The Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

June 23, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

What is your name? I imagine, as I start here with you good people, I will be asking
that a lot. It is such a simple question, but it can reveal so much.

My name is Jeanne. I am named after my mother. And my grandmother before her.
And her grandmother before her. My name, Jeanne, is a name given to some 8 or 9
women in my family…all but two of them I never met.

Although my name is not quite the same. You see, my mom and grandmother were
Jean spelled in the traditional English way J-E-A-N. But my father was a French
major who spoke the language fluently and beautifully and when I was born he agreed
to carry on this tradition of naming the first born girl Jean but insisted on the proper
French spelling, J-E-A-N-N-E.

When I was a kid I was called Jeannie, as in I Dream Of. I hated my name, most of
the Jeans I met were decades older and my name had the awful distinction of being a
perfect rhyme with the word ‘machine’ which resulted in an endless string of
nicknames of Jeanne, Jeanne the fill-in-the-blank machine.

Our names tell stories, our names might be the only single word that can come close
to capturing who we are…where we came from…who loved us. Were you named after
a favorite uncle, a grandmother or a character in a parent’s beloved novel? Did you
abandon a childhood nickname (Joey, Cathy….um, Marty) once you were old enough
to make your will known? Our names are markers of our identity.

In today’s Gospel the very first thing Jesus does, when this man possessed by
demons, shackled and imprisoned in the tombs by his community, breaks free and
runs naked up to Jesus and shouts “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the
Most High?”, the very first thing Jesus does is ask his name.

I wonder how long it had been since someone had asked this man his name. Long
enough, it seems, that having been isolated and alone with only the voices in his head,
he does not remember his own name. Instead the demons which occupy him have
become who he is. “Legion” he replies.

It is no accident that the man responds with a term which invokes the Roman
occupation. This is a man not only tormented by the demons of his own mind, but
shunned and oppressed by the powers and principalities of the world around him: the
Roman empire, the community that keeps him shackled and alone.

Perhaps the name Legion is an amalgamation of all the names the powers in the world
gave him, the names the world still gives to people like him, to identify who and what
he is:

Homeless
Addict
Mentally Ill
Criminal

But Jesus asks his name even though the man has been in the depths for so long that
he can no longer remember it, Jesus asks his name and tries to connect with the
human being, with the child of God beneath all those demonic categories.

And Jesus heals him. Jesus sends all those demons away. He frees the man’s body and
he frees his soul and he is restored to who is truly is.

And what is fascinating about the Gospel story is that the people of the community in
which this man has suffered and been imprisoned, these people whom you think
would be delighted to be free of this frightened and frightening man in their midst,
react to the man’s healing with fear as the Gospel writer tells us:

“Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to
Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of
Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had
seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been
healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked
Jesus to leave them;”

They see this man clean and clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus and rather than rejoice
they are afraid. They do not invite Jesus to stay so that they also might be healed, they
ask him to leave.

Why? Well maybe because the world profits from keeping the systems and the social
and economic hierarchies as they are. Maybe because the devil you know is better
than the devil you don’t. Maybe because change, any change, even one that heals and
makes whole means uncertainty and loss and that is frightening.

Being known, truly known by God, can be frightening. It means giving up the ways
we name ourselves and the ways the world names us and instead claiming an identity
as a disciple of an itinerant rabbi who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, who
preached a Gospel of love and acceptance so threatening to the powers that be that
he was crucified for it. As St. Paul describes it, in this familiar and beloved passage
from Galatians, we are clothed in Christ, in Christ we are ‘no longer Jew or Greek,
slave or free, male and female’. I think, like the man possessed in today’s Gospel, Paul
is pointing us to the powerful truth that in Christ all the ways the world tries to name
us and limit us, all the ways we try to name and limit ourselves, are not the truth of
who and whose we are.

I once heard Jesus whispering my name here. In this place. In this very sanctuary,
through this very text.

I heard it on a day I was not meant to be in church. It was 9 years ago. I was supposed
to be on a plane with my family going on the trip of a lifetime to Iceland which we
had planned for the better part of a year. But instead I was here.

And I was not happy about it. My husband had gotten sick, really sick, and we had
canceled the trip. And as sometimes happens with me, my worry morphed into anger.
But instead of stewing at home I came here, to this place.

I sat in that pew, the one three from the back, with two of my squirmy kids and I was
trying to figure out what to do next. I had finished catechumenate with Mother Esme
and some of the folks in this very room and I felt stirred up and unsettled and was
hoping that the vistas and hot springs and fish I would find in Iceland would clear it
all up for me…I would have some vision on a fjord of what God was going to want
me to do next with my life.

But instead I found myself here. Resentful and frustrated that my plans had changed,
but here. And the Gospel was this very one, this very one, and the homilist was a
guest, a former Greek Orthodox priest named Paul. And I sat and he preached about
Jesus asking the name of the possessed man and connected it to the work he did with
those experiencing homelessness I felt Jesus calling my name. I emailed Paul the next
week and started showing up at the non-profit he worked for and if it were not for
that Sunday in this place and not for this Gospel I would not be standing here, gifted
with the opportunity to serve and worship with you good people. (Isn’t that weird and
wonderful and amazing?)

When we are baptized, when we come together around this table, God calls to us each
by name. We have an opportunity, each week, like the man in the Gospel story, to
have those demons that would rob us of our identity as beloved children of God cast
out by Christ. At the table, at the font, in this place we can be restored to wholeness
and new life. And, like the man in today’s Gospel, we are then commissioned by
Christ to go into the world and share the Very Best News Ever and offer the same
healing to a world that yearns desperately to be reborn.

And so, my friends, the next time someone asks your name, remember your name is
Beloved.

Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Dick Toll

June 3, 2018

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

I suppose every now and then it is okay to have a boring sermon about legalisms, law, and all that dry stuff.  So, today is the day.  Seriously, I would like to look at an aspect of how we as a people have chosen or not chosen to live together with some kind of rule, or law, or common understanding of what it means to live in community….whether that community be a family or a town, city, county, state, country or within the global community.

Okay, where do we start?

Probably a good place to start is the Ten Commandments.

Thirty-five hundreds ago, Moses was at Mt. Sinai and we know that he received the Ten Commandments.  He issued them to a community that resented Moses trying to impose rules of behavior and to blame God for it.  Rules regarding the Sabbath, murder, lying about your neighbor and on and on.  How to best live together and come up with some standards, beliefs, and patterns of good relationships. 

As people who have evolved into families and communities over many years, we have found that we must have rules to live by and follow or we are in danger of losing ourselves as well as others.

The problems often with our laws and rules is that they turn out to be wrong.  They diminish when they are meant to give us meaning and purpose.  For instance, the Church has gone through tremendous upheaval over recent years on such issues as:

Women’s ordinations, gay rights, prayer book revisions and many other issues.  I was in this pulpit preaching about using the new prayer book services to replace the 1928 Prayer Book back in the late 1960’s.  I was ordained to the Priesthood here at Grace Memorial using the 1928 Prayer Book.  The rules changed, people had a lot to say about the changes….pro and con…so it was an open discussion as it should be.  It went on for years…and in many ways will continue.

I have the greatest respect for my Father who was a lawyer in Pecos, Texas, where I was raised.  I first learned about law and the legal systems as a child growing up in West Texas listening to my Father speak to concerns that arose in his legal practice.  He died several years after I was ordained and I have always missed him.  I learned what it meant to disagree with my Father over many things while growing up.  But, the one I remember most was his stand on what happened when the Supreme Court ruled on the integration of schools in the early 1950’s.  My Father believed in the law at the time “separate but equal”.  In other words, integration was a violation of what he saw to be the law of the land.  I disagreed and was president of my high school senior class when we integrated in 1957 and at the same time he was elected to the school board as a write-in candidate on the subject opposing integration.  So, I learned early that laws are in need of changing and we are constantly defining our system so it works better over the years as we grow together in our country.

But, again, how about religious law?  Every faith community, every family has it’s own written and unwritten laws or norms it abides by for better or worse.  Look at Ireland this past week.  A sea change for prochoice and women’s rights in a country that has long been in opposition to what it is now defining in a new way.

And that brings us to our Gospel lesson today.

Jesus was at odds with the religious leaders of the day.  They saw him as a threat to their authority and looked for ways to undermine him and his followers.

What happened in our lesson today?  It was the Sabbath and many rules and regulations had grown up around keeping the Sabbath holy since the time of Moses.  Apparently, from Jesus’ point of view had gone too far.  And when his disciples were gathering food to eat on the Sabbath, they were criticized.   When Jesus healed a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath, it was terrible according to the religious leaders.  According to them, Jesus was doing away with the law, the tradition, and the sacred nature of the Sabbath from their point of view.

“And he said to the man with the withered hand, come forward.  And He said to them, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?  But they were silent.  He looked around at them with anger, He was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man “stretch out your hand”.  He stretched it out and his hand was restored.  The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

All of us know how much we need to have our rules and regulations and to discuss them.  And, to add or subtract from them as we live together.  Obviously, Jesus was trying to make a point that could not be heard by the religious authorities.

I just finished a book, “Midnight in Siberia” by David Greene.  David Greene, the author, is a NPR reporter who was in Russia for many years and finally boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway that goes 9300 miles across Siberia.  He stops at many villages and cities and interviews people.  He wanted to hear from them of their hopes and dreams for their future as well as their understanding of Russia’s past.  He was surprised how many people had a nostalgia for Stalin and the old Soviet regime.  The fact that you were told what to do and the people felt security at the lack of participation in government.  The author was looking for seeds of change and he found it but no real way to bring it about.  The laws were set and the people were following them.  One of the funniest moments in the book was at a train station in the middle of nowhere.  There was a security point that everyone had to process their luggage like we do at the airport.  It had always been there and people had to go though it.  But, no one was on duty.  The bells would go off but there was no one to check on why because no security guard was there.  But, the people dutifully followed the rules and assumed that probably someone was watching them.

We are spoiled in our country because we know we have something to say about the rules we live by.  The larger issue that I am concerned with in our country and throughout the world is the beginning of a loss of the meaning of international law.  After World War II, the United Nations came into being.  International law and the declaration of human rights were established along with the Security Council.  The Security Council has had many good and bad moments.  But, we as a country have had more than our share of dismissing international law over the years with our veto and actions.  We violated international law when we unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003.  We violated international law with our torturing people after 09/11.  And, we violated international law in regard to the State of Israel, the settlements, and the right of return for refugees, and military occupation.  We violated international law when we declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel.  All in opposition to international law and yet we use our veto to keep from allowing international law to function.  And of course, other countries do this also.  I fear for the future if we continue to flaunt international law.  It just encourages others to do the same.  And we grow to be less of a model for other nations rather than the model we have always wanted to be.

We are still living out the learning of how to live in community together as nations within a world that receives information so fast we can’t even process it.  We are presently being tested in our own country on whether we will honor our own rule of law.

It is important that we continue to listen to Jesus and find out how to proceed.  As I read the Gospels, He is for good over evil, the nurturing of the human spirit in relationship with God and one another, that the emphasis of Love is the foundation of all human experience, and if Love is not a part of the equation God is not a part of it.

Jesus looked at the religious authorities and asked them how do you define what is right, to do good or to do nothing.  To add to life or subtract from it. 

Our laws and regulations in family, community, church, government, are all here to help us grow in Love together.  When they are not accomplishing their purpose, we must act as individuals and communities to change them to reflect our need and respect and love for each other.

Amen.

Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-9
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

 

We are here.

We are here.

We are here.

 

We are here.

 

[and then]

I am astonished

says Saint Paul,

I am astonished

that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ

and are turning to a different gospel

 

On the advice of several friends – Grace’s own Corbet and Myra Clark being among them – I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal. In addition to being an author, Gawande is a surgeon, a professor, a father of three small children, and a chairman of a not-for-profit devoted to making surgery safer around the world. When you read his biography, you have the impression that he sleeps about once every two weeks. While Gawande’s earlier books focused on his work in the operating theatre, his subject in Being Mortal is aging, the last few years of our lives, and dying.

Gawande begins Being Mortal with the thesis that, because our culture’s go-to strategy around aging is to simply deny that we might ever get old or become infirm – let alone die – we are woefully unprepared when we have to face some or all of these realities. (And thanks to modern medicine’s ability to prolong our lives even in the face of serious illness and injury, there is a good likelihood that all of us will have a time of significant time of infirmity in our final months or years.) Much as when you were a student getting ready for the final exam, therefore, it turns out that “I’d prefer not to think about that” is a remarkably ineffective approach to life.

The good news, Gawande says, is that when we do prepare for the last years of our lives – for instance, by doing something as simple as talking with our loved ones and our doctors about our wishes for the kind of interventions that we would like to have should we become faced with serious cognitive or physical limitations – our final years can be a rich time, a time full of meaning, a time full of blessings.

Of the several potential blessings of being old that Being Mortal encounters, one of them has particularly caught my attention. This blessing is what Gawande calls a narrowing of focus. So, when you have the sense that the end of your life is within sight, you automatically begin to iris down on the things that really matter to you: spending time with friends and family, with the people whom you love; making peace with God; nurturing a context in which you are able to look at your life and say that it is complete, in which you know that you have said and done the things that you needed to say and do. Contrast this time of narrowing with our younger years when our goal is to expand: to expand our achievements, to expand our social networks, to expand our reservoirs of money and status and stuff.

Fascinatingly – perhaps surprisingly, I’ll leave you to decide – this time of narrowing tends to actually a pretty happy time in people’s lives. You might guess that acknowledging that you are in the final five years of your life would be a huge drag on your emotions and energy. But, by and large, quite the opposite of true. The end of life, Gawande and his colleagues have found, is a time when folks tend to be less anxious, less depressed, less angry. Gawande says that this narrowing of focus and the resultant discovery – or rediscovery – of joy, comes as we choose to live for now rather than for the future, as we devote our time to being rather than to doing.

There are at least two reasons that I am fascinated with this time of being and its surprising joy. The first is that the blessing of a narrowed focus, while most common in the elderly, isn’t actually something that you have to be old in order to experience. Drawing on the work of a researcher by the name of Laura Carstensen, Gawande argues that what we might call a “being-oriented life” doesn’t flow out of the generational or cultural sensibilities of the elderly, it’s not something that you learned, in other words, by being born in a certain era. And nor is it a consequence of being old in and of itself. Rather, it is a consequence of something on which the elderly simply have a head start: waking up to the reality that our time on this earth is limited.

What Carstensen found in her research is that, whenever we notice that the time left to us is finite and uncertain, no mater our age, we narrow, we shift away from having, getting, and doing and towards being. Carstensen spoke, for instance, with young men dying of HIV/AIDS. And she found that these men’s preferences for how they spent their time were essentially identical to the preferences of the elderly. They wanted time with friends now, they wanted love and wholeness now. In another study, this one based around hypothetical questions, Carstensen asked people of all ages how they would like to spend an hour of their time. And she found significant discrepancies between young and old. But when she told the people answering her question to imagine that they were about to move far away, the age discrepancies disappeared.

As Gawande puts it, there is a chasm of perspective between those who have to contend with life’s fragility and those who don’t.

The second thing that caught my attention about this time of narrowing is that it sounds for all the world like a spiritual practice. During high school, I remember being fascinated with spiritual artwork called the Memento Mori, the remembrance of death. Popular over several centuries spanning the midway mark of the past millennium, Memento Mori were works of art – so, sculptures and paintings – which sough to remind the viewer of her or his mortality. I remember one painting quite vividly that featured a rotund merchant, fat with the success of the world, being dragged off to death by a skeleton. Some memento mori even anticipate surrealism, so that an ivory carving will be half-living and half decaying into skeletal remains. Like the ashes that begin Lent every year, one of the principal functions of the Memento Mori is to say:

Don’t forget that you are going to die. You don’t know the time or the hour.

Don’t forget to live now.

Similar to the Memento Mori is the practice of writing an imaginary obituary for yourself. Imagine, this practice says, that your life is over. Imagine that the people who knew you and, perhaps, who loved you, are looking back on your life and telling its story. What story do you want them to tell? That practice says:

Pretend that the time left to you in your life is finite and uncertain. 

And then it goes on:

I’m going to let you in on a secret. The time left to you in your life is finite and uncertain.

Odds are good that a practices like these are going to narrow your focus.

So. It is the third week of the Season of Pentecost. And we are beginning a series of Sundays during which we are reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul gets his letter started on what can only be called an explosive note – we can imagine him turning red in the face as he penned these words or as he spoke them to the scribe who took dictation for him.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel!

Now, there are a number of different schools or strategies for reading Galatians, for figuring out what Paul’s thesis might be in his letter, what it is that he finds so objectionable and, conversely, what it is that he finds so good and so important. Indeed, some of the most exciting Biblical scholarship right now is focused on this book, and we may encounter some of that scholarship in the coming weeks. Today, however, what I would like to do with you is to use Atul Gawande’s reflections on narrowing as a means of exploring Paul. In particular, I want to ask:

For you and me in 2016, what is the different Gospel that keeps us from narrowing down to what matters?

I suspect that all of us will have a somewhat different answer to that last question. But I suspect as well that what all of our answers have in common is that they are built out of some combination of denial and addiction. Denial, as I have said already during conversation this morning, that finitude is part of our reality, that aging and limitation and death might actually be something that happens to people like us. And addiction – well, to what? Sometimes to booze, yes. Sometimes to other drugs. But just as often our addictions are to anger, to being right, to having prestige and power and money and stuff, to consumerism, to having and getting and doing.

I want to suggest that there is some really good news is Atul Gawande’s book, there is some really good news about you and me being mortal. Remember what Gawande and Laura Carstensen discovered: it is in that irised out place when we pretend that our time is unlimited that we are most anxious, most depressed, most angry. By contrast, when we acknowledge the unwelcome news that our lives are finite and uncertain, when we stop denying, we automatically narrow down to what matters. We narrow down to the Gospel. We remember the beautiful urgency of being alive. In spite of everything, we discover the freedom and joy and possibility and agency that God wants for you and for me.

This life is a fleeting, beautiful gift. But for now:

We are here.