Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Church must die so Christianity can thrive.

Two years after his 19 year old wife died of tuberculosis, Ralph Waldo Emerson (b 1803) wrote,
"I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers."
Three years after I left parochial ministry, I have to say that, more and more, I agree with Emerson.

Well, by "the ministry" I believe he means the ministry as defined (and limited by) "the church". And, by "church," I mean the institutional church - not the place that is not necessarily a church building where two or more Christians have gathered in the name of Jesus. 

I'll start, straight up, with a confession: I have always been ambivalent about the institutional church.

Of any denomination. Anywhere. 

I once cared. Very much. Don't any more. Waste of energy. Poor stewardship.

I know. On one level, that's an incredible thing for an ordained person to say. Especially one that has given so much of her life to the institutional church and worked so hard to hold the church accountable to the justice the church claims to be central to its mission.

In my own defense, however, I confess that I am passionate about Christianity in general and "making better Christians" in particular.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the institutional church will make you a Christian any more than going to a garage will make you a car (as the old joke goes). 

It's not what you think. I'm not talking about standing on a street corner like the non-denominational Evangelicals and Pentecostal or knocking door to door like the Mormons.

I'm talking about what the church sometimes calls "Christian formation" - although the term sounds pretty spiritually arrogant to me. Sort of in the same way I find "Spiritual Direction" arrogant and mildly offensive. I much prefer the term "Anamchara" or "Soul Friend".

Specifically, I think "Christian formation"  means meeting Christians where they are and helping them to deepen and strengthen their faith.

That's where my passion is. Not the institutional church. Not any more.

Here's why.  I have two confessions. And, a four part plan.

First, the US population growth  is just shy of 1% per year but church membership (a self reported number and likely over inflated) is down.  The data shows a 1.15% decline in in membership.

There is a growing concern that this is going to get worse – much worse.

The members that stay behind are also giving less.
In terms of per capita giving, the $763 contributed per person is down $17 from the previous year, according to a 2013 study for the National Council of Churches conducted by Eillen W. Lindner. That is a 2.2 percent drop.”
That is only 1.8% giving per capita (US Per capita data here) and down 2.2% from the previous year.

So, while the US population is growing, the churches have a decrease in membership and an additional loss of revenue.  A net income loss of somewhere around 3.35% (2.2% plus 1.15%).

Remember: I'm not talking about a specific denomination. I'm talking about the institutional church.

At this rate, as any freshman economics student could tell you, growth is unsustainable.

Indeed, one of my worst fears is that pledging to the church is poor stewardship. 

Here's the truth of it: I still pledge to my local church because it has an amazing number of ministries within the community. It is a mission outpost that also gathers every Sunday to pray. I wish more of the congregation were involved in the ministries in the community, but there's still a higher percentage than many churches.

That said, I don't believe it is either healthy or wise to support the institutional church - financially, emotionally or spiritually or, especially, by ordaining any more "nice" but well educated and well intentioned (Good Lord, deliver us!) people to it.

I have come to believe that the institutional church is hopelessly corrupt and beyond salvation.  I believe that it is more concerned about it's own salvation, which is why it has lost its quest for excellence and has become so comfortable with mediocrity - and why in more and more cases it can't be a vehicle of anyone else's salvation.

That is not hyperbole or exaggeration.

I think most bishops and priests are well-intentioned men and women who are in over their head - way, way over their head. Indeed, I don't know anyone who can do the job they must do in order to "save the church". So, perhaps  predictably, it's become all about marketing and gimmick which, when dressed up in a clergy collar, is supposed to pass for "prophetic".

Actually, it's pretty pathetic.

More than a few bishops were once excellent parish priests who have now have no idea how to be a bishop, because, much to their surprise, they have found that the expectations of the institutional church have more to do with being a CEO and fundraiser than being chief pastor.

Some have simply shut down and have been "phoning it in" for so long that some of they don't even know the accurate names and locations of the churches in their own dioceses (True story here). Others have become less leaders and more cheerleaders of gimmicks and slick marketing.

I think this essay, "Leadership in Anxious Times" nails it.  Frederick Schmidt's metaphor of "this old house" whose "thirty years of neglect that made it affordable," is a brief but powerful parable about the church. I especially like this of his Six Lessons:
Don't confuse creative marketing with effective mission. Nothing sidelines an institution faster than contraction and flailing that is labeled as vision and the dawning of a new era. The people who come through your doors know it instantly. Many more simply never show up, because they can smell false advertising a mile away.
Here's the thing: I don't believe Jesus wants us to save the institutional church. Indeed, I don't think He will, no matter how much we wish He would.

I believe Jesus doesn't want more churches. More buildings. More property. More churches.

That's more about empire building than building up the Realm of God.  

I believe that Jesus would like more followers.

I believe Jesus wants more people to be more authentically Christian. More people who are willing to follow their baptismal vows more nearly and dearly, and live into the answer of their baptismal prayer that they "grow to the full stature of Christ."

We don't need a "vision" or a "revision" or even another "reformation" of the church.

We need a revolution, is what.

We need to discover just how big small can be. 

We need to get "back to the future".

That's my first confession.

My second confession is that, for the past six years, I've been watching the growth and development of the Anamchara Fellowship.  While other religious organizations are shrinking, Anamchara has had a steady 15% annual growth.

Why is it that, while the institutional church continues to close more churches than it starts, this ragtag bunch of assorted Christians continues to attract new members?

Full disclosure: My beloved is the Abbess of the Anamchara Fellowship

If you visit their web page, you will find that they have no "place". No building. No monastery. No convent. No retreat center. No church. No property. No land.

Their spirituality is clearly Celtic but they are also clearly and devoutly Episcopalian and Anglican. They are male and female, priest, deacon and laity, single, partnered, married and divorced, black and white, gay and straight, cradle and convert.

And - whether they are lay or ordained - they are all entitled to wear the same "uniform".  Some do. Some don't. Some, I'm convinced, sleep in it. I'm not particularly fond of it, and, unfortunately, it invites more than its share of the unstable who really think there's "magic in the habit". Thankfully, they've got a rigorous discernment process and, despite a few mostly delightful 'peculiar' folks in their membership, they have a pretty spiritually, emotionally and theologically solid leadership. 

They meet once a year at Annual Gathering. Monthly in their geographical "priories". Twice weekly on Skype for Compline. They communicate daily on their closed Facebook page. And of course, there's the telephone and cell phone.

They empower and enable and equip each other to pursue their individual and particular vocations and missions in their own communities of faith, in their own neighborhoods, in their own homes and families.

Did I mention that they are growing? 15% every year. Steady. Consistent. Since 2002.

I know some rectors and bishops who might be convinced to sell at least part of their soul for that rate of growth. 

So, here's my plan for evangelism. It has four parts.
First: Close more churches.

Second: Support more cathedrals.

Third: Ordain less priests, even fewer bishops, more deacons and, of them, only proven leaders who are willing to take risks for the Gospel. 

Fourth: Shape and form, empower and equip more Christians. 
Here's why:

The core essentials of Judaism are at the heart of Christianity. The early church did not focus on building places where new Christians could meet. Instead, the early church met people where they lived and breathed and moved and had their being.

The early church, like the synagogue, empowered people to worship and serve God and the people of God in their homes and communities.  People went to synagogue to study Torah and learn how to be a better person. The family was the center of faith. The 'neighborhood' was the community of faith.

Education, religious and secular, was - and is - a high priority.

This is true, even today. 

The synagogue was (and remains) the place for the celebration of High Holy Days and the major events in the life of the community - the weddings and funerals and the Bar Mitzvahs - but the emphasis was (and remains) on educating, empowering and enabling the people of God.

Their liturgies are all about remembering and re-enacting the stories of their faith so that they might live their faith more fully in their own lives where they find themselves.

The Rabbis continue to be the teachers.  The business of running the congregation is left to the President of the congregation. But the emphasis is on an educated laity and the empowerment of families to worship God in their homes and honor God in their lives.

I do believe this model is the work that the church - which claims to be the incarnation of the gloriously resurrected body of Rabbi Jesus - needs to be about.

It's what we're not doing. 

I believe it's a big part of why the church is dying.

Which is why I think we need to close more churches and support more Cathedrals.

Cathedrals, like synagogues, need to be places of education and empowerment.  Clergy - priests and deacons - as well as laity with specific charisms for education, pastoral care, evangelism, catechesis, liturgics, preaching, formation, pastoral counseling, social justice activism, finance, fundraising, administration, communication, etc. - ought to be considered "canons" of the Cathedral (give them titles if you must) and work out of the Cathedral to be with and among the people of God.

The ancient role of the bishops is to be "chief pastor". Bishops are people who love Jesus so much that they call the church and the world to be in more intimate relationship with each other.

The bishop is NOT the CEO of the diocese. The "ministry of the purse" is that of the deacon.

In my plan, the church buildings in communities that can support - and only those that can support - them, will then become "mission outposts" of the diocese and cathedral. As such, they would become "home base" to the various cathedral staff - lay and ordained - who will be assigned there, on a rotating and itinerant basis, depending upon the particular needs of that particular community. 

I think churches must give the "first fruits" - a tithe, a pledge, the first 10% of their income - in service to the community. They must be able to support the workers - the diocesan and cathedral staff who come to minister in their midst.  And, I think "clergy compensation" ought to be standardized throughout the diocese, according to job description.

Instead of using "ASA" (Average Sunday Attendance) as the measure of "viability", the measure would be how the building and the staff are serving the community and the world. Rather than looking at how many people are in the pews, we would be asking of people and clergy, "How did you live out Matthew 25?" And, "How many risks have you taken for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" And, "How many Christians are being helped to live out the Gospel in their own lives?"

One important metric for me is this: If the line items in the budget for repair and maintenance of the church buildings and grounds is larger than the line item for outreach and mission, a church is already spiritually dead and ought to be closed.

The only people we assign there - like the only people we ordain - are people who have demonstrated skills and abilities as creative servant leaders . . . . BEFORE they are ordained.

I am sick unto death of the embarrassment of riches of "nice" clergy. We have boatloads of them in The Episcopal Church. Well educated. Smart. Articulate. Kind. Deeply spiritual.

We don't seem to be raising up the kind of leadership with the qualities we need: First and foremost, those with some fire in the belly for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those with some energy who have the ability to inspire others to action.

People who love Jesus more than they do the institutional church.

This is important: Those who are clear about their own identity apart from their spouse/family/church or the identity a clergy shirt and collar will bestow upon them.

People who are: Self-starters. Self motivated. Innovative. Creative. Risk takers. Community organizers. Passionate about justice.  People who can put aside their own personal goals and ambitions and work with others for the sake of the Gospel.

People who are secure enough in themselves to raise up and train other members of the baptized without feeling threatened by their skills and abilities.  People who believe - really believe and not just give lip service to - the priesthood of all believers.

People who believe that so much that they are willing to move beyond status and respectability and permanence and security and be with people where they are: at their work sites - from factories and farms to board rooms and high rise offices - in their homes - from crowded tenements to McMansions - on the buses and subways.

People who can use the internet to the glory of God and for the edification of the Body of Christ. Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two. If Jesus were to begin His ministry today, I have no doubt that He would send out His word, two by two gigabytes.

Evangelism by sandals then. Evangelism by internet now. 

Everywhere people are, there the church should be.

Because, that's where the church is, already. The institutional church is arrogant enough to believe that the only place to meet Jesus is at their altar, with their magnificent music, listening to their profound words of wisdom from their pulpit, watching their beautifully choreographed liturgical dance steps in their beautiful sanctuary.

The people of God are literally dying for the institutional church to meet The Body of Christ where He already is - where they are.

Which is why the institutional church is dying. Because the people of God are not being fed with the bread of heaven where they are. The way Jesus did. The way Jesus sent his disciples out, two by two, to be with people. Not set up shop and expect people to come to them.

This is how Christianity will continue to grow and thrive.

It means that more and more of the institutional church must die.

The good news is that is is already dying.

The really good news is that, because of Jesus, we have the promise of resurrection. 

And, without being too obvious, there can't be a resurrection without first having a death.

I have no doubt that I've more than annoyed a few folks with this post. Indeed, I haven't done that intentionally but, you know, I hope I have.

I also have no doubt that many people will disagree with me. I never said I was right. I have only said that what we're doing is not only not working, it is not bringing more people to Jesus and not edifying the Christians we have. 

My real hope is that it provokes some serious conversation which gets us off the sense of failure because churches are closing and moves us to be excited to close more churches and be better Christians. 

I probably won't be around 30 years from now when my hope is that someone will say, "You know, years ago, Elizabeth Kaeton wrote a blog about this very thing. I just thought she was getting old and dottery. Turns out, we probably should have listened."

Or, perhaps, the women over at Dirty, Sexy Ministry have it right. Perhaps it's only that some "things" have, in their words, "lived waaay beyond their expiration date in the church" and need to die.

Bottom line: The Church (or serious parts of it) must die so Christianity can thrive.

Either way, we agree: The church is dying! And, has been since its birth on Pentecost.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Long live The Body of Christ!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The mystery of healing

A Homily at a Public Service of Healing
May 22, 2014 - All Saint's, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Whenever I'm asked to preside at a "Public Service of Healing," I always have the same conversation with myself. It goes something like: "What do you think you're doing? You lay hands on people and anoint them with oil and think you're healing people? How arrogant can you be?"

So, let me explain a little of what I've learned about one aspect of healing in the last 28 years of ordained ministry. I think it has a little something to do with what we read in today's first lesson (Acts 7:55-60) about the stoning of Steven. 

Hang on. I'll be connecting the dots for you before this homily ends.

I have learned that there are three sentences - three words each - nine words total - which can begin the process of healing. 

The first is: "I am sorry."

In order to say this, you have to acknowledge that, even if you didn't intend to, you hurt someone. Or, betrayed them. Or, maybe you don't even know what you did wrong, but you do know that you hurt someone you care about. You are going to have to let go of anger - at yourself and the other person - and the resentment you may be feeling and the need to be right.

That  process of examination begins the healing in you, so that, when you say, 'I am sorry', the other person might actually believe you. And, even if s/he doesn't, the process of healing has begun in you.

The second is: "I forgive you."

In order to say this, you have to acknowledge that you have been hurt and that you have a right to your hurt and your anger. But, if you hold onto that hurt and anger - as they say in 12 Step Programs - it's like eating rat poison and expecting the other person to die. Being able to forgive someone begins the process of healing in you - as well as the other person. 

It's all about repentance and forgiveness. Those are the two key elements to healing.

So, let me give you a bit of a story as an example.

My father was a nice guy. Except when he was drunk. Then, he became mean and abusive, both verbally and physically. I got out of the house as soon as I was old enough to leave. And, I never came back. 

I also spent a lot of years being angry with my father. And then, he got old. And, sick. Very sick. He had dementia and Alzheimer's. A few days before he died, I went to see him in the nursing home where he was staying. 

He would have periods of lucidity and I happened to be there during one of them. We were walking in the hallway when he stopped to look at a painting on the wall. 

I turned to hm and said, "Dad, I just want you to know that I forgive you."

My father looked at me, smiled and said, "Well, good. Because, you know, I forgive you, too."

And I laughed out loud. Because, you know, he was absolutely right!

As much as a disappointment as he was to me, I have no doubt that I was a disappointment to him. I'm quite certain I'm not the daughter he thought I would become when he held me in his arms as a newborn. My life has taken a completely different track than I thought it would.

I can't imagine his surprise. I'm delighted. I'm sure he wasn't. 

So, I looked at my father and I said the third most powerful, three word sentence which begins the process of healing. 

I said, "I love you, Dad."

And, he said, "I love you, too."

And, right there I'm quite sure I heard the heavens open and the Angels applauded and the Cherubim and Seraphim began to sing and Jesus laughed and God grinned. 

That's what happened, I believe, after Stephen was stoned and before he died.

When he pronounced his forgiveness for those who stoned him, he was healed, and so was a certain man in the crowd whose name was Saul. 

But that's another sermon about another form of healing for another time.

Now it's time for us to pray and for me to lay my hands on you and anoint you with oil.

I'm still not sure how the healing will happen. I only know that, if healing does happen for you, repentance and forgiveness and love probably have something to do with it.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Trouble With Heaven


May 18, 2014 – Easter V
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

        Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by? 
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

In the name of God, Creator, Word and Spirit. Amen.

This is a sermon about heaven  - or, actually, the trouble with heaven.  

So, let me being by putting this into context for you.

In this morning’s Gospel, John takes us back to the time just before the troubles began for Jesus. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and word of this miracle had spread far and wide as people gathered in the City of Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.

If the Pharisees aren’t already angry about this miracle of Lazarus, they have set their hair on fire and run down the street, furious because the miracle took place on a Sabbath! And, Jeeze Louise! Everyone knows you’re not supposed to heal on the Sabbath, much less raise a man from the dead. 

And then, when Jesus and his disciples made their entry into Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, everyone shouted “Hosanna” and treated Jesus like a rock star. It was disgusting! Well, in the eyes of the Pharisees, that is.

In this Gospel scene, Judas has just left the Upper Room to complete his vocation of betrayal. 

Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death, telling them, “Where I am going, you can not come.” Thomas is confused and asks, “Where are you going?”

Jesus, whose heart is troubled by what he knows is about to happen, says to Thomas, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and describes heaven as a place – his Father’s house – where there are many rooms. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for them there and then he will return to come and take them there himself.

It’s a lovely image for heaven, isn’t it? I know it brings me a deep sense of comfort and solace as it has millions of people throughout the ages who believe the words of the Eucharistic prayer we say during a funeral; that “life is changed, not ended”. 

Many of us hold onto the belief that there is a place for us in heaven where the Spirit will take us when we die and we will spend eternity bathed in the light of Christ and held in the arms of God.

Well, at least, we want to believe that. 

As a Hospice Chaplain, I have learned that there is nothing like a diagnosis with a terminal implication to shake that belief right down to its very core. The one question I get consistently is one about heaven. Is it real? Will I get there? Will I seem my loved ones there?

Or, in the words of that wonderful old hymn, “Will the circle be unbroken? Is a better home a waiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky?”

We want very much to believe, but when we are looking into the abyss, our knees begin to buckle. 

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled” about the afterlife and yet, our culture seems - even more so lately - obsessed with ‘all heaven all the time.’ 

There are TV programs and movies with titles like “Resurrection” and “Heaven is Real," “Transformation” and "Son of God", and books like “Proof of Heaven”.   

On the flip side, we’ve seen an update of “Rosemary’s Baby” as a TV miniseries.

When we’re not talking about the possibility of life after death or heard the refrain “Religious Freedom” or the SCOTUS decision on public prayer, TV commercials have angels selling us everything from sexy Victoria Secrets underwear to Angle Soft toilet paper to tend to our tushies.

According to a poll of 2,500 Americans reported in the Washington Post last May

-- 62% believe in heaven and think they are going there.

             -- 44% believe in hell as "a place of suffering and punishment where some
                        people go after they die;"

              -- The 56% overall belief in the existence of the devil and 53% belief in
                        hell was consistent across all the four survey age groups;

             -- With regard to what causes evil in the world, i.e., the Boston Marathon
                        Massacre, Sandy Hook shooting and 9/11, older respondents (45-60) feel
                        people are evil while younger  respondents (18-29) feel people are sick;

-  However, nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as "not at all" religious - a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%. -

There’s lots of information and misinformation out there about heaven – and hell, as a matter of fact – and the God’s honest truth is that we simply don’t know what awaits us after we die.  It’s an all too obvious but, I suppose, necessary thing to point out that no one has died and returned to verify and authenticate the words of Jesus.

Except, of course, those who have had an NDE or “Near Death Experience”. The stories of those people pretty consistently report the presence of a tunnel with a very bright light at the end. 

Is that ‘proof of heaven’ or the old understanding of ‘limbo’ (AKA “God’s Waiting Room”), or simply the body’s psycho-chemical response to the traumatic event of a temporary shut down of organs?

We can’t be certain, can we? That’s the problem with heaven. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of what we choose to believe.  And, I suspect, we choose to believe that which brings us comfort and solace as we grieve our loss or consider our own mortality.

I have found two images very helpful to me, personally, as well as to those with whom I am privileged to minister as the hour of their death draws near.

Here’s the first image I have found helpful, one which I hope will also be helpful to you. It came to me, first, as I used to listen to my grandmother as she held her infant great and then great great grandchildren in her arms for the first time. Have you ever noticed that newborns sometimes get very animated in their sleep? Their mouths move and they grimace or smile? My grandmother used to see that and say, “Ah, she’s getting last minute instructions from the angels.”

Later, I learned that newborns will follow the sound of their mother and, often, their father, seemingly recognizing the sound of their voices. That’s because they do. In utero, babies can hear. They don’t know what they’re listening to, of course, but they hear.

So, that got me to thinking and it stirred my imagination an creativity. 

I like to imagine the whole round world as our womb – the uterus into which we are born from our mother’s womb. 

Every now and again, we get glimpses of that ‘other world’, that ‘other, eternal reality’ that lies beyond this known world of our present reality. 

Like newborn infants, we can’t possibly know or understand what is “out there”. We only have hints and intuitions, whispers and murmurs, glimpses and flashes of knowing.

And so our earthly death is really just a new birth. We are born again through death into the new life of eternity with God who created us and gave us these earthly bodies to wear for all the days and seasons of our lives on this plane.

“Life is changed, not ended” as our Eucharistic prayer says. I not only say that prayer, I believe that prayer. Do I have proof? No. I don’t need proof. I have faith.

The second image is from Henri Nouwen, the Jesuit theologian who was also a prolific writer. In his book, Bread for the Journey, Nouwen writes;

Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.

When we approach our deaths let us say to those we leave behind, "Don't let your heart be troubled. The love of God that dwells in my heart will come to you and offer you consolation and comfort.

I choose to believe Nouwen’s words. I do believe Love is eternal – because I believe “all love is of God” – it comes from God and returns to God. And, I do believe that the love in our hearts that never dies comes to our loved ones after we die and offers them consolation and comfort, yes, as well as hope.  It lives on and bears fruit from generation to generation.

Now, if I were to argue the case for heaven in a court of law, I would undoubtedly lose.  The trouble with heaven is that I have no forensic evidence. The only evidence I have is anecdotal.  Circumstantial, at best. I have my belief and I have my faith. And, my faith gives me consolation. Consolation gives me reason to hope. And, hope defeats despair. And defeated despair quickens love. And love, my friends, all love, is of God. It is a gift that can never be destroyed. It lives on through eternity.

The love of God which we hold in our hearts will return to our loved ones after we die and our born into the new life of eternity with God, and it will give to our loved ones solace and comfort and hope.

This is what I believe.  It is my response to the request of Jesus who said, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” even as his own heart was deeply troubled by the death he knew he was about to face.  I suspect it gave him some comfort to know that his life and his death were for naught. Indeed, it was for love. 

And he is the very incarnation of God’s love for us, which we re-member whenever we gather together, to listen to the Word of God and the Teachings of Jesus, affirm our faith and share together in the breaking of the Bread and drinking of the Wine.

For it is in partaking in this Holy Communion that the circle is unbroken, and, like babes in the womb, we all catch a glimpse of that Heavenly mansion where there is a place for each one of us. The trouble with heaven is the same trouble with love. It is this: As the fox said to The Little Prince. “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.”

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?

       Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by? 
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

       Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?


Sunday, May 04, 2014

Seeking and Finding Jesus

A Sermon for Easter III - May 4, 2014
All Saint's Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
I think, of all the stories in the Easter Season, this story about the Road to Emmaus is my favorite.

This is my very own Emmaus story. It’s a fairly unorthodox story, as one might now expect from this particular preacher. This is a sermon about finding Jesus when and where you least expect him.

I was a newly ordained priest at my first call as Chaplain at University of Lowell, in Lowell, MA. One of the first mission projects I created was to establish a weekly Eucharist at the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center.

I had carefully trained a handful of students in how to lead worship and, together, we had decided that two of them would come with me to the Center, on a rotating basis.

The third floor of the Center was a 'locked unit' - pretty much a human waste basket for all those people who had been released from psychiatric facilities - where they would stay for a few weeks, be released to the streets for a few weeks and then, readmitted again after a brief stop over at the Lowell Police Station and the City Jail for some obtuse, vague charge as 'disturbing the peace'.

I had secured permission to provide a service of Holy Communion, as it would be advertised, making sure the staff knew that I would be bringing in bread (or, hosts, if need be) and wine.

"Nope," they said, "can't bring in anything - not hosts, not bread - from the outside. Especially not wine."

"Okay," I said, "Can you provide me with a few slices of bread and some grape juice?"

"No bread," they said, "We had a 'suicide-by-stuffing-bread' last year. No bread on the ward. And, no peanut butter. That's even worse."

"Okay," I said, "No problem with the peanut butter. How about some saltine crackers and some grape juice?"

"Deal," they said, "We keep them in packages of two - no 'stuffing' - and you can just open up as many packages as you need."

Imagine my surprise when I appeared for that first service and found, waiting for me, some graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

"It's all we had," they said without apology, adding, "It's the end of the month. Supplies are low."

In I went, to the locked "Recreation Room". I heard the door lock behind me and realized that I was alone in the room with two terrified students and about 25 people who were in all sort and manner of 'altered states' of consciousness.

People were walking around nervously, pacing, smoking, muttering to themselves, occasionally shouting out obscenities.

I set the table, yelled out what was about to happen, and asked people to take their seats.

No one did.

I started anyway - said a few, abbreviated opening words, one of the students read the first lesson, the other led the psalm. I went right to the gospel and then said a few words about it.

To my amazement, some of the folks actually sat down and were listening to me. The room was not exactly quiet, but the din had certainly decreased a few decibels and was now a dull buzz.

As I started to say the Eucharistic Prayer, one woman in the front - Helen, I'll never forget her - spoke up.

Helen's eyes looked like the last 20 or 30 years of her life had witnessed some pretty rough roads. Makeup clung to the deep wrinkles and lines in her face, her eyelids were a bright blue with a crooked line of mascara outlining them, and her lips were a misshapen bright cherry red.

She looked like a tragic clown in a very painfully human circus in this "Recreational Room".

"Hey, are you allowed to do that? I mean, being a woman and all," she asked in a gravely voice.

"Yes," I assured her, "I am an ordained Episcopal Priest."

"Yeah, sure you are" she said, taking a drag from her cigarette, "Well, I can't take communion. Divorced, you know."

"Sure you can," I said, "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's Table."

She looked at the oblong utility table where I had set out the starched, white corporal, and had the shiny silver paten and chalice, raised an eyebrow of suspicion, shrugged her shoulders, and lit another cigarette from the one she had almost finished.

I got through the Eucharistic Prayer and marveled as most of the people in the room seemed to be paying close attention to what I was doing. Perhaps a memory from childhood or an earlier day was awakened, and they recognized this as a holy moment.

Even after the words of institution, the mood in the room remained solemn. As I prepared to distribute communion, Helen called out, "Hey, shouldn't we be singing something?"

"Sure," I said, "Why don't you lead us in singing one of your favorite hymns?"

So, she did.

She leaned back her head, closed her eyes and started singing in the most reverent tones I've ever heard, "She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. . . ."

By the third verse, about a dozen or so people joined her. "She'll be be driving six white horses, she'll be drivin' six white horses (big finish) WHEN. SHE. COOOMMMES!!"

You know what? In that moment, when the absurd met reality, and the profane intersected with the sacred, I knew that Jesus was already there, in that locked Recreational Room, on the third floor of the locked ward of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, in Lowell, MA.

And, not just in the graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

We had only just brought the church to Jesus.

I wasn't taught that in seminary, but that's what I've come to know is closer to the truth of that wonderful and sacred mystery of Jesus and His body we call 'church'.

I believe Jesus is already with us, here in this church – and I suspect he’s well pleased with what he finds here – but I also believe that we find the face of Jesus in the face of others – many of whom would never darken the door of a church of a Sunday morning.

I believe that Jesus is very pleased when we bring the church to Him – wherever He happens to be – and meet the people of God right where they are – on the road, in their homes, at their jobs, in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities and hospitals and soup kitchens, and thrift stores and . . . everywhere outside the church walls.

Helen was someone's mother - and sister - and daughter and friend. Helen, and all the other residents of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, are children of God and bear the face of Jesus in their faces.

I saw the face of Jesus in Helen’s face.

I hope she saw the face of Jesus in mine.

I hope, when you leave this church this morning, you will be the face of Jesus for others.

I pray that you will see the face of Jesus in others. 

This is my Emmaeus story. I believe we all have them – if you think about it. These stories are, by their very nature, unorthodox if not unusual. 

But, they shouldn't be. 

If we open our hearts and suspend judgment, we will all be able to find Jesus when and where we least expect Him.   

And that, my friends, is the Gospel truth.