New Clergy At St. Paul’s!

As part of our relationship with Christ Church in Warwick, NY, we will be sharing a clergy who will be mentored by Father Jim and support Christ Church 50% and support St. Paul’s 50%.  After searching through many candidates and ultimately interviewing four, the clergy search committee from both St. Paul’s and Christ Church are delighted to introduce you to our new clergy, Deacon Deborah Lee.  Take a chance now to get to know her a little better:

  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   The Rev. Deacon Deborah A. Lee graduated with a Master of Divinity degree and Certificate in Spiritual Direction from The General Theological Seminary, and was ordained to the Transitional Diaconate on March 4, 2017. Deacon Lee was formerly the Program Manager for Pastoral Care and Community at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City and has been a mental health counselor and educator, both internationally and within the United States. She joined forces with several non-profit organizations around the U.S., including working with refugees for Episcopal Community Services in Arizona, as well as providing mental health therapy for church communities in Colorado.

          Deborah’s international experience brought her to Mexico, working as a program coordinator for BorderLinks, an international leader in experiential education that raises awareness and inspires action around global political economics and social justice. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Meknès, Morocco, teaching at a school for the visually impaired, and worked in Lima, Perú as a counselor and teacher for the Network of International Christian Schools.

          Deacon Lee holds a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Counseling from Colorado Christian University, a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and French from Williams College in Massachusetts, and has studied with the School for International Training in Cameroon. She will be an ordained a priest within the Episcopal Church on September 9, 2017 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan. She enjoys photography, singing, dancing, reading, and is a bonafide foodie.

          “I am so very excited to be invited by the people of St. Paul’s, Chester and Christ Church, Warwick to serve alongside them in the next step of the journey! God will do marvelous things in our midst as we pray and worship together and get to know one another in Christ. Know that I am praying for all of you; I know that I am being lifted up in prayer by you as well. Thank you for your faithfulness to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and I look forward to meeting all of you very soon!”

—Deacon Deborah

Collision Course of Two Titans

PALM/PASSION SUNDAY 2016

They came from two different places; one from the south, the other from the north. One came riding on a donkey, accompanied by something of a rag tag group on foot waving palm branches and some throwing their cloaks down on the ground in front of the man.
The other came on a noble steed with a cohort of soldiers riding at break neck speed, their leather battle attire slapping the saddles of their horses. It was in the scheme of things that the course that the two men traveled with such purpose would collide in Jerusalem.
Our liturgy this morning is something of a reenactment of this collision course in Jerusalem. We begin with a Palm Sunday parade that leads directly into the Passion of Jesus, his betrayal, his trial and his death. It begins with Jesus calling for a donkey and the people cutting palms from the trees to wave him on. The crowd is ecstatic shouting Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of Lord.
And so we took up our palms, sang Hosanna and left the Undercroft for the church following the cross, albeit veiled, which I always think of as a hint or foretelling of what is to happen—you can see it but it is hidden in the purple shadow. And, when the strains of All glory, laud, and honor finished, the tone changed rather abruptly and before we knew it we immersed in another story, this one of betrayal not adulation, trickery not truthful speech, death not life. One actually leads to the other.
Jesus, on the donkey, coming from the south on the Mount of Olives has his eyes firmly set on Jerusalem. For three years he has been preaching and teaching, healing and challenging his disciples and anyone who was listening to live into the Kingdom of God. By this point he is clear that he has been called by his Father in Heaven as Son and heir to the Kingdom. He has galvanized the poor, the outcast, women and children, all those whose vision of God’s mercy and justice transcended the prevailing teaching of the religious authorities who were about the business of feathering their own beds at the expense of everyone else.
By this point Jesus is clear that he is dangerous to the status quo and that the CIA of Jerusalem will want him dead. No revolutionary is a good revolutionary. Some might say that Jesus is riding into a trap when he comes down the Mount of Olives and traverses the Kidron Valley and enters through the Golden Arches that take you up to the Temple Mount. Not so. His eyes as always were wide open to the reality of the collision that was about to happen.
While Jesus is coming down the Mount of Olives on the donkey beneath the sway of palm branches, Pontius Pilate is bearing down on Jerusalem from the north. He is furious. His anger has little to do with the moral or legal ins and outs of this upstart Jesus. Rather he is annoyed beyond words that he has to leave the Mediterranean glories of Herod’s palace, just a bit north of what is now known in these modern times as Tel Aviv. Life in the emperor’s palace is cool and luxurious. Jerusalem, on the other hand is hot and chaotic. Pilate, a Roman, has been promoted as the chief of police of Israel—a post he never wanted. It was a backwater territory and not worthy of any upstanding Roman. Now, word has reached Caesarea Marittima, the palace of Herod that he is required to put down what looks as if it could be a rebellion. Without even meeting the so called upstart, Pontius Pilate is in a bad mood.
You know, in many ways, this whole trial that Jesus was forced to endure was a farce. Well, we’ve seen this so often in our own life time. A man is accused of a crime and all the responsible persons in charge of administrating the law just want to get the job done, go home and not be bothered any more.
There’s a great line in the musical drama, Jesus Christ Superstar that goes, “What’s the fuss, tell me what’s a happening?” Its Pilate’s line, the one who has just rode in from the north, irritated that there is a fuss and he has to clean it up. “Not interested; pass this upstart Jesus onto someone else. Just let me go back to the beach.”
It would be a farce if it were not so brutal and demeaning to the one who was accused. It is so often the case for men and women who speak of justice and mercy; so often the case for men and women whose vision of the human family is not based on a hierarchy of power of have and have nots but a community of equal sharing. So now it is the case for this man named Jesus who breathed the truth of God in the face of corruption; he is destined for death and in this land and in this time, death for such a man accused of state insurrection, death meant crucifixion. And, it was done.
This day, in 2016 we are left contemplating the collision of two men—one from the south, the other from the north. This day that we celebrate as Palm Sunday—we are plunged head long into the Passion and we are forced to think hard and long about the collision between Good and Evil that catches up with us. And when it happens it is the most unpleasant circumstance that any of us will ever face and yet there it is. It is then that we are asked to make the choice. Whom are we riding with?
In our minds we know not just the difference between right and wrong—any student of the Ten Commandments knows this. But making choices on the bases of love—unconditional love is often a sticky thing.

Love and compassion can take us into uncharted territory; into people’s lives who want or even need more of us than we want to give. So often we are beguiled by the warnings that we must be cautious, we must be pragmatic and not rock the boat.
To ride with Christ is, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says is to know “the values on which we stand. Love, at least as Jesus articulated it, has to do with seeking the good and the welfare of others before one’s own enlightened self-interest.”
But we are well aware to pitfalls in upholding such values. Choices based on love and mercy can throw economics into a downward spiral. Look what is happening in Greece and all through Europe as the number of refugees mounts. Ah, here’s a solution. Build a wall and keep those people out; they’re not our kind and they are costing us just too much!—you know the rhetoric.
This articulated unconditional love has consequences. Jesus carried that unconditional love not only in his heart it permeated his mind and his soul and it translated into what he said and whom he touched with his hands and into what territory he walked with his feet. His whole body was a blaze with the love of God—He was what we call the incarnation of the Holy One.
It was just too much for people like Pilate to understand; it was just too much for people afraid of losing their power, their wealth, their lives.
And, the two men collided in Jerusalem. The clash of the titans—one titan of the empire and the other the titan of God. But in the providence of God a new direction was taken. Not south and north but a brutal downward propulsion into the bowels of death. Pilate must have thought, when he heard that Jesus had taken his last breath, “What a loser!”
Oh course, he had no way of knowing in the downward spiral of Jesus into death was to be met by the power of the Spirit—the spirit of God that forged an uniquely new direction. An upward thrust, a resurrection that left Pilate behind, a thrust that always in the confrontation of good and evil leaves the force of evil behind in its own ashes. But that is another story that we will celebrate next Sunday, an Easter story that is for us who ride with Jesus the story of our lives.

Precious in the Sight of the Lord

I have a favorite Aunt. Her name is Kitty. I actually should say, I had an Aunt Kitty because she died, bless her soul about 10 years ago. She was a faithful person—to our God and to her family and to her neighbors. Kitty was the last member of the family in that generation. She was, as we in the family said, on top of the heap.

One of the rewards for outlasting her parents (my grandparents) her sisters and her beloved husband, is that she became the repository of all the family photos, the table linens, tea pots, china and glass ware. She cherished it all because each piece had a special meaning. Each was attached to a memory. As her life began to dim, she marshaled her pragmatic self In order to begin the process of dividing her property among her many nieces and nephews.

Kitty wanted me to have the American pressed glass ware, assorted water glasses and matching bowls. I had always admired them behind the glass cabinet in her dining area. Kitty’s words were plain spoken, “Now, Deborah I want you to have these but you must not use them.” I am sure she thought I would smash every single piece the minute I use them but then I remembered that I never her use them either. They were precious and not for use.

So Jesus has come to the house of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, in the town of Bethany— that is just over the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. The days of Jesus are numbered, he knows this. Very recently Jesus had called Lazarus from the tomb where he had been buried for four days. It was a real headliner in Bethany and throughout Jerusalem it was the talk of the Temple perhaps the scandal of the hour. To the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Roman potentates, by raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus has graduated from the category y of “manageable nuisance” to “serious threat.”

The purpose of Jesus’ visit in Bethany is not stated but we know that that Martha and Mary and Lazarus are close friends. He is there with his disciples having come down from the Galilee in the north. The Evangelist is very specific, it was 6 days before the Passover—before Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the feast and, we know the rest, the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion.

Most likely Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany For a rest and have a good meal that—And we can assume that Martha is in the kitchen putting together plates of humus, flat breads, yogurts and olives—perhaps a chicken or two.

Then, as the aroma of warm bread from the kitchen mingles with the human smell of travel, the scent of spikenard fills the room—a sharp scent halfway between mint and ginseng. It is the aroma of perfume let loose from the jar that Mary is holding. Then, the most amazing thing takes place. I think it might have taken a few seconds for the men in the room to register to what Mary was doing for in so many aspects it was bizarre. Mary had uncorked a jar of perfume paste and knelt down to wipe the feet of Jesus, not with a cloth, not with her hands, but with her hair. In this fleeting instance she does four remarkable things in a row.
First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe–people do that to kings–but not the feet. Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet—also not done, not even among friends.
Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair-totally inexplicable–the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.
Here is another bizarre piece to this story. Rather than any of the men in the room expressing horror at what is taking place, rather, than Martha flying out of the kitchen rebuking her sister, as she is prone to do, we have Judas stepping forward with a critique on the ill use of the perfume “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?” That’s what Judas wants to know.
And, least we forget, the evangelist, as an aside, reminds us that Judas didn’t give a fig for the poor, he just wanted the money for himself.

That being said, here is Jesus behaving also in an uncharacteristic way. Jesus has been consistently teaching about God’s love for the poor. The Kingdom message of justice and mercy and love is the core of Jesus’ preaching. And, here is Mary rubbing his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year. Here is the champion of the poor, always putting their needs ahead of his, suddenly reversing course. And Jesus brushes Judas aside.
“Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”—which is just as odd a thing for him to say as what Mary did. Do we have here a question about the right use of economics?
Jesus has an answer to this question and he does so in the total acceptance of Mary’s actions, far from not caring for the poor, this is a gesture of passion, perhaps a wordless prophecy of what is to come in 6 days time and about what is. There will be nothing economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

In this moment of anointing, Mary has filled the air with the precious scent of love that pushes the edges of propriety. Without reservation about what the others will think of her, she lavishes blessing in a way that is not in the least bit dignified but is motivated by her passion for Jesus—wordless and intimate. She gave it all to her Lord.

Mary has left me asking, what do I offer Jesus? How much do I give? Just a little? just enough to spare? What does Mary’s costly perfume represent? Is it my time, my money, my compassion, my talents, my honesty? What is it that so precious that it stays locked away to be viewed by my inner eye but not used?

Moving forward as we are into Holy Week, this line of questioning perhaps is at the center of our prayers. What do we offer in return for what we have been given? God’s own self, offered up for us, ushers us into a new creation, into a freedom to love and to be loved; Each of our lives precious in the sight of God.

Just think of it! If each of us carries the image of God implanted in us through our baptisms Then are we not called to express that image of the Almighty to one another in the various ways we are called to live.

So, take those glasses down from behind the cabinet door and Bring them out and put them on the table for your guest to use. Some of them might get broken—that’s life. But a life in Christ calls for some extravagance—to proclaim the amazing gift that Jesus Christ has gifted to us—not a life to be put behind a cabinet door but brought out Used and cherished In every manner and in every manner and being of our lives.

Lent 5, 2016 – Rev. Deborah M. Dresser

Consecration Sunday Is Coming

Congregations that approach financial stewardship from a biblical perspective do not view the money Christians give to their church merely as a way to pay its bills.  Rather, such congregations see financial contributions as a way to help people grow spiritually in their relationship with God by supporting their church’s mission and ministry with a percentage of their incomes.

Our congregation’s finance committee has selected the New Consecration Sunday Stewardship Program as a way to teach the biblical and spiritual principles of generous giving in our stewardship education emphasis this year.

New Consecration Sunday is based on the biblical philosophy of the need of the giver to give for his or her own spiritual development, rather than on the need of the church to receive.  Instead of treating people like members of a social club who should pay dues, we will treat people like followers of Jesus Christ who want to give unselfishly as an act of discipleship.  New Consecration Sunday encourages people toward proportionate and systematic giving in response to the question, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?”  During morning worship on Consecration Sunday, we are asking our attendees and members to make their financial commitments to our church’s missionary, benevolent and educational ministries in this community and around the world.

Every attendee and member who completes an Estimate of Giving Card does so voluntarily by attending morning worship on Consecration Sunday.  We urge people to attend who feel strongly opposed to completing a card.  The procedure is done in such a way that no one feels personal embarrassment if he or she chooses not to fill out a card.

We will do no home solicitation to ask people to complete cards.  During morning worship our guest leader will conduct a brief period of instruction and inspiration, climaxed by members making their commitments as a confidential act of worship.

We will encourage participation in Consecration Sunday events through the Consecration Sunday team and governing board members.  Since we will make no follow-up visits to ask people to complete their cards, we will make every effort to inform, inspire and commit everyone to attend Consecration Sunday worship.

Thanks in advance for your enthusiastic participation in Consecration Sunday events.

Governing Board Chairperson,

Bill Olsen

Racism Then and Now

We are living in perilous times and the sentiment of James expressed in the letter that he wrote to a congregation in the first century is spot on. And, I will get to that letter in a  moment.  But let me say, that on this day, across the country in Episcopal churches we are hearing that letter read in the context of the racial crisis that affects us all. On this day, we take note that October 6th is marked in the church’s calendar of saints, the commemoration of Alexander Crummell, priest and missionary of our Church.  Born in 1819, as an Africa American he struggled his whole life against racism but his faith in God, his perseverance in stabilizing a strong urban presence of black churches transcended the bigotry of Church.

It is probable that most of us here have never heard of Fr. Crummell so we welcome our Bishop’s urging us on this day to remember him particularly in this season of violence that rips across our country. The struggle of racism continues and we are asked “what are we going to do about it.”

We may say that police shootings of black men and boys has little to do with us  and perhaps urban, substandard housing, low wage jobs and high school dropout rates that disproportionately effect black families does not infringe on your way of life, nor does the fact that the highest percentage of inmates in jails and prisons are young black men often convicted for misdemeanors or the inability to pay bail while they await trial.

There is a line in the confession that we have recited every summer Sunday:

We confess the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.

I know that each time I say that a whole bunch of things run through my mind and not the least is racism. As a white person I do acknowledge that I live in a country in which racism continues to flourish. Personally, I work against it—sometimes well and sometimes not so well but I know that as a white person I benefit from racism. The schools I attended, the jobs I landed, the mortgage that wasn’t that difficult to get. In other words it is done on my behalf. That is something to give serious consideration. And, I ask, How can that change?

I would like us to give serious consideration to the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman that we hear from the Gospel according to Mark. What is going on in this encounter is more than a personal clash; it is an enactment of racism. Jesus, the Jew, one of the chosen people, is approached by a woman who is Gentile. On two counts, something is wrong with this picture.  First the woman is a woman and women in this historical context did not approach men.

But more importantly, she is a Gentile; she is an outsider to the people of Israel. Not much is recorded in this encounter but we get the point. He dismisses her; he practically calls her a dog, reduces her to an animal because she is one of them. His sense of superiority in the moment of their encounter is palpable. When he says, “Let the children be fed first,” he is not referring to her child; No, he is referring to the people of Israel. They are the people of privilege; they are the ones to whom God has sent Jesus.

In this moment of his ministry, Jesus is right smack in the middle of the human condition that includes racial bias.  But he is not stuck there. There is an important turning point initiated by the woman.  Blesed as she is, she cuts through his distain with a rational that shifts his thinking. “Yes, but even the dogs get crumbs from under the table.” The text says that Jesus commended her for her faith. That faith was in Jesus, faith that he could and would shift his thinking; widen his vision of who deserves the bread from the top of the table and who does not—faith that he would not allow the walls of partiality to seal him off from those on the other side.

This extraordinary encounter allows us to see a very human Jesus  who is growing into his potential, growing into his divinity. From this point on in Jesus’ ministry we see him open to all God’s people not just the children of Israel. From this point on, the healing of God in Jesus is available to everyone. There are no outcasts for him. His ministry has no walls of partiality as we see in the healing story that follows.

God’s expansive love is the hallmark of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection.  It is the hallmark of the Good News that was preached from the day of Pentecost when the disciples, now apostles, went into all the world to bring Christ to everyone, in Africa, India, the Mediterranean basin and beyond—peoples of varying colors, languages, and customs.

But human habits die hard. Now, here we come back to James. James, one of the early apostles, wrote his letter, a portion of which we heard earlier. Frankly he is appalled at what he witnesses in the congregations of newly converted Christians. Those walls of partiality that Jesus had moved through in his early ministry continued to be well established in the Christian congregations. People will be people, we say, but the Gospel trumps our inclination to play safe, to be comfortable with our own kind, to sit on the seat of privilege and hope that no notices the traces of smugness in our hearts.

James is specifically addressing partiality and how it gets enacted—how we treat those who are rich and those who are poor. But we could easily substitute those categories for: those who are immigrants and those who were born in the USA or better still those who came here in the 1600s. OR those who are physically able and those in wheel chairs OR those who eat hamburgers and those who are vegans  OR those skin is pink and those whose skin is a rich brown. You get the point.

James is pretty clear.  Partiality is a sin and so what are going to do about it.

Just before I got going in the sermon we had a bit of chancel drama.  We had a visit from Jesus and Peter. Peter was all wound up about Jesus’ technique.  How did he do all those healings? The technique Jesus says is simply love, God expansive love. There is nothing that is wounded that cannot be healed with love. I would suggest that we learn from that.

The work we are called to do begins with our confession of the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf. But it is not intended that we get stuck there. From there we begin again in the quest to love our neighbor as God loves our neighbor We love our neighbor knowing that the essence of God resides in everyone. Our outer appearances may be distinctively different—the color of our hair, our occupations, our family trees, all these things are important but to live into our faith we seek to see in one another a companion in Christ—this is what helps us to move through the walls of partiality.   This is the work we are given to do; the work that brings our faith alive.  It was the work that Fr. Alexander Crummell was called to in his ministry, it is our as well.

15 Pentecost, Gospel according to Mark, Letter of James

Taking up the Cross of Jesus

Two years back the movie, The Theory of Everything, came out. The story is about Stephen Hawking, the brilliant English physicist, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease while he was still at University. Expected to live only two years he is still alive and continuing a luminous career in physics and unlocking secrets of the universe. I remember when we saw the movie at the Downing Film Center in Newburgh, Sharon Burke, the owner of the film center, announced with a smile and “After you see this you will know everything!”  Well, not so.
Personally, I find the command of Jesus, to pick up your cross and follow me a bit daunting. And, that dying to cross is the key to real life.  That’s quite a theory. It’s not that I don’t know intellectually what it means—and rest assure I’m going to do my best to unpack that theory—it’s just that it seems rather difficult to relate. You have to really think about and take a long hard look around to see it in action,  which is of course what Jesus is concerned about—putting the cross into action.
Now, I could tell you the story of Arthur Blessit. If you were here on Good Friday, you heard the story or perhaps you have seen the movie called “The Cross.”  Forty some years ago in Los Angeles, a young preacher was called by Jesus Christ to enter into a street ministry. As he tells the story, Blessit heard Jesus say, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” He took that message literally and found a large, wooden cross and proceeded to nail it to the wall of his Jesus Café on Sunset Strip. Then Jesus spoke to him again, and taking new orders he took the cross down off the wall and began a journey around the world—carrying the cross over his shoulder.
Arthur Blessit crisscrossed the United States and then all of Europe and the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South American—across prairies, deserts, and jungles. He was thrown in jail four times and in front of a firing squad once. All the while carrying the cross of Jesus. He preached a cross, not of power that promotes violence and coercion but the power of love and compassion. That’s pretty impressive but I ask you, is that something you would do?  Even if you heard the Jesus say, Pick up your cross and follow me?
To back up a bit, what is it that Jesus is saying? He heard him speaking to his disciples in the gospel reading just now. Actually he is in one of his rebuking moods. Peter is doing his best to try to save
Jesus from harm. (That’s what friends are for!) He has figured out that Jesus is the Messiah but in his line of thinking Messiahs do not suffer. That’s is not the way Jesus sees it.  His destiny as Messiah
is towards the cross. He connects the cross with suffering. We who hear the Gospel know from the vantage point of 2000 years that indeed the cross is very much connected with suffering. The cross as Jesus says is also connected with love—not self-love but love for others—self-giving love, love that is not intent of self-promotion or self-preservation but love that is willing to give without counting cost. He who is willing to lose their life will gain it. That’s tough love. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of us find the whole business of picking up the cross of Jesus so very difficult.
We are built for preservation, taught from early on the take care of ourselves, stay out of harm’s way, keep your guard up. I was listening to an anthropologist yesterday who was explaining that tools invented very early on in human evolution are extensions of our physical bodies. For example, the hammer is an extension of our fist, and the knife is the extension of our canine teeth. A tiger if she loses her long tooth, is unable to protect herself; but humans have a knife to do trick of protection.
So, here is Jesus saying, let the knife go, take down the guard. If you want to gain your life, you have to lose it. So, how does that apply to us? We can look around, and see throughout history and examples of people who clearly understood Jesus and willingly gave their lives for the sake of love. Many died in the act of self-giving—certainly there are examples of such people during wars. There were big, rather heroic, acts of giving up life for the sake of others.
But what I am interested in is what do we do to take up the cross of Jesus? Maybe there are ways we can take small steps toward the cross bearing. Take the advice of Major League catcher, Rick Demsy, the good baseball players can’t think of winning the World Series or even the 165 games to get to the WS. He said you have to break the game down one ending at a time, one pitch at a time and eventually look up and see that you won the game.
Small steps.
That puts me in mind of the Derby brothers, Henry and Harvey. The Derby brothers lived down on Garfield Road where we lived in our growing up years. It was farming country in Massachusetts and the Henry and Harvey did their best to tend the fields. As a small child I remember the night their barn burned down. Some of their livestock perished but all their old automobiles were in the yard behind the house. So after the smoke cleared and the rumble of the barn was cleared the cars and one truck were moved in to the cellar part of the barn that was open to the street. And, there they stayed for years unused, rusting.
Farming for the Derby brothers was a bit of a trick because by the time I was seven, Henry went blind and Harvey was unable to walk. Must have had something to do with the fire, or so I thought.  My father did the hay mowing and bailing for the brothers but the vegetable gardens were the domain of the two brothers—Harvey sitting in the wheel barrow and blind Henry pushing the wheel barrow, Harvey’s eyes to guide him through the fields. It was a sight to see the two brothers making it work.
My mother, who was not a church goer but in her own way a God Fearing women, said not once but several times, My goodness, look at those two bearing each other up on the other’s cross. I hadn’t got that far along in Sunday School so I didn’t the foggiest idea of what she meant. But it seemed particularly noble to me, those two making life work, giving what they had to make up for the other’s deficit. It all was so extraordinary and yet so normal at the same time.
Harvey and Henry’s life so intertwined, crossing and crisscrossing like the cross itself, the burden of love, holding each up unto death. They remind me of the small steps that all of us can take, bearing up one another in a time of need, making life work for another when the chips are down, accepting the guidance when for a myriad of reasons we just can see which way to go. It is the theory of everything that is worthy living and worth dying for.
Reverend Deborah Dresser
16 Pentecost September 13, 2015

THE GOD PARTICLE

Theologians have long sought to explain, even prove, the existence of God.  Such serious investigation has led such notables as 13th century Thomas Aquinas to write his monumental work, Summa Theologica and other more radical, if not cynical scholars, to pronounce, as they did, in the 1960s that “God is Dead.”

Physicists got in on the act but from a different perspective: What is the universe and how did it come into being? The mysterious Black Hole and the exploding Novas gave insight as did Einstein’s Universal Theory of Relativity but now we know that all that does really explain it all. In this century we are hearing new theories about sub-atomic particles that move through an invisible membrane of the universe. These particles are called Higgs’ Boson, which ironically has been popularly named, “The God Particle.”

The quest to figure out God, to comprehend who this God is  is part of our search for meaning in our personal lives and in the social context, our need to understand the root of moral goodness and  the cause of evil and our complicity in it. Who is God and what is my relationship with this God? What is God’s relationship with me/us? Reading Scripture we see these questions are at the center of a people stretching back 4000 years.

The words of the Eucharist prayer say it well. God you made all of creation and from the primal elements you brought forth the human race, blessed us, made us rulers of creation but we turned against you and turned against one another. Again and again, you called us to return. In the fullness of time you sent your only Son to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

The question then of who is God for us finds an answer in Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. The embodiment of God who cannot be seen but who exists; who is present as the air that we breathe. In the fullness of time, i.e. God’s time, God becomes human while divine. Jesus is the Word of God and the presence of God to move about in the human context, to be heard, touched and seen. The choice of God to become one in Jesus gave the world the possibility to experience God. Jesus is on earth the real God Particle.

Throughout the Gospel according to John we hear Jesus saying in response to the question, who are you? He says, I AM—in one instance he says I AM light, in another he says I AM the good shepherd, and I AM the living water. Here in reading of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus saying I AM the bread of life. To the disciples of Jesus and to the crowd that gathers around him, they would be hearing I AM as Jesus saying I AM God. I AM in Hebrew translates Yahweh=God—the name that God gives to Himself and belongs to none other. For Jesus to take ownership of this name is an extraordinary claim.

And, Jesus makes another extraordinary claim and one that has such offense that even some of his disciples desert Jesus.  And, why? Seven times Jesus says we are to eat him. And four of those occasions also refer to the drinking of his blood. Our life depends on it!

…if you do not eat the flesh of the son of humanity, and drink the blood of him, you do not have life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise that one up at the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 

Now, you might be saying to yourself, why are we on this hot August morning focusing on something so gross? Can’t we just skip over this talk of flesh and blood and focus on something more pleasant such as the glories of eternal life? Well, yes, but here it—all this talk of eating flesh. Its best we try to understand what Jesus is getting at.

This is what the crowd around Jesus would have known. The restriction against eating human flesh and blood are very clear in Torah, the governing books of Jewish law.  Such acts call for damnation. Further the Book of Leviticus, part of the Torah, states that the kidney of an animal—its flesh along with the fat that surrounds the kidney and its blood is dedicated exclusively for God. It is the Kidney alone with is thrown on the altar in the Temple.  It is the supreme act of devotion and sacrifice for it is the kidney that is the seat of life. Life is from God alone and belongs to God alone. For humans to ingest fat or blood is to strive to be like God.

You may say, “how primitive!” yet those listening to Jesus knew what he was referring to and they took his statements as blasphemous and a violation of the core belief about the Holy and our proper relationship with the Holy.  We might say, Jesus was crossing boundaries. Yet, this is Jesus saying to us, take me, eat me, and become one with me. This is a radical invitation. This Jesus is telling us that we should become God in some way that remains mysterious to us.

It is this bread of life—this I AM—that is the gift that down through the ages since the Resurrection of Jesus we have been given to eat with the expectation that his soul is binding to ours so that we might live in him as he lives in us. In Jesus the boundary between ourselves and God has been crossed.

David Sellery says that the Bread of Life is our window onto the will of the Father, our portal to eternal life…all this and more is the sacrificial gift of Jesus. In him we have found the real God Particle. But there is so much more to know about the God who created all and the love that redeems all. In prayer and in scripture, in faith and in love, let us do more than know..Let us experience him more and more with every passing day…until the day when all the particles fall into place…and revel the face of God.

AMEN

 

I am indebted to David Sellery of Salisbury, Ct for his thoughts on “The God Particle.”

12 Pentecost, Proper 15, August 16, 2015\

The Rev. Deborah Dresser, Interim Priest

GRATITUDE–John 6:24-35

10 Pentecost, August 2, 2015

I want to talk about gratitude this morning. And, it is not just because my heart is truly filled with gratitude for this time that I have been away on Cape Cod with my family—all of us together playing on the beach, enjoying each other’s company and the beauty of this piece of Heaven on earth. Gratitude that I finally ate my first oyster and didn’t keel over or gag at the table—for which my family was extremely grateful.

Gratitude for coming home, coming back to you all here at St. Paul’s pretty sure that all is well and  we’re set to get ready for what comes next. There is much to be grateful for.

Last Tuesday I picked up the NY Times and read an Op Ed piece about gratitude and in my estimation it hit the nail on the head. David Brooks often gets it right and this is one of those times. He says, Gratitude is when something happens that exceeds your expectation—perhaps a word of kindness spoken that wasn’t expected or a personal accomplishment that goes beyond what you thought you could do. “Wow,” we say, “just, look at that! Well done.” We all have those moments when “thank you” rolls off our lips along with a sort of laughter of the heart.

And, there are those people who go beyond the occasional “thank you,” as good as that is. There are those whose whole manner of being is shaped by gratitude. They have a kind of dispositional gratitude—in other words a kind disposition of the heart in which they realize that their lives are deeply connected and without each other they aren’t that much. Gratitude, Brooks says, is the glue that holds us together; that makes us keenly aware that our talents, such as they are, and our aspirations and our accomplishments are dependent on others: parents, teachers, friends, and most especially the generations that have gone before us. This awareness is in stark contradiction to the illusion of individualism which shapes so much of our culture. John Donne was spot on when he said, “No man is an island entire of himself but a piece of the continent.”

So, think about what the crowd in Capernaum said to Jesus in the Gospel reading we have just heard. We find them this morning trying their darned-est to figure out what Jesus is all about and they are confused. You remember that Jesus the day before had fed the crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish. This was pretty amazing and the crowd interpreted this miracle as coming from a prophet. Then there is a lot of confusion in the story. Jesus is looking to get away, there is a storm on the sea, Jesus walks on water and then the crowds catch up with him and again they press for explanations.

The question of interest to us this morning is this: “Tell us, Jesus, what must we do to perform the works of God?” We can take their question as a pretty self-serving. They saw and ate of the bread and now they want to know how to do that trick. Like, I want of piece of magic too!

What Jesus does in response is to point away from them to call direct attention on himself. The work that they are given to undertake is belief, a recognition that Jesus is a person of God, standing right there in front of them. Faith in Jesus—that is the work.

Now how does this tie into gratitude, you may well ask. Perhaps the connection isn’t obvious but my instinct draws me to say that gratitude is a fundamental attribute of Jesus the Christ and that attribute is bound to the disposition of God. It’s not that Jesus went around saying “thank you,” for this and for that to every Tom, Dick or Mary. Yet the conversations that we hear between him and God the Father indicates that gratitude is rooted in their relationship. We hear Jesus giving thanks over the bread just before he broke it and shared the pieces with the crowd on the hillside. At the grave of Lazarus he lifts up his eyes to Heaven and gives thanks to his Father for hearing Him and giving Him the power to raise Lazarus from death. On the cross there is the profound sense that Jesus is giving thanks as he commends his Spirit to his Father.

We come to the table of bread and wine, the altar of our Lord every Sunday.  And what we do is an act of thanksgiving. The Eucharist, which means Thanksgiving, is the center of our life in Christ. Thanksgiving begins when we bring the gifts of bread and wine from the back of the church to the altar. This simple act gets us ready to enter into the Eucharistic relationship with Jesus the Christ.  The Eucharist Prayer that is offered at the altar draws us backward into the sacred mystery of creation, of sin and redemption and in God’s unfailing love. God gives Himself to us in the person of Jesus to be the living manifestation of God here on earth. As we lift our hands to receive this transformed bread, we take Christ into us and in this moment is the CONNECTION.

The act on the cross was in the eyes of the world a huge failure but true to the nature of gratitude, Surprise!—death becomes the way into new and profoundly gracious living here in our mortal lives and beyond.

Everything that we are is bound to what has been, to what is now. All the good and bad, the disappointments in our own lives and with the people with whom we live; for all the atrocities that crush our faith in humanity or nip at the fringes of our good will—every piece of grit and glory is bound up in Christ.  And for this we are grateful.  Even surprised.

This shapes the work we do in the world and it brings with it the sound of laughter that comes from the heart—from the heart of God.

Wading into Unchartered Territory

6 Pentecost, July 5, 2015

On my summer reading list is David McCullough’s newest book, The Wright Brothers. I am captivated by the history and story line that McCullough weaves for us of this amazing story of two brothers from Dayton Ohio who were determined to make a flying machine. Wilber and Orville Wright were inseparable from very early on in their childhood. Wilber in particular was a book lover, intellectually curious about everything and not worried about what other people thought. “Together they develop a love of bicycles, learned to make them and stared their own business. Dayton’s alarmists of the 1890s saw the bicycle as something that could corrupt innocent youth, cause children to stray far from home, keep them from reading books, encourage sexual freedom and so on. (NYT, Janet Maslin, May 3, 2015).

Human beings from time immemorial have been fascinated with flying. Wilber and Orville took on this dream, this challenge; they studied all they could about the flight of birds and wind patterns, the workings of bicycles and related ideas about steering. They set to work in Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in trial and error, one crash after another, at last they soared with the eagles.

Perhaps what the Wright Brothers did is far beyond the scope of our lives and yet we resonate to it, applaud them for their success and in retrospect for their daring, their courage, their vision. At the time, there were many, perhaps hundreds who thought they were nuts. They were, indeed, in uncharted territory. I would wager that all of us at some time in our lives have stepped out into uncharted territory. Some of us love the sense of adventure and rise with eagerness to a challenge. Some others of us, against our most fervent protestations find ourselves flung out, not sure where or why we are going but trusting—perhaps praying—that we’ll land on our feet without coming into harms way. And there are those who dig in their heels and say, “No way, I like it very much the way it is, thank you.”

I find myself resonating with the disciples who got their marching orders from Jesus to go out into the villages and preach repentance.  We tend to do a ho-hum when we hear this Gospel story as if what could be more natural for this band of faithful disciples. Jesus is specific: go two by two, take nothing for the journey except a walking stick; take no bread, no bag, no money, strap on your sandals but no change of clothes.  That’s pretty stark. Imagine traveling without your four wheel Samsonite.

And now dressed for this missionary trek, they are to confront unclean spirits, demons, anoint the sick and cure them. Wow.  Nowhere does it say that they have received training; nowhere does it say that Jesus has given them a 12 week seminar on devil confrontation. These men and women were green behind the ears and just flung out there in uncharted territory.

The amazing part is that apparently—and the text supports this—they were successful.

So what’s in this for us? Let’s begin by putting ourselves into the story and think of ourselves as disciples of Jesus otherwise this story is just a curiosity and interesting piece of literature. So, let’s dare to imagine ourselves as the disciples of Jesus. And not just individuals but like them the church for they are the seed of whom we become.

Proceeding on that note, the directive of Jesus gives us three things to consider. The first is that Jesus has this habit of taking us into uncharted territory. Most of us are very comfortable with the status quo when it comes to religion. We know the prayers, are comfortable with the familiar hymns, not too keen on change. We Christians have our habits, our customs and traditions and are not prone to shake the foundations. In comparison God in Christ Jesus is constantly shaking our foundations  calling us from places of comfort into the challenge of mission.

Many of you here at St. Paul’s have begun having conversations about mission and what kind of mission Jesus is calling us to undertake—where we are being led? Harking back to the Gospel story, let’s not overlook the point that it is Jesus who initiates the mission call not the disciples which is a clue that in our eagerness to take on a particular mission, we need to prayerfully listen to how we are being called.

The second thing, which follows is that in discerning a call we may not necessary know what we are doing. Like those first disciples we may not think we have the proper tools to support those in need whether they are here in Orange Country or Haiti, Navaholand or Jerusalem. Neither did those disciples. All they had was the promise of our Lord, that God’s power would suffice in order to be successful. Think of the men and women who came to these shores in the 1600s. They came, in great part, out of the conviction that God had called them to establish a new Jerusalem. The experiment at Plymouth was not successful, it crashed just as Wilber and Orville’s flying machines crashed, but the call persisted and they found their way.

And finally, the word from the Gospel is that as Christians we need to travel light. All that business of what the disciples were and were not to bring on their journey is about traveling light.  We might think about what weighs us down. Some of it is material stuff, some of it is the weight of habit or prejudices. Some of it the emotional baggage that psychologically paralyzes us—the experience of failure can do that very effectively. “Oh, we can’t do that; it’s too hard, we tried that before.”

Think what would have happened if John Adams gave up on the Declaration of Independence had he let his failed efforts—and there were many—rule the day.

The mission of Jesus Christ is riveting and dynamic; it is challenging and requires a huge amount of faith. It is about preaching in word and action the good news: it is about healing and feeding and bringing wholeness to places of devastation. But we can’t respond to that call if we are excessively weighed down. We need to give ourselves over the power of God for it is the power of God that lifts us up and moves us out.

Annie Dillard gives us her insight into the power of God that waits upon us. She says, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke” on Sunday morning? “Does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church, we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signals flares; they should lash us to our pews…for the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

All of which is to say that the disciples of Jesus came back after their journey into the villages changed men and women—never to return to life as they knew it before. Doing the work of the Gospel will do that to you.  What is past it past; now they are soaring with eagles. It is our spiritual destiny, our Christian vocation to soar with God in Christ Jesus to go out even in uncharted territories to do the work of Gospel.

Ash Wednesday

There are a number of ways to think about Ash Wednesday.  So much of its meaning is part of the rich tradition of the church.  We will hear about that tradition in the Invitation to Holy Lent that follows my meditation. Lent the season of penitence and fasting, a season of preparing converts for baptism and a time, too, of separating out those who had committed notorious sins in order for them to find their way to reconciliation with the church. And, we will hear about the ashes.

 I grew up in a town back in the 1950s that was very much divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics so much so that Richardson Drug Store on the north corner of Hubbard Street and Main was the drug store of choice for Protestants and being an Episcopalian, that was the drug store my family frequented.  Snow’s Drug store was across the street on the south corner that that was the drug store of choice for Roman Catholics.

 Ash Wednesday was one of those religious days that also separated out one denomination from the other.  Children released from school at 11:30 came back after the lunch break with ashes smooched on their foreheads.  We children thought that was very exotic.  Our parents were more critical.

 I keep going back to that childhood memory each year when we read the Gospel that is appointed for Ash Wednesday.  You can’t help but notice how the word “secret” keeps repeating.  It sounds almost like a drum beat.  When you pray, do it in secret; when you fast, do it in secret; when you do good works, do them in secret—so that only your Father who is in Heaven will know what you are up to. Piety, to be true, is never to be put on display.

 So then, we come to this practice of ashes.  They are hardly secretive.  The minute you get up from the altar rail you are confronted by the person right next to you who is wearing ashes on their forehead.  This is hardly a secretive moment.  And, then there is this awkward thing about what do you do about the ashes when you go up for Communion or leave the church.  Such a fuss.

 All this gets me to thinking of another childhood scene although it is not my childhood but that of an unnamed little boy in a restaurant with his grandmother.  Perhaps you will recall Norman Rockwell’s painting –Saying Grace

 The elder lady’s head is bowed; we can’t see the boys face as his back is to us.  But the posture and the expressions on the faces of the two teenagers who are sharing the table with the praying duo are priceless—I should say amazed, even uncomfortable by what they are a part of—rather unwillingly.

 The scene invites us to consider our reactions to the prayerful grandmother, how would we feel if we were sharing the table with them?  It even begs the question, how do you feel about saying grace in public; about practicing our piety so openly.

I wonder how Norman Rockwell might have thought of this scene in light of the Gospel admonition of the practicing your piety in public.

Well, here is another point of view and it comes from the prophet Joel that we read as the first lesson this evening.  Joel is taking us in another direction.   “Sanctify a fast,” he says, “call a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast,”  and why ?– “So people will not ask ‘here is their God?’”

Centuries before the time of Jesus, Joel was preaching to a people who had lost their way, their sense of identity as God’s people.  They had turned away from the commandments of God and focused entirely on their own personal pleasures.  Now their moral tide has turned and they have turned from their foolish ways—once a scattered people they are now gathered and redeemed.  Joel calls them to worship in such a way that expresses their sanctification AND in such a way that people will take notice.  Hence the blowing of trumpets and dancing.  This feast of redemption is meant for the public to see and hear.

So this is where I come down on ashes.  Ashes are a sign of our mortality—dust to dust, ashes to ashes—we are born and our mortal bodies die.  And part and parcel to mortality is that we are not picture perfect.  Like the people before Joel we know what it is to be a scattered people, focusing too much on what we want and want it now.

 Think of the ashes emblematic of our sins our eagerness to judge others our proclivity to gossip and tell lies our greediness, to take what is not ours to have; all those things we will recite in the Litany, that we say together after we receive the ashes on our foreheads.

But the ashes are not just a symbol of our sins; for the sign of ashes is not just a smooch but in the shape of cross (I might say barely discernible but there nevertheless). The cross shaped ashes affirms our dependency on the love of God affirm the holiness of our Creator as the one who calls us into that divine holiness; the ashes affirm that we are committed to God and followers of Jesus Christ.

As with the people who stand before Joel, we are a people who know our habit of wandering away from God. We know, too, what it is to turn around and be gathered once again in the embrace of God.

 And, as with the grandmother saying grace, we know the profound truth that every moment we live is in precious in the sight of God.  These ashes keenly remind us of that truth and we wear them in humility and in great gratitude.

Ash Wednesday – 2015

St. Paul’s, Chester

The Reverend Deborah Dresser