Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

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We are the Saints

Preached On All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2012:
Who are the saints we celebrate this morning?
Who and what, are saints?
Our history and tradition tell us they are people who did extraordinary things with their faith and lives, many of the earliest dying for their witness to the Kingdom and their 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 by 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, that catalyst bringing some to the faith or deepening the faith already held.
Someone who was murdered or martyred while defending Christianity.
I won’t argue with some of that, but remember, our 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.
Some days are abysmal – those “pull the covers over the head and grab the teddy bear and hold tight” days. But every day is a new beginning, a new start, yet another chance to take right action and get it right.
If you want my opinion about who and what saints are – and it doesn’t matter, because you’re going to get it anyway – they are the roll call of Christianity, particularly the people Jesus calls out in his sermon on the plain, or mountain, depending on whose Gospel and translation you’re reading, that wonderful poetic homily that was a political manifesto, an agenda for social justice and activism.
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. They are people like you and me who either fit into one or more of these categories, or respond to the needs of those named.
Ordinary people who more than often lived what you and I would call a normal life. They were teachers, parents, nurses, doctors, sons, daughters – you get the idea.
Did anything change for them while earthside? 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 go out of their way to feed the hungry, or come in early on a Sunday morning to sing in choirs, set up chairs, offer 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, working and praying with 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 those who have no voices, work for equality in all aspects of life. They welcome and embrace lost sheep into this particular intimate fold, whether they are a professor, a day worker, someone looking for a new start, or someone with a collar. I see these saints before me.
These are the saints we celebrate today.
They are the focus of Jesus’ ministry.
I don’t know about you, but when I first read the Gospels as a girl, I saw myself in them, but never would have believed it for a minute if you had told me then what I’d be doing now as a Christian. Or that I would be a Christian. Christians were good people who went to church. I wasn’t good, and my family didn’t go to church. Yet Jesus was talking about me and wanted me to know that I was loved, and to know that I would have to make some tough choices if I wanted to turn peoples’ hearts and minds towards the life and world Jesus offers.
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, those 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. 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 – so are you.
We are everyday saints
Yes, you and I are everyday saints who can make a difference.
Tuesday, we have the opportunity to exercise our right to have a say in how our country is governed. I will not tell you how you should vote, or for whom, because I don’t want the IRS knocking on the parish hall door – we’ve got enough problems right now – but there are people in other countries who die for what is given to us freely by constitution. If you were going to stay home because you think what you decide will not make a difference, I urge you to think again. You do make a difference and you can.
And guess where we get that idea?
That great social activist, Jesus of Nazareth. We need only open our hearts and our minds.
Sometimes it is there in front of us; sometimes it takes a miracle of amazing proportions for us to see God working in us or in the world. Or to see the messenger. It took Jesus bringing his best friend back to life and walking out of the tomb himself before his companions got it.
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.”
And I am proud to be one of the saints with you, my family in Christ.

Hard Lessons

Yesterday’s gospel, Mark 10:2-16, explains what Christ expects of us in relationships.  He is baited by the question if it is lawful to divorce one’s wife, and throws it right back at his interrogator.  Sure, Moses said you could divorce your wife, but if you want to be a follower of Jesus, then understand that the marriage bond cannot be broken, because it is made by God.

This is a hard lesson, especially in our disposable society.  We’ve grown accustomed to tossing things out if they’re broken, we don’t like the color, or they don’t meet our expectations – this goes for marriage, too.

Marriage is a difficult relationship.  Once the rings are exchanged and the last of the cake eaten, the thank you cards sent to guests, the hard work begins.  We are with the same person every day and night, seeing the best and the worst; our patience is tested and tears are shed, but so do we laugh and celebrate just as much, delight in each other’s company.  It’s when the going gets tough and we hit bumps along our journeys that we sometimes say “This isn’t fun anymore – this isn’t what I signed up for!”

But it is…

You can say this about our relationship with Christ.

Once we rise up from the waters of baptism we are in a new relationship with God, we are in a marriage of sorts.  We must expect that there will be hard times to be Christian as well as joyous moments.  The sweet baby Jesus in the manger, the loving, gentle shepherd of Christmas cards are real, but so is the Christ who is a hard-edged prophet and teacher that expects us to take the good with the bad, move away from what is comfortable some times in order to serve one another and love another and truly live out the Gospel.

Sometimes being welcoming and loving is the most difficult thing we can do.  Jesus tells us that we must welcome ‘the little children,’ both literally and figuratively.  I don’t know about you, but there are times when I don’t want to be bothered by anyone, but I find myself pushing past the unwillingness to act.  It isn’t easy at all.  But it’s what Christ calls me to do.

But back to the issue of marriage.   This exhortation and Paul’s comment from Ephesians about wives being submissive to their husbands has been a green light for some to condone abuse.

Does Christ want us to stay in damaging, toxic relationships?

I don’t believe so.  Sometimes you have to walk away when nothing, absolutely nothing, works and the wounds get deeper and the damage spreads.  Then you can say that you did all you could and move on and start a new life.

What we are asked to do as Christians and children of God is to simply love.  Not romantic love, but the love that is born of belief in Christ’s message and ministry, the need to follow him, and most importantly, the unconditional love of God, and the respect and mutuality of common good an ground.

That is a marriage that can last.

Some Advice…

Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Mark 9:38-50, is not for the faint-hearted.  Last week, we heard Jesus admonish his disciples over their bickering about who would be first among them, and now he scolds because someone is objecting to a person healing in Jesus’ name, even though that person is not one of the inner circle, as it were.

This isn’t the warm and fuzzy Jesus of childrens’ hymns.  This isn’t the doe-eyed, pretty boy Jesus with the Sacred Heart glowing underneath his robes.  This is a hard-edged prophet throwing the gauntlet down and daring others to pick it up.

Anyone, absolutely anyone, who does a deed in Christ’s name, he says, cannot afterwards speak evil of him.  If you’re willing to act and speak as Christ would, then you must be prepared to do so.  There are no shortcuts.  There’s no trash-talking if it doesn’t work out.

You have to say what you mean and mean what you say.  Carry it through.

This advice can be scary in a time where taking responsibility for one’s actions is sometimes kicked to the curb.

Does he really mean rip out your eye?  Cut off your hand?

No.

Just make sure you don’t offend.  Make sure when you are proclaiming the Gospel and living it out that you do it in such a way that people might remark, “Yeah!  That’s what Jesus meant!  That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Do it as if Jesus is right beside you, impatiently offering advice – yes, impatient.  We’ve read how he speaks to the disciples. Listen to what the Spirit that is Christ is saying before we act.  Use our hearts AND minds, think things through.  Not so much, “What would Jesus do?” but, “This is what I believe Jesus would have me do because this is what my capabilities are right now at this moment and it’s what I need to follow through.”

If we take his advice, we will surely be speaking well of him who sent us.

 

 

 

Get in Line…

This last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that those who considered themselves first would be last, and the last would be first. This was prompted by the disciples bickering amongst themselves over who was more important. Whenever I read this gospel or proclaim it, I am reminded of my grammar school days, especially kindergarten, when being line leader was the most important job I though a five year old could have. Every week Mrs. Teasdahl made up a list of the tasks assigned to particular children. Eventually, we all got our turn doing something, but the reading of that list and getting our assignment was the highlight of Monday morning. I held my breath and waited to hear “Ellen – girl’s line leader.” And I never did. I was the milk monitor, the child who brought the milk money to the office every day; I was the ball monitor, the child who got to carry the red rubber ball in from the yard, I was the window monitor, the child who got to open and close the windows with the giant hook. But I was never line leader. I assumed I was a nobody, a failure.

How strange that we should measure our achievements and worth by where we stand in a line or what job we get to undertake. I got to sing a solo in the Christmas pageant and performed in other dramatic shows as a five year old, but for some reason, leading that line was what was important to me.

For some people, where you stand in line and society is still important. Take for instance Mr. Romney’s comment at a private party about the percentage of Americans who believe the government should take care of him. Words he thought were spoken in private, in an unguarded moment, perhaps, but to me and others, many others, they were insulting and a reflection of what he thinks of us, and his values.

What would Mr. Romney have done if Jesus replied to him? What would he have said when Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first to him – a man who had a comfortable life for most, if not all of his days and never knew real privation?

We are ‘you people,’ ‘those people,’ to people like the Republican presidential candidate; to Christ, we are equals and worthy of respect and love and called to put aside pride and self-love to love and serve one another.

As a child, if I had looked up or down the line, I would have found a little girl in front of me and a little girl behind him. I would be somewhere in the middle, which is where I am today. What I didn’t know then was that I was surrounded by love and it is perfectly acceptable to put myself last so that others with greater need can have their turn at the head of line and have those needs fulfilled. It’s my job as Christian to step aside and let someone go before me, and, if once in a while, someone doe the same for me, well, that’s proof that the Gospel can be lived out in a modern world.

My friends, get in line.

Equipped with The Word

Preached from the pulpit at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd:

As you get to know me, you’ll learn that there are oh so many layers to the deacon – but that’s true for all of us, right?

Since I’ve started worshiping here on a regular basis, I’ve learned that some of my siblings in the flock are artists, musicians – good ones, too – tech savvy, erudite, intellectual, fun and interesting.  For my part, you know me as your deacon and the mother of two tall, somewhat handsome young men, Carlos Raphael and Nicolas, both of whom are artists and like saying hello with smiles and offering hugs at the peace.  And they like to eat. And eat. And eat.  Good Shepherd’s coffee hours sealed the deal with the boys when I mentioned coming here to serve as the parish deacon.  I also have a daughter, Celia, who lives in Chicago with her husband and used to raise havoc in her catechism class at St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church by asking why women weren’t important in the church if Jesus appeared to women first.

 In time you will learn, if you haven’t already, that what is true about my sons and daughter is also true of me.  And, I am passionate about civil rights, social justice and proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven – and sometimes I’ll even use words.

 I’m a little disappointed that this morning’s Gospel, for which I am charged to proclaim, isn’t the passage from second chapter of John that illustrates Christ’s cleansing of the Temple, because so much happened this week that made me want to use my prophetic voice – the one that gets me in trouble – and to do some temple trashing of my own.

 Fortunately, both this morning’s epistle and the gospel offer advice on what it means to a follower and a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. We have some insight into the reality of a calling each one of us in our own way and time has answered. I think of it as Jesus pulling me, and you, back, gently, and saying, “Hold on, hold on – before you go off on a tear, let me explain something…”

 And this morning, Jesus continues to explain the deeper meaning of the miracle of the loaves and fishes: it is about sharing in the life of Christ, and how the call to follow includes difficult and seemingly impossible demands.

 But with God in Christ, nothing is impossible.

 His beautiful discourse on the Bread of Life ends and questions begin.  We have heard that some of the disciples turn away, for they see the path as too difficult, unlike the Twelve, who remain. 

 The Christological language in this scripture was and has been interpreted literally – then and now. Taken, perceived in a literal sense, the statements about drinking blood and eating flesh were scandalous.  Growing up in the housing project in Rodeo, not far from here, I remember summer evenings when the women in our unit would sit outside and talk about the strangest things – like the people who attended the Catholic Church in town eating flesh and drinking blood. 

 Did they?  Really?

 Imagine how that may have terrified a nine-year old with an already vivid imagination, and how she might have glanced at her friends who attended the parochial school and the church. Later, when I expressed my concerns to a favorite teacher, she explained that what was said by Jesus in the Gospel of John was imagery and I went to look up the word in a dictionary.

 I’ve learned since then that the imagery used represented a full sharing in the life of Jesus. Even with this knowledge, it’s a bit much to take or understand, accept, don’t you think? 

 Such misunderstandings of Jesus’ words are frequent and this allows him to challenge us to new ways of thinking, seeing, believing.  He says to us, what if you were to see me ascend to Heaven like Moses and Elijah did, would you believe me then? Would you accept these tough questions and lessons?  You know all about Moses and Elijah, right?  Yes, if you take my body and blood that I am giving you we will be linked together, we will be a part of one another, but keep this mind – the body that we know is transitory, doesn’t last. 

 The Spirit and the life she gives, the enlivening power, are forever. 

 The path that puts you on a journey to discerning the words, these tough, strange phrases, is faith.  Remember the phrase, you’ve got to see it to believe it?  Doesn’t work here.  Believing it leads to seeing it.

 Yes?

 Yes, well, you have to include what God wants for us and what God invites us to do.  Jesus tells us that no one come to him unless it is granted by the Father.  God’s desire for us is even greater than our desire for God.  It is by Divine inspiration that we turn to the Creator and it is a gift freely given to everyone – some accept it and there are those who turn it down, close their hearts to the invitation.

 Peter’s reply to Jesus may be ours.  We have nowhere else to go for we have come to believe and know that Jesus is the Holy One of God who gives eternal life.

 I find that a hard offer to turn down.

 Now.  Let’s consider what’s next.  We have the passion, we have the inspiration, we have Jesus who gives us the Word and we share abundantly in his life. 

 Time to take off the rose-colored glasses, and put on the whole armor of God, the armor of light, that Paul describes for us in this letter to the Ephesians and in his letter to the Romans. We have work to do.

 This metaphorical harness equips us to face the trials of being Christian in an increasingly secular society, and of late, one sector in particular continues an attack on and being adverse to many in America. 

 Last week, a legislator elected by the people made a pretty outrageous statement about a criminal, violent act against women and implied that a woman’s body will shut down to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.  Really?  Maybe he should shut his mouth or take a basic course in anatomy and physiology, or take a refresher course if it’s been that long.  Maybe the legislators who wish to change the rape laws should tag along the next time I’m called to an emergency room to counsel a rape victim and sit with her as she is interviewed by law enforcement and medical personnel and has to relive the horror over and over in the span of two hours.

 Friday, there was a shoot out at the Empire State Building in New York.  What a woman can do with her body and life is the stuff of legislation to some, but demand gun control from our leaders?  Oh no, shame on us for thinking we should give up our rights to AK47s and assault rifles – because we need them to commute to work, go shopping, watch a Little League game.

 Look at that – I just slipped on shoes that will prepare me to take this fight further and proclaim a Gospel of equality and justice and peace. I won’t raise a real sword, or set my sights with an assault rifle; no, only and only if, I were forced to protect my children or other people I love, and I bet you won’t either if you join me.  I’ll use the tools given to me by Christ.  For now, The Word is sufficient for my needs.

 It’s time to proclaim the Kingdom as a home for everyone, not just a privileged few.  We as disciples are to don the might of the whole armor of God, which reflects the ministry of Jesus: truth, justice, concern for others.  These are qualities that will make for peace and reconciliation.  Another tool is perseverance in prayer.  Another is boldness to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel.

 We constantly speak all the words that need to be said about what we as a modern church in turbulent times need to do.  How about we put those words to action and boldly proclaim the good news in our right action and work to show to all that we are a community of faithful who embrace the mandate that we love one another, care for one another and respect one another?  That we take on the flesh and the blood of Christ with the armor and embrace the eternal life that is ours.

 That we put this world turning upside down back to rights and make it truly the Kingdom of Heaven.

 I’m ready.  I have the sword, the shield, the armor, and the shoes.  How about you?

 

It Was What it Was…

The media, as it always does, put taglines on the horrific event of Friday, July 20th.  The alleged suspect is now “The Dark Knight Shooter.”  The shooting in the theatre is now “The Batman Massacre.”

Let’s just call it what it was.

Murder.

Let’s not romanticize it, or make it glamorous by giving it comic-book titles.

12 people died on Friday, more were injured.  Families, friends, everyone in that theatre will be affected by this for years to come.

The media will continue to report this story as more information is revealed, as we discover who James was and why he did it, as we are witnesses to news tape of funerals and hospital homecomings.  Why someone let him into the theatre by the side door.  Other news organizations will try to find a ‘local angle’ to the murders.

Are there such things?  Why?  Last night a local news station showed us a story of two local girls and their mother who were in the theatre next door and how somone near them was hit by a bullet that came through the wall.  Was that necessary?

The act was despicable and that’s enough.  Let justice be done.  Let the suspect come to trial.

First, let us pray for all those affected by the shootings and pray that when our leaders decry the violence and say let there be an end to it, that they actually do something about it.  This time.  So there won’t be a next time.

Pax et bonum.

E+

 

 

 

An Interesting Trinity…

In this morning’s Hebrew and Christian scripture, we are shown that the least likely of people are chosen to do God’s work on Earth.
We have a king, formerly a pretty boy shepherd, down in the streets with the people, dancing, leading a procession, praising and glorifying God; there is a disturbing, passionate prophet who calls it like he sees it through God, doesn’t care who he offends as he calls for people to repent, live into a new life; and there is a puppet of the powers-that-be, untrusting, fearful – a leader by accident of parentage and one who miscalculated but whose actions were necessary.
Let’s see how this odd Trinity fits, and especially how it fits in God’s plan.
King David brings the Ark of Covenant from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem after he captures the city from the Jerubites. That action lays the foundation for Jerusalem becoming the center of Hebrew life and faith for the people of Israel. This is a joyful occasion, for the Ark was a portable chest that tradition says held the two tablets of the law. It was a symbol of the Covenant. It was originally housed in a tent and led the people through the desert. Now, it was finding a permanent home with David first, and later, the Temple that he would build to house it. I don’t know about you, but yes, this would be an occasion to celebrate, and David does. This infuriates his wife. Maybe he’s embarrassing her: kings don’t dance in the streets, or throw off their kingly jewel-encrusted robes, or wear priestly garments; they wear clothes that cost a fortune, they’re carried in litters or ride in chariots or on horseback, the people bowing and groveling as they pass – the way Herod Antipas would have dressed and travelled through Jerusalem centuries later. Do you see him dancing through the streets or rejoicing with his people – not the palace cronies or courtiers, but people like you and me? Antipas is the son of Herod the Great. Being the son of someone with less-than-sterling morals and labeled ‘the Great’ can’t be easy, and Herod Antipas hasn’t endeared himself to the people or his family. He’s married his brother’s wife, which is prohibited in Leviticus and isn’t lost on his detractors. John the Baptizer has called him out on this. And he’s got a high-maintenance wife seeking revenge for all the nasty truths being told.
First century Palestine and Judea were full of prophets, and many of them failed in conveying their messages. John was one who did not. You might label him eccentric for his dress and way of life, which begs the question, if John walked into this church right now, today, would we pay attention to his words, or to his appearance? Okay, this is Berkeley where anything still goes, but honestly, would we accept him? After all, he doesn’t look or act like we do. Would we dismiss him as yet another homeless guy wandering in for a meal, a place to rest? Or would we welcome him? Listen to what he has to say even if it stretched our comfort zones?
John’s behavior, like David’s, was not the norm for his society. Herod? He looked the part, acted it on occasion. Each of these men were called by God to set something in motion for us: David, to build a kingdom and keep a Covenant, continue living in faith; John to proclaim the kingdom here and now and make people ready, anticipate, a new way of thinking and living through who and what was to come; Herod to set that work into play with politics, fear, mistrust and pathos and ordering the execution of a prophet who accomplished an action of transition from penitence in the old world to communion in the new world.
Where have seen this before? John’s violent death by the authorities, a death that is calculated and planned, is a precursor to the death of Jesus, the Christ, who led us further from penitence to communion, to grace, and is just as important to the development of our faith, society. From among John’s disciples came those to Jesus as the ministry given to him by God picks up momentum and became a force to be reckoned with, a threat to the status quo. David’s admirable and despicable actions as king paved the way for Solomon and generations of leaders to a messiah whose words and deeds are still honored today. They inspired prophets like Gandhi, Bonheoffer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero and Congressman John Lewis.
John Lewis?
He was a confidante and friend of Dr. King.
In 2009, when I attended Sojourners’ Mobilization to End Poverty conference in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lewis preached to us at the opening liturgy. He shared his story of how, as a young man, he disobeyed his parents and went on the freedom bus rides in the South to stand in solidarity with Dr. King and to make a statement about equality. His parents asked him, “Son, why do you want to get in the way? Why do you want to make trouble?” He ignored their pleas and worked with Dr. King. Mr. Lewis told us that we were to be undeterred in our separate yet equal paths to social justice and right action. We were to find a way to get in the way.
I have two raisons d’être: Joan of Arc’s quote, “I am not afraid, for God is with me. I was born for this.” And “Find a way to get in the way,” I use them in prayer and action. I believe, and I share this with you, that David and John got in the way, got to people, opened minds. They were born for their work and right action. Herod, too – he was a lesson in how not to govern and what happens when you don’t listen to God or see God in others.
I am finding parallels to the life of the prophets then and the life and work of prophets now. To prophesy or use a prophetic voice to tell people to open their eyes to what is wrong isn’t an automatic death sentence in the United States, but we who speak out against corporate greed, discrimination of all kinds, the growth of the wealthy and the increasing poverty of the middle class, we who speak and stand up for the marginalized and undocumented, we who dance to a joyful song rather than march solemnly to a one-beat cadence are considered un-American, called that really dirty nine-letter word, socialist, and suspect; we are quoted convenient scripture by those who claim to be and know better, told we are wrong, knocked down a peg, put in our places and shown the error of our ways.
Good, I say.
Let them keep doing that.
Let them keep attacking women, cutting back social programs for the benefit of all and not just the privileged few, let them keep calling I and my colleagues Socialists and knee-jerk liberals, and other things I can’t say here, let them write newspaper columns and blogs tearing down the Episcopal Church for its bold inclusiveness and predicting its demise in the wake of our seeking change, change and more change, because like John the Baptizer, it will give us all the more reason to stand up, proclaim the Gospel and live it out, and turn this darkness surrounding us inside out and towards the Light. We will dance, we will prophesy, we will get in the way, clear a path leading to the Kingdom of Heaven where the love of Christ in God is boundless and given freely. And where everyone, absolutely everyone! Is welcome at the table.

Amidst Our Tears There is Joy …

Somber texts.

For what can silence a gathering more quickly than death, that specter hanging over us from the moment we draw our first breaths?

Even so, the scripture we’ve heard and the Gospel proclaimed show us, assure us, that in death there is life, and, despite a natural and understandable desire to rage at God at those moments of loss and grief, God does not, in my theological mindset, cause or allow death to happen.

What God does, however, is hold us in our awful pain, shore us up, and is abundant with love as we see in our Gospel this morning.

Still, we feel the pain and loss and we ask why.  We shake our fists at the heavens.

And we’ve done it for centuries.  Our ancestors who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures tried to sort it out.  The author of the passage from Wisdom wrote, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.”

It was written by someone as ordinary, as full of questions and doubts, hope, as you and me.  This scripture came from the hands of people no different than you and me. The author didn’t sit down and have a one-on-one round table discussion with God on the subject of death on the Charlie Rose Show.   No questions like, “Why create if you’re going to destroy?  What’s up with that?  What were you thinking?”

No, what was written came from life experience and an understanding of the culture and situation, people, at that time, a means of justifying death.  Some thought of God as a vengeful creator who at a whim struck down; fortunately, as we have heard this morning, some did not.

And here we are, still dealing with it, still fearing it, still running from it.

As a hospital chaplain I see death touch many lives and it is never easy to witness; as a mother, I stood by helplessly and prayed to God during those horrible nine days and pleading with him not to take my eldest child, my daughter, after a terrible accident; as a sister when I got a phone call on a Saturday morning that told me my favorite and closest sister had passed; I sat in bewilderment and anger as a teenager when my mother died just as suddenly.  I had those angry moments.  We all do.

I get asked why I believe when – well, fill in the blank.

Why?

How can I not?   I have seen the little miracles God works in my life – my children, my friends, my congregation, the beauty of creation around me.  The outpouring of love is sometimes overwhelming and there are times when I beg for it.  It is greater than death and sustains me.  I hope that’s true for you as well.

As much as I fear it and fight it, death is a natural part of being a human in creation with a finite life on a finite planet. Suffering, sickness, pain, and evil are a part of living in the natural world.  Without death, how would we explain life?  How would we make every single moment count?

I’m not so sure that I want to live to be a million, even after I’ve crossed everything off my Bucket List, and read every single book I’ve downloaded on my e-reader, or finally worked through my yarn stash, or run out of ideas for my next novel.

Doesn’t make it easier and it doesn’t answer the question.

What answers the question is God’s love.

What seals that for me, and I hope for you as well, is the extraordinary power of God working through Jesus. His raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead was the promise of the resurrection. The visual image of that, the account passed down from generation to generation, helps us to understand. The idea of finally all being together in eternal life, rising from our own death, is hard to grasp at times – no one here has a first person account of what dying is like – but I could be wrong. This story of Jairus helps us a little. This and the other stories of Jesus raising people from the dead give us an insight into resurrection.

Another way to look at it is thinking outside of our mortal box.  We live in kronos, but God and the Kingdom of Heaven is on Kairos – and a thousand years there is no more than a second of what we experience.  Kairos would be the eternal life Jesus offers us if we would believe in him.

An eternity sitting at the feet of beloved Rabbouni listening and learning, loving.

Still, there is that specter looming and the pain it brings.  The alternative reading from Lamentations tells us “God weeps with us, too.”   I believe that is very true.  God weeps because we weep. God is there to comfort us as we weep. We are never truly alone in our darkest times.  We have seen this in the life and ministry of Jesus and the very fact that we still rejoice in the Resurrection and proclaim the Gospel in our daily lives – sometimes, even using words – is proof positive.

The raising of Jairus’ little daughter is God’s powerful means of showing us love in action.  God is love.

God is with us in every emotion, in every part of our lives.

We must not fear.  But believe and love.

 

I Love my Family

This morning’s sermon.  I take as my text, Mark 3:20-35:

I’d like to add my thoughts to the homilist’s comment last week about spirituality replacing religion in twenty-first century lives and mindsets.  To my way of thinking, it doesn’t jive – this convenient and expedient idea that one doesn’t need religion, or a faith community to be spiritual or have spirituality.  To my way of thinking, it contravenes the Good News – and the Good News, the New Commandment especially – that we love one another as Christ loves us – is the reason we gather together as a family and a community, isn’t it?

Granted, our history shows there were and are people who distanced themselves from society in order to find a path to God and to fully understand the ministry and meaning of Christ, but when it comes down to it, were they really alone?  The exodus of Christians who fled the newly recognized and organized church of the fourth century to find beatitude in solitude after the ultimate witness of martyrdom was no longer necessary gave us monasticism – a way to find solitude in prayer and life away from the noisy distraction and temptations of life, and singularly focus on God. Monasteries were communities, however.  Those seeking to live a life of simplicity, privation and primarily solitude left civilization as we know it and found an oasis, or secluded valley, even an abandoned cemetery where they would not be disturbed. Yet those desert mothers and fathers weren’t secluded, because after time the Egyptian desert was scattered with Christians seeking solitude, or visited by Christians seeking counsel.

I don’t believe our friend and brother, our redeemer Jesus, gave himself in total love and obedience to God, and made the ultimate sacrifice, in order that we could find our ways separately and apart.

We are invited by Christ, we are called, each one of us, to walk in love throughout our neighborhoods, our lives, and live out the Gospel and to do it together.  We have as our model Jesus and the Apostles, who show us what the family of God is like.

We are with Jesus when he returns home to Nazareth.  He’s getting it from all sides again. He’s accused of being a creature of Satan and his family shows up where he’s preaching. Mark tells us that he’s come home and in the intervening time he’s attracted wide attention and a large following.  Perhaps he’s just sat down to eat the first meal in days, and is interrupted by the crowd descending on Nazareth and Mary’s doorstep.  When his family seeks to hold him back from addressing the detractors and the crowd they think he’s gone out of his mind.  It only gets worse when the remarks about Satan come up.  The family is probably wondering what’s gotten into their son and brother since the last time they saw him, and following behind the crowd to where Jesus has gone. When his mother and brothers seek him out, he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Ouch.  Now that has got to hurt.  This isn’t your blue-eyed, pretty boy Jesus smiling down at you from a nineteenth century lithograph and telling you don’t worry be happy; this is the Jesus telling you what exactly it means to be a disciple.  Now – before you start squirming, let me posit this: Jesus isn’t telling us to turn our backs on our families, because we know this text was written around the time the Temple was destroyed, and when it was quite dangerous to be a Christian.  The author of Mark is reminding his audience when one enters the baptismal covenant, we are not only born into a new life when we rise up out of the water, but we are received into the body of Christ. Not just the corporal, but the spiritual, born of faith.  To what he calls our attention is a broader dimension of relationships.  You have your father, mother, sisters and brothers, and extended biological family, but you are also part of a greater family that is called by faith in Christ.  The person who performs God’s will is the one, Jesus says, who is truly family to him.  Again, this pronouncement does not dissolve family loyalty but reminds us that devotion to God’s purpose for each of us should be at the top of our lists.  When we love God we love one another – our families and our friends.

I see all around me the body of Christ.  And this, I’m pretty sure was how he envisioned this new family of his.

Is this how you see it?  Or, did you wander about in a spiritual desert trying to figure things out on your own?  I know I did.

Growing up, I thought only good people went to church – and I felt I wasn’t good.  Why?  I didn’t like the way people looked at me when I was in church.  I felt they didn’t like me because I didn’t have the nicest clothes, didn’t have gloves and a hat. I didn’t like those people.  I didn’t know at the time it was pity they were throwing my way.  It was easier to pick up a bible and read, pour through Butler’s lives of saints, whisper my rosary in the dark when everyone else was asleep, and couldn’t hear me or ask questions.  I felt I didn’t need to go to church and sit with a bunch of strangers; what could they know about me or my belief except what they saw?  This was between God, the Angels, the Saints and me.  Oh yeah, Jesus, too.  One of my high school friends recently told me that she didn’t like organized religion because of the politics and the hypocrisy.  Guess what, neither do I, and many more people, and that’s a good reason to come together and change it so that it truly models and mirrors the Kingdom of Heaven where everyone is welcome and everyone is loved.

I eventually realized, and if you strayed off the path as I did, that being spiritual takes a long-term commitment; it takes preparation and it is by no means expedient.  It doesn’t get you to God any quicker than being a member of a faith community.  And you needed a community to guide and nurture, to share.  I’ve discovered that it is a component of this multi-faceted person of faith called a Christian.  There are days and moments when we get the message, and there are the other days.  But we may be assured that Christ is with us no matter what, and you and I are together in this.  I’ve seen it in right action by you, this very week.  How?  We come together every Sunday morning to hear our history, to give thanks and praise and, most importantly, to share the Agape, the love feast that is given to us when we encircle this table and take the bread and wine that is Christ. Then we go over to coffee hour, catch each other up – and we go home to what we call the real world.  What happens next?  One some days, we make sandwiches to share in the neighborhood, we show our love to a member of the community who has been in hospital, bringing meals and comfort, greetings from the parish.  We tend the garden that feeds the hungry, we welcome curious newcomers and invite them back, we share our physical buildings with the community, we model Christ and the Good News by small things that we do as a family.

Who are my mother and brothers?  They are everywhere I look.  And it makes me glad.

Deja Vu of the Nicest Kind

Last Sunday I started a new assignment for the Episcopal Church, diocese of California.  I’m now the parish deacon for Church of the Good Shepherd at 1823 Ninth Street in Berkeley, which is two blocks from my home.  While I was walking over Friday before last to tour the physical buildings and walk through the liturgy (church service), I got this wonderful feeling that I’d done this before.  Well, of course I have!  I’ve been a deacon for almost ten years and nine of it was spent at my sponsoring parish, St. Mark’s Berkeley, up by the University of California.  Good Shepherd is a small church, first organized in 1878 and it is on a tree-lined street in a neighborhood of West Berkeley – not the most affluent of places.   It’s a neighborhood I’ve lived in since my arrival in Berkeley in 1977.

The overwhelming sense of belonging and familiarity took over as I walked over and contentment washed over me.  I had to stop for a moment and then I started to cry.  These were tears of happiness because, even though the one place I’ve always felt at home was in a church, I truly felt for the first time that I was home and I fit.

I belonged.

The congregation is small, the vicar is a lovely woman I’ve known for ten years and has a quiet spirtuality that fits Good Shepherd, too.   One of my clergy colleagues told me in an e-mail that he thought Good Shepherd was a loving community.  It is!  It is active, vital and cares about the community around it.

Where I will fit is a work in progress.  I have ministries assigned to me, but I’m taking it slow and getting to know the people I’ll be ministring with and to before I start jumping in feet first into the areas that I’ve known for – social justice and advocacy, getting people to speak up about injustice and working for food programs that feed the hungry throughout the world, including the United States.

About that last part – someone asked if it wasn’t a conflict, writing legislators about changing policy or keeping it concerning the poor of America.  I do it as a concerned Christian and constituent.  I’m not telling people who to vote for or giving money to get a bill passed.  I’m inviting people to speak up and take a position that will benefit everyone – how they speak and to whom they speak is their choice.

Another question I get a lot is how I can be active in politics since I’m a clergywoman.

Well, the church began as a political movement.  The Sermon on the Mount isn’t so much a feel-good-about-your smug-self rally cry but a political agenda – a manifesto.  What Jesus of Nazareth told the crowds had never been told before and it turned the whole idea of how we are to live with one another and God a full 360 degrees.  In a patriarchal society people were told that everyone counted, everyone had a place at the table and in the Kingdom of Heaven.  They were told that love, not the romantic or physical love we all encounter, was the key – a mutual acceptance and respect for one another, treating one another as we would be treated.  The rich man in his palace and the poor man at its gate were equal in God’s eyes.

Nothing has changed in the 2,000 years since that was preached.  If anything, it is more relevant now with the constant attacks on some of us by certain people of certain beliefs.

This morning’s Gospel is Mark 3:20-35, when Jesus returns home to Nazareth and is confronted by the large crowds following him, his detractors, and his own family.  The scripture passage ends with Jesus asking just who his family might be.

Here’s a hint – anyone who does God’s will, i.e., living out the New Commandment to love another and take care of one another.  But that doesn’t negate the biological families we have – it asks us to expand our vision of what family should be.

So you see, I have my work cut out for me – and I believe you do, too.

Go in peace, dear ones!

 

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