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Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is for you here?

What is for you here?
Pentecost X – Proper 14 A – August 13, 2017
Christ Church, Ridgewood, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

I'm fairly certain that 99 44/100% of clergy who are scheduled to preach this morning are not preaching the sermon they initially prepared.

I had a lovely sermon on "spiritual discernment" which I wrote on Thursday and finished on Friday. I knew Saturday would be spent traveling from my home in DE to visit my grandchildren and then to spend a lovely afternoon at their home with them and then a bit of a trip to the petting zoo.

And then came Saturday evening. And, some time between a lovely afternoon of giggling and reading and petting goats and feeding cows, Charlottesville, VA happened. More specifically, the "Unite the Right" march happened. One woman is dead. Nineteen more are hospitalized.

And, my lovely, neatly typed, double spaced 14 point sermon was tossed into the trash and this one was scribbled on hotel paper at around midnight.

Now, you don't know me and I don't know you but I take my responsibility as a priest and a minister of the Gospel pretty seriously.  When I got back from a lovely day with my family and got into my hotel room, I saw the images on my television screen and immediately became ill.

Then, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing in light of the Gospel and the scripture lessons for today and knew I had to preach this to you today.

I thought the worst that can happen is that you'd listen politely (like good Episcopalians) and then never ask me to come back.

I figured, well, what the heck!?!

What I saw in the disturbing images from Charlottesville, unfolding, before my very eyes, was solid evidence that the very issue which ignited the Civil War in this country, on April 12, 1861 at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina DID NOT END with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.

The harsh, painful truth is that we are still fighting the Civil War - and not just in the South or in the North. It is in the very soil of America. Everywhere.

Oh, we've all taken anti-racism training which the diocese and the national church offer. Or, at least, we've had "diversity training" in corporate settings.

I'm not talking about "racism" - as important as that is.

I'm not talking about "inclusion" of "diversity" - as important as that is.

I'm talking about the evil which must be named if we are to confront it.

I'm talking about White Supremacy - the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races - especially the Black race - and therefore, White people should be dominate over all other races.

This domination by Whites extends to the God of their belief - including their own brand of Christianity - which they believe is superior to other religions, and, therefore, anything other than Christianity in general and their unique brand of Christianity in particular ought to be eliminated if not annihilated.

Now, this impulse to dominate and annihilate is not a new phenomenon. It's not even an old phenomenon. It is, in fact, ancient, woven in the earliest stories of humans.

We see this in the first lesson from the 19th chapter of the 1st Book of Kings. We meet up with the Prophet Elijah in a cave on the side of Mt. Horeb. He had retreated there after a confrontation with the forces of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who were devout followers of the God of the Phoenicians, the God known as Ba'al.

Elijah had set up a dueling miracle match of "My God is more powerful than your God" between the Phoenician Ba'al and the Israelites, Jehovah.

In short, Ba'al lost.

The deal was that 850 prophets of Ba'al were slaughtered at Mt. Carmel - but so had thousands of Israelites. Furthermore, when Queen Jezebel learned of the slaughter of her prophets, she vowed to kill Elijah.

So, Elijah leaves Mt. Carmel and retreats - alone - to the south, to Judah, where he then walks for 40 days and 40 nights - reminiscent of 40 years his role model Moses wandered in the wilderness - until he gets to the mountain.

Once there, he collapses in a cave on the side of the mountain and falls into an exhausted sleep. He is awakened by what this translation calls "a sheer silence". Other translations refer to this as "a still small voice". Still others translate it "the voice of silence."

This "voice of silence" asks him "So, Elijah, what is for you here?"

Today's lesson translates that as "What is here for you?" (Hear the nuance of difference?)

The literal translation is "What is for you here?" ("Ma lekah po?")

What is for you here?

You can hear the frustration and annoyance, the disappointment and anger in Elijah’s voice. “I’ve been working my heart out for the God of Hosts” says Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the palaces of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”

He was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”

Elijah looks for God in all the ways he knows God has appeared to Moses, his role model. He looks for God in the midst of the great wind, the way God appeared at Mt. Sinai. But, God was not there.

Elijah looks for God in the earthquake when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses But God was not in the earthquake. And then, Elijah looks for God in the fire, the way God appeared to Moses in the midst of the burning bush that the fire did not consume. But, God was not in the fire.

No God. No great revelation. No tablets. No commandments.

And, after the fire, there was, again, that sheer silence, that voice of silence.

And, what did that voice that made no sound say? 

Again, Elijah was asked, “What is for you here?”

What is for you here, Elijah 

- here in the desert where your righteous anger gets you nothing?
- here in the desert where here are no crowds to applaud your courage and your miracles? 
- here when the wind, earthquake and fire bring no revelation?
- here where you are left befuddled in desert silence, expecting to see God's glory, hearing a silent voice; waiting for an affirming answer, getting a shattering question

What is for you here?

It reminds me of what another Rabbi, one from a little village called Nazareth in ancient Galilee, said to his disciple Peter. 

In Matthew’s gospel version, the disciples are in the boat and Jesus has just come down from a time alone to pray. He was walking on the sea, we are told, which scares the literal bejesus out of his disciples.

Jesus calms them with his assurances but it is Peter who tests Jesus. “If it is you,” he says, command me to come to you on the water.” 

Jesus said, “Come.” And so Peter did and found himself walking on water. 

It was only when Peter was distracted by the wind that he began to sink. Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I hear echoes of that voice that made no sound asking Elijah, What is for you here?” 

- What is for you here, Peter, in the midst of the strong wind battering the boat and the turbulent water? 
- What is for you here in the midst of this miracle? 
- Are there dreams of glory and honor and praise? 
- Honor and praise that are not deserved and so can be blown away as quickly as the next strong wind or washed away with the next wave? 
- Where is your faith?

What is for you here?

We have - or at least, I have - come to this day haunted by this same question.

As we look over the carnage in Charlottesville, VA, as we see that White Supremacy is still alive in this country, we may wonder about the so-called "progress" we have made. Indeed, we may have been fairly smug, thinking that we are the greatest civilized nation in the world.

I'm remembering that a reporter once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. After a few considered moments, Gandhi responded, "I think it's a good idea."

In moments like this our nation begins to face an identity crisis. Is this who we are? Have we been blind to what has been right before our eyes? By ignoring the evil of White Supremacy, have we allowed this cancer to grow? Stronger? And, metastasize?

In moments of identity crisis, faith is also shaken. And, when faith is shaken, we are often confronted, in an entirely new way, by the ancient question in that same still, small voice - that sheer silence - that voice of silence, which asks us:

What is for you here

- here in this country we call the "land of the free and the home of the brave?
- here where riots and violence and hatred spilled out and overflowed onto American streets in Nazi chants of "Blood and Soil" (Nazi chants on the streets of America!!!!)?
- here where we are left confused and befuddled, ashamed and outraged?
- here where we come to church for a word of comfort and an assurance of peace, only to hear a shattering question:

What is for you here?

I'm sorry. I don't have an answer for you.

Each one of us has some soul-searching to do.

Perhaps this is a sermon on spiritual discernment, after all.

Each one of us has to decide how it is that we will commit to dismantling White Supremacy. Because each one of us is convicted by the Gospel of Jesus who gave us the commandment to love one another as he loves us.

St. Paul reminds us that neither God nor Jesus care about nationality - neither Jew nor Greek - or gender - male or female - or rich or poor. God doesn't look on the outward person, but on the inward human being - into the heart and soul of what makes that person a contributing citizen of the cosmos.

Jesus said we are to love one another - as he loves us. Indeed, he said to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength and to love our neighbor as yourself. We know that "neighbor" is not defined as "the person next door or on the same street". The world is the global village of God and we are all neighbors.

I will tell you this: Elijah and Peter did receive a gift from their encounters with the Holy. The answer to the question "What is for you here?" was the same for both Peter and Elijah.

That gift? Humility.

Elijah must now learn the greatest virtue of Moses, his role model - humility.
Elijah, the zealous warrior is given his most difficult mission: to confront his pride and see himself as he truly is.

Peter - the zealous follower of Jesus with his own illusions of grandeur, had to confront and accept his dependence on Jesus. 

What is for you here, Elijah? 

What is for you here, Peter? 

What is for you here? 

On this day after the riots, after the violence, after the hatred, after the "Blood and Soil" I urge you to sit in the sheer silence and seek what God has for you.

Turn off the TV - the continuous loop of doom and gloom from CNN and MSNBC and Fox News and NPR.

Sit in "sheer silence" for a while and let your thoughts be your only companion. Don't look for God in the grand and glorious. Or the dramatic or earth shaking.

Look, instead, for God in the unexpected. In the small and insignificant. In the mist and fog.

Just know this: in that silence, God has never been so close. As St. Paul reminds us "the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."

Listen to the sheer silence - the voice of silence. May we be made humble enough to see and understand and know a deeper truth about ourselves, our world, our God and God's call to us.

Perhaps then, after the fire and the fury, the violence and the hatred, we can surrender to humility and finally - FINALLY - bring an end to the Civil War in this country.

What is for you here?


Sunday, August 06, 2017

Spiritual Intimacy

“The secret of being human is to share the secret of our humanity”
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

On this glorious summer morning in August, the Sunday the liturgical calendar calls “Transfiguration Sunday", I want to talk to you about spiritual intimacy.

Let me start this way: Several years ago, I was at a James Taylor concert. I’m a huge fan of Sweet Baby James. As I remember, it was a beautiful summer’s evening. It was outdoors. We were sitting on the grass with a picnic basket filled with cheese and crusty bread, some fresh fruit and, of course, a few bottles of the fruit of the vine.

Before the show and during intermission, the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter and the occasional singing of a favorite JT song. It was also heavy with the smell of a variety of foods and wine and beer all mixed in with human sweat and cigarettes and cigars and, well, let’s just call them “funny cigarettes”.

After intermission, James and the band came back on stage and were tuning their instruments. After a few waves of applause, someone yelled out in a voice thick with alcohol and probably a funny cigarette or two, “I love you, James.”

James Taylor stopped in his tracks and looked into the crowd for a few long seconds. Then, he leaned into the microphone and said, “That’s only because you don’t know me.”

I’ve never forgotten that moment. I still carry it with me, all these years later. It sums up for me one of the essential dilemmas of being human. We want desperately to be known and loved.  And yet, being fully known and yet still completely loved is one thing that frightens us to death.

Some of us know instantly what Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden felt, after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Do you remember what they did? They heard the voice of God and they immediately covered themselves.

And, perhaps most foolishly but humanly of all, they tried to hide from God.

In this morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, we read that, after Moses went to speak with The Lord on Mt. Sinai, “his face shone because he had been talking with the Lord”.

Indeed, his face was shining and people were afraid to come near him, so he covered his face with a veil when he was with the people.

Even so, the people could still see that his face was shining. When he went to talk with the Lord, he removed the veil. But, when he talked with the people, he hid his face.

If we only knew what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking what James Taylor was thinking. That if they really knew him, they wouldn’t love him. Wouldn’t follow him. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he was only trying to protect them from the fear he saw on their faces.

Peter’s epistle repeats the story we heard from Luke. While Jesus was praying on Mt. Thabor, he and James and John noticed that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.”

Scripture tells us that Moses and Elijah were leaving Jesus when Peter blurted out that he wanted to build a dwelling for them – one for each of them. Was he frightened or in awe? Was that his clumsy way of holding onto the glory of this amazing moment? Was this Peter’s way of saying, “No, don’t go. Not yet.”

Was he trying to contain their glory? To capture it somehow and tame it? If he could fit the glory of these three into three dwelling places, maybe it wouldn’t seem quite so daunting and scary.

The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one that can be easily turned into a romantic theologizing of his public life. Scholars are also known to want to tame it and control it, to fit it into three neat boxes of his public ministry: the first labeled Baptism, the second labeled Transfiguration and the third labeled Ascension. And then, they package all three boxes up into on packaged labeled “Mystery” so we can study it and learn it and know it.

Except, of course, we can’t.

We get hints and glimmers, a wee peak into the divine nature of God which is glory surpassing our wildest imagination. So, we try to contain it. That way, it’s not so scary.

Presbyterian minister and author, Fredrick Buechner, in his book, Telling Secrets, writes this:
“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.”
How transfigured – how transformed – might we be if we engaged in an intentional effort toward greater spiritual intimacy?

I don’t know but I have a strong hunch that this is the reason this congregation is as close as it is, the reason you all are tenacious, why you continue to be alive and vital, even as you face the gaping hole in the earth that once was the Methodist Church right across the street from you.

It’s because you know some of each other’s secrets. You’ve seen each other at your best and your worst. And still, you love one another.

As a Hospice Chaplain I have come to hear what many people think are their secrets. What is amazing to them – and to me – is how often their families, their loved ones, their friends, are not at all surprised by what they hear from their loved ones. And, how it doesn’t matter. How they love them. Anyway. Or, in some cases, because of the secrets they have kept.

Beuchner wrote the book Telling Secrets after his daughter struggled with depression and bulimia. Only after she was able to tell the secret of her depression which affected her disease was Beuchner able to admit his own depression. He was also – for the first time in his life, able to admit to the secret of his father’s depression and the deeper secret of his suicide.

As Beuchner also wrote:
 “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”
After 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have come to know that the “secret sauce” – the ingredient that makes a congregation “successful” – is not size. It is not the bottom line of the budget or the “ASA” (Average Sunday Attendance) or the amount of the endowment.

I have come to believe that the measurement of success of a Body of Christ is in direct proportion to the level of spiritual intimacy shared among the people of God who call themselves a community of faith. That’s really hard to measure which may be the reason social scientists and church growth guru types never include it in their calculations.

I have come to understand that success in Christian community is the ability to say, “I love you” and to know that you not only have your secrets, you are your secrets and others have theirs. And, as it is often said, we are only as sick as our deeply kept secrets. 

Yet, God knows. God knows and God sees and God loves us.



And, when we do that – when we know our spiritual secrets and still love one another as God loves us – we are not only transformed, we are transfigured, and we shine with the glory of God – naked and unashamed.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weeds and Wheat

A Sermon preached at
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Pentecost VII - Proper 11A(RCL)- July 23, 2016
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

So let me start by getting this off my chest: Matthew’s Gospel is not my favorite. He's "Mr. Gloom and Doom". "Hell and Damnation". "Rust and Ruin." And, his parables are probably my least favorite. And of the seven parables in the thirteenth chapter, I think I like this one the least.

The parable of the weeds and wheat is fine, as it is. Parables are stories that are open to interpretation. They point us to know something about ourselves and the world and God’s love for the world. Parables honor the intelligence God has given us by engaging our creativity and imagination. 

Parables also tell us something about the nature of God and God's relation to creation and all of humankind. Matthew's account of the parables does that.

The problem is that Matthew spoils it all by trying to explain it to us. 

In. Every. Single. Little. Detail.

So, this may surprise you, but I know a few things about weeds. I’m not a gardener - I'm a city gal myself - and I don’t have a green thumb, but my maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers in Portugal, as were their parents and grandparents before them. They brought their skills and knowledge to this country. 

Much of my childhood was spent with my grandparents who had a small farm on the side of their tenement house in the city. It was only about an acre but it was enough to feed our family with great abundance. In fact, I had no idea we were poor until I was much older and looked back on my childhood. But, I was never hungry, always had a roof over my head and clothes on my back.

So, I learned a few things from living with my grandparents. What I know about weeds is that they are the least of a farmer’s worries. Seriously. Drought can do much more damage. Or, too much rain can be equally damaging to crops.  

Bugs and insects can ruin an entire crop or potatoes or corn.  And, rabbits and squirrels and other rodents love fresh vegetables - probably more than many humans.

Weeds – especially those with deep roots – can cause more damage when you pull them out than if you just leave them alone. Weeds may reduce the crops but at least there will be crops. They can always be gathered up when the crops are ready and separated. But they are not useless.

Weeds – especially those with the same long roots that can limit the bounty of the crops – can be used as fertilizer. They are filled with minerals and nutrients that can be extracted and made into what my grandmother used to call “weed tea”. 

She would put the weeds, including the roots and the leaves, into a sack and soak them in a large bucket of rain water for several months. Then, in the spring, she would use the “weed tea” to soak the ground around the young vegetable plants, nourishing them for even better crops.

But, weeds have other purposes. They grow faster than other plants so they act to stabilize the soil. Some weeds also die faster and, as they decay, they condition the soil. Other weeds attract beneficial insects that repel other damaging insects and pests and function as a protector.

So, all of that information changes a few things, doesn’t it? It turns Matthew’s interpretation of the parable of Jesus on its head. Weeds can do real damage but they are not inherently evil. Even weeds also have their purpose in God’s creation, if you know how to use them.  

Not everything bad that happens in life is the end of the world. Not every ending is necessarily The End. The things that sometimes look the worst – the darkest, the most painful – sometimes actually turn out to have had some benefit.

God can and does take everything in this word - even the seemingly bad stuff - and use it for a purpose that leads to good. That includes people.  Look at Jacob in this morning's lesson from Hebrew Scripture! That scoundrel stole his brother Essau's birthright and yet, God still used him to prosper his purpose. 

All our lives have stories that are their own parables - ways in which God is revealing God's image and relationship with wus and all of creation. You have some wonderful parables in your own life.

You didn't think you'd get out of church this morning without hearing one of my stories, did you?

Here it is:

So, I don't know if kids these day still have to do chores and get an allowance, but when I was a kid, that's the way it worked. 

I got a dollar a week - every Saturday morning after the chores were done - and it always came in the form of three quarters, two dimes and one nickle. 

I was allowed to spend one dime in any way I wanted - usually I'd buy 5 pieces of penny candy and a can of soda. The other dime I had to give to the church. And, man, did I resent THAT!

"Why did I have to give a tenth of my allowance on the church?" I asked my mother.  

"Because," said she, "God requires that we return a tenth of what we get to him."

"Fine," said I,"I'll do that. But, why do I have to give it to the church?"

"Because," said she, "Because . . . Because. . . . I'm the mother and I said so."

And so it was.

The other eighty cents went directly into my piggy bank. Because my mother said so, that's why.

Now, in the RC church of my youth, there were always three collections. The first was for missions, the second was to keep the lights on in the church and the third was the children's collection. I think that one was to help "pagean babies" in Africa and Asia and Viet Nam and Cambodia. 

The ushers in those days did not use silver collection plates. They used wicker baskets with long poles on the end. I LOVED them. The ushers used to slowly sweep past everyone, like a hockey player executing a precision slap-shot across the net in slow motion. 

The children's collection was always made up of coins. We sat in the back of the church - one of the last long rows so my mother could make a quick, easy exit if need be to change a baby or walk a fussy, crying child.  So, by the time the collection basket got to us, it was pretty full.

Most of the kids used to love to glide their hand over the mound of cold, hard coins and I was no different. One Sunday, a funny thing happened. I was putting in my dime and, low and behold, a quarter stuck to my hand on the way out. 

I was going to say something but, you know, the usher moved so fast and so smooth that I didn't have a chance to say anything much less put it back. So, I just, you know, squirmed a bit then lowered my hand to scratch my leg and then, you know, sorta-kinda let the quarter slip into my white anklet and settle down into my white Mary Jane shoes to the bottom of my feet. 

I didn't tell anyone but, you know, when I got home, I got to thinking. This would be a really cool thing to do, right? I mean, I was already harboring resentment against the church for taking a tenth of my allowance, but now I could use it for some good.

You see, every Friday night my parents would go over my mother's budget. Now, this budget was not just a row of income and a list of expenses. It was personal to my mother. There were no line items for "Milk" or "Bread" or "Medicine".  There were names on each line. "Mr. Hood" for the Hood Milk Man. "Mr. Perreira" for the Bread. And "Mr. Rexall" for the Drug Store where my parents owed 70 whole dollars which they were paying off at five dollars per week for my brother's medicine. 

Every Friday night, my mother would go over The Bills with my father and the one thing they always fretted over was the one for Mr. Rexall. But, the one thing they always fought over was the one for a man named Johnny Walker. 

My mother didn't think Mr. Walker ought to be in her budget At All. My father said that "a working man needed something to help him relax at the end of the day and if she worked in a factory she'd know that and he was the man of the house and he saaid so and that's all there was to that".

So, because I probably understood, even at age six or seven, that what I was doing was Very Wrong, my Very Big Plan to make this all Very Right was to save up my money to pay off Mr. Rexall so that my father could afford to pay Mr. Johnny Walker. 

It was brilliant: My mother would stop worrying. My father could relax after work. They'd both stop fighting and, just like the fairy tale, we'd all live happily ever after.

It was a brilliant way to spend God's money. Or, so I thought.

This went on for several months - sometimes a dime, sometimes a quarter (or two), and sometimes only a nickle, but my savings jar began to fill rapidly. 

It was very exciting. 

Thrilling, really. 

Suddenly, I LOVED going to church every Sunday. I didn't even mind putting my dime in the collection basket.

And then, I got caught. 

It was probably one of the nuns. We knew they had eyes in the back of their head. That's why they wore that veil. So you couldn't see them looking at you when you weren't looking.

My parents drove me to Father's office. I didn't know what it was all about but somewhere in my gut I knew what it was all about. My hands were sweaty. I knew. 

So, when Father asked me why I was stealing from the collection plate, I burst into tears. I told him the whole story. About the allowance. And, The Budget. And, Mr. Rexall. And, Mr. Johnny Walker. And, about My Plan to bring peace and harmony to my home.

Father's face changed from anger to great tenderness. I didn't understand it but it made me feel even more uncomfortable. I knew what I did was wrong. Why was he being so kind?

He said that I had to return all the money, of course, but I was not to worry. He would take care of everything else.

Then, my parents when into Father's office and, when they came out an hour later, they were pale and thin-lipped, but we never talking about it again.

And that's when I eperienced my first miracle. 

Not only did my parents stop fighting every Friday night, but Mr. Johnny Walker disappeared from The Budget. 

So did Mr. Rexall. 

I found out, years later, that Father had paid off my bother's medicine bill so that worry was off my mother's shoulders. 

You see, God had taken even my petty theft for some greater good. And, years later, God took that petty theif and called her to be a priest.

There is nothing in all of God's creation that God can't use for some good. 

Not everything bad that happens in life is the end of the world. Not every ending is necessarily The End. The things that sometimes look the worst – the darkest, the most painful – sometimes actually turn out to have had some benefit.

If you look over the stories in your own life, I'm sure you'll find more than a parable or two which will reveal to you God's unconditional love and plenteous redemption and forgiveness. 

Just don't let St. Matthew interpret it for you.  

(Oh, by the way and PS: Not to worry. I won't take anything out of the collection plate.)


Sunday, July 16, 2017

When the student is ready

A Sermon preached for Pentecost VI Proper 10 Year A
The Cathedral of Trinity and St. Philip, Newark, NJ
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

For the past six years, I have been living in the First State of Delaware where many people are very proud to claim former VP Joe Biden as our own. We like to repeat his no-nonsense, cut to the chase, get right to the point line. As Joe Biden says, “So, here’s the deal.”

Here’s the deal about Matthew’s gospel in general and this gospel in particular: It makes me grumpy. Matthew likes everything organized, everything neat and tidy. 

There are five distinct divisions to his gospel, with an introductory section at the beginning and a concluding section following the last. The 10 miracle stories are neatly contained in chapters 8-9. The 7 parable stories, like this morning’s gospel, are in chapter 13. 

And, Matthew likes doubles: There are two demoniacs, two blind men and two donkeys. Oh, and, he likes double stories: two requests for a sign, two Beelzebub accusations and two healings of two blind men.

That said, it is, undoubtedly, one of the most important gospels because it contains an extensive account of Jesus' teachings, sayings and discourses. It is no coincidence that the symbol for Matthew is the ‘winged man’ or angel. Matthew wants us to know, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ – fully human AND fully divine.

If Matthew was, as some have surmised, one of the 12 who was a tax collector, well, his tedious attention to detail would make some sense, then, wouldn’t it? 

Nothing against accountants – I am deeply grateful for my accountant keeping the IRS away from my door – but if Matthew was, in fact, a tax collector, it might explain why a person who is used to containing things in neat and tidy rows and columns might tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.

Honestly? I find systematic theology, like organized religion, tedious and boring. 

I rather like what theologian Karl Barth once said about writing theology. He said it was like trying to paint a horse at full gallop. 

Or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, “God is a verb.”

What makes me grumpy about this particular passage is that Matthew doesn’t simply allow Jesus to tell the parable of the sower and the seeds. It’s a good parable, and like a good parable, it teaches indirectly. 

A good parable points to the truth, it doesn’t spell it out in large letters. It doesn’t say, “Here, this is what I mean by the mustard seed.” It doesn’t demand a definition of the Prodigal Son or the Woman and The Lost Coin. It allows you to come to your own understanding of what is being taught.

And yet, Matthew seems compelled to explain the parable, right down to the last tiny detail. Do I believe that Jesus told the Parable of the Sower? Yes. Probably, he did. Do I believe he then explained the parable in great detail? No, no I don’t. I think that was Matthew’s need to keep everything neat and tidy. Which annoys me and makes me grumpy.

Take this line: “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart;” 

I want to scream, “No, Matthew! If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here trying to write a sermon on the Parable of the Sower."

Some people want to take this parable and its meaning as Jesus speaking to the church. 

They look at the various seeds and soil and blame their church growth – or lack there of – on either the seed or the soil – or, in some situations, the sower.

Well, that’s one way to interpret it.  And, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me Very grumpy.

Here’s another interpretation, involving another, more modern parable:

I was brought up a good, Roman Catholic, second-generation Portuguese American child, living in a home and neighborhood where only Portuguese was spoken. Walking to daily 6 AM mass with my Grandmother was required. 

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the gospel read and preached in church. I was listening. I was paying attention. But, it took a long time for me to understand. A very long time. With a long and winding and bumpy road to get there.

Indeed, sometimes I think I’ve reached a particular understanding, only to have life teach me another hard lesson and discover that I had it all wrong. 

That didn't mean that the seeds of scripture was "wasted" on me, somehow. I just wasn't ready. Yet. To hear it and understand more deeply. 

There is an old, wise saying in Buddhism, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”   

Listen to that again: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. 

I think Jesus would have like that interpretation of his Parable of the Sower.

After all these many years of reading the teachings of Jesus and striving to walk with him I think Jesus might agree with Buddha.

There is a parable my father told me that has become very important. 

Now, my father was not a learned man. He only had a sixth grade education and then he was pulled out of school to help his father with the farm. And then, the day after he turned 18 years old, he was drafted to fight in the Pacific Front during WWII.  

I learned from my father that war is an evil bird. He never said that. He didn’t have to. 

I’ll never forget the nightmares he would have – less and less often over the years - but they remain vivid in my mind. His screams would wake up the entire house and rattle the windows and walls. He was always yelling for someone to RUN or GET DOWN and then we’d hear the scream and then my mother’s voice comforting, soothing, saying, “John, it’s alright. It’s okay. I’m here.”

He never talked about the war. Not ever. Except this one time. 

I had been rejected – again – by the girls in my class. We Portuguese were the latest wave of immigrants to work the textile mills in Fall River, MA. Everything about us was different: our skin color was darker than the settled English and Irish, our hair was darker and curlier, our food looked and smelled different and, adding insult to injury, and we didn’t speak the language.

I don’t remember the specifics, but I hadn’t been picked to be a member of something – again! A softball team. A reading or math club. Maybe just to go to the soda fountain after school and hang out. I was blocked again from feeling fully part of the group. 

An outsider. Again.

My grandmother and mother and aunts tried to help. They told me I was beautiful and smart and better than those girls, anyway. I didn’t believe them. What I believed is that they had to say that. 

That’s what family does, right? They protect you. They love you. No matter what.

It was then my father came out to the picnic table where I was sitting – the one under the grape arbor where my grandfather grew grapes. I had my head down and I was sobbing softly. I heard him sit down. Then, I heard the “click” of his lighter as he lit his cigarette and took a deep puff.

And then I heard him tell the story that I didn’t understand in the moment but has become to me a gift of wisdom which has grown more precious each time it has revisited me.

“I was in Manila, in the Philippines,” he began. “It was night. The sky was black except when it lit up with the explosion of gunfire and bombs."

"I and five other men in my battalion got separated from the rest of the troop. We were lost. We stumbled through the thick, dark jungle for what seemed like hours, trying not to be afraid. But, we were really afraid.”

“Finally, we came upon a wall. It was higher than any of us and we couldn’t see the top of it in the darkness. So, we just continued along, feeling our way against the wall. It went on for miles. We couldn’t find the end of it. We couldn’t get around it. We couldn’t get over it. We couldn’t get under it. So, we just kept walking along it, feeling our way in the darkness, cursing it for being there and keeping us from getting back where we belonged.”

“And then, we just got exhausted. Man after man just sat down against the wall and decided to rest. And then, suddenly, sleep came,” he said as he drew a long drag on his Lucky unfiltered cigarette and put it out in the ground. I lifted my head up to watch him tell the rest of the story.

“And then, we awakened to hear voices. It was the Japanese. We poked each other awake and looked at each other for reassurance. We looked up and saw that the wall was very high – at least 10 feet. We looked and saw that just 20 feet ahead, the wall ended. If we hadn’t stopped when we did, we’d have had no protection whatsoever. In fact, we’d probably have been found and shot dead as we slept.”

“Turns out,” may father said, “the very wall that we had been cursing had been the source of our protection. The wall that we cursed turned out to be a blessing. In fact, we used it to walk in the opposite direction. It provided us cover until we got far enough away to find our way back.”

“So,” my father said, looking at me with more tenderness than I ever remembered, before or since, “I want you to think about that the next time you hit a wall. Okay? Sometimes the thing you think is a curse turns out to be a blessing. And, it’s also true that sometimes, blessings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. It’s how you use it that matters.”

Good or bad, it's not what happens to you that matters as much as how you use it that matters.

I didn’t understand – not then – but I never forgot that story. And, it has been the source of comfort and inspiration to me over the years as a person in my individual life as well as a sower of seeds in the various vineyards of the Lord where I’ve been called to serve.

So, here’s the deal, especially for those who want to interpret Matthew's gospel as a parable about the church and the people of God.

It's the message I want to make certain you hear as you find yourselves - once again - in a long period of discernment and interim leadership.

You – YOU – are good soil. You, as a people of God. You, as a church. You as a Cathedral. 

You  - as people of God in a Cathedral church in a city that has never seemed to quite fully pick itself back up after all of the times it has been knocked down - have been planted with good seed.   

And, you had some good sowers. Faithful sowers.  

Some of them have even left and then returned.  

Good soil. Good seed. Good sowers.

Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

I know because I have been a Canon of this Cathedral. I have worked in this city. I have known many of your clergy and and laity. 

Know that curses are sometimes blessings and blessings are sometimes curses. That’s just life. Here’s the deal: Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.

Scripture reminds us that the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Use what you’ve been given. Even if it doesn’t make sense at the time. Even if it's a wall.

Because, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.   


Sunday, July 02, 2017

El-roi: The God Who Sees

A Sermon preached for Pentecost IV Proper 8 A RCL
St. Philip's Episcopal Church - Laurel, DE

I am so excited to preach to you this morning, I could hardly sit still all week long, in anticipation of telling you this story. (Genesis 22:1-14)

It’s the horrifying, disturbing, terrible story of “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”

No, I mean Really Awful. Worse than anything you'd see on TV. Indeed, you'd turn the channel.

So, say what? Did the preacher really say she was excited to preach about this story? 

Why yes. Yes, she did.

I’m excited because I think this story tells us a lot more about God and God’s love than you’ve probably heard before. I think, actually, that it illustrates the Gospel (Matthew 10:40-42) we just heard – and, accomplish that task better than anything I could try to explain.

That is: No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you. . .  God sees.

Remember that: God sees. No matter what. There’s a reason I can say that with confidence. That’s the good news this sermon will try to proclaim.

So, this is not going to be a pithy little five to seven-minute summer sermon on a holiday weekend when low attendance is expected so, the question among preachers is: why bother?

I promise not to go on too long and I promise to try very hard not to be boring, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride, so buckle up.

To get you to today’s story from Hebrew Scripture, you have to understand the context. You’ve probably heard me say that several times before: Context is important. Or, as Blessed Joe Biden would say, “Here’s the deal . . .”

So, there’s Abraham and Sarah – also known as Abram and Sarai. They are very old. And, Abraham does not have a child, much less a son (and we know how important THAT was to the ancients). 

So, Sarah says to Abraham, Here, take Hagar, my Egyptian slave woman, and have a child with her. (Genesis 16:2) Note: And you thought surrogate mothers were a thoroughly modern idea. Not!

Hagar became pregnant and Sarah is immediately overcome with jealousy. However, she complained to her husband that it was Hagar who was becoming haughty, looking upon her with contempt (And, maybe she did, and who could really blame her?), so Sarah treated her harshly and Hagar ran away.(Genesis 16:4-6)

But, an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar, promises her that a son named Ishmael would be born to her and convinced her to return to Sarah. It was then that Hagar did something no one else had done before in all of written scripture.

Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl NAMED God. Yes, she gave God a name. Hagar named God – ready? – El-roi. “You,” she said to God, are “El-roi” – the one who sees. (Genesis 16:7-15)

Remember that: No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you . . . God sees.

She also named the well there “Beer-lahai-roi” which translates to mean The Well of “the One Who Sees Me Lives”!

The One who sees me lives! Remember that. We’ll be coming back to it in a moment.

So, Hagar goes back and has the child and his name is Ishmael – which means, by the way, “God hears” . Abraham is 86 years old. And, life goes on, obladi, oblada.

And then, 13 years later, when Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to him and told him lots of amazing things including how he was no longer going to be Abram but Abraham and his wife was no longer Sarai but Sarah. Oh, and BTW:  Sarah was going to have a child. (Genesis 17)

And then scripture says that Abraham fell on his face and laughed. (Genesis 17:17) Yup! Abraham laughed right in the face of El-roi, the God who sees! He laughed because he was almost 100 years old and Sarah, his wife was 90 years old.

Not only that, but when Sarah found out that she was pregnant, she laughed.(Genesis 18:9-15)

But, in fact, Sarah did have a child. God inspired Abraham to name the child Isaac. In Hebrew, Isaac means “He laughs”. 

So, Abraham’s first son is “He hears” and his second is “He laughs”.

(No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me) God sees.

So, Isaac is born when Ishmael is 13 years old. And Sarah can’t stand it. She can’t stand to see the two boys grow close together and play together and – God forbid – be treated as equals.

Indeed, she was really concerned about her son’s inheritance. Ishmael, as Abraham’s firstborn son, was rightly due his inheritance. But Isaac, the firstborn son of Abraham’s "legitimate" wife, also had standing in the line of inheritance. 

Rather than enter into a debate much less a discussion about who has claim to the inheritance, Sarah convinced Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness.

But, of course, God saw all this and assured Abraham that “through Isaac all offspring shall be named for you.” And, as for Ishmael: “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

Oh, by the way and PS, fast forward to today: Isaac is claimed by the Jews as their path to the inheritance of Abraham. And Ishmael is claimed by the Arabs as their path to the inheritance of Abraham. 

And, they are still fighting out this inheritance, even to this very day.

No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me) God sees.

So, back to our story: Hagar and Ishmael were saved and lived in the wilderness of Paran. (Genesis 21:1-21) 

We’re going to put that story on pause for now and go to today’s story from scripture, wherein Abraham believes that God is asking him to sacrifice his son, his only son that he loves. 

Yes, that's right. The son who is named “He who laughs”. The son who brought delight and joy to his parents in their old age. The son for whom he sacrificed his firstborn son so this child would have the inheritance. The son God promised would build a nation in his name. And now, he believes that God is telling him to sacrifice this son.

It makes no sense. Absolutely. No. Sense. At. All.  

But, there is another way to think about the message of this story. 

What if this is not just Abraham's story but God's story? What if God is sending a message for the ages through this story of Abraham?

What if God is making a point that the God of Abraham does not require human sacrifice? Actually, you could argue that this was a point God already made in the 20th chapter of Leviticus. 

What if God is making that point again – loud and clear and undeniably – through his beloved Abraham with whom he is establishing a nation on earth?

Which is to make the larger point of the story: That parents do not “own” their children.  

That was decidedly NOT the prevailing belief of the ancients who bought and sold children as property and used them for sacrifice to the Gods.

The ancient truth is this:  We do not "own" our children.  They are neither property nor commodity.

We do not – we cannot – control what happens to our children. We can try our best to give them the best, but they must live their own lives – no matter what we see in their future. 

The inheritance we are able to provide for them is theirs to spend or squander. It is not our future they must follow, but the vision of the future which God gives to them.

The real inheritance is that of free will. God has given it to us and God gives it to our children as well. And, to our children's children, from generation to generation. 

That doesn't stop bad things from happening. Not everyone "gets a ram" which is sacrificed instead of us. Bad things still happen to good people. And yet, God sees. God knows.

Because, No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me), God sees.

So, let me finish the story for you - because none of it makes sense unless you know how it ends. 

After this terrible, horrifying time, we never hear from either Sarah or Isaac again.  Well, Sarah, not ever again and Isaac, not for a very long time.

The first words of the very next chapter are: “Sarah lived 127 years . .  And, Sarah died in Hebron in the land of Canaan. Scripture says that Abraham lived in Beer-sheba. 

That’s a pretty big blank to fill in, but you get the picture: They didn’t live together after that terrible day known forever as "The Sacrifice of Isaac".

Indeed, it sounds like a whole lot more was "sacrificed" that day than the life of Isaac.

We don’t hear from Isaac again – not even his expected attendance at his mother’s funeral – until he comes out of the wilderness to meet Rebekah, the woman his father has arranged for him to marry from his home in the city of Nahor, near Haran.

Scripture says (Gen 24:62) “Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb.” 

Remember that place? Beer-lahai-roi? It’s the place that Hagar named which means “The Well of “the One Who Sees Me Lives”!

It’s conjecture of course, but one is left to think that perhaps it was not just Sarah who left Abraham. It appears that Isaac left his violent father and petty mother after that terrible moment of sacrifice. Moreover, it appears Issac returned to the one parent on whom he could trust and rely: Hagar. 

Maybe – just maybe - Isaac, the child of his parent’s laughter, went to live with his step-mother and his half-brother, Ishmael, the child of God’s hearing, precisely because he knew he would be loved unconditionally and his lament would be heard. 

Children are not “owned” by their parents. And, family is not defined solely by DNA. Love defines a family. It always has. It always will.

One more thing. About Isaac and Rebekah. 

This damaged young man and this strong woman who independently chose to marry him, became one of the first real love stories in scripture. 

Prior to this, arranged marriages were just that: arranged. For the first time in scripture, we read these words: “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. (Did you hear that? "His mother's tent". Reminds me that Prince William giving his mother Princess Diana’s engagement ring to his beloved Kate.)"
"He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Gen 24:76)

As unbelievable as it seems, for the first time in scripture, we read that a man LOVED his wife. Not just married her. Not just placated her. Not just had children with her. Not just worked with her. Not had other wives besides her. 

No, Isaac loved Rebekah.

The child who could not be owned, who was not God’s image of a commodity to be bought and sold or traded or sacrificed as a “test”; that same child grew to be able to love another human being. To love her as his partner in life. 

And, irony of ironies, that woman was the woman his father chose especially for him. And she, independent woman that she was, chose to marry him. Sight unseen.

This young man, Isaac, this human being with a human heart broken by the human betrayal and violence of his father, and the human pettiness and jealousy of his mother, was able to be healed and made whole and grow to be a tribute to his inheritance, despite the obvious flaws in his DNA. 

One wonders just how much the love of his stepmother and companionship of his stepbrother had in the Healing of Isaac. Think about that for a while and let it sink in.

There is great hope in this terrible story, which is why I am so excited to share it with you this morning. 

There is great hope in all of our stories, if we look for it.

If you hear nothing else – if you remember nothing else from this tragic story – please remember this:

No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you, God – the one and the same God first named El-roi by a frightened Egyptian slave girl who no longer felt invisible, no longer felt unworthy, who went on to save the life of the very child for whom she and her son were sacrificed – that God, THAT ONE GOD, sees. 

God sees.

God knows.

God loves.

God uses us – each and every one of us – broken and hurting and imperfect human beings that we are, as agents of God’s love. 

We are God’s agents in this world. We are God’s hands in this world. We are God’s feet in this world. 

And, in this world, we are the eyes of God who was once named “El-roi”. 

We are the ears of God who named one child “He hears.” 

We are the delight of God who named another child “He laughs.”

Or, as Jesus says to us in this morning’s Gospel from St. Matthew (10:40-42),

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, 

and whoever welcomes me 

welcomes the one who sent me. “

Because we are baptized, Jesus lives in me and Jesus lives in you. And, in the mystery of our faith, Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit are one.

So, the One who sees me, lives – in me and in you!   

We are the well where El-roi lives. We have become the living water of our baptism which is the vehicle of our salvation for ourselves and each other. 

That possibility excites me with hope. The ending of the story is never finally written. Or, as Gracie Allen is quoted as saying, "Never put a period where God has placed a comma."

There is another chapter, another character waiting in another place where there is another possibility for healing. Perhaps not reconciliation, but perhaps another place with other, unexpected, surprising  people who offer the possibility of healing and restoration and hope. 

Because, "No matter what you do, no matter what happens to you (say it with me), God sees."

The One who sees me, lives.