Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the month “October, 2007”

>The Ladies of the Parish

>Sunday’s gospel comes from Luke 18:9-14. Again, the players are from different ends of the social spectrum. We have the Pharisee, wealthy, educated, of high social standing, and the tax collector – even by today’s standards, not a popular person. Both enter the temple to pray, but what a disparity of prayer!

The Pharisee wails loudly that he’s not like other people – the unclean and unwanted of first century Palestine: theives, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors; he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income. Wow, I’m impressed. And then there’s the tax collector, who, knowing his unpopularity, his less than perfect existence, without even looking up towards the heavens, beats his breast and declares that he is a sinner and begs for mercy.

Who is more worthy of God’s mercy?

Well, both are. All people are worthy of God’s love and mercy – we just have to ask for it. What Jesus is teaching here, I believe, is how we go about asking for it. A little bit of humility goes a long way.

This parable reminds me of my days as a choir director in a local church when I was eighteen. I remember the women who entered the church perfectly coiffed, dressed to the nines, handbag on arm, cookie cutter models of Jacqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace. Everyone looked up from their devotions when they entered in turn, then quickly averted their eyes. As they took their places up in front on the pulpit side, they would glance around as if to make sure everyone saw them and then they’d make theatrical motions and knee to say their petitions and rosaries, and before rising off the kneelers, they’d look around again.

By contrast, there was a widow with seven children who used to take up the front pew on the epistle side. She’d come in late, the children running behind, most of them dirty-faced with runny noses, threadbare clothes – unusual in the Sixties, in a town that prospered. Even the parish priest used to cluck his tongue at this family and wonder why she bothered.

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I know that the socially-prominent women of the parish gave a lot of money and time to the church and that the parish priest often went to dinner at their houses and showed preference at coffee hour. The widow, on the other hand, disappeared after coffee hour, usually taking a handful of cookies with her in a paper napkin. People watched her go and never said a word.

I wish now that I had had the courage to ask the widow how she was getting on, and if she needed help with anything, even babysitting. I guess I was afraid of losing the good will of the Ladies of the Parish. You see, that mother and her children were so much like my family – a single parent in a time when single parents weren’t commonplace, and when it was a disgrace to be on Welfare and get food stamps, and to have so many children you couldn’t afford to care for. The difference was that the Ladies of the Parish knew me, knew my mother and all of her brood and said nothing to my face. They applauded my courage, my desire, they assumed, to pull myself up from my bootstraps.

What they didn’t know then was that their opinion didn’t mean anything to me then or now. I learned a lesson from that time of my life, right after my mother died, when I was a choir director in a small town parish. I learned that no matter who you are, or where you’re from, God hears the prayers offered. How we offer them makes a difference to each other.


>Persistence and Doughnuts

>Persistence is the key to the texts this week. Jacob persists in his wrestling match with the mysterious stranger; Paul encourages Timothy to keep at it; the widow persists in her quest to obtain what is rightfully hers and succeeds. And there is the persistence of Nicolas, my youngest son, and it is with his consent that I share this story.

On that horrible September night last year, when Celia was struck by that light rail train, and as we kept vigil at our sister and daughter’s bedside as she hovered between this world and the next, and wondered if she would make it through the night or leave us, I sent Carlos Raphael and Nick to their grandmother’s at two in the morning. Before we said goodbye, I asked the boys to pray that Celia would make it through the night. Happily, she did, and when my mother-in-law called the next morning, she told me that Nick had said that God listened to his prayer – his sister was still alive. “But, Grandma Kate,” he said, “I also prayed for doughnuts.”

My mother-in-law asked what she should do. “Get him the doughnuts,” I answered. “And tell him not to press his luck by asking for pizza.”

He asked for pizza; he didn’t get it. But that wasn’t God’s will – it was Mom’s.

What I love about these four stories is the element of perseverance, of persistence in prayer and right action, and how each comes from a place of either adversity or tragedy; how our acts of prayer give us the courage and strength to turn a situation around. But there are times when our prayers, we feel, go unanswered and perhaps we feel cheated, we may think God needs a little nudge, a tug on the sleeve, sort of, “Hey, Lord, did you hear me? I believe in you; I love you; now, how about it?”

Look at Jacob wrestling all night with the angel. “Let me go, for the day is breaking!” cries the stranger. Jacob replies, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” We know blessing is a big thing for Jacob; it’s what got him into his present circumstance. He continues and prevails. He has struggled against Esau, Laban and God; the blessing he finally receives and his new name are testimony that he is ready to assume his place as the inheritor of the Divine promise to Abraham.

The Gospel gives us another example of persistence. Two people as different as night and day, from different ends of the spectrum of society, a corrupt judge and a widow, in a combat of wills. He wants nothing better than the widow just go away and stop hounding him every afternoon; she only wants what is rightfully hers. He relents, but it is out of self-interest – the original Greek text suggests that the judge feared a “black-eye” – he does not want his reputation sullied. Persistence in the pursuit of justice finally wins; the powerless triumph over the powerful.

Jesus tells us that if an unjust judge can bestow justice, how much more will God grant justice to those crying out to him day and night? The author of Luke is advising the impatient church, sure that the end time and Jesus’ return are past due, to hang in there, to keep praying. So Timothy is reminded to be steadfast, and be ready to endure trials and suffering as he strives to complete his ministry as an evangelist.

For reasons known only to God, we sometimes pray and those prayers are not answered; or, we get puzzling answers – answers that lead to clarity of purpose and reason and after reflection, it’s the answer we need at the time. Jesus calls us to be persistent, whether we ask for peace, for healing, for understanding – or even doughnuts.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.


>What Goes Around . . .

>This last Sunday’s gospel tells us that our actions on Earth will be an indication of how we’ll be treated, or expect to be treated in the Hereafter. The parable is about the Rich man and Lazarus — not the Lazarus who was a friend of Jesus and the brother of Mary and Martha, the Lazarus raised from the dead before the Passion, but Lazarus the poor, sick man who lay outside the great house of the Rich Man waiting for a scrap of food from his table. Lazarus was covered with sores, so one can safely assume he wasn’t a pretty sight — the neighborhood dogs would stop by to lick his wounds. We don’t know how long Lazarus lay outside the house, but he died and was taken by angels to be with Abraham. I imagine the scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess” when Sarah wakes and discovers that her attic bedroom has been turned into a comfortable little nest full of warm and soft things, good food and a fire in the hearth. Sarah probably thought she’d gone to heaven. Not so for the Rich Man. He was buried and his soul went to Hell, where he suffered. Seeing Lazarus beside Abraham, the Rich Man implores Abraham to let Lazarus put a drop of water on his parched tongue, but Abraham will have none of it and tells him that a chasm is between them, placed there undoubtedly because of the Rich Man’s lack of compassion and regard for others. Fearful for his brothers still living, the Rich Man asks that they be warned to amend their lives so that they will not suffer his fate; Abraham replies that they should listen to Moses and the prophets. The Rich Man continues to beg and Abraham ends their conversation by stating that if they will not heed the lessons and messages of Moses and the prophets, they certainly won’t believe a man risen from the dead.

Good advice.

How much time out of a busy day does it take to help out at a soup kitchen or pantry, a hot meal program? An hour, maybe two — the time spent working out at the gym or working late at the office. Our lives are so hectic, so plugged-in, so scheduled that we value every single free moment we have, and rightfully so. But here’s an idea: Why not take one of those busy days out of the month to help someone less fortunate than yourself? And may I suggest that you do it not to win brownie points with God but to improve someone’s day, if only for a moment. Those moments add up and you might find yourself looking at the world a little differently, seeing that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where no one has to lie outside a rich man’s house for table scraps, or a drop of water, but all are treated with the same respect and dignity, where equality comes before wealth.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.


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