by The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton
A Sermon for Proper 21B at the Convent OSH, Vails Gate October 1, 2000
Of the most rewarding things about being a priest, for me, are those occasions of pastoral counseling. "Holy moments" I call them, every one. It is a great privilege to sit with people in their pain or confusion or grief and help them discern God's presence in the midst of it. Those moments, when people break open the mysteries of their lives, are filled with sacramental grace – even if the church doesn't recognize the sacrament of pastoral counseling.
When we lived in Baltimore, a young woman came to see me and told me this story: She was the mother of a five year old daughter who went to day care. The teacher at the Day Care Center had sent a note home with all the children to please bring in a pair of shoes or sneakers. It was nearing the end of winter and the children had been wearing boots to school and wearing their slippers in the class room. The teacher wanted to spend some time with the children teaching them how to lace their sneakers or shoes so that they would be more independent when they prepared themselves for First Grade in the Fall. "They've got to learn how to grow up," she said.
The mother dutifully pulled out last summer's sneakers and tried them on her little girl and was distressed to find that her foot had grown almost an entire size. She struggled to get the sneaker on her little girl's foot as the child complained, "Mommy, that sneaker is too small."
"Yes, I know dear. Try a little harder," she said as she struggle to get the child's foot into the sneaker. "Mommy, you're hurting me!" said the child. "Oh, it'll be okay, honey. Mommy really can't afford to buy you a new pair of sneakers this week and your teacher wants you to bring in your sneakers tomorrow and I can't get out and get you new ones tonight so we're going to have to make this fit because you have to learn how to grow up."
"But, Mommy," said the little girl, "my foot is too big for my sneaker and it's hurting me."
"C'mon," the young mother said, "just work a little harder."
"Mommy," said the little child, "you're crazy!"
And the mother looked at me with tears in her eyes as said, "You know, she's right! That's the story of my life. I'm always trying top fit my size 5 self into my size 4 life. It doesn't fit. And, it hurts. And, it's making me crazy."
The memory of this story came back to me as I was reflecting on these stories from Holy Scripture in light of the theme of this retreat – VESSELS OF PEACE (Catchy title. Where have I see that before?) The question about the emptying and filling of the self with which you've been grappling this week end find another amplification in these stories of authority and leadership in community.
Moses finds that his work has become overwhelming to him. This is more difficult than even parting the Red Sea. People are hungry! People are grumbling and complaining! Poor Moses has come face to face with the nitty-gritty practicalities of leadership – not the high drama of exodus and liberation.
Moses calls to God for help and God authorizes 70 elders to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that they might assist Moses with his work. But the Holy Spirit – that old trickster, Ruach – overflows and leaves the confines of the tent where the 70 had gathered and lo! Two men, Eldad and Medad, are inadvertently anointed and they begin to prophesy in the camp.
Instead of rejoicing, Joshua, son of Nun, complains to Moses. He wants to fit Eldad and Medad back into their old roles. If they hadn't followed procedure and if their names had not appeared on the registration, and if they were not in the Tent of Meeting, they simply COULDN'T have been anointed by the Holy Spirit.
Isn't it amazing how we often rely on external structures to give us permission to use the gifts we have been given without restriction? We believe that if we are not so authorized, we simply cannot do ministry. Why is it that some of us continue to try and fit our size 5 selves into our size 4 lives and then wonder why we are so miserable? We wonder why our lives seem so absurd – so crazy.
Jesus took the same practical approach to the authorization of ministry as did Moses. When the disciples came to him to complain that someone – not a disciple – was casting out demons in his name, Jesus said, "Do not forbid him. For no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me."
Jesus knew that the power of the experience of achievement, of finding and using one's gifts in the service of doing good or creating good, was a greater power than the impulse to do wrong.
Now, the church, in her infinite wisdom, has really messed up this entire authorization by ordination thing. We really behave in the church as if WE had control over the power of the Holy Spirit. There are lots of Joshuas who try to define who can do what and who can't. There are a lot of people who work out their own issues of power and authority in the church by trying to tell others what they can and cannot do in the Name of Jesus. I believe we call those people, " The Commission On Ministry." The truth is that there is a great deal more good work being done outside the church on any given day than is being done in the church. Indeed, more harm has been done in the name of God, or Christ, or Allah, than any good has been done.
We would do well to listen to the words in the letter of James: "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin."
Ah, but the trick is to "know what is right to do," isn't it? Sometimes, it is easier to be authorized to do something and be successful than to take the risk of emptying yourself of all your myths and attachments. It is far more dangerous to ask the Spirit to fill you with the truth about yourself. Because then, you may have to face THE BIG TRUTH about yourself: that you Do have particular gifts and talents. That you DO have great value and worth as a child of God. And, facing THAT truth, you might actually risk DOING the truth of your life.
For some, I think, the spiritual journey into the interior self begins with a pinch. It begins with knowing that something doesn't fit. That your self is too big for your life, or that your life has placed too many limits on your self.
It's about making that journey into all of the things you've been carefully taught on the road to being an adult and throwing them all out the window. It's about finding the wise child which lives inside each of us who knows that our selves do not fit into our lives and says, "You know what? This is crazy! STOP! This is hurting!"
Stop looking for approval. Stop trying to do the right thing for somebody else. Stop trying to live up to other people's expectations and definitions. Stop waiting for permission to be who you are. Stop waiting for authorization to do what you need to do.
The Holy Spirit can't be contained in a tent of meeting or a church committee. Sometimes, She lights into our lives in the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways – and She doesn't even care who gets credit for it. We call those moments "holy" – "sacramental" because they are, indeed, an outward and visible manifestation of an inward and spiritual grace – even if the church doesn't officially recognize them.
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