Tag Archives: Los Ranchos Presbytery

the heart of the matter

 (a sermon preached at St. Mark Presbyterian Church, February 26, 2012)

Jimmy's family, with the photo of Jimmy's newly repaired heart.

Good morning. I bring you greetings from Baja California, from the small coastal town of La Mision, about an hour south of the border. It is there that I live, ordained by this presbytery, by a partnership, called Bridging Borders,  in which St. Mark has played a key role. I live there in a community of expatriate Americans, alongside two Mexican communities.

People often ask me what took me to La Mision—it was my parents, actually, since my first visit was as a six-month-old baby.

My grandmother lived in La Mision, for the last twenty years of her life. I live in her house, and though some of the furnishings have changed—thankfully—I still sit outside on the flagstone patio where I have photos of my grandmother sitting, and still walk through the same front door—it is a half door, that you can open just the top, but which also, in the winter, allows the cold to seep through the cracks—and wash dishes in the same sink.

I also bring you greetings from the Casa de Paz orphanage, about 40 minutes further south. It is the American community there in La Mision that has been building a relationship with Casa de Paz, and we, as the Bridging Borders Partnership, have been able to come alongside them as they seek to learn better how to love their neighbors, the children of Casa de Paz. Your amazing generosity in that endeavor has been a witness to the folks living in La Mision.

For you see, when you ordained me, none of us really had an idea of what might unfold from that. We took a risk. We took a risk to try something new, something a bit outside the box, something that hadn’t really ever been done quite like this before.

In fact, one of my neighbors, Kathy, who is not necessarily a churchgoing type, happened to be traveling in mainland Mexico. She met a man that was Presbyterian. “Oh, my neighbor is in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister.” She responded, and told him about this idea that I would be ordained in this very creative, unconventional way, and based, not in a church, but in this community, and then sent out into the world. “Oh, she must not be Presbyterian,” was his response.

But this Bridging Borders Partnership was created—folks from St. Mark, and from St. Andrews, from Santa Ana First and from Downey, from Placentia and from Village, our new church development down in Ladera Ranch. We came together, having a sense that God was calling something new into being, but not really having any idea how it would all unfold.


I wonder what that Syrophoenician woman was thinking on that particular day, as she searched for Jesus. I’m guessing it was the thought of her daughter that propelled her forward. Thoughts of her daughter’s need that pushed her to keep searching, even though, it seemed, that Jesus was hidden, and, it appears, maybe even intentionally so.

Maybe she had heard about this Jewish teacher, this man who had been doing amazing things.

But she was a Gentile, a foreigner. Not only that but a woman—how could she even dare to approach Jesus, much less ask him for a miracle for her daughter?

Biblical scholars suggest that, had there been a father or husband in the picture, it was likely that he would have been the one to approach Jesus since it would be a man’s role, not a woman’s.

So it is possible that this woman was not only a foreigner, but also without a husband to advocate on her behalf.

But maybe it took a mother’s love for her child in need to bridge the boundary lines of culture and race and ethnicity that separated this woman and her daughter’s healing, from the one who could most surely provide it.

I wonder what she was thinking that day, as she searched for Jesus?


Last fall I was at a birthday party in La Mision. The birthday party was for Becky, the daughter of the local pastor of the Mexican protestant church in town. Through a somewhat chance encounter, I had been introduced to Becky a few months before, and she had become my Spanish tutor as well as my friend. It was at that birthday party where I met Sarah, an American missionary, running a medical clinic in the local community.

As Sarah and I talked she happened to mention her frustration in trying to get treatment for Jimmy, a local man with a serious heart condition—called a coarctation of the aorta.

“I know Jimmy,” I said, remembering that my friend and neighbor Audi had helped the local American community raise some funds for the tests that Jimmy needed to undergo back in the spring. Many in the American community also know Jimmy, husband to Blanca and father of three young children, because of his work at the La Fonda restaurant, or as the son of Don Lucio, or because his brother Beto plays on the local baseball team.

Sarah continued to share the severity of the problem, it appeared, was beyond the capacity of the resources of the General Hospital in Tijuana. “At this point there really is no hope, short of a miracle,” said Sarah.

As we chatted it occurred to me that we, as the Los Ranchos Presbytery, have a partnership with Hoag Hospital—the hospital where I was born.

“Well, I might have some connections with Hoag Hospital, in Newport Beach,” I said to Sarah, telling her I could at least ask. I’m not sure that either one of us really thought that anything would come of it.

But as I went home that night it occurred to me that, because of where I happened to be born, were I to have this heart condition, I might die of it, but I surely would not die from lack of medical care. The least I can do is ask, I thought to myself.


Who knows what the Syrophonecian woman was thinking to herself, as she finally found Jesus. She fell down at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter.

Jesus, as the book of Mark tells it, had been on the go—the whole book is full of immediately this and then immediately that.

But in this story we find him retreating to the region of Tyre—which is Gentile, not Jewish country—and hoping to avoid notice. It would make sense that perhaps Jesus, after all of this being on the go, would need a bit of a breather.

And then, almost from nowhere it seems, in barges this woman. Not just a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not just a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. Perhaps not exactly the ideal person for an up and coming rabbi to being hanging out with.

She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. And Jesus, the Great Physician, Jesus, the wise teacher, Jesus who said “let the little children come unto me”, Jesus, the one we expect to be compassionate, especially to someone in such need says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Did he just compare the woman to a dog?

It’s one of the more troubling passages, about Jesus, and scholars have debated its meaning—was Jesus being tongue in cheek? Was he simply reflecting the prejudices of his day—Jews thought of Gentiles as dogs, a derogatory term—was he trying to bait her, to see how she would respond?

It’s a parable, of course. In the book of Mark Jesus often speaks in parables—in fact, he almost never says anything plainly.

Not long ago I posted something on facebook about dealing with rocky ground. All of my pastor type friends assumed I was using it as a metaphor. I had to explain that no, in fact, I had been planting carrots, and the rocky ground was making them grow all bent.

But in the gospel stories, and especially the book of Mark, Jesus speaks in parables. And the disciples, the ones who are with Jesus, the Jewish men, the right kind of people, are continually asking him, um, what did you mean?

We don’t know why Jesus said what he said that day.

But we do know how the woman responded. Her response was as sharp as it was quick—“Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.”

She got it. Not only did she get it, but she spoke back to Jesus, in a parable. This woman, this foreigner, spoke back to Jesus in his same language. She is the only one in the gospel stories to not only understand the parable, but to speak back to Jesus using a parable herself.

And Jesus says to her, for your words, your daughter has been healed. Not for her faith, but for her words.

She spoke up, defying all social convention, and the unbelievable happened—her daughter was healed.


I went home after that birthday party conversation about Jimmy. I emailed a few folks here at St. Mark, and at St. Andrews, that I knew had connections with Hoag.

At the November presbytery meeting I spoke with Don Oliver, Presbyterian chaplain at Hoag, and he told me he’d pass it on to Dr. Afable, Hoag’s CEO, who also happens to be a member of St. Andrews. “But it would be great if you happened to see him, say at church, if you would ask him yourself.”

The next week was Thanksgiving, and I went to St Andrews with my mom for their Thanksgiving service. “If you see Dr. Afable, could you point him out to me? I’ve got a question to ask him.”

After the service, as we were walking out of the sanctuary, she said “Oh, there’s Dr. Afable, right in front of us.”

I have to admit, I felt like a schmuck, bothering him on Thanksgiving day, at church.

But something compelled me, propelled me forward—at least you can ask, I thought to myself. So I did, introducing myself, and explaining the situation about Jimmy. He assured me that Hoag would do everything they could.

So, we got Jimmy’s medical chart info to the right people at Hoag, and then we waited. That was back in the fall.

I found myself thinking, there is no way that this prestigious, beautiful, state of the art hospital in Newport Beach would agree to cover all the costs for a complicated and fairly risky surgery for my Mexican neighbor Jimmy, son of Don Lucio and one of sixteen children, from tiny little La Mision—not only that, but to also work to get him an emergency medical visa so that he could even enter the US in the first place.

And then, about ten days ago, we got the good news. As Sarah told me, with tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug. The tears spread to my eyes as well.

Jimmy, who is at Hoag recovering as we speak, had open heart surgery on Friday. His family, his father Don Lucio, his sister Herminia, and his niece Vanessa, are here with us this morning.

It was with tears in his eyes yesterday that, in the 4th floor waiting area at Hoag, Don Lucio explained to Sarah and myself that in all of his 76 years he had never seen a miracle such as this fall from the heavens.

I wonder how long it took the Syrophoenician woman to get home that day? Had she left her daughter alone while she went to meet Jesus? I wonder what she must have been thinking, as she hurried home? But I’m guessing, as she entered the house and found her daughter well, it was with tears in her eyes that she picked her daughter up and gave her a hug, drawing her close to her heart.

On Friday afternoon, after the close to 8 hour surgery, Dr. Caffarelli, Jimmy’s heart surgeon, came into the waiting room to explain to the family what he had done in the surgery. The problem, as Sarah had explained it to us, was that it was as if someone was stepping on a garden hose, so not enough blood could get through. Normally the solution would be to simply replace the problematic part in the artery. But because Jimmy had had this condition from birth, the body had attempted to solve its own problem, by sending out all sorts of small blood vessels to try to get the blood where it needed to go. To operate in this area would be much too risky, due to the potential loss of blood.

“So what we had to do,” Dr. Caffarelli explained, was to bypass that area entirely. “So, we created a bridge.”

A bridge.

A bridge that allowed them to transcend all of the diseased areas, and allow the lifeblood to flow again, restoring his heart.

The word heart, has many meanings. Of course on Valentines Day we tend to associate it with love and chocolate and romance. But the word heart can also mean the center, the core, that which matters most, as in the heart of the matter.

And it seems to me that the heart of the matter is this:

That which pulses through the very center, beating life, bringing love, knows no boundaries—national, ethnic, or even theological.

And the bread on the table? It seems as though there is enough for everyone—for the children and for the dogs under the table. Maybe it’s time we throw open the doors, let the dogs in, and all get down on the floor and eat together.


outside in

Outside In
Sermon preached by Erin Dunigan on November 15, 2009
Acts 10:1-33

God, it seems, often has much bigger plans for us than we can often see ourselves. Sometimes calling us to a deeper place, a place that may even seem to break all the rules. But somehow along the way, we tend to forget that and have to be reminded again and again.

Kind of like Peter.

Our passage today seems to me like it would make a good movie—cutting from one scene to the next, pretty dramatic with all of those angelic visions appearing. And the timing of it is fantastic—just as Peter is having this strange vision, mysteriously three men arrive at the door looking for him. He is still so caught up in the vision and what it means that the Spirit has to shake him out of it and tell him to go answer the door.

To Peter’s credit, he is open to the new things that God is revealing to him, through the vision and through the visitors. I wonder, would we be so open? If God were to take what we thought was the way things worked, the way they were supposed to be, and turned them upside down? If all of a sudden one day God told us it was time to shake things up a bit…perhaps to turn the inside out, and turn the outside in…?


Earlier this year I decided that 2009 would be the year I learned to surf. I grew up by the beach, and have always wanted to know how to surf, but never have learned. It occurred to me that it is not too late to try, so this summer I got myself a used wetsuit and borrowed a friend’s board and began.

The first thing I realized is that it is a lot harder to stand up on a surfboard than it looks when you see people doing it. Not the actual balancing part, but the move from laying down to standing up part. I knew in my head what it was supposed to look like, but I could not seem to get my body to actually do it. After my first attempt left me with bloodied and skinned knees I realized I’d have to get some help to figure it out.


Peter couldn’t figure it out.  Sure he was hungry and all, but the vision didn’t seem to make any sense.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever gone grocery shopping when you are hungry, but when I do that pretty much anything seems to look good to me.  It doesn’t matter if it is something I would normally eat—if I’m hungry and it’s there, my stomach says eat.

So we might understand that if Peter went up on the roof to pray while he was hungry, he’d start to think about food. But the thing is, Peter was a good Jew and as a good Jew he followed dietary restrictions that were strict in what they allowed him to eat and absolutely prohibited him from eating.  It would be like us being hungry and praying and all of a sudden having a vision of a feast of rats…

But during this vision a voice tells Peter, not once but three times, ‘kill and eat.’

“Of course not Lord—I would never consider doing any such thing! I am a good Jew, I follow the rules, I know what is okay and what is not okay.”

So it makes sense that Peter was a bit confused as he awoke from the vision, and didn’t know what to make of it.

Was God telling him to break the rules? Was God changing the rules?


All of a sudden one day, while I was out ‘surfing’ or more like, ‘while I was out falling off the surfboard’ it happened…I popped up. I went from the position of lying down on the board to standing up in one relatively smooth motion. I was so excited that I immediately lost my balance and fell off—but it didn’t matter, I stood up! Sure, it was only whitewater that I was catching, not the actual breaking waves—those were much further out, in deeper water, and past where I could touch. I was thrilled. I could surf!

Each time I went out I got better and better, so that I rarely fell and could pretty much stay standing on the board all the way into the shore. Yes, I was still catching the whitewater, but hey, I could stand up!

All this time I had been learning I was in Mexico, mostly with a group of friends who were body boarding at the same time. Then one day I saw that a couple of other surfers were heading out into the waves.  They waved to us as they paddled out beyond the whitewater where we were, out into the deep water, where the waves were breaking.

As I watched them catch the waves further out, I realized that what I had been calling surfing was really only the first step—sure, I could now pop up and stand up, but if you are going to surf you’ve got to move beyond just catching the whitewater. If you’re going to surf, you’ve got to get, what they call, ‘outside’ to where the waves are forming. It’s deep out there so you can’t just stand up with the board next to you; ready to jump on when the next whitewater comes along. You’ve got to be willing to go deeper, to risk not being able to touch, and to be willing to fall in the process.


The thing about Peter was, he was willing to act, even if he didn’t really understand what was going on. The vision he had had made no sense to him, and now three strange men had showed up at the door with a rather crazy story of God appearing to a soldier…a Gentile.

Peter’s head must have been swimming by this point. “Okay, I’ve just had this vision of God telling me to eat what any good Jew knows is unclean, and how this? Now the same God is showing up in visions to Gentiles, telling them to call for me? What is going on here Lord, what are you up to, what are you doing? Aren’t you changing all the rules? I thought you were our God, remember, the chosen people of Israel? What are you doing speaking to those kind of people? And what in the world do you want me to do about it? I’m trying to be faithful to you, I’m telling the news about Jesus to your people, the Jews. What more do you want from me?” But God, it seems, was calling Peter to go outside.

Now, as a Jew Peter knew that there were two groups of people—the Jews, of which he was a part, God’s chosen people, and the Gentiles, which was basically everyone else who was not Jewish.  What was the God of Israel, the God of the Jews, doing showing up talking to Cornelius, a Gentile? This was more than uncommon—it was unclean, as far as Peter was concerned.

But God had other plans. The Spirit nudged Peter out of his confusion and told him to go with the men, asking no questions. Peter invited the men in, then he and some other believers went with them the next day (on a two day journey) to the house of Cornelius.

When they arrived not only did they find Cornelius, but he had gathered his friends and family together as well.

It was then that the light bulb went off for Peter, it was then that he saw that God was calling him to venture beyond the whitewater out toward the forming waves…

We might be tempted to miss this, but don’t—this is huge. One of the major ways to know who was a Jew and who was not was what one ate and who one ate it with. In the vision, which Peter now understands, God said to him “You know the ways that you know who is in and who is out? Well, actually, those aren’t my ways…”

Peter walked in and said to them,

You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

So why did you send for me?

Cornelius answers, telling the story of the vision from God saying

Therefore I sent for you immediately and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.

Can you imagine if that were to happen today?

Last week I was at a conference for New Church Development pastors. One of the speakers was pastor Muriithi Wanjau, the pastor of Mavuno Chapel in Nairobi Kenya. In 2005 the existing church decided to split into five churches, each in a different geographic region of Nairobi. Pastor Muriithi became the pastor of Mavuno Chapel, which means church of the harvest. Their goal is to reach out to those in their neighborhood who are not a part of the church already.

In Kenya 80% of the population claims to be Christian, but on any given Sunday only 16% are actually in church. It’s not all that unlike the United States in that way, is it?

Pastor Muriithi and the leaders of the Mavuno Chapel feel that God is calling them to those who are the least likely to show up in a church—in fact, they have gotten in trouble with some of the ‘church people’ for the kind of folks they are attracting. Their favorite thing to do at their staff meetings Monday following that Sunday’s services is to say, did you see who was in church on Sunday? Mavuno Chapel is drawing in people who, in the words of pastor Muriithi, have no business being in church.


After Peter spoke with those gathered at Cornelius’ household the Holy Spirit came upon all who were gathered. The other believers with Peter, also good Jews, were shocked that the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles—they thought that the message of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit were reserved for the Jews.  They thought that they Holy Spirit had no business showing up in a room full of Gentiles. The entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, was a story of God and the People of Israel, wasn’t it?  It had never occurred to them that God’s vision might just be larger than anything they could have imagined.

When word got back to the believers in Jerusalem that Peter had baptized a bunch of Gentiles there were some who were not pleased with the news. What was Peter doing associating with those kind of people? And not only associating with them, but baptizing them too?! Those kind of people had no business being in church…


We might be tempted to think this is just a story from the Bible, and things that happen in Kenya are pretty far away from our lives, our world, from Long Beach.

But I wonder if God is trying to get our attention?

I wonder if we in the church today, here in Long Beach and in the Los Ranchos Presbytery and even in the United States, I wonder if we have gotten comfortable surfing the whitewater, and yet God is calling us to paddle out, to the deeper waters, where we can’t touch, where we might fall, but where we might just catch the wave that God has been preparing?

I wonder if God is calling those of us who are inside the church to go out, and if God is calling the outside in? What would that look like?

I wonder what it might look like for us to realize along with Peter, that truly God shows no partiality, absolutely none, and that it is not ours to call anyone profane or unclean?

For that day in Caesarea, at the house of Cornelius, there was most definitely a conversion. We might be tempted to think that it was Cornelius and his household that were converted, and of course, their hearing of the gospel and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit were life-changing—but the thing is, Cornelius was already a devout man who gave to the poor and prayed constantly to God. For Cornelius, Peter’s words that day confirmed something he had already begun to believe, helped Cornelius meet a God who had already been speaking to him.

But if conversion means a turning around, a change of heart and of mind, I wonder if it was not Peter who was converted that day as well? Converted into widening his vision for who God might be calling. Converted into realizing that the message he had been preaching was for all people, regardless of who they are.

What about the early church itself?  The baptism of Cornelius and his household was the beginning of the message of the gospel of Jesus moving outside, out from simply being a message to the Jews, and toward a message for all people. It is because of that day that we sit here today.

As individuals and as a church I wonder, is God calling us to go outside, for the benefit of the world, but even for our own conversion, and for the conversion of our church?

And I wonder if God just may have much bigger plans for us than we as individuals or as a church can imagine…?

Call and remembrance (next week is it…the big vote)

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”  -Parker Palmer

Somehow, the above quote seemed rather appropriate, no? 🙂

I’ve been wanting to post an update to my plea for ‘why Erin should be ordained’ responses earlier this summer, but I’ve also been waiting until I had something to say other than “we’re still meeting…”  We did meet. Multiple times. (How did you spend your summer vacation?) There is only one step left…

But here’s the amazing thing—the product of all that meeting is a ‘call’ that is solid in all the ways that it needs to be for Presbyterian stuff, and yet is also vibrant and creative and willing to engage in the unknown of trying something new. I’m so thankful for the partnership of churches within the Los Ranchos Presbytery that has come together to make this ‘legitimate’ but that is also willing to take a risk to (hopefully) ordain me to be more of a minister to the world, rather than a minister to one particular congregation.

There is still one step remaining in the process—next week, September 17, I will be going before the entire presbytery (pastors and elders from the 50+ churches) to be ‘examined’ for ordination. This is a time when they can ask me pretty much any question and then vote whether or not to ordain me to what is technically called a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Supposedly no one, if they have gotten this far, has ever been voted down at that point. People keep telling me that, I think as an encouragement. I remind them there’s always a first time for everything. 😉

Anyway, for those of you who are in the area (the meeting will be in Fullerton) and who would like to come to the presbytery meeting you are more than invited and I can give you the details. However, the bigger event, provided my ordination is approved, is a “Service for Ordination to Word and Sacrament.” Since I won’t know for sure until next week that this will happen, don’t book a plane ticket yet, but if you are able to keep the afternoon October 18 available, it is looking like that will be the date of the service. I would LOVE for you to come—some of you have been along for the ride on this journey since it began 9 years ago, others of you I’ve roped in along the way, and I am so thankful for all of you and appreciate the part that you’ve played in helping me ‘listen for what life intends to do with me.’

Today is also the 5th anniversary of my dad’s death. In some ways it seems like a very long time ago, and in some ways I wonder how five years could have already passed. My dad had hoped to live to see me ordained. This process clearly was not on that time schedule, nor on the one I would have chosen, had it been up to me—who wants to ‘languish’ in the process for so long? But at the same time, the call to ordination that will be voted on next week could never have happened in this way, five years ago—I just didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle then. Though the waiting was often frustrating, and felt as though there was no end in sight (I remember writing an email about Shasta Daisies taking two years to flower and thinking that was WAY to long to wait for something), I am amazed at how, out of that waiting and the not knowing, this has come to be.

Another quote from the book by Parker Palmer: “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening.” Thank you for listening along with me, even in the midst of my sometimes willful journey.