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A Number In Need

Communion Bread

My former Professor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook once said to me that after reading Dr. James Cone I was now turning into a tree hugger.  There are many experiences in my life that have informed who I am and where my ministry has taken me.  Over the past four years it has been in the area of food insecurity in the West Cambridge. Somerville area.  Located in the heart of some of the priciest and hottest real estate market are pockets of food deserts as people juggle paying rent, paying for medication, providing for one’s children and buying food.  My parish in Somerville had been connected to a food pantry, which is located in West Cambridge.  Recently, I found out that the three day a week pantry beginning in February is only going to operate once a month and will remove all current volunteers.  I am saddened and appalled.  Let me share a few of the stories of the people who have been served by the pantry, some of them current food pantry volunteers.

Mr. and Mrs. M come to the pantry once a month.  He was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and Mrs. C does not drive.  The volunteers at the pantry were present when Mr. C said his taste in food had changed due to his chemo treatment and the he now craved the small juice boxes that the pantry provided.  The volunteers filled a plastic bag with juice boxes.  To make matters worse their only son had just been arrested for attempted murder.  The volunteers heard their heartbreak and have included them in our daily prayers.

Ms. E., is now raising her 5 grandchildren and money is tight.  If Ms. E. had not stepped up to take the children they were going to be placed with the State.  Money is tight so she relies on the pantry to make ends meet.

O’s husband made $36 over the threshold for food stamps.  The family of three food stamps were cut to $11 for the month.  Volunteering at the pantry gives her both dignity and provides food for her family.  You cannot feed a family of three on $11 a month.

P’s son suffered brain damage from a skiing accident.  She has had to leave her job to take care of him full time.  P’s son wants to be of service so they come to the pantry once a month to volunteer.

G’s apartment had a fire and she lost everything last year.  The volunteers at the  pantry asked her what she needed and provided some household goods when she moved into her new place.  Her friend A monthly bakes the best anise cookies in the world for the volunteers.

Y has the most amazing organizational skills that one can find, and can keep all the food pantry volunteers on task.

Mrs. A takes a train and two buses to pick up food for herself and her neighbor who is housebound.  Two years ago her husband passed and the pantry provided a safe space for her to cry and grieve.

Mr. W has diabetes and the volunteers knew to offer him alternatives when we had sweets.

A’s children all have a gluten allergy.  Volunteers would put aside gluten free products.

K is a vegetarian so she gets double vegetables instead of meat.

There are many more food pantry stories that will break your heart and make your heart sing.  The pantry not only provided food, but provided a place of prayer, rest, respite and laughter.  The pantry was a place where one did not only sign people in, give them bags of food and then moved on to the next person.  It was a community within a community.  A community that prayed together, ate together, laughed together and cried together. Ms. E made the best chicken and beans and rice.  Her door was always open and a heaping plate of food was always hot and ready.  When her nephew dropped out of community college it took the food pantry volunteer village to convince him to return. 

Getting to know people, really know people was the real work of the food pantry, recognizing their worth and dignity as a Child of God was in many ways more important than the food provided.  Some of the volunteers were in need of food for their families and the pantry gave them a sense of giving back, a place where their skills could be appreciated and utilized. Current volunteers who will be dismissed next week by a casual thank you and a Whole Foods cake.

All of this is going away.  The pantry will be a place where a person will wait outside in the cold winter months, in the rain, in the humid heat of the oppressive summer sun. They will be signed in, giving the identical packed plastic bags and sent on their way.  We have lost our way as a church and as a community when we can sit in a place and perch of personal privilege to look down on those in need and only recognize them as a number in need. God help us all.

 

Pay Attention Now!

 

The African American Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965, was The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman.  He wrote the Poem: I Will Light Candles This Christmas”.  Here is an excerpt:

 

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among others,

To make music in the heart.

 

I went to bed early on Tuesday night was woke up to a stark reality on Wednesday morning.  A reality in which I was called out of my comfortable and smug place.  That place where I had no words for my students or parishioners.  That place where all I had to offer was myself in a ministry of presence, my hugs, and my tears.  A place where old school lyrics of the Gap Band and The Temptations have new meaning:

Say oops upside your head say oops upside your head
Say oops upside your head say oops upside your head
Pay attention now

And

People movin’ out, people movin’ in.
Why, because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Vote for me and I’ll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on.
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation,
humiliation, obligation to our nation

Ball of confusion!

 I take that back, I wasn’t called out of my comfortable place I was ripped out of my comfortable place of smugness.  If I was really, really honest in the core of my being I had gone back to the understanding of my God as a child.  You know that God the one who you treat as “Genie God” or “Santa Claus God”.  The God that gives you that one thing that you wanted.  That one thing toy, job, partner that you wanted, after all it looked like there was a really good chance that I was going to get what I wanted. We are always disappointed by Genie and Santa Claus God.

What I got reflected back to me was the God of love and compassion.  Let me correct this I didn’t say I was happy about this.  But, Genie, Santa Claus God allows me to be in a space of smugness, entitlement, that the work of God’s hands in the world can sorta be done on my time, or to use a Massachusetts expression yea, yea, yea.

What I heard instead was the struggle is real.  That I cannot take for granted that the gains for civil rights for everyone are an indefinite given.  That people who I do and don’t know are deeply hurt and wounded in ways I cannot begin to imagine and I don’t get to be so “uppity” and self-righteous that I can ignore them because they don’t think and behave like me.  Yes! Racism is real, homophobia is real, and the distain for the other is real.  This is not the first time for this kind of rodeo.  All I have to do is read scripture and talk to my elders.  You want a dose of reality call an African American woman over the age of 80. My mother will be happy to talk to any of you.

God has not abandoned the world. God has not abandoned the people of the United States.  God is still with us, giving each of us the opportunity to bear witness to God’s reign which is now and will be for all eternity.  God’s reign has no end. God is not Democrat, Republican, Independent or a member of the Green Party.  God will not crumble with time or succumb to the elements like the great pyramids or coliseums and no other human being will ever be able to take it away. 

Jesus himself said that:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your God. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your God is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

 We do know however, that we are not to live our lives in fear and despair waiting for the end but we are to live, live, in constant hope and with endurance, all the while building up the Reign of God.

 

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among others,

To make music in the heart.

 

Pay attention now.  Amen.

Our Treasures

Pentecost 12, Proper 14

August 7, 2016

Luke 12:32-40

The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you God’s reign.  Sell you possessions, and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasurer us, there you heart will be also.

Yesterday, I attended a Memorial Eucharist in thanksgiving for the life of John Anders Jensen.  I met John when I was serving at Christ Church, Needham.  I was newly ordained and this was my first call.  Christ Church is one of the cathedral (aka large) parishes of the Diocese.  It was an excellent place to begin my ministry as I got a chance to experience everything I was have to know as a priest. 

 John served as a verger and sung in the choir, John was always there as a pastoral presence, teacher and mentor during my early priest years. During subsequent visits to the parish to attend events and funerals. John and I always shared a laugh and a prayer.  There was a friend of his who gave one of the remembrances who said “we are not called to cry about the end of the good times but to smile that we had them” 

 Last week I preached about our connection with our stuff.  This week Jesus is asking again about our treasurers.  Where are our heart and our treasures located?  What are those fond memories that call our heart to sing, not to cry when we think about them. What matters most in your life?  Your retirement, items in your safety deposit box, you job, your car, your family, your title?  Only you can know what is important to you.   The thing is that we cannot take any of our earthly possessions with us when “our number is up”.

 My friend Angela recently shared this with me.  She was out shopping for a few things with her husband.  They had a quick, cheerful exchange with a woman in the aisle.  As they were trying to go past her in the opposite direction, after skirting around an employee with a stocking cart partially blocking the aisle.  The woman turned to them as said “You’re Christians, will you please pray for me? I’m having a hard time”.  Then she proceeded to break down into sobs.

 As my friend and her husband tended to her, she was aware that they were both wearing the sign of the cross on their necklaces and that is why the woman made the request.

 Here’s the kicker, Angela just bought her necklace that morning.

 We have always been told that God puts people in places at the right time for the right reason.  Angela and her husband were part of that message not just wearing the symbols.  They acted in faith, not just for themselves, but for others.  They didn’t judge her for who she maybe supporting in the upcoming Presidential election.  They didn’t judge her for what she was wearing.  They didn’t judge her for where she lived or where she went to school or what her profession was.  At that moment this woman need hope and somebody to care.  As my former Episcopal Divinity School Professor and now Dean of Berkley Seminary at Yale, The Rev. Dr. Andrew McGowan has said “there is something about the human condition that needs God.  Let me repeat “there is something about the human condition that needs God”.

 If the stock guy hadn’t been blocking the aisle, Angela and her husband would have never have had that encounter.  At the moment they were not symbol wearers but they were symbol “doers”.

 We come to church not only to be in communion with one another but every week we need to be reminded we need to practice what we want to become.  To practice and pray about where God is calling us and where God is guiding us to God’s treasurer for us.  To be ready for that wedding banquet.  We come to practice and be ready at all times to exercise love and kindness to others.

 When Jesus talks about storing up treasure. He is not talking about a heavenly bank where we can go to, and fill out a deposit slip and deposit our good works and make a withdrawal when needed.  But if we continue to live out the Gospel here on earth like my late friend John and my friend and her husband.  We will be moved by our hearts and not moved by our stuff.  This takes practice.  This takes reminders.  This is why we come to give thanks and to open our hearts and minds to those treasurers that Jesus is calling us to.  Our earthly bank may not be filled will all the money in the world but our heavenly banks are filled with those deposits that will fill us with gratitude. 

I am going to end with the well-known call and response.

God is Good:  All the time

All the time: God is Good

Amen

 

Mandelbrot

Reflections from a dear friend of mine.  A word of caution there is a story from back in the day.

It Started with a Question…

It’s funny how things got started. My son always curious about his familial history asked for a copy of the family tree as well as a collection of the family recipes. This brought me to talking with my sister, with whom I began to reminisce about growing up. She remembered our baking Mandelbrot with my grandmother. (Neither of us was sure how to spell it). As I mentioned elsewhere, it was the first thing I learned to cook and with that began my passion for creating food.

Being in a whimsical mood, I posted this on line. A very dear and old friend made a request and opened a door. (I don’t think she knows just how dear a friend she is. We haven’t talked much these past few years. But some of you have people like that in your lives. You seem to be able to pick up with them from where ever you left off as if it were yesterday. She is an Episcopal Minister now and goes by the title Reverend Doctor…. But I just know her as Karen, sometimes KC. I am so proud of what she has accomplished even if I can’t quite come to including the “Reverend Doctor” and her name in the same sentence. It’s just not how I know her. That doesn’t diminish the pride I feel in what she has done with her life. Especially since this is the same person with whom I used to danced until dawn at a transvestite (or to be politically correct, transgender) disco club followed by breakfast at a greasy spoon Russian diner in lower Manhattan and made fun of the people we worked with at Sotheby’s and christened the Fine and Decorative Chachka Department there… eons ago.)

But I digress and for good reason… Because from simple things… a question, a reminiscence, an inquiry suddenly becomes an opening into sacred places; familial stories; life long connections, and a desire to learn and uncover more. Karen, The Reverend Doctor ;), asked me to send her the recipe for Mandelbrot along with the stories. And that opened another door and some more reminiscences; Of my family; of her and our friendship; other family members, other friends. It became a living process; Or to use Karen’s word… “Sacred”.

I shared with her the story of how my Dad and I spent his last days together listening to the Mariners lose and my plaguing him with questions, anything I could think of, about his life, our family, anything at all. I knew as he was passing, a door was rapidly closing and I wanted to keep it open as long as possible. I wrote about my grandmother and who she was, growing up, based on my father’s stories about her; how she emigrated from Lithuania in the 1890’s at the age of six, I believe; Her involvement with the suffragette movement in the early 20th century; About my grandfather whom I only met twice and had almost no memory of. He was a button salesman I found out. Who sells buttons for a living? But he did. It was another era. One that ended long before I was born.

And this is just the beginning. Some veil has been lifted and while it is easy to gently poke it back into place, I am not sure I want to… It’s not about going back to the past. It’s about celebrating it, revering it, reveling in it … “Sacred Places”.

I am inviting you to consider undertaking a similar journey. What are your stories? Where are your sacred places? Where are the connections that gently travel between friends and family, loved ones and ones almost forgotten. Where do you come from? How did you get here? Who was there along the way? Who was there before you? And who are those who will be left behind in your absence? Are there debts of gratitude that have been acknowledged or have they been left unpaid and still lingering? My friend the Reverend Doctor, my friend Karen quite possibly doesn’t know the debt of gratitude I owe her. She may not know how much the fact that I got to grow up and mature as a man was because of her influence in my life. It is a gift she gave me that she may not even know she bestowed.

And all of this started with a simple series of questions… “Do you know our family tree?”. “Do you have the recipe you used to make with Grandma?” “Do you remember….?”

I invite you, this holiday season, while you’re gathered around the table or in front of the fire, or where ever you come together…Start a conversation…Ask a question…. “Do you remember…?” And don’t hesitate to follow where that can take you. Take the journey, follow the path, if you come to a fork in the road, take it.

And if you care to do so, I invite you to share them here, with me, with us. They are sacred and they deserve to be released and shared because these sacred stories are what connects us as a race of people. Before there was ever a written language, there was the story. It is what transcends borders and race and beliefs and differences. It is what brings us together in a shared human experience. They are the ties that bind. But they also can be what releases us…