enough to figure out just how smart you are. They will. You wait and see. Because of this, you are going to be kinder and will work harder to be smarter. Your family is very proud of you. I am very proud of you. You’ll see. This will all work out just fine.”


And then she put her arm around me while I wept. When I stopped, she got up and left and returned with a plate full of all my favorite foods. She and I sat under the kitchen table in my grandmother’s house and ate all of her Portuguese delicacies and spoke only English.

I felt forgiven and understood and ready to face school on Monday.


And, that’s when I got my second absolution.

My teacher’s name was Miss Kelleher. I can still see her kind face and sparkling eyes in front of me. She had silver-gray hair which she wore in the style of Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower. She always wore silky shirts with a loose bow that fell on her chest.


She pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I know you feel bad for being in here, but I’m going to help you. And, you are going to help me to help these kids. So, I’m going to work with you at every break and, if you want, after school. By the end of this quarter, you’ll be back in your regular class. I promise you. Until then, you will help me with some of these kids who need extra attention. Is that a deal?”

Oh, boy, was it ever!


Miss Kelleher was absolutely right. I did pick up correct English and comprehension very quickly and I was ready, actually, by mid-quarter to go to the regular classroom. But, beside English I had learned a few other languages and I wanted more time to practice.

The kids I worked with were great teachers. They taught me the language of compassion. They taught me the language of kindness. Thing of it is, while there were a few words to the language of kindness and compassion, none were really required. The fewer the better, in fact. Better a squeeze of the hand, a pat on the shoulder, a warm, authentic smile.

As I worked with kids who were compromised intellectually and/or physically, I also learned the language of patience. I’ve never really mastered that one, though. I’m much more patient with others than I am with myself, but that’s another story for another time.

My Pentecost moment, like that of the apostles, came when I was able to feel forgiveness, not just from others, but able to forgive myself for all my shortcomings and perceived failures.

That moment of Pentecost has come to revisit me and that has inspired other moments of forgiveness and unity as well as compassion and kindness, understanding and peace.

The history of the world, like the history of the church, is filled with stories of people who refuse to listen to strange tongues, Christians who refuse to learn from different ways of being.

Pentecost offers us a different way, where the Spirit affirms our differences, speaking in ways that each of us can understand—and yet drawing us together, around the same table, into communion.

That’s how the day of Pentecost ends, with all these strangers eating together. “So those who welcomed [the] message were baptized, [and] they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer” (Acts 2:41-42); “they broke bread from home to home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).

The miracle of communication that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion, to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and hope for the miracle of knowing God in a meal, in each other – just as I knew God in my Aunt Jackie bringing me a plate of my favorite food for our own picnic under my grandmother’s table, and the way Miss Kelleher helped me to learn English during snack break at the lunch table in first grade.

Communion is an invitation to come together around a table and to let Jesus stretch us into relationships with one another, with people who are the same and different, as we struggle to understand God, as we struggle to understand each other.

In Luke’s reporting of Pentecost, red tongues of flame landed on everyone’s head and although different languages were spoken, everyone understood. That’s because the language of God is the language taught to us by Jesus and that language is the language of love.

The love of God, in the words of the poet Angi Sullens, which “comes to collect your failures, one by one, making honey from the bitter/making music in the void / making wings where there were wounds.”

I hope you commit to learning a new language this Pentecost – the language of the Love of God which can cross any barrier of culture, dissolve any wall built by fear, open any door locked by shame, melt any heart frozen by guilt, and lead us to that peace of God which surpasses all human understanding.   





Sunday, May 21, 2023

"As we are one"


“Protect them . . .  so that they may be one, as we are one."

 A Sermon for Easter VII - May 21, 2023

St. Martha's Episcopal Church - Bethany Beach, DE

Long ago, in another galaxy, far, far away, I was asked to lead a retreat for clergy of another denomination that shall go nameless ‘lest someone be tempted to make this story about that – or, them.


I arrived in plenty of time to set up and settle in and then found my way into the line for the obligatory morning coffee/tea and pastry AKA “Continental breakfast” AKA “Carbohydrate Overload”.

As I looked around the room, I was pleased to see that all the clergy had come in their casual clothes – lots of jeans, a few baggy sweatpants, and not a clergy collar or black shirt in sight. I turned to the person just behind me in line and said, “Good morning.” He returned the greeting in a rather perfunctory manner.


Pursued by the unrelenting enthusiasm with which I am normally blessed, I pressed on, “And where do you serve?” I asked cheerily. He pulled himself up as he took a deep breath and said, “I . . . . am the bishop.”


My inner child yelped, “Yikes!” but the theme song of my teen years drowned her out and I heard Diana Ross and the Supremes sing, “I’m gonna make you love me.” I mean, we were going to be together for two and a half days. I had to redeem this stumble at the start line.


More importantly, the whole theme of my retreat was an emphasis on “the oneness of the One we serve”. I was not about to let that be blocked by the barrier of a piece of clothing of a particular color.


I said to the bishop, “Well, son of a gun! I guess that’s what the purple shirt is all about, right?”


Silence. Stone cold. Not even a crooked little smile that might indicate some entertainment value, just a condescending glance that, to me, also communicated shame.

I mean, just who did I think I was? This is the church where some of us, at least, do things that are, “meet, right and proper so to do.” There are customs to be observed, traditions to follow, canons and rubrics and resolutions, oh my!

Silly me! I had this idea that when we are called together as religious leaders, the idea is to open our hearts and lives to what God might have to say to us in a particular space in time so that we might receive a blessing or at least be “entertained by angels unaware”. The spiritual and emotional space between the two of us in the lengthening continental breakfast line did not feel like much of a blessing.

As I spent some time reading and reflecting on today’s gospel, the memory of this incident came rushing back to me. As I recall, the retreat was held around this time of year, after Easter, before Pentecost and around the time of the Ascension.


We were studying what is known as “The Farewell Discourses” which may be a little confusing for those of you who are paying close attention. If you were thinking to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus say these words BEFORE the Crucifixion and BEFORE the Resurrection? Why are we hearing these words now? It’s after Easter! After the Resurrection! And, in fact, the Ascension.”

 Well, as my friend and rector, Jeff Ross notes, “There are only so many post resurrection stories to tell and there are 50 days or 7 Sundays before Pentecost.” As is sometimes true in the church, pragmatics trump theology.

These words are part of what is known as The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. The passage is introduced by these words: “Jesus looked up to heaven . . .,” which puts Jesus in the posture of prayer.  

It’s hard to miss the consistent theme of his prayer: Unity. Jesus wants us to be one, even as he and God and the Holy Spirit are one.

Unity is the constant prayer on the lips of Jesus. It’s in the New Commandment he gave us in that Upper Room when he washed their feet. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.” And, now he prays, “ . . . protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

My favorite religious cartoon about this is from “Man Overboard” which pictures Jesus ascending into heaven, waving and saying, “Buh-Bye boys, remember everything I told you.”

And the disciples are saying, “Buh-Bye boss, we will.”

And, as just the feet of Jesus can be seen at the top of the cartoon, they look at each other and say, “What did he teach us?”

And, someone says, “Love one another. Stay together. Be one.”

“Right,” they say, “that shouldn’t be hard.”

And then they see a group of men in academic robes and hoods coming toward them and one of the disciples says, “Uh-oh, here come the theologians.”

You know, that cartoon has got a point. Maybe we do overthink things. I mean, if we can let the color of a clergy shirt – or even just a clergy shirt – get in the way of our relationships and define the status of our oneness, as it were,  it’s no wonder so much ministry for so much of the world’s needs goes wanting.   

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that we, as a nation, are so sharply divided. Oh, there have been times, even in my lifetime, when it was worse, but that was then and this is now and now feels pretty bad. The hypocrisy of some of our leadership – political, religious and secular – is thick enough to cut clean through with a butter knife.

Jesus says, “Protect them . . .  so that they may be one, as we are one.” Protection. Perhaps that’s what we need. Protection – maybe mostly, we need protection. from ourselves. Turns out, we are, in fact, our own worst enemies.

It will come as no surprise to a few people in this church that when I pray for protection, I often turn to my grandmother for wisdom.


My grandmother was an immigrant from Portugal who married an immigrant from the Azores. Large families were typical in those days but they had 20 pregnancies and 22 children, fifteen of whom lived to adulthood.

My memory of my early years growing up in the midst of that family could be summed up in one word: Loud. People in my family always seemed to be shouting – even when they were happy. You’ve heard the expression: Laugh out loud. That was the only way my family knew how to laugh. The knob on the volume always seemed to be set on 11.

Several of my aunts and uncles moved as far away as they could. My Aunt Alice eloped and moved across country to Seattle, Washington. My uncle Manuel married a woman older than my grandmother and lived with her in Jacksonville, FL. My uncle John married a Syrian woman and became subsumed in that immigrant family. My grandmother grieved all of these losses as deeply as she mourned the loss of her son, August, who died in a factory explosion.


As one would imagine in a family that size, there were always squabbles and disagreements – and, as I recall – it particularly involved one of the girls. Her name was Deolinda and she was tall and thin and scrappy. She had two boys from a marriage marked by domestic violence that ended in divorce.

She always seemed to be picking a fight with one of her siblings. My mother always walked away, refusing to engage with her. But, my aunt Hilda. Now, there was a different story.

When Hilda and Deolinda were in the same room – or outside in the back yard – you could see people begin to slowly move away like steel shavings at the wrong end of a magnet.


I once got brave enough to asked my grandmother why she never stepped in, why she never made them stop. She said two things I’ll never forget.

First she said that Deolinda had decided, somewhere in her life, that the proof of love was that she could use her words to push you far away, but if you stayed with her – if you came back – well, you must love her.


I remember saying to my grandmother, but that’s messed up. You shouldn’t have to prove love over and over again. And, my grandmother said that it was her fault. That, Deolinda was born at a time when one of her other babies had just died and another was sick and she hadn’t been able to pay much attention to her.

Her words of wisdom were once I’ll never forget, “Baby your babies when they are babies so they won’t act like babies when they’re adults.”

Listen to that again. Explains the behavior of some adults, doesn’t it?

And then she held up her hand and, with tears in her eyes, said, “A family is like a hand. Each finger is different. Each finger does something different. If you cut one off, the hand never functions quite the same ever again. But, if they stay together (wrapping her fingers around an invisible handle), they can work any tool, (putting her closed hands, one in front of the other) they can lift any burden, (making a fist), they can beat any adversary that comes their way.”

Jesus, in his High Priestly Prayer, looked up to heaven and said, “Protect them . . .  so that they may be one, as we are one.” That protection is never farther away than our own hands, which, with God’s guidance, can help us work together and lift each other up and defend ourselves.


In these troubled times in our nation, in the world, in our church or in our family, I hope you remember the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Hold your hand up when you say it “ . . . that we may be one . . .” and remember the wisdom of my grandmother.

We all have our differences, but if we work together as one, if we keep in mind the mission and ministry of Christ Jesus into which we were baptized, there isn’t anything we can’t accomplish together.

And, let the church say, “Amen.”

(the Rev Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton