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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.

 

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

 

Image

We Will with God’s Help

IMG_0762Sermon, July 31, 2016 Pentecost 11, Proper 13

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman

St. James Episcopal Church, Somerville MA

There is a story I heard when I first moved to Cambridge.  I use this story when leading retreats on Addiction and Spirituality.

Frank, begins his story this way. “I looked out over my horse farm in Dover, and said to myself, I want to be abandoned by my family and I want to be homeless.  I want to drink and use myself so far into oblivion that my home is sleeping in door alcoves and alley ways in the Combat Zone is Boston’s Chinatown”.

A man who had it all a lucrative job in finance, a horse farm, a BMW and Mercedes, a wife, two kids.  All the outside treasurers’ one could ask for, and yet he ended up homeless.  He speaks about thinking that as long as he had the “trappings” he was ok, he wasn’t that bad.  He had money in the bank and thought he would always be able to pull it together.  Even in the depths of his addiction while he would see his former co-workers in the financial district walked by him, he thought, I am going to get it together.   My wife will take me back, I will be able to sleep in the big bed again and my children will trust and respect me again.  At no time he says did it ever occur to him that he actually needed to stop drinking and drugging.  If things got better he would certainly be able to “control” his drinking and drugging.  There is a line in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book that goes like this “if you had my problems you would drink to”.

Now over 30 years sober he recalls his story as if it was yesterday.  An Episcopal priest, the late Father Neil Hastings, took him into his house.  He lived with Father Hastings family, his wife and his children.  He got a “sober” job, not a financial job, yet, but a job.  His real “work” became an inside job, not an outside job.  His relationship with a God of his understanding became his foundation and which he now stands to help others.  Yes, he got to go home again, but he looked deep inside his soul and while not making the money he made in the past, he is working where his heart is singing

The gospel reading for today is more commonly known as the “Parable of the Rich Fool”.   Someone asks Jesus to settle a property score.  In Jesus’ day property was handed over to the eldest son.  Remaining sons would receive only what the oldest would hand down, if anything at all.  Disputes were handled by the Rabbi’s.  It was thought that the Rabbi’s would be fair in their decision.  Jesus had developed a reputation for being fair and honest so he was called upon to settle this dispute.

Jesus in true Jesus form, turns the question on its head and ask in so many words and I paraphrase: “are we a sum total of our stuff?”

I for one like my stuff.  I remember as a child the worst possible punishment imaginable was to have television, phone and car privileges’ taken away.  Today, I like my internet, my cell phone, my I Pad, especially this past week I like the air-conditioning, my car, the ability to eat farm to table, my clothes, my extensive shoe collection.  Our stuff makes our surrounding comfortable, but the question is what feeds our soul?  What feeds the place where are feet are placed at this moment?  Where do we included our spiritual work in the world with our walk with Jesus?  That is the inside work that Frank speaks about.  That is the work that is not seen as we walk down the streets in our everyday life.

Jesus is calling us to do the inside work, not the outside work.  The outside work tells us to build larger barns to store up crops, (so everyone can see the fruits of our labor), the inside work tells us to be a witness in a world where racism, economic and food injustice prevail, where the 1% is making their 1% on the backs of the 99%, where people of color and our police fear for their lives.

Last Thursday night my husband and I went to a Solidarity Gathering for “Wellesley Stands Against Hate” sponsored by The World of Wellesley.  This comes in response to racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant remarks made by several Wellesley High School Students during a Facebook group chat.  There are those in the community that we clearly outraged and want to be engaged in making Wellesley a safe community for all.  We who sit here this morning don’t have to be directly engaged with the goings on in Wellesley.  We just need to read, to watch, to hashtag to know that our call to justice, our call to worship is greater than the sum of all our stuff.

The Catholic Theologian, Dorothy Day wrote this: ”What we do is very little, but it is like the boy and with a few loaves and fishes: Christ took that little and increased it.  He will do the rest.  What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing, but so did Christ fail.  He met apparent failure on the cross.  But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest.  And why must we see the results? Our work is to sow.  Another generation will be reaping the harvest.

Dorothy Day sowed, Martin Luther King sowed, Ida B. Wells sowed with her anti-lynching campaign, Judge Wade McCree sowed when he became the first African-American appointed to the Circuit Court for Wayne County Michigan, Jackie Landry sowed when she became the first female Catholic Chaplain at Harvard, Professor Gale Yee, sowed when she became the first Asian female PhD in Hebrew Bible.  Bishop Barbara Harris sowed when she became the first female Bishop in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, my own mother sowed when she became the first African-American female and the youngest to graduate from Pharmacy school at DIT.  And most recently Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sowed to make America realize a dream that few of us could imagine a few years ago.

Where is Jesus calling you to plant?  Where is Jesus calling you to sow?  The list is long for there are so many things and places to sow seeds, in the world and closer to home in the City of Somerville and closer still in our church home.  I would invite you to read Mayor Joe Curtatone’s piece on the recent police and Black Lives Matter protests here in Somerville.

Where will our passions lead us?  What are you being called to do in the here and now?  What if God came to you this night and said that tonight your life is being demanded of you.  Could you uphold our Baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.  Our response is: I will with God’s help.  In our current hate filled political climate, I need to be reminded as we all need to be reminded that complaincency is not an action word but sowing is, and we can do it “with God’s help”. 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…

 

Advent Reflection 2015

A Boston paper recently published an article about a “Black Lives Matter” banner vandalized outside a church in Arlington, MA. In fact, the banner had been vandalized twice before. After reading this article, I wrote to a white clergy colleague and ally: “While I ardently support those houses of worship that put up “Black Lives Matter” banners, I feel that the real transformation occurs when the deep work is done inside of communities. Whether the community is our home, house of worship, place of employment. Essentially, from cradle to grave.”

As an African-American Episcopal priest, I have some questions. Are we (using the corporate we) willing to change the racial paradigm and structure of the Episcopal Church? We delude ourselves if we believe that all should be at the same place at the same time in our journey toward racial justice and in realizing the Reign of God here on earth.

It’s a process and we come into this process as unique God-created gifts on earth. The process is both internal and external. Internal change comes at a cost; an action, a thought or gesture can get to that place where you are no longer comfortable with what you say, think or do. Note that this process does not happen overnight.

Life in the Boston area can present phrases and questions that are sometimes baffling and have double meaning to a community of color. Questions such as: Do you live around here? What does your spouse, partner etc. do? Phrases such as: The organization decided to go in a different direction at this time. Statements such as: I am sorry, I forgot to introduce you (the only person of color in the room). Examples such as someone addressing everyone in the room by their title except you. Circumvention of the work of the Human Resources Department to make a hire. Or the latest in The Episcopal Church by white clergy, “I want to take a point of personal privilege.” You are a priest in The Episcopal Church; thereby you are privileged.

Social justice work is hard work for all.

In this season of Advent, to quote a prayer from the Brothers at The Society of St. John the Evangelist, “Now is the time to wake out of our sleep. Now is the time for you—a choice to be made, a decision to be taken.”

Advent Blessings to All.

LOVE IS LOVE!

Earlier this week a Facebook acquaintance posted “I don’t know where you stand on this but marriage is between one man and one woman … as it was in Genesis 2 and 3.”  He followed up by saying …when I saw you were into Womanist Theology and Episcopal, I was not surprised.  What seminary did you attend?”  Like my seminary education had anything to do with the respect of human dignity. I went to Episcopal Divinity School for both my MDiv and my DMin.  My parents taught me to respect human dignity.

My response was, I support same-sex marriage because I respect the dignity and happiness of every person.  No exceptions ever.  Now the SCOTUS has spoken legalizing gay marriage nationwide.  That means even the state of my birth Michigan, must legalize same-sex marriage.

I connect through Facebook with a variety of people for whom I differ in opinion.  It is good to read post from others as long as they are not hateful or hate-filled.  I am well aware as an African-American woman who grew up in Detroit the wide variety of differences and opinions there are regarding same-sex marriage.  I am centered in the teaching that all Americans deserve justice.   I know what it is to feel apart from not a part of.  I know what it is to not get the job due to my color.  I know what it is to be called the “N’ word in my office of a parish that I was serving in.  Yes, right here in the liberal state of Massachusetts. But at the heart of it love is love.  No more hiding, no more not being let into hospital rooms because you are not “family”, no more explaining, NO MORE!

The closing paragraph from Justice Kennedy sums it all “…They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right…. It is so ordered.

Today’s ruling affirms that love is equal, love has dignity, love has respect.  Love is love!

Jesus Wept

These past two weeks have called us to wrestle within our souls some searing and pressing social issues.  How do you shoot at the back of an unarmed man eight times and then plant evidence, and act as if it was alright.  Are will still a good Christian if we believe in the death penalty of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or do we believe that life in prison will be a far greater cruelty?  We felt deeply on the two-year anniversary of the Marathon Bombing knowing that our lives in the Greater Boston area will never be the same. We wept with the mother of Oden Lloyd as her son’s killer was given life in prison, a life cut short to soon and a God-given talent squandered in the belief that the streets would love you back.

True religion, true Christianity, is not and should not be about becoming a blind follower or a coerced believer.  Some of the most faithful people I know, live out the Gospel in their lives with faithful worship, love for their neighbor, concern for the needy in their midst, and a deep commitment to justice and the dignity of every human being, but they also wrestle as I do with religious or theological doubts and spiritual uncertainties during some, most or all of their lives.