Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013 Luke 10:25-37 “Who is My Neighbor?”

I had no idea where I was. I was driving to a meeting as part of my work in an internship in an Anglican church in the Middle East – in Qatar, to be exact.  When I left the house, I had a rough idea of where I was going. I had a street address, which was useless, because there were no street signs. Eventually, I realized I was utterly lost and had no idea how to get anywhere – my supervising priest’s house, my in-laws’ house, the people I was visiting. I parked the car and just sat there, fuming at my own incompetence. Someone spotted me sitting there. A Qatari, given his sparkling white thobe and dashing headscarf. He said, in Oxonian English, “you look lost.”
I had heard a few stories about non-Qatari women being harassed, so I was on my guard. “I’ve gotten turned around somewhere. I’m trying to get to XYZ Street [I’ll use that because the real street name is too hard to remember even now] and I must have missed a turn. Do you know which way I should go?”

I hoped he would be kind and give me some directions. The usual Qatari directions are something like this – you go to the Pearl roundabout and get off where the turnoff to Al Jazeera is, then you go for another couple minutes and you’ll see the white house on the right. Turn there.

This presumes you know where you are in relation to the traffic circle that has a statue of a gigantic pearl in the middle, that you know which turnoff leads to Al Jazeera, and that you know which of the three hundred white houses is the correct one. Directions are not a strong suit.
Instead, he said “It’s too difficult to explain. Follow me.”

And he hopped into his Mercedes – all autos in Qatar are Mercedes or BMWs or Ferraris, it seems – and he revved it up.

I was more than a little nervous. Should I follow him? Would he lead me to someplace where he would sell me to the highest bidder? Would he hold me for ransom (a foolish guess, since he was probably richer than all my extended family combined)? I decided to take the risk and follow him. That worked pretty well for a while. I started to recognize a few landmarks, which helped my anxiety. Then we got separated at one of the infernal roundabouts, and I lost him. I pulled over, trying to guess which direction I should go next. In a minute, he once again pulled up next to me and rolled down his window. “Damned Pakistani traffic police at the roundabout! Sorry I lost you. Not to worry – we are almost there.”

And two minutes later, he had led me to the address I was searching for. I leaned out of the car window into the desert heat. “Thank you so much! You were so very kind!”

He said, “When I first went to university in Oxford I was always getting lost, and I hated the feeling. I don’t want you to feel that way about Qatar.”

And off he drove.

It’s a funny thing about being a stranger in a strange land. You feel like a creature from another universe, and it’s rare that someone treats you like another human being. But this Qatari, who probably had other things to do, took the time to shepherd me to my destination, all because he didn’t want me to feel like a creature from another universe in his country.

It was for me the lived experience of what Jesus was talking about when he answered the lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor?”

The Qatari gentleman decided I was his neighbor, despite the fact that I was a woman, despite the fact that I was not Qatari, despite the fact that I wore no headscarf and thus was not Muslim. Because he thought I was his neighbor, he helped me.

He thought I was his neighbor, and neighbors do things for each other. My neighbor Roland, who comes from Australia, regularly shows up at our door with food from his garden, or to help Doug with some project or another. Our other neighbor, Ed, is a part of what might be called the Tree Circus of Hawthorne Avenue. Roland, Doug and Ed regularly do tree pruning at our houses and at other neighbors’ houses. They do it because neighbors help each other out.

Neighborly help is rarely as dramatic as the story of the Good Samaritan in today’s Gospel. It’s usually more like Roland and Doug and Ed, helping each other and other neighbors when a need arises.

But occasionally there is a story of neighborliness that breaks all our conventions of “who is my neighbor?”

A few months ago, there was a horrific event. Bombs were detonated in Boston, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Some people died, many people were cruelly maimed. The alleged perpetrators of the attack were two young men who had become swayed by radical religious teaching and believed they should wreak vengeance on Americans. One of the alleged perpetrators died in a shootout with police during the manhunt.

His body was autopsied and it was sent to a funeral home. The director of the funeral home tried to find a place to bury the body of this man, and could not. Every cemetery in New England and the Tri-State area refused him.

Enter Martha Mullen, a middle aged Methodist woman who lives in Doswell, just up the road from us. She heard about the fact that a burial place could not be found, and she thought that wasn’t right. Even people who did evil things deserved to be treated with some modicum of dignity.

"My first thought was Jesus said love your enemies," she said.

Then she had an epiphany. "I thought someone ought to do something about this - and I am someone," Mullen said.

So Mullen sent emails to various faith organizations to see what could be done. She heard back from Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia, which arranged for a funeral plot at the Al-Barzakh cemetery in Caroline County. "It was an interfaith effort," she said.

She went on to say “Nobody is without sin. Certainly this was a horrific act, but he's dead and what happened is between him and God. We just need to bury his body and move forward. People were making an issue and detracting from the healing that needed to take place."

When Martha Mullen thought of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, she didn’t think of him as a good man. She didn’t think of him as someone she would sit and have a cup of coffee with. She thought of him as enemy. And yet she also thought of him as neighbor.

And that’s the point that Jesus was making when the lawyer posed the question “who is my neighbor?”

The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a warm and fuzzy story. Samaritans and Israelites were sworn enemies. Each thought the other was religiously heretical. The idea of a good person from Samaria helping a wounded Jew was just as outlandish as a good Methodist
helping a murderous radicalized Chechen Muslim.

It would have been the sort of thing that would get the radio talk show hosts in Samaria going wild, saying that this was a betrayal of all that was good and true, caring for this evil Jew, just as in our time Martha Mullen was reviled for her actions.
Who is your neighbor?

Yes, your neighbor is the great friend down the street who brings you Swiss chard from his garden and eggs from his hens and helps you cut down a tree limb. But your neighbor is also the odd man who mutters to himself as he puts up signs on his lawn saying “if your dog fouls my lawn it will be shot,” or the woman with the headscarf who doesn’t talk to you when you say hello. Your neighbor is the black teen who wanders through your neighborhood at night with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of Gatorade in hand. Your neighbor is the neighborhood watch chief, who seems a little overzealous to you. Your neighbor is the loud and bossy lady who complains about your lawn not being mowed enough, and the guy on the street corner who holds up a sign saying “Lost everything but life. Please give.”

Your neighbor is not just the person you find easy to like, it is the person you find hard to like. Like a religious radical who is your sworn enemy. Like a Jew. Like a Samaritan. Like a Muslim. Like a stranger. Like an alien…

Jesus gives us an uncomfortable definition of who your neighbor is. You can choose to stick with the easy definition – someone who is just like me – or you can take the harder road – someone who doesn’t seem to be like me. You just might discover that you have more in common with that uncomfortable stranger than you realize…more in common than you care to admit.

Because at one point or another, we are all strangers in a strange place, whether it’s Qatar or Samaria or Jackson Ward. Wouldn’t you prefer that those who live there consider you a neighbor rather than the enemy? Might you not change the world just a little, if you yourself look at the strangers where you live as your neighbors?


Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Neverending Story

As I've talked about before, we've been in the process of refinancing our home. We went with my former employer, Wells Fargo (actually, I was a senior VP at Wachovia, which was acquired by Wells after I retired). I felt some loyalty to the organization and they were offering the same good rate that competitors in this market were offering (2.875%)

First contact was wonderful - a loan originator who seemed quite smart and efficient. He sent us a passel of paperwork, part of the downside of any such transactions, but it was all standard stuff, including a Form 4506 so they could have access to our tax returns. Standard stuff, again.

Our credit scores were excellent, and the LTV (loan to value) was under 50% of the appraised value of the home. We were both employed for three years in our current positions, and our combined salary meant that our debt to earnings ratio was low, all of which made us  excellent prospects for a mortgage, according to all lending standards and according to our originator.

He said he would pass me along to the next person who would be our contact, a person who was in essence the one who pushes the paper through the maw of the processing system. I talked to her ont he phone. She seemed very friendly and committed to getting this done quickly, and thought it would go very smoothly given all the factors listed above.

We sent in the documents she requested, including pay stubs, W-2s and such, statement of use of proceeds etc. I mentioned to her that, as clergy, I receive a non-taxable housing allowance in addition to my stipend, and that this was duly recorded on the pay stubs as such and was also so noted on the W-2. "Well, just to keep everybody happy, would you have someone in authority send a letter to that effect to me?" No problem - I had our parish treasurer do up a letter and I sent it to the processor. The next day she called back and said that the underwriters were having trouble reaching someone who could verify my salary. Well, it's summertime. Our parish administrator is part-time during the summer. "She'll be in the office Tues, Weds and Thurs from 9 to 1 pm this week." She said, "Okay, I'll give them a note telling them to call tomorrow after 9 am."

I'm in the office the next day at 9. The parish adminstrator is not yet there and the phone rings. It's the underwriter, who wants to verify my salary. "She's not here - she'll be here within the next 15 minutes."

The underwriter says she will call back...which she 5 pm. Despite the fact that the note from the processor said what the adminstrator's hours are. The next morning the processor calls up and says, with suspicion in the tone of her voice, "The underwriters are still having trouble getting a hold of the administrator. Is there anyone else who can verify your employment? Do you have an HR department? "  Umm, no...

"I told you her hours. They called at 5 pm when no one was here. If they can't call during that time, I can give you the number of our treasurer and she will call you."

"Is she there?"

"No. She's a volunteer. This is her cell phone number..."

"No. It's got to be someone calling in to a number that we can verify as from the church. Don't you have an HR department?"  Ummm, no...

"No, we're a church, a small church. I am the only full time employee. My parish administrator is part time, as is my sexton and my music director."

"I guess we'll try calling back again when she's there..."

...and so it continued. Every business day for two months I received a call asking for another document, or to resend a document I already sent. They questioned the veracity of every single thing I told them. They forgot to ask for stuff that they knew that they would need, waiting for the last minute and then demanding I come up with it immediately (yes, I do have a day job in addition to getting the refi done). The ultimate in stupidity was when they asked me to fax the past two years' tax returns to them. "Why did I have to sign the 4506 if you wanted me to fax you the returns?" No answer. So I faxed 60 pages worth of returns.

Finally, after they re-verified my salary three more times, the loan was okayed by the underwriters for closing.  Another person, my closer, now called. It was going to take a couple of days for all the documents to be completed, and then they would send a settlement agent to our home to sign the documents. It actually took a little over a week, then the agent came to do the paperwork.

After we had signed all of the papers, I asked the agent when the balance due us (we were taking a chunk of cash out of the transaction) would be wired to us. "You want it wired? They didn't include the document for that in the package. Oh, well, give your closer a call and tell him that's what you want, and he'll take care of it."

After he left, I sent an email to the closer, who seemed surprised that the doc hadn't been in the package, but asked for the info so that he could make sure the wire was set up. He assured me this would be done.

Several days passed, and still no wire. I knew that there was a recission period, and it was now up. Where was the wire transfer?

Closer said he had arranged for it that day, and the other payments that were being made pursuant to the transaction would be wired as well.

The next day, I received a UPS express mail envelope with checks for us and for the other payments, meaning that they weren't wired, and I would have to send them out express mail so further interest would not accrue.

I sent an email of complaint saying that this was not what we had agreed upon. The closer apologized and said he would look into it.

Today I went to the bank to deposit the substantial check (written by the bank's settlement agent) into our checking account. The ATM spat out a little message saying "we are delaying the availability of the funds you have deposited because our risk models indicate the checks may be returned unpaid. The funds will be available on July 22nd." Eleven days from now. This despite the fact that one check was from a national brokerage account and the other check was from THE BANK'S OWN SETTLEMENT AGENT.

When I called the bank, they seemed to be unable to comprehend the Kafakesque absurdity of this situation. I sent an email to the closer.

He has one day to rectify this and get the funds released. Then the furies will descend....

UPDATE: As of this morning, the funds were available. My midnight missive to the closer appeared to have the desired effect. I'm still going to change banks, though.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

RevGals Carnival of (Summer Blogging)

My buddy Teri has suggested a great topic of conversation for the RevGals. Here's her prompt: What's the most surprising connection you've made through RevGalBlogPals? Or the most surprising or helpful thing you've learned/experienced through this galship of friends?

Some are just personal joys: meeting RevGals in real life that were in my geographic area and seeing their brilliance in action, bringing other friends into the RevGal circle and seeing their joy in finding a new circle of collegiality and support...

...but one of the true blessings for me was mentioning to one of my Episco-colleagues about the BEs, and having her sign up and invite several of her friends, all young women who are Episcopal priests.  I got to know them and appreciate them (and the particular challenges facing younger women in ministry) in such a deep way, and I am grateful for the mutual love and respect we share as a result of that time. Even though I haven't been able to go on the BEs recently - working on a DMin gets in the way of other con ed experiences - some of them have continued to go and I'm so glad.

The most helpful thing? As someone who came into ministry after a long time as a senior executive in another venue, I brought long experience of being a strong leader. When I was ordained, I thought I needed to abandon those leadership skills, that they were too much "of the world ." Through long conversations with some of my RevGal pals, and in reading their blogs and books, I've become comfortable with claiming those leadership gifts. I may adjust the language a bit for the different world of church/volunteer/spiritually-based activities, but I can still claim my voice and not feel compelled to dim it. Powerful prophetic voices, among them Songbird, Muthah+, and Wil G, have been great teachers...thank you, wise women!

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, July 7, 2013 8:15 am service - 2 Kings 5:1-14 “Prophetic Schtick”

We rarely think of the Word of God as a comedy routine, but I suspect comedy writers in Hollywood might recognize some of their own favorite storylines in our Old Testament reading today.

Let’s start by setting the stage. Elijah is long since gone to heaven on that fiery chariot and Elisha is now the designated prophet. He is hanging out in Israel, doing his thing.
Meanwhile, there’s trouble over the border in Aram. There’s a general there, Naaman by name – Naaman /name – get it? – and Naaman is not a happy man, much like the unhappy bosses that have populated all sorts of tv sitcoms from the days of Mr Burns on “The Simpsons” to Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock.”
He is all hot and bothered – a normal state for bosses if we look at television comedies – but in this case, he’s got a good reason. He’s got a skin disease. It’s described in the passage as leprosy, but it’s good to remember that in those days, just about any persistent rash was called leprosy. You’ll note that there is no mention of losing fingers or toes or noses, one of the things that has happened to people with Hansen’s disease until fairly recent medical advances.

But whether it’s leprosy or a heat rash, this man is suffering. He’s got a bad rash that is not clearing up, despite all the local Aramite doctors’ efforts. And we all know that a boss with a bad rash is a very cranky boss. And if that boss is a general with a sword and an army, that’s definitely not a good thing.

Now there is always a long-suffering wife in these situations in TV land – think Alice Kramden, Clair Huxtable, Edith Bunker – and this story is no different. Naaman’s wife – we never get her name – has to put up with this General Crankypants and is sighing about it to her maid, who just happens to be someone Naaman captured on one of his raids into Israel. Might she be something like Rosario in “Will and Grace” or Berta on “Two and a Half Men,” who are both infinitely smarter and more cunning than their employers? Anyway, this maid says, “I happen to know someone who can help the General.”

Wife perks up. “You do? Well, tell us who it is. If I have to put up with another day of Naaman grumping around this oasis, I’m going to take the sword to him myself.”
“He’s in Samaria, my lady.”

Okay, that’s a problem. It means that the healer (whom we already know will probably be Elisha) is going to be an Israelite. And the Israelites and the Arameans are sworn enemies. It’s like Archie Bunker going to George Jefferson for some help.

And when his wife tells Naaman about this, he’s in a quandary. He wants to be healed, but going hat in hand to those stupid little Israelites? Naaah. But maybe…

He comes up with a plan. Just like mean old bosses in the situation comedies, he gets someone else to do his work for him. In this case, it’s actually HIS boss, the king of the Arameans. The king of the Israelites is now subservient to him, since Aram conquered Israel. He’s got to do whatever the king asks for. So the king of the Arameans sends the king of the Israelites a letter, saying “I need you to do something for me. You remember Naaman, don’t you? Big general? Conquered you? Yeah. That guy. He’s got a little problem and I want you to take care of it. Little skin disorder. I’ve heard you people are good at that sort of thing. I’m sending you some money and some fine clothing as a sign of respect. Get it done.”

And now the king of the Israelites responds and he sounds like no one so much as Mel Brooks. “Oy vey iz mir! Look at this letter! That crazy king of the Arameans wants me to cure his general, that nasty Naaman. Who does he think I am? God?”

But somehow Elisha hears about it, responding as if he’s playing a dapper Fonz to the king’s eternally exasperated Mr. Cunningham. “Hey, king, king, don’t sweat it! I’ve got it covered. Send him to me.” 

Sounds like the king’s problem is solved, right? Sounds like Naaman’s problem is solved, too, right?

But we’re in sitcom land, so nothing is ever resolved that easily.

Naaman shows up at the door of Elisha’s house. He’s standing out there in his chariot, tapping his foot. He’s expecting this measly little prophet of a defeated nation to come crawling out to say “what can I do for you, general?”

But Elisha doesn’t come out. He sends out a servant with a message. “Go wash yourself in the Jordan seven times.”

If Naaman was named Archie Bunker, he would have exploded with a loud “Meathead!” He says “I come all this way and this…this…this IMBECILE doesn’t even come out to greet me, then he gives me this stupid prescription about washing in the river. I could have stayed home and dunked myself in the river back home. Our rivers are better than Israel’s rivers!” 

He’s in high dudgeon.

But his little aide-de-camp – think Radar O’Reilly on MASH – says “well, sir, you’ve come all this way. It couldn’t hurt to give it a try.”

So, grumbling all the way, he goes down to the river Jordan, bathes himself in it seven times, and his disease is healed. His skin is, according to the passage, as smooth and fresh as a baby’s.

Now at this point, if this was truly a situation comedy, the clever Elisha would reveal that he had taken all the general’s clothes or the keys to his chariot, just to keep the comedy going.

But in Scripture, unlike in comedy, the story simply ends there with the statement that something marvelous had happened to someone who most likely didn’t seem to deserve it – an enemy general. And it happens without any real profession of faith on the part of Naaman. He never says “I believe in the God of Israel.”

And still it happens. It is pure gift.

So does Naaman go back home and say to his wife, a la Ralph Kramden, “You’re the best, Alice,” since she passed along the word about the prophet? Does he say to the servant girl “You’re pretty smart for an Israelite?”

We don’t know. The story is not wrapped up in a 30 minute program format like on tv. What we do know, however, is that God has done something remarkable for someone who may not deserve it but is suffering. He has done it without regard for the longer-term results. God has healed him, through the prescription that Elisha gave Naaman.

There’s good news for us in that. Not in the miraculous cure itself, as wonderful as it is. Not in the fact that it is done without any direct action by God’s prophet, like the laying on of hands. No. The good news is that someone who was broken and unworthy was still the recipient of God’s healing grace, simply because he was one of God’s creatures and God loved him. That’s the good news for us as well. God heals our broken hearts and bodies in ways we rarely realize, every day. Thank God for a creator who cherishes us so much that he fixes us even when he could just as easily dismiss us as too broken. Thank God for that kind of love and that kind of power. Thank God.


The Story of Little Bird - A Baptism Story

Once upon a time, there was a Little Bird. He was just learning to fly, which is VERY hard work. All day long, his mom and dad were nudging him out of the nest, saying, “Just try, Little Bird! You can do it!”

But it was too hard, and after his last try, when he was covered with dust from falling in the road, his mom helped him get back up into the nest and tucked him into a nice pile of leaves to go to sleep.

He fell asleep right away because he was so very, very tired!

In the midst of his sleep he had a dream. Do you ever have dreams when you sleep?

Well Little Bird’s dream was that he was in a beautiful garden. It seemed familiar to him, even though it didn’t look like mom and dad’s nest, or the yard where their tree was. It just felt like somewhere he had been before.

He was sitting there in that garden, wondering where this was, when who should come upon him but an old gardener! He had a warm smile and great big hands, hands that were a little rough from working in the garden, but gentle, too…and he used those gentle hands to softly pick up Little Bird and bring him close to his face.

Little Bird thought he might be frightened, but somehow he knew that this was a good gardener, and he wouldn’t let him fall, or hurt him in any way.

The gardener said “Welcome back, Little Bird! Do you remember where this is?”

Little Bird said, “No. It feels like I should remember, but I just can’t. It’s really nice here, though…”

The gardener said, “Before you were hatched in your mom and dad’s nest, you were here with me. This is the starter garden for all of my creatures. You begin here, and then you go to your mom and dad in their place. Most of my creatures don’t really remember this place, and that’s okay, because once you go to be with mom and dad you don’t need to remember this time and place.”

Little Bird’s eyes got really wide. He couldn’t imagine a time before when he came out of his shell in mom and dad’s nest. But somehow this place felt like somewhere he had been before.

The gardener said, “I think you remember a little bit about this place, don’t you?”

Little Bird nodded.

“Well, it is a special place, and you must be a very special Little Bird to remember…. 
 But look at you! You’re all dusty!”

“I was trying to fly and I wasn’t very good at it, and I fell down into the dusty grass. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t like it.”

“Hmmm…” the gardener said. “Do you remember how we used to bathe all the little creatures here when they got dusty? How I would pick you up and take you to the stream over there?”

“No, but I bet that felt good.”

“Would you like me to take you over to the stream and wash you off?”

“Oh, that sounds nice. The water isn’t cold, is it?”

“Oh, no! It’s nice and warm, and not too warm. It’s just right.”


So the gardener took Little Bird over to the water and gently set him on the bank of the stream. He used his great big hands to scoop up a little of that warm water and let it pour over Little Bird, washing off the dust. It felt sooo good!

Little Bird felt refreshed. He could hardly remember how scared he had been when he tried to fly. He could hardly remember the big bump when he fell and got all dusty. He just felt good. Nice and clean, and fresh, and….loved.

“Thank you, gardener. That’s better than the worms mom brings me to eat! I feel great!”

“Water is like that, Little Bird. It cleans us, and it refreshes us, and it makes us happy.
Now I’ll tell you a little secret. This is a special stream. It is water that doesn’t just drip off you once you’re clean.”

That made Little Bird worried, because mom didn’t like him dripping water in their nice clean nest.

The gardener saw that look, and realized what Little Bird was thinking.

“No, it will dry off in a bit, but there will always be a little bit of it in your heart. You’ve been refreshed and washed in the stream, and you can feel that way forever. Just think of the stream, and the love you felt when the water splashed off all the dust, and you will feel the water in you once again. I love you and always want you to feel that love, so I give you a little water in your heart…”

“But won’t my heart get wet?”

“No, it’s just a warm-water feeling. But I bet, the next time you try to fly, if you think of the warm water feeling, you’ll find the courage to try extra hard and you will soar. And then, when you see a stream or a lake or a pond or a river or even a birdbath, you can fly down and wash off and feel that same joyful feeling of how much I will always care for you.”

“I’m not sure about flying.”

“I know. It’s scary. But I believe you can do it. After all, I made you to do it…
…and now it’s time for you to go back to sleep. Always remember the water. Always remember my love. Be brave, Little Bird. Fly high!”

Little Bird was sleepy. His eyes closed, and before he knew it he was sound asleep again. The next morning he woke up in mom and dad’s nest. He could barely remember the dream and the gardener and the stream, but he felt rested and strong.

“Mom,” he said “can I try to fly again? I think I can this time, and I want to see if I can fly to the birdbath over there. I want to take a dip in the water…”

…and he did just that!                                    ©Mary Brennan Thorpe/July 3, 2013