May 12, 2024 -- Easter 7
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

7 Easter (Year B)
John 17
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 12, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

From my file of stories comes this from Brazil. The writer is Max Lucado.

To quote the author: “the practice of using earthly happenings to clarify heavenly truth is no easy task. Yet, occasionally, one comes across a story, legend or fable that conveys a message as accurately as a hundred sermons and with ten times the creativity…I heard it first told by a Brazilian preacher in Sao Paulo.”

It is called Come Home.

“The small house was simple but adequate. It consisted of one large room on a dusty street. Its red-tiled roof was one of many in this poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the Brazilian village. It was a comfortable home. Maria and her daughter, Christina, had done what they could to add color to the gray walls and warmth to the hard dirt floor: an old calendar, a faded photograph of a relative, a wooden crucifix. The furnishings were modest: a pallet on either side of the room, a washbasin and a wood-burning stove.

"Maria’s husband had died when Christina was an infant. The young mother, stubbornly refusing opportunities to remarry, got a job and set out to raise her young daughter. And now, fifteen years later, the worst years were over. Though Maria’s salary as a maid afforded few luxuries, it was reliable and it did provide food and clothes. And now, Christina was old enough to get a job to help out.

"Some said Christina got her independence from her mother. She recoiled at the traditional idea of marrying young and raising a family. Not that she couldn’t have had her pick of husbands. Her olive skin and brown eyes kept a steady stream of prospects at her door. She had an infectious way of throwing her head back and filling the room with laughter. She also had that rare magic some women have that makes every man feel like a king just by being near them. But it was her spirited curiosity that made her keep all the men at arm’s length.

"She spoke often of going to the city. She dreamed of trading her dusty neighborhood for exciting avenues and city life. Just the thought of this horrified her mother. Maria was always quick to remind Christina of the harshness of the streets. ‘People don’t know you there. Jobs are scarce and the life is cruel. And besides, if you went there, what would you do for a living?’

"Maria knew exactly what Christina would do, or would have to do for a living. That’s why her heart broke when she awoke one morning to find her daughter’s bed empty. Maria knew immediately where her daughter had gone. She also knew immediately what she must do to find her. She quickly threw some clothes in a bag, gathered up all her money and ran out of the house.

"On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black and white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.

"Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. When pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with a reputation for streetwalkers or prostitutes. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture—taped to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. And on the back of each photo, she wrote a note.

"It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.

"It was a few weeks later that young Christina descended the hotel stairs. Her face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet. Yet the little village was, in many ways, too far away.

"As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation: ‘Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.’

She did.”

This story is very much like the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. It’s a story that tells of a rebellious son who takes his inheritance and goes off to the city. Eventually, he comes to his senses and returns home, ready to accept whatever punishment his father will give, if he accepts him at all. If you remember the parable, the father rushes out to greet his son, welcoming him back and throwing a feast. Of course, the elder brother does not appreciate this. The patient father then explains: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

There are a few differences between the two, but the meaning is the same. God will always welcome the sinner home. Jesus is the photo we see when finding ourselves in a hard spot, the one that doesn’t care what has happened…just come home.

When you look at Jesus, when you hear of his miracles and healings, when you listen to his words, you can’t help but see the Father who loves you. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve become, God invites you to come home. “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

It is a fitting way to celebrate the joy of the Easter season, as we prepare for the birthday of the church, next week, on Pentecost. Amen.

                                                                                   Soli Deo Gloria

May 5, 2024 -- Easter 6
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

6 Easter (Year B)
John 15, 9-17
St. John’s, West Seneca
May 5, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

A wise person once said: A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.

Why is friendship so important, so important that Jesus calls us “his friends?”

Ask yourself this question.

Why are some people content even in poor circumstances, while others are miserable? Is there any documentation for this? Of course there is. You guessed it…a study.  While there are many studies, some show that those people who are most happy, content, and joyful are those with at least one close relationship and a circle of supporting friends. A surprise in one study was that soap opera buffs tended to rank higher in happiness than non-buffs, and it has been suggested that the fans think of the actors as their friends. The friends don't have to be people, either. Other studies show that people with pets as friends tend to be not only happier, but healthier, too.

Is there a difference between friendship and love? In certain languages, yes.  In Middle English the word "friend" means "lover," and it stems from a word in Old Gothic meaning "to love." If anything, it implies a deeper kind of love, one that goes beyond obligation.

And then there all the words for friends. We all know that the Eskimos have many words for snow.  When it comes to friendship, Hawaiians have many terms for “friend.”

Hoaloha (beloved companion), for example, is a general term for friend.
Makamaka (face to face) is a friend with whom you share freely.
Aikane (probably "dependable") is a close, personal friend of the same sex.
Pilialoha (sticky love) is a romantic friend.
And here's a great one: 'au ko'i (axe handle), a trusted friend.
The Hawaiians make such an art of this that one of their proverbs describes a good friendship:

Pili kau, pili ho'oilo - Together in the dry season, together in the wet season.

We all need friends. Jesus today reminds us that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And while we need friends, and this is what Jesus asks of us, there is evidence that friends are the latest casualty of our lives. With everything we have going on – family and children, schedules, work and travel, the daily chores – for some there doesn't seem to be enough time. Something’s gotta give.  Friends seem expendable, so friends are often the first to go.

Is that a big deal?  Considering all we have on our collective plates? 
Here’s the bad news. It is. Research tells us what we've long suspected: friends are important. That's why so many organizations use the word "friend" in their name: Friends of the Earth, Friends of Libraries, Friends of Freedom. When you look into an organization, you may be asked to become a “friend.” I am convinced that is why FACEBOOK has become important because it allows us to communicate with friends, old and new.

This need of friends even has the medical profession chiming in. When it comes to health, the value of friendships becomes even more dramatic in its necessity.  Fewer friends lead to higher stress and a shorter life. In a study of 2,800 men and women over the age of 65, those with more friends had a lower risk of health problems, and they recovered faster when they did develop them. Friends can help you reduce stress, improve the quality of your life and live longer. Friends can also assist in getting a better job, expanding your business, and enjoying life more.  So there you have it. There is value to having friends over the long term. No surprise there for those of us who have enjoyed close friendships.

In today’s gospel, the reason that Jesus gives for his willingness to give up his own life is “love” for his “friends.” Here’s where a little understanding of the Greek might help.. The word used here for “love” (phileo) is a form of the word translated “friend” (philos). In Greek, a “friend” is literally one who is loved. It’s more than just a connection of shared common interests and goals, like on any sports team, or positive regard for a buddy or pal. Friendship, in the way that Jesus uses it, is always based in something deep and abiding, something that lasts.

John O’Donohue was a Catholic priest who wrote extensively before his untimely death. He said: “The Celts had a refined and beautiful notion of friendship. In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion or spiritual guide was called an anam cara, the Gaelic words for "soul friend…” It cut across all barriers of convention, morality and religion. The anam cara could see you from an eternal perspective.”

An eternal perspective is what Jesus offers. “As the Father has loved me,” said Jesus, “so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus’ own idea of friendship was defined and shaped by God’s love for him. Jesus was “one who was loved” by God: chosen, equipped, guided, embraced and held all the way from the manger to the tomb. As that love shaped and defined Jesus’s life and ministry, so would Jesus’s love shape and define his team of disciples, both then and now. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” Jesus reminds us. The kind of love that lets someone to be willing to sacrifice his or her own life comes from having been loved.

To be a “friend” of Jesus, then, means to be one who is loved in a sacrificial way. But it also means following Jesus’s example. “This is my commandment,” says Jesus to his disciples, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  We must love others sacrificially, too, being willing to lay down our own lives as Jesus did for us. It can be a difficult task.

“A story tells that two friends were walking through the desert. During some point of the journey, they had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, he wrote in the sand: Today my best friend slapped me in the face.

"They kept on walking, until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but his friend saved him. After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: Today my best friend saved my life.

"The friend, who had slapped and saved his best friend, asked him, ‘After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you write on a stone. Why?’

"The other friend replied: ‘When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand, where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.’ Learn to write your hurts in the sand and to carve your blessings in stone.”

That is the type of friend that Jesus speaks of. Jesus is a friend to us because he was loved by God. We can be friends for others because we have been loved by Christ.

There are a thousand ways we can lay down our lives on behalf of Jesus, but we’ll only be able to do it if we are willing to receive his love for us. We can’t earn it, we can only reach out and receive it and allow it to transform us. It’s only then that we, as friends of Jesus, will be able to “bear fruit” that will last.

Friendship is perhaps the greatest gift that God offers, even to the giving of his Son as a friend to us. Because with Jesus, we know we have a friend, as the Hawaiians say: “Together in the dry season, together in the wet season.” A friend who knows the song in our hearts and can sing it back to us when we have forgotten the words.  Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Gloria Dei

April 21, 2024 -- Easter 4
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

4 Easter (Year B)
John 10
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 21, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I love this story from a professor of Old Testament named James Limburg. He tells of going bicycling with his son shortly after he'd gotten a 10-speed bicycle. "We took a ride on the bike path around our town. Just off the path was a drainage tunnel which ran under the interstate highway. We decided to explore it. We parked our bikes and began to walk through the tunnel. It was made of concrete, wide enough for us to walk side by side, but not high enough for me to stand up straight. We walked for a distance and then the tunnel took a sharp turn and suddenly it became dark. A hand reached out and took mine. Neither of us said anything about it, but we continued, hand in hand, until we came to another turn and we could see the light. Then the hand let go."

That story illustrates the Good Shepherd that Jesus is, always ready to take our hand in unfamiliar places, beside us the rest of the time.

Put that story aside for the moment. I want you to think about brands this morning. As many of you know, before I went to Seminary I was a paralegal, first in Minneapolis, then in Philadelphia. I began in asbestos litigation, and then, through a turn of fate, ended up in Intellectual Property: patents, trademarks and copyrights. By the way, as a note of trivia: patents and copyrights are guaranteed in the Constitution. I worked for a pharmaceutical company. Now the first rule in Trademarks is this: a trademark is the opposite of a generic. Aspirin was once a trademark, but was overused until it became a generic term. Escalator was once a trademark.

But it’s all about branding. So, what are your favorite brands? You know, the things you buy that are not generic, the items you have come to trust above all else. For example: I like Crest toothpaste, WAVY LAY’S potato chips, and DANSKO clogs. I am loyal to certain brands.

An article I read this past week talked about the “Christian brand,” saying that it is suffering. Now, we all know the Covid pandemic prevented people from gathering for worship and sadly, many have not gotten back into the habit. Some statistics say that church membership in the United States has fallen below 50% for the first time, although I often wonder who’s being asked. I never seem to get a call. CNN has reported that in addition, “a cascade of headlines in recent years have stained the church’s reputation, including sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention; the spread of White Christian nationalism; and the perception that the church oppresses marginalized groups …” All true, unfortunately.

However, all is not lost, as the church has many symbols. But in my opinion, the best trademark that we have, the best brand: the Good Shepherd. To reinforce that, before us today is Psalm 23, probably the most well-known Psalm of all, along with John’s Gospel. And yes, each year we celebrate this day as Good Shepherd Sunday, always the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

So, if we are suffering, what are we to do? What we need to do is harness that term, that brand, look to Jesus and become like shepherds. Now, it is not a romantic term for our urban, technological culture, but in Jesus’ time and still in certain areas of the world, shepherds were all important for the safety of the flock. A safe, healthy flock not only serves the owner, but the community as well. Where else do you get your wool, the milk for cheese, and so on?

For our brand, that is the answer, right before our eyes. One of the greatest gifts that the church can give the world is the gift of community. At a time in which isolation and loneliness are reaching epidemic proportions, a congregation can connect people in life-giving ways. “Over the past several months,” writes columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post, “an old truth has become new again: Houses of worship and other religious institutions play an essential role in promoting social connectedness, mutual aid and community building. What has brought this realization to life is widespread concern over the rise of loneliness and decline of forces that pull communities together. With religious disaffiliation soaring, especially among younger Americans, there is reason to worry that secular alternatives [to religion] are not growing fast enough to fill the void.”

Truer words could not be spoken. But we, and churches like us, are already ahead of the curve. Here is where we bring our joys and concerns to God, where we sing and pray, where we share with others. That is the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints, that Luther wrote about.

What else is there to the “Good Shepherd” brand?  It is based on sacrifice, putting others first, on forming and continuing a deep relationship with people and with God. So, no putting God on a shelf until Sunday. The Good Shepherd brand is based on a desire to reach new and different people, and to learn their stories. The Good Shepherd is based on complete self-giving, of ourselves, our time, our treasures, our talents.

Getting back to that story I began with. The image is so perfect because the Good Shepherd is present, in the most mundane tasks, like taking a walk. So often, we lose perspective of that and we go along, just like the sheep,  unaware that they are being kept safe. However, when we experience fear or trouble or sorrow, all we need to do is reach out a hand for love and grace, for steadiness and the power to continue once the darkness turns to light.

In a world of so many competing false gods, we need to focus on saying and doing what Jesus said and did. And Jesus loved and embraced all, from the highest and the mightiest, to the lowliest. That is the Good Shepherd brand and it is the one we should cling to with confidence.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said it was encouraging that “Americans still find Jesus compelling.” However, it’s obvious the “behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians: it’s all Christians.” Thus, he added, Episcopalians are “refocusing our efforts on being a church that looks and acts like Jesus.”  Let’s do the same. Amen.

                                                                                  Soli Gloria Dei

April 14, 2024 -- Easter 3
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

3 Easter (Year B)
Luke 24: 36b-48
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 14, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Time for another story. I do love collecting these and as I reminded you last week, it’s Easter and if the resurrection means anything, it is that new, resurrected life is real.

“A man named Marcel Sternberger was described as being methodical. He always took the 9:09 Long Island Railroad train from his suburban home to Woodside, N.Y.., where he caught a subway into the city.

"On the morning of January 10, 1948, he boarded the 9:09 as usual. However, en route, he suddenly decided to visit Laszlo Victor, a Hungarian friend who lived in Brooklyn and was ill. So, at Ozone Park, Sternberger changed to the subway for Brooklyn, went to his friend’s house, and stayed until midafternoon. He then boarded a Manhattan-bound subway for his Fifth Avenue office. Here is Marcel’s incredible story:

"The car was crowded, and there seemed to be no chance of a seat. But just as I entered, a man sitting by the door suddenly jumped up to leave, and I slipped into the empty place. I’ve been living in New York long enough not to start conversations with strangers. But being a photographer, I have the peculiar habit of analyzing people’s faces, and I was struck by the features of the passenger on my left. He was probably in his late 30s, and when he glanced up, his eyes seemed to have a hurt expression in them. He was reading a Hungarian-language newspaper, and something prompted me to say in Hungarian, ‘I hope you don’t mind if I glance at your paper.’

"The man seemed surprised to be addressed in his native language. But he answered politely, ‘You may read it now. I’ll have time later on.’

"During the half-hour ride to town, we had quite a conversation. He said his name was Bela Paskin. A law student when World War II started, he had been put into a German labor battalion and sent to the Ukraine. Later he was captured by the Russians and put to work burying the German dead. After the war, he covered hundreds of miles on foot until he reached his home in Debrecen, a large city in eastern Hungary.

"I myself knew Debrecen quite well, and we talked about it for a while. Then he told me the rest of his story. When he went to the apartment once occupied by his father, mother, brothers and sisters, he found strangers living there. Then he went upstairs to the apartment that he and his wife once had. It also was occupied by strangers. None of them had ever heard of his family.

"As he was leaving, full of sadness, a boy ran after him, calling ‘Paskin bacsi! Paskin bacsi!’ That means ‘Uncle Paskin.’ The child was the son of some old neighbors of his. He went to the boy’s home and talked to his parents. ‘Your whole family is dead,’ they told him. ‘The Nazis took them and your wife to Auschwitz.’

"Auschwitz was one of the worst Nazi concentration camps. Paskin gave up all hope. A few days later, too heartsick to remain any longer in Hungary, he set out again on foot, stealing across border after border until he reached Paris. He managed to immigrate to the United States in October 1947, just three months before I met him.

"All the time he had been talking, I kept thinking that somehow his story seemed familiar. A young woman whom I had met recently at the home of friends had also been from Debrecen; she had been sent to Auschwitz; from there she had been transferred to work in a German munitions factory. Her relatives had been killed in the gas chambers. Later she was liberated by the Americans and was brought here in the first boatload of displaced persons in 1946.

"Her story had moved me so much that I had written down her address and phone number, intending to invite her to meet my family and thus help relieve the terrible emptiness in her life.

"It seemed impossible that there could be any connection between these two people, but as I neared my station, I fumbled anxiously in my address book. I asked in what I hoped was a casual voice, ‘Was your wife’s name Marya?’

"He turned pale. ‘Yes!’ he answered. ‘How did you know?’

"He looked as if he were about to faint.

"I said, ‘Let’s get off the train.’ I took him by the arm at the next station and led him to a phone booth. He stood there like a man in a trance while I dialed her phone number.

"It seemed hours before Marya Paskin answered. (Later I learned her room was alongside the telephone, but she was in the habit of never answering it because she had so few friends and the calls were always for someone else. This time, however, there was no one else at home and, after letting it ring for a while, she responded.)

"When I heard her voice at last, I told her who I was and asked her to describe her husband. She seemed surprised at the question, but gave me a description. Then I asked her where she had lived in Debrecen, and she told me the address.

"Asking her to hold the line, I turned to Paskin and said, ‘Did you and your wife live on such-and-such a street?’

"‘Yes!’ Bela exclaimed. He was white as a sheet and trembling.

"‘Try to be calm,’ I urged him. ‘Something miraculous is about to happen to you. Here, take this telephone and talk to your wife!’

"He nodded his head in mute bewilderment, his eyes bright with tears. He took the receiver, listened a moment to his wife’s voice, then suddenly cried, ‘This is Bela! This is Bela!’ and he began to mumble hysterically. Seeing that the poor fellow was so excited he couldn’t talk coherently, I took the receiver from his shaking hands.

"‘Stay where you are,’ I told Marya, who also sounded hysterical. ‘I am sending your husband to you. We will be there in a few minutes.’

"Bela was crying like a baby and saying over and over again. ‘It is my wife. I go to my wife!’

"At first I thought I had better accompany Paskin, lest the man should faint from excitement, but I decided that this was a moment in which no strangers should intrude. Putting Paskin into a taxicab, I directed the driver to take him to Marya’s address, paid the fare, and said goodbye.

"Bela Paskin’s reunion with his wife was a moment so poignant, so electric with suddenly released emotion, that afterward neither he nor Marya could recall much about it.

"‘I remember only that when I left the phone, I walked to the mirror like in a dream to see if maybe my hair had turned gray,’ she said later. ‘The next thing I know, a taxi stops in front of the house, and it is my husband who comes toward me. Details I cannot remember; only this I know—that I was happy for the first time in many years.....

"Even now it is difficult to believe that it happened. We have both suffered so much; I have almost lost the capability to not be afraid. Each time my husband goes from the house, I say to myself, ‘Will anything happen to take him from me again?’

"Her husband is confident that no horrible misfortune will ever again befall them. ‘Providence has brought us together,’ he says simply. ‘It was meant to be.’

"Skeptical persons will no doubt attribute the events of that memorable afternoon to mere chance. But was it chance that made Marcel Sternberger suddenly decide to visit his sick friend and hence take a subway line that he had never ridden before? Was it chance that caused the man sitting by the door of the car to rush out just as Sternberger came in? Was it chance that caused Bela Paskin to be sitting beside Sternberger, reading a Hungarian newspaper?

"Was it chance—or did God ride the Brooklyn subway that afternoon?”

That is resurrection, finding your wife after presuming she had died. In today’s Gospel from Luke, “Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost…” But they were not seeing a ghost, and that is the point. The disciples had their first brush with the new life in Jesus Christ, one that they shared and shared. And here we are.

Something this dramatic may not happen to any one of us, but new life is always present, often in small ways. That is the promise of Easter. Amen.

                                                                                  Soli Deo Gloria

April 7, 2024 -- Easter 2
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

2 Easter (Year B)
I John 1
St. John’s, West Seneca
April 7, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…”

Last year I took the opportunity to share with you the stories that I have collected over the years, stories that have moved me to tears, made me think, reminded me of who I am and who I should be. More than that, those stories showed me how much light there is.

  • The Jewish infant hidden in her mother’s coat and adopted by a Polish couple, who, decades later, met her father;
  • The Emperor who learned that his simplest name was the one God recognized;
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s account of David and Goliath;
  • The bank account with 86,400 seconds to be used each day;
  • How to be more like your dog with your behavior and in so doing, become more God-like.

This story reminds me of what we can be, and how, even in an average day, we can see the light and have fellowship with all our neighbors.

“After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.

"Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to  . What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.

"I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly… The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.

"She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late.Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him. We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.

"Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering Questions.  She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

"To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

"And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

"And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

I chose that story because the readings this week have words and imagery that remind us how to live in this new resurrection life now and wherever we find ourselves.  The First reading from Acts is radical and far removed from our American mindset. Still, it is a stark reminder of how the first Christians followed Jesus’s command, and it reminds us to be of “one heart and soul,” so that there will be no need among any.

Going on to Psalm 133, the writer is effusive:

1How good and how pleasant it is,
  when kindred live together in unity!
2It is like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard,
  upon the beard of Aaron, flowing down upon the collar of his robe. 
3It is like the dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion.
  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.

Only three verses. In the reflection for Wednesday that I included on our FACEBOOK page, Philip Yancy wrote:

“I have learned more about grace, forgiveness, diversity -- and yes, original sin -- from my family than from all the theology books I have read. Troublesome issues like divorce and homosexuality take on a different cast when you confront them not in a state legislature but at a family reunion.”

I John talks about “walking in the light.” That is what this story I shared is all about.

And, of course, John’s Gospel when Jesus appears and Thomas is absent and then skeptical, only to recognize Jesus immediately. “Blessed are those who believe and have not seen…” And that is where we are. If Easter means anything, it is that we are free from the old chains and prejudices that once held us. When the author said: “It was like a sacrament,” she is absolutely correct. A sacrament reminds us of God’s love and care for the creation.  “… I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.” Amen.

                                                                                  Soli Deo Gloria

March 31, 2024 -- Easter
Rev. Valerie de Cathelineau

Easter (Year B)
Mark 16:1-8
St. John’s, West Seneca
March 31, 2024

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We thrive on expert opinions. Or, if not expert opinions, ones that have at least been tried. That’s why I consulted YouTube and my favorites on how to best pack for a two week vacation in a carryon. And yes, it can be done.

We turn to doctors and lawyers, to accountants, to teachers and scientists, and yes, even ministers and theologians for that treasured opinion, a nod to the knowledge that others have. Consumer Reports comes to mind, especially if we are considering buying a car.  This is as it should be and most of the time this works well.  But not always.

Here's what I mean.  In the TALE OF ST. FRANCIS, by Nikos Kazantzakis, he writes this:

"Listen, my child,' [St. Francis] said, 'each year at Easter I used to watch Christ's resurrection. All the faithful would gather around His tomb and weep, weep inconsolably, beating on the ground to make it open. And behold! In the midst of our lamentations the tombstone crumbled to pieces and Christ sprang from the earth and ascended to heaven, smiling at us and waving a white banner. There was only one year I did not see Him resurrected. That year a theologian of consequence, a graduate of the University of Bologna, came to us. He mounted the pulpit in church and began to elucidate the Resurrection for hours on end. He explained and explained until our heads began to swim; and that year the tombstone did not crumble, and, I swear to you, no one saw the Resurrection.' "

How true it is.  There are some times when an expert opinion is simply not needed. Oh, but how easy it would be to follow in the footsteps of that theologian.

We don't need an expert opinion this morning.  Alleluia! He is risen!  For no earthly expert in all God's creation can explain this.  So let's walk through what we know happened.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb that first Easter morning, they have a task and a question.  Who will roll away the stone?  These faithful women were bringing spices to anoint Jesus’s body, in an ancient and final ritual for a loved one.  It is a task, a lonely and sad one at that, and their main concern that morning was worrying about how they will ever be able to roll that stone away from the entrance to the tomb.

What a surprise! “…They saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.”

Who was this man? A guard, a gardener, maybe even a grave robber?  They had the right to be alarmed.  The morning had no doubt been planned out, and a strange man sitting in an empty tomb was not on the schedule.

But soon they learn the wonderful news. The young man speaks to them, consoling: “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.” Then he adds, giving them a mission: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

And then it ends. Mark concludes: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Terrified and amazed they may have been, but they did go and tell someone, for here we are today.  And all of that with no expert opinions.

The good news for today is that the resurrection is for all of us! It is an invitation to new life and new possibilities, no matter where you find yourself. God is not looking for the best qualifications, best ability, best charisma, best prospects, not that God would turn them down, because it is true that most of the gifted people in our society have also been some of God's most faithful, best servants.  But that's a coincidence, not a requirement.  I believe that God knows that the vast majority of men and women fall into the "I'm" only category.  Only is enough for God, and it will amaze you what God can make of each of us.  As a popular saying going around on FACEBOOK says: "God doesn't call the qualified; God qualifies the called."

And God is calling each and every one of us. That is what the Easter promise is all about.  Only you know what Jesus is calling you to go and do with this new life.  Whatever you do, don't try to drive through it, and don't turn around in despair.  Listen to Jesus, listen to the angel's good news.  Listen for what is being said to you and what you are being asked to do.  You do not need to be an expert.  And because of this day, new life abounds!

There's a wonderful story about an educational psychologist - on a flight to Florida - who was preparing her notes for one of the parent-education seminars she conducts across the nation. She had all the credentials.  And as so often, the person in the next seat sees her preparation and then begins to talk.

This elderly woman sitting next to her explained that she was returning to Miami after having spent two weeks visiting her six children, 18 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren in Boston. Then she inquired what her seat companion did for a living.

The psychologist told her, fully expecting to be pestered with questions and free professional advice.

Instead, the elderly woman sat back, picked up a magazine and said, “If there’s anything you want to know, just ask me.”

Now there is the truth about who is the expert and who is not. And it’s true, is it not?  Sometimes the best advice on what to do comes from the least expected, or it comes as something you would never have thought about.

Seminary is a necessary experience,  and the coursework in Greek and Hebrew, Old and New Testament, Theology, Pastoral Counseling, Worship, and Evangelism is paramount to what we are being taught to do, there should be a class on such things as the ordinary.  There should be someone to tell you the mundane things like how to keep your sleeves away from the candles, to tell your acolytes to be careful with the lighter, especially if the pastor or the soloist uses hair spray.  And make sure that when you kneel, you pull your robe away from your heels, lest your catch those heels in the hem of you robe and topple backwards.  Or that stilettos and marble don't work well together.  Now that is expert advice! The best advice I ever received was from a pastor who reminded me that many of my parishioners would be as theologically astute as I think I am.

On this day, God takes everything and turns it upside down.  It is God who creates light from darkness; it is God who takes death and makes life.  And it is God who takes the ordinary and makes it extra-ordinary.  He is risen!

For us on this day, Jesus is the revelation of all that is holy, yet almost every detail about Jesus is ordinary: born in a stable, a carpenter's son, crucified as a criminal.  He was born and died not on days that were holy, but on days that were made holy by the way he lived and died on them.  Jesus did not live in the Holy Land.  The land was made Holy by the way He spent his day-to-day life there.

Yes, we need advice: from doctors who make the right diagnosis, from lawyers to make an airtight will, from accountants to help us work through the myriad of tax codes, from teachers who long to pass on knowledge, from pastors who want to teach and help all of you look on the world in a different way, so that you can enjoy and live the Easter promise. But we must never forget the ordinary.

Because it was from the raw material of the average and the ordinary that Jesus made his church with the average Joes and Janes of this world.

And God will do the same with us. The angel today tells us that Jesus has gone on to Galilee and we will meet him there.  So, let’s go! A blessed Easter to you.  Amen.

                                                                                 Soli Deo Gloria