Saturday, September 26, 2009

Area Ministry: Whoever is not Against us is For Us!

Christ the Lord, Pinole, 9/27/09

Good morning and thank you for having me. My name is Este Gardner Cantor, and for a little over a year I have had the privilege of working as coordinating chaplain for a 28 year old chartered organization of the Diocese of California, “An Episcopal Ministry to Convalescent Hospitals.” Very soon after this name was chosen, it was recognized as way too unwieldy, so that unwieldy name was turned into an unpronounceable acronym- AEMCH. Sort of rhymes with the Yiddish word, mensch: but not quite.

As I have spoken to the elders of our organization who have blazed the trail before me, I began to piece together a creation story for AEMCH.

Well, In the beginning there was the Rev. Bill Clancy, dynamic Rector of All Souls Parish in Berkeley. And as far as an organized ministry to convalescent hospitals went, things were pretty much without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the East Bay. But Rev. Clancy had a bright idea and he said “let there be light” and Deacon Arlinda Cosby suddenly appeared across the table from him at a CDSP community night dinner and was positively lit up with enthusiasm for an idea he had.

This igniting spark of an idea was to form a ministry dedicated to those people who live in convalescent hospitals- people who Bill Clancy and Arlinda rightly felt to be among the most needful of fellowship, worship and friendship. The idea was to train, encourage and inspire each Episcopal parish to have a thriving ministry to at least one local convalescent hospital. So Arlinda proceeded to be the light in the firmament of heaven, to give light upon AEMCH for 27 years.

All Souls church was the first to be swept along, and St. Mark’s Berkeley next took flight, followed by St. Alban’s church in Albany which hit the ground running.

Many other East bay churches came on board with AEMCH, including your own, and the wonderful work of supporting, training and encouraging congregations to bring their energy and love and worship to the populations of their local convalescent homes began, providing the warmth that has warmed so many people. And Bishop Swing who was closely involved with AEMCH until his retirement, saw it all and saw that it was good.

I have had absolutely wonderful personal experiences with convalescent ministry and I have had wonderful community experiences with congregations doing this good work. The residents you see are not always bright and chipper, but you do meet some amazing people.

I got to know Camille Folker, who was 109 years old when she finally left us, sharp and funny and politically conscious as ever. When I first met her, and she was a mere lass of 108, I immediately complemented her on her sharpness and liveliness.

“What do ya mean?” She said “I’m lyin’ here like a wart on a pickle!” In her more serious moments she would tell me what she thought about when she woke at night and could not go back to sleep. “I think a lot about God,” she said. Then, back to her old self she said

“It comes in real handy being spiritual when you’re an old bag like me.” She remembered Indians in Mill Valley. She remembered when her family got their first model A and how handy it was not to have to crank it up. She remembered the 1906 earth quake- after all, she was born in 1899! I always felt I that I had traveled through time when I visited her.

I have had the pleasure of bringing youth groups and groups of children to convalescent hospitals and seeing how the faces of the elders light up at the sight of children. I am always struck by the commonality of the young and old and how small things- cards, cookies, ice cream- can be so enthusiastically shared between the generations.

And I have had the great pleasure of sharing the ministry with groups from various East Bay and now Marin and Contra Costa congregations, seeing how contagious the joy of this ministry can be. Seeing the wonders that a little attention and love can do for those who may not get many visitors, or any at all.

So on this day I am bringing to you the gospel of AEMCH, and for those of you who might be doubters, we have the perfect Gospel reading.

Ever since Bishop Marc began to talk about Area Ministry, I have been pleased to note that AEMCH was Area Ministry before there was Area Ministry. The gospel story today shows us a very early form of the competitiveness that sometimes exists between local parishes. John thinks he has done a good thing in castigating the non-homey exorcist, who was in fact doing what the disciples themselves had just failed to earlier in the same chapter- casting out a demon in the son of one of Jesus followers

But Jesus recognizes good work being done in his name, even outside of his small group of intimates. Jesus, I am sure, would have believed in Area Ministry.

According to Bishop Mark, Area Ministry encompasses three things:
Diversity in the participants, collaboration between parishes, and a non-word that Bishop Marc made up: “Embeddedness” in the community. In other words, action that will benefit the community in structures and institutions within the community. I am happy to say that AEMCH fulfills all three requirements. We welcome all parishes to join with us in this Jesus-filled work, that takes us out of our churches and into the institutions who need us so much. And to the individuals in those institutions who need our love, our touch, our listening and our worship services.

In the second half of the Gospel reading, Jesus gets really serious. He invokes the term “stumbling block” for whoever causes harm to his “little ones” in other words, his followers. He goes on to very sternly warn of the seriousness of sin, and to offer a few gruesome suggestions as to how to deal with our own foibles. I don’t believe he was literally speaking of removing body parts, but he may have been referring to something almost equally unpopular in our society: sacrifice.

Sacrifice of any kind, like discomfort of any kind, is avoided in our culture as much as self-amputation. We have a hard time sacrificing, which creates our own stumbling block to really living a life which honors us as Christians.

Discomfort is our stumbling block. If you had a crew from another planet come and look at how we actually spend our weeks, and they ignored Sundays, they might sometimes have a hard time telling that we are Christians. What do we actually do?

My favorite shorthand for the Christian life is in Mt. 25:35:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

When the disciples object that they never did these things for Jesus, he answers them back,

Inasmuch as you did it to the least of my brethren, you have done it to me.

Jesus wants us to take care of, feed, clothe, visit and welcome the poor, the powerless, the friendless.

We have opportunities everyday to do these things, but I have never found a ministry that encompassed so many of these sweet dictates as the one I am presenting to you today.

I invite you from the bottom of my heart to join us in this joyous and communal ministry, to join me as we step over our stumbling blocks and live into the Kingdom of Heaven together, free of competition, free of fear and doing it in the name of Jesus.


Friday, September 11, 2009

A Lot to Swallow

Holy Innocents, Corte Madera
August 23, 2009 John 6:56-69

Once upon a conference, we were asked to identify what Christian feast day we would be if we could be any one of them. I jokingly said “Halloween.” Then I found that the next step was to begin to design a liturgy for that personal feast day. The group got into the spirit of the thing and I asked "OK- what would be a good hymn be for my Halloween liturgy?" Someone immediately began to sing “Eat my flesh, drink my blood…” Everyone laughed of course, but it did high-light the fact that it is a phrase that conjures up more vampire than messiah.

This hymn repeats the words from the Gospel of John verbatim- and in a hymn the words sound less shocking- less earthy and challenging. But as we know, Jesus never shrinks from being earthy or challenging. Instead he kind of rubs our face in it: “Eat my flesh and drink my blood. That’s a lot to swallow…

We have been going along on what I think of as the Summer of Bread for six weeks now, delving into the Gospel of John and it’s mysterious and profound meditation on the Bread of Life. Although the Gospel of John does not have a last supper breaking of the bread event, what is called the words of institution of the Eucharist, it does seem to have this very long and very significant reverie on the Eucharist.

There are many thoughts as to why this is. I read one source that felt that those words, “This is my Body which is given for you…and the rest of that section of our Eucharistic prayer, which first appeared in the letters of Paul : I Corinthians 11:23, was so sacred that the words were meant to be kept secret knowledge. But a half a century of so after Paul, the words were included, though slightly changed in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But no where in John.

Our Summer of bread begins with a miracle: the feeding of the five thousand, the followed by Jesus patient and persistent attempt to try to explain the deeper significance of this “sign.”

Then comes the first of three references to the Manna from heaven that God sent to the children of Israel during the Exodus in the wilderness. As is so often the case in the Gospel of John, a line is drawn between the traditions, miracles and feast days of the Old Testament and the revelations of the new- the manna was bread from heaven indeed, but after eating of it you still lived and died as you would have anyway. The Bread of Life is something altogether different- something above and beyond mere nourishment for the body. It is bread that will bring you a kind of utter transformation- a kind of radical real time abundance that Jesus calls eternal life. The people plead with Jesus, “Sir- give us this bread always.” The next week’s reading answers the hungry crowd with the beautiful words, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.

This leads up to last week’s reading, when Jesus first uses the word abide - “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” In case anyone did not catch the distinction between manna from heaven and the bread of life, he makes it again. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” He says “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood ABIDE (or LIVE) in me, and I in them. Abide- is trannslated from the Greek work menos which has many meanings: abbide, remain, stay, live, dwell, last, endure, continue, await, wait for.

To abide in Jesus is all of that. He urges us to remain with him, stay with him, live with him, dwell with him, endure with him, continue with him and await him.

Finally, in this week’s passage, the last in our Summer of Bread, we are led to several essential elements to compete this long teatise on the Bread of Life.

The only reference (veiled though it is) to the last supper is heard nin the words, “Jesus knew which one would betray him.” Even this has a Eucharistic tone, because the only breaking or giving of bread in the last supper in the Gospel of John, consists of Jesus handing a morsel of bread to Judas, just before Judas betrays him. I have always felt that this underlined the universality of the mercy and grace of God- even when we are betrayers, God’s mercy is available to us, God will feed us still, the body and the blood are there for us still.

But with Jesus’ continued urging to eat his body and drink his blood, like so many of us, who read the teachings of Jesus, some of the disciples recoil. “This teaching is difficult- who can accept it?” They ask. And many of them desert him. Anticipating further betrayal, , Jesus says to his faithful twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

And it is the bumbling Peter, another one who exemplifies the faithlessness in all of us, who sees that there is no where else to go. Who proclaims that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Who says, “You have the words of eternal life..” And so we are harkened back to the beautiful prolog of John- Jesus is the word of God- the word made flesh. It is Jesus the word made flesh that is our bread- the word that is spirit and life. To me this is the meaning of the incarnation- the word made flesh- Jesus living the word of God. And if we truly allow Jesus to abide in us, and we in him, that spirit, that word will be incarnated in us. I beleive that the meaning of the incarnation of God in Christ is incomplete without the the incarnation of Christ in us. Of Christ abiding in us. Of Christ remaining with, staying with, living with, dwelling with, enduring with, continuing with and waiting, always waiting, for us.