Saturday, September 2, 2023

“ I am a woman who serves like a deacon. Will I ever share St. Phoebe's title? “

St. Phoebe of Cenchreae is depicted in an icon by Eka Fragiadaki of the Angelicon workshop in Crete, Greece. (Angelicon/Eka Fragiadaki)


National Catholic Reporter article

By the age of 8, I was serving as a lector in our parish, and by the age of 18 was leading retreats for the Legion of Mary and speaking to groups of all ages. I felt welcomed to share who I was and bring forth my gifts….

I had a vision of Jesus when I was about 15 years old, seeing him as a handsome Black man who patiently asked me the same question he had asked Peter in John's Gospel: "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17). I sensed then that Jesus was asking for my whole life.

Why are we afraid of this dream of women received as deacons? Women like me are already doing such work — just without the title.


But the biblical deacon Phoebe inspired and comforted me. St Paul describes her like this:

I commend to you Phoebe our sister, diakonos of the church of Cenchreae, so that you will receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and assist her in whatever way she may ask you, because she has been a benefactor of many and of me, too [Romans 16:1-2].

Phoebe's feast day is Sept. 3, and I have long found a devotion and sense of connection to this ancient woman of the early Christian church…

I visit families in their homes; offer bereavement and spiritual counseling and faith-sharing; I hear confessions on deathbeds without offering the ritual of absolution; I preside at funerals and wakes. I celebrate with people the joys and miracles of life.

I continue to actively welcome my Haitian brothers and sisters, many who come to Boston as refugees and seek out the church as a place of welcome and support. I help meet needs for housing, food, health and legal services — and I sit at the kitchen table, weeping as they share the harrowing journey they make, recalling the violence they have fled.

We each need a Paul in our life, commending us to be welcomed and received in new and strange places. We need those who will send us forth, giving us the authority to preach and minister in the name of Jesus' church.

My own prayer is that our church would be as courageous as Paul and Phoebe, trusting each other, walking in a dangerous world to bring forth the promise of good news, accompanying each other in the wake of our encounters with the risen Jesus who calls us to love him and tend his sheep. Let us welcome women, called deacons, as holy ones, co-equal in ministry to our brothers and as eager and ready to offer our gifts for the sake of the Gospel.“

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Upper Room Sunday Liturgy, August 27, 2023 - Presiders: Donna Panaro and Dave DeBonis


Who Do You Say That I Am?

Welcome and Theme: (Donna)

Welcome to the Upper Room. We will explore an interesting question that is in our gospel reading today. Jesus is pictured asking this question to his disciples: Who do you say that I am? This will be our question to ourselves individually and as a community today. Although the answer to this question for many is ever-changing and we will each have varying answers, this question can help us delve into a core foundation of our spiritual journey. 

Opening Prayer/Song: God Beyond All Names



First Reading (Kim) Progressive Visions of Christianity Beyond Church “Who Do you Say That I Am?” By Pastor Dawn Hutchins

For most of my life I have been trying to figure out who I think Jesus was and is. From time to time, I suspect that most of us have believed that we have worked it out; that we know just who Jesus is. But Jesus, just like every person we have ever known and or ever loved, Jesus keeps changing on us.

The Jesus I knew when I was a child was little more than an imaginary friend. “Jesus loves me this I know!” Not because the bible tells me so, but rather “because my Mommy told me so!” Later, when I was a teen-ager looking for more love than my family could give me, I found my way into the Church and discovered, “What a Friend I have in Jesus! The idealism of my youth turned my imaginary friend Jesus into my radical friend Jesus who understood my passion for justice, and led me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached.

Sadly though, after 25 years in the church, I found myself as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ firmly believing that Jesus was and is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  It has taken years for me to get to know Jesus as something other than the sacrificial lamb of God. 

Over and over again, with the help of some of the most gifted theologians in all of Christendom we have asked ourselves, who Jesus was and is. Together, we have explored the various theories of atonement and discovered new ways of understanding not only the Gospels, but our own interpretations of the Gospels. Together, we have explored new images of the Divine that have shattered our images of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 

For decades now, most of us have struggled to comprehend the image of Jesus as some sort of sacrificial lamb who died to save us from our sins. The notion of worshiping any God that would demand a blood sacrifice is repugnant to most 21st century thinkers. The reality that the anonymous gospel storytellers together with the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther himself and many of the generations that followed would have little or no problem with the idea of Jesus paying the price for our sins is of little or no consequence when it comes to those of us who live in the 21st century who are doing our level best to Love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our minds. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus must be allowed to speak to us in ways that make sense. We must engage this character Jesus with all our hearts, souls and minds! 

So, now what? How are we supposed to respond to the question of who Jesus was and is?

Jesus was, is, and ever more shall be a different character in the lives of different people. There will always be some who are content to settle for Jesus as some sort of cosmic bargain with a demanding and zealous God, sacrificing himself so that they can rest easy. But for those who are willing to follow Jesus beyond the religious norms of the day, Jesus will always be out there on the boundaries calling for new and more expansive understanding of the LOVE that Jesus embodied in life. Jesus’ life and death bear witness to the LOVE that we call God in ways that most of us are only beginning to comprehend.  Jesus gave new expression to that LOVE that continue to challenge each and every one of us to be that LOVE. As members of the Body of Christ, let us continue to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds.” Therein lies our first clues: Let us “LOVE God, for LOVE is the key to understanding the identity of Jesus. 

These are the inspired words from Pastor Dawn Hutchins and the community affirms them by saying: Amen.


Gospel (Diane) Matthew 16:13-20

When Jesus came to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples this question: “What do people say about who the Chosen One is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptizer, others say Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

“And you, “ he said, “who do you say that I am?” 

“You are the Messiah,” Simon Peter answered, “the Firstborn of the Living God!”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon ben-Jonah! No more mortal has revealed this to you, but my Abba God in heaven. I also tell you this: your name now is ‘Rock,’ and on bedrock like this I will build my community, and the jaws of death will not prevail against it.

“Here-I’ll give you the keys to the reign of heaven: whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then Jesus strictly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

These are the inspired words from the gospel writer known as Matthew and the community affirms them by saying: Amen.

Homily Starter (Dave)

Before we address our primary comments on today’s Gospel, we’d like to provide some context about the Gospel which may help with interpretation. 

First, the scholars/authors of the “The Five Gospels” have unanimously concluded that this Gospel story and the words attributed to Jesus were totally the work of the storyteller. Second, although most of the disciples did not identify Jesus as the Messiah, their reference to John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah suggests that they all knew that Jesus was continuing the work of serving God by speaking truth to power and giving hope to an oppressed people. (Erik Barreto, Working Preacher). Third, the gospel story takes place in Caesarea Phillipi, a city name after Caesar and Harod’s son, Philip, who ruled the city.  Commentators suggest that this is Matthew’s way of signaling that this story has something to do with Roman power. Audrey West (Working Preacher) agrees, noting that the question of who Jesus is “hangs in the air at the intersection of…religion and the power of the Empire. It is not simply a question of Jesus’ identity….it is a question about allegiance.”

Moving now to the primary themes, we start with the question that Jesus asks and pose it to all of you: Who is Jesus for you?  As we know, there are no indisputable facts that answer this question and I am sure we do not all believe the very same things about Jesus. But still, we are all here. So, what brings us to this community and to this rewarding yet challenging way of life? I believe it is something deep inside that compels us and the gospel suggests that this deep motivation, this attraction to the life and mission of Jesus, comes from the Divine. Mitzi Smith (Working Preacher) encourages us to listen to this voice. She writes: “A living God is a dynamic God…who continues to speak and act and does not have to resurrect John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or any other prophet to speak.” 


In the first reading, Paster Dawn challenges the idea that any God would require his son to suffer and die and suggests that this atonement theory of Jesus’ life and death leaves little room for a greater understanding of the radical love that Jesus demonstrated and to which we are called. The first reading reminds us that the question of who Jesus is for us is not just an intellectual exercise. Our answer can either limit or expand the way we see ourselves and others. 

Perhaps the most well-known part of this Gospel is Jesus’ declaration of Peter as the rock on which the future church will be built.  As many of you know, these words have had profound ramifications for Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church as they have been used for centuries as the basis for a men-only priesthood.  But surprisingly to me, this section of the Gospel where Jesus makes this declaration to Peter is not included in the original source of the same story as found in Mark’s gospel. Why would Matthew have elevated Peter’s status in his version of the story? John Petty (Progressive Involvement) suggests that this was done by Mathew due his close association with Peter, whose views of Christianity were in line with Matthew’s.  

Also, quite surprising to me, Mitzi Smith (Working Preacher) notes that the word “petra” translated as “rock” is grammatically feminine and agrees with the Greek word “ekklesia,” (church) which is also grammatically feminine. She concludes that the noun “petra” does not refer to Peter and suggests that the passage more likely means that the foundation of the church rests on an acknowledgement of who Jesus is and not the person making the acknowledgement.  

How fortunate we are to be part of a community that supports the call of both men and women and many thanks to the woman in this community and around the world who refused to have their calling ignored. 

Finally, Mitzi Smith (Working Preacher) calls us to shift our focus from Peter and the foundation of the church to the church we need to build.  She suggests that it be a church whose members’ lives “will speak louder, more truthfully, and more effectively than their words.” They will be known “by the life they live, a life of love for God, a life that loves the other as much as one loves herself, and a life in pursuit of justice and peace.” 

Was Jesus a prophet, a teacher, a miracle worker, a sage, a healer, a Messiah, a radical, all of the above, or none of the above? There will be many opinions but we have to decide for ourselves who we think Jesus is, in conversation with the Divine and always remembering Paster Dawn’s words that love is the key to knowing Jesus. We also have to decide what kind of church we want to build. One that encourages the call of only some or one that recognizes that the gifts of all of us are needed to build a better world. 

 How we answer these questions can shape our lives and could lead us to simply bearing witness to a belief system or it could transform us into the co-creators we are invited to be. The choice is ours. 

Shared Reflections

Statement of Faith

We believe in the Holy One, a divine mystery
beyond all definition and rational understanding,
the heart of all that has ever existed,
that exists now, or that ever will exist.

We believe in Jesus, messenger of the Divine Word,
bringer of healing, heart of Divine compassion,
bright star in the firmament of the Holy One’s
prophets, mystics, and saints.

 We believe that We are called to follow Jesus
as a vehicle of divine love,
a source of wisdom and truth,
and an instrument of peace in the world.

We believe in the Spirit of the Holy One,
the life that is our innermost life,
the breath moving in our being,
the depth living in each of us.

We believe that the Divine kin-dom is here and now,
stretched out all around us for those
with eyes to see it, hearts to receive it,
and hands to make it happen.

Prayers of the Community

Donna:  As we prepare for the sacred meal we bring to this table our blessings, cares and concerns.  Please feel free to voice your concerns beginning with the words “I bring to the table….”

We bring these and all unspoken blessings, cares and concerns to the table of friendship and love.  


Dave: With open hearts and hands let us pray our Eucharistic prayer in one voice:

O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us as we set our hearts on belonging to you. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all creation.

You know our limitations and our essential goodness and you love us as we are. You beckon us to your compassionate heart and inspire us to see the good in others and forgive their limitations. Acknowledging your presence in each other and in all of creation, we sing:

Holy, Holy: Here in This Place by Christopher Grundy 

Donna: Guiding Spirit, when opposing forces in us tug and pull and we are caught in the tension of choices, inspire us to make wise decisions toward what is good. 

We thank you for our brother, Jesus, and for all our sisters and brothers who have modeled for us a way to live and love in challenging times. Inspired by them, we choose life over death, we choose to be light in dark times. 

Please extend your hands in blessing.

We are ever aware of your Spirit in us and among us at this Eucharistic table and we are grateful for this bread and wine which reminds us of our call to be the body of Christ in the world. 

On the night before he faced his own death, Jesus sat at supper with his companions and friends.  He reminded them of all that he taught them, and to fix that memory clearly with them, he bent down and washed their feet. 


All lift the plate and pray:

When he returned to his place at the table, he lifted the bread, spoke the blessing, broke the bread and offered it to them saying: 

Take and eat, this is my very self.



All lift the cup and pray:

Dave: Then he took the cup of the covenant, spoke the grace, and offered it to them saying:

Take and drink.

Whenever you remember me like this,

I am among you.


We share this bread and cup to proclaim and live the gospel of justice and peace. We choose to live justly, love tenderly, and walk with integrity. 

Please receive communion saying: I am / We are the Face of the Holy One.

Communion Song: Where Did Jesus Go by Sara Thomsen

Prayer after Communion:

Donna: Holy One, your transforming energy is within us and we join our hearts with all who are working for a just world.  We pray for wise leaders in our religious communities. We pray for courageous and compassionate leaders in our world communities.  

We pray for all of us gathered here and like Jesus, we open ourselves up to your Spirit, for it is through living as he lived that we awaken to your Spirit within, 

moving us to glorify you, at this time and all ways.


Dave: Let us pray as Jesus taught us: 

Holy One, you are within, around and among us.  
We celebrate your many names. 
Your wisdom come; your will be done, 
unfolding from the depths within us. 
Each day you give us all that we need. 
You remind us of our limits and we let go. 
You support us in our power, and we act with courage. 
For you are the dwelling place within us, 
the empowerment around us, 
and the celebration among us,  
now and forever, Amen.  

Adapted by Miriam Therese Winter 


Donna: Please extend your hands and pray our blessing:

On this rock, we shall not build a prison nation. 

On this rock, we shall not build a nation where millions of children are homeless and hungry. 

On this rock, we shall not build churches that oppress the poor and women and turn a blind eye toward sexual violence within its gates and in its streets. 

On this rock, let us demonstrate belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God, a God of freedom, and not of oppression, a God of justice, love and peace.” 


(Adapted from words of Mitzi Smith, Working Preacher)


Closing Song: We Shall Be Known by MaMuse performed by Thrive East Bay Choir