Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Awake, Awake, Yes, I’m Trying to Stay Awake…

The church year begins this morning, and we enter a brief season of anticipation, we now hear the words of the Gospeller Mark at chapter 13:25-37.  Jesus’ last words in this portion of scripture are “And what I say to I say to all: ‘Stay Awake.'”

When I read this scripture, I immediately was drawn to those Christmas Eves when I was a child – going to bed as told at 8:30 a.m. and then lying awake until midnight or past, waiting breathlessly for Santa and the Christ Child, in that order.  And still you and I wait.  Now we don’t wait to run into the living room to see what is left under the tree; now we wait for the advent of Christ in human form, God made manifest in a child who became a man, who offered himself up as the supreme sacrifice of us all.  This is a yearly vigil that is refreshed every autumn at this time.

What should we do to keep vigilant?  To stay awake, for we don’t know the day or the hour, the time in which Christ will return to humanity and a new world order proclaimed?

As we prepare for the coming of Jesus, we take this time to cleanse our hearts and minds of those things that keep us from hearing the Word – anxiety over daily tribulations, petty jealousies, finding ways to get ahead, envy, greed, selfishness.  These next weeks give us an opportunity to empty ourselves and make room in our hearts, minds, and souls for the unconditional love of God and Christ Jesus, a love that transcends all else.  In doing so, we prepare ourselves for the work we have been called to, each to their own ability and capacity.  We open ourselves to ministry to one another and ourselves and Christ and this season of preparation makes us ready for another year of holy work by holy people.

Stay awake – when you see someone passing by, wonder in your heart if that is the face of God and give thanks for the blessings bestowed; stay awake to hear the good news either preached with words or by deeds; stay awake to extend Christ’s love to someone in need.  Stay awake, for when Jesus arrives, he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant – thank you for keeping watch.”

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!



La Vita Nova

Today begins a new year and la vita nova for me – the new life.  I’ve come down the moutain a tiny bit and now I will worship in new places with new communities, while I hear the still, quiet, voice, listen, and discern what it tells me.  I am soooooooooooooo excited!  And a bit scared, too.  Who wouldn’t be?

Who Do You Say He Is?

The Gospel assigned to this morning, a feast day traditionally called “The Feast of Christ the King,” is Matthew 25:31-46.  In reading it, I see very little of the pomp and circumstance of royalty, save the Son of Man coming in glory and sitting on a heavenly throne with all the peoples of the world coming before Him.  Here, he separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are those who follow Jesus of Nazareth’s mandate that whatsoever we do to comfort the afflicted, whether it be feeding, clothing, offering counsel, quenching thirst, healing, we comfort Jesus – we do it to him and for him.  The goats are those who do nothing and they don’t get to stay there at the throne.

This is not a temporal king.  Jesus himself in the gospels never once said that he was a king, let alone a wordly king – a king that some of his followers hoped he would be, the kind that overthrew empires – he was proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of Heaven was there and then on earth, it was and is now.

What we may read in this morning’s pericope is the job resume of a man who shepherds his flock (that being the children of God and especially Jesus’ followers) and attends to their needs, inviting members of the flock to care for one another as a show of love for him and each other.

Can’t remember a king in history doing that, other than Martin Luther King, Jr.

So what is this Feast of Christ the King?  Why do we insist on calling Jesus of Nazareth the King of King and Lord of Lords?

A review of church history shows that this particular feast is not an ancient one; it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to celebrate and observe the all-embracing authority of Christ, which would ‘lead mankind to seek the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.’ *  Since 1970, the feast has been kept on the last Sunday of the church year, i.e., the last Sunday before Advent.

Some Anglican churches observe this feast, and that has always been a puzzlement to me, since the Anglican Communion grew from the Church of England, which was founded by Henry VIII as a way around the control of the Papacy, the ultimate medieval monarchs with power and control issues.  In the United States the Anglican Church took root after the English settlements of the 17th century, and after the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church was founded as an autonomous body and is now one of the members of the Communion.  There were and are no kings in America.

And yet today we call Christ the King.

If we’re going to perpetuate this feast and this observance, then let’s put a different spin on it, shall we?

This king is no monarch set on a dais clothed in ermine and holding sceptre and orb surrounded by his nobles.   This is a man for all  people.  All are welcome at his table, not just dukes, earls, barons and emissaries.

Jesus does something few monarchs on earth have done.  He cares for the poor – not just as slaves and laborers, but as individual children of God.  When he rallies his vassals to wage war, it is not on another kingdom but on the worst of human conditions: poverty, injustice, prejudice, ignorance and disease.  The largess he distributes is not purses of gold for jobs well done in tournaments or spying in other courts, for building massive keeps and tremendous cathedrals, but the Word.  It is given to all who believe and it is incumbent upon us, his disciples, then and now, to continue gifting this precious coin of God’s realm.  He invites us to believe in him, in his mission and ministry and to accept the unconditional love of God.  We do not walk on this journey of faith and social activism alone.

No, this is not a king that we’re used to.  We get a glimpse of that kind of monarch in the book of Revelations, but is this really the Jesus that walked the earth and spoke to the people, upset the merchants and moneylenders in the Temple, healed and comforted?  Matched wits with the Temple authorities and the Romans and won on so many levels?

If Jesus is the kind of king that sits on a throne with angels surrounding him as we approach the great audience chamber where the robes fill the room to the doors, I just bet that Jesus would also be the kind of man who would rise from his throne and extend a hand in greeting as he walked halfway down the hall to meet you, and offer an embrace and welcome you into the Kingdom of Heaven; he would be the person standing beside me as I help feed the hungry and clothe them, comfort the afflicted, and stand up to the comfortable.

*Encyclical Quas primas, 11 Dec. 1925

What’s Fair in the Kingdom

Today’s Gospel lection is taken from Matthew, chapter 25, verses 14-30 – we know these verses as “The Parable of the Talents.”  A wealthy landowner gives three of his slaves money, talents, to safeguard for him while he goes on a journey.  To one of the slaves he gives five talents, to the second, two talents, and the third receives a single talent.  The first slave doubles the five to ten by his trading, as does the second – doubling his talents to four.  The third slave, however, takes the single talent and buries it the ground.  When the landowner returns, he rewards the first two slaves for their efforts by entrusting them with more responsibilities and gives them his favor.  The last slave, however, states that he knows the landowner is dishonest and makes his living off the toil of others, ‘reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.’  The slave’s fear of the master prompted him to hide the money and then return it to him.

“Well done, good and trustworthy slave!”

Was it?  Was it well done?

Two thoughts came to mind as I read this scripture.

This is a parable about God entrusting to his children of the Kingdom the task of evangelism, of building His church by taking a community of five and growing it to ten, of taking a group of two and making it four, so that the Good News is shared and sent to other communities where it can be heard, marked, and inwardly digested.

This is a parable about the wealthy increasing their wealth and the poor having what little they already have taken away, a cautionary tale about choosing what side to play on, what principles to put priority on, what kind of life that we live.

Or, it can be both: we take the mustard seed and plant it, giving God the credit for our efforts, for it is God in Christ that inspires the words with which we proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst and watch as five grows to ten, two becomes four, and so on.  We fail miserably if we take that one coin and hold it in our hands, be fearful of God and hide it away so that it won’t be stolen, and do nothing with it, sort of like, “I’m not religious, but spiritual; I don’t need to attend a church to believe in God or a higher power.”

Yes and no.

Some of the greatest theologians in the Christian Church were contemplatives, spritual people, who in their solitude and quiet, connected with God and gave us some of the most beautiful Christian thought; and yet, everything Jesus did was in a community – yes, he had solitary moments, but all of his miracles, all of his teaching, and his ignominous death were public – shared by the community.  You can have your prayerful moments, but the real work in expanding the Kingdom comes when we do it as a community with like interests and goals. Again,  Jesus of Nazareth didn’t proclaim the Gospel alone; he had twelve men that we know of in his inner circle, and many more women and men to follow his teaching and way of life, to take a movement and turn it into a force for love and good.

Like my Anglican faith, I am ‘via media’ – the middle road.  I am both contemplative and a person of right action and use each of these charisms separately or in combination depending on the situation or work that needs to be done.

In any event, what we are required to do, what is mandated, is that we proclaim the Word that is Christ in our actions and our word; we are called to love one another as we love ourselves and more importantly, as we love God.  We have been given the coinage of the realm, the Gospe,l to increase in the hearts of the faithful, and it is our responsibility to make sure  those who have an abundance are prevented from taking away the ‘nothing’ from those who already have nothing and are less fortunate in their circumstance.

The Kingdom of Heaven is where equality is the norm.  It is a place where all are good and faithful servants for they take what is given to them and see that it is increased for the good the community, and protect what little some have.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,

Ellen, Deacon

Separating Fiction from Fact…

My sisters and my brother and I were blessed to inherit our parents’ talents.  Each of us has artistic ability in some capacity.  We all can sing, we play musical instruments and are bright.  I discovered at an early age that I like to and can write.  Little did I know that it would give me such pleasure and heartbreak.

What I’ve written – four novels – are works of fiction.  Some of my own life and experiences have inspired my writing and the story lines.  Writers write what they know.

Imagine my surprise when I received e-mails from a ‘fan’ who thought that as a clergywoman I should not be writing about adultery, sex, betrayal, heartbreak and that I was perpetuating lies.

I wonder if this critic knows that those very subjects are in the Bible.  No, dear friends, not the Epistles allegedly written by Paul, but the Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Scripture.

What I thought was a spirited exchange of ideologies and theologies became a personal attack on me.  I did what a rational personal would do.  I walked away and now I will pray for this person for clarity of mind and heart.

But I won’t stop writing or speaking out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of our communities or reaching out to them.





We Are All the Saints

Preached from the pulpit of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, on the occasion of my last Sunday with the parish as its deacon:

Who are the saints we celebrate this morning?

Who and what, are saints?

Our history and tradition tells us they are people who did extraordinary things with their faith and lives, many of the earliest giving up their lives for their witness to the Kingdom and work in it, to keep the movement alive, to be icons of Christ, to emulate the extraordinary ministry and sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth.

Allow me to posit this – we have saints in our midst.

That’s right; I’m looking at you.  Ah, there’s one!  A saint!

Now, before you think you’re not worthy of sainthood, remember that the saints we have on our windows, on our icons, and on the signs outside of our churches were people like you and me.  They had workaday lives most of the time, they had families, dreams, ambitions, deadlines, failures and successes.  We’ve been conditioned history and oral tradition to think of a saint as a person who is good, who does good, and is spotless in life and faith, someone whose relics cure illness and cause miracles to happen.  Someone who was murdered or martyred while defending Christianity.   I won’t argue with some of that, but my friend Jesus said only God is good.

Perhaps one definition of a saint could be this: ‘a person who obeys the new commandment and every day strives to live out the Gospel.’

Note that I said, strive.  Some days we get it right, the right that God expects of us and that is to follow Jesus, live every day to honor God in Christ, and be examples of the Good News and New Commandment – and some days are not better than others.  But every day is a new beginning, a new start, yet another chance to take right action and get it right.

Saints are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted and reviled and saints are people like you and me who fit into one of these categories, or we respond to the needs of those named.

There is an ancient saying that goes “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water; after enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

The same may be applied to the people we celebrate today.  They were not doctors of doctrine or builders of confessions and creeds, designers of liturgies, they were not blessed with the ecstatic visions of Teresa of Avila or the mysticism of St. John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich.  Most days, they chopped wood and carried water and they did it for God.  Nowadays, the saints teach Sunday School, sing in choirs, offer food and clothing to those who need it, visit the sick, listen to the story of a woman or man who lost their jobs and their homes, their pride and self-worth, talk to a strung-out guy on the park bench about finding a way out of that personal hell.  They are people who speak out and represent our underpaid teachers and nurses, speak for the majority that has no health insurance, work for equality in all aspects of life.  They are friends and family who come this morning to help this deacon say goodbye and leave home.

I see these saints before me.  These are the saints we celebrate today.

They are the focus of Jesus’ ministry and these blessings he offers, originally directed to his chosen disciples are offered to us today.  And these are not sweet little promises to the needy to make us feel better – this is a challenge to take on attitudes and characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven that is here and now. The first four blessings focus on those who suffer now, but will receive justice in the coming reign of God; the remaining verses are blessings on those who strive to right action and change, to alleviate the conditions described in the first four beatitudes.

I don’t know about you, but when I first read this scripture as a girl, I saw myself in it, and knew that I would have to live it and work towards making this world the one that Jesus offers. This wasn’t just a list of nice things, but a political agenda and manifesto of the Kingdom that was present, but I had yet to recognize it.   I didn’t know how to go about it at first, and then I knew.  It started with my baptism here at St. Mark’s fifteen years ago.

My journey has been similar and yet dissimilar to many of yours.  I came here seeking answers and found them in round about ways, sometimes they were the answers I wasn’t expecting – or more honestly, didn’t want to hear.  I discovered that God doesn’t expect me to be perfect, but be perfectly intentional in my faith and prayer life, in the ministry entrusted to me by virtue of my baptism and ordination.  I knew I couldn’t be as perfect as the Virgin Mary – who could?  But I could at least make an attempt.  I’ve tried.  I knew that God would forgive me the big and little transgressions because God loved me and forgave me – I just needed to try my hardest to not repeat those mistakes.  Like I said earlier, some days are better than others.

What I knew was this.

I am a child of God; I was before I knew what one was, and I am to my core – and the same is true for the holy order bestowed on me almost ten years ago.  I was a deacon before I knew what a deacon did and was.

And it is with those orders conferred that I have tried to serve God in Christ and you these past years.  I will continue to do so, but not here, not in this physical building or this community.  Times have changed and so have I.

I am headed for a new and different path.  I know it.  How do I know it?  Let me share:  I use a visual meditation tool.  I imagine myself walking up from a beach, to a forest on a hill.  I walk along a path with leaves crunching beneath my feet, the sun filtering through the trees and the sound of nature all around.  I am walking towards a clearing in the forest where there is a gate.  Beyond the gate is a gently sloping path to a valley where there is a castle – of course there’s a castle, it’s my imagination, isn’t it – and my intention is to reach that castle.  So far, I haven’t reached the first curtain, but I know I am at the gate.  My hand is there on the latch to open and keep travelling forward.

That journey started in Washington, D.C. two years ago when I stepped beyond my comfort zone and did what some people thought impossible for someone as bubbly and flakey as I can be at times – I spoke out for the poor in America at congressional meetings and met with like-minded Christians to find a way out of the morass of poverty; I finally embraced the truth that, like St. Francis being elected to confound the nobility, I was elected to confound the one percent, what we used to call the establishment – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  To be a muck-raker for Jesus.  The Spirit will guide me in this but first I need some well-needed rest, to go up the mountain just as Jesus did when he wrestled with questions and ministry, seek understanding of what it  was God had called him to do and how exactly to go about it.

This is my farewell discourse.

Before I leave on my journey, I have a few favors to ask of you.  Know and believe that you are all children of God.  Love one another as Christ loves you.  Your ministries are all important, not one better than the other.  We are all equal in God’s eyes and Christ’s heart, we are all special and unique and again, important.   I invite you to greet the unfamiliar, nervous, person standing in the narthex an staring into this beautiful nave the way you greeted me 16 years ago, show them how to juggle the prayer book and hymnal,  ask if my kids want another cookie, or how I take my coffee; say hello at coffee hour and ask how someone’s week has been – not just to your friends.  You can talk to your friends any time, but a stranger coming into church?  Now there’s a perfect opportunity for true evangelism!  Show people that Christ died to take away our sins not our minds or hearts, or fellowship born of faith and love.

Am I sad to go?  Yes.  This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made.  Am I excited about what lies ahead?  You can be darn sure I am; for when have I ever backed away from a dare, especially one from God?  Am I afraid?  Let me end by quoting from Joan of Arc, one of my patron saints, a young woman who lived an ordinary life of chopping wood and carrying water before she was called to an extraordinary ministry, for it rings true:

“I am not afraid, for God is with me.  I was born for this.”



Post Navigation