Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pentecost 23, 2013: The blessing of diversity

Lectionary: Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As most of you know, my husband Steve and I are very different kinds of people. He’s an extrovert. I’m an introvert. He’s a Southerner. I’m a Yankee.

Some of you have even wondered aloud how we’re married. It’s OK. We’re used to that.

The truth is we are very different people, though we do share some important things in common: absolute devotion to our children, being moved by opera and restored by time spent in creation. We even share agreement in our ethics about money.

Not surprisingly, though, Steve and I had very different approaches to parenting our children. We still do.

Steve’s approach has been about protecting the children from all pain and potentially bad consequences. My approach has been more about allowing them to learn how their choices lead to consequences - good and bad.

When the kids wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, for example, they knew Steve would say no
because they knew their Dad believed that the other parents wouldn’t supervise our kids well enough, or feed them good enough food, or enforce lights-out at a reasonable time at an appropriate time so they’d get enough sleep. So they didn’t ask Steve if they could spend the night out. They asked me.

They also knew that if they had waited until the last minute to do a homework project, they had violated my policy of: “Your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency.” So they didn’t ask me to run out for poster board at 9:00 at night. They asked Steve.

But the differences in our approaches to parenting created a wholeness for us because we could trust in our love for each other and in our mutual love of our children. The difference in our approaches also kept us balanced. There were times the kids needed to be protected from their own inexperience with life and other times they needed to learn from those experiences.

Not only did the children benefit, but so did Steve and I because we were constantly learning from one another and sharing in the gifts each of us offered.

The two men in the parable in our gospel story represent two very different approaches. Both are responsive to the call of God. We know this because both are in the temple praying. Both are also sinners – each in his own way.

The Pharisee lives an exemplary life, but his prayer is arrogant and prideful. ‘I’ve done all the right things and then some. Thank you, God, for making me so wonderful, unlike that tax collector over there.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, can’t claim a virtuous life. Most tax collectors back then couldn’t. They were basically Mafioso-type thieves. But his prayer is simple and humble: “…be merciful to me, a sinner.” The surprise in this parable is that this was the prayer acceptable to God. It was the tax collector whose prayer justified him, that is, restored him to right relationship with God.

This is a frustrating parable for many modern Christians who focus their attention on what they can see in a person’s life rather than what God is doing in a person’s heart. These Christians would want Jesus to finish the story. They would want Jesus to tell about how the tax collector’s repentance led him to amendment of life. How he left behind his immoral ways and got back onto the path of righteousness.

But that isn’t the point of this parable. This parable is about what’s going on in the heart of the person praying and how that points to the truth about their relationship with God.

The Pharisee, whom Jesus says is praying by himself, is truly grateful that he is living a righteous life and properly gives thanks to God for the comfort that offers his soul. But notice that the Pharisee asks nothing of God. He seems to believe his salvation is firmly in his own hands. His behavior is impeccable and although he looks good from the outside, all is not well because heart is closed to the transforming love of God.

Jesus says the tax collector is also praying alone, standing apart from everyone else in his shame, which also renders him unable to raise his eyes to heaven as he prays. Aware that his life choices have been anything but honorable, the tax collector seeks mercy. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, but he asks anyway. His behavior is shameful and although he looks bad from the outside, he has set his hope on the grace of God – and that’s why Jesus says he is justified.

Things aren’t always what they seem and this parable teaches us that it isn’t necessarily about what we do. It’s about what God is doing in us… yet another reason to heed Jesus’ command not to judge.

But I think there’s another important message in this parable: a message about community.

Jesus says both men were praying in the temple, but each one prayed alone. We infer from the rest of the parable that one prayed alone in his arrogance while the other prayed alone in his shame.

I wonder what might have happened if these two men had prayed corporately – as a community? What if the Pharisee, noticing the anguish of the tax collector who prayed beating his breast, had gone over to him, touched his shoulder and joined him in prayer?

Removing the barriers to their relationship might have given each a greater awareness of their own sin as well as the benefit of the other’s gifts. The tax collector might have learned from the Pharisee the practice of discipline which could have helped him to make better life choices, choices more in line with the Law of Moses, which has always been meant to help us align our lives on earth closer to the will of God.

The Pharisee might have learned from the tax collector the practice of humility which could have led him to a deeper spiritual life, one in which he could experience the overwhelming grace and love of the Almighty God, then manifest that love in the world.

In community the Pharisee and the tax collector might have been able to help one another increase their gifts of faith, hope, and charity, and support one another as they strove to love and keep the commands of God.

That is the blessing of diversity. It’s also the gift of community.

Let us pray: Lead us Almighty God, to respond to your call to us to come to your house, the church, where our hearts and flesh will rejoice in you; where we will be unified to one another and renewed by your life-giving nourishment of Word and Sacrament, so that we may continue together in our pilgrims’ way, having received such an increase of your gifts of faith, hope, and charity that they overflow from us into the world glorifying you and blessing your people. This we ask in the name of the Holy Trinity who is Community in Unity. Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pentecost 22-C, 2013: Let us pray...

Lectionary: Genesis 32:22-31;Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

The Lord be with you! “And also with you…” Congratulations! We have just prayed a reflexive prayer. When Episcopalians hear this invitation, we respond. We don’t think about it – we just do it. We allow the phrase to be for us a signal, to call our attention to our community and enter together into the presence of God. It’s reflexive, and it’s prayer.

There are lots of types of prayer. Our Book of Common Prayers lists many of them on page 857 (if you ever want to study them). There is adoration, which is prayer that has no goal except to enter into the presence of God and just let the love flow from God to us and from us to God.

In prayers of praise, we enter into the song of heaven that constantly glorifies God. In our prayers of thanksgiving, we acknowledge, to ourselves, to others, and to God, our awareness of God’s many blessings: for the fullness of life, for our redemption, and for the Love that sustains our every breath. In penitential prayer we confess our sins, promise to amend our lives, and listen for how to make restitution (where possible and appropriate) for our sins.

In our prayers of oblation we offer ourselves: our time, talents, and gifts, for the working out of God’s purpose in the world. In intercessory prayer we bring before God the needs of others, entering into the eternal reality promised us and lending our love to their needs. Our prayers of petition do the same thing, bringing our own needs to God.

In corporate prayer, we gather together and offer ourselves to God as a community of faith. We feed our minds with Holy Scripture, our bodies with Holy Communion, and our souls by living the reality of our interconnectedness. We do this regularly to heal ourselves from the divisions the world teaches us are “real” and “true.” They aren’t real or true.

What is real is the Love of God that binds us to one another, to all creation, and to God. What’s true is that God desires reconciliation of the whole world, and we are part of that grand plan. Jesus made this our eternal reality, and as a result, our very lives are prayer.

Prayer changes things. I truly believe it affects the world, and I truly believe it affects us.

This is what we see happening in the story of Jacob in today’s Old Testament reading. The bottom line of this story is: Jacob is praying and the end result of his prayer is a new identity, which he resists.

How many of us can identify with prayer in which we are struggling, fighting against the new thing God wants us to do, the new place God wants us to go, or the new person God wants us to be?

Sadly, what we often offer to God is what I call the I’ve got this prayer. You know, the one where we try to bend God’s will to ours, having figured out on our own the way things should be. In this kind of prayer we’re the only ones talking, and we’re rattling off our list of things we’d like for God to do or to change.

Then there’s what I call the bail-out prayer: ‘Lord, if you do this one thing for me, I promise I’ll go to church every Sunday, pay my tithe, and be a good person.’ If (when) that ‘one thing’ doesn’t happen, then what? The bargain is off. We don’t go to church, we don’t pay our tithe, and it’s all God’s fault… God is dead to us - until the next time we need a bail-out.

All the while, God waits… watching over our going out and our coming in, being the shade at our right hand and keeping us safe (as the Psalmist says), until we finally choose to enter into the Presence of God in humility and total trust. There God transforms us, and through us, the world.

Prayer is a discipline – a strength we build by practice. Setting aside time to pray alone every day and praying in community every week are important habits for the living out of our God-given purposes. But these habits are especially helpful when we find ourselves in crisis, whether it’s a crisis in our lives, or a crisis of faith.

That’s when our discipline of prayer carries us through, even when we don’t know what we believe anymore. And when we are experiencing the hardest of times, the emptiest of dark nights, the prayers of our community join with the prayers of the company of heaven to uphold us until we emerge victorious again into the light of Christ.

This is affirmed by St. Luke who begins this gospel story saying: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”This parable is called the parable of the unjust judge.

It’s a strange story in that it seems like Jesus is comparing God to the unjust judge who refuses to give the poor widow the hearing she deserves, and is guaranteed by law, until she wears him out with her complaining.

Is that how God wants to be in relationship with us? No. In fact, the opposite is true: Jesus is contrasting God and the unjust judge.

When the judge finally grants the widow’s request, it’s only to serve his own need to make her go away. God, however, will act quickly to grant justice because God cares deeply about us – even the “widows” among us whom the world judges as unimportant, annoying, good-for-nothing. God wants to be our God and wants us to be God’s people.

The way of God and the way of the world hardly ever agree. That’s why we are wise to heed St. Paul’s advice to be steadfast in believing and guided by Scripture. It’s why we need to remember Jesus’ words that we should pray always and not lose heart.

How do we pray always? It seems like an impossible task. But I think we are better at this than you might think. All we have to do is remember that we pray when we rest quietly in the presence of God. Centering prayer is a wonderful tool for this.

We pray by reading Holy Scripture. I recommend a daily practice of lectio divina and/or the Daily Office.

We pray using Rosary beads, walking a labyrinth, or contemplating an icon. Watching a sunrise paint the sky we’re filled with an awareness of God’s majesty, creativity, and tender love of creation. That is prayer.

When we sing hymns to God or listen to music that inspires us, we enter more deeply into the presence of God, and that is prayer. When we joyfully tend to mundane tasks grateful for the gift of life and the ability to work: that is prayer.

When we cry out in pain or hear the cry of another and our hearts ache, we are sharing the suffering of God – and that is prayer. When we wait faithfully in darkness, feeling no real connection to God or anything else, even that is prayer, because it is into the darkness that the transforming light of Christ breaks most dazzlingly.

Prayer is the way we go from knowing about God to knowing God. When we enter into a deeply prayerful relationship with God, we find that God’s desires soon become our desires. We begin to notice that our will submits more easily and more quickly to God’s will. And we are grateful for this because we realize how steadfast and faithful God’s love really is – so we can trust and follow God.

It is in prayer that we experience our absolute oneness with God, one another, and all of creation, and we recognize that this is what is real; this is what is true. The things of the world that divide us (power, money, privilege, position) begin to look ridiculous in the context of the Love that is in us, the Love that connects us and makes us one.

The Lord be with you. (And also with you.) Let us pray… (the Prayer for the Human Family; BCP, 815)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What we can do about Domestic Violence

Published in the Shelby Star on Oct 11, 2013

Early in my career as the director of a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, my life and my approach to my work were transformed by a toddler, a little 4-year old girl I'll call Lizzie (not her real name). Lizzie suffered from fits of rage, something commonly seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age. Her rages usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes at a time and were triggered by sounds, smells or events that were connected to her memories of abuse. During these rages, Lizzie was unresponsive to reason. In fact, she would try to hurt anyone who tried to comfort her or stop her from hurting herself.

The doctors and therapists brought in to diagnose and treat Lizzie, told her mother and me that Lizzie needed to learn very clear boundaries around her behavior, and that we all had to be diligent and consistent, immediately interrupting Lizzie’s violent behavior and rewarding her good behavior. Lizzie will respond, they said, when the limitations on her behavior are clear to her.
Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, her mother, supported by our staff, worked hard to gently, but firmly interrupt the violence, using time outs, rewarding good behavior, putting Lizzie in what they called a “restraining position” so she couldn’t hurt herself or the one holding her. We did everything the therapists had suggested, but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence towards herself and others during her rages was increasing.

One late afternoon, I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the living room when another woman who was staying in the shelter returned home, carrying a large package. She asked one of the kids playing outside to help her close the door behind her. As sometimes happens, when the little boy closed the door, he slammed it shut. Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, jumped up, ran behind the little toy kitchen in the corner of the room, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her, and her mother responded immediately, per the instructions given by the therapists.

But Lizzie would not be comforted. She hit and kicked at her mother, biting at her and screaming ugly things. When her mother tried to pick her up to put her into the restraining position, Lizzie wriggled out of her arms and began running at full speed into the furniture. Her mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.
I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. As Lizzie screamed and struggled to get free, I spoke softly to her, saying only that she was loved and that everything would be OK. I held her firmly, but not in the restraining position. She punched and swung at me, even bit me once on the arm, but I continued to softly speak words of love to her.

Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her recent tantrum. A minute later, Lizzie looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, Lizzie. You’re a good girl.” I assured her. A moment later, Lizzie was asleep.

That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw. By the grace of God, I realized in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed wasn’t boundaries or limits or discipline. What she needed was tenderness and the assurance that she was loved.

Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be bad and somehow to blame for the nightmare she lived. She was too little and too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out. It was the only way she knew how to “tell” her story.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. During this month we, as a community, call upon ourselves to hear the stories of those in our midst who suffer and commit to working for safety, healing, and justice for them, with them, until it is achieved. To do this we must make ourselves ready by informing ourselves, willingly taking in the dreadful truth of this terrible problem, setting aside our judgments and opening ourselves to a new understanding by listening to the stories of the brave victims who are willing to speak.

Looking at domestic violence from the outside, many people ask, “Why does she stay?” The truth is, victims of domestic violence are at an increased risk of harm when they make the choice to leave their batterer. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in 70-80% of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder. Many women witness their pets being killed as proof that their abuser means business, coupled with an explicit threat that they are next. In addition, many don’t have access to money or a car in order to leave. Batterers isolate their victims over time, convincing family and friends that they are “crazy” or “liars.” They may also have moved their victims away from anyone who might be of help to them.

Then there is the fact that many victims love the person who has become their batterer. From the outside that may seem confusing, but abandoning a loved one isn’t something one does easily. Even if she can find safe haven and support her family on her own, leaving the father of her children or the person with whom she has shared marriage vows, is a very hard thing to do, especially with little or no outside support for doing it.

Domestic violence is also cyclic. The violent behaviors and expectations are passed from one generation to the next. Growing up in homes where domestic violence is present normalizes it in the experience of the children. Children who grow up in violent homes learn that love will be violent at times. They learn to minimize the danger of it and tend to be attracted to people who fulfill their expectation for it. In violent relationships, jealousy and control is misinterpreted as love, and violent threats and behaviors are misinterpreted as passion and strength.

Even though most cases of domestic violence are never reported, last year, the Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, provided shelter to over 150 women and children. They advocated and filed for 846 orders of protection keep victims and their families safe from their abusers. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

• an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.
• boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
• 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.
• the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services … and yet…
• less than one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
(Taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facts Sheet at

Statistics like these can cause us to lose heart. How can we approach a problem of this magnitude? The answer is: together. Together we can wake ourselves up to the truth about domestic violence, then, armed with the truth, act as a community to end it. Here are some concrete steps we can take to get started:

• we educate ourselves on the facts about domestic violence. Our local Abuse Prevention Council (APC) can help, or go online to;
• we financially support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve so that the generational cycle of abuse is interrupted;
• we volunteer our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen the services the APC provides;
• we join our voices to the voices of the victims crying out for justice.

Ensuring that safe, professional, healing comfort is available to each of these brave persons who risk leaving their abuse for a better life is all of our responsibility. Ensuring that there is effective treatment for the batterers is also our responsibility. Without that we are only addressing half of the problem. Working to end domestic violence is the right thing to do. That it makes economic sense as well is simply a bonus.