Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the category “A Few Words from the Deacon…”

No Rehearsals

In his instruction to the disciples this morning, Jesus of Nazareth tells them of persecution and the opportunity to testify.  In our days, testifying would mean weeks of careful preparation, of setting down fact beside fact to illustrate a story, a picture, that gives the truth of a matter and proof of the case presented.  That’s probably true for days past.  In fact, Jesus says, “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to understand or contradict.”  By endurance, the disciples will gain their souls.

I completely understand that today.

I won’t go into the gory details of life in America right now.  It’s horrifying to say the truth.  Bigotry and racism have come front and center and for some it’s okay.  I know it isn’t.  What I have come to understand that there is nothing I can say in defense of my faith as a Christian to this population, or even the person on the street.  To be a Christian is to be a conservative, intolerant, ignorant, jerk in some peoples’ minds.

It couldn’t be farther from the truth where it concerns my denomination and many, many, of my Christian sisters and brothers.

I, and so many like me, try my best every day to live out the Gospel.  When I say ‘living out the Gospel’ I mean doing my best to live a life directed by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  This kind of life is difficult even on good days because we are called to love one another, to love our enemies and to seek Christ in others.  To do this, you have to take off the 21st armor made of cynicism, indifference and fear and allow yourself to be led.  Allow yourself to be taught.  Allow yourself to look up from the smartphone screen as you walk down the street and actually LOOK at faces.  Maybe even smile and say hello.

I’ve learned from experience that for me this is the best apology for Christianity.  Rather than spell it out in paragraphs of history and doctrine, show it.  In writing fiction, we are advised to show, not tell.  We show our readers a scene, an emotion, a person.  That’s how I’m going to do it.  How I do it will depend on the situation, the moment.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the solemn season of preparation and anticipation of the Incarnation.  It leads us to Christmas.  ‘That time of year’ when we wish one another peace on earth and good will toward all.  Advent prepares us to carry that sentiment through the next 365 days of the year.  One way of looking at it is to empty the heart of expectation and allow anticipation.  Let the words be written on us by a different pen.  Let the Word be the words we speak.  We prepare without preparation and let God lead us unconditionally.

We do not rehearse.  We do not study.  We allow it to happen.

 

 

 

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We Must Speak

13 Pentecost, Proper 16

Sunday, August 23, 2015 – Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley:

The last time I stood in this pulpit I invited you by way of Christ to go to a deserted place and rest a while, to pause for a bit in the ministry you’ve been given.

Did you do it?

Me neither.

Okay, not right away. I really, really, meant to go off somewhere alone in my heart and mind in order to hear that still, quiet voice, but this world of ours just begs and screams for right action and it’s hard to look a challenge in the face and back down. I think this true for me, perhaps for you as well, that this is a time when Christ speaks to us at where we are. For me, and for some of you, maybe all of you, it’s at the metaphorical barricades that is life in our country today.

In his closing remarks to the church at Ephesus, Paul gives the Christians tools to fight the darkness and inhumanity in the world: “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

This may ring archaic in our modern ears. We’re not meant to wear a full suit of armor nowadays. Besides, it’s heavy, weighs about sixty pounds and when you fall off a horse wearing it, you’re like a turtle on your back. Paul speaks to the church in terms they know. The armor of Roman legions was familiar. We only know them from art work, museums, books, movies and video games, but the analogy hasn’t changed. These metaphorical breastplates, greves, boots, sword and shield are ours with which we can confront and take on the injustice in a that has become more cynical, more dark, than the darkest of nights. Turn on your television, tap on your tablets, read the front page of a newspaper and you can see for yourself what we’re up against.

Paul is asking us to stand firm. We are being asked to stand on our convictions as Christians against bigotry, injustice, inequality, sexism, ageism and a host of ills – we all face it daily. We’re not being asked to take on something because it’s expedient and will win us popularity. Our choices will be difficult and sometimes, near impossible. Who is able to do this? Who among us can stand on convictions when the tide of popularity turns on us? Are we supposed to be rigid, intractable, Lone Rangers for Jesus righting the wrongs in society and demanding conformity to all things Episcopalian? We can’t get our fellow Episcopalians to agree with us at times; what makes you think we can persuade people in the elevator or the checkout line to accept living out the Gospel as it has been revealed to us?

We’re not being asked to be close-minded or stubborn, nor are we supposed to be wed to one opinion, again, we are Episcopalians. But, we are Children of God, we are followers in the Jesus Movement and we are asked to stand for something that is not transient, but something that is transcendent and life-giving, and that is God’s love through Christ. This means being willing to speak the truth, risk being unpopular, and call out those who, by their actions, seek to exclude, marginalize and harm people and to destroy creation because it suits their narrow and selfish way of thinking and agendas. It means taking risks, sometimes personal, like the three young men who stopped an attack on a French train this week, or making a ‘shield wall’ of bodies, hand-in-hand to protect a mosque, to put your life in danger fighting a wildfire. Or something innocuous like, losing so-called friends on social media because they’re of a different political party and you’re not and they don’t understand why you take a particular position.

It may mean speaking out, like, I’m sorry, certain members of Congress and Fox News and everyone riding in the clown car, I’m a woman and you’re not. You don’t speak for me, and you don’t tell me what I may and may not do with my body or my life. You don’t vilify the people you’ve made homeless because of your bad or greedy decisions where it comes to housing and finance. Come live on Market Street in a storefront entrance, or sleep in the Powell Street BART corridors on a rainy night, live without a home, food, or medical care, or live a day in the shoes of a parent trying to get by on minimum wage or less and using food stamps to buy groceries, then you’ll know what many of us go through. Know what it’s like to be hated or mistrusted because of the color of your skin. I’ll love you because I’m called to love you, because you’re one of God’s children, but I don’t have to agree with you. And I do not have to keep you in your cushy office where you can fatten up your big business friends and ignore the real problems that face most of us. You may have Wall Street in your corner, but I and so many like me have God all around me.

The whole armor that is God prepares us for struggle. Standing firm gives the struggle purpose and meaning. We may ask if it’s worth it, especially when it wears down our last nerve or if we’re not seeing results. The world was made in seven days. I suspect that our struggle to give true justice and equality to all will take a bit longer.

God, however, never ceases to be with us during these trials even though it may seem so at times. It is amazing when it happens. Our efforts will show that God is with us to the most cynical of unbelievers, and that with God nothing is impossible; that the love we offer through our actions is through God and we offer it willingly and without reservation. Even if, heaven forbid, the message doesn’t get through, we will still hear, “Well done, good and trusty servant!” We will have ministered to the least of the members of the community. It is that whispering in our ears that lets us know that God is paying attention and there is hope for a better world for all.

We are loved.  Look what we can achieve with this love.

It is affirming and amazing when this happens.

And now my sisters and brothers in Christ, pray that we may declare it boldly, as we must speak.

Rest and be Still.

8 Pentecost, Proper 11

July 19, 2015

I’d like to preface my thoughts today with a confession – this is my pot-calling-the-kettle-black sermon.  This is my cautionary tale.

After reading the lessons over several times, including the tempting, tantalizing, words of the prophet Jeremiah jumping out at me with it’s woe and finger-pointing at leaders behaving badly, and you know I’m up to that challenge, one point really grabbed me and illustrated life as we know it today.  My life especially.  Probably your lives.

I’d like to offer these words about weariness.

For a while there’s been fear not only of Obama invading Texas but of a “Zombie Apocolypse.”

Well, my friends, it’s happened and it’s here and now.

I see them on Market Street and Montgomery Street – people plugged in, distracted, working on the run, working non-stop, maybe getting in a five-minute breather for something to eat.  They pound away on laptop keyboards or tap iPads and Android tablets at the four Starbucks and Peets Coffees in my area downtown.  I’ve heard in elevators and on crowded trains what I think are astonishing comments akin to bragging about this work ethic on steroids.  I hurt for them and understand all too well, because a lot of this ethic comes from the top.  These kinds of supervisors and managers are the bad shepherds Jeremiah speaks of.  Rather than look after their corporate flocks, they seek the bottom line in black, a pie chart showing profit, a new book of clients.  Happiness for the sheep in the cubicles?  What’s that?  They should be glad they have jobs.  And don’t we know it.  It is expected of too many workers now to stay plugged in and be available.   Computers, which were supposed to ease our labors, have made it easier to assign more tasks in less time.  Workers are expected to churn out the paper in record time and they do and move on to the next project.

Some people may enjoy this fast paced environment.  I don’t.  I am fortunate to not have that kind of supervisor.  My secular office job is sane and full of humanity in the otherwise insane and sometimes unreal practice of law.

I am part of the problem, though.  Thank God for Jesus finally opening my eyes and my mind and telling me to slow down.

When I recognized this behavior in myself and others, I thought, “Even Jesus took a break,” and I went back to whatever I was doing with someone usually asking if I wanted anything as they headed out to Starbucks or the Seven-Eleven.  No one told me I had to work through my lunch.  I could finish what I was doing after lunch on most days.  Still, I felt I had to finish the project before I could rest.  Get one more thing done.

God rested on the seventh day.   Once in a while Jesus went up the mountain or a quiet, deserted place to get away from it all and in this morning’s scripture from the gospel of Mark, he urges the apostles to do the same.

We are told that they gathered around Jesus and told him all that they were doing and all that they were teaching, and, apparently, they were very busy. They were so busy, we are told, that they didn’t even have time to eat. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

How astonishing this must have sounded to them.  Here they were bringing more and more people to Jesus, building the community and he asks them to take a break.  He didn’t ask for spreadsheets tracking their work or timesheets with the week’s target of billable hours met.  New branding proposals and marketing tactics weren’t brainstormed.  No networking.

He told them to take a break and to rest.

Don’t we all long to hear these words spoken to us?

Jesus is speaking to us.  This is an invitation to take time, not find time, to spend time with God and him, for it is as necessary as food and drink and sleep.

Our faith requires us to undertake the work God calls us to, and to believe in Christ and follow his teaching and example.  But some of us take it to the extreme.  We work ourselves to exhaustion:  this and our never-ending to-do lists and desire to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that our value comes from how much we accomplish, and the expectation of divine favor, of God-Points, of a seat at the table.

How good is that work if we are so busy that we lose sight of why we do it?  How fruitful is our labor if it wears us out to the point of ‘I don’t want to do this anymore?’

I was, and still am to a point, the pot calling the kettle black.  It took me a while to understand that in order to use those gifts given to me by God I have to know why I have them and how to use them and I can only do that by stopping and being with God.  It was a difficult transition borne of years of conditioning by society and by what I thought was required of me as a Christian, by being told that was what I needed to do if I wanted to get to Heaven.

We are valued and loved in the sight of God.  Christ loves us because we do as we are called, because we see him in our neighbors and strangers and loved ones.  They both know what we need even when we do not, or we think we know.   Jesus looks past all our perceptions of what it means to be successful and to bear the fruit of work and he doesn’t even mention them, because if he did, he would have to remind us that all that we are and all that we do are gifts from God in the first place. Rather, he looks into our hearts and sees what we truly desire, what we truly need. He makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters and restores our souls. And he says to us, “Come away to a place all by yourselves and rest a little while with me.”

I intend and will strive to do just that: to go to a place all alone and rest.  I will make the time every day.  But I won’t be alone.  Jesus will be with me.  And I will be with you as you go to your deserted place.

Do You Really Have to Ask That?

This is the time of year my ‘grumpy old woman’ persona comes to the fore.  I’m not talking about “Grammatica – the Bitch Goddess of Lexiconia,” the mythological Me that has issues with the lack of proofreading and other foibles of writing; I’m writing about the woman who doesn’t like the questions, “Last minute shopping?” and “Why’d you wait so long?”

Yes, I’ve been asked those questions by hopefully well-meaning store clerks/cashiers as I bring my Christmas purchases to the counter and put down the dollar bills.  They usually come with a bright, cheery, smile and a giggle.  I understand the clerks have the hardest job in the world in the busiest season.  When a shopper is stressed, worried about life other than what to put under the tree, it doesn’t relieve that stress one bit to be second-guessed about their shopping habits.

Why, you may wonder, does this make me angry?  You may ask, why not just let it go?

I’ve been letting it go for a very long while.  Now I’m at the point of my life where I don’t want to hear it.

I’ve never agreed with, or ‘bought in to’ the Industrial-Christmas-Retail-Complex (and my thanks to clergy colleague and Facebook friend Tim Schenck for that label or facsimile of that label) that has become our holiday season.  No, no, no, not to worry; I’m not going to rant about putting the Christ back in Christmas, nor quote Dickens by saying we should keep Christmas in our hearts all year ’round.  I don’t like the emphasis on when and where you shop, what you shop for and what you eventually purchase being the true measure of your affection for the person for whom you are purchasing a gift.

I tend to follow the little lists my sons have been leaving for me for years, first for Santa Claus, and now out of habit, to me – left on my cluttered desk.  I’m always amazed at how practical and simple the lists are.  This year the oldest son asks for a new watch and a sweater.  I know the youngest would be happy with new, fresh, sketch books and more pencils.  They usually get what they ask for but it all depends on my financial situation.

I tend to wait until the last few days before Christmas before I shop and it’s for a practical reason.  I usually don’t have money until then, or time.

I never knew it was imperative to shop early and often.

When I get asked those questions, I wonder about those people in line behind me or before me that are in the same situation or worse – not having money or time.  A few years ago one of my acquaintances on Facebook posted a story about a man who went out on Black Friday not to grab up a 50 inch flat screen TV or the latest techno toy, but to buy a pair of shoes because he needed them and he was hoping for a sale or deal.   I also read a story about a woman who waited until that day and during the Christmas season to get her children new clothes and coats because it was the only time of year she could do it.  For some people, a Christmas bonus means a warm coat or an extra couple of weeks with food on the table.  There was only one time when the clerk wouldn’t stop with her critical mass of negativity on the subject that I literally walked away from the counter, leaving my purchases there.   Whether she was venting because she hated her low-paying, high-stress job or she just said the first thing that came up in her thoughts, I don’t know.  I just know that I’m past ignoring the commentary.

Where am I going with all this?

My wish is that people who ask those questions would stop.  I wish the local media wouldn’t run stories about ‘last-minute shoppers’ and interviewing them, asking, “Why’d you wait so long?”

Why do you care?  Why is this a news story when there are people sleeping on our streets and going hungry because they have no where to live and not enough to eat?

Dear Clerks, smile and ask if I’ve found what I was looking for, ask me how my day has been, but don’t wonder if I’m someone who likes to wait to last minute because I don’t care about the person for whom I’m buying a gift or assume I’m a horrible, selfish, person because I do wait to shop.  You don’t know me, you don’t know my circumstance.  I won’t get mad at you if you don’t ask me dumb questions.  If you ask me how my day has been I’ll tell you it’s been great because you thought to ask that while you packed up my purchases and money exchanged hands and I’ll tell you so.  I’ll probably come back to your store and recommend the store to my friends.  Your kindness and sensitivity are true gifts of the season, especially if I’m not the only person in the store you take the time to ask questions that put a smile on faces and show that you care about something other than the day’s receipts.

Peace,

E

 

Be still, be patient. It is a time of wonder and waiting.

Preached from the Pulpit of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on 1 Advent, November 30, 2013:

A new church year begins this morning, and we enter it with anticipation.

Perhaps it is like the anticipation we feel on New Year’s Day, when we resolve to give up that third, fourth or fifth cup of coffee, lose that extra five pounds that’s been following us around like a lost kitten or puppy, be more diligent at the job, less time checking e-mails, spend more time with the family, switch off the electronics and not be available to every person on earth 24/7.

Let our anticipation be for, let us watch and wait for, the One who has shown us what it is to love completely and honestly and how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven that is here and now.

I think of Advent as a new morning. I open my eyes and the sun is filtering through the fog and into my room, the light is still dusky, but I can see the photographs and artwork of my children, the photos of friends, my display of icons, the laundry on the chair, and I am reminded that every day is another chance to begin anew, to say, “Thank you! Good morning! What have you got in store for me today?” It’s another opportunity to put on Paul’s metaphorical harness, the armor of light that shields us from the darkness of certain choices in life and bolsters our commitment to live honorably. You and I are given the opportunity to watch and wait, prepare ourselves for the gifts of light, hope and renewal.

It’s hard not to think of those times of watching and waiting in our lives: think of all those important milestones – and each of us has our list – from the birth of a child, to the last beam put in place on a house, those final exam results, finishing a project and submitting it. Because of the time of year, I immediately was drawn to those Christmas Eves when I was a child – going to bed as told at 8:30 and then lying awake until midnight or past, waiting breathlessly for Santa and the Christ Child, in that order. Santa I knew had been in the house; I wasn’t too sure about the Christ Child. The porcelain figurine in the crèche looked the same.

Years later I wait; we wait together.

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. That’s a pretty special gift. We look for gifts that will proclaim our commitment to a faith that continues to transform and transcend us.

Jesus says to us, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

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

How might we stay awake?

Be still and listen for the quiet voice of God.

Let us take this time to empty 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 by outwitting, outplaying, outlasting; letting envy, greed and selfishness block our vision. How much better it is to empty ourselves of all that is dark to make room in our hearts, minds, and souls for love, a love that transcends all else, given to all who accept it and not for just one season, or one day of the year but make it a daily practice. In doing so, we put on the armor of light and are ready to minister to one another. This season of preparation makes us ready for another year of holy work by and for holy people.

No one knows when Christ will return; Paul and his generation thought it was imminent and they looked forward to the end time, preparing for eternal life while toiling in this one.

Isn’t that how it is today?

We don’t know if Jesus will come next Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock, but we mustn’t be caught unaware – not like the tee shirt slogan, “Jesus is coming, everybody look busy!” but truly be attentive to our spiritual lives and our work-a-day lives. Being mindful of what we are called to do, thinking and praying through every step we take on our journeys, prepares us for the moment when he does arrive and asks each of us, “Peace be with you! How has it been with you? Give me an account of your life; have you listened to my words? Have you talked the talk and walked the walk that I gave you?” and be able to say “Yes!”

Stay awake – give thanks for blessings bestowed; stay awake to hear the good news and proclaim it, share it; stay awake to extend Christ’s love. Stay awake, for when Jesus arrives, he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant – thank you for keeping watch.”

It’s All About Stuff . . . Or Is It?

Preached from the pulpit of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on August, 4, 2013:

 

Overcast and gloomy texts this morning, for an overcast and gloomy day in August in Berkeley – welcome to summer in the city.  They and the weather match my mood of late, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about death and my own mortality.  As I’ve aged, I find myself thinking about things before I sleep and when I wake, sometimes at three in the morning, mostly at about five-thirty.   I’ve started thinking about death – moments when I think, “Dang!  It’s really going to happen!”  Then I go back to sleep – as if pulling the covers over my head will change anything – and as I drift off, I start to fret over mortal matters.  I always thank God for my children, family and friends, the many gifts the Trinity has bestowed and for being patient with me, loving me despite the numerous faults and imperfections that are the many layers of Ellen; I breathe a sigh of relief when I open my eyes and know there’s another chance to get things right the way God would have me do them – thank you, Jesus – and I worry about my stuff.

What’s going to happen to my stuff?

I know my children will be provided for, but what’s going to happen to all those flash drives with my research notes on the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the end of Anglo-Saxon England, my downloads of music, episodes of “Castle” and “Downton Abbey?”  All those books about Richard the Third and the Plantagenets?  Phoebe the Mighty Deaconmobile?  I really panic when I start to wonder what going to happen  with my yarn stash, my handbags, and my shoes!!!

Why am I worrying about this?

I don’t know where I’m going to be when it happens; I don’t know when it’ll happen!  Am I going to care?  You betcha!  And won’t I have other matters on my mind?

Being mortal is just so interesting.

Why am I so worried about this?

That’s what Jesus is asking this morning.

We’ve been conditioned by society to believe that to have, and to have the most, is what makes a person successful, makes them powerful, gives them the advantage.  Look how far back it goes.  Our gospel text introduces us to a wealthy man surprised by the yield of his harvest.  In fairness to him, you can’t predict the quality or amount of a crop.  It’s been a good year for him.  He’s so excited by the bounty he decides to make room for it and tears down what he already has and builds bigger, better barns so he can later relax and enjoy his life – eat, drink and be merry.  To my way of thinking, that would be party like the Cubs finally won the Series, but for our wealth landowner, party in a first century manner.

And then God speaks – something God hasn’t done in any of the parables until now – and tells him he’s a fool because his life is being demanded of him and it’s over.  He’s going to die.  Jesus ends the parable, which surely shocked everyone hearing it, by telling the audience to get its priorities right.  He says, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Is this an attack on wealthy people?  Is it a condemnation of wanting nice things and a comfortable life?  Should we constantly live in fear and anticipation of death so that we are afraid to live?  Sell everything right now, everything, and just sit on the corner and wait for the end time?

My answer to these questions is a simple no.

It’s a matter of setting priorities in our lives.

Wealth is something most of us wish we had – right?  To be able to work towards achieving that status and reaping such a reward is not sinful, especially if honest effort goes into the labor; we don’t hear Jesus condemning the rich man, just how much store the man puts by what he’s got.  How we use what we have in our lives is the key.  To live comfortably is good, but greed is not good.  Focusing all our attention on money and goods and acquiring them is not the best decision.

I’ve heard people say that they wish they had achieved their present comfort level while they were young, because they felt time was running out on enjoying what they’ve worked so hard to get.  To that way of thinking I say, your life may be demanded of you at any time.  Our lives have so many, many demands on them – just think about it.  The demands to be a wife, mother, sister, friend, employee, a Christian, a child of God, are made every day.  If I managed to win the lottery or work out a six-figure book contract or screenplay option for one of my novels, the last thing I’d worry about is how much time is left to enjoy my success.  I’d take it one minute at a time and make those minutes count.  A 23 year old software wizard can just as quickly be called up as a venerable professor of theology of 82.  It will happen and it happens to all of us.  It’s the wondering about what we leave behind.

Eventually, soon I hope, I’ll stop worrying about what happens to my stuff after I die.

Let’s face it – we’re aging; no matter how hard ad executives try to convince us that we can all look young and be young and that that is the preferred state of being, the only thing that prevents aging isn’t a beauty crème but death.

A month of face lifts and plastic surgery won’t change the fact that we die.

And as for all we’ve accumulated to show our status and success, yes, it is said that the person with the most toys wins, but you can’t take them with you.  The Pharoahs tried and their tombs were looted.

As we grow older, we find a consciousness of mortality while more earthbound issues such as wealth and status push it to the back of the mind.  What sociologists and philosophers call “the post-modern mind,” I like to call it “the present-day mind,” works within these two irreconcilable realities.  The unique contribution of this parable is to lead us to the edge of life after death.  Our focus should be on the inevitability of death, that which no one can prevent, and the importance of being wise as to how life is lived.

We struggle between the pervasive materialistic view of existence, in which life is only what we experience here and now, over our instinct that there may be, is, something about life after death after all.

These are not post-modern issues, however.  As we have heard, it was an issue during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.  After he tells this zinger of a parable, Jesus explains to the crowd, his disciples, how wrong it is to build up material wealth and not consider one’s spiritual gifts.  This will be more fully revealed in the text that following this morning’s gospel, the glorious passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about earthly matters – take time to trust in God and don’t let that which you cannot prevent, or take with you, bar your way to a full and rich life in Christ.  Die to self – live to hear what God is saying, inviting you to be now.

God is demanding your life so that you can live.  Then look around and see what your treasures truly are.

You may be surprised to learn that you can take those with you.

Are You Mary, or Martha?

This morning’s gospel from Luke at Chapter 10, verses 38-42, tells us the account of Jesus of Nazareth dining with friends.  He is with Martha, Mary and, though he is not mentioned, I’m assuming he’s also with their brother Lazarus, perhaps the same Lazarus that was brought back to life right before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for the last time.

Martha is bustling about the kitchen getting dinner ready and setting the table, making sure everything is just right.  Her sister Mary sits in the living room with Jesus and the men and she is listening to Jesus’ teaching and commentary.  Martha probably slams down the big wooden spoon with which she’s been stirring something and demands that Jesus tell Mary to get off her duff and come and help her in the kitchen, for which Jesus offers words to the effect that Martha should leave Mary alone and let her listen.  His words were, according to the author of Luke, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not not be taken away from her.” (tr. NRSV)

Is this a scolding?

I don’t think so.

What Martha is doing is important and so is Mary’s work.  I think that, at different times, and especially different times of the day, I’m either Martha or Mary.  I’m never one completely or the other.  It all depends on the situation and what I am being called to do at that time.  The same may be true for you.

What is paramount, is that we do take time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his wisdom and compassion and apply it to the active parts of our lives, that we do, in times of extremely difficulty and stress, stop and listen for what can help us in those active moments when we think we’re the only ones getting busy.

Will being active get us brownie points for a place at the table in the Kingdom?  Well, it is a tangible showing of the new commandment that we love one another and Jesus’ declaration that whenever we help one another we help him.  So yes, I think so, but those of us who suspend activity to read, mark and inwardly digest the Word have a place, too.

Being a Martha or a Mary doesn’t mean one is better than another, it just means that you serve God in different capacities and according to your gifts.

And they can be one or another, or both.

Pax et bonum,

E

One of Seventy

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 7, 2013:

This morning’s Gospel isn’t about leaders.  It’s about leadership. It’s about you because it is about equality, which is something this country may finally get around to making a reality for all of us.  We need only keep moving in the right direction with courageous steps.  The path will lead us to the Kingdom, which, as we heard, is near.

We can’t brush aside the fact that Society is hierarchical and has been for centuries.  We look to and follow leaders, sometimes willing to be led, sometimes wanting to lead.  Most of the time, I have a strong desire to turn it all on its head.   Fortunately, I have Jesus as a role model on how to do that properly.  You and I, my friends, members of the flock, are among the seventy that Jesus sent then and now.

I work as a legal secretary and have for thirty-one years.  Only of late have I realized that the work I contribute is just as important to the firm as that of the attorneys, and this is after years in the secular corporate world where the organizational chart is a holy icon – all eyes look upwards to the little rectangle at the very top, the one all alone, and the further down one goes, the more rectangles, the more names and the more likely one is to be lost in the collection of departments and titles; worker ants in canyons of cubicles decorated with pictures of our children and holidays, interoffice memoranda.  Home Sweet Cubicle for eight to ten hours a day.   That organizational chart couldn’t exist without everyone and their contributions, their work.  I accepted all this, and so did many others; we walked carefully past the hallowed corner offices, or, when we passed the town’s parish priest, nodded reverently and tried to look holy.

But. . . . the people in those offices – the people wearing the collars, they were, and still are, no different from me.  Thank you, Jesus, for showing us that.

Jesus of Nazareth, in his own remarkable way, shows us how it’s supposed to be done; he tosses everything upside down and gives us a revolutionary model.  By his sending out of the Seventy, he is telling the young church that all have a part in leadership, all are called to be witnesses to the Kingdom of Heaven, all are called and with whatever gifts given them, to be clarions for a new way of thinking and living, those in the Board Room and those in cubicles, the palaces and the cottages, the pews and pulpits.

The Seventy were commissioned just as the Apostles, given specific instructions, especially the urgency of their mission and staying focused.  This mission is a precursor to the activity of our church communities today.  We are all laborers who deserve to be paid.  We can bring in the harvest.  All of us must share in preparing the way of God’s kingdom.

Is this way beyond your comfort zone?  Are you thinking, “Yes, but thinking I’m equal to the CEO, will get me fired, wouldn’t it?”  It doesn’t have to be.   Why can’t you think that you are just as important and just as loved in God’s realm?  I’m not advocating a hostile takeover.  I’m advocating living a life of the Gospel of Christ – loving God, recognizing the gifts in everyone, respecting and loving, helping, and doing your best to help others do the same. Remember what Francis of Assisi said.  “Go out into the world and preach the Gospel of Christ.  And if you must, use words.”

Our actions in showing how and what the Kingdom of Heaven is like speak volumes.  They can be as simple as a saying ‘good morning’ to someone or spectacular, like saving people from what’s left of a burning airplane.  If you’re concerned that what you have to offer isn’t spectacular or perfect, or holy, consider this: your right action, whatever it might be, is enough for God.  God gives you unconditional love and you have elected to share that wealth.  A model of this new paradigm was shown this past week in the midst of the transit strike, of all places.  People who usually wait quietly in line and keep to themselves with ear buds plugged in or eyes glued to a Smartphone screen at the Transbay Terminal or at local bus stops, queuing up in a neat and orderly fashion were still getting in line, but they were showing the BART refugees where certain lines were, pointing across the vast concrete continent at Folsom and Howard to islands marked by the letters of the alphabet, offering exact change to people no different than them just wanting to get home, explaining with gentle smiles and words that no, you can’t use a BART ticket in the bus fare boxes and then asking, “How much do you need?”  The BART riders looked around in bewilderment at the roped off aisles like the lines for an amusement park ride and stepped into place, started to relax when the big, green, air-conditioned buses rolled up and people started moving in a swift pace, pausing only to swipe a transit card or drop money in the fare box.  Pregnant women gave up seats for people over 65 or those with mobility problems, with young mothers with children.  Rows of seats were taken out for people in wheelchairs and those who gave up their seats got back in line to wait for the next bus into the City or home.  Those fortunate enough to claim seats offered to hold the belongings of those standing up for the less than comfortable journey across the bridge.

How is this declaring that the Kingdom is near?  This isn’t going from town to town declaring the peace of God, healing the sick, casting out demons.  It is an example of how we should be in the Kingdom.

I’m not advocating anarchy.  We need leaders, we need to follow sometimes.  But we also are called at times to accept the mission and gather the flock, and show how it’s supposed to be done.  You have certainly shown me how it’s done – this incredible fellowship we share each week in this space – and allow me to reciprocate with my own special gifts.  Christ calls us to proclaim the Kingdom is near.  It is.  It is all around us.  Look and you will recognize it.  I ask you to continue what you’re doing and find new and interesting means of spreading the Gospel to those who may not have heard it or seek it.  I will be with you, a member of the Modern Seventy, following, leading, and if I must, I will use words.

There IS Enough to Go Around….

Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, June 9, 2013:

Throughout this month, the Sunday readings are filled with stories that tell of powerful and miraculous acts. Often, we will learn, however, that a significant aspect of a story is the radical nature of who is included in these miracles.  This morning, it is a starving widow and her son, but we will also hear in the coming weeks of a man possessed by demons and a despised foreigner.  Not your typical heroes.

These stories remind us that every one, absolutely every one, can be a vessel for God’s working and bounty.  While our own beneficence may be limited, it not so with God.  We have seen it here with Elijah and the Widow.

Last week, we heard about the angry Elijah, today, we see the compassionate side of the man.

We know from last week’s text that Elijah hides from Ahab and Jezebel after he prophesies a famine as punishment for the worship of Baal.  The famine spreads to Sidon in Phoenicia where Elijah ends up.  God sends him to a widow for something to eat.  The land is suffering from famine, and yet, God sends Elijah to widow for a meal.  As we have heard, he sees a widow gathering sticks outside the gates of the city – she’s gathering kindling for a fire – and asks her for bread and water.  The widow admits that as God lives, she has very little and what she has she will make a last meal of it for her son and herself.  They are close to death from hunger.  But, she is also a woman of faith.  And now we see as she gives up the certain – the certainty of death – for the uncertain – Elijah’s promise through God that the jar of meal and the jug of oil will not be empty as long as the drought remains – and makes the little cakes for Elijah, her son, and herself.  Her faith and Elijah’s prophecy keep them alive.

We have our limits, but God doesn’t.  We are, however, given the means to act so that our limits can be widened.   We can follow in the footsteps of the prophets and use our own, twenty-first century prophetic voices to call out those who wield power and control to look beyond their own greed and want and do something revolutionary: think about the Kingdom of Heaven and the people who live in it.  Make here and now a place of equality in all things.  Jesus called out the Pharisees; we can call out our elected officials and remind them they work for the people, not corporations.

This weekend in Washington, people are gathering to address the continuing issue of hunger around the globe and especially here, in our own country, and what can be done within our means to stop it.  It is an annual conference where like minds meet to find solutions and engage our legislators in conversations about what our true priorities should be.  The theme of the conference hosted by Bread for the World is “A Place at the Table.”  The title comes from the belief that all are welcome at this table and wherever a meal is offered.  Jesus said that when we feed the hungry we feed him.  We know it is true for our table and our life of worship and action here, why should it not be so in our communities beyond Sunday mornings and church walls?

We live in a country that is one of the wealthiest on the globe, and yet, Americans go to bed hungry every night.  Children go to bed hungry every night.  Why is this happening today?

It’s a question of priorities and the problem of limited scope of vision.

On Capitol Hill, we see efforts to limit access to programs to the poor, or, what some people call the “deserving poor.”  No one deserves to be poor.  No one is undeserving of a meal, or warm place to sleep at night, a chance at a better life.

Some of our elected leaders want to reduce funding for services available to those who struggle to make ends meet, or make to the end of the pay period, struggle with their own demons, and narrowly define who is worthy of living in our country. Some members of Congress use scripture to bolster their arguments for restricting eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).  “The poor you will always have with you.”

Jesus did say that, but he also said that whenever we fed the hungry, we ministered to him.  We lived out what he expected of us.    Jesus also called out those who could not look past the norm of society, those who put rules ahead of God’s righteousness and the greater good.

Fed at Christ’s Table, we, the faithful, work and serve in a world where sharing our resources, our ministries, is one way to express our willingness to believe, to take chances against the norm and live and proclaim the Gospel.

What we should note here in this morning’s Hebrew scripture is not only the miraculous feeding of a widow and her son, but the call to action and mission.

Perhaps the miracle is that when we trust in the love of God through Christ, completely give ourselves over to that love, we can make things that seem impossible very real in our lives and the lives of those we touch.

From the last bit of meal and oil a Widow makes three little cakes and from that comes a promise of plenty in a time of need.  We are in a time of need.  There is enough of God’s bounty to go around.

Belief

Preached from the pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, April 6, 2013:

40 years ago if you had asked me about my beliefs, I would have told you that we eventually would see an end to war in my life time because I believed, as modern people, we could solve our differences rationally; I believed would be directing a movie from one of my own scripts; I’d be a bestselling author on the New York Times list; I’d never have my heart broken into a million pieces by a certain man, and the Cubs would have a shot at the World Series and take it in four games.

Guess for which I still have hope?

That’s right.  The Cubs.

Now, if you’d told me that from doubt comes belief and from belief comes faith, I would have asked what you were smoking and asked for a hit.  This was a period where I’d left all of my childhood theology and faith by the road, years of wanting to be holy, and struck out on my own. What had God and religion done for me?  I kept getting asked if I found Jesus – didn’t know he went missing.  I knew, I absolutely knew, he wasn’t in my life, because if he was, things would have been different.  Right? I was one of the spiritual people who didn’t need religion. It took me a decade to go back and sort through my baggage and leave what remained.  What brought me around were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The Acts.  The life and work of Jesus.  This is the Greatest Story Ever Told.

It is a wonderful gift to us.

It is history and it is life.  It is Good News.

It doesn’t end with a shadow on the beach, or a close up of a shroud lying on a bier in an empty tomb as Hollywood would offer and thank goodness for that!  The news spreads, the imperial government and its Temple collaborators get nervous, the excitement and joy builds. The followers of Jesus are still reeling from the crucifixion, hiding out in the Upper Room, no doubt wondering where do they go from there, what to do next.  They are visited by Jesus and as we will learn, the story with the work of the apostles and the growing community in the Book of Acts, Paul’s letters, the anonymous writings of first century Christians and not-so-anonymous persons, and in the lives of everyone who has ever heard the Good News and proclaimed it, and those who for a moment doubted and then said, “Yes!  This is real.”

This story has an epilogue, and we are it.

We, you and I, are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  Jesus’ blessing on those who come to faith without the necessity of sight or touch is not a chiding of Thomas for his lack of faith at that moment, but an affirmation of the generations who have relied on the Word and, believe it or not, Thomas’ actions, for their faith.

I bet you’d like to know why I think that last bit is an affirmation of faith.

Thomas is called the Doubter. He was bold to have stood before his friends and fellow disciples to say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Where did this come from?

Was it that Thomas still didn’t get it, or was it grief, fear or shame taking up space in his heart and mind? His teacher and leader had been executed as a criminal, after all; perhaps he didn’t want to believe for fear of what it meant – failure, like so-many would-be prophets and messiahs before Jesus, and perhaps a death by crucifixion for himself. Or, it was grief at the loss of someone he loved taking hold and putting him into denial.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others when Jesus first appeared to them – there’s no clue – but it begs the imagination, doesn’t it? He might have been going out for food for the rest, but what if he engaged in the work Jesus called him to, in full sight of Jesus’ persecutors. Imagine Thomas saying, “Yes, you killed him! But it doesn’t kill the message or the meaning! Here I am, doing exactly what he was doing! What are you going to do about it?”

He is called Doubting Thomas and that nickname has become an appellation for those of us who steadfastly refuse to believe or take at face value what we cannot see.

Haven’t we all at one time, questioned what we’ve been taught or told, or seen, especially when the hour and the day are dark and feel without promise? When those moments come, God puts into play or reveals something that turns one from being faithless to faithful, something like the Resurrection.

Remember Paul’s words to the Hebrews: “now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see.”

Faith requires that we who have not seen, believe. Belief that the Kingdom is here and now, belief that God is always with us.

God came to us in the form and blessing of Jesus. So many prophets came before Jesus claiming to be the Christ but they slipped away into obscurity, suffered ignominious deaths like Jesus.

What made him so different?

He was who he said he was. He did what he said he was going to do. The resurrection of Christ gave new life to humanity, to those who believed. What was promised by Jesus in his teaching was and is being lived out. The apostles, the first followers of Jesus, proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom – what Jesus promised in his teachings and ministry was made true. The followers of Jesus live out the new commandment – that they love one another as Jesus loved them, and in attending to the needs of one another – what Jesus commanded was made tangible and real.

The apostles became the leaders of the movement and strove to live as they were taught, showing that “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great family of different people, living together, loving one another and all living in equality.” What Jesus demonstrated in his ministry was kept alive by the faith, belief and right action.

And this is where we come in.

We are the disciples, called to keep the Good News in play, to keep the Word in our hearts and minds, and to keep it alive. How you and I do this depends on the gifts God has given each one of us, and how the Spirit moves within us.

We’re always looking for new ways to proclaim the Gospel, to tell the story, to keep it fresh and alive. Jesus walks with us every step of the way – sometimes we have to open our hearts and minds a bit wider to see him, get past our own wounds so that we can see his.  No, we haven’t seen the five wounds except what is depicted in artwork and written of in scripture, but we know they are real.

Every time we say ‘peace be with you,’ Christ says it to us. And when I send people out at the end of the service to go in peace to love and serve God, I mean it. Again, how you follow through is dependent on what you called to do.

It’s time for us to pick up our pens and continue the story. What will you write on the page? Perhaps it will be to say that you and I can see Jesus working in our lives and we are continually blessed by that grace – sight unseen.

Let’s show the world in thought, word and deed, that Christ is our Lord and our God – show the world that we believe.

 

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