Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Stewardship Sermon that never once used the "Stewardship" word

This is the sermon I preached at 10:00 a.m. this morning at Grace Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. It turned out to be my annual stewardship sermon, but the word itself never appeared. In the end I decided intentionally to leave it like that, because I'm pretty sure when people hear the words "stewardship sermon", they close their ears and take a nap. Here it is.

Sermon Pentecost 17
September 27, 2009
Grace Episcopal Church
Norwalk Connecticut
The Reverend Lois Keen

Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, spent her life living among the poor and serving them. One day a wealthy woman wanted to see what was going on so she visited the Catholic Worker offices. She was so moved by what she saw going on that she took a large diamond ring off her finger and gave it to Day.

Later in the afternoon Day was working with a poor, single mother who lived in the tenements. This woman had nothing but ugliness in her life and all around her, and Day wondered what she could do to bring some beauty into the woman’s life. Then Day remembered the diamond ring.

She took it out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. End of story. (Based on a story told in, I think, an issue of Christian Century but am not sure – source misplaced.)

Now that wasn’t a very smart thing to do. After all, Day could have sold that ring and invested the proceeds to use for her continued work among the poor. And that’s probably what the wealthy woman had expected her to do with the gift. Certainly the giver never imagined Day would just give it away like that, for the sake of bringing some beauty into someone’s life.

But Day worked on the basis of God’s economy. She invested the ring, but not like we would invest money. She invested a little piece of the kingdom of heaven in that poor woman’s life, with no strings attached.

That, of course, is the only way to give for Jesus’s sake – with no strings attached.

The disciples, on the other hand, today are in danger of investing in hell.

That word we read in today’s gospel, hell, is actually gehenna, which is a real place. It’s the Jerusalem garbage dump of Jesus’s day, located in the Kidron Valley between the temple mount and the Mount of Olives. It was perpetually burning, hence the line in the gospel, “…the fire is never quenched.”

However, before the Jews conquered that place, the inhabitants that preceded them sacrificed their children to their god Moloch, throwing them in Moloch’s fiery furnace which was always burning.

So you see, Gehenna, or hell, is made by human hands, not divine ones. (This concept comes from Paul J. Nuechterlein, copied and published in the September 27, 2009 issue of Synthesis.) Hell is on this side of life. We make our own hell.

The disciples are busy building a hell of jealousy. There was, after all, that one incident when they were unable to cast out a demon. Now here’s this upstart, this nobody, this stranger succeeding where they failed, through the power of Jesus’s name, and he doesn’t even follow Jesus! How dare he! And for that matter, how dare Jesus put up with it!

But Jesus has invested his life in everyone who ever was, is now and will be, not just in his followers. His followers are there to be taught how to continue to do what Jesus is doing, invest their lives in everyone else. So what is a non-follower values Jesus’s name so much that he uses it for good – mazel tov! Good for him. Let him keep doing it. It will be good for him as well as those he heals.

God’s economy is nothing like ours. God’s economy is wasteful. God’s economy is prodigal. It counts the cost, yes, and then it spends everything anyway, no matter the cost.

In Jesus, the cost was a life, Jesus’s life. It was spent on all humankind, although humankind had done nothing to deserve that cost. The gift was given anyway.

In God’s economy everything is gift. We have been given the gift of our lives. We have been given the gift of our daily food and shelter and clothes. All of these are gifts from God. Our whole life is a gift.

Why should the disciples care, then, if someone else is doing better than they are, as if there was only just so much blessing from God to go around and that non-follower exorcist over there was stealing it from them the disciples?

A long time ago, before I even went to seminary, I was parish secretary for a church in Elkton, Maryland. One of the parishioners, Barbara, as it happens her name was, used to come in and ask me questions about the faith while I was working.

It happened that often when Barbara was there I would have to call the priest to come over from the rectory to help someone who had come to the office for help. Barbara knew the priest called these people bums, and that he begrudged them what he called handouts. He held onto his funds jealousy for the use of what he called people who deserved it.

Barbara thought that made sense, but she also knew that I didn’t agree with the priest, that I hoped that if I were ever in his position I’d just give the money away no questions asked.

The day came that Barbara herself needed financial help. As she was about to go and ask the priest, she turned to me and said, and I’ve never forgotten this, “If you were the priest, I guess all that money would be gone by now and there’d be nothing left for me.” What could I say.

Now that I am in that position, I have to say that as a priest, I have never been able to spend down all the money given to me for the help of the poor. I gave money away hand over fist in Milford, Delaware, and as much as I gave away, there would always be another funeral honorarium or other donation to the priest, which is always put in the priest’s discretionary account. But I’ve never forgotten what Barbara said to me, nonetheless.

Here at Grace I don’t have any direct contact with the use of the People In Need grant we receive from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, although I do have oversight of about $500 in a checking account, for the relief of people who come in off the street.

Sometimes, though, I think about keeping some cash locked up just for giving away indiscriminately.

I have a friend in the city, New York, who keeps a few $1 bills in one pocket, to give to anyone on the street who asks for it. He gives it out until that pocket is empty, then that’s it for the day. This is his personal money he’s using. He has no discretionary account. I have to tell you that I haven’t evolved as far as Chris has, I’m ashamed to say.

But the disciples are penny-pinching with Jesus’s love. They’re trying to hoard it all to themselves, and that makes me think twice about myself and what my friend does with just a few dollar bills a day.

In Jesus’s day, if a person was poor or disabled or sick or widowed or orphaned with no support, it was seen as a sign that they were sinful and being punished by God. They deserved their poverty. The wealthy and healthy, on the other hand, believed they were righteous because obviously they were being blessed by God, unlike those bums and beggars and lepers and homeless widows.

We are not much different today. We give to the relief of the poor, but we also want to be sure they are the deserving poor. We give with reservations.

But Jesus said to the righteous, “Careful. Better that you tend to your own house – where your eye wanders or your foot treads or your hand grasps, before you look down on those less fortunate.”

And he says to the unrighteous and the sick and poor, and the ones working the system, “Blessed are you. You will see God.”

What a curious economy. Quite upside down, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense at all. About as much sense as giving a valuable diamond ring to a poor tenement woman for no other reason than love of Jesus.

God’s power in Jesus Christ is exercised not in the things that make sense, but in mercy and pity. The disciples in today’s reading still have to learn that lesson, and they’ll learn it the hard way, as we all do.

But we have the benefit of hindsight. We have the words of today’s collect to guide us. In Christ Jesus, all of us, all people, no matter what, are equally deserving of God’s love. The grace of God comes from the least expected places – from a man who does not follow Jesus but who serves the poor, or from a person on welfare who is working the system and gives us the opportunity to serve Jesus with no strings attached, just for love of him.

God’s promises know no limit, no boundaries. The treasures of heaven are there for all to claim, if we would open our eyes and see, and it is for those of us who have more to then be generous enough to let those treasures go, without anxiety, without counting the cost, with no strings attached.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Maybe-Not-So-Bog Standard Sermon: Racism and Slavery Awareness Sunday

September 20 has been declared Slavery and Racism Awareness Sunday in the Diocese of Connecticut, The Episcopal Church. Here's the sermon I preached this morning. Not your usual baptism service sermon.

Sermon Pentecost 16
September 20, 2009
The Reverend Lois Keen
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37, 10:44-45

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Later, in the next chapter of Mark, he says it again, but stronger: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all...”

Nowhere, however, does Jesus say we are to own slaves.

Yet even long after the abolition of slavery in this country, scripture was the foundation of many arguments in favor of slavery, arguments which then justified the institutionalization of racism in this country.

Slavery and racism were not, however, and are not exclusively the burden of the southern states of this country. New England, including Connecticut, was an integral part of the slave connection, the circle of molasses to rum to slaves, as well as being a slave owning state. The Episcopal Church was complicit in the trade. Episcopal clergy owned slaves. Episcopal churches had slave galleries. Those not directly involved in slavery were beneficiaries of the slave trade and all it made possible.

For this reason, the Episcopal Church, in General Convention, has passed numerous resolutions about racism, among them
a resolution to address institutional racism,
continuing resolutions to require anti-racism training of all lay and ordained leadership of the Episcopal Church,
the development of appropriate anti-racism programs, and the maintenance of registers on anti-racism training and activities,
and a study of economic benefits derived from slavery, which includes the acknowledgement by General Convention of, and apology for, slavery and its aftermath,
and action toward reconciliation.

For that reason, Bishop Andrew Smith, our diocesan bishop, has asked that this day, September 20, be set aside as a day of awareness of our complicity in and benefit from slavery. He also asks we announce that November 7, 2009 will be a Day of Repentance, to be held at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford. The church’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade will be explored in the morning and a Service of Repentance will be held in the afternoon.

All parishes were asked to research their congregations’ history of complicity in slavery and/or its benefits, or its struggle for racial equality and recognition.

Grace Church was founded after the abolition of slavery so the parish itself was not complicit in slavery or the slave trade. However, we have not been free from the struggle for racial equality. I was surprised to learn that in Grace Church’s past there was a minister, a priest, who refused to give communion to people of African descent. The name of the priest is lost, but his policy is remembered.

Grace Church today is blessed to have a racially mixed congregation. We are blessed to see ourselves as welcoming of anyone who enters these doors. We are also, I fear, blissfully ignorant of the continuing legacy of the slave years on ourselves, our churches and our nation.

By law, including canon law, the laws of The Episcopal Church, forbid the blatant practice of racism. However, our internalized racism, the racism with which we United States Americans were brought up, still resides in us. If there was any doubt about it, the rhetoric surrounding the campaign for the presidency last year, and the continuance of that rhetoric surrounding the elected president puts the lie to our doubt.

My first experience of racism came when I was 14. We moved to Sussex County Delaware, where I went to high school from 1959-1963 in a segregated school system. The people there are still proud that theirs were the last schools to be desegregated. One of its towns was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and the Klan is still active there.

Newlin’s brother-in-law, in researching the Keen, the Kwick and the Hagstrom families’ genealogy, found a slave connection in the Keen family history. One of Newlin’s ancestors owned a plantation where Aberdeen Proving Ground now is in Maryland.

Alan found the man’s will. In the disposition of the man’s property were his slaves, most of whom were willed to his heir as a lot, but some of whom were named and bequeathed to individuals in the family.

For New England history, however, you can turn to a recent film by Katrina Browne. “Traces of the Trade” is a documentary about Rhode Island’s largest slave-owning family, the DeWolfs, with direct ties to the Episcopal Church and clergy families formerly or currently living in Connecticut, including one of my recent predecessors here.

You can rent or borrow the movie “Amistad” which deals directly with one of the Connecticut connections with slaving.

Or you can go with Eugenia Chinsman someday on a trip to Sierra Leone, founded for the benefit of Canadian and U.S. escaped and freed slaves, and visit Bunce Island, one of the primary stops for deportation of African men and women to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean as well as this country.

New England slavery existed for over 200 years. But even those who did not own slaves benefited from slavery. Southern cotton picked by slaves went to Northern textile mills. Banks and insurance companies played their part. Ordinary citizens bought shares in slave ships in order to make a profit from their human cargo.

The DeWolf descendants, the subjects of the film “Traces of the Trade,” are setting an example for The Episcopal Church and this country as they are confronted by questions, which I quote from the Traces of the Trade website:

“What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery – for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes who what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation?” And, I might add, how does it change our assumptions about ourselves? And, finally, “What would repair – spiritual and material – really look like and what would it take?”

We are about to baptize a baby. In this child’s name the parents and sponsors will make certain promises and take certain vows. The vows they take we will also take, as we have every time we have baptized a child here since the current Prayer Book was written 30 years ago.

Among the vows are these:

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

“Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

It will be up to this child’s family to see that this child grows up in the truth of these vows. Meanwhile, what can you do?

First, you can commit to going to the Cathedral in Hartford on November 7th to be educated in our historic complicity in slavery and take part in the Service of Repentance.

But there are other things you can do. These suggestions come from the Social Justice Ministries website of The Episcopal Church:
You can attend diocesan anti-racism workshops. Phone the Diocese of Connecticut and find out when the next one is.
You can commit yourself to being a multiculturally competent person resisting racism – that is, you can recognize in yourself your attitudes to people not like yourself, and resist the temptation to be ruled by those attitudes.
You can challenge prejudice, intolerance and racism in the church and in this community wherever it exists, and that means not laughing at racist jokes, not making racist jokes, nor making stereotypes about people not like yourself.
You can recognize the connection between racism and other forms of oppression.
You can read articles, books and publications on racism and related oppressions to sustain you on your journey.

And here at Grace Church, we are going to have education in the history of slavery and in the sin of racism. You may be tempted to avoid this education. After all, there are no slaves in the U.S. today so what does it matter?
But it does matter. We are not quite so blatant in our racism, but it is worse now because it is very subtle. It also matters because people of slave descent in this country still bear the wounds of what the ruling class in this country did to their forebears.

And as Christians, we confess that what injures even one of the members of the Body of Christ injures us all.

Each baptism we witness here is a promise of hope – hope for a better world, made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Each time we share in the baptismal vows we are about to witness, we have another opportunity to ask ourselves, “How shall I take this vow seriously?” Each time, we have the opportunity, and the hope, that this will be the day we each and every one take steps to become servants of all, for the sake of Christ Jesus, in whose name we now gather around this baptismal font.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is Property Value a Christian Value?

This week I read that the local homeless shelter has been denied the possibility of using a larger building they own to increase the number of shelter beds and have enough space, in addition, to provide much-needed programming, like life skills, for instance. One of the reasons, in addition to the fear of crime, is the threat to landowner property values.

Now you are going to get really mad at me, and I just might make a few enemies this time.

For a nation which purports to be a Christian nation, I see very little Christianity at work. Yes people go to church, people go to Bible studies, people help in soup kitchens and shelters and, go to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild, and do other good works. We pray. We make donations to charitable organizations.

But when it comes to putting our property values, our income, our safety on the line, not in my back yard.

Dear friends, property values are not a Christian value.

A Christian nation would put everything they had on the line to serve the poor, including, and most especially, the so-called undeserving poor. We would become servants of drug users, pimps and prostitutes. We would open our neighborhoods to those who choose to give their whole lives to being servants of those who just plain are not able to get it together to be like us, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to hold down a job, to stop drinking.

And while I'm at it, a Christian nation would say to others, "We don't own this country, this land. Y'all come. And forget about having to learn English. Because one of the cornerstones of Christianity is hospitality, we will learn your languages, in order to be more hospitable."

In a Christian nation there would be no Hispanic jokes, no racist jokes, no "blonde bimbo" jokes.

Tomorrow, in accord with the request of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut for the churches in the diocese to preach sermons that raise awareness of Connecticut's part in slavery and the slave trade, and on racism, I will be preaching a sermon based on Jesus's words, "If you would be first in the kingdom, you must become last and servant of all...If you would be great, you must become a servant, a slave of all."

It's a perfectly all right, bog standard sermon I'll be preaching. But to really say what I believe the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ is about, it would have to include what I have written above.

But I won't do that. I don't think the people of this country can take this truth, that as much as we Christians are good people, who worship God and give for the relief of the poor, this nation is selfish and greedy. Until we become the servants of those we think are less than we are, of those we think are invading our land, of those we know are working the system, there will be no health in us.

And that includes me.

Next week we will begin a worship ministry in the open air, for the benefit of those who live on the streets, those whose mental illness might make them unlikely to want to come inside a building where they don't know anyone, and those who might need the opportunity to come and go as they please without being afraid they will be seen as impolite, to say the least.

It is called Worship for All People, and as far as I am concerned, this is a new "church" we are starting, for if my dream comes true, there will times for Bible study, times for fellowship, times even for these the least and lost to do for others in their turn. I'm putting out feelers to various people and places to partner in providing programs and other services. And as God is my witness, these buildings over which I have been given oversight so long as I am Priest in Charge are going to become good news.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Okay, how about this...

How about...

On one Sunday per month, say, the first Sunday, instead of our regular worship in the church at 10:00 we have a brunch in the Memorial Room, with a Gospel reading, a simple shared meal (either we take turns as the cook or we all do the cooking together), sometime during the meal a bell rings, a simple Eucharistic prayer is said, we share the bread and wine with one another, we finish the meal, and there's a blessing and we depart.

What about that?

What about this:

Bring Your Own Brain Bible Study, Tuesday evenings? Or is there a better time FOR THE WHOLE COMMUNITY OF NORWALK, not before or after Sunday worship, but a Bible study that is for all comers.

And instead of weekly or whatever Adult Education/Formation, we have special education/formation events, and the priest (that's me) does not schedule or arrange them all. Anyone who has someone they want to come and do an education thingy can do so.

So, how about that?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On returning from vacation

It's been weeks since my last post, on the shame sometimes associated with one's dental health. I left shortly after on vacation. Beloved and I camped on the Housatonic River for a week, and then, after two days at home unpacking from camping, doing laundry, and then repacking for a cottage-ette ( ! ), we left for Watkins Glen, NY, at the southern tip of Lake Seneca.

More precisely, we stayed in a tiny cottage-ette (that's what the owners call it) in Hector Falls. Beloved stays there when he is at the Glen on photo shoots. When I first saw it, after driving five hours, I was dismayed. What had he let me in for? But when we stepped inside this tiny, caboose-size former tool shed, it was delightful, charming. What a surprise!

The grounds were also charming - untidy grounds scattered with untended gardens gone wild, just the way I like things. I've gotten myself in trouble with more than one church when living in church owned housing, because I prefer untidy gardens. I have never been more rested on returning from a vacation than I am this time. I'm still able not to let people's anxieties and expectations hook me.

I know it won't last forever, but I'll take what I can get.

On the personal care front, however, this is the doctors-and-dentists month. Two deep, under the gum cleanings, two weeks apart, followed today by work on a cavity. A cavity! I haven't had one of those for over 40 years! Really! This one was between two teeth, so each of them had a part of it. I was in the chair for an hour. All I wanted to do afterwards was sleep.

The dentist, of course, is very good. And my mouth was very numbed up, thank God! But can you imagine having to drill down between the teeth, then drill out the cavity on the hidden surface of each tooth, then doing the restoration work, one tooth at a time.

Tomorrow I see my GP, who likes to see me every three months, God knows why. I also have annual tests lined up for this month - a DEXA scan for bone density, necessary because the post chemo pill I take leaches calcium from the bones, and another MRI, because a clean mammogram alone is not sufficient for post-breast cancer follow up when one has "dense tissue". The MRI itself isn't so bad; it's the placement of the IV for the contrast stuff, because I have fugitive veins and it takes up to half an hour to get the IV in, which is very hard on me.

So, good thing my vacation was so successful. Lots of practice photographing cars. Lots of time for drawing, and for reading a murder mystery per day. And the memory of the cottage-ette and Lake Seneca across the street to feed me, at least through this month of September.

Peace to all.