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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lazarakia Saturday

If you read this blog, you know my commitment to observing Lent IV with a Simnel Cake.

The last Saturday before The Sunday of The Passion (Palm Sunday) has its own culinary tradition.

On that day, that Saturday before Holy Week, there's something that hangs in the air.

Anticipation? Yes. Expectation? Of course.

But, there's something more. A discernible shift. In mood. In tone.

Just like Palm Sunday Liturgy.

We're about to walk into the history of our faith. We're going to put our bodies where our mouths have been and live more fully and deeply into the story of the last week of the life of Jesus.

This includes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Feast of the Passover, the last supper with his disciples in that Upper Room, his betrayal and trial, his death on the cross, his burial in the tomb and, three days later, his resurrection.

In Orthodox Christian Churches, the last Saturday before the beginning of Holy Week is known as "Lazarus Saturday". It is an important story for several reasons.

The first, of course, is that the healing and resurrection of Lazarus a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Importantly, however, the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead is the last miracle performed by Jesus before his own death and resurrection.

It is also notable that He performed the miracle on the Sabbath.

Indeed, some scholars have posited that this miracle was "the last straw" with the civil and religious authorities. It was at that point, some say, that the decision was made to bring charges against Jesus, to bring to an end his scandalous ministry by bringing his life to an end.

So, the story of Lazarus - the dear friend of Jesus, the brother of Martha and Mary - is an important way to begin Holy Week. It is important because it reminds us that from death comes resurrection and from resurrection comes new life.

It is a long tradition in the Greek Orthodox tradition to observe Lazarus Saturday with Lazarakia - sweet bread filled with a sweet, nutty jam or marmalade or honey which is made in the shape of Lazarus as he emerged from the tomb.

On the Island of Kos, all engaged girls make a Lazaro the size of a small child filled with countless goodies to send to the groom.

I'm told this song is often sung as the Lazarakia are being made:

Λάζαρος απενεκρώθη, Lazarus became undead,
Ανεστήθη και σηκώθη. Was resurrected and arose.
Λάζαρος σαβανωμένος Lazarus was shrouded
Και με το κηρί ζωσμένος And all tied up.
-Λάζαρε πες μας τι είδες "Tell us Lazarus, what did you see?
εις τον Άδη που επήγες; When you went to Hades?"
-Είδα φόβους, είδα τρόμους "I saw fears, I saw terrors
είδα βάσανα και πόνους. I saw troubles and pains.
Δώστε μου λίγο νεράκι Give me a little water
Να ξεπλύνω το φαρμάκι So that I may wash off the poison
Της καρδίας, των χειλέων From my heart, my lips
Και μη με ρωτάτε πλέον. And don't ask me anything else.
(From Magdalini's blog)

The recipe for Lazarakia is basically a raisin bread.  You can use your own favorite sweet bread dough to make Lazarakia, but to be "traditional" it must be "Lenten" (ie there are no eggs, butter or milk in the recipe).

The Lazarakia are usually decorated with cloves for eyes and are shaped with the arms crossed over the chest to resemble the funeral winding sheet wrapped around the dead for burial. The yeast bread is sweetened with sugar and often (but not always) has a filling made of ground nuts and raisins, cinnamon and sugar, honey or marmalade.

The following is the traditional Greek recipe which has been adapted to American kitchens.

The "lesson" of the Lazarakia is that, because of Jesus, even in the midst of the sorrow of death, there is the sweet joy of Life Eternal.

Here's a video on how to braid the Lazarakia without the filling, in case you're a more visual learner.

Lazarakia
  • 8 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
  • 3/4 cup olive oil (or 1 tablespoon tahini diluted with 3/4 cup lukewarm water)
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 2 packets active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 2 cups lukewarm water, or more as needed
  • A pinch of salt
  • Whole cloves
  • Greek honey
  • Sesame seeds
For the filling
  • 2 cups raisins
  • 3/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup ground almonds
  • 1/2 cup ground walnuts
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cognac
In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour with the olive oil or the tahini diluted with water. Add the sugar, the yeast, the water, and a pinch of salt, and knead using the paddle attachment until the dough forms.

Place the dough in a large bowl greased with a little olive oil, turn to coat the dough and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and allow it to rise for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours.

To prepare the filling, process the raisins and sesame seeds in a food processor, until chopped as finely as preferred. Stir in the ground almonds, walnuts, cinnamon, and cognac and set aside.

Once the dough has risen, cut it into pieces about 6 inches long and 2-3 inches wide, and flatten it out and place 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center and fold over the dough to cover the filling.

Shape the dough into a little Lazarus by pinching in at the neck to form his head and using two small strips of dough to make his crossed arms as he appears in the icons.

Here is a video that will show you how to make the "shroud". Note: in the video, the Lazarakia is made without filling. If you use filling, you would simply make "arms" to wrap around the shroud.

Use the whole cloves for his eyes and mouth.

Use another small piece of dough to form a strip to wrap around him like swaddling bands. Place on a baking pan covered with wax paper.

Continue with the rest of the dough, making sure to place them at least two inches apart as they need space to rise.

Cover the Lazarakia on the pan with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour and a half to two hours.

Check if the dough has risen enough by pressing the dough, it should rise back immediately.

Brush with a little honey diluted with water, and if desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour or until lightly golden brown.

Enjoy with a lovely hot cup of tea after you've prepared the church or your home - and your own soul - for Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

SO THAT


March 11, 2018
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE

John 3:16. There are children’s songs about it. It’s rare to watch a football game on TV and not see someone holding up a sign in the stands that says, “John 3:16.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The great theologian of the Reformation, Martin Luther, said that one sentence was the entire gospel in miniature. It has freed millions of generations of people to know essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its essential doctrines of Incarnation, Salvation, Resurrection and Eternal Life.

That one sentence has also injured millions of generations of people because of the qualifying statement . . . . .

“ . . . .SO THAT he who believes in him . . . .”

Which raises the question: Is heaven only for Christians?

I don’t know about you but I know my answer to that question.

Personally, I wish John 3:16 would never be spoken without John 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Of course, the Gospel writer contradicts himself in the very next sentence but I hang onto the belief that the whole purpose of God sending Jesus into the world was not to condemn the world but to save the world. The rest is just details and, I think, over selling the point.

I don’t find it helpful to scare people into believing something – especially about God and Jesus or, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, I would challenge that practice by saying that people acting out of fear is not really belief.   

It is, well, fear.

Some things simply have to be experienced to be fully believed. I can be warned that I will be burned if I touch a hot stove but I would argue that there is something in each of us that compels us to touch the stove for ourselves in order to believe it.

Some call that “original sin”. 

I call it “human curiosity”.

Ever watch a child touch something hot after being warned? Most don’t flat out touch the hot object. They tentatively put the tip of the finger on to the surface and, once they feel the heat, pull away just as quickly as they can. And now, they believe.

Often, faith development works the same way – for children and adults. We have to test it. Put our finger on it. Poke our nose into the closed tent. Smell the sulfur. See the red hot flame. Walk beyond the sign that says, “Danger: Do Not Enter”.

We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

When I was Chaplain at the University of Lowell in Lowell, MA, there was a Greek Orthodox priest with whom I worked. After the baptism of a baby, he would carry the child in his arms around the church, introducing the child to her or his new “family”. 

He would stand in front of an icon or a stained glass window and say, “Ah, and here is your Uncle Paul. He was a proud, stubborn one. This is when God knocked him off his high horse. You’ll hear that story later.”

“Oh, and this is your Uncle Peter and there are your Uncles James and John - the Sons of Thunder. They are in the boat with Jesus – see him there? – and Jesus is calming the storm. I’ll be telling you that story when you get a bit older.”

“And there is Mother Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of us all. See? She is holding baby Jesus in her arms just as Jesus will hold each one of us in his arms when we get to heaven. See how lucky we are to have all these people in our new family?”

The BEST part, however, was that every single adult - male and female - followed him around the church, hanging on every single word. We all love stories. We all love to see interpretations of stories. For some Christians, stained glass windows are the only Bible stories they ever read.
 
We often need the tangible in order to believe the unimaginable.

I am forever grateful to my grandmother for providing tangible examples of Gospel stories in much the same way. I loved the way she used everything in life to tell the stories of God.

One of my favorite stories happens to be about this day we are observing in church – the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s known as Refreshment Sunday. It was the one Sunday in Lent when those who were observing a strict Lenten fast could enjoy something sweet and special.

My grandmother always made a traditional Simnel Cake on this day. I have made one for you, today. It’s waiting for you in the Parish Hall for Coffee Hour.

But, my grandmother didn’t just make a Simnel Cake. She used it as an opportunity to do a little teaching about Jesus.  She called them Bolos do riso “Laughter Cakes”.

We made the cakes on the Saturday before Lent IV. My grandmother and I would put the raisins to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night. I was the oldest granddaughter, and we lived right upstairs, so I was allowed and nobody else was. Ha!



We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.

We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).

And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. I was also allowed to make the marzipan balls that went on the top of the cake. Eleven for the disciples. "None for Judas," my Grandmother would say, wagging her finger. And, a big one for Jesus in the middle (You can see that I used blue and pink Peeps Bunnies on mine.)

And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe saved only for sorcerers and magicians.

And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do riso - "Laughter Cakes".

Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes". 

After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.

And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again.

She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake.

And yes, she would put the brandy my grandfather made in the cake AND the frosting. Hmm . . . maybe that's also why she called them "Bolos do riso".  Nah, laughter was the special ingredient that "made" that cake - special for Refreshment Sunday.

I believe in the Incarnation. I believe that God so loved the world that God sent part of God’s self into the world to become human like us.

I believe that Richard Rohr is right: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.

I also believe in the gift of Free Will, which allows us to touch a hot stove to learn about hot stoves for ourselves, and that getting burned, is sometimes the only path to belief.

I believe in the gift of Grace sometimes can only be found at the bottom of the place where Free Will sometimes takes us. I believe Grace gathers and pools there, allowing us to float and find our way back up to the surface.

I believe, that once you experience being forgiven when you’ve done something wrong, or being loved when you feel you are unworthy, you then become the best proclamation of the Gospel truth of God’s unconditional love for us all.

Not fear. Love. Grace. Joy. These are the best vehicles of evangelism.

And, I believe, laughter – especially in the face of evil – is the best statement of faith. Indeed, laughter, for me, IS “the Gospel in miniature”. . .  .

SO THAT . .  whatever evil you are confronting will know and believe that you are not afraid. Evil will understand and believe that you believe that God is greater than any Evil.

Even the kind of evil, disguised as fear, that keeps us, one from another, in the name of Jesus.

Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Devil and Mr. Jones


A Sermon for Lent II – February 25, 2016 
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

In this morning’s gospel from Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples how the story ends. He’s flipped through the pages of the book of his life to the last page and tells him that he is going to be turned over to the authorities, that he will suffer and be killed.

But, not to worry. He’ll suffer and die but there is a happy ending. He will rise again. Because the ending is not always the ending. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning.

Peter is understandably upset. He doesn’t understand. He’s confused. He has left everything behind to follow this man, and for what? For him to suffer and die? 

And, resurrection? What does that even mean, really? In those days, people who claimed to be the messiah and who promoted resurrection were a dime a dozen. All Peter could focus on was the part about suffering and death.

Peter suddenly comes to a startling realization: if that’s going to happen to Jesus, Peter’s own life suddenly doesn’t look so great, either. So, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him to stop saying stuff about death and destruction and all that foolishness about resurrection.

And, what does Jesus do? Jesus yells at him,
“Get behind me, Satan!”
That’s pretty harsh, right? I mean, calling one of his best friends and most ardent supporters and faithful followers, “Satan”?

Well, actually, the Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean “devil” at all. It’s not even a proper name, really. It simply means “the accuser” or “the adversary.”

Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is the Devil or Evil. He’s not saying Peter is “Satan”. He’s saying Peter is ha-satan. Peter is being an adversary, an accuser.

So Jesus tells him, “Get behind me.” Put your protests aside. Don’t oppose me; I have to do this. This is what I’m called to do. Jesus is telling Peter to follow him and be a disciple, get with the program or get out of the way.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

This may come as something of a surprise to you but, long ago in another galaxy far, far away, I was once a registered nurse. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that God called me first to be a nurse to prepare me for what it means to be a priest. And, a mother. And, in fact, a better Christian.

It’s a long story which I’ll share at another time but I want to tell you about the time I was a public health nurse in Maine. See also: long ago in another galaxy far, far away.

At the time, I was living and working in Portland, Maine. I was young and pretty full of myself. I thought I was going to save the world – or, at least, a little corner of the earth and maybe a few people along the way.

My title said it all: I was a High Risk Maternal and Infant Specialist. I worked with very young very new moms – teenagers – some as young as 12 or 13. I visited them weekly, teaching them the basics of childcare as well as providing them information about their own bodies so they wouldn’t get pregnant again – well, at least, not for a while.

I can’t remember the specifics but I think either my census was low or the overall census was high – whatever the issue, I was asked to help out on the medical-surgical team. I was not pleased. Most of the patients were old and dying and, remember, I was young and going to save the world. That’s why I put all my energy and passion into caring for young mothers and their babies.

I was young and arrogant and, despite all my education, quite stupid. I was about to learn a lesson in just how young and arrogant and stupid I really was.

I was asked to see an elderly man, one Mr. LeRoy T. Jones who lived over on A street – affectionately known as “The Alphabet City” – downtown, behind the old Greyhound Bus Station, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.

His street address told me that he was an African American man who lived in the “shabby” section of town. I knew the neighborhood well as a few of my patients lived over in Alphabet City.

It was a hot morning in August when I pulled up A street in my car and I was rendered almost breathless at the corner lot of the home of Mr. Jones. While his home was small and modest, the flowers that surrounded it were an absolute riot of the luxury of color and beauty. It was really an amazing sight to behold amidst the rest of the shabby, almost shanty houses in the neighborhood.

I followed the path around the house and saw that the whole of the backyard was a vegetable garden, filled with corn and carrots, pole beans and tomatoes, potatoes and yams, beets and zucchini.

I stopped to put down my bag and wipe my brow and take in this amazing site when I heard Mr. Jones yell, “Ho! Is that the nurse? I’m over here, near the back steps, by the faucet.”

I looked, and sure enough, there he was. I can still see him. A wee little slip of a man, he sat upright on a wooden box, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie and a proper straw fedora on his head. A large pair of sunglasses completed his dapper summer look.

He greeted me warmly as he dragged another wooden box from behind him and motioned to it for me to sit down, all the while talking about what a beautiful morning it was and how lovely I looked.

This was all quite remarkable to me because, you see, Mr. Jones was blind. He was a brittle diabetic who had lost his sight years ago to the disease – no doubt because he had not gotten proper care, despite the excellent health insurance and pension he received as a former railroad worker. He also had crippling arthritis and had a difficult time moving around and, on bad days, walking.

After we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned the beauty of the garden and how fortunate he was to live in the midst of it – flowers all around and vegetables in the back. He threw back his head and laughed in absolute delight that I had noticed. 

“Whose garden is this? Is this your garden, sir?” I asked.

Again, Mr. Jones threw back his head and laughed. “Whose garden is this?" he roared.

"Why, this is MY garden, of course,” he said.

“Your garden?” I asked. “My, my my!” I exclaimed in wonder. “But, excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Who tends your garden?”

Well, now Mr. Jones could hardly contain himself. He practically fell off his wooden crate, his little body was shaking so hard with laughter.

“Who tends my garden? Who tends my garden? Why child,” he said, “I do. I tend my garden.”

I was momentarily relieved that he was blind and couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face but then suddenly realized that you don’t have to have eyes to see. Still, I pressed on.

“But, Mr. Jones,” I said, “How can you tend your garden? You are blind, sir,” I said almost in a whisper. “How can you tell a weed from a sprout? And your body and hands are all crippled up! How do you manage? Shouldn’t you be taking it easy? I mean, a man of your age and condition?”

(See also: young, arrogant and quite stupid.)

I suppose Mr. Jones could have been angry and yelled at me. Instead, he laughed again and took pity on me, poor young, arrogant stupid soul that I was.

“Well now,” he said with a chuckle “This is when Jesus said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ By which he didn’t mean, devil,” Mr. Jones explained, a far better biblical scholar then than I would ever be. “When Jesus said ‘Satan’ he meant, ‘accuser’.”

Mr. Jones reached behind his wooden crate and pulled out a few old burlap bags. “See these?” he said as he held them up. “Well, I just throw one of these down on the ground there. Then, I just throw myself on top of it. It helps me to glide better through the rows. I suppose I look funny but I can’t see myself so it don’t matter much to me,” he chuckled.

 “I feel around the rows for weeds, and I probably pull a sprout instead of a weed every now and then, but you know,” he chuckled again, “mostly I do alright.”

“See, child,” he said, leaning himself closer to me as if he were going to tell me one of the great secrets of the universe, “this is the work that the Lord has given me to do, now. I used to work on the railroad so products and fresh produce could be delivered to the people of the city."

"Now, I grow beautiful things for my neighbors and I give away most of my vegetables so the children here can grow up strong. Maybe I look like a fool to the folks who don’t know but that don’t matter. It may just look like flowers and vegetables to you, but it’s much more than that.”

“This world can be an ugly place,” he explained, “filled with ugly people who do mean, ugly things. But, the world can also be a beautiful place, filled with flowers and trees and butterflies and bees that make food for the eyes and the soul as well as the body.”

“I want the people here to know that once there was a man who lived among them who chose beauty over ugly, food over hunger, hope over despair. That means I have to die a little bit to myself every day. Got to let my pride die in order to do this work that the Lord has given me to do. Got to suffer a little bit of pain in order for beauty to grow and flourish.”

He lowered his glasses and his cloudy eyes looked straight into mine and asked. “See?”

“Yes, sir, I do, sir.” I answered, “I believe I do. I stand accused.”

“And you have been found guilty,” Mr. Jones said, putting his glasses back over his eyes before he broke into a serious, wide grin, “of having a kind heart,” he laughed.

“Guilty as charged,” he roared, laughing so hard he almost fell off his wooded crate.

And, I laughed right along with him.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear his laughter, and mine, that hot sunny day in August in Alphabet City, over on the other side of the tracks, behind the Greyhound Station in Portland, Maine.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end.

Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning. 

Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something, something inside us – or someone, the person we thought we were – has to die.

Something inside me died that day. I think it was a bit of my youthful arrogance. I came to understand that it had to die in order for something new to be born in me. A new understanding of my life. A new understanding of my vocation. A new understanding of what God was calling me to do.

And, the passion I had was resurrected and transformed into greater compassion.

Before there can be resurrection, something has to die.

Sometimes what looks like the end is just the beginning.

That’s how new life begins. 

That’s how ugly becomes beauty. 

That’s how despair becomes hope.

And, that’s how the accused become disciples.

Amen.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Strong in the broken places


As the reality of the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, FL begins to leave an permanent scar on the soul of our nation, one way for some folks to deal with this overwhelming, unspeakable horror is to assign it to the time-tested but deeply flawed theology of "The Will of God". 

It begins with a statement which defines the very dynamic of faith: "We don't understand, we can't understand, the mind of God."

"All will be revealed," some assert, "and all in God's good time."

So far, not so bad. 

However, the more omnipotence we ascribe to God, two different, opposite things happen at the same time. We become increasingly infantilized while simultaneously becoming omniscient. 

That is to say, we begin to make some incredible assumptions about "The Will of God" for us the "children of God" who, apparently can only learn things through the punishment of tragedy and loss and death. 

And, funny thing: We seem to need to learn the very things that are important to the will of the very people who claim it is also The Will Of God. 

Of course, these are the same people who assert we can't possibly understand the mind of God.

The other day, I heard a woman at the market actually assert that the reason there have been shootings in schools "is because children are no longer allowed to pray in school," she said, adding, "God is angry and is trying to teach us a lesson."

Yes, she was serious. Very serious. 

I suppose, by extension of this .... logic ... this is why there have been shootings in churches.

But, you see, she isn't angry. God is. And she knows this because she sees what's been happening in 'Murica.  No, we can't know the mind of God but we have two eyes in our head, she said. All we have to do is open our eyes and look around, she said. 

I mean, what's wrong with you, she asked?  Wake up, she said.

Le sigh.

As I've thought about this, I thought it might be a good time to bring out some wise words about "God's Will". 

What follows are some excerpts from a sermon by Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City in 1983, ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident in Boston. 

     +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son--Alexander--who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky"--my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. 

When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." 

Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that  
God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness.
Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths--I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here--deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist--….

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers--the basics of beauty and life--people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." 

In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends--not many, and none of you, thank God--were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face.  

But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.
 
And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us--minimum protection, maximum support

I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night

If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall - so let us all - seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is. 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

So, while some adults are blithering and blathering nonsense around us, know that they are, in their own way, anxious and grieving. 

Try not to engage them in theological conversation. Instead, try being kind as a response, even if that means you simply share a gentle smile, wish the person God's peace, and move on with the rest of your day. As St. Francis allegedly taught his brothers, you may be the only Gospel anyone ever reads.

I know. It's hard. It's really hard. I'm obvsiously still working out the encounter I had with that person in the market. I walked away but she's clearly been following me around for days.

I urge you to take consolation in the words of this grieving father and caring, sensitive pastor.

You might also want to pay attention to the young survivors of the Florida massacre, and look closely at how they have transformed their grief and "found (at least a measure of) peace in the dazzling grace that always is". 

How else would they be standing there, talking with the POTUS who got into office in part because of a $30 million contribution to his campaign from the NRA and who still thinks arming and training teachers - more guns - is the answer to the gun problem. 

Hemmingway wrote: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." 

May it be so for us as it has for the young people of Parkland and other places around this country that are rising up in dazzling glory to speak truth to power. 

May the scar that is forming in the broken places of the soul of our nation become strong enough to overcome the evils of power and greed. 

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.