You're good – sermon help in a diner

By Bill Lewellis

My next to last step when preparing a sermon once played out on Saturday morning at a local diner where I browsed through my notes while having breakfast and a few cups of coffee. I'd glance randomly at the faces of strangers. Might anything I’ve written be useful to anyone in this place?

Something good almost always happened. I discarded cute phrases to which I was wedded a few days earlier. A writer's advice calls this “killing your darlings?”

Something else once happened. Seeing that my coffee cup was full, the waitress on refill duty said, “You’re good.”

Lose the notes, I chuckled. Anne gave you the sermon. This is your waitress. Listen to her.

At all times, according to another Anne, author Anne Lamott, 37 voices let us know how we are doing. Thirty-five have the job of telling us how awful we are. To hell with them, she says. Listen to the other two.

In all of life, she said, we need to hold onto great friends and eccentric relatives, the people who love us even when they see who we are.

And listen to God calling you beloved. Forget the 35 voices – listen to the other two. Listen to your waitress. Be in love transformed.

Memorial Service for Dolores Caskey/Sermon

Sermon by T. Scott Allen
Trinity Bethlehem – May 23, 2105

In the name of God who says “I am the Resurrection and the Life”   AMEN

It is not very often that one gets to be the preacher at the Burial Office of a woman as remarkable, complicated, intelligent and amazing as Dolores White Caskey. In fact, I have dreaded having to write the epitaph for a person who had the impact on me and her world that Dolores had because whatever I say I will most likely forget a detail, a good work, an amazing speech, a kind act, an important contribution of a life lived very well. 

And while my background is as a journalist, my occupation of the last 30 plus years has been as an Episcopal priest, so while my reporter instinct wants to report “the facts” and not miss one, my heart says that we all stand here this afternoon as witnesses of what a life lived with grace, gusto and yes, at times, guts, looks like.

 I don’t know when I first met Dolores. I expect it was sometime in the early Spring of 1989. I had just joined the Bishop’s Staff as Social Missioner and she served on the Jubilee Committee which was the name of the Diocesan Social Justice Committee at the time. Dolores and I took an instant like to one another for which to this day I am thankful. Dolores didn’t suffer fools gladly and I would never want to be on the “outs” with her. We disagreed on some occasions, but we both knew the other’s heart and couldn’t stay cross with one another very long. We knew we were acting out of the same love of the same Lord who redeemed us.

No matter where you knew Dolores I can say that all that she did emanated from a deep faith in a God who is manifested in self-giving love. This faith did not express itself in saccharine piety, but in incarnational acts of justice, truth, mercy and love. Her faith had a very real social expression for the poor, the marginalized, the unfairly treated and the helpless.

The lessons we just heard are most fitting for a saint such as Dolores.  “To everything a season and a purpose under heaven”.

She took everything in stride and even in defeat did not back down from her principles. She was a non-anxious presence when emotions were high and more smoke than light was being generated in any debate or discussion---she was part of our Church’s controversies. For her, everything did have its time and season, but truth, justice and mercy did not. Articulate, she didn’t shy away from eating your lunch when an important principle was at stake.

Dolores met her beloved husband, Jim, in the Air Force and they were both veterans and later will rightfully be laid to rest together in Arlington National Cemetery. As Jim told the story, Dolores worked in the office of a high ranking officer and she had come to his office on some official business where she asserted her rank with Jim’s secretary. Thinking Dolores had left the office, Jim made some smart comment about Dolores which she heard as she left the room and turned back on her heels and reminded Jim of who she was and whom she worked for! As Jim told it, his secretary was a shy, timid woman who one would have thought was a slight woman. Dolores would laugh at this story when Jim told it and said “Jim, your secretary was not this defenceless little person! She could have gone bear hunting with a switch!” This was just one of what I call “Dolores-isms”.

When speaking of a local politician a few years ago she said, “You ask him the time and he tells you how to build a watch!”Dolores was greatly committed to Northeast Ministry located in the Marvine-Pembroke village and she spoke one of my favorite stories about a time when drug dealing and use was an especially chronic problem on the streets of this housing project. Someone got the idea of a parade through the streets of Marvine-Pembroke to provide a counter-point to the drug dealers and support recovery and health for the residents. In order to send an anti-drug message to residents and the drug addicted of that area. Her co-board member was Victoria (Lala) Leach who was a member of the Nativity Cathedral. Lala had a yellow Cadillac convertible and Dolores and Lala rode in the parade in that car. Dolores laughed as she said, “I can’t imagine what the people thought of us in this parade.  Probably something like—“O look! Those two old ladies got off the stuff and now they have a Cadillac!”

Always well put together (I rarely remember her wearing pants in public—always a dress, jewelry and make-up—even when at the Soup Kitchen!), Dolores always had the Oasis of her weekly Friday hair appointment. The day she died I happened to arrive at Dolores’s room at Moravian Village Health Center 5 minutes after her passing. As I gazed upon her lifeless body, the chaplain whispered, “Isn’t it great that the nurses aide ran in and put lipstick on her?” And sure enough, her lips were bright pink! It was great, and I can imagine Dolores somehow beholding the scene and finding great humor in it, but also a great corporal act of mercy in that act!

Dolores was a good Democrat as well. And it was because of Dolores’s advocacy with me that I switched my primary vote from Hillary Clinton to Barak Obama. We both loved John Stewart and would call each other the morning after a show and laugh about his report, but only momentarily as the issues he addressed were ones that had substance and legs. 

I missed Dolores this past Tuesday when I was faced with my ballot in the primary. I counted on Dolores to give me good names to vote for in local elections and would always take (what I called) “Dolores’s List” (not to be confused with Emily’s List) into the polls on more than one occasion. As the first and scandalously only (to this day, by the way) woman President of Bethlehem City Council (ladies, you have some work to do!). Dolores once was quoted as telling the press, “Well, Bethlehem may be the Christmas City, but city council is NOT Santa Claus!”

Dolores was parsimonious. She didn’t believe that throwing lots of money at a problem necessarily solved it. She believed in balanced budgets, living within your means, and when you spend money, it had to count to relieve misery in people’s lives. This did not mean she was not generous. She supported people, causes and candidates with cash. Real money. And was generous in her support of causes she believed in and thought made a difference.

I once was Dolores and Jim’s chauffer to a rally for presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry at Allentown Fair Grounds and they would not let Jim in with his ever present little pocket knife, which I recall dutifully taking back to my car and re-joining them after we were disarmed.

I have to tell you, I will miss that “Greatest Generation” commitment to integrity in all aspects of life. I mourn the passing of that generation as I believe they were one of extreme integrity, fairness, not afraid of uphill battles and self-giving of themselves for people, movements and projects that enhanced fairness and community. They were biased toward the underdog. We Baby Boomers are poor imitators of their example.

Dolores had the tenacity of a journalist when seeking information and had an eye and a memory for important and often missed detail. She served as an advisor to diocesan publications and served many years as the Consumer Reporter at the Globe-Times in Bethlehem. One apocryphal story about that job––when she first arrived at the Globe-Times she pretended that she couldn’t type in order to be assigned a secretary to do it! 

Things I recall Dolores loved:

• Chocolate and sweets of any kind, I always took them a cut of my Christmas baking in her latter years.

• Animals—dogs, cats, squirrels, even a mouse that took up residence in a storage closet off of their patio in their Moravian Village apartment and refused to let the management know of this rodent’s presence. She delighted in watching him and put nuts and seeds out for him. She also fed birds. I made sure my miniature schnauzer, Martini, visited Dolores and Jim often—her last visit with Dolores was near Christmas Eve of last year.

• She loved the beach and seashore and after Jim died got her aide to drive her there. That may have been her last visit.

• She loved breakfast at Jenny’s Luncheonette before it was razed to make way for a new access to the Hill-To-Hill bridge—and tipped her waitresses handsomely.

• She loved the poor, the underdog, the rejected for no fault of their own and anyone being given a raw deal by government, church or social structures.

• She loved the 1928 Prayer Book AND the 1979 revision and both were near her whenever I visited. She liked the confession in Morning Prayer, and the Prayer for Humble Access. She prayed.

She had her dislikes as well:

• She disliked hypocrisy, privilege which blinded to human need. Using the phrase “greedy geezers” to describe some of her peer’s attitude toward discounts, Social Security, Medicare and other benefits.

• She disliked using more medical care than she thought was warranted for people “living on an expired warranty” as she and Jim would say.

(I am sure you can share others with me later in the parish hall as there are hundreds of ways she impacted and inspired all of us)

 So what is the take away for us that she leaves behind? What is it that is for us in this room this afternoon? 

I believe one of the take aways is that Christian faith can take us to places we never thought we’d be. It can put us in partnership with people very different from us. We are convicted by the witness of her life that our actions should reflect our commitments. Her work for anti-racism is exemplary, she served on the first HIV-AIDS Task Force of the Diocese in the early 90’s and served on a board to develop a personal care home for persons living with HIV-AIDS. Before a plethora of Spanish Speaking interpreters, she would be the middle person to translate for the courts when a Spanish speaking defendant appeared before a Northampton County judge.

There are no outcasts, save the well-funded and privileged who have hard hearts toward the perceived outcast. But even they can repent and be welcomed back.

She saw the blessedness in all of the things we try mightily to insulate ourselves from—mourning, being peacemakers, poverty of life and spirit, mercy, hungering for justice and an even playing field; and putting ourselves on the line for it (even when it means rejection and vilification).

She taught me how to age. To never disengage from life and justice seeking, no matter what your age or physical capability. Always get the news and talk about it!

I hope we can all take comfort and challenge in the life Dolores exemplified. And Michael, David, Robert, Mimi,  you and your offspring can look to her as an example for your own lives and be inspired by how she inspired many of us!

Scott Holland a 19th Century Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University wrote the following which I think a fitting last word today, and one I know Dolores would probably affirm:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched and unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is dath but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind just because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.  All is well.

Dolores, my good friend, you have finished the race, you have competed very well. And I am certain that you will receive the crown of glory reserved just for you! 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

[The Rev. T. Scott Allen is rector of St. Andrew's Allentown.]


Lift up the stories of women, sexual minorities, and non-white people

Thinking ahead to Sunday's sermon (Easter 6)
Bishop Paul Marshall

[Posted on Bakery, the interactive list of the Diocese of Bethlehem, House of Bread. Responses welcome there, at the bottom of this post or directly to Bishop Paul.]

I got some very useful responses to last week's Tuesday rambling, so I am going to dash off another first thought, ill-formed as it may be.

Next Sunday we re-encounter Paul's famous speech at the Areopagus, and as I followed the translation with the original (which anybody can do by going to, an old problem arose for me.

The text has Paul open his speech with "men of Athens." He is using the gender-specific "andres" and not the inclusive "anthropoi."  In our altogether well-motivated principles of translation today, this comes out as "Athenians." As I say, the motivation for translating this way is very good, but is it helpful?

The NRSV translation obscures the fact that in Paul's day, at least as I understand it, Greek women were still kept at home, very much much less in evidence than Roman women, and men alone gathered in the agora (public square, so to speak) to do the philosophizing, which functioned to some degree like golf in my father's day.

Obscuring the cultural reality of the text may keep us from asking an important question. Paul's speech was not well-received by the men of Athens. Would the result have been different if women's voices had been welcome? Given who his Hellenistic supporters tended to be, I think so.

That is not the point on which the text turns, of course, but we miss another episode in the strange drama of our species if we airbrush it out. Our present translations create an image of the ancient world that appears to the naive reader to have been much like what we wish ours will eventually be.

Many of us have the comfortable illusion that we live in a post-gender, post-racial culture, or that only women or minorities own the rights to bring these topics into a conversation. Last week I attended a panel where three women psychiatrists, women in their 40s, 60s, and 80s, had amazingly similar stories to tell about how their interactions with male and female patients differed. So I tried the idea out on a Bible study group with about the level of success the Areopagus speech got (but without even the feigned interest!). I'm going to stick to my guns about this: I do not think that all preachers are sufficiently careful to lift up the stories of women, sexual minorities, and non-white people, and that we suffer for it. I tentatively say, translate according to the meaning of the original, leave the text where it is in the past, and show how it lives in the present--the fact that the Spirit continues to function is much more apparent when the contrast is real. Where the text permits inclusive translation or where gender is not playing a role in the text or subtext, have at it, but where cultural realities may be part of the story, leave it alone.

That is, having lived through the struggles of the last fifty years, and knowing the degree to which those who forget are doomed to repeat, I am experiencing doubt about the value of cosmetizing the past, a project in which my generation has been deeply invested for almost entirely good reason. What would be the point of Huckleberry Finn without the racial tension? Of The Scarlet Letter without gender inequality? Our day has seen attempts to do both, with very unsatisfying results.

Clearly the point opposite mine could be made compellingly. At the same time, how would the Easter stories be weakened if the women-men tension were glossed over ("moreover some people of our group went early in the morning...")?

I suspect from my encounter last week that we would like this issue to be gone, and that our levels of denial or weariness keep us from seeing its importance for homiletical practice.  

I would be interested in knowing what you think.


Angel Eyes

Thinking ahead to Sunday's sermon (Easter 5)
Bishop Paul Marshall

[Posted on Bakery, the interactive list of the Diocese of Bethlehem, House of Bread]

We are very used to hearing two parts of Stephen's story: the early verses of Acts 6, where he is among those at the first ordination service, and the last verses of Acts 7, where he is murdered, with Saul of Tarsus looking on.

It might be useful to read all the verses in the middle. What gets Stephen into trouble is his doing "wonders and signs," and the church is growing. He is hauled into court for what he is saying, giving witness to Christ. His testimony fills Acts 7, but before he gives it, his interlocutors saw that "his face was like the face of an angel." When I think of the kinds of angels in the scriptures, I wonder whether he looked like the angels who guarded the Garden of Eden, the angels in Isaiah 6, or the angels who say "fear not" in Luke's Christmas and Easter stories. In any event, his affect was striking enough to be noticed and remembered. When you recall the faces of the most holy people you have known personally, what do you see? When I read the text a few moments ago, I thought of ABBA's hit, "Angel Eyes," not useful in itself, but it got me thinking these thoughts. As we used to say in Latin 2, whatever works is good.

Well, back to the story. In response to the charges that he is preaching about Jesus who is coming to destroy the temple, Stephen tells the whole story of Israel in what must be called unflattering terms, asking them most forcefully to repent.

His asking them to change is when they drag him out and murder him.

The story functions to model the ancient message, to remember Stephen, and to introduce Saul of Tarsus. I wonder if it doesn't also remind us of the human tendency to reject pretty strongly those who ask us to change, as individuals and as a people. Even good news can be a threat.

Two possible homiletical extractions:
--When it is our turn to witness, we need to be prepared for resistance or even rejection, and be prepared to face it, remaining in character.
--when we see angel eyes, it may be a clue to lower our own resistances and prepare to receive a gift.

I would be interested in your thoughts about this passage and its context.