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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jesus and Pinocchio

Those who died in Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT 2014


Jesus and Pinocchio
A sermon preached February 18, 2018 - Lent I
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE

Some of us come to church this morning with very heavy hearts.

One of my homiletics professors used to say, “Your call, as a priest, is not to preach the New York Times but the Gospel. Sometimes, however, there is no avoiding the two.”

There is no escaping the headlines of 17 young lives – students and teachers – cut down in Parkland, FL. And, in our grief, we struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable that has happened. Again.

As a priest and as a Hospice Chaplain, I am fascinated by the way the whole spectrum of grief files past our eyes: Denial and isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. These do not happen sequentially and different people will experience them differently and at different times.

If you listen to the radio or television, no matter what station, you will hear anger in the cries for “Someone – anyone, please – to do something to stop this madness!”

We hear bargaining in "If/Then" statements like “If the teachers were armed and trained this never would have happened.” (Despite the fact that there were security guards and a police car on that school campus).

The same folks who say things like that are not aware of their own state of denial when they also make statements like “Well, guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people.” Umm, right. And the point of that is, what? Don’t let people touch guns?

Or, they want to blame it all on “mental illness”. Except, these same people voted to end a law that would have prevented people with mental illness from purchasing guns. They also support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid which fund clinics to treat people with mental disorders.

And, don’t even get me started on “thoughts and prayers” and how it’s not time to talk about gun violence in this country.

I’m not here to argue for or against gun control. That’s preaching the New York Times.

I am here to point out the obvious: We are a nation in deep grief over the loss of seventeen more lives to the senseless violence which has our nation in the iron grip of the cycle of anger, denial, senseless bargaining, isolation, depression and resigned acceptance which allows the foundation to be laid for yet another horrific, evil incidence of gun violence.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

And, in this particular community, we are grieving the unexpected and tragic death of Christine N***, the daughter of Sunny and the sister of Joe B****. 

Parents are not supposed to lose their children. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. So, when children die – no matter how young or old or how or whose they are when they die – there is a kind of indescribable grief that cuts through to the heart.

And so, here we are this morning. The first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent. The cross and shining objects are covered or removed. The liturgical color is a somber yet regal and dignified purple. The hymns call us to remember repentance and the cross. This morning, we began with a Penitential Rite and read the Exhortation and Decalogue, to help us keep in mind who we are and whose we are, and what it is we are doing here in church and why.

Today’s Gospel reading calls us to remember the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. And, when Jesus came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and a Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Every child longs to hear that statement from their parents. Every parent longs to say that to their child. And then, their child grows up and, as we all did – every last one of us in this church today – has to test the limits of what it means to be human; of what it means to be a member of this family; of what it means to be who they are. 

As one of my colleagues once said to me: Adolescence is the time when every child has to cut the umbilical cord for him/herself. And they have to do it by themselves – with their teeth if necessary.

And, they have to draw blood.

And, most importantly, it has to hurt.

I've come to know that having grandchildren is the reward you receive for not having done murder to their parents when they were adolescents.

But, here’s the thing about baptism: It does not make us more divine. Indeed, it makes us more human. 

And, of course, this would be the time I tell you a story about that:

When I was rector at my last church, a young family with two young children – a boy named Gibby who was 9 and a girl named Grace who was 11 – became members of the church. They had never had their children baptized and the kids were curious and asking questions.

Finally, the day arrived when they, themselves, asked to be baptized. I met with them in my office several times after school to explain baptism to them in the simplest possible terms. I mean, they were only aged 9 and 11. 

They both had a few good questions but Gracie’s biggest concern was whether or not she could have a big party and invite her friends. Oh, and could she also have a dress? Did it have to be white? Could it be, like, maybe blue? Like, oh, yes! Electric blue? With sparkles? And, could she please wear a tiara?

I think she ‘got’ that it was a celebration.

Gibbie, however, was much more serious. He said, “Reverend Elizabeth, my friend who goes to the Roman Catholic Church says that when you are baptized, you give your everlasting soul to the church. Is that right? Is that what happens? Because if it is, I don’t want that.”

At that time, I had in my office a lovely lithograph of that Disney movie “Pinocchio”. It was the moment when the Blue Fairy answers father Geppetto’s nightly prayer. She takes her magic wand and ‘baptizes’ Pinocchio, saying, “Little Puppet made of pine, arise, the gift of life is thine.”

I looked at Gibby and said, “And, do you remember what happened then?”

“I sure do,” Gibby said, excitedly, “All the strings fell away from Pinocchio and he could walk all on his own! But,” said Gibby, looking at the picture, “look! He’s still made of wood.”

“Right,” said I. “He didn’t change. He’s still who he is. He’s just alive, now. So,” I continued, “do you remember the story? What happens next?”

“Well,” said Gibby, “he became a real little boy. No strings to tie him down. But, he DID become naughty. He skipped school and went with some bad boys and he smoked a cigar and ran away from home and joined the circus. And, he told lies. And, when he did his nose GREW!”

“Right,” I said, “He didn’t have any strings to tie him down. In being alive, he had the gift of free will. He could make choices about how he spent his life. The gift the Blue Fairy gave him did not take away anything from him. That’s the same way with Baptism. It doesn’t take anything away from you. But, it DOES assure you of the gift you were given at birth: Free Will.”

“And, Jiminy Cricket,” shouted Gibby! “She gave him Jiminy Cricket to be his conscience.”

“Right,” said I. “And, if we follow the teachings of Jesus, we’ll have a conscience. Your parents and Godparents will promise at your baptism to be Jiminy Crickets for you so you can always “let your conscience be your guide.”

Gibby was quiet for a while as he let this all sink in. “So,” he said, in a voice much older and wiser than his years, “All the things that Pinocchio did wrong, they all just made him more and more human. Because, if you are a puppet and someone else pulls the strings, you can only do what the puppet master lets you do.”

“What made him more fully human, Gibby, was that he saved his father from the belly of the whale. Do you remember that part of the story? Pinocchio risked his life to save his father’s life. That’s true love. That kind of sacrificial love is what puts flesh and blood on our dry human bones."

"That kind of love makes us more and more human. "

"Baptism sets us free to be more and more who we are – free to make mistakes and learn from them – free to love so much we’d give our life to save someone else’s life.”

“So we can find our way home, back to God?” asked Gibby.

I looked at him and smiled and said, “I think you are ready for baptism, young man.”

In moments like this in our national and personal lives, when we come to church with heavy hearts, it’s important to remember that, after Jesus was baptized, scripture says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Baptism won’t protect us from the wilderness or help us not be tempted by Satan or shield us from the wild beasts. But, baptism means that there will always be angels to wait on us.

Baptism means that we are those angels for each other. We are here in this community we call “church” to wait on each other, to tend to each other in our grief and sorrow, to hold each other as we cry, to share the gift of laughter and joy, to come together to find ways that protect and defend each other from evil and adversity and to live lives of sacrificial love for each other. 

Baptism is where the gift of free will we were given at birth is reaffirmed and we are not only assured of grace when we fail but also the amazing gift of Life Eternal in Jesus. 

Baptism means that we are a community which knows that God loves us – freely and unconditionally because we have within us the "mind of Christ". 

As my friend Ed Bacon says, "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone." 

Listen to that again: "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone."

And the church, the Body of Christ, is the place where we say to each other - in word and deed - the words God said to Jesus, “You are my Beloved Child; with you I am well pleased.”


Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Remember that you are dust . . . . .

One of the members of a clergy social media group recently posted this:   
Am I the only one uncomfortable with the Ash Wednesday Words of Imposition?  I’m usually OK unless it’s telling a child or someone suffering from low self-esteem: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  It’s not that Americans need help denying mortality, it’s just that the statement is half the truth. So, I’m thinking about: "You are dust that God is trying to turn into someone as wise, kind, and brave as Jesus."
While several clergy thought discomfort over the words was "important", several other clergy thought changing the words a good idea (although they didn't really say why), adding their own versions such as:
"Remember you are dust, the universe was made for you."

 “Be dead to your past, the kingdom is in front of you “

 "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." (Taken from the Roman Rite)

"But also remember you are God's dust, and to God you will return."
I was surpised by my reaction to the proposal to consider changing these venerable words - even if unofficially. They are engraved on my heart and I cherish them as part of the beautiful heritage of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and ritural. They sent the tone for a "Holy Lent."

Is it because of my work in Hospice? Is that why these words have such deep meaning for me? Or, have I finally become an old fart?

Here's how I responded:
"Dust" of course, is a metaphor. We use lots of metaphors in the church. It's not about what's true and what's not true. God is neither an eagle nor a mother hen but something quite amazingly like and profoundly beyond those two realities. We use metaphors like "dust" to express the truth of the deep mystery of our human existence which can't be fully known or understood.

I'm a hospice chaplain. I'll be having an Ash Wednesday service at noon for my hospice staff of doctors, nurses, social workers, and aides which will be preceded and followed by brief, abbreviated services at several Extended Care Facilities as well as the individual residences of several hospice patients.
I can almost guarantee that no one will be made "uncomfortable" by the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." That's because they, being closer to death on a daily basis than your average bear, better understand the importance and the meaning of the metaphor than most.
It has always astounded me that the church, which professes a deep belief in both the incarnation and resurrection, is so skittish about issues of intimacy (especially that of the body, read: sex) and death. 
Frankly, we do a terrible job preaching and teaching or even talking about sex and death. 
We're not much better talking about money, either, but, all-in-all, we'd rather talk about sex - especially when we think it's outside of "scriptural norms". At least it keeps us from talking about intimacy or ministering with the poor or welcoming the stranger or .... fill in the gospel blank.

I'm remembering Lane Denson, a wonderful priest and writer, now numbered among the saints, who loved to tell the story of getting on the subway with a large smudge of a cross on his forehead. 
A fellow traveler, in an altered state of consciousness, looked at him and his cross and screamed at him, "Look at you! Look at you! Know what THAT means?" he yelled, pointing to the cross of ashes on his forehead.
"IT MEANS YOU'RE GONNA DIE! Don't believe that stuff about 'dust'. IT MEANS YOU'RE GONNA DIE."
Now, admittedly, that would make even me uncomfortable.
Lane also liked to add his own flourish to the old Irish saying which was repeated by Senator Pat Moynihan on the death of John F. Kennedy. Moynihan said it about being "Irish" but Lane thought it applied to being Christian, as well: 
"There's probably not any point in being [a Christian]," he said, "if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually."

Good luck and God bless your 'holy squirming".
I'm guessing that, as you read this, your forehead has been appropriately smudged with ashes and you have heard those words again this year

So, what do you think?

Would you change those words?

How would you change them?

Why would you change them?

It's been a long time since I've had a conversation on this blog. I'm used to having conversations only on FaceBook - in closer to "real time" as the expression goes.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this conversation will happen both on this blog and on FaceBook - but more the later than the former.

In any event, thanks for thinking this through with me.

With some many other proposed changes in our liturgy, and with the fast-paced changes of the world, I really am curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Brief Ecumenical Service for Ash Wednesday


Note: As a Hospice Chaplain, I am asked to provide a brief - often very brief - service of Ash Wednesday with imposition of ashes but without communion to an ecumenical congregation. The reasons for this are almost always pragmatic: hospice patients (and their fellow residents of Extended Care Facilities) are not able to tolerate lengthy services; neither are staff able to take that much time away from their duties. As for this priest, I will not do "Ashes to Go" (Or, as one of my colleague calls it "Drive-By-Smudges"). "Call me old-fashioned call me what you will, say I'm a relic say I'm over the hill" . . . BUT, I just can't completely separate the ritual from the liturgy. SO, this is as bare-bones as I dare to get. I will use it several times in several settings tomorrow, including with my beloved staff. Depending on the time and location, I may add a very brief reflection after the reading. I wanted to make it as participatory as possible and will ask one of the staff to read the lesson. I also wanted to make it uplifting and inspirational, with an emphasis on our need of each other in community. Please feel free to use it

A Brief Ecumenical Service for Ash Wednesday

The Voice of One:       Holy and beautiful the custom which brings us together,
The Voice of Many:              in the presence of the most high:

                                    To face our ideals,
                                    to remember our loved ones in absence,
                                    To give thanks, to make confession, to offer forgiveness,
                                                to be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
                                    Through this quiet time breathes the worship of ages,
                                                the heritage of generations past.
                                    Three unseen guests attend.
                                                faith, hope, and love.
                                    Let all our hearts prepare them place.

A reading from Holy Scripture: Joel 2:1-2, 12-15

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

Silent contemplation
Ash Wednesday invites us into the Season of Lent, a time to consider more deeply our mortal nature and to more closely examine our relationship with God and each other and the ways we fall short and miss the mark so that we might do better. Please take a moment of silence to consider the limits of our own mortality, the shortness and uncertainty of life, and the ways we might try to exceed even the limits of our own human understanding and imagination. 

The Imposition of Ashes
As a mark of our humanness and mortality, we bear the cross of ashes on our foreheads. If you wish to have ashes imposed on your forehead, please come forward.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” AMEN.

THE LORD’S Prayer  …. “Our Father/Mother/Abba, who art in heaven . . . .”

Closing Litany
One:                We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted
Many                          We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid
We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.
We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone.      
We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.    
We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again.
We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.
            All our lives we are in need of others, and others are in need of us. AMEN.

The Benediction
My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us, so be swift to love and make haste to do kindness; and the blessing of God - who is Love, who is Beloved, who Loves unconditionally - be upon you and all whom you love and pray for this day and fore ever more. AMEN.

The Dismissal:
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to one one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all people. Love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


Chaplain Elizabeth Kaeton

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Glory People

A Sermon Preached at 
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
Epiphany VI - February 11, 2018


You can almost see the movie version: Elijah and Elisha parting the waters of the Jordan and crossing on dry land. Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind with chariots of fire and Elisha crying out and tearing his garments on the riverbank.

In Mark’s gospel, there is an equally dramatic scene with Jesus and his inner circle of Peter and James and John on a high mountain. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them and they were blinded by the light. 

When their eyes adjusted, they saw Elijah and Moses talking to Jesus and, just when they were trying to figure out what they should do, a cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice say,

"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” 

And then, every thing cleared and everyone was gone and all they saw was Jesus. 

Whew! You know, you just can’t make that stuff up!

Not that I think it’s made up, you understand. Something earth-shattering and amazing and transforming happened in both stories. 

Although I love the excitement and the drama of these two stories, I worry that people will come to think that the only way you’ll know that God’s hand is in something is when there are earthquakes or whirlwinds or dazzling, blinding light. 

It can lead us to believe that something earth-shattering and dynamic has to happen for us to know that we are in the presence of the Divine. 

My dear friend Ed Bacon is a passionate lover of Jesus and has worked many years in the vineyards of the Lord. One of the things I learned from Ed is: 


"Sometimes, in order to be faithful to Jesus, you've got to take a big risk for something small." 

I've never forgotten that. It encourages me to celebrate being a fool for Christ from time to time.

But the thing I really love about Ed is that, when he gets excited about something, when a ministry plan is coming together or when he sees an old friend he hasn’t seen in a very long time, or when he’s heard a beautiful piece of music, or even when you set a plate of food in front of him that makes his mouth water, you can count on Ed to say this: 

“Lord, lord, lord, I’m about to have a glory attack.”

And, you know, in that moment I’d swear he actually glows.

Ed Bacon is one of The Glory People. 

But, you know, that’s not always how the glory of God is made manifest.  Sometimes, it happens in surprisingly small and insignificant ways.

There are other moments of glory that are more subtle – people providing transportation for those who can’t drive themselves to the doctor’s office or chemotherapy treatments or church. 

Others are devoted to making sure that lost pets have food at their local animal shelters. Still others write cards or letters or send special packages to our women and men in the Armed Forces.   

These things are not going to make headlines or be featured on the cover of Newsweek or Time magazine.

In these moments of small acts of kindness, the glory of God is made manifest and little shafts of light pierce the darkness of despair. 

They are The Glory People. They are small but not insignificant manifestations of the glory of God.

Some of us stumble into moments of generosity and light completely unawares. When I was newly ordained, I was Assistant to the Rector at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore, MD. One of the tasks in my portfolio was to preside at a weekly Eucharist and pastoral visitation at Memorial House, a newly developed eight-story high-rise senior residence just down the street from the Church.

One of those I visited was a woman named Mrs. Parks. She was an African American woman and part of the Parks family who owned the Parks Sausages business based in Baltimore. (Do you remember that commercial jingle? "More Parks Sausages, Mom. Pleeeease?) Her husband was one of the owners of the business with his brother who was also a Baptist minister and founder and senior pastor of a very large, successful church in Baltimore.

Rev Parks had died suddenly of a heart attack and, shortly after his death, his children tried to convince their mother that she ought not live alone. She resisted. They persisted. Eventually, they sold her beautiful 5-story brownstone home on Bolton Hill and moved her into Memorial House. 

Which made her very, very sad. 

And, very, very angry. 

Ms. Parks rarely came out of her room at Memorial House. She took all of her meals in her room, did not participate in any of the community activities and most certainly did not attend the weekly Eucharist or any other prayer service in the Chapel. 

Her children and the staff of the facility were begining to be concerned. I was asked to visit with Ms. Parks in her apartment after I celebrated Eucharist in the chapel. Of course, said I.

Ms. Parks was very polite but very stiff and formal. I remember that, at the end of my visit, she would ask me for a prayer before I left. And, like a good, newly ordained Episcopalian, I would turn to the BCP and find a suitable prayer. 

And she, being a good wife of a Baptist pastor, would scoff.

“Child, don't you know how to PRAY?,” she’d ask, “Like a regular Christian? Do you have to use THAT book?”

I was enormously embarrassed and appropriately humiliated. The answer was, no, actually. I didn't know how to pray. Not without the BCP. Not publicly. I mean, privately, I would talk my little heart out to God. But, publicly? In front of others? isn't that exactly what the BCP is for? 

And yet, something in me knew she was right. Why couldn't I pray from my heart? Why did I need THAT book?

Finally, at the end of one of my visits, I asked if she would like me to pray. She nodded and I decided, right then and there to take a risk. Indeed, I decided to be very foolish and take a big risk for something small. 

I decided to risk my sense of pride for the small favor of praying for this woman in the way that was most meaningful for her. 

I closed my eyes – tight – and began to pray. Extemporaneously. Without one of the magnificent words of the Prayer Book in front of me. If I remember correctly, I even clenched my fists as I prayed. At the end of which, I opened my eyes and looked at Ms. Parks. 

To my horror and great distress, I found that she was weeping.

“Oh, Ms. Parks,” I said, “I am so very sorry. Did I say something to make you cry?”

Ms. Parks took a deep breath and wiped her eyes, looked at me and said, “Oh no, dear child. You didn’t say anything wrong. It’s just that, when we get to this point in our visit, I realize just how lonely I really am.”

Now, I will tell you that no bright, blinding lights filled the room. There was no whirlwind, no earthquake, no chariots of fire. But, I do declare that there was an undeniable presence of God which humbled and confounded us both.   

And, we were both changed and transformed and never again were we the same.

I'll tell you this: It was shortly after that that Ms. Parks started taking her meals in the dining room. A few months later, she started participating in the community activities. By the fall, she was one of the first ones in line to get on the bus for one of their trips. 

As for me, well, I began to pray privately and pastorally and publicly in a whole new way. I began to take risks and just pray from my heart. That lead me to begin to take some risks with preaching and try to move farther away from a manuscript and preach from my heart as I'm doing right now. 

That may not seem like a lot to you and it has taken me quite a long time - and, in fact, the process is still on-going - but I continue to hear Ed Bacon cheer me on by saying, "Sometimes, in order to be faithful to Jesus, you've got to take a big risk for something small."

Ms. Parks and I became one of The Glory People

There are other moments of glory that are known only by God. These are moments of quiet generosity or kindness. A kind word or a gesture. I don’t know if you know just how much a smile can mean to a lonely person. Or, a touch. Or a kind word or just looking someone in the eye and saying, “Hello”.

Here’s the thing I want you to hear:  

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is transformative. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is transfiguring. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is dramatic and powerful and shines a light on the dullness of our humanity. 

It is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that is a beacon of hope amidst the occasional dark moments of our lives.

In a few days, we will be observing Ash Wednesday, and The Season of Lent will begin. In the midst of the darkness of the wilderness of the Journey of Lent don’t miss the possibility of your own transfiguration.

Look for it. Look for the possibility of your own transformation.

Look for opportunities to engage in it, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it may seem. 

Celebrate it when you see it. 

Be ready to take a big risk for something small: 

A smile when you don't want to. 

Reach out and touch someone when you'd rather be all alone by yourself. 

Do something kind when you'd rather do just about anything else.

It will change and transform your life and you will never be the same.

You will become one of The Glory People. You might even have yourself a good old fashioned Ed Bacon glory attack every now and again and find new appreciation for things you took for granted.

Here's another possibility: You just might hear a voice from a cloud of doubt which lurks over the deep recesses of your innermost soul: 

"You - and YOU - and YOU and YOU and YOU - are my beloved child. With YOU I am well pleased." 

No promises, but I know for a natural fact that it has been known to happen. 

If it can happen for Ms. Parks and me, it can happen for you, too. 

Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Out to a Deserted Place

Muynak, Uzbekistan

A sermon preached at St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville
Epiphany V – February 4, 2018

This morning’s gospel (Mark 1:29-39) continues the story we heard last week when Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirits in temple. They went directly from the synagogue to the house of Andrew and Simon Peter, where his mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever.

Jesus cures her, of course. Scripture says he “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

I’m just going to leave that last sentence right there and try really hard not to talk about why she had to get right up out of her sick bed and why those men couldn’t let her rest up just a bit and why they couldn't serve themselves, right ladies? I mean . . . . . . Seriously??? .......

...... Okay...... Sorry. I’m back.

What really caught my imagination was what happened in the morning – after a night of healing people who were sick or possessed of unclean spirits or “demons”. Apparently, sometime in the middle of the night, Jesus slipped out of the house and went to “a deserted place”.

The disciples – who were, you will remember, from Capernaum – knew the area.

And yet, they couldn’t find him.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. He would have known his home town but Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John would have known Capernum like the back of their hands. And yet, they "hunted for him" but couldn't find him.

Where did he go? Okay, he went off to "a deserted place" somewhere in Capernaum.

More to the point of my curiosity, why? Why did he go?

That’s the question I’ve been wondering about all week. 

Why did he go off to a deserted place? 

Well, remember, this is at the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus. He has just begun to assemble his ministry team (aka “disciples”).

I can only imagine what it felt like to heal that man in the Temple, and then come to his friend’s house to heal his mother-in-law of a fever. But, it didn’t end there. He spent the whole evening, healing every sick person that was brought to him.

I imagine the human side of him might have been just a little overwhelmed, especially as he allowed the reality of his ministry begin to sink in. 

When the realization of the amount of pain and suffering in the world became too much. When he just had to step away from it all and take a deep breath before he could roll up his sleeves again and get on with the work he was given to do.

I had a moment like that just last week. I went into a facility in Seaford to visit a new Hospice patient. She was a woman in her 80s who had been living with Parkinsons for years. Her condition had begun to deteriorate in the past few months and she needed more assistance to have quality of life at the end of her life.

I went into her room but she was in the bathroom with her CNA. While I was waiting, I looked at the pictures in her room.

Her bed faced the window and there, on the window sill, stood what I immediately identified as her high school graduation picture. I assumed the picture next to has was her husband’s high school graduation picture. 

I made a mental note to ask if they had been high school sweethearts.

I was looking around at all the other many pictures in her room when the noise behind me indicated that the patient and her CNA were coming out of the bathroom. I turned around and saw her. And, my heart sank right to my feet.

I looked at her and looked back at the picture on the window sill and then looked back at her and I tried not to gasp. I made some excuse about my phone and stepped outside into the hallway to catch my breath. 

I was absolutely overwhelmed by the cruelty of Parkinson’s Disease. I've been doing this a number of years. I've seen lots of Parkinson's patients. Somehow, this one caught me off guard.

There she was in her high school picture, a once beautiful, vibrant young woman with her whole life in front of her and now, here she was, completely disabled, barely able to speak above a whisper. 

The cruelty of the disease was unspeakable. But, unlike Jesus, I had no means to cure her, to liberate her from the disease that keeps her captive and in a wheelchair.

I took a few deep breaths, wiped the tears that were welling up in my eyes, shot up a prayer to Jesus for wisdom and the ability to bring her some comfort and solace.

Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – the amount of suffering in the world becomes overwhelming and I just need to step away. Sometimes, to a deserted place.

But, you know – not as often as I’d like but sometimes – the amount of beauty in the world becomes overwhelming. Did you all see the amazing super blue blood moon the other night? Wasn’t it just incredible?

I saw an image of the super blue blood moon next to the Parthenon. There it was - the amazing work of human hands side-by-side with the even more amazing work of God's hands.  The limitations of human mortality overshadowed by the limitlessness of God's divinity.

And, I tell you, tears welled up in my eyes. The beauty was so amazing, it took my breath away.

I had to step away for a moment, just to be able to take it all in – the majesty of life, the beauty of creation, the amazing things humans are capable of creating – like the Parthenon – that pay homage to the every day miracles God is capable of creating.

In 10 days, Lent will begin. It will be a time – a season, 40 days and 40 nights – to step out to a deserted place. I always look forward to this time of year, to allow my soul a good cleaning and airing out.

Scripture tells us that, after Jesus went off to a deserted place, 

Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons”.
Jesus teaches us this morning that sometimes, we don’t need to take a whole season to renew and refresh ourselves, our bodies and minds and souls..

Sometimes, we just need to step away – just for a bit – to a place where no one else is around, and just catch our breath and let the reality of the limits of our mortality and humanity sink in before we go back and do the work we are given to do.

Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Healing in the Temple

A Sermon preached by the Rev Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
Epiphany IV B - Januarly 28, 2018

Contemplative theologian Richard Rohr says Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

So, let’s take a deeper look into this morning’s Gospel to see what it is we once thought about God and God's ability to heal, and what it is that is new about God that Jesus came to change our minds concerning the healing power of God.

I’m always fascinated by the healing stories of Jesus. They are always so graphic and often include "unclean spirits" or demons. Talking demons. The demons always recognize Jesus even when the person he is about to heal – or, the people around him – doesn’t know Jesus or anything about Jesus.

Sometimes, the person doesn’t speak to Jesus much less ask him for healing. But the unclean spirits/demons know Jesus. They recognize him immediately.

And, they always seem to know precisely what he is capable of doing.

So, let’s spend just a minute or so inside that temple in Capernaum where we find Jesus this morning. Capernaum was reportedly the hometown of his disciple Peter. Indeed, there’s a church there, in Capernaum, built over the excavated remains of what was reportedly his home. The disciples Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were also from that town, as was the tax collector Matthew.

Jesus did several acts of healing there, in Capernaum. In addition to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the servant of a Roman centurion, as well as the paralytic man who was so desperate for help his friends lowered him through the roof so Jesus could heal him.

But, this particular morning, no one has sought out Jesus for healing. This particular morning, Jesus was in the synagogue where he will teach and preach. It’s early in his ministry, and he has just started to round up his ministry team. It’s the Sabbath so Jesus leads them to the temple.

Frederick Buechner says that the most hopeful part of the church service is the moment the preacher walks to the pulpit and pulls the little chain on the lectern.  It’s in that moment that the congregation waits for a word from God…  maybe, there might be a word for them today.  Maybe, they will hear something to deliver them from whatever they may be facing for that day, that week, that year. 

Maybe that was the atmosphere in the temple that morning. Maybe that’s why, when Jesus did start to speak, they were “amazed by it” and, scripture says, they started talking among themselves. 

I can hear them saying, “Hey, he’s pretty good, isn’t he? He really knows what he’s talking about.” (Scripture tells us they said, “He speaks with authority”.)

Just then, a man ‘with an unclean spirit’ starts to call out, interrupting Jesus. He starts yelling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

You know, that actually happened to me, once. Well, the man didn’t say exactly that but I was once interrupted by a man – a vagabond, a street person – in the midst of a sermon I was giving in a church.
I was a seminarian at the then Mission Church of St. John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street, a high Anglo-Catholic Church in the middle of Beacon Hill and Government Center (the old Scollay Square) in Boston. 

A man in filthy tatters for clothing came walking up the middle aisle of the church. 

He was smoking a cigarette. 

Which was fine, I suppose, because we used a lot of incense.

I could smell him all the way from the pulpit – a powerfully pungent mixture of body odor and cigarettes and whiskey. He was sweaty and covered with soot. His face was puffy, his eyes two small slits under a dirty woolen cap, and he had huge bleeding knots on his eyebrows and chin.

I don’t remember what he said, exactly. For all I know, he might have been saying, “We know who you are! Have you come to destroy us?” Whatever it was, I only remember that it was slurred and loud. Very loud.

He made his way up to the crossing when he stopped and looked up to gaze at the image of Jesus on the cross hanging above the altar. 

I heard myself gasp just then, along with several others in the congregation, as we suddenly realized how much they looked like each other – Jesus and the vagabond street person. 

He squinted his eyes and moved the greasy strands of hair from in front of his face as his body began to sway.

“Oh God. Oh, Jesus, help me,” he cried out as his knees buckled and he fell to the floor with a loud thud. As some of us raced to help him, his body began to writhe in uncontrollable seizures. 

We gathered around him but it seemed that an invisible force-field-shield had come up between his body and the congregation. We were driven by our desire to help, but simultaneously repulsed by his foul smell and his filth. 

The church was silent except for and occasional primal-sounding grunt and the sound of his head hitting the hard floor every time he seized.

It was just then that Emmett, the rector, seemed to swoop in from seemingly nowhere, silently parting the sea of bodies. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had on his magnificently embroidered vestments. 

He knelt down in front of the man as if he were one of the wise men, kneeling before the manger where the infant Jesus was laid. Carefully, and ever so gently, he cradled the man in his arms and laid his head in his lap.

Softly, softly, he whispered, “I’ve got you. It’s going to be all right. I’ve got you.” And then, he looked up and quietly asked, “Has anyone called an ambulance? Please call an ambulance for this child of God.”

And then, Emmett did something I’ll never forget. Ever. He looked down again at the man and, cradling him in his arms, he gently, sweetly, kissed his forehead. That sooty, filthy, bloody, smelly forehead.

And, here’s the thing: I don’t know about that vagabond man and his epilepsy but I felt the demons of judgment and condemnation leave my body. 

I realized that this was a man whose illness drove him to insanity. Perhaps his illness made it impossible for him to work. Perhaps he got depressed. Perhaps his family couldn’t deal with him any more and sent him to live on the street. Perhaps he could not afford the medication he needed. Perhaps he medicated himself with alcohol.

As each possibility of his story unfolded before me, I could feel my own demons being cast out. 

Someone in the church started singing “Amazing Grace”. 

Pretty soon, the whole church was filled with the harmony of that amazing song. We sang it as the ambulance arrived to take him to Mass General Hospital. We sang the last verse as Emmett took off his vestments, placed them on the back pew and climbed into the ambulance with the man to accompany him to the hospital.

The congregation heard the gospel that day but they didn’t hear it from me. They listened to it and watched it unfold right before their very eyes as a man with a debilitating illness was tended to by a priest in the church. 

And, they also saw the casting out of the demons of others as well as their own demons and we were all healed.

I also leaned that Richard Rohr was right. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

And, when we follow the teaching of Jesus, our human minds are also changed about our own humanity – as well as the humanity of others.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Walking in Beauty


"Walking, we go walking toward the sun.
Walking, we are walking toward freedom."
Caminando, a Spanish Christmas Song

In August, I signed up for Walk in Beauty: A Pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, October 8-20, 2018. 

It is promised as a "transformational journey" - a big promise to be sure - but it aims to deliver by being lead by a woman named Valarie Brown, a facilitator at Parker Palmer's Center of Courage and Renewal. She is also a Buddhist priest, ordained in 2003 by Thich Nhat Hahn.

I am so excited, I can't hardly sit still.

Just today, I got my "prep package" so I'm ready to walk the 7-10 miles per day, from San Sabastian to Santiago, Spain, the mythical burial place of St. James, who is credited with bringing  Christianity to Spain.

San Sabastian is described as "a lovely seaside metropolis located in the Basque region of the northern Atlantic coast, boarding France, widely considered one of the best places to eat in the world, and home of some of the world’s best restaurants."

Oh, I'm so in. And, yes, I plan to get recipes. 

It continues: "This Pilgrimage to Santiago takes you through beautiful forests, charming villages, and historic towns and cities such as Bilbao, Santillana del Mar, Comillas, Cangas de Onis, and Oviedo. Taking the Northern Route to Santiago de Compostela, this 164 kilometer/102 mile journey, is divided into eleven inspiring walking stages and includes a visit to the Caves of Altamira, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Pilgrimage Resource Guide is packed full of information about walking clothes, shoes, packs as well as books, music, films, etc.

My group of 10 will also have three opportunities, from now until the end of September, to have three Zoom Conference times, so that we can see each other and talk with each other and begin to know who we are individually and collectively and begin to bond.

 The terrain of the walk, they say, will be 
"varied: rural paths, walking trails, small villages, coastal beaches and hilly terrain. Please start slowly and gradually build speed and endurance. This pilgrimage is not a race. We will walk a moderate to slow pace, perhaps three miles per hour, with plenty of time to stop to enjoy the landscape, fellow pilgrims and the local scenery."

You will need only a day pack with essential supplies. Your heavy luggage will be transported to our paradores or country farmhouse inn. The Spanish honor siesta time and we will pause each day for a lovely lunch in a local cafe. Additionally, we have the comfort of a private van, stocked with healthy snacks at our disposal."
So, before you judge me, let me just say that I ain't 20 no more. Neither am I in my 30s or 40s. I've even passed my 50s. So, wait till you're that age before you judge me too harshly. In April, I begin a major birthday so it feels the absolutely right time to make this kind of pilgrimage.

I did walk around my local grocery store with two 5 pound bags of sugar in my backpack. That was when I realized I couldn't do this on my own without some help and began to look for alternatives.

Anyone who knows me knows that I've been planning this for five years. Unfortunately, in those five years, Ms. Conroy had abdominal serious surgery and damn near died. Then, she had both knees replaced. I just couldn't leave her while she was recovering and recuperating. 

Guess what? She, like everyone else, only has two knees. I know, right? So, unless an emergency arises, I'm off from October 8-20, 2018 to Santiago, Spain, for the pilgrimage to prepare for what will undoubtedly be the last quarter of my life.

One of my beloved spiritual guides, Sr. Rosina, OSH, advised me that every journey has three parts. It begins with clarification. Once one is clear about why the journey is necessary, one enters the phase of preparation. After one has prepared, one is able to move more fully into participation.  


When I was on Advent retreat, I got clear about why I needed to do this Camino. Now, comes the preparation so that I am ready to fully participate in the journey. 

I ask your prayers as I begin the preparation phase of this journey.  It's not going to be easy. In fact, it will take enormous commitment and dedication. It will be exactly the kind of preparation I need in order to fully participate in this journey.

Some of the questions I will be taking with me on this juourney include:
What do I need to take with me on the last quarter of my life's journey?
What do I need to leave behind?

What is essential?

What is luxury? 
What is necessary? 

Can I trust my body to have the stamina it needs to complete this journey? 

Who am I, now that I am no longer young and as strong as I once was?

Who is God for me? Has God changed in the same ways I have - physically, intellectually, emotionally,  and spiritually? 

Who are my people? Can I trust in the kindness of strangers?

What is God calling me to do/be as I begin this last quarter of my life?
Part of my preparation will be to begin to live with these questions so that I can walk with them in the hope of walking deeper into the questions in order to find answers. 

I hasten to add that I don't for a minute believe that I will finish the Camino with an answer to these questions. 

That's not what matters. What matters is to be able to make friends with the questions and to learn to love them. 

So, dear friends, that is my prayer request to you: 

Help me to walk with these questions so that I can learn to love them.

Thank you. I so deeply appreciate it. 

I will post more updates as they arrive. 

As they sing in Spain at Christmas:
"Walking, we go walking toward the sun.
Walking, we are walking toward freedom."