Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 5, 2020

Lessons:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.

One. Joy.

Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.

Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.

Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.

So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.

Two. Love.

The Lord is loving to everyone

says the Psalmist

Compassion is all over God’s works.

As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.

Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.

Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.

Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.

Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:

selfishness.

More on that in a second.

God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.

Three. Confusion.

I do not understand my own actions.

says Paul

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.

This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.

Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.

I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.

I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.

Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.

Four. Joy.

This is where we began.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking,

says Jesus,

and they say,

Look,

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.

Jesus is a party animal.

Amen.

This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.

The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.

The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.

The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:

Why?

Why do things have to be as they are?

Joy dreams of another world.

Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.

If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.

Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.

There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 28, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.

Trinity Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 7 Up

June 7 Down

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Psalm 8

 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.

I am physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, full of grief. There has been so much loss and hurt and anxious uncertainty during this pandemic. To use the particular example of church, the appearance of Covid-19, partway through this past winter, forced us radically reinvent our models for community. Suddenly, without really any runway to work with, Jeanne and you and me were asking the question: what does being church right now look like? It’s been cool to answer that question with you. And it’s also been one of the most intense things that I have ever done, certainly the most intense thing that I have ever done in and around a church.

And then the reappearance of the America’s ancient pandemic, which is racism or white supremacy, added another layer. Well, that last sentence is probably inaccurate, because reappearance implies that white supremacy went away for a while. And it did not. What we had was a forceful reminder of America’s ancient pandemic via George Floyd’s murder, via the subsequent protests, and via the violence which so many of those protests have been greeted.

I’m going to admit that I am a little nervous about sharing my exhaustion with you, my grief with you. I am nervous because I am someone who really likes to appear to be calm and in control, and to visibly be neither of these things is hard. And I am nervous as well because I hear and applaud the activists who say: White people. Don’t you make this moment about you. Amen. Folks like me mustn’t do that.

There are three reasons that I am choosing to fight through my nervousness and name my exhaustion with you. First, my sense from talking with so many of you is that this exhaustion is something in which a lot of you share. One of you this week, when sharing with me about the experience of watching the police raining tear gas down on protestors, described your feelings of helplessness. I know about that helplessness. Another one of you spoke of the fear that you are feeling. I know about that fear. Still another one of you spoke of your grief. I know about that grief. Many of you have spoken about your anger at watching still more violence against black bodies. I know about that anger. And equally many of you have told me about the loss that is to unable to touch, to hug friends or children or grandchildren. I know about that loss.

We have a deep need as human beings to know that our hurt is seen. And I see your hurt. I see you.

Second, if my experience is anything like what is typical, you may be feeling confused or conflicted or even embarrassed about your fear or your grief or your helplessness. My colleague Sylvia is an inveterate youth minister, and she spent a number of years working with youth in a thoroughly privileged context. And what Sylvia says is that a number of the youth with whom she worked became depressed and they had this double challenge that not only did they have to battle depression but they had to battle the shame that they felt about their depression. They were aware that they were privileged and, indeed, radically privileged, that there were millions if not billions of people in the world who did not have the resources that they had. How silly, how pathetic, they thought to themselves, that I have all of this and I am depressed.

Maybe, if you are like me, you are experiencing something similar now. I am well fed, I am financially stable, I am about as safe as it is possible to be. Is it pathetic or unworthy of mention that I am exhausted, that I am encountering grief and anger and helplessness? Maybe this is stuff about which I should just put away, that I should just keep to myself.

Except – and I say this at just about every funeral at which I have the privilege of serving at – trying to put away grief never, never, never works. The idea of achieving closure on grief is one of the most destructive notions circulating in our culture. You cannot close a box on grief.

Perhaps you had the experience as a child of being at a swimming pool or in a lake or the ocean and trying to hold a ball underwater. It takes all of your effort, all of your concentration, to hold that ball down. And the instant that either your focus or your grip slips, that ball will go ballistic and smack you in the face. Trying to deny our exhaustion, our grief, our anger – trying to achieve closure on it – is just the same. We will end up a prisoner of our exhaustion and our grief. What if, therefore, naming our hurt is not an impediment to participating in working for justice but is actually a prerequisite for it? What if doing the work of grieving is what is going to permit us to let go of that ball, let it float to the surface, so that we can focus on what matters, which is declaring and insisting that black lives matter.

Third, and last of all – and here I am drawing on the wonderful Jesuit Priest, James Martin – what if our anger, our sadness, our grief, our exhaustion is something holy and, therefore, something worthy of our attention? What if what we are hearing through this emotion is our conscience speaking or, if you prefer, is the Holy Spirit speaking, is God speaking?

When you see something deeply unjust, it is a risk that we will slip into despair. But what if the heavy emotion that you feel – and that millions and millions of other people feel – is the emotion of God. What if that is evidence that God is with us?

There is a famous icon of the Trinity. I’ve shared this with you before, but it bears repeating on this Trinity Sunday. It is an image of three people, all but identical. In some understandings or readings, these are the three who visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent. In every reading, these three are the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Friend; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Infinity, Immanence, and Intimacy.

In the lower part of the of the icon there is a patch of what some folks think is glue. And there is a guess that what was glued upon it was a mirror. If that’s right, then there is a fourth member to the Trinity. And that is you. And me. And everyone else.

Look into that mirror and see. That God is with us. That God shares with us in our exhaustion and grief. That our divine shared hurt is evidence of God’s longing for wholeness, for love, for justice, for what the Kingdom. That they are proof that God is with us and that, as we act to bring justice nearer, to bring the dignity of every human being closer to reality, to insist that black lives matter, that God will act with us.

Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 31, 2020

Lessons:

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

 

It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things ­­– as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time ­– there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.

And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.

I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.

One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:

If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.

Amen.

[A pause. Then.]

In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.

Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.

And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.

Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.

But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.

Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.

That one looks like a dog.

The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.

If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.

Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.

He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.

But then one of them spotted him.

Up.

At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.

Oh.

In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?

[Music.]

It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.

The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.

In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?

And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.

The Spirit which is like holy possibility.

But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.

Very truly, I tell you,

Jesus once said to them,

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?

 

The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Nov. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.

It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.

Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.

Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.

1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.

Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.

This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.

And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.

And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.

I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:

We need to be careful about what we worship.

Because we will worship something.

To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.

Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.

Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.

There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:

Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and

Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?

Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:

Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?

Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.

No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.

It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.

Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.

Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Nov. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

One of the themes that recurs throughout Jesus’ teaching is:

Be ready.

You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming, you don’t know when the owner of the house is coming, you don’t know when the thief is coming. So stay awake. Have your lamps filled with oil, build your house on solid rock, slaughter the fatted calf and make sure that you have dinner in the oven.

Jesus is a bit like the motivational speaker who tells us:

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.

That’s how Jesus talks.

Except when he doesn’t.

Except on days like today when he says:

Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Is this just Jesus trying to keep us on our toes? That’s entirely possible; I’m not going to rule it out. Jesus absolutely has the capacity to take the steering wheel and turn it hard, so that just when you are sure that a parable or a teaching is going one way it is suddenly skidding hard and facing back where it came from. But here’s what I’m wondering about this morning: what if when Jesus says that hard times are coming and that you and I aren’t to prepare our defence ahead of time, his instruction isn’t contradictory to those times when he says that we are to be ready but, rather, it is complementary?

Here we are in church. And what we are doing here together is a practice. We are practicing being Christians, we are practicing being in community, as Brené Brown says, we are practicing coming to the communion rail with people whom we would sometimes like to choke. We are practicing following Jesus. We’re not here because we have everything figured out, because we know with perfect clarity what we believe, because God has explained everything to us. Quite the opposite. We’re here because we do have doubts and because there are questions that don’t make much sense to us.

We are here because we sense that we need to practice.

And like every practice – like practicing scales on the piano, like practicing your lines for a play, like practicing your baseball swing, like practicing driving (what else belongs on this list?), maybe like practicing law or practicing medicine, the practice that we call church is sometimes exciting and sometimes beautiful and sometimes weird and sometimes aggravating and sometimes boring.

But we trust – I trust, anyway, and I’m guessing that you are here because you do as well – that all of the practice matters, including the hard and boring stuff, maybe even especially the hard and boring stuff. Because my understanding from folks who have gotten really good at something, let’s say folks who have gotten really good at playing the piano, is that they have gotten near to mastery because they have put in the kind of boring but kind of vital work that is doing stuff like playing scales.

And maybe Sunday morning in the Episcopal way has some things in common with playing scales. The liturgy – the order of service that we follow across this morning – is remarkably predictable across the year. We sing different hymns, we wear different colours, we say some different prayers. But a sermon such as this is almost always followed by the creed which is almost always followed by the prayers of the people which, unless it is Easter, are almost always followed by the confession and absolution, which is almost always followed by the peace.

Our practice takes us on this well-worn path. And while there is some variation on what we do on the path – some weeks there is a puddle on the path that we need to walk around – the path itself remains the same.

Walking this path is part of how we obey Jesus when he says, Be ready. Practicing is big part of how we get ready.

But having practiced there are times when we get to or, maybe, when we have to put down the structure of scales or Sunday liturgy and improvise. There are times when we have to make up our minds not to prepare.

So. One of the things that most folks who want to get ordained do is to spend a stretch of time, maybe ten weeks or so, functioning as an apprentice chaplain in a hospital. This time of apprenticeship is known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE. CPE is kind of legendary among ordinands. During CPE you have the privilege, the wonderful and the terrifying experience, of walking into the hospital rooms of strangers.

And I think that those of us who came to CPE having practiced church a lot, those of us who came out of structured traditions such as this one, often wanted to bring our structure with us into the hospital room. The Book of Common Prayer is a kind of security blanket. And I guess that we reckoned that, if we prayed with people in hospital beds using the official prayers within it, then we couldn’t go too wrong.

Except that sometimes, oftentimes, the set prayers of the BCP could prevent us from really listening and really being present with the folks in those rooms.

And so we got an instruction from our mentor, Will Hocker. Will said:

If you must bring a Prayer Book with you into a hospital room, make it a small one.

And leave it in your pocket the whole time.

Having prepared, having obeyed Jesus’ command to practice, to get ready, it was now time for us to obey his command not to prepare. Doing all those scales, if you like, had gotten us ready for a place where it was a good and holy thing not to be prepared.

I wonder how many other parts of our lives are the same? It is kind of a commonplace to say that we live in alienated society, but it’s a commonplace because it’s true. A great many of us are mystified by our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. A great many of us do not even interact with our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. We don’t encounter those folks except on Twitter or, maybe, over an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner. And at dinner, over the turkey, we either ignore that which divides us or we engage it with anger and even contempt.

We have in our hands our prepared talking points, our prepared jabs and jokes, our prepared data, our prepared tweets. And these things will earn us likes and high fives from people who already think like us. And they will do nothing, nothing to open our hearts or minds or to open the hearts or minds of our neighbours.

Now, let me stop here and emphasise that I am not championing some uncritical moral relativism where everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equaled valid. No. There is an objective wrong and an objective right, I insist on that, some opinions are far, far better than others. What I am saying is that, if it is our hope to be the best and most moral people that we can be, if it is our hope to follow Jesus as completely as possible, sometimes we need to set down our prepared everything and get curious.

I had an experience a few weeks back that I have been thinking about a bunch. There is a public figure out there whom I do not admire. As you think about my experience, I’ll invite you to imagine a public figure whom you do not admire. And I friend and I were talking about that public figure when my friend caught me utterly off guard by expressing their deep admiration for that public figure.

I was so startled that I didn’t say anything. Which is probably just as well, because if I had said something, it would have been:

Why do you like that guy? He’s a total wiener.

Looking back, I wish that I had gotten curious. I wish I had said:

Tell me. What is it that you admire about this public figure? What is it that you think that they are doing great?

And maybe that is what Jesus is doing in his teaching this morning. When he says, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, I’ve always heard his teaching as something like a revenge fantasy. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I am going to be able to turn the tables on my opponents, I am going am going to humiliate the people who have humiliated me, this will be like the last scene in an action movie where the villain gets what they deserve.

But what if what Jesus means is that, when you encounter violence and contempt, you do something amazing and keep on remembering the full humanity of the one who is turning that violence on you? What if you respond with curiosity, with generosity, and love?

Here’s the hard part. Jesus is really clear that this may not work. Even more, he is clear that it probably won’t work. He lists off all of these calamities, all of this suffering. And then he says, Make up your minds not to prepare. And then he goes right back into calamities and suffering. Jesus may well be saying that there is a one in ten chance of an open heart changing a situation that is filled with hate, maybe a one in a hundred chance.

But he says,

Do it anyway.

It is worth the chance that the wily Holy Spirit will move in their hearts and in yours. And something will change.

This is the holy naivete of the Gospel.

Jesus’ disciples have prepared and prepared. They have followed Jesus and listened to Jesus and imitated Jesus. And now with all of that preparation done, it is time not to prepare at all. It is time to go towards that which they fear and to make up their minds not to be ready. And as they meet their neighbour who maybe wishes them harm, as they meet their neighbour with their hands empty and their prayer books in their pockets and their phones turned off and their hearts full, maybe their neighbour will notice just a little of the love of Jesus that they are carrying with them.

And maybe that love will prove to be something that no one, no one, is able to withstand or to contradict.

 

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

 

Nov. 10, 2019

Lessons:

Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

 

We have been hearing Jesus in a lot of arguments these past few weeks, but this one feels different somehow. There is no back and forth between Jesus and the questioner, no probing questions from Jesus in response, no mysterious parable offered.

Jesus seems simply to have no time for this question because, I think, the question itself presupposes only death. It is death upon death upon death…7 times in fact. And the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God that called to Moses in the desert to free God’s people from bondage and slavery into freedom and justice and new life, has no patience with a worldview that starts and ends only in death.

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive Jesus says.

Furthermore, the Sadducees riddle posits an afterlife which is pretty unimaginative. I mean, not only is the woman in this hypothetical viewed only in relationship to men in both life and death, and thus still subject in the afterlife to the same oppressive power structures Jesus’ whole ministry is in opposition to, but the resurrection described simply replicates the way life works here and now. This world, its relationships and problems and ways of living and interacting are simply transferred from this life to the next.

This is not how God works, Jesus says. In God we find a qualitatively different kind of life, and a qualitatively different kind of death. In God systems and relationships and structures which are not life-giving have no place. Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.

Jesus offers no details or description of what resurrection looks like. And much like I wish he would explicitly call out the patriarchal assumptions of the Sadducees, I also wish he provide more detail of how resurrection works….but that is not what we get.

What we do get is a clear response that life in God, resurrected life, is completely different than the life we live without God. The systems and ways we interact with one another are fundamentally changed in a resurrected life…are transformed in the love of God.

What is posited by the question in today’s Gospel is a transactional understanding of life and death. But Jesus says, hold up, that is not how God works. God is the God of the living. Life in God is not a series of transactions from birth to marriage to children to death. Life in God, even death in God, is transformed by the love of God which is always generative and creative.

And we are called to participate in that life of love.

We are all here, I think, because this is a place, this is a community of followers of Christ, where we find life. And that means, I think, as Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel, that this is a place where God creates new life and where the transactional patterns of the world are transformed into the life-giving love of the kingdom of God.

And one place where that contrast between transaction and transformation is clear is when it comes to money. The world tries to tell us that spending our money will lead to a new life…..but that’s a lie. Buying a new phone or new shoes or whatever can feel good for a bit, trust my friends I have a closet full of shoes to prove that….but it is ultimately deeply unsatisfying because it is only a transaction. I give someone my credit card and they give me something in return and that thing gets old or breaks or the novelty wears off and I am right where I started.

But sharing my money in this place, giving toward the life-giving work of God that is happening here….that is transformative. A few weeks ago Martin shared that he and Phoebe tithe, they give 10% of their money away. Since I started here with you good people, I have also pledged 10% of my salary from Grace to Grace.

Which from a transactional view seems kind of silly, right? I mean wouldn’t it make more sense to just say I will work for 10% less rather than go through the motions of you all paying me and then me returning the money back to Grace?

But something happens in that process…in that circle. In the process of Grace giving  me a stipend, in the process of you all in this room paying me, I am incorporated into the life and family of this place. And then when I pledge it back to Grace, it becomes so much more than simply a few hundred dollars per month. It is transformed, in and through God’s life-giving Spirit and the good work and people of this place, into something greater than it was……

And that is not to say that only money does that. It certainly does not. But just as resurrection is the promise that our whole selves, our entire being from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes, will ultimately find new life in God, when we give of our whole selves to this place….our time, our talent, and yes, our treasure, we are fully participating in the life-giving kingdom of God.

God takes our offerings, our money and talents, our bread and wine, and transforms them into something life-giving. The experience of being in this place is far more than the sum of its parts….I mean we have to pay for the heat to be on and the lights to be lit and the space to be clean and the clergy to be here…but those transactions are transformed in and through and with God into a community of Sunday morning worship of song and praise, into a parish hall full of Phame students drumming along with We Will Rock You, into classrooms full of children making art and friendships every summer at Grace Art Camp, and into tables full of hot and delicious food for those who join us here every Friday night.  Just as God transforms everything, even death, into new life, so does God transform all we give to Grace into life and hope and love.

(For 10 am…. In a few minutes, right before the Peace, we will be taking some time to prayerfully consider our financial commitment to Grace for the upcoming year, fill out our pledge cards, and bring them up to the altar. I love that we do this together, as an act of worship and praise and community to be blessed and celebrated together. Thank you for all you are and all you do and all you bring to this place.).

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

October 27, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

From the moment we enter this world we are quantified.

Newborns are whisked away from their parents and weighed and measured. They are scored 1 minute after birth and then again at 5 minutes on this scale called the Apgar scale, which from 1 to 10 rates how healthy they are when they are first born.

And this comes from a very good place, I think. This comes from an intention to protect something so vulnerable and new in the world.

But it keeps going, doesn’t it?

I remember as a new parent going anxiously to the pediatrician, at 3 months at 6 months, and given graphs showing where my child fell on the growth curve. I was given scores every 3 or 6 months of how well they were measuring up against the developmental milestones they were expected to be achieving every 3 or 6 months.

And this keeps going and going. When they enter school they have to know a certain number of sight words by the end of kindergarten and are ranked in their reading level compared to their peers in their grade. Assessments are given, standardized tests, college rankings, what major you should choose based on what you will earn…on and on and on. Our lives are quantified by mathematical formulas.

And I think this comes from the same place as it does at the beginning of our lives: to protect us from being a human being in this world, and unpredictable and scary world where we are so vulnerable. And so we hold onto these things we can quantify, these solid numbers that tell us “yes, our children are going to be ok, yes, we are  ok.”

And so in this morning’s Gospel when we hear the Pharisee go to the temple and begin to pray to God (and perhaps to those who are surrounding him) and share how he is measuring up in his life of prayer, in his righteousness, in his justification before God. He prays “I fast twice a week when only once is expected, I give 10% of my income.” I suspect that this impulse in the Pharisee is coming from a similar place, an attempt to guarantee his righteousness and holiness in front of God.

And before I go on I just want to make a quick note about the Pharisees, because it is easy, especially when we spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke, to kind of equate Pharisee with hypocrite or corrupt official. And that has more to do with the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the context in which he was writing than it does with the tradition of Pharasaical Judaism which is a rich, important and valuable tradition in the Jewish faith. In fact, there are many scholars who believe that Jesus himself was raised up within the Pharisee tradition. So just a sort of caveat as I go on in this sermon and any time we talk about the Pharisees, please know this is Jesus offering a parable, a character and not something we should use to judge this entire tradition within Judaism.

All that being said, Jesus is very, very critical of this Pharisee in today’s parable. He is critical of the way the Pharisee is attempting to quantify his righteousness and prove himself to be justified in front of God. But perhaps even more so Jesus is critical of this Pharisee when, in temple, when he is praying and the Pharisee looks across and sees a tax collector also there, praying, obviously deeply hurt and in pain, beating his breast, the Pharisee’s reaction is “Thank God, I am not like him.”

That image of the tax collector beating his breast is quite an arresting one, it is almost as if in the presence of God he is trying to break his own heart open, and present it to the Lord.

The academic and sociologist, Parker Palmer, suggests that there are two images we can keep in our mind’s eye when we think about a heart being broken. The first is imagining the heart as a brittle and fragile thing, that when it breaks it breaks like a wine glass dropped on the hard kitchen floor, smashing into thousands of pieces, shards flying everywhere, never to be made whole again.

The other image he suggests we use for a broken heart is that of a fist. A fist in the middle of our chest that when it is broken opens up like a hand, fingers splayed wide, to hold our own hurt but also to hold the hurt of the world in the palm of our hand.

I would suggest today that the tax collector in today’s Gospel, when the Pharisee saw him, was trying to do that very thing, to break open his heart like a hand to recognize in that moment that whatever hurt or anguish or pain had brought him to that place that day, he was ultimately and completely at God’s mercy, vulnerable before God reliant entirely on God’s grace and love.

What’s also interesting about this image, this gesture that the tax collector uses in the temple that morning, this gesture that Jesus refers to in describing him, this beating your breast or chest is one reserved for women in this culture that Jesus lived in. And more specifically women who were grieving a deep and painful loss.

There is perhaps no more powerful emotion in our human experience than that of grief. And perhaps within that spectrum of grief nothing more overwhelming and painful than a parent’s grief at losing a child. The image I imagine for this kind of grief is that it is like being dropped into a dark ocean, angry and stormy, with nothing to hold onto and no land in sight, trying desperately to keep your head above water.

I have some friends, Mary and Dustin, who I think are in this deep abyss of grief right now. I don’t know if y’all had heard of this story by there was a young man, named Owen Klinger, who went missing a couple of weeks ago and his parents were searching for him along with a lot of us as well. Owen was in kindergarten with my daughter and we have known Owen, and Owen’s parents, since those early school days. We did not know Owen well, I do remember Owen as a joyous, athletic, funny, musical kid who was always there. He was really a beautiful boy.

And so last week on Tuesday, at the University of Portland where Owen was in his first year, the community there had a mass to come together and grieve the loss of Owen who, after being missing for two weeks, his body was discovered in the Willamette River. It was clear that the deepest fears of his parents and those who knew him had come true, that he had died.

And this community gathered in the chapel of the University of Portland and mourned the loss of their friend, of their brother, of their son. And after that service Mary and Dustin went out to the press that had gathered in front of the chapel and spoke to them.

And in that moment Mary, most especially, embodied a heart which has been broken, not like glass on the kitchen floor but like a hand put forward to the world. She shared that when she had dropped Owen off at college a couple of months before, she had said to him “Owen, I want you to make a difference, I want you to impact this community.”  She said she had wondered whether he was listening to her. But she said that morning just leaving from a service grieving her son, she said she realized that he had been listening to her. She said that even in his death he had made an impact on this community, that he had brought  people together from all over the city who had looked for him, who had cared for him, who had prayed for him and who held him in prayer and love.

In that moment, her heart was broken open like a hand and she was saying, I think, that the value of his life could not be quantified in the too few years he had spent on this earth but in fact in the love and spirit he had embodied when he was alive and he continued to have in his death. In that moment, God held Mary’s heart and God held Owen’s as well.

I think, sometimes, we think of Christ’s divinity primarily in Christ’s strength, in the miraculous strength it took to overcome death and the power of the resurrection, in the joy we find on Easter morning. And my friends, that is real and there is true joy in the world and there is power in that image.

But I would also suggest that Christ’s divinity is found in his deep vulnerability, perhaps no more than when he was on the cross when he cried out in pain and anguish “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”. In that moment Christ is at his most human and most divine. And the good news is that even in that awful place, that there is no pain so deep, no grief so wide that Jesus or overwhelming that we human beings experience that Jesus is not there with us and always will be.

And we know that, I think, because every Sunday we gather at this altar and we remember Christ’s body broken and the blood poured out for us. And we offer up our hands and a piece of Christ’s heart is put in them and we take that piece of Christ and we bring it into ourselves. And we are called, my friends, to be brokenhearted people and sent out into the world, a world that desperately needs more broke hearts. Hearts broken open in sadness and grief, but also hearts broken open in joy and love.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver:

 

Lead

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning

this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Anne North

Oct. 20, 2019

Lessons:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

What to expect when you are expecting the worst : living with metastatic breast cancer

I have been leery most of my life about showers. I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in about 1960 at age 12; my parents were expecting a thriller very like The lady vanishes, and instead got two frightened children who they kept sending to the concession stand but who peeked. So it is probably understandable that it was in the shower where I first discovered my tumor with the size and shape of a Lego brick.

Statistically, I am a likely candidate for breast cancer. My mother had it, the Pacific NorthWest is a hotspot, and the unexpected is regularly sprinkled here and there among us.

Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine at that point in time, February 2014, so naming the tumor Putin was easy. We have comfortably settled into informality; he’s now Vlad to me

Kaiser has a rather impressive army of specialists you see at the start of the adventure. They lay out an array of possible treatments, use jargon like tumor boards and estrogen positive receptors and I highly recommend bringing a scribe with you to any high stress medical encounter. My son and daughter came with me, allowing me to go into a trance, as one does, at the first mention of the word cancer.

There are some dismaying facts and statistics out there. The one in eight rate of women acquiring Breast Cancer isn’t inevitable, but certain sets of the population are genuinely at risk at some point. We can lower the odds of severe outcomes by early diagnosis and body awareness. Many women are the first diagnosed in their families – my mother was one  – but many other women are aware of relatives who have struggled over the years.

My impression is that all varieties of the medical profession are still working to definitely know how and why cancer strikes. We know certain activities heighten the risk of disease. Smoking, heavy drinking, excess weight gain, being a down winder from a nuclear reactor, age, genetics and … ?? Diet?? Lifestyles?? Not to increase your paranoia, but infusion nurses have noticed and told me that they are seeing more and younger patients arriving for chemotherapy treatments.

My Vladimir Putin resurrected in 2016 and added some extra spots scattered across my ribs and other bones. So far, the variety of treatments I have received keeps the fires tamped down and my body reasonably functional. I was surprised that treatments aren’t based on Three strikes and you are out as I had assumed. The attention and publicity over the decades have paid off in a huge array of drugs, treatment plans and the tantalizing prospect of breast cancer along with all the other nasty varieties becoming a chronic disease.

Adding to the mysteries surrounding the disease, there are varying statistics by racial background. Diagnosis and treatment are uneven across the nation. Historically, access to studies and medical care has been unequally available across the population. African American women are statistically later to be diagnosed and more susceptible to resistant forms of cancer that really need early diagnosis. After living in the United States for a period of time, both African women and Latino women are reaching statistics similar to the African American experience.

In the last 9 years, the Portland chapter of the Susan G Komen Foundation has worked through the Worship in Pink program to focus on the African American community and to reach out to remind and encourage all populations of women to take proactive steps toward health. Grace Memorial has sponsored the program here over the past 4 to 5 years.

My experience has been one of having many different medicines infused into my veins, working to tamp down the aggression of my tumors. Side effects vary, some challenging others pretty mild. I may never have a normal head of hair again, but then what better excuse for hat shopping? Nurses know how to get you through treatment crises, they really are the best.  The unexpected, which always happens has been the warmth, kindness and support of family and friends and neighbors. I feel the caring, I feel the sense of being held up by many. Family with whom I agree about nothing, pray for me. I am so blessed.

Some people have commented that I seem to be rather cheerful about my prospects. The reality for me is that when I was first diagnosed several friends were also treated for other forms of the disease – pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer. Earlier, a friend had esophageal cancer. These are less common and less publicized maladies, and my friends had more difficult, challenging treatments leading to speedy deaths.

I cannot complain. I have lived well and have a good shot at making it to my goal — to vote in the 2020 election. Everyone needs goals!