Sunday, October 02, 2022

Even in a Time of Lengthening Shadows, the Promise of Renewal

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
October 3, 2022

Year C, Proper 22: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Even in a Time of Lengthening Shadows, the Promise of Renewal

So, it was just a few weeks ago that I stood up here and talked about seeing the first gold and brown leaves beginning to fall along the rail trail and here on our church campus.
We all knew what was coming. And yet, doesn’t it feel like we suddenly turned the page from summer to fall?
Just like that, it’s October!
I like the fall, with its more comfortable temperatures and the beautiful foliage.
And while we certainly had a rich and full summer here at St. Thomas’, fall feels like the time to get back to work – Sunday School has resumed in its beautiful new space - the full choir is back (and processing before and after the service, which, I have to say, looks really sharp!) – at last week’s Outreach Forum, we dreamed about even more ways to live into our calling as a “servant church” – and our stewardship campaign is off to an exciting start, calling all of us to be generous, giving thanks for God’s abundant generosity.
So, it’s a great time, and I feel excited and energized.
I say “mostly” because, while I like the fall, I’m always saddened by the shorter days.
It’s already too dark to squeeze in an early morning walk on the rail trail.
And, to me, the lengthening shadows of the Northern Hemisphere seem to reflect the shadowy news from so much of the world – the increasingly dangerous war in Ukraine, the unimaginably devastating floods in Pakistan, the destruction caused by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian in the Caribbean and Florida – the rise of of hate and violence in our country and in so many places.
And the lengthening shadows seem to reflect the hard times faced by a lot of people, including some of us - the strain caused by inflation, the troubles of illness and age, the heartbreak of broken relationships, and the fear of what is yet to come.
It is a time of lengthening shadows, for sure.
And in times of trouble, a natural reaction is lament – to grieve what and who have been lost - just like how the people of Israel wept over the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC, mourning the loss of what they considered the most sacred place in the world, grieving that so many of their people had been exiled, maybe forever, in faraway Babylon.
In today’s lessons, we actually heard two selections from the Book of Lamentations, which is a biblical collection of poems written probably not long after Jerusalem had been sacked and so many people had been scattered.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”
Much of Lamentations is quite sad, understandably so, but what keeps it from being depressing is an undercurrent of hope, a persistent faith in God that seems to me to be a whole lot larger than a mustard seed.
In today’s second selection from Lamentations, despite the deep shadows, the terrible losses, all the bad news, we heard this:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
One commentator compared the beautiful faith-filled poetry of Lamentations to the traditional Jewish prayer on waking in the morning:
“I thank You, everliving King, who has mercifully restored my soul within me; ample is your grace.”
With God, even in a time of lengthening shadows, there is always the promise of renewal.

As you know, today’s rain has prevented us from having our Blessing of the Animals service, a service offered in honor of Francis of Assisi, but I’d still like to say a few words about him.
Francis is often depicted as a kind of of adorable oddball, preaching to the birds, commanding a wolf to stop terrorizing people. So, we stick him out in the birdbath, bless the animals once a year, and that’s about it. 
But he’s there’s much more to his story.
Francis was born in Italy in either 1180 or 1181 and grew up in a well-to-do family - his father was a successful silk merchant. As a youth, Francis was high-spirited and popular, enjoying the finer things of life. 
When Francis was about 20, he joined a military expedition against a neighboring city. He was taken prisoner and held for a year, which must have been a traumatic experience, probably causing him to lose his taste for chivalry and combat and to turn his attention toward God.
The story goes that one day he was praying in a ruined chapel when suddenly he heard the voice of Jesus calling to him from a crucifix, saying:
“Francis, Francis, go and repair my church which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Reasonably enough, Francis interpreted this as a buildings and grounds problem and so he went and secretly sold some of his father’s cloth and gave the money to the priest to repair the chapel, money the priest refused to accept by the way.
But, of course, Jesus was calling Francis to something much bigger and more important than fixing up a falling-down chapel.
Francis lived in a time of lengthening shadows, days when the Church had largely lost its way, more interested in worldly wealth and power than in following Jesus of Nazareth who called his followers to give away their possessions – Jesus who had no home of his own.
So, with faith far larger than a mustard seed, Francis took Jesus at his word, gave away everything that he had, celebrated God’s good creation, and proclaimed the Good News with words, yes, but through his life, most of all.
And, maybe most amazing of all, people responded to Francis’s vision – they continue to respond to Francis’ vision - which was always really just Jesus’ vision of the God’s kingdom where the poor and the hungry and the mourners are the ones truly blessed. 
With God, even in a time of shadow, there is always the promise of renewal.

When Jesus says to his disciples, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…” it’s not clear if he’s criticizing them (“You don’t even have that tiny amount of faith!”), or if he’s encouraging them (“Even your tiny faith can do amazing things!”)
I’m going with option two – and I think you should, too!
Because in a time of lengthening shadows, when there is much to mourn and much to fear, often it’s hard to have faith even the size of a mustard seed, I know.
And yet, while we could let the shadows overcome us, we here at St. Thomas’ during this season of renewal have an undercurrent of hope, a persistent faith in God and faith in the future, like the poets who wrote Lamentations, like Francis who took Jesus at his word.
There’s the devoted team that worked at offering hospitality to Afghan refugees and has now welcomed Hizbullah to our community, helping him as he builds a new life here.
There are all the people who keep donating diapers and other hygiene products to our Bottoms Up program, giving it all away to clients at the Community Crisis Center, people we’ll never know and who won’t be able to thank us.
There are all the parishioners zooming into weekly Bible study, puzzling over ancient texts, trusting that God still has something to say to us through these old stories.
There are the parents bringing their children here for Sunday School. True, it’s no longer the thing that everybody just does, but these parents are convinced that this is an important preparation – an essential foundation - for their kids’ lives, especially for the inevitable hard times.
I don’t know how to measure faith, if it’s bigger or smaller than a mustard seed. All I know is that God is doing amazing things through us.

So, just like that, it’s October.
The shadows are lengthening and the news is often grim indeed.
But, like our spiritual ancestors, we know that, with God, even in a time of lengthening shadows, there is always the promise of renewal.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Sunday, September 18, 2022

A Cohesive Renewal

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
September 18, 2022

Year C, Proper 20: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

A Cohesive Renewal

Now, I’m not interested in making anyone feel bad, but if you missed our Renewal Sunday celebrations last week, well, you missed something pretty special.
Thanks to the hard work, dedication, creativity, and generosity of so many of our parishioners and our church staff, we had quite a time here.
The rain did not dampen our joy. In fact, as I ad-libbed last week, the rain actually fit in perfectly with the theme of the day.
After all, there can be no renewal without water – both the water of baptism and the water that falls from the sky and waters the earth, including the new trees planted outside in honor of Rev. Ann and Rev. Caroline.
Several parishioners mentioned that our indoor parish picnic felt a lot like old times – so many of us together, so much joy in the room, enjoying good food and drink – including the tasty frozen desserts served by our own ice cream man, Bob Brennen!
As you can probably guess, the only thing that might have made me happier is if we had a baptism or two!
During the past week, it’s been gratifying to receive so much positive feedback about the day – how beautiful the music was, how great the Sunday School room looks, and how appropriate it was that we had a service project, creating gift bags for the hardworking teachers at Owings Mills Elementary School.
My favorite comment came from a parishioner who said that the whole day was “cohesive.”
I love that because that was exactly the idea – that the theme of “renewal” would pervade our entire day, from our worship to the party, just as we hope and pray that God will renew our entire church, that God will renew our entire world, that God will renew our entire lives.
A cohesive renewal.
After such a great day last week, I would have really liked today’s gospel lesson to be the kind of Bible passage that would make our hearts sing.
But, instead, we are given one of Jesus’ most difficult and troubling parables, a real head-scratcher that’s sometimes called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
We’re told that there was a rich man and this rich man has been informed that his manager has been “squandering his property.”
We don’t know exactly what this “squandering” was – and, for that matter, we don’t know for sure if these charges are even true – we can all imagine scenarios where someone might come up with a false accusation to get rid of the manager.
But, guilty or not, the manager sees the writing on the wall.
And he knows himself well enough to know that he’s not cut out for manual labor and he’s too proud to beg.
So, thinking and moving fast, the manager goes to a couple of people indebted to the rich man and slashes what they owe, hoping that when he’s out of work and out of a home, they will look kindly on him and help him out.
Exactly what’s happening here is unclear.
It could be that the manager is eliminating his commission – which wouldn’t be dishonest – or maybe he’s falsifying the rich man’s records, which, uh, would be dishonest – true to the character a manager who had been “squandering” the rich man’s property.
But then things take some unexpected turns.
First, the rich man commends the manager for his shrewdness.
That’s hard to figure out.
But, even more puzzling, Jesus seems to approve as well, suggesting that if his followers – “the children of light” – are shrewd like the manager then we will be welcomed into “the eternal homes.”
Well, since we have rad other parts of the Bible, we can be sure that Jesus is not teaching us to cheat or to be dishonest.
But, I think that this rather confusing parable is another way for Jesus to say that his disciples should be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
We live in a world of limited resources, a world of dollars and cents, a world where our budgets – our personal budget – our church budget – our national budget – are all in fact moral documents, revealing what we truly value, and what we don’t value very much at all.
We need to be savvy with what we have – to not squander and certainly not cheat like the manager may have – but use our resources carefully, building wealth so that we can do the most good that we can. 
And, this week’s news provided a real-life example of what Jesus might have in mind for us: the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia.

Since it was founded by a counter-cultural rock climber Yvon Chouinard in 1973, Patagonia has been in the lead in using organic materials, providing day care for children of employees, and being good caretakers of the environment.
Not being outdoorsy myself, I don’t think I’ve ever bought or worn a Patagonia product, but people seem to really like their stuff because the company has been hugely successful, making its founder a billionaire, apparently much to his dismay.
Just recently, he and his family worked out a complicated plan to transfer their ownership of the company, worth about $3 billion, to a trust and nonprofit organization.
Putting this together took a lot of shrewdness – I don’t pretend to understand it all – and some skeptics think it’s just a clever way for the family to avoid a big tax bill, but it sure looks like this clever family has sacrificed great wealth to ensure that Patagonia will stay true to its principles, using all of its profits to fight climate change and protect sensitive lands around the world.
So, I don’t know if the skeptics are right or not, but the positive interpretation of what they’re doing really is like what Jesus has in mind: be clever and make money, yes, sure, but then use that wealth for good.

So, next Sunday will be the start of our Stewardship Campaign here at St. Thomas’.
And, you know that this place has been long blessed with significant financial resources, and at least as important, we’re also blessed with savvy and clever people who take good care of what has been entrusted to us, allowing me to sleep quite well, actually.
  I won’t be preaching next week, so I want to say this today:
My hope is that the cohesive renewal that is happening at St. Thomas’ will include all of us taking a prayerful and thoughtful look at our budgets, our budgets which tell us what we really value and we don’t value all that much.
My hope is that our cohesive renewal will include us reflecting on just how blessed we are, how much we have to be grateful for.
In my case, especially after last week, I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve got to be the most fortunate priest in the Episcopal Church!
And I hope that our cohesive renewal will inspire us to be as generous as we can with this amazing church, moving us beyond depending so much on the wealth left behind by others, renewing the sense that this is our church and we are responsible for taking care of it, providing the resources to do the work that God has given us to do, providing the resources for the future ministries that God is preparing for us as we speak.  
So, may God continue to renew this old church.
May God give us the gift of a cohesive renewal.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The God of Renewal

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
September 11, 2022

Year C, Proper 19: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Renewal Sunday
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

The God of Renewal

I’ve mentioned to you before that I really like taking early morning walks along the NCR Trail, about a twenty minute drive from here.
And when you follow the same route day after day, you start to notice small changes, things that might escape the eye of someone who was walking along there for the first time.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that just a few gold and brown leaves were beginning to fall, beginning to dot the trail under my feet.
By now, there are leaves along the trail, lots of leaves have fallen all over the place, including here around the church, where they will soon become a nearly daily challenge for our sextons, Ricky and Chris.
And we all know what’s to come.
Soon enough most of the trees will be bare, standing starkly against the sky.
Our part of the world will lose much of its color, growing colder, at times seeming almost lifeless.
You won’t be surprised to know that we have a herd of deer that spend a lot of time around the rectory. Now, I know how many of you feel about deer! But, since Sue and I are not exactly avid gardeners, we enjoy seeing them, especially the three fawns who love to run and bounce all around but still usually stick close to mom.
For now, at least, it’s a kind deer paradise over there. But I’ve wondered what the fawns will make of their first fall and winter, their first touch of coldness, the time when the grass and foliage are much less abundant, the time they feel the first pangs of hunger, loss, and fear.
I don’t know what a young deer thinks about any of this – or if they do think about it – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they might just assume that this is the way it’s going to be forever.
But, we – even those of us who are not avid gardeners – we know better.
We know that, while everything seems cold and quite dead, in fact new life is being prepared in secret, just waiting to rise again, like Jesus freed from the tomb on the first Easter morning.
God is the God of Renewal.
We see the God of Renewal at work in nature, and if we’ve been around for any length of time, we have all experienced the God of Renewal at work in our lives, during the times when suffering seems just too great to endure.
We encounter the God of Renewal at work during times of lost-ness, when it feels like we have lost too many or too much, when we can no longer see clearly the way forward, when it sure feels like all hope is lost.
And yet we discover strength we didn’t know we possessed – we receive help from friends we didn’t even know we had – we receive the grace of courage and fortitude that only God can give – we were lost but now we are found.
I’m mindful that, in the midst of our day of celebration, this is also a solemn day, as we recall the terror attacks on our nation twenty-one years ago.
And yet, those of us who remember that terrible day and the frightening and uncertain days that followed, also remember the spirit of goodwill that bloomed here in our land and throughout much of the world.
As it happens, it was Queen Elizabeth II who offered some of the wisest words during that terrible time of lost-ness, wisdom that has stuck with me. The Queen who, despite her great privilege, knew something about loss, reminded us that, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
And, whenever I read or hear that quote, I can almost hear St. Paul adding, “Love never ends.”
Especially in times of lost-ness and loss, God is always at work, offering us love, renewing the love between and among us.

All of us have been through a time of lost-ness over these past couple of years.
Venerable Institutions and norms of behavior that once seemed rock solid, have been revealed as shockingly wobbly, in decline, unreliable, and rejected by many.
We have endured a pandemic that stunned us, forcing us to face our fragility and limitations – a pandemic that took precious lives from us - a pandemic that forced us to take steps previously unthinkable, like keeping the church doors closed on Sunday, keeping the doors closed for many Sundays.
But, just like the shepherd who, let’s face it, kind of crazily leaves the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep, just like the woman who relentlessly cleans her home until she finds that one lost coin, the God of Renewal does not give up on us.
In a time of so much suffering and loss, God has remained at work, opening our hearts to be even more loving and generous, giving us courage to keep going even when we double-masked and fanatically sanitized our shopping carts and grocery bags.
And you know that the God of Renewal has been working overtime here at St. Thomas’!
I first fell in love with this church when I heard how, back in the early days of the pandemic, some of you made masks and hung them up on the parish hall door so that anyone in the community – people we don’t know and will never know – could have some comfort and safety.
The God of Renewal has been working overtime at St. Thomas’, lifting up exceptional lay leaders, especially Tony Seville and Jesse VanGeison who held this place together during a long and occasionally contentious time between rectors.
The God of Renewal has been working overtime at St. Thomas’, sending us two wonderful old friends, two loving shepherds, Ann Copp and Caroline Stewart, who we thank and honor in a special way today.
And, for the past 14 months or so, I’ve seen the God of Renewal hard at work here at St. Thomas’ – as people who had left for a time have made there way back to us, as new people have taken the big step of crossing that well-worn threshold into this old holy place.
The God of Renewal has been at work as lay people take turns leading Bible discussions on Zoom, as a determined group persisted in the dream of offering hospitality to people from Afghanistan, a dream that seemed almost out of reach until just last week when at last we welcomed our brother Hizbullah to our community.
The God of Renewal has been at work as we created a beautiful new website, a website which in just its first week has already drawn at least one new newcomer to our church!
Even for the God of Renewal, this is all pretty amazing, wouldn’t you say?
Both of today’s parables end with celebration.
After the shepherd finds the lost sheep and after the woman finds her lost coin, they don’t keep their joy to themselves. No, they invite people over for a party to celebrate that what was lost has been found, that hope has been renewed.
So, that’s what we’re doing here today on Renewal Sunday.
And, since for us Christians, renewal begins in the water of Baptism, in a moment we will renew our baptismal promises.
And, here’s the thing. If, with God’s help, we continue to take these big baptismal promises seriously, then the God of Renewal will continue to use this old church - God will continue to use us - to renew our weary and worn world, from Owings Mills to Baltimore City and beyond.
So the young fawns frolicking around the rectory may not know it – and, especially in moments of loss and fear, we may forget it – but God is the God of Renewal.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

The Cost and the Blessing of Discipleship for Philemon and for Us

St. Thomas’ Church, Owings Mills MD
September 4, 2022

Year C, Proper 18: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

The Cost and the Blessing of Discipleship for Philemon and for Us

In today’s Gospel lesson, we’re told that, “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.”
I suspect that these large crowds were following Jesus because they had seen or heard about his healings, maybe even his Sabbath healings, like the time Jesus set free the bent-over woman and she stood up straight!
Maybe these large crowds were following Jesus because they wanted to see more of these wonder works, or maybe they longed for healing for themselves or for those they loved.
Or maybe the large crowds were attracted to Jesus’ parables, the strange and challenging stories that opened new ways of looking at the world and new ways of thinking about God, stories that must have kept people scratching their heads for days.
Now, most normal religious leaders, present company included, would want to hold onto these big numbers – to keep growing the church, let’s say.
But, as we heard today, rather than trying to please the crowd, rather than sugarcoating his message, Jesus instead offers some hard words, some difficult teaching.
Jesus warns that there is a cost to following him – a cost that should be carefully calculated before making the decision to follow Jesus.
Now, it’s true that God’s grace is free – there’s nothing we could ever do to earn or buy God’s grace.
But there is a cost.
The cost is how we respond to grace.
There is a cost to putting Jesus first, ahead of even our closest family attachments, ahead of all our worldly goods.
There is a cost to keeping our baptismal promises – a cost to proclaiming the Good News in word and example – a cost to loving our neighbor as our self – a cost to striving for justice and peace among all people – a cost to respecting the dignity of every human being.
Grace is free, but there is a cost to following Jesus – a cost for us today and a cost for disciples two thousand years ago.
Like, for example, a man named Philemon, who, as we heard in today’s second lesson, once received quite a remarkable letter from St. Paul.
 In this short letter, we get a glimpse of Paul conducting some business. It’s a personal  - but not quite private – letter. Paul addresses it to Philemon and to others in his household.
It’s a letter that was valued and saved and shared by early Christians and eventually ended up in the New Testament.
And, it’s a letter that gives us a glimpse of the cost of following Jesus.
So let’s try to unpack what’s going on here.
Paul is writing to a man named Philemon and he’s writing about one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus – a name which means “useful.”
Now, before I continue, I want to mention that unlike the way slavery was practiced in our country, slavery in the ancient world was generally not a dehumanizing institution. Slaves were very much still seen as people and some even rose to prominent positions. Slaves were not necessarily slaves forever. But, having said that, it was still better to be free than to be a slave.
So, as we read Paul’s letter – and, of course, unfortunately we only have one side of this correspondence – we learn that Philemon’s slave Onesimus has been serving Paul while the apostle has been in prison.
Notice the wordplay on the name Onesimus. Paul writes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”
We’re not told how or why Onesimus ended up serving Paul. 
Maybe Philemon had loaned out his slave – or, maybe, Onesimus had run away and gone to Paul for safe harbor.
We just don’t know how it all went down, but the slave Onesimus has been with Paul, and he has become a Christian. 
And now Paul is writing to Philemon – who is also a Christian - with a big ask.
But, because Paul is being so indirect we don’t know exactly what he’s asking.
It could be that Paul is asking Philemon to let Onesimus stay with him indefinitely.
It could be that Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus whatever he’s done and welcome him back.
Or, it could be that Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus – to welcome him back not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ.
So, we don’t know exactly what’s going on but we know it’s a big ask because Paul lays it on pretty thick. Listen to this again:
“…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love – and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
And there’s this:
“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, charge that to my account.”
And, finally:
“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
And, that’s it.
We don’t know how Philemon responded.
But, we do know that Paul’s appeal to either forgive or free Onesimus forced Philemon to face the cost of discipleship.

So, the other day someone asked me how I was doing, after just a little more than a year as your rector.
I answered that I feel like the most fortunate priest in the Episcopal Church.
There are a lot of reasons why I feel so blessed, but the most important one is that so many of you – so many people here at St. Thomas’ - are so often willing to pay the cost of discipleship, with God’s help, of course.
Two examples:
Since before I arrived, Bob Kenyon has been eager to overhaul our church website, generously willing to use a lot of his own time and expertise to get the job done.
A few months ago, Bob and I put together a small committee with Margaret Green and Sana Brooks, along with Sara Hollands, who has added parish communications to her children and youth responsibilities.
Week after week we met, poring over every word, learning new technology, carefully choosing each picture, prayerfully striving to create something both beautiful and useful, a site that would let hungry people out there know that we’ve got the Best Food right here, and they are all welcome to feast with us. 
When you visit the website, I think you ‘ll see and feel the love and the care and the time and the effort – the sacrifice - that went into creating it.
The cost = and the blessing - of discipleship.
Second example:
One day about a year ago, Louis Hogan and I were having lunch. Our conversation turned to the chaos then unfolding in Afghanistan, as people – especially many people who had assisted our country – desperately tried to flee. 
We might have just left it at sadness and disgust, or even talked about donating some money to organizations that were trying to help these people. But instead, Louis wondered if maybe we could actually welcome Afghan refugees here, sacrificing some of our own space, sacrificing some of our own comfort, to do something really generous for at least a few people who had lost so much.
Well, many of you know what happened next.
We assembled a group of talented parishioners who looked long and hard at the assistant’s house. Others, especially Betsy Wilmerding and Page Seville, spent countless hours learning the byzantine rules of refugee resettlement. We made friends and formed partnerships with people in other organizations and congregations.
And we hit more obstacles than we can or would ever want to remember.
So much time, talent, and treasure.
So much patience and faithfulness.
So much sacrifice.
And now, after nearly a year of planning and waiting, a young Afghan man, sponsored by us and our partners, will be arriving in our community on Tuesday afternoon.
The cost – and the blessing - of discipleship.

But, wait, don’t you really want to know what Philemon chose to do?
Well, there are two tantalizing clues.
In the Letter to the Colossians, a Christian named… Onesimus is mentioned in passing. We’re told he’s on his way to Colossae.
And there’s also a very old tradition that Onesimus was not only freed by Philemon, but went on to become a bishop in the city of Ephesus and later gave his life for his faith.
Do we know any of this for sure?
No, we don’t.
But, since Paul’s letter was saved and made it into the Bible, I like to think that, yes, at least in this case, Philemon was willing to pay the high cost of following Christ – that he accepted the cost – and received the blessing – of discipleship.
May the same be true for us.
And, now, for real this time: Amen!

Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Heavenly Banquet, Right Here and Right Now

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
August 28, 2022

Year C, Proper 17: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

The Heavenly Banquet, Right Here and Right Now

So, have I mentioned to you how much I love baptizing people?
No, it’s true.
And while I think every Baptism is really joyful, I have to say that our two Baptisms last Sunday were just off the charts joyful. 
The two children, Teddy and Lily, are adorable – and, by the way, they remained nearly silent during the service.
And Teddy and Lily were surrounded by so much love from the family and friends gathered around them here in person, and from those tuning in via live stream across the pond in Ireland and England.
The choir has special connections with both children, so the music was even more beautiful than usual, if you can imagine that.
Just like at every Baptism, there were some big promises made and renewed.
We pledged to resist evil and to repent when we sin.
We vowed to proclaim by word and example the Good News – to seek and serve Christ in absolutely everybody, loving our neighbor as our self – to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
They really are big promises, promises that can only be kept with God’s help.
But, as I reflected on today’s gospel lesson, I kept hearing the words of one of the baptismal promises – one that maybe doesn’t sound quite so big or so difficult.
We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
With God’s help, of course.

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember that we heard the story of Jesus healing the bent-over woman in the synagogue on what must have been a most memorable Sabbath morning.
The leader of the synagogue was unhappy with Jesus, arguing that this kind of healing – this kind of work – should not be done on the Sabbath.
Well, today’s gospel lesson is also set during the Sabbath, but rather than being in the synagogue, this time Jesus has been invited to the home of a leader of the Pharisees for a meal.
Luke tells us that the other guests – maybe other Pharisees – were watching Jesus closely, which sounds kind of ominous, especially since we know that the Pharisees are usually depicted as opposing Jesus.
Then again, wouldn’t we keep our eyes on Jesus if we were sitting at the table with him?
We didn’t get to hear it in today’s selection, but right after we’re told that Jesus was at the home of the Pharisee leader, he heals someone again – yes, once again on the Sabbath!
So, this Sabbath healing on top of last week’s incident might make us expect that this meal is about to be spoiled by hostility and conflict.
But, probably wisely, the Pharisees don’t comment on Jesus healing on the Sabbath.
Instead, Jesus takes the initiative and offers some teaching for both guests and hosts.
Guests, don’t take the best seats for yourself because someone more important may come along and you’ll be forced to move and won’t that be embarrassing!
Hosts, don’t invite people who can repay your hospitality, but instead invite the poor and the weak – only invite the people who can never repay your hospitality.
Now, Jesus isn’t some kind of divine Emily Post, teaching us about etiquette!
No, Jesus is pointing to the heavenly banquet where we will all gather around the table, where the poor and the suffering and the humble will get the best seats.
And Jesus is suggesting that we don’t have to wait until we’re dead to feast at the heavenly banquet – the heavenly banquet is already underway right here and right now, and, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes – we can entertain angels right here and now.

Now, some of you may think that I lived my whole life in New Jersey before moving here last year.
But, actually that’s not true.
About a decade ago, Sue and I spent a year in Gainesville, Florida, where I served as rector of a small church and the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida.
Since we were ministering to college students who, during the weekend at least, are not known to be early risers, our Sunday service at the university chapel was later in the day – at 5:00, I think.
We usually had a pretty good turnout for the service, in part because each week, parishioners from local Episcopal churches would provide a hot, homemade meal that we enjoyed after the service.
Since the food was always good and lovingly prepared and generously served, the word got out. And so, in addition to the students, we were joined by an interesting assortment of other hungry people – some were homeless or close to it – some were a little smelly and unkempt – some seemed to have no one else in their life so this was their one chance each week to break bread with others, to enjoy lively and friendly conversation.
I might have predicted that the students would resent these other guests, or that they would be uncomfortable or even afraid, but that was not the case at all.
We put several tables together into a T-shape, so there was no place was more or less prominent than any other.
And as we all sat around the table together, as we all enjoyed the food and each other, I remember looking around and thinking that this is what Jesus calls us to – that this is entertaining angels without knowing it – that this is a little taste of the heavenly banquet, right here and right now.

When I prepare people for Baptism – usually parents who want to have their children baptized, I go over the big promises that they will be making.
When we get to the promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” I usually sum that one up as a promise to be here with us in church – where we certainly do get a taste of the heavenly banquet.
But, you know, over the centuries the church – not just St. Thomas’ but the whole church – has so ritualized what we do here – constructing special buildings with seating that, if not reserved, often feels that way – we’ve formalized things so much that we’ve moved a long way from the kind of banquet that Jesus taught about on that long ago Sabbath at the Pharisee’s house.
So, the promise to break bread together is not only a promise to make it our business to be here on Sunday but also to share our table with other people, all sorts of people, especially the poor and the weak, the people who can never repay our hospitality.

You know, when we were developing the new website, we gave a lot of thought to answering questions that a newcomer might have before coming here some Sunday:
Can I wear any kind of clothes or do I need to dress up?
Can I sit anywhere or are certain places reserved for certain people?
Will I be welcomed if I look or sound different than everybody else?
Maybe some of you had questions like that before you came here.
And, while there’s always room for improvement, I think we actually do a pretty good job at welcoming all different kinds of people – more welcoming than people out there might think.
But, you know, Jesus called the Pharisee to a deeper hospitality.
And Jesus calls us to a deeper hospitality, too.
So, my hope is that, in this time of renewal, we’ll look for ways to be even more welcoming here on Sundays.
And, I also hope that we’ll look for other ways to break bread together – maybe in our big parish hall that sits empty most evenings - to open our doors not just to parishioners, but maybe to the Stevenson students just down the road, to anyone who is hungry for food and companionship.
My hope is that we won’t just deliver food to hungry people but actually sit and eat with them, to get to know them and to let them get to know us.
That can be uncomfortable and even scary, believe me I know.
But just like the students and other guests in Gainesville, Florida, we’re all invited to break bread together at the heavenly banquet right here and right now, where we are likely to entertain angels without knowing it.
May it be so.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Giving Thanks For The Rev. Canon Dr. David Hamilton

My friend and brother, The Rev. Canon Dr. David Hamilton, died earlier this week.

At the invitation of my St. Peter's Prep colleague Patty Nickerson, Sue and I first visited St. Paul's Church in Jersey City on the Second Sunday of Advent in 2000. We were impressed by the dark beauty of the old building and by the friendliness of the welcome. The choir performed with great skill. The sermon was engaging and wise. But what touched us the most was The Peace. Suddenly, everyone was in the aisle, shaking hands and embracing like beloved sisters and brothers. Used to just giving a friendly wave to the people nearest us, Sue and I were overwhelmed by the love. And then the priest appeared at our side, extended his hand, and said, "Hi. I'm Dave. Welcome to St. Paul's."

Dave Hamilton changed our lives forever.

By the time we met him, Dave had been through some hard times and painful losses. He made an unanticipated journey from the suburbs to the city. Yet, his scars made him a more compassionate priest and a greater man. Truly, he was a "wounded healer." His priesthood was about extending his hand to all of us and saying, "I'm a pilgrim on the road, just like you. Let's walk together."

Through Dave, God reawakened in me an old sense of call to priesthood. As I made my way through the ordination process and seminary, he listened to my fears and offered encouragement ("Persistence is usually rewarded," he liked to say). He took me out to lunch at his usual places like Kellogg Garden and Al's Diner, wanting to hear about what I was reading and learning. And there was always laughter. There was nothing better than his laugh. It started in his belly and usually ended in a coughing fit.

I had always expected that Dave and I would be priests "together" somehow. I don't know exactly what I thought that would look like, but for a long time, it seemed like it would never happen. He got sick around the time of my ordination and struggled quite a bit these last few years. We kept our friendship alive by talking on the phone and getting together for lunch near where he was living down the Shore.  

But then, about four years ago, he surprised me by asking if he could preach some Sunday at St. Paul's. Of course! It had been a long time since he had been in Jersey City, but all of our longtime parishioners greeted him with so much warmth, love, and joy. It was a family reunion. It felt like Advent 2000 all over again. He preached powerfully from the heart, standing in the aisle, both frail and strong, looking like a prophet who had survived by God's grace alone during a long time in the wilderness. Finally, it was time for Communion. Dave and I stood beside each other at the altar, the 13th and 14th Rectors of St. Paul's, priests together at last.

Rest eternal grant to Dave, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

"The Time is Always Right to Do the Right Thing"

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
August 21, 2022

Year C, Proper 16: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

“The Time is Always Right to Do the Right Thing”

Today’s gospel lesson includes lots of elements that we find elsewhere in the story of Jesus.
Jesus is in a synagogue.
Jesus has a conflict with the religious establishment, in this case the “leader” of the synagogue.
Jesus performs a miraculous healing, in this case setting freeing a woman who had been bent for eighteen years.
So, the outline is familiar but there is a distinctive element to this particular story.
As far as we know, the bent-over woman has come to the synagogue on this particular Sabbath day with no expectation that, after eighteen long years, this would be the day of her healing.
It’s possible that she knew of Jesus’ reputation for miraculous healing and that, when she heard Jesus was going to be in the synagogue that day, she made sure to be there, too, hoping that she might be liberated from her suffering.
Possibly, but the text doesn’t say that.
In fact, notice that the woman does not even ask Jesus for healing. She doesn’t try to reach out and touch his garment.
No, Jesus takes the initiative.
Jesus sees her and calls her to him and without her having to say a word, he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
He lays his hands on her and she is unbent.
We might expect everyone to rejoice at this miracle but there’s at least one person who’s not happy at all: the “leader” of the synagogue.
Now, as part of the religious establishment myself, I admit that I kind of sympathize with him.
In the face of Jesus’ obvious power – I mean, come on, everybody just saw the woman stand upright – you can feel the synagogue leader’s authority slipping away. How many suffering people has he healed, I wonder?
And, as is often the case when people fear that they are losing power, the leader falls back on the letter of the law. He points out that what Jesus has just done should not happen on the Sabbath. Any other day would be fine, but not the Sabbath, the day set aside for worship and rest.
And, you know, the leader is kind of right.
Jewish Law is clear that if there’s an emergency, people can offer aid to someone sick or injured on the Sabbath, of course.
But, as far as we know, the case of the bent-over woman was not an emergency. After all, if she had suffered for eighteen years she probably could have endured for one more day. 
(Easy for me to say, I know.)
So, the synagogue leader is only kind of right because, while he knows the rules, but doesn’t know that he’s dealing with Jesus the Son of God.
And, God’s healing power cannot be somehow scheduled by us. 
We cannot limit God’s grace in any way – as much as we might really like to help God decide just who should be healed and blessed, and when.

As I’ve sat with this story, my attention has been drawn to Jesus’ urgency.
When he sees the bent-over woman, he doesn’t make a mental note to meet with her after the service is over. He doesn’t tell her something like, “I’m sorry for your suffering, but see, I’m in the middle of teaching these people, so please wait for me until after I’m done.”
He doesn’t even say to the congregation something like, “Look at this poor woman. Let’s all pray for her, shall we?”
No, he immediately – right there, on the Sabbath in the synagogue, in the middle of his teaching – he immediately calls her forward and heals her.
As I’ve imagined this scene, I remembered a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Dr. King said, 
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

Unfortunately, we’re really good at coming up with all sorts of reasons why, actually, this is not the right time to do the right thing.
Maybe we think we’re just too busy.
Or we’re reluctant to get entangled with someone else’s life.
I admit that those are my go-to excuses.
Or maybe we feel like we’re too old - or that we’re too young.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we heard the call of the Prophet Jeremiah.
And, like any real prophet, Jeremiah tries to dodge God’s call.
(You always have to watch out for people who are really eager to be prophets – they’re always false prophets.)
Anyway, Jeremiah tries to wriggle away from God’s call by claiming that he’s just too young for such a monumental task.
Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But, God doesn’t buy that. 
Instead, God promises to be with this young prophet, giving him all that he really needs to complete his work.
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

One of the things I love most about St. Thomas’ is that, maybe surprisingly for a church that’s been around for so long, we often have a strong sense of urgency.
It was around a year ago when many of us of watched in horror and shame as Afghan people, including many who had assisted the United States over the past couple of decades, scrambled desperately to escape their country as it fell again to the Taliban.
But, rather than just lamenting this tragedy, rather than just writing checks, our parishioners immediately began thinking boldly and creatively – wondering if we might welcome refugees here – and trying to figure out how to make that happen.
As many of you know, our sense of urgency crashed into many obstacles, bureaucratic and otherwise, but we’re close to welcoming our first guests.
And, by the way, our application was done so well that it’s being used as a model for others who want to take on this difficult task!
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Or, think about our “Bottoms Up” campaign.
As soon as we heard about the desperate need for diapers and feminine hygiene products, the donations have been pouring in – with parishioners and UPS and FedEx delivery people dropping off so many boxes that we’re almost creating a safety hazard over in the Parish Hall!
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Finally, this morning I have the great privilege of baptizing Teddy and Lily.
I mean what could be more joyful than two baptisms in August?
Three, I guess.
Just like at every Baptism, this morning there will be some big promises made, big promises renewed.
My prayer is that Teddy’s and Lily’s parents and godparents and all of us will feel a real sense of urgency. Although these children are young, there is no time to waste. 
    With God's help, it’s time – right now – to begin praying and breaking bread together – it’s time – right now to begin teaching them about loving God and loving their neighbors – it’s time – right now – to begin seeking and serving Christ in all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

On a long ago Sabbath, right there in the synagogue, Jesus called forward the bent-over woman and healed her.
May we be blessed with that same sense of urgency, right here, right now.
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”