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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

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Last Temptation


I hate Lent.

Or, more accurately, I hate what it’s become. 

Let me explain.

My first call in ministry was as Chaplain at ULowell. It was 1986. The Priest at the Newman Center decided, my first year there, that as a way of modeling Christian behavior, we should do “stuff” together. Celebrations. With food. 

I really think he wanted to help me succeed but that's another story for another time. 

Thanksgiving Dinner was our first effort. It was so great, we decided to do more.

Christmas. New Years. Valentine’s Day. All of these celebrations were great.

Then, he, being Irish, decided we just HAD to do St. Patrick’s Day, complete with corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots, and soda bread. The students were doing the cooking. I even planned to make some green cookies. We were very excited.

And then, I looked at the calendar. St. Patrick’s Day was on a Friday that year. And, it was at the beginning of Lent.

“Hey,” I said jokingly to my priest colleague, “If we do this St. Paddy’s Day thing, we’ll have to ask for two dispensations. One for celebrating during Lent and another for eating meat on Friday during Lent.”

He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll square it with the bishop. We’ll get a double dispensation.”

Did I mention that I was joking?

He wasn’t.

So, later on that day, we talked. We included the students we both had on the leadership counsel from both groups.

They were of two minds. One group – a mix of Catholic and Protestant students – was of the mind that what we were building in terms of relationships across ecumenical lines that would have been inconceivable by their parents was more important than rules imposed upon us by the institutional church.

If we had to ask for dispensations from the bishop, they argued, we ought not have the dinner. They felt the insult of asking for dispensation was worse than the injury of not having a dinner together.

But another group felt that was flawed logic. They challenged us to find the scriptural basis for Lent. And, would we be so kind as to show us when it was, exactly, that Jesus ever directed us to give up meat on Fridays in Lent? 

What was more important, they asked, the relationships we were building together as Christians through these celebrations we could share or the institutional church’s directives about a liturgical season imposed upon us by the church? They felt we should have the dinner and not ask for a dispensation from the bishop.

This made my priest colleague break out in a sweat.

Suddenly, the group started to lean toward not having a traditional meal for St. Paddy’s Day. Part of the group didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for observant Roman Catholics. Another part didn’t want to have to go to the bishop for a dispensation they considered unnecessary and an embarrassing remnant of patriarchy.

For a while the group entertained the possibility that we simply declare St. Patrick’s Day a “moveable feast” and have it after Lent, during the Easter season.

One member of the group reminded us of the last stanza of the poem in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Is that what we were doing? The right thing for the wrong reason? Or were we doing the wrong thing for the right reason?

The best part of the conversation, however, came when we engaged more deeply the ‘penitential’ nature of Lent. It’s a conversation that forever changed the way I look at Lent, the way I observe Lent.

It’s the reason I hate Lent. Or, at least, “Lenten disciplines” that trivialize and diminish the power Lent can have in our spiritual lives.

As I remember we talked about ‘repentance’ which is how the King James Version translates the Greek “metanoia”. But, something gets lost in that translation – like the nuances, the depth of the layers of meaning.

Metanoia, literally means, “change of mind”; more fully, it translates to mean “spiritual transformation”.

Let that sink in for a minute.

That doesn’t mean “sacrifice.” Or even, simply “changing your mind” about something. Well, not necessarily. It means “spiritual transformation.”

So, it was asked, what does giving up ice cream, or wine, or meat on Fridays have to do with “spiritual transformation”?

Over the years, I have heard more metaphorical gymnastics stretched and twisted over “Lenten sacrifices” – things we do ‘without’ as well as things we ‘take on’ – than I care to remember, all in an attempt to justify them as appropriate for Lent.

One person argued that the money saved by not have a latte at the Bistro during Lent would allow him to donate that money to a favorite charity. See? He was being a “better steward” of money! And, clearly stewardship is a spiritual issue. Right?

Another argued that giving up soda during Lent was helping her “cleanse the temple” of her body. See? That’s spiritual, right? That she might loose a few pounds in the process was some sort of ‘proof’ that God approved of her Lenten sacrifice. 

As if, poor helpless creatures that we are, God is the direct cause of weight loss. So, I suppose, it follows that if we gain weight, it’s not our fault, directly. It’s just….. “God’s will”.  Apparently, God seems to will lots of God’s creatures to be ‘chubby’.

Seriously? Is this the stuff of metanoia? Spiritual transformation?

One student in the group said that she felt as if she were watching a modern-day version of the scriptural story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. (John 4:1-42)

The woman came to the well to get water to quench her thirst, but Jesus offered her ‘living water’. Something deeper. Something more satisfying that would quench the thirst of the soul. Something for which you’d have to dive deep and resurface.

The group began to dive into deeper questions: Is there more to Lent than just penitence? Is there more than just sacrifice? To what end? For what purpose?

A several weeks-long study group ensued to face into questions about penitence and sacrifice and the need for it, especially during Lent.

I’ll save that discussion for another time but it has to do with a discussion about Original Sin and Atonement, Redemption and Salvation.

As Blessed Joe Biden would say, “Here’s the deal”: Lent is not a self-help program. I really hate that for so many that’s exactly what Lent has become.

I find it especially cringe-worthy when I see clergy – and there are many, all over Social Media these days – proclaiming that they can’t go here or there or do this or that or, God knows, eat or drink favorite foods or beverages because, well, it’s Lent, you know.

And, see? See how they are sacrificing?  See how they – even they – are working at being better people and better Christians. 

I fear they have succumbed to what T.S. Eliot described as “last temptation.” It is the “greatest treason” to the spirit of Jesus who said, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13).

What if . . . . . 

What if we, like Jesus, allowed the Spirit to lead us into a wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). 

Not The Wilderness. 

A wilderness.

A place we haven’t yet explored? A place as yet unknown to us? A place where we may confront things – demons, perhaps – we have not yet encountered?

A place where we can explore our own vulnerability? A space where we might discover the limits of our spiritual endurance?

What if we set no goals for a pre-determined outcome? No metrics like weight loss or amount of money saved and donated to “charity”?

Indeed, how does this ‘sacrifice’ which leads us to ‘charity’ actually underscore our privileged status and emphasize – but not bridge –the chasm between rich and poor?

What if we came to our eight-week Lenten journey with a real sense of ‘poverty’, with a full sense of our powerlessness and vulnerability and no measurable goals? 

What if we risked getting to the end of our journey not even certain what we had accomplished? (How thoroughly un-American, right?)

What if we simply trusted the Spirit to lead us into temptation? 

Might that look more like a ‘Holy Lent’ to which we were invited on Ash Wednesday?

How would we do that? Well, certainly not by giving up chocolate or wine for 8-weeks.

It would take a great deal of intentionality, with at least the possibility of some time away – a retreat for a time certain – in a place conducive to this deep spiritual work.

That may also be accomplished by committing to a set amount of time every day for meditation.

And/or, reading and reflecting and journaling.

And/or a weekly meeting with an anamchara – a spiritual friend/director – to talk about what you are finding deep in your soul.

And/or establishing a small anamchara group where you can talk about the landscape of your journey and what you are seeing and discovering along the way.

Again – and, I can’t stress this enough – this is not about Lent as a Self-Help Program.

That is what I hate about what Lent has become.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. 

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you through an undiscovered, unexplored part of your soul.

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you to the spiritual lessons you need to learn and leading you back again.

It’s about allowing Angels to tend to you before you begin the next part of your spiritual journey.

It’s about making a commitment to spiritual discipline which is transformative.

It’s about resisting the last temptation and doing the right thing for the right reason.

It’s still not too late to make this Lent truly holy for you.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Blessing the Dust


All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial -

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred death.

So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for shame. Let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made, and the stars that blaze in our bones, and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

– by Jan Richardson

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfigured

NB: It was my privilege to preach this morning at St. Martin in the Field in Selbyville, DE. My month with them has flown by. I'm continuing to challenge myself to preach without a manuscript. It's so much more work than using a manuscript, but I'm relaxing enough to begin to love absorbing the energy in the room and engaging with people's facial expressions. It's a bit like walking a tight rope without a net. Except, of course, the net of a prepared heart. This is what I remember preaching - which, interestingly enough, was not all of what was in my notes: 

St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Let me put this morning's Gospel story of the Transfiguration into some context for you.

Believe it or not, it's been ten weeks since Christmas. Yes, ten weeks. Imagine.

Ten weeks since the shepherds saw the bright star in the dark sky and followed it to find the infant Jesus.  We celebrated Christmas for twelve days before we began to celebrate the eight week season of Epiphany, when three wise men from the East followed that same bright star seeking to find the Incarnation of God.

And this morning we read about the moment that Jesus, who was the reason that star was shining so brightly in the dark night sky in Bethlehem, is so filled with the glory of God that his whole face is shining as bright as the sun and he was "transfigured". 

It is important then, to pause here, as this eight week journey into Epiphany, the season of Light, comes to an end and before we begin another eight week journey into the season of somber darkness known as Lent.

Before we travel forty days and forty nights into the wilderness with Jesus, I want to take us back, way back to the beginning of the story.

I want to take us all the way back to Genesis. Do you remember how the story begins?
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Light always follows the darkness.

Darkness always follows Light.

Just as the day follows the night and the night follows the day

The sun follows the moon and the moon follows the sun.

That's the pattern set right from the beginning of the story.  It's the pattern of the story of our lives as daughters and sons of God.

It's part of the reason we are People of Hope. The promise of Hope is in the very DNA of creation. 

There's yet another pattern. After God said "Let there be light", God said that it was "good". Indeed, after each one of God's creation is called into being, God proclaims it "good"

I don't know this for a fact, but I think there's something God said just before and directly after pronouncing the creation "good".

If we had the original manuscript, I'm betting that if you look closely, you might just see in parenthesis that God says this:

("Be not afraid") "This is Good!" ("Just wait till you see what's next")

That, too, is a pattern. Whenever an amazing new thing is about to happen, God always sends a messenger. In Sanskrit, the word for messenger is "diva" or "point of light". And, these messengers, these divas, these points of light, always say the same thing, "Be not afraid."

And then it gets dark. And then it gets light. And then, it's amazing - something we couldn't have asked for or imagined.

Some of you know that I am a Hospice Chaplain. Sometimes, as it becomes clear that the end of life is rapidly approaching, one of my patients will be brave enough to say to me, "Chaplain, You know that I believe in God. You know that I believe in eternal life, But, I'm afraid."

And, if I'm feeling particularly brave, I tell them the truth that I know:

Death comes on like a cloud of darkness, but after the darkness comes the light. And, in that light we will be transfigured.

And, like Peter, we may even see those who have gone on before.

So be not afraid. This is good. Just wait till you see what's next.

This Wednesday, we will enter the Dark Wilderness of the Season of Lent. For forty days and forty nights we will be asked to enter more fully into the life of Jesus, even as Jesus enters more fully into the experience of being more fully human.

For eight weeks, we will be asked to look at the frailty of our humanness, the brokenness of our relationships, and the limits of our mortality.

It can be a pretty dark and scary time, touching into ancient wounds, giving rise to old anxieties.

But, at the end of that journey we will experience the inexplicably glorious light of the Resurrection.

So, as we enter Lent, don't be afraid. This is good! Just wait till you see what's next.

Think of it as practice for when we'll be transfigured into the glorious Light Eternal of God.

Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Being a Prophet in a Not-For-Prophet World: A Letter of Encouragement

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On Being a Prophet in a Not-For-Prophet World:
A Letter of Encouragement to Those Who Work for Justice in the Age of Trump.
(the Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On November 9, 2016, I woke up with a weariness in my bones that has not gone away.

It was, of course, the day after The Election.  

It was the day that was never supposed to happen. We had this, didn’t we? The opposition was so outrageous, so unimaginable, so deplorable, so unprecedented and un-presidential that it couldn’t possibly happen, right?  

Not if there was a God.

We were going to continue the march of progress we had made in the last eight years, weren’t we? Onward to making appointments to SCOTUS and overturning the Hyde Amendment and restoring the Voting Rights Act and making real our commitment that Black Lives Matter, and fixing the Affordable Care Act, and, oh yes, the first woman President of the United States of America.

The truth? It hasn’t yet been a month and I’m already exhausted. I’m already tired of being tired. And yet, I have to admit that I find myself strangely energized.  I’m living out the uncommon truth that “the flesh is weak but the spirit is strong.”

I didn’t know it before but I’m learning it every day: I’m ready for this.

I know many of you who are – and have been – committed to the work of justice feel much the same way I do. It’s a strange mix of exhaustion and excitement. Those of us who are also religious leaders have been carefully considering how it is we can maintain the prophetic tradition of leadership in these days where the smell and stench of bigotry and oppression hang in the air like the hazy fog that arises from a dark and dank, cold and musty swamp.

I’ve been sitting with – dwelling in – the words of Walter Brueggemann. In his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” he writes,
“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
I ask myself how it is that I can do that? How can I be prophetic in a world that is not-for-prophet – even on a good day – but is now flat out antagonistic to those who “evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us”?

In other words, how can I provide the groundwork for an “alternative reality” to the outright lies and falsehoods and deceptions which masquerade as “alternative facts”? 

I have some initial, general thoughts which I hope will begin a conversation among religious leaders. I hope we will “breathe together” – to con-spire – and create out of this chaos a holy conspiracy of a new creation of religious prophetic thought and action. 

Here, briefly, are four barebones of prophetic religious leadership that have begun to take shape in my mind.

FIRST, YOU CRY:  The prophets were empathic. They wept for their people. They wept when their people were too numb from oppression to weep for themselves. They wept for the empire and kings that were anesthetized by greed and sloth and unable to hear the cries of the people. Prophets like Jeremiah laid the blame for the oppression of the people on the feet of the priests, saying, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer 6:14)

One of my seminary professors taught that we must do three things in order to provide prophetic leadership: Name the pain. Touch where it hurts. Offer hope. We must feel the pain of the people ourselves – the refugee, the immigrant, women, the disabled, LGBT people, the poor, those who are persecuted for their religious beliefs and creeds – the anawim or outcast who are beloved of God.

Empathy is the fertile ground from which prophetic leadership can grow.

REPENT!: The prophets were always all about repentance, or metanoia. This is not about some empty public show of breast-beating; neither is it about the age-old religious tact of inducing guilt. Rather, it is about facing reality and taking some responsibility in its creation so that one can turn it around. To repent, to experience metanoia, is to experience a spiritual conversion which results in changing one’s life.

As prophetic religious leaders, we need to analyze the election results and learn the lessons we need in order to move on and move forward. Religious leaders have a habit of getting stuck in repentance, falling into “paralysis by analysis”. The good news is that there is a movement in this country that will not have patience with immobility.
Religious leaders will need to be more nimble, more facile, more empathic and ready to provide spiritual roots so that this new movement can fly.

Religious leaders will need to experience repentance and spiritual conversion before we can create and lead change.

IMAGINATION. Prophetic imagination inspires people to see beyond the daunting, depressing images of their reality, beyond that which is merely probable and into that which was once thought impossible and now is seen as possible. This requires the risk of facing the truth, of engaging the experience of the pain of reality and rejecting the numbness offered by the empire. It also requires the additional risk of collaboration among all the various target groups, which breaks the bonds of ‘brokering’ by the oppressor. Brokering pits different groups against each other to fight for crumbs while the empire holds onto the whole pie.
Now, more than ever, prophetic religious leaders will need to help people recognize our differences while lifting up and celebrating the things we have in common. Prophets know that we are, in fact, stronger together, especially in terms of overcoming the empire which prefers that people bicker and fight with, and are anxious and fearful of each other. Prophetic religious leaders encourage different communities to engage with each other by engaging with religious leaders and communities that are different from them.

Religious imagination frees the mind and spirit to possibility, defying oppression.

HOPE! Contrary to some caricatures, prophets are, in fact, hopeful. They understand that each one of us, in our earthly bodies, contain a divine spark. They know that we are the embodiment of a God of promise, a God who calls people into covenant. That runs contrary to the narrative of the empire which promotes anxiety and fear, and fosters doom and gloomy images like “American carnage”.

Prophetic religious leaders offer hope which flies in the face of the dominant narrative, refusing to accept the reality which may have become the majority opinion. That presents an enormous political and existential risk to prophetic religious leaders because it is subversive, calling into question all the assertions made by the empire and daring to dream of and work for a new reality. The empire offers the ‘bread of anxiety,’ encouraging people to always be very afraid. Prophetic religious leaders offer hope which is the ‘bread for the journey’ into the promise of the future.  

Hope, as the poet said, is a thing with feathers. Without it, our dreams cannot take flight.

These are the barebones of prophetic religious leadership which, I think, will begin, in Brueggemann’s words to, “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around
 us.”

I’ve been thinking about that weariness in my bones. The prophet Ezekiel was brought by God into the Valley of Dry Bones and God breathed upon those bones and brought them to new life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). I believe that if we, as religious leaders from all faith backgrounds, creeds, beliefs and views enter into a holy conspiracy, these barebones can breathe new life into the ancient calling of prophetic religious leadership.

We need to weep together, repent and experience a conversion of our spiritual lives. We need to work together, modeling the beloved community of God. We need to take the risk and dare to hope even in – especially in – the face of anxiety and oppression. 

I believe we can, indeed, be prophets in a not-for-prophet world, leading people from the numbness of despair to the vision of the Beloved Community.

First, we cry. Then, we repent. We fire our imaginations. And, we take the risk of hope.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

What does it mean to be 'righteous'?

Note: I had the privilege of preaching this morning at St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church in Selbyville, DE. It's the first of four Sundays I'll be preaching there. I have lots of Hospice patients in that area. I drive around there a lot. And yet, I had never seen the church. It's actually a sweet little chapel. I was told there might be 10-15 people in attendance, ages 65-90. When I've previously driven through Selbyville, there have been a lot of pick up trucks with bumper stickers that boast their support for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. So, I preached what I call a "Via Media" sermon. At least, that's where I was aiming. I did not use a manuscript. I thought, with 10-15 people in attendance, I'd best "preach from a prepared heart." So, they put my name out on the sign in front of the church. There were twenty-seven souls in the pews this morning. I guess they were curious about a woman preacher. That's what the Deacon and I figured. (Did I mention that I LOVE working with deacons?) At any event, here's what I preached, best as I can remember. 

St. Martin in the Field Episcopal Church, Selbyville, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton  

So, as Blessed Joe Biden would say, "Here's the deal."

I don't know you, and you don't know me, but we profess to know and love and follow Jesus, so that makes us neighbors and friends with each other and, in fact, everyone else in the world. 

Here's what I propose: That we 'dwell in the word' together for the next 12 minutes or so. Because  this morning's lessons - and especially this morning's Gospel from Matthew (5:13-20) - present us with a serious challenge.  

I want us, in the words of St. Paul to the ancient church in Corinth, (I Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
to have "the same mind in Christ." 

Jesus says,  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Did you hear THAT? Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will NEVER enter the kingdom of heaven.

That sounds like a pretty serious challenge to me.

So, I'm going ask you "What does it mean to be 'righteous'?

Not 'self-righteous' but 'righteous'?

I'm not going to ask this as a 'test'. I'm not looking for a 'right or a wrong' answer. I'm not here to trip you up or stump you or embarrass you. 

I don't know you and you don't know me, but we're going to be together for the next four weeks, so it's good that we get to know each other as neighbors and friends in Christ. 

I want us to find "the same mind in Christ" so that we may be, as the prophet Isaiah said, "repairers of the breach"; that we "shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail..... the restorer of the streets to live in." In other words, to repair the things that separate us and make the world a better place.

So, before I ask you for you answer to that question, let me put this morning's Gospel in context for you. 

The first thing you need to know is that, when Jesus was saying these very words, Israel was an occupied country. Rome. It was Rome that occupied - and oppressed - ancient Israel.

The truth about Jesus and his disciples is that they were not poor. Well, at least, they shouldn't have been. They were businessmen. Small businessmen. Carpenters. Fishermen. Craftsmen. 

They were poor because they were oppressed by the Romans. They were taxed almost literally to death. There were taxes on everything. On the fish they caught. On the nets they used to catch the fish. On their boats. On the lakes and seas they fished in. 

Does that sound so very different than what we know today? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Some scholars say that the occupation and resulting oppression helped to shape and form four different strains of religion. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots.

Now, I could give a whole class on this but briefly - very briefly - it goes like this:

The Pharisees had a strict, inflexible adherence to the traditions of "the fathers". They were, if you will, what we call "the fundamentalists" of their day. On a positive note, they were not wed to "The Temple" and encouraged people to pray in their homes and to make prayer and ritual part of their everyday lives of faith.

The Sadducees were functionally like the Pharisees but they were more affluent and had a 'cozier' relationship with the State. And so, Rome. The oppressor. They were also all about the Torah and only the Torah - the first five books - and rejected all other books of scripture. 

The Essenes were a small group who focused more on how to live your life of faith rather than a strict adherence to 'the word'. Some scholars believe that it was the Essenes who were the primary first followers of Jesus, who were called "People of The Way." 

The Zealots were those who were most reactionary to The Roman Oppression. They felt the only way to achieve change was through violent revolt. Do you remember which one of the Disciples was a Zealot? Yes, that's right, Judas Iscariot. 

You may also have heard the words "Sanhedrin" and "Scribes". The Sanhedrin was a sort of "Supreme Court" made up of 70 Jewish men, directly under the authority of the High Priest, who determined legal/religious trials. 

The Scribes that Jesus referred to in this morning's gospel functioned basically as religious lawyers who transcribed the Scriptures. They didn't just transcribe but were teachers of Scripture. 

So, Jesus says, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

I don't know for certain, but I think Jesus was being a bit sarcastic when he said this. Or, at least, the writer of Matthew's gospel was being sarcastic. 

Why do I say that? Well, if you have paid attention all these years of coming to church, Jesus wasn't all too keen on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, much less the Scribes. He held them even lower than the tax collectors. At least he sat down and ate with them - even invited Zacchaeus , a chief tax collector, to come down from his tree and eat supper with him and stay in his house. 

Whenever the Pharisees and Sadducees observed Jesus and his disciples eating with tax collectors and other ne'er-do-wells, all they offered was criticism because Jesus did not enforce the strict Levitical purity codes. 

Given what we know, then, or Jesus to say,  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” can only be taken as a bit of a cheeky, sarcastic thing to say. 

So, what do you think Jesus meant by 'righteousness'? What does being a 'righteous' person mean to you?

(A quiet but pretty lively discussion ensued) So, we've' come to this as the 'mind of Christ' among us': Righteousness is being in right relationship with God. Well done.

Here's a bit of a clue about what Jesus was saying. At the beginning of this passage, he talked about not losing your 'saltness' or it would not be good for anything. Jesus also talked about not hiding your light under a bushel. 

The thing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that they hated each other. They were always fighting. Always squabbling. There were a few issues but the major one was the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in a future, full resurrection of the body. The Sadducees didn't. 

They argued so much about their differences that they lost sight of what was important: faith. They created a breach between what they professed to believe and how they lived their lives. 

Jesus called them to repair that breach, to be moral and ethical people, to let their authenticity show and their light shine.  He said that they could do this by keeping the commandments, but to do it even better than that Pharisees and Sadducees.

So, how do we do that? I want to leave you with a practical way to be repairers of the breach and be righteous people, in right relationship with God. 

I want you to reach for your Book of Common Prayer. It's the red book in your pew rack. I'd like you to turn to page 319. When you get there, I want you to look at the bottom of the page and find The Decalogue. 

The Decalogue, of course, are the Ten Commandments. 

Jesus said he "did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it". It's not about being a Pharisee and obeying the law, every jot and tittle. It's not about fighting with your fellow Christian about what the Scripture "really" means and imposing that - YOUR - interpretation on others. . 

It's about following the law by fulfilling the spirit of the law. To help it change YOUR behavior. To make YOU a better person. To set YOU in right relationship with God.

To keep your 'saltiness' - your authenticity.

To let your light shine and not be hidden under the bushel of self-righteousness and legalism. 

I want to end this sermon by having us read this litany of the Decalogue on page 319 of the BCP. 

I want you to linger over each one of these Ten Commandments. I want to suggest that you take one of them each week for the next ten weeks and 'dwell in the word'. See what it means for you in your life.

This response for this particular version is, "Lord, have mercy, and incline our hearts to keep this law." 

Incline our hearts. Not follow every jot and tittle. 

Let the word dwell in your heart and incline your heart to discern a way to deepen and improve your relationship with God. 

That you might be a 'righteous person' - not 'self-righteous - and be a repairer of the breach. 

Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Five Alternative Ways to Celebrate Valentine's Day


I don’t know about you, but I need another holiday.  

Right now.

I mean, it’s been a really rough ride since November 8th but then, at least, there was Christmas. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the speech on Inauguration Day left me stunned and cold.  

Everything we feared is now a reality.

The Women’s March – three million women and our allies marching on the nation’s capitol and in cities around this country and even more around the world – gave me reason to hope.

As I look at the calendar, the only thing we have to buffer the ongoing nightmare that is the opening days and weeks of this new administration and Lent – well, except for St. Paddy’s Day – is St. Valentine’s Day.

The thing about Valentine’s Day is that it’s for “lovers”. Which is fine if you’ve got a lover. Not to diminish the necessity of lovers – I mean, I’d like to think of myself as one – but it seems to me that the times we are in call us to shift the emphasis just a bit. 

It's important to remember the history of St. Valentine. He was ordered beaten and beheaded for performing secret marriages even though the Roman emperor "Claudius the Cruel" had banned all marriages

In this Age of Cruel Trumpism, where hate and bigotry, fear and oppression, and “alternative facts” seem to be around every corner – screaming from every newspaper, every radio, every television program – the one thing everyone needs to celebrate is love.

I'm not talking about 'gushy, chocolate candy kisses' kind of love, lovely as that is. 

I'm talking about the kind of radical love that St. Valentine had, that risks personal safety and security for love. I'm talking about the kind of radical love that changes the familiar and sends us off into the unknown and uncertain. I'm talking about the kind of love that turns things upside down and makes them right again.

Incarnate love. Active love. Loving out loud. 

That's what I'm talking about.

So, I’ve come up with some “alternative ways” to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day which, I hope, will help get us through the darkness of Lent and through to the day when we celebrate The Resurrection.

1. Show some gratitude. Actively thank those who serve. In any spiritual activity, it’s really important to begin with gratitude. It is especially important to make the effort to express gratitude to people who serve who might not otherwise hear a “thank you.” Do you know who takes your trash or recycling? Find out. Get up early in the morning and greet them. Or, leave a thank you note on your trash bin. 

Go to your local police or fire station and thank the men and women who work there. Hate war? Me too. So do many people in the military. That's why they're there. Thank a soldier. 

Try to find the address of your favorite teacher in grade or high school and send them a thank you letter. Have they already passed away? Write a letter to them anyway and say a little prayer of gratitude for what you learned from them. As my grandmother would say, "It’s good for your soul."

Call your mother, if you can. No, really. Call her. She’ll be so happy to hear your voice and so grateful that you called you won’t even have to say anything more than, “Hi, Mom. Just thought I’d call and hear your voice see how you were doing.” Don’t text. Call. Trust me on this. And, if you can’t because she's already passed on or unable to comprehend, write her a letter then put it away in your drawer. Even the worst mother did one thing right. Thank her for that.

My grandmother was right. It really is "good for your soul."

2. Love your neighbor. I know. We church people say that a lot. It’s supposed to be one of the tenants of our faith. Most of us give it little more than lip service. We think it’s a passive thing, that if we don’t actively hurt them or just ignore them, we’re loving them. 

I'm talking about actually showing a little love to a neighbor. 

Don’t know your neighbor? Make it a point to knock on a door and introduce yourself. Bring a small token of love – some cookies, a cupcake, a loaf of bread. See someone in the yard or getting into the car or picking up the mail? Stop by and try to start a conversation that will lay the foundation for a neighborly relationship. 

We’re really going to need each other in the weeks and months ahead. It’s important to know who’s out there. Start right were you are. And then, remember how Rabbi Jesus defined “neighbor” and slowly widen your circle.

3. Consider those who are struggling. Once you’ve warmed up your “love muscles” you can start to stretch them. Who are the people in your community who may need a little help? Is there a single mom or dad? Has there been a layoff at a local factory or a chain store or restaurant closing? 

Is there an elderly person living alone who needs human contact – or a ride to a doctor’s office – or someone to do her grocery shopping? How might you be able to make a small difference in that person, that family’s day? 

Just one random act of kindness can change the world for one moment, one day in a long string of days which seem filled with more moments of cruelty and anxiety than they can tolerate. It also helps you get your mind off your own worries and appreciate your own blessings. 

Remember ancient scripture: “You are blessed to be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

4. Encourage one another. These are dangerous, discouraging times. As this administration is demonstrating daily, we are headed into even darker days. Even on a good day, I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a little encouragement. 

Well, I know I sure could. I suspect we all need an occasional “atta boy” or “atta girl”. Take the time to do that. Lord knows, we’re surrounded by negativity. Make a decision to look for the positive – a tiny spark of goodness, an ember of hope – and find ways to fan it. 

We are going to need to be strong and clear and bold and summon up every day, ordinary as well as extraordinary courage in order to protect our friends and families and neighbors. In order to do that, it helps to be kind with each other and regularly encourage each other.   

Did you catch that?  “Encourage” in order to HAVE “courage”. That’s not just clever. It works. 

5. Love yourself. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with your whole heart and your whole soul and your whole mind, and second unto it is to love your neighbor as yourself. 

So, it starts with love of God, which is best expressed in gratitude. It also begins with loving yourself. That means taking care of yourself. 

Begin with the basics: Decide to eat less processed foods. More fruits. More vegetables. Laugh more. Tell silly jokes. Decide to turn off all screens – TV, laptop, smart phone – an hour before bed. Exercise – start with five minutes a day and then work up to fifteen. Start with easy stuff. Go for a walk. Eat an apple. Get some sleep. 

Be your own best friend so you can be a good friend to others and cultivate and appreciate good friends for yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Pat yourself on the back every once in a while. 

Stop sabotaging yourself from getting the things you want and need. I have a friend who wistfully sighs, “Oh, I’d really like _____, BUT…..” She does that at least once an hour. If you do that, when you hear yourself say, “Oh, I’d really like _____,” stop yourself before the BUT. Start thinking about how it is you can achieve what it is you really want and need. If you can do that for yourself, you’ll be able to do it for others.

So, there it is. Five ways to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Start with love. Be a lover of God’s world – God’s people and creatures and creation. I’m convinced that the only way we’re going to get through these next four years is to concentrate on love. Make love a priority. Let love be your motivating force.

What I’ve learned from my years of activism during the Vietnam years, the years of Nixon corruption, “trickle-down Reagan economics,” and the AIDS crisis is that bold, courageous action on the part of ordinary citizens can stop a war, impeach a president and cause him to resign office; it can change the nation’s economics and transform a terminal disease to one that is still terminal but manageable as a chronic, long-term illness.

The Civil Rights Movement is another example of how ordinary citizens - even those who are sore oppressed - can do what was once thought impossible and turn around an evil system of prejudice and bigotry. At least at the legal level. 

We can do this. It’s going to take ordinary, every day shy people to eat some powdermilk biscuits from Lake Wobegon to find the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. 

The secret ingredient to that recipe is love. 

As Louie Crew Clay would say, "The meek are getting ready."

Love has always been at the center of every successful revolution - and even a few that failed the first time. Love is the seed from which everything grows - people, neighborhoods, communities, change, new life. Even government. 

I think of the Constitution of the United States of America as a legal love letter.

Oh, and by the way, this is what the prophet Micah meant when he said, "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8). But, I think the order is in reverse. First, you walk humbly (some translations say "attentively") with God. That makes it so much easier to love mercy. And then, if you love mercy, you have no choice but to do justice.

On this St. Valentine's day, let's all declare ourselves "lovers". Let's take time to really celebrate - and incarnate - love. 

PS: Is it too soon to have another Women's March?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Good and The Right

I'm writing this on the eve of the inauguration of the 45th President of the highly divided United States of America.

My beloved Episcopal Church has also been swept up in the maelstrom of controversy and division surrounding the inauguration of a man who, himself is a walking maelstrom of controversy and division and is entering the office of the presidency with the lowest approval rating - 37% - of any person taking the Oath of Office.

And, with good reason.

The role of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as The Washington National Cathedral, is being called into serious question by Episcopalians in particular and people of faith in general.

When it was first built, the Cathedral in DC was envisioned as being a "Westminster Abbey in America" - a place where we could "crown" our duly elected President with the blessings of the church, in much the same way that the Anglican Church, UK, blesses and crowns its royalty.

Oh, we've never said exactly that - we never would - but that's precisely what happens during what has become an Interfaith Service at the Cathedral the day after the inauguration.

We like to think of "our" cathedral as "the spiritual home of the nation". A "great church for national purposes". A "place of worship for all".

In God we Trust.

We have basked in this cozy relationship between state and religion for a long time, well articulated in the book, "The Power of their Glory: America's Ruling Class, the Episcopalians." (There is something sadly ironic - and, perhaps, a tad prophetic - that one can now purchase this book on Amazon in hardcover for $.01).

Money, power and glory have been as traditional in The Episcopal Church as apple pie.
The old joke about Episcopalians asks, "Which Episcopalians will go to Hell?"

Answer: "The ones who don't know a salad fork from add dessert fork."
This has been changing, of course. The Episcopal Church now claims less than two percent of the population in membership.

The diversity of American cultures and religions is one that could never have been imagined when the first cornerstone of the cathedral was set.

The dream of the cathedral being "the spiritual home of the nation" could not have imagined, much less incorporated, the great variety of spiritual expressions and religious beliefs that now make up the rich tapestry of America.

There are those who ask: How are we to incorporate that diversity without sacrificing the richness of our own tradition and identity?

And what of the idea of "the separation of church and state" which Jefferson wrote? Why does the church, in general and The Episcopal Church in particular, need a ceremony to 'bless' the newly inaugurated president's first term of office with scripture readings, prayer and music?

Whatever was once acceptable if not uncomfortable has been seriously challenged by a man whose personal and business habits are predatory and ethically challenged, whose beliefs and behavior are antithetical to the Christianity he claims as his and whose politics and proposed policies are such that would make the founders of this government set their powdered wigs on fire and run screaming from the room.

People of good will are asking how can we associate ourselves in any way with this man and his presidency?

Other people of equal good will are asking how can we not? If the church is a 'house of prayer for ALL people', that means - especially means - people we don't especially like.

Remember? We're the people who said "All means ALL". We're the 'inclusive church'. We are the Episcopal branch of The Jesus Movement.

Isn't it a good thing to do?

Isn't it the right thing to do?

Well, boys and girls, in case you hadn't heard this before, there is a difference between that which is good and that which is right.

See: The Right and The Good by Sr. David Ross.

Something can be intentionally good and still go all wrong.

It is also true that something can be right and bad, both at the same time.  Doing the right thing often pisses people off. Really. Pisses. People. Off.

When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain set out his diplomatic foreign policy of appeasement with Germany from 1937-1939, it was intended to avoid conflict and the possibility of war.

Which, arguably, is a good thing.

Unfortunately, appeasement with a man like the then Chancellor of Germany only nourished and emboldened his quest for world domination and "ethnic purity". History records the events that unfolded.
 
In the same way, the religious organizations also followed a policy of appeasement. At that time, Germany was about one-third Roman Catholic and two-thirds Protestant. 

The Chancellor of Germany, one Adolph Hitler, signed a concordat with Pope Pius XI in 1933. He promised full religious freedom for the Church. In exchange, the Pope promised that he wouldn’t interfere in political matters.

Sounds like a good deal, right? 

A year later, in 1934, 28 Protestant groups were merged to form the National Reich Church. A member of the Nazi party was elected Bishop of the Church. Non-Aryan ministers were suspended. Church members called themselves German Christians, with the Swastika on their chest and the Cross in their heart.

Shortly after the concordat was signed, the Nazis started to close Catholic churches and monasteries.

In 1937, the Pope protested in a letter which was to be read in every Catholic Church. Not long after that letter was issued, around 400 priests were arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp.

In 1934, the Confessing Church was formed by Martin Niemöller with 6,000 ministers, leaving 2,000 behind in the National Reich Church. Shortly thereafter, around 800 ministers were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and sent to Dachau, then Sachsenhausen, until 1945. Dietreich Bonhoeffer, the prolific writer and theologian of the Confessing Church Movement, was imprisoned in 1943 and was later executed.

These are important lessons in history about the difference between "the good" and "the right".

No one questioned the goodness of the Prime Minister or the Pope. I suspect their motives to cooperate with the Chancellor of Germany were nothing but good.

But, were they right?

History reveals that they couldn't have been more wrong. But, did they know it at the time?

Is it a good thing that the Dean of the Cathedral has agreed to hold the Interfaith Inauguration Service on Saturday, January 21st? And, that service includes the performance of the Children's Choir?

Is it any surprise, really, that this question has raised tensions and created controversy in The Episcopal Church?

I appreciate the good intentions of the Dean, who has been supported by the bishop of his decision.

I'm sure they intend to "build bridges" with the man who intends to build walls.

I have no doubt that they want to extend hospitality to a man who wants to deport immigrants.

Who could question their commitment to provide an avenue for reconciliation and unity even to a man who sows bitterness and discord?

Jesus said  love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Aren't they doing just that?

Shouldn't we all?

These are honorable and rational reasons for holding the Interfaith Service at the Cathedral.

If you read the teachings of Jesus, there is no doubt that he stood against the principalities and powers of his day and time and culture.

Jesus was absolutely opposed to imperialism and oppression, and had an undeniable preferential option for the 'anawim', the outcast and the poor, calling them "beloved".

Jesus himself and his parents were once refugees, undocumented, illegal aliens. 

And, you know, even Satan was able to quote scripture for his own purposes.

This PEOTUS is a game changer on every single level in every single arena imaginable in our lives. 

It's time - once again - to rethink the Cathedral's role, the role of the church, the role of religion, in the matters of the state. 

It's a tension that's been with us since Jesus whose life and teachings are filled with navigating that tension. 

Jesus, in fact, was crucified because of that tension. 

He said, "You cannot serve God and mammon." And, he chose the good but bad things happened.

The church, the cathedral, the Body of Christ, is standing in that crucified place once again. 

Which is why it hurts.

In terms of the decision of the Cathedral to hold the Interfaith Inaugural Service, I think it was a wrong decisions with good intentions.

I hope for good results but I fear we have not learned the lessons of appeasement.

We're going to make more of these decisions if we don't get really clear about the difference between "the good" and "the right." 

If you haven't already, it's time to join The Jesus Movement.  For lots of reasons, it's much harder to be part of that movement than being part of an institutional church.

It's the crucible where the differences between "the good" and "the right" are forged and clarified.

To quote Louie Crew Clay, "The meek are getting ready".

UPDATE: See what's happening at St. John's, Lafayette Square "The Church of the Presidents". 

Inflammatory pastor preached to Trump before inauguration