Friday, January 20, 2012

A house divided against itself

Yesterday I saw the most amazing thing.  On my way to work, heading up the bridge ramp to Waugh Street, I noticed a woman on the side street to my right.  She was battling a two-story inflatable “Lady Liberty” – a huge Statue of Liberty blow-up doll in green plastic, tethered to the ground next to what I presume is her place of business – a tax service of some kind.  The wind was blowing and “Lady L” had crashed to the ground-so the woman was literally wrestling her back into place – finally, then, there she was, the balloon lady, head upright, her bilious green lantern raised, once again, on high, to proclaim to the world, “give me your tired, your poor, your hopelessly entangled receipts and tax records….”

What was a bit confusing at first was the woman’s garb – not the plastic woman, the business owner.  She was dressed in some kind of silky green garment, a dress or skirt that extended to her ankles – obscured a bit by the coat she was wearing - a white ski parka with that fake fur around the hood.  In a split second, I realized, the green of her clothing and its style perfectly matched the outfit of the other woman – the business owner was Lady Liberty, too! 

I laughed out loud and thought, “Carl Jung would have a field day with this!”  Here, before my eyes was a tableau of the classic battle of Self against Persona – Lady Liberty going mano รก mano against herself – struggling to keep that larger than life personality, the flawless face she shows to the world, erect, up front, at large!  The tiny true self, a replica of the persona in miniature, but so much more vulnerable, so much more approachable, so much more real  – was working so hard to keep the image she preferred to show the world in place.  A cosmic, timeless battle – won for the day, but noting the strong winds that buffeted her in these harsh days of winter, you knew that this scene would be replayed again and again…

Jesus said once, “every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12:25). He was talking to the Pharisees, who were constantly posturing with him – trying to show the world a righteous and holy face, but, in fact, were actually hypocrites...literally, ones with false faces – smiling on the outside, while filled with guile and treachery, using religious rules and ideology as weapons to trap him. 

“You’ll know my real followers by their fruit” Jesus says a little later – just like trees are known by their fruit.  In this world, there is lots of pressure to maintain our personas – to present to the world, one perfect, larger than life image of ourselves, which is not consistent with who we really are.  We get focused on appearances, rather than substance – get trapped into showing a false face, when the faces with which we are created are way more valuable, way more precious to the One who created us.   I wonder if the flesh and blood Lady L would ever abandon her struggle and settle for her own powerful image of liberty, her own true self, as the one she showed the world – and finally, would value that face more, for the relative ease of maintaining it.  I wonder just how long it will take me – and all of us, to end that wrestling match as well.  It's way past time for most of us to cut the tether ropes and let those personas fly!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sermon for the feast of the Baptism of our Lord

“What’s in a name?”
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
Mark 1:4-11
January 8, 2012              St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lonnie Cottrell.
That was his name when I met him.

He was a sweet little kid – but kind of pathetic, too.  
At age 7, he looked more like 5 –
with hands and feet and ears too big for his small frame.
His curly black hair was cut way too short … 
and he was legally blind –
his brown eyes seemed huge behind the thick glasses he wore.
Lonnie walked with a kind of side-winding tilt,
the result of scoliosis of the spine which he’d had since birth.
He was also mentally retarded
            and spoke with a slight speech impediment.
The only home he’d ever known
was the Polk State School and Hospital,
an institution for folks with mental retardation.

On his 3rd day of life.
Lonnie’d been abandoned there by his mother,
herself an overwhelmed, unmarried teenager,
already hopelessly addicted to heroin at age 15.

I met him when I was a caseworker
in charge of a new effort called the Host Home program.
We aimed to place institutionalized kids
into foster family homes in the community.

At first,
we judged Lonnie’s chances for placement
as slim to none.
That all changed when Dorothy and James Gardiner came into my office.
They were attractive, mature, highly educated –
            a very successful couple,
who had already raised two amazing children:
Angela, a lawyer, and Adam, a dentist.
But now, they wanted to reach out to a child with problems who needed them.

I gotta tell you –
it was love at first sight for them and Lonnie.
They could see, immediately,
the potential he had within.
Soon after we placed him,
Dorothy called asking for all the usual things –
birth certificate, medical records, and the like. 
I had to tell her what I considered, the sad and obscene truth. 

In my research, I had found not one,
but four possible birth certificates for the child;
with not one, but four possible names
and several birth dates. 
Lonnie or Ronnie or Ronald or Roland Cottrell  
was born sometime in the first week of July, 1970. 
You see, these kids were thought of as “throwaways” –
left in institutions for years, with no one to advocate for them –
kids so unimportant that no one had even bothered
to record their correct date of birth or their given name.
Dorothy responded with her usual no-nonsense attitude. 
“No way” she said.
“We’re going to fix this.” 
She called Angela,  
who talked with a judge –
who agreed to confirm Lonnie’s date of birth and name for the record.
He would court order this child into official existence.
Lonnie decided to keep his name  
But got to choose his birthday.
I choose July 4th , he said,
because he always wanted fireworks and hot dogs
on his special day.
Lonnie Cottrell,  July 4th, 1970 –
 now, that’s was what his birth certificate read,
which we hung in a frame on his bedroom wall. 
Whenever I visited,
Lonnie never failed to point to it and say,
 “Miss Pat – that’s me.  
I’m somebody now
and nobody can take that away.”

In the next 18 months with the Gardiners, 
both Lonnie’s build and his hair filled out nicely.
His speech improved with therapy and daily practice sessions.
James and Adam taught Lonnie how to swim,
to ride a bike and roller skate –
which really helped his balance and gait. 
Then we had cause to frame and hang something else on his wall –
 a certificate of adoption. 
That document marked the culmination of a process of
claiming that child as their own,
which started the minute Dorothy and James
looked into Lonnie’s eyes.
Lonnie decided to change his name, then,
from now on,  he declared,
after his new dad, he would be James Lonnie Gardiner –
or JL, Jr., for short.
Now, on my home visits,
he showed me that second document and said –
“Miss Pat, that’s me. I am really somebody now
and for sure, nobody can take that away! ”
Dorothy and James claimed Lonnie as their own –
their very own child by adoption.
And Lonnie claimed Dorothy and James right back, 
and Angela and Adam, as his real brother and sister.
And all those Gardiner aunts and uncles, cousins and friends –
well, they loved on that child as if there was never a time
he didn’t belong to them.

James told Lonnie that he’d thought long and hard
            before adopting him –
because adoption meant that Lonnie would now carry his name.
“As a Gardiner” he told Lonnie,
“now, what you do, how you treat other people,
            how you live your whole life,
well, that reflects on all the Gardiners –
it’s up to you to keep and add to our good name.”

What’s in a name?
For Lonnie – a whole new world –
a place, a people, an identity – a past and a future.
Now, I am really somebody, he said.
And Lonnie, the now infamous JL, Jr.
never took it for granted.
Because to him, that name told other truths about himself –
that he was a unique and special person in time, in place and in history…
that name told him he belonged,
that he would be known and loved deeply –
and could know and love others deeply right back;
that name meant that he was a beloved son,
in whom a whole family was well pleased.

And as James and Dorothy often told him
he had his whole life to grow into that name,
to make his name mean something good for the world.

Today in the Gospel
we hear the curious story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  
It’s a curious story,
            because Jesus,
a human being like us in all things, but sin…
did not need John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
But yet, there he was,
            submitting to John’s ministrations,
                        submitting himself to the prayers and the rituals
allowing himself to be drawn under then up,
out of the water.   
Lots of theological ink has been spilled
            contemplating why Jesus chose to be baptized.
For me, though, and I’m not alone in this notion,
the story of Jesus’ baptism has always been inspirational…
… a story told that reveals a truth about God and us.

Jesus submits to baptism to show us the way –
            as he was always doing with his life.
Jesus was baptized to show us,
that like him, we can be beloved children of God,
in whom God is well pleased.

God has been working the process of claiming each one of us
            as God’s very own, since long before our eyes were even open.
“God has known you since before you were formed in your mother’s womb”
the Psalms proclaim.  
“God can count the very hairs of your heads” says Jesus –
God loves us and knows us that well.

And baptism is the outward sign of this ongoing process
of God’s claim on us …
Baptism is the time for us,
when the heavens open up
                        and the Spirit descends like a dove,
            and God calls us son or daughter,
when God calls us beloved…
Baptism is the sign that nothing,
nothing in heaven or on earth,
can separate us from God’s claiming of us,
and that’s a fact.
In baptism, we’re given a brand new name –
                        Christian –
a name that provides us with
a place, a people, an identity – a past and a future.
We’re claimed for sure,
            and like Lonnie,
we can claim God and the entire family of God, right back.

what we do, how we treat other people,
            how we live our whole life,
is a reflection of our membership in the family of God
and our relationship to Son of God as well.
And, like Lonnie,
we have our whole lives to grow into that name, 
to make the name we bear –
Jesus’ name,
mean something good for the world.

So, don’t take that name for granted.
That name, Christian,
has been purchased at a great price,
for you, for me, for all of us.
…purchased at a great price through the death and resurrection of Jesus,
and the witness of countless others who’ve gone before us,
who’ve endured persecution, torture and even death,
so that we might live freely
and bear the name of Christ without fear of harm.

Today we remember Jesus’ baptism
and our own baptismal day –
the day we were given the right to call God our father,
to claim Jesus as our real brother,
and each other, as real kin.
Maybe, it’s a good idea for us
to frame and hang our baptismal certificates –
so that we’ll remember how important that baptism is for us.
Maybe that will remind us
that now, we really are somebody,
we’re marked as Christ’s own forever….
and nobody can take that away.

Today, in place of the Creed, I’ll ask you
to renew with me, our baptismal promises.
As we say those words together,
            And as you go forward from this place,
I invite you to consider how you might recommit yourself
to strive to use your everyday life –
to show by example,
that bearing the name of Jesus
means something really important
and something good for the world.
May we work to live our lives in a way
that will let everyone know
that we are both somebody
and somebody’s:
a blessed and chosen member of the family of God
who lives to love and serve in Jesus’ name.

In God's hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all humankind.

The birds found the feeder today - or maybe it was a day or two ago.  It seemed to me yesterday, although I wasn't sure, that the level of food had gone down.  But today, I knew. I saw them.  Five or so, tiny little chickadees - muted in color, but not in voice, black and grey - elaborately light of being, with heads a little like a blue jay's, hanging for dear life off the feeder - pecking and flapping away.  Then came a big red-headed woodpecker - with his comely black and white striped coat.  The feeder swung to and fro as he flew between it and the trunk of the tree - pecking and chirping as he secured bugs and seeds galore.  He shook enough food out of he feeder that it provided a seed shower for several birds on the ground - like Portia's mercy, not strained, but falling, gently, like the rain, and twice blessed - abundant and undeserved grace upon him that takes and him that gives.  A lovely cardinal arrived with his plump wife of orange beak - and Deacon and I hid behind the blind in the dining room, watching and watching as they flitted here and there - enjoying the feast.  God giving food in due season....

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In God's hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all humankind."
                                                                                                                                          Job 12:7-10 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

We're getting actual bread!

Last night we celebrated Epiphany at St. Mark’s.  We processed in with lighted votives and candles decorated by the kids.  We heard an amazing anthem sung by one of our kids – Hannah – “may my light shine like the star of Bethlehem.”  We processed out, singing “Go tell it on the mountain” with glow sticks – forming a circle around the inside of the church – we brought the light of Christ in with us, then we took it out – so that the love of God might shine through our lives.  (By the way, if you crack a glow stick too hard, it breaks – and sends out this phosphorescent liquid that looks like a meteor shower – but you can’t clean it up, unless you are in the dark!  Not recommended, by the way! )

We tried real bread as well – lovely fresh rolls from Kroger, nothing special, but good tasting.  Several of the kids came to the communion rail together – parents in tow. When I served one of them, George who is about five years old, and quite a live wire – he turned excitedly to his companions (all of like age) and in a HUGE stage whisper – said, “we’re getting ACTUAL BREAD!”  

 Oh, yeah – this is what I ‘m talking about –  real bread, received with real excitement and delight –  HOLY COMMUNION!   EUCHARIST – THE ACTUAL BREAD OF LIFE! 
That was my experience of Epiphany last night –  a revealing of something wonderful, holy, divine  and mysterious – in an everyday, simple encounter –  through the voice of a little boy who gets it –  “we’re getting ACTUAL BREAD!”  
Glory be to God on High, indeed! 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus 2012

Assist us to proclaim
Holy Name of Jesus
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
January 1, 2012                                        St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

From Hymn #493:
 Jesus! the name that charms our fears and bids our sorrows cease;
'tis music in the sinner's ears, 'tis life, and health, and peace.

Today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus –
the day we stop and celebrate the power of Jesus’ name.

It’s no coincidence that we do this on the very first day of the year –
a signal of how primary this celebration is in our liturgical lives.

But how important, really, is the name of Jesus
            in our regular, everyday lives?  
Several years ago,
            I was sitting in my car at a red light,
listening to a program on National Public Radio. 
The announcer was reviewing a movie that wasn’t familiar to me –
a movie about football called “North Dallas Forty.” 

the film represented something important
in the history of sports culture
and it was celebrating an anniversary –
the quarter century mark, if memory serves correctly. 

As part of the segment,  
the reviewer played portions of the movie’s dialogue. 
That dialogue, to my unacquainted ear,
seemed to consist entirely of three words. 
One of those words was the common four letter word for excrement.
The other two words were always used in combination –
the words, Jesus Christ. 

Now that movie and its anniversary
are not the important parts of this story –
at least not for our purposes today. 
What’s important is how those three words were rendered
and what that says about the time and the culture in which we live. 

You see, whenever that common four letter word was used,
it was “bleeped out” –
presumably, so that the tender ears of the radio audience
would not be offended. 
But whenever the characters issued the expletive,  “Jesus Christ”
– and you can be assured, it was an expletive –
they were not praying at the time –
well, those  words were left intact
to assault the ears of all in listening range.

My initial reaction was to be flabbergasted –
which quickly turned to being outraged. 
I was so shocked,
I sat dumbstruck through the changing of the light –
and then,  I began to pound on the steering wheel
and shout back at the radio in anger. 

I continued to hold forth in like manner
until the folks behind me began honking their horns
and started to communicate with their own four letter words
and in a few instances, with sign language. 

So, I pushed on,
flushed with the heat of my reaction
and pondering in my heart what the world was coming to.

As I continued on my way,
I firmly resolved to call or write to that radio station
and, in fact, to the entire firmament of NPR,
 and tell them in no uncertain terms of my extreme reaction
 to the profane use of my savior’s name…
AND to comment on the editorial policies of a station
that believed that the use of that four letter word
was more objectionable
than to use the words “Jesus Christ” as a curse.

But I was in seminary at the time – my last semester, in fact. 
And when I got back to campus,
the due date of my honors thesis loomed large,
I had a sermon to write,
and my soon-to-be new rector and his wife
were coming that next afternoon to interview me,
so my dorm room needed immediate attention of epic proportions

So, I never did anything. 
I lost my resolve and never registered my complaint.

That incident has come back to me several times, though
 …reminding me of how significantly our culture has changed
in the 50-something years of my life. 
In my childhood,
the words Jesus Christ would never have been used
            in public or in private
to punctuate a sentence,
and certainly were never to be uttered as an expletive.

Instead, as my grandmother patiently trained us,
we were to bow our heads each time we heard or said that name. 

This was a way to show our love for Jesus,  she said –
a kind of little prayer we could offer,
at any time or place,
to remind us that Jesus is the Lord of all, 
that he is the one to whom every head should bow
and every knee should bend,
with affection, of course – but also, with respect and gratitude. 

I still continue that habit today –
you all thought I was just nodding off, up here, didn’t you? 
Not so – I still dip my head just ever so slightly in a reverent way,
every time I say or hear that sacred name.
But the world does not react that way –
in fact, it acts just the opposite. 

Our world has grown increasingly vulgar, secular and obscene. 

The issue of civil discourse –
how we speak to and about each other,
has been the subject of countless radio and television programs,
as well as commentary by a variety of national and world leaders
in the print and internet media, as well. 
We live in a time and place
where we receive little encouragement to practice
what our forebears called careful and courteous conversation.
We live in a time and place in which we get offended by the wrong things –
and fail to register our outrage
when something sacred is violated or worse,
when something sacred is used as a cheap punch line
or is completely ignored. 

To think that the name of the One,
to whom we owe our very lives – our eternal lives –
is so routinely and publicly abused –
that fact generates a feeling of deep despair in me. 

From the beginning of time,
the people of God understood the power of words –
and the significance of a name. 
God spoke all of creation into being. 
The ancients believed that if you knew someone’s name,
you had power over them
and responsibility to them. 
The name of God was considered so powerful, so sacred,
that human beings were not permitted to utter it out loud–
they were only to represent that name with four letters,
the Tetragrammaton –
and taught to substitute the word Adonai or Lord, for Yahweh.  

Note, how often in Scripture,
God changes the name of the ones
God calls into some special mission –
Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai, Sarah; 
Jacob, Israel;
Simon, becomes Peter, the rock. 

The very name of Jesus, is given to Mary by an angel –
call him Yeshua, the angel says –
the one who saves in the name of God. 
The Messiah, that one who would save all people,
was known as the logos, the word, in Greek –
the very word of God
which would take on flesh and dwell among us.
Jesus, himself,
taught his followers to ask for what they needed in his name. 
And the faithful of the early church did just that –
driving out demons, providing protection,
changing the course of the whole world
through the calling out of that name.   

Not only those early faithful have felt the power of that name.
Throughout the past two thousand years,
through all manner of things,
people have called upon that name.
Only recently, during that terrible tsunami
that overtook southeast Asia a few years ago,
the story was told of a miracle. 
A man, trapped in a small boat with his children,
invoked the name of Jesus,
and the raucous waves around him
were stilled –
they abated just long enough to enable them
to make it to a safe harbor. 
The name of Jesus has the power
to bring comfort to the most tortured of souls
and the most troubled of hearts  -
many a deathbed prayer has ended with that name. 

Today on this special feast day,
I’d like to make a new year’s resolution
and invite you to do the same.  

For sure, it would be good for each of us as individuals
to resolve to be  more careful about what we say and how we say it – especially about how we use sacred words
and how we use words in regard to other people,
especially those we don’t like or agree with.

And I know for myself,
I need a discipline to help me remember to call on the name of Jesus
when times are hard,
or when I find myself or our congregation
in times of trouble.
But we might want to go a little farther
than that personal approach.
I wonder what might happen,
how might our immediate world be changed,
if we gently, firmly and with respect,
took exception when someone abuses the name of Jesus,
or God, in our presence. 
How might our own sensibilities grow more Christ-like
            and how might the world be changed,
if we paid more attention to the way
that our common use of language today
abuses or demeans others?
How might the overall civility and Christ-like aspects
of our world be changed
if we took the time to respectfully explain,
why forms of speech that denigrate God or others
offend us
and destroy the sacred fabric of community –
the sacred nature of our common humanity?

What might change in our world
if we took episodes of expletives or
instances of derogatory language
                        as opportunities to witness?  

What if we took those opportunities
as a chance to tell others
what we know about this Jesus Christ character 
and how he lived and died to create a world
in which all people were to be called
brother, sister, friend –
in which all people were to be spoken to with respect,
and spoken of with love,
no matter who or what they are?

What if we took my grandmother’s advice,
and stopped to say a little prayer –
when we hear the name of Jesus -
what if we decided right there in that time and place –
our time and place –
to invite others to join us in asking for what we need in that name? 

What a life-changing contributor
to our time and culture we might become.
What an amazing new year
a new year of our Lord,
that might bring …

Let us pray:   Oh, gracious Master and our God, assist us to proclaim, and spread through all the earth abroad the honors of your name.