Tuesday, January 31, 2023

"I Stand By the Door"

"I Stand By the Door"
- Samuel Shoemaker, (1893-1963)

I stand by the door.
I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out,
The door is the most important door in the world -
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it...
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door - the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch - the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man's own touch.
Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter -
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it - live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him...
So I stand by the door.
Go in great saints; go all the way in -
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics -
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms,
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening...
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. 'Let me out!' they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.

The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving - preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door -
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But - more important for me -
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
'I had rather be a door-keeper...'
So I stand by the door.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Visionaries and Visions

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 29, 2023

Year A: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-23

Visionaries and Visions

Whenever I sit with a passage of scripture, especially if I’m going to preach on it, I try to keep historical context in mind.
Partly I guess that’s a case of, “once a history teacher, always a history teacher.”
But it’s important to remember that, while scripture is divinely inspired, it was written by people in a particular time and place, telling the story of people who experienced joy and sorrow, people who suffered greatly and yet who still dared to hope.
So, you may remember that last week’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew began with a kind of matter of fact, by the way, mention that John the Baptist had been arrested.
That arrest is an important reminder that during the days of John the Baptist and Jesus, the people of Israel were oppressed, ruled by the Romans and their local puppet leaders like Herod – powers that be who tolerated no dissent or criticism, willing to arrest and execute any potential troublemakers.
People like John the Baptist spoke truth to power and, as usual, power did not like it one bit.
Under the weight of such terrible tyranny, the people of Israel dared to hope that their God – the God who had led them to freedom in the past – would act once again and overthrow the Romans and their allies, turning the world upside down.
It was in this hard and edgy world of suffering and expectation, that Jesus lived and began his ministry, gathering his ragtag band of disciples and calling the people – as John the Baptist had earlier called – to repent, because the kingdom of heaven had come near.
But what does that mean, exactly?
Well, in today’s gospel lesson – the familiar if still puzzling Beatitudes - we get something of an answer.
Jesus calls his disciples close and announces that the kingdom of heaven is a downside-up kingdom – a realm where it’s the poor in spirit – the mourners and the meek - who are blessed.
The kingdom of heaven is a downside-up kingdom – a realm where it’s those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and the persecuted, who are blessed.
I always wonder what the disciples and the others who were present thought of Jesus’ vision – probably about the same as us, I guess.
Oh sure, we’re willing to buy Jesus’ downside-up vision if the kingdom of heaven is all about life after death.
But, if Jesus is talking about a transformed here and now, well, this must have sounded pie in the sky to people living under Roman brutality, just as it probably sounds like wishful thinking to us.
After all, we live in a land torn apart by relentless gun violence.
A land where Tyre Nichols cried out for his mom while he was brutalized by Memphis police officers, while he was ignored by others whose job it is to save lives.
We live in a land where so many are enslaved by addiction.
A land where, for many political leaders, cruelty seems to be the only point.
A land where so many of us are convinced that there’s just not enough for everybody and so I can only win if you lose.
And yet, in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not talking about life after death.
He’s pointing to the transformed, here and now world that begins with him.
Jesus unveils a vision of a downside-up kingdom, and invites us to help build it.
As Paul notes to the Corinthians, the supposedly wise ones of the world will never buy this, dismissing it as wishful thinking.
But down through the ages God has inspired visionaries who, in the words of the Prophet Micah, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
And, despite all of our many troubles and sorrows, the kingdom of heaven comes nearer and nearer.

If you were around last weekend, you could probably tell that I was thrilled by the turnout on Saturday and Sunday to hear our guest Dawn Eden Goldstein speak about Fr. Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who played an important role in the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I find so much of Fr. Ed’s story moving and inspiring, this man who in his youth had been a gifted athlete but then had to endure debilitating arthritis, a priest who was seen as a bit of an oddball even by some of his fellow Jesuits, a person without an alcohol addiction who saw himself as “underprivileged” because he could never be a member of AA. 

As most of you know, inviting Dawn to speak about Father Ed was part of my ongoing attempts to celebrate Samuel Shoemaker, the Episcopal priest who grew up here and is buried in our churchyard, who is remembered by the Episcopal Church each January 31, the man who back in the 1930’s provided the spiritual foundations for the Twelve Steps of AA that have saved so many lives.
Because many of you have heard me talk about Sam Shoemaker before, and because many churches, including ours, have long hosted AA and other Twelve Step groups, we might think that Shoemaker’s work with alcoholics was sort of routine, the kind of thing that a clergyman was expected to do.
But that wasn’t the case at all.
As rector of Calvary Church in New York City, Shoemaker had a vision of a church that reached out beyond its doors to the poor and suffering. He opened Calvary Mission, which welcomed the down and out, including alcoholics, people usually looked at with pity and disgust.
Shoemaker’s vision of the down and out as truly blessed – which was really just Jesus’ vision of the downside-up kingdom – set off a wave of blessing that continues to wash over people who had seemed beyond hope.
For example:
The other day while I was thinking about today’s sermon, reflecting on Jesus’ vision, and marveling at the visionary lives of Fr. Ed and Sam Shoemaker, I was sort of idly scrolling through Facebook when I came across a post by a young guy named Mike.
Mike had been a young homeless man who used to show up at our church in Jersey City.
He came to services sometimes and to the monthly community suppers we offered, always taking a plate to go, too uncomfortable or impatient to eat with others.
He was a sweet guy but an addict, and so he would regularly ask me and others for money, usually coming up with some creative story about why he needed it.
“Fr. Tom, I’m not even gonna lie to you,” he’d say, before proceeding to lie to me.
We tried to help him as best we could and he was on our parish prayer list for years.
We certainly didn’t trust him – addiction can make you do some bad things - but we loved him and we hoped he could get clean but we weren’t optimistic.
And then we didn’t see him anymore.
But then, a couple of years ago, Mike sent me a Facebook friend request. Of course, I was relieved and, frankly, kind of surprised to see he was alive and doing well enough to be on Facebook. 
Turns out he’s been working as a roofer – hard work, for sure – but an honest living.
He has a girlfriend and they seem to be very much in love.
Well, here is what Mike posted just as I was thinking about Jesus’ vision of the downside-up kingdom and how Fr. Ed and Rev. Sam shared that vision and helped to make it real.
Mike wrote, “Today is a big milestone in my life…one year clean and sober from booze and drugs. Very grateful. One day at a time.”
He went on to thank specific people who had stuck by him and then added, “Also want to say thank you for the 12 Step educational program.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus is not talking about life after death.
He’s pointing to the transformed, here and now, world that begins with him.
Jesus unveils a vision of a downside-up kingdom, and invites us to help build it.
God inspires visionaries like Ed Dowling and Sam Shoemaker to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
And, despite all of our many troubles and sorrows, the kingdom of heaven comes nearer and nearer.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Discerning the Call

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 22, 2023

Year A: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (5:00 PM)
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Discerning the Call

In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
John the Baptist has been arrested and now the baton has been passed to the one for whom John had prepared the way.
Jesus begins his work by proclaiming what had been John’s message: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The key difference, of course, is that, in and through Jesus, that message has been fulfilled.
The kingdom of heaven has indeed come near.
Jesus also begins his work by gathering his disciples – that notoriously ragtag group of followers – flawed and often confused – certainly not anyone’s idea of an “A team.” 
But that’s who Jesus calls.
Starting with two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew and James and John.
As we heard, Jesus approaches these fishermen brothers while they are doing their work – work that probably took up most of their time – work that was grueling and dangerous and also often tedious and frustrating – work that required courage and patience – a hard way to earn a living in a time and place when there were not many opportunities for wealth and safety.
What’s most striking to me (and probably to you) about Jesus’ call to these fishermen is that they seem to make their choice to follow in a flash, seemingly setting aside their livelihood without a moment’s notice, leaving behind, at least for now, their boats and their nets.
And what must Zebedee have thought as he watched his two sons – watched what he thought was his future – get up and walk away from the only life they had ever known?

Last Sunday, I told you the story of how Sue and I found our way to the Episcopal Church – it was all thanks to a holy invitation from one of my teaching colleagues.
And it was not long after we had become members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Jersey City that I began to feel the reawakening of an old sense of call to the priesthood.
That call was certainly not as loud and clear and certain as Jesus’ summons to the fishermen brothers but, at the same time, it felt very real to me.
It felt real but also frightening and definitely inconvenient.
After all, I already had a good life. I liked teaching at St. Peter’s Prep, my alma mater, a Jesuit high school with a strong sense of mission, where I got to work beside some of my best friends.
I had thought that I would spend the rest of my working life there.
But, as I grappled with the fear and inconvenience of my sense of call, in my imagination I looked ahead to the end of my life, increasingly certain that if I didn’t at least explore ordination, I would regret not taking the chance.
And so I began what the church calls the “discernment process,” a fairly long and complicated series of requirements and lots of meetings – first with my friend Dave Hamilton, our rector – and then with a committee of other parishioners – and finally with a commission of people from around the diocese.
This discernment was not just me listening for God’s call – it was the work of the community, too.
And it was entirely possible that no matter what I was feeling – or thought I was hearing – others might not be feeling or hearing that same call – and I might be turned away, asked to follow a different road, consoled by the fact that at least I had tried.
Well, you know how the story ended.
Or, actually, “ended’” is not the right word.
Because, as kind of a task-oriented person – I love checking off items on my “to do” list – one of the hardest lessons I had to learn is that discernment never ends.
Despite the apparent quickness of the fishermen brothers to follow Jesus, the truth is that every day they had to decide to continue with the Lord – or not.
With God’s help, throughout their lives, Peter and Andrew and James and John had to listen, open their hearts, and do their best to discern what God might be calling them to do.
Discerning the call.

Although I knew better, after I was ordained I kind of thought my discernment days were behind me.
I had reached my goal! I was a priest!
But, soon I relearned, that discernment is forever.
There were and are so many unanswered questions, so many roads from which to choose.
Where to work?
What ministries to support?
What words will be most meaningful in this time and place?
All of it requires setting aside time to listen.
I guess it was about two and a half years ago, on a summer evening, Sue and I were sitting on the porch at our rectory in Jersey City, just talking about the future – looking a few years ahead - wondering if maybe we had one more big move in us, pondering if we were hearing a call to take on a new and different challenge.
Having grown up with a father who was (and is) an Orioles fan, I’ve always had an interest in, and a soft spot for, Baltimore – which had the plus of being not too far from home.
And so, we wondered.
I reached out to a clergy friend in the Diocese of Maryland, just curious about what might be possible, not now but down the road a stretch.
Well, before I knew it, I was talking to Canon Stuart Wright from the diocese, who shared with me information about the churches that were currently searching for clergy.
At first, it didn’t seem like any of them were the right fit. And, besides, this was all happening sooner than we had expected.
But, to my surprise, a certain church in Owings Mills – a place I had never heard of – it kept tugging at me – and just like all those years ago when we first found St. Paul’s Jersey City, I finally concluded that this was a possibility that I had to explore.
Discerning the call.

Back when I was first coming through the ordination process, I came across a quote from a wonderful novel by Gail Godwin called Evensong:
“Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”
And that’s been the guiding principle of my ongoing discernment. 
Just as God wanted to make more of the fishermen brothers than they could have ever imagined, God wants us to live lives that keep making more of us.
In just the short time I’ve been here, I feel like I’m on the right track because I keep growing – and I’m convinced that we are on the right track together because so many of our parishioners are growing, too – stretching our spiritual muscles – deepening our commitment – taking on new ministries – and new people continue to walk over the well-worn threshold in the church, perhaps answering a call that they are hearing and feeling in their hearts.
So, like the fishermen brothers long ago, let’s keep our eyes and ears and most of all our hearts, open.
Jesus continues to call us to follow him – always offering us more than we can ask or imagine.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Holy Invitations

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 15, 2023

Year A: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Holy Invitations

If you were here last week, you may remember that I talked about how when I was a young man I felt certain that God was calling me to be a Franciscan friar.
And when that turned out not to be true, I became a teacher because I didn’t really know what else to do.
I thought that teaching would be a good job for me while I waited for my “real life” to begin.
And, yes, it’s true that I taught for 17 years.
Although I always had the feeling that teaching wasn’t my real vocation, the truth is I loved much of the work: helping my students to learn and grow, and working with colleagues and friends who were so committed to education.
And since I taught in Catholic schools, church was kind of built into my job – there were lots of prayer services, Masses, and retreats – in fact, the schools themselves were expressions of faith.
But, after Sue and I were married for a couple of years, it dawned on me that it might be good for us to go to church together.
So, in the year 2000, on the Saturday evening before the First Sunday of Advent, we walked from our house in Jersey City to attend Mass at one of our local Catholic churches.
The details don’t matter now, but, bottom line, it was not a good experience for us.
Though I think about that Mass all the time.
It’s a reminder for me that, while things here in church will sometimes go wrong, we should always give our best efforts to God and our fellow parishioners, and especially for newcomers who have made the not so easy effort to walk into our church and will probably and rightly not come back if they are not welcomed and fed.
Anyway, Sue and I going to church seemed like a failed experiment.
Sometime during the week I was in the faculty room telling the story of our not-so-great experience at mass. You may have noticed that I can be a bit of a ham, so I’m sure I made the story more entertaining than it was, trying to get a few laughs from my colleagues.
But when things settled down, one teacher, a woman named Patty, said quietly:
“You should come to my church sometime.”
That church was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, just a few blocks from our house.
And so, a few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, Sue and I walked to St. Paul’s. I had said to her that, if nothing else, it would be nice to accept Patty’s kind invitation, and we’d also get to see the inside of this interesting looking church.
With some uncertainty, we walked through the front doors, where we were greeted warmly by the smiling ushers and handed bulletins.
We took our seats, in a pew not too close to the front.
We heard music that was very well done and appreciated a sermon that was smart and funny and meaningful.
We noticed the beautiful diversity of the congregation.
And when it came time for the Peace we were struck by how just about everybody was up and out in the aisle, greeting each other with smiles and laughter, as if reuniting with long lost friends.
To be honest, at this point we were feeling a little overwhelmed by it all when suddenly the priest came bounding down the aisle to us, stuck out his hand, and said,
“Hi. I’m Dave. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
That day I somehow knew that I had found something that I hadn’t even known I was looking for.
What I also didn’t know – at least not yet - was that my life was about to take off in a wildly different direction.
Sue and I went back to St. Paul’s the following Sunday and for all the Sundays after that.
And Dave – the Rev. Canon David Hamilton – and I quickly became friends. It was one of the closest and most profound friendships of my life.
And, not long after becoming part of the St. Paul’s community, I felt a reawakening of an old call to priesthood, starting a journey that would lead me away from teaching and off to seminary – walking a twisting road that would eventually bring me back to St. Paul’s as its rector and, finally, to be here with all of you.
And, here’s the thing: none of this would have happened if that day in the faculty room my colleague Patty hadn’t taken a chance and said,
“You should come to my church sometime.”
Holy Invitations.

I was reminded of Patty and her holy invitation to me when I began to reflect on today’s gospel lesson.
We’re told that as Jesus walked by, John the Baptist exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” – and, when you think of it, “Look” is a kind of invitation.
Sure enough, Andrew and another unnamed disciple accept that invitation and they do more than look - they quite literally begin to follow Jesus.
When Jesus asks what they are looking for, maybe because they didn’t really know that were looking for anything or anyone, they just ask Jesus where he is staying.
And Jesus offers a beautiful and gentle invitation, “Come and see.”
Andrew surely doesn’t know how exactly his life will be transformed by this encounter, but after spending the day with Jesus, Andrew knows enough to go straight to his brother Simon and share the good news: 
“We found the Messiah.”
At its best, Christianity is a story of holy invitation – God’s invitation offered through John the Baptist, Jesus, Andrew, and so many people down through the generations, people like my colleague Patty, and so many people here at St. Thomas’.

Before Sue and I made the big move from Jersey City to join you here, I wondered if you were serious about welcoming newcomers – everyone says they are – but I wondered if you were really up for the task of extending a holy invitation, taking the chance to say, “You should come to our church someday.”
But, the team that worked on our website was determined to put that holy invitation out there – insisting that all are welcome – that this is a place for all to belong - and sure enough people are accepting our invite.
And our ushers don’t just greet the people they’ve known for years but they welcome everybody, especially the people who seem a little uncertain about crossing that well-worn threshold, just like Sue and me all those years ago on our first Sunday at St. Paul’s.
And then there are our youth acolytes – this wonderfully renewed ministry that we are praying for today in our parish prayer cycle.
Since before I arrived here, I’ve heard and shared the concerns that children and youth have been mostly missing.
And we’ve been working on rebuilding our Christian education program.
We’ve made progress in that department, though, of course, there’s much more to come.
And a few months ago there was the question of trying to restart the acolyte program.
Frankly, I was skeptical – I just wasn’t sure if our youth were really interested in playing a role that, while important, might seem kind of old fashioned.
But we decided to try. So, Sara Hollands and I had the genius idea of inviting John Lang to lead the program and we extended an invitation to our youth to meet, to practice, and to begin.
To my great surprise and delight, the renewal of the acolyte program has been a joyful success – the youth have returned in a big way. Some of their families have been here forever while others are fairly new to the church.
I love seeing them fly through the front door before the 10:00 service is about to begin – cutting it a little close sometimes – then quickly vesting – taking up the cross and the torches and leading our parade up the aisle.
Why has this great renewal happened?
Well, I think it’s the power of holy invitation – John’s gentle invitation to these kids, his patient guidance during each service, and the kind thank you that follows each time they serve.

John the Baptist said, “Look.”
Jesus said, “Come and see.”
Patty said, “You should come to my church sometime.” 
And John Lang and we invited our youth to once again play an important role in their church.
And these holy invitations made all the difference.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

"Real Life" Begins at Baptism

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 8, 2023

Year A: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“Real Life” Begins at Baptism

Well, here at St. Thomas’, the Christmas Season ended very quietly.
Last week, Ricky and Chris and a couple of parishioners took down the trees and all the other beautiful decorations, doing that work with their usual dedication, but also with some sadness that the holiday had come to an end.
And on Friday it was a quiet Feast of the Epiphany here – the day we remember the arrival of the mysterious visitors from the East who had made a long and sometimes treacherous journey to pay homage to the newborn King, presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh – items never included on any baby registry, but symbolically appropriate for a King, for a God, and for One who will lose his life.
Having been warned in a dream to avoid the murderous Herod, the Magi took a different way home, and, also having been warned in a dream, Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
The Holy Family became refugees on the run from an oppressive government, just like so many people in the world today, including our friends Hizbullah and Abdul.
Later, when the coast was clear, Joseph and Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth and began that long stretch of time we know almost nothing about.
I always wonder about those years.
No doubt, Joseph and Mary and later Jesus had to endure the whispers and eye-rolling and subtle and not so subtle judgments of their neighbors.
Maybe Jesus exhibited some special qualities that made people wonder about this young man with questionable paternity – what was it about him?
Or maybe – and this is what I think – maybe nothing special seemed to happen – maybe those long years in Nazareth were kind of like the seemingly ordinary time after we take down the Christmas decorations.
Maybe Joseph the craftsman just continued his work, and, since in the gospels we don't hear much more about him, perhaps he died before Jesus began his saving work.
And maybe Mary, who pondered in her heart all that had happened – the angel, the shepherds, the manger – maybe even Mary sometimes wondered if it had all been a dream.
And what about Jesus?
During those long Nazareth years, did Jesus know who he was, and what he was called to do?
I’m sure that Jesus heard the stories of his birth, was intrigued and maybe embarrassed by them, but did he know and understand his life’s purpose?
Did Jesus know what his “real life” would look like and when it would begin?
We can’t be sure, but my guess is that Jesus did not fully know what his “real life” was until the day he was dunked in the water and baptized by John.
You know, there’s some awkwardness to the fact that John baptized Jesus.
After all, John preached and offered a baptism of repentance. And Jesus, alone among us, did not need to change his ways, to turn his heart.
We hear some of that discomfort today in Matthew’s account of the Baptism.
John – who does not seem to have lacked self-confidence – hesitates when Jesus presents himself for Baptism.
John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
To which Jesus offers an interesting reply:
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Which seems to mean, “We have to do this because God wants us to do it.”
And so John consents and we’re told that as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended from heaven and a voice said, “This my Son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased.”
So maybe God wanted John to baptize Jesus because this was the opportunity to tell Jesus who he really is – maybe this was the moment for his “real life” to begin.
For Jesus, this isn’t a Baptism of repentance.
It’s a Baptism of revelation – an epiphany, you might say.
It’s right after his Baptism that Jesus heads to the wilderness and the temptations that await him there.
It’s after his Baptism that Jesus begins his holy work.
And, if Jesus’ true identity was revealed in Baptism – if Jesus’ “real life” began at Baptism – that’s a sign that we also discover our true identity, and begin our “real life,” in the water of Baptism.

When I was young man, I often thought that I was living in a kind of prelude to my own life, convinced that somehow my “real life” would begin once I finished school, or when I got “that” job, or when I began “that” relationship, or when, whatever happened and then, then, then, finally my “real life” would begin.
Back when I was in my early 20’s, I sensed a call to the priesthood, in fact, I felt pretty sure that God was calling me to be a Franciscan friar.
I loved St. Francis and his radical commitment to giving away all that he had and following Jesus as faithfully as anyone ever has.
So, eventually I worked up the courage to sign up for an inquirer’s weekend at a Franciscan friary up in Boston.
I remember sitting on the plane, nervous and excited, convinced that “the” moment was finally at hand, that now I was beginning my “real life.”
Well…it was a perfectly pleasant weekend with some nice and friars, but with a sickening thud in my heart, I somehow knew that this was not the life for me. 
On the flight back to Newark Airport, I wasn’t sure who I was meant to be. And I resigned myself to the idea that my “real life” would start… some other time in the future.
I got into teaching thinking that would be a good way to spend the rest of my “prelude,” until I figured out what my “real life” was going to be.
(I taught for 17 years.)
I hope I was a good teacher, but the truth is that I spent a lot of time looking to the horizon or maybe just staring at the exit, waiting for my “real life” to begin, wondering what it would look like, but sure that I would know it when I saw it.
It wasn’t until Sue and I landed in the Episcopal Church and participated in many wonderful Baptisms on Sunday mornings that I came to both love and begin to understand this beautiful sacrament that you’ve heard me talk about many times.
Because just like for Jesus, it’s in Baptism that we discover who we really are: – that we – you and me – are beloved by God – and there’s nothing that we could ever do or not do that would cause God to cancel our Baptism, to cut us off forever.
Just like for Jesus, our Baptism is a Baptism of revelation.
Just like for Jesus, it’s at our Baptism that our “real life” begins.
And our “real life” isn’t about what job we have, or where we live, or even our particular vocations.
No, our “real life” is about gathering together here for prayer and Communion.
Our “real life” is about asking forgiveness when we mess up and, with God’s help, trying our best to not slip again.
Our “real life” is about trying to see Christ in everybody, especially the people we don’t like, the people we don’t trust, the people who make us cringe and want to turn away.
With God’s help, that’s our “real life” – a “real life” that begins in Baptism – the “Real life” we get reminded of each time someone else takes the plunge – or, in our case, has some water poured on them.
So, Christmas has ended.
The Magi have gone home.
The trees have been taken down and the decorations put away.
But the celebration continues, because just like for Jesus, in Baptism our “real life” has been revealed.
Our “real life” has begun. 

Sunday, January 01, 2023

"All In"

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 1, 2023

The Feast of the Holy Name
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

“All In” 

Happy New Year!
And Merry Christmas!
Thanks to the hard work of lots of dedicated people, and despite bitterly cold temperatures and power outages – man, it was so cold – we had a wonderfully joyful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day here at St. Thomas’.
Christmas was great but, like a lot of us, I bet, I appreciate the slower and quieter days after the holiday, when there might be a little time to catch our breath and maybe even some moments of reflection as an old year draws to a close and a new year is about to begin.  
So, after the Christmas excitement of last weekend quieted down, and after warming temperatures finally thawed us out, I spent some time looking back at what God has been up to here at St. Thomas’ during the past year.
As I reflected on our busy year of renewal, I couldn’t help but think of the name we gave to our stewardship campaign: “More than Enough.”
That name riffs on one of Jesus’ greatest miracles: the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Despite the uncertainty and even doubt of the disciples – they’re convinced that there is nowhere near enough bread and fish to feed the large crowd of people – despite a real sense of scarcity – Jesus’ friends and all those hungry people who had gathered in the field that day learned that when Jesus is around there is abundance – there are leftovers - there is more than enough.
So, looking back on last year, I think about how so many people have returned to our church after being away for one reason or another, and how newcomers have continued to walk through our doors, with some of them getting involved practically from the start.
I think about the rehabilitation of our churchyard and the unveiling of our fabulous new website, and how our amazing preschool is pretty much at capacity.
I think about the Pentecost Picnic and all those Thanksgiving bags and the return of the Christmas Extravaganza.
I think about our bold step of welcoming our new friends from Afghanistan, and all the many ways that our parishioners have given of themselves to Hizbullah and Abdul: driving lessons, resume editing, navigating government bureaucracy, dinner invitations and fun times at the driving range and the bowling alley.
I think about the ongoing renewal of our programs for children and youth: Sunday School classes in our beautiful new classroom, and the truly remarkable rebirth of our youth acolyte program, led by the patient and generous John Lang. There have been some services where we’ve had so many acolytes that we needed overflow seating! 
I mean, who would have thought it, right?
I think of the Christmas wreath sale – especially so many wreaths placed on the graves of people no longer remembered by anyone alive – and Roz’ Christmas quilt fundraiser, and on and on.
And, yes, I think of our stewardship campaign – giving thanks for the people who give generously year after year, the people who haven’t pledged for a while but are now back, and the new people who have said, yes, we want to support our new spiritual home.
When Jesus is around there is abundance – there is more than enough.
So, I really like the theme “More Than Enough,” but, actually, it’s not my all-time favorite stewardship slogan.
That would be the one that we used a few years ago at my parish in Jersey City, when we aimed for everyone to get involved, hoped for everyone make a pledge, when we insisted that in our church there should be no bystanders. We called that campaign:
“All In.”
I like that one best because going “all in” is God’s way.
God loves us so much that God goes “all in” with and for us.
Christmas is about God going “all in.”
Our whole faith is about God going “all in.”
You know, in the early church, there were lots of heated debates about the nature – or natures – of Jesus. Some thought that Jesus was really, really, holy – even the holiest person who ever lived – but not quite God. And others thought that Jesus just seemed to be human. That he was, in fact, all God.
But, in the end, the church held fast to the most challenging and, frankly, hardest to believe, position - the truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, like us in every way except sin.
So, Christmas is the story of God going “all in” with us, coming among us as a completely helpless child, born to a couple of “nobodies” in the humblest circumstances, a child dependent on other people for absolutely everything, a child who no doubt could be frustrated and cranky and who needed lots of sleep, a child who, like all other Jewish boys, will be circumcised on the eighth day, a child who will be named like we are all named. 
The story of Christmas – and the entire life and death of Jesus – is the story of God going “all in” with and for us – holding nothing back – hunted from the start by Herod and the other powers that be who will eventually catch him and kill him. 
In and through Jesus, God goes “all in” to the cross and the tomb and, finally, to that first shockingly joyous Easter morning.
And so, as Paul wrote long ago to the church in Philippi, probably quoting an even earlier Christian hymn:
“…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

And what does our “all in” God ask of us in return?
That we go “all in” with and for God.
That we go “all in” with and for God’s people.
And, when I look back at the past year at St. Thomas’, that’s exactly what I see happening all the time, all over the place.
We are living out those baptismal promises that I talked about all year. 
More and more of us are going “all in” – sharing and studying and stretching and serving – and, most of all, loving – loving the people we’ve known for years, loving the people we only just met, loving people we’ll never know and who will never be able to thank us for our love, and loving two young guys from far away who turned to us for safety and a new start.
So, my new year’s prayer is a prayer of gratitude.
Thank you, God, for the loving and generous people of St. Thomas’ Church.
Thank you for giving us “more than enough.”
Thank you for going “all in” with and for us, for coming among us in and through Jesus, in whose holy name we pray. Amen.
And, P.S., during the year ahead, help us to go “all in.” 
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Early Christmas

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 24, 2022

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Early Christmas

Well, Merry Christmas, everyone!
We’re here to remember and celebrate an event that took place in a particular time and place, back two thousand years ago, when a great headcount was ordered that forced many people to leave their homes, including Joseph and Mary, who, in the midst of many challenges, were about to bring new life into the world.
Think about Mary and Joseph, traveling among so many displaced people, all at the mercy of the powers that be.
Think about righteous Joseph, probably still bewildered by God’s big ask: that he stay by Mary’s side and love and protect her and her holy child.
Think about faithful Mary, pondering all God has asked her to do, carrying God into the world, giving birth to the Holy Child who would change everything.
Think about both of them, far from home, far from the women of Mary’s family who would have midwifed the child – think about both of them unable to provide adequate shelter for the newborn child, placing him in a manger, a fancy word we use to dress up a feeding trough used by animals – definitely inappropriate for a baby, but giving us a hint that Jesus will be Food for the world.
Think about Joseph and Mary, who, like all parents, were making a lifelong commitment, swearing a promise that will last long after the angels returned to heaven and the shepherds went back to their fields.
We are here to remember and celebrate an event that took place in a particular time and place: when Jesus the Son of God was born through and among a couple of nobodies far from home, born into a world that didn’t seem to have much room for God.
You know, one of the great joys of being the rector of St. Thomas’ is that there are so many people – generous and talented parishioners along with our hardworking and devoted staff – so many people who put in so much time and effort and talent to make things happen here, week after week.
And, as you would guess and can surely tell, these people have been in overdrive during the past couple of weeks, and especially the last few days – making it well worth our while to brave arctic temperatures to be here tonight.
They’ve been using their talent, creativity, and even employing some daredevil-like feats to decorate our church so spectacularly (I mean, come on, look at this place!).
They’ve been rehearsing all of the beautiful Christmas music that we love so much. 
They’ve been creating, copying, and folding a mountain of bulletins.
They’ve been making sure that everyone is scheduled and ready play their part in our service.
It’s been just amazing.
But, you know, even with all of this generous help and incredible talent, I don’t feel quite ready for Christmas! It still feels to me like Christmas has arrived a little early, before we were quite ready for it.
Maybe it’s just me. But judging by how, over the last few days, I’ve seen people driving like maniacs on the roads and in parking lots – it would seem that lots of people don’t feel fully prepared, that, somehow, though it falls on the same date every year, we are having an “early Christmas.”
I’ve heard plenty of people kicking themselves for not being more on top of things, but maybe, just maybe, God is trying to tell us something through the “earliness” of Christmas.
Maybe God is telling us that, while preparation is definitely a good thing, the truth is we can’t ever be fully ready for God’s arrival into the world.
All we can do is stick together, like Mary and Joseph.
All we can do is offer the best we can, even if it doesn’t seem like much, certainly not enough.
All we can do is trust that God will give us the strength and grace we need to keep our promises. 

Because, here’s the thing: while today we are remembering and celebrating an event that occurred in a particular time and place, the truth is that, ready or not, “early Christmas” happens all the time.
God breaks into our world all the time – inviting us to especially welcome Christ in the stranger - the stranger who has little or nothing and looks to us for love and care.

Now, if you’ve been around St. Thomas’ over the past few months, you already know where I’m going with this.
If not, you should know that over the past few months we have welcomed and sponsored two young men from Afghanistan – Hizbullah and Abdul.
After a long and arduous journey, these two strangers came to us with almost nothing, trusting that we would make room for them and care for them.
I’m not sure if they were bold enough to hope that we would love them, but that is exactly what has happened.
And so, whether we were ready or not, it feels to me like we had an early Christmas this year here at St. Thomas’.
God has once again arrived in an unexpected place place, through and among displaced people, who, in the eyes of the world, would seem to be nobodies.
And, while I don’t know what I’ll find under the tree tonight, I think I already received my most meaningful Christmas gift a couple of months ago, when a few of us were over at the house where our Afghan guests live. Hizbullah offered us tea. But this wasn’t just any tea. It was fragrant tea made using saffron, the precious spice that was one of the few items that Hizbullah was able to carry all the way from Afghanistan. And he wanted nothing better than to share his treasure with us.
Merry early Christmas.

And so, thanks to a lot of amazing people, this evening we are having a glorious celebration of Jesus’ birth.
And in the days ahead, let’s keep our eyes and ears and most of all our hearts open, because God is sure to keep on appearing in the most unexpected places and among the humblest of people.
Merry Christmas to you all!

Shining Jesus’ Warm Light of Love Into Our Cold World

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 24, 2022

Christmas Eve (5PM)
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Shining Jesus’ Warm Light of Love Into Our Cold World

Merry Christmas, Everyone!
You know, one of the great joys of being the rector of St. Thomas’ is that there are so many people – generous and talented parishioners along with our hardworking and devoted staff – so many people who put in so much time and effort and talent to make things happen here, week after week.
And, as you would guess and can surely tell, these people have been in overdrive during the past couple of weeks, and especially the last few days – making it well worth our while to brave arctic temperatures to be here tonight.
They’ve been using their talent, creativity, and even employing some daredevil-like feats to decorate our church so spectacularly (I mean, come on, look at this place!).
They’ve been rehearsing all of the beautiful Christmas music that we love so much. 
They’ve been creating, copying, and folding a mountain of bulletins.
They’ve been making sure that the children who are about to offer us their “Christmas Tableau” are ready play their important part in our service.
It’s been just amazing.
Thanks to all of this hard work, I have no doubt that we are making some wonderful memories here today.
Having said that, I’m pretty sure that what I will remember most about this particular Christmas is…just how cold it’s been!
I can’t remember the last time I was this cold!
Lots of us lost power yesterday, some for a short while and some for, well, a longer time.
So, a couple of things about such a cold Christmas.
First, such bitter cold can help us feel closer to the people who endure the cold all the time: people who have to work outside and people who don’t have homes of their own.
This year, I think especially of the brave Ukrainian people enduring the cold and so much suffering.
Which brings me to my second point.
No matter the temperature, the world can be a cold place.
People are often not as kind or as generous or as loving as they could be, as we should be.
So, I don’t know what the temperature was when Mary and Joseph made the long trip to Bethlehem, but how cold it was that this couple expecting the birth of Jesus had to travel so far from home, all because the government wanted to count heads.
I don’t know what the temperature was on the first Christmas, but how cold it was that no one offered Mary and Joseph a clean and comfortable place for themselves and for the newborn Jesus, forcing them to stay in a place meant for animals.
But, from the start, from the first Christmas, Jesus will shine the warm light of love into a cold world, always especially loving the people who were poor like the shepherds – loving the people who were lonely and frightened, the people that most other people didn’t like at all.
And Jesus still shines the warm light of love into our cold world – shines that warm light through us each time we give away something that we really like and value, each time we’re kind to people we don’t know, people who are different from us or even people we don’t like.
Jesus still shines the warm light of love into our cold world, in and through us, on Christmas Eve and all the time.
So, yes, it is cold out there – it’s really cold.
But, thanks to lots of hard work by some incredible people it’s so warm in here – do you feel how warm it is?
And so the best Christmas gift we can give is to shine Jesus’ warm light of love into our cold world.
Merry Christmas to you all.