Sunday, September 24, 2023

Rooted in Abundance

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
September 24, 2023

Year A, Proper 20: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Rooted in Abundance

I don’t know about you but I’m a public radio fan.
Pretty much whenever I’m driving, I usually turn on WYPR and listen to their news and talk programs. I even like hearing the traffic reports. When I first moved here I had no idea about the places they were talking about, but now I do.
On Friday morning as I was running my day off errands, I had the radio on as usual and listened to the news – and also the annual fall pledge drive.
I thought about how for every pledge drive they have to come up with a different slogan or angle – it must be a challenge. 
This year they are suggesting that we can become part of the WYPR “family” by becoming what they call a “sustaining member.”
I was thinking about all of this when I remembered that here at St. Thomas’ today is Stewardship Sunday – the official start of our fall stewardship campaign – which is, in part, an effort to encourage all of us to give as generously as we can to support this church that we love so much.
But, for the church, stewardship is much more than fundraising – it’s really about gratitude – gratitude to God for the many, many blessings we have received. And stewardship is also about generosity – how do we respond generously to the God who has been so generous with us.
Just like public radio, each year we offer a different theme – this year’s is “Rooted in Abundance” – and whoever is preaching on Stewardship Sunday is tasked with somehow presenting stewardship in a way that captures people’s imaginations and moves our hearts.
One way to do that is by coming up with an example of a time when we have given from our hearts and our wallets – to recall a joyful time when our generosity has echoed God’s great generosity.
Gosh, I don’t know, can anyone think of a time like that?
Well, most of you know where I am going with this. Last Sunday was officially Renewal Sunday but, honestly, we could have just as accurately called it Stewardship Sunday.
My goodness – talk about abundance!
I’ve been floating all week.
Now, going into Renewal Sunday, I was pretty sure it was going to be a good day but nothing prepared me for just how wonderful it was. If you weren’t here last week, or even if you were, I strongly encourage you to watch – and listen to - the video of the 10:00 service on our website.
        But, for now, a quick recap:
Our Senior Warden Jesse Van Geison and I spoke about an important and challenging and emotional topic – the plan to remember and re-member the North Cemetery and the enslaved people and their descendants who are buried out there – resting in sacred ground, just outside our churchyard wall.
Your response has been deeply moving and encouraging. Some of you have expressed relief and gratitude that we are addressing this part of our history and others have been fascinated to learn a little of this previously unknown story and eager to learn more.
Our choir – oh man, our choir – our choir always does a beautiful job but last week was… transcendent. And it was so gratifying to know that the congregation was moved by what they – you – heard – so moved, in fact, that applause broke out!
And then, with our hearts full of the finest spiritual food, most of us made our way over to the Parish Hall for a fine lunch of fried chicken and sides and delicious desserts – including, of course, soft-serve, with optional sprinkles, from the ice cream truck.
With a big smile, one newcomer joked that if we have the ice cream truck every week, he will become a member of our church!
That’s the kind of challenge I can get behind!
But we weren’t just here to enjoy good food and fellowship.
St. Thomas’ the Servant Church swung into action – writing more than 50 personal thank you notes to teachers at Owings Mills Elementary School – assembling 150 beauty and wellness bags with all sorts of treats for guests at the Community Crisis Center (I think this is my favorite – to give people who are struggling not just the basics but something nice, something to make life just a little bit sweet. Just beautiful.).
We created 20 celebration packages with all sorts of good stuff that the principal at OMES will give to Students of the Month and we assembled nearly 40 teacher appreciation bags – to thank teachers who work so hard in an ever more challenging profession.
So, that’s a lot, right?
And more than enough for one day.
But… that afternoon, the Orioles clinched a playoff spot and then managed yet another come-from-behind victory. I confess that I was following the game on my phone before the 5:00 service.
(Actually, a parishioner texted me, asking if I was going to delay the start of the service. I would never do that – of course not – but fortunately it wasn’t necessary anyway!)
So it was quite a day.
It’s kind of hard to describe exactly what it felt like.
But I imagine our Renewal Sunday was sort of like what the hungry and cranky Israelites in the wilderness experienced when the manna fell from heaven – this unexpected blessing – really not quite like anything they had ever seen or tasted before – this unexpected blessing filling them up for the journey ahead.
Or, maybe our Renewal Sunday was sort of like being one of the 5:00 workers in today’s parable.
No doubt they were grateful for the work but still had kind of low expectations – they only worked for a few minutes, after all. Yet, they received more than they would have dared to hope – more than they even deserved.
I love today’s parable - the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
I love it because, while sometimes we may not be exactly sure how Jesus’ first listeners heard his parables, in this case I am pretty certain that our reaction is exactly the same as people two thousand years ago.
The landowner gathers workers to work in his vineyard – he promised the first early morning group they would receive the “usual daily wage” and then he brought in another group at 9:00 and then another at noon and yet another at 3:00 and then, finally, he hired the last, probably pretty forlorn group, at 5:00.
Apparently, there were a lot of day laborers desperate for work – just like today.
Well, you remember what happened next.
The 5:00’ers are paid first – receiving the “usual daily wage” – a big surprise, I’m sure – a big surprise which got everybody else thinking that they were going to get a bit more – maybe a lot more - than the “usual daily wage.”
But instead, everyone received the same amount, and the early workers are unhappy – just as they would be unhappy today – just as we would probably be unhappy today.
“Not fair!” we would shout.
But the landowner is generous – sharing abundance - just as God is generous – sharing abundance with all of us.
I mean, seriously, go back and watch last week’s video.
Or, actually, just take a look around right now.
God has been so good to us here at St. Thomas’.
You might say that we are “rooted in abundance.”

“Rooted in Abundance” is this year’s stewardship theme but it’s also just the plain truth.
Thanks be to God, all of us here at St. Thomas’ – you and I – are rooted in abundance.
So my hope is that everyone who considers this old and holy place our spiritual home – whether you’ve been here “all day” or just arrived with the 5:00 crew – my hope is that all of us will give as generously as we can – give money, yes, please, but also give our hearts, just like we did on Renewal Sunday, just like we do around here all the time.
Giving thanks to God who has blessed us so extravagantly – seriously watch the video from last week – my hope is that all of us will give as generously as we can, giving thanks to God who has rooted us – who has rooted us so deeply – in abundance.

Sunday, September 17, 2023


St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
September 17, 2023

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Renewal Sunday
For the Mission of the Church I
Isaiah 2:2-4
Psalm 96:1-7
Ephesians 2:13-22
Luke 10:1-9


I think I once admitted to you that, back when St. Thomas’ and Sue and I were discerning if we would come here and serve and live beside all of you, back when we were listening carefully to the Holy Spirit, we made a secret, clandestine visit to Owings Mills.
We wanted to see this community for ourselves and try to imagine ourselves living and working here.
So, on Friday, December 11, 2020 (I looked it up!), I picked up Sue after school and we drove down 95 and, for the first of many times, we exited onto the Beltway and made our way here – or, actually, to the Owings Mills Holiday Inn, to be precise.
The next morning – on what turned out to be a bleak and gray day - we were up and out early.
We went to Starbucks – yes, the old hole-in-the-wall one over in the shopping plaza on Reisterstown Road. We sat outside as we sipped our coffee, watching the people coming and going. Living in a place where there were lots of different kinds of people is important to us and so were glad to see the beautiful diversity of Owings Mills on early morning display.
And then, we headed over toward St. Thomas Lane. As we drove up this now oh-so-familiar road, we spotted the rectory and decided to take a chance and turned up the driveway for a closer look.
Could we imagine ourselves living in such a grand place, surrounded by what sure looked like our own personal park?
And then we continued our journey here, to church.
Fortunately, nobody was around that morning – we had the campus to ourselves.
I saw the Advent wreaths on the church door, with the pretty blue ribbons.
I didn’t know it, but Sue took a picture of me as I peered through those old clear windows, gazing into the empty church, seeing the bright, whitewashed walls, the quaint pews with their little doors, the monuments on the walls, etched and erected in loving memory of those who had gone before.
I tried to imagine my story becoming part of the St. Thomas’ story – the St. Thomas’ story becoming part of my story.
As we walked around the churchyard – Sam Shoemaker’s grave was much easier to find than I expected – as we walked around, we saw that this is a place of remembering.
A place of remembering.

Remembering means recalling the past, of course, but there’s another, less familiar, deeper meaning that I love.
Remembering can also mean re-membering.
When people or things have been broken, re-membering is gathering and reassembling the broken pieces.
Where there is division, re-membering is renewing – restoring – unity.
You know, regardless of our particular beliefs, I think there is a human intuition that things are not the way they were meant to be.
Some Jewish mystics offered a vision of how everything seemed to go wrong, right from the first moment of creation.
These mystics suggest that God’s creative light was too strong for the vessels meant to carry it – so strong that, in the first moment, those vessels shattered, leaving sparks of God’s light scattered all over the broken creation.
And these mystics teach that our task is to gather up these sparks of divine light – to re-member – to reassemble the shattered creation, which we do through love and forgiveness, through good works – aiming to restore things to the way they were always meant to be, while recognizing that the cracks of the past will always remain.
In the Bible, of course, things go wrong practically from the start, too – when Adam and Eve mess up and things are never again the way they were meant to be.
But God doesn’t give up on us, doesn’t forget us. God goes right on remembering and re-membering us, until finally God comes among us in and through Jesus.
And, Jesus’ mission is all about re-membering, drawing the whole world to himself, transforming division into oneness. 
In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female – in Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
And so, St. Thomas’ is not only a place of remembering, not just a church that recalls the past – but we are also called to be a place of re-membering - Christ working through us to reassemble what has been broken, to reunite what has been divided – journeying together to the Kingdom of God, to the way things were always meant to be. 

Now, I could stand up here all day and talk about the many ways that, with God’s help, we have been re-membering:
Greeting people who have been away from our community for a while, and welcoming people as they step over that well-worn threshold for the first time. 
Rebuilding our programs for children and youth and young adults, signaling that they are of infinite value to God and us, and so very loved.
Being even more of a servant church, giving so generously to our Afghan friends, the guests at the Community Crisis Center and Paul’s Place, and supporting our neighbors at Owings Mills Elementary School.
Truly, this is a place of remembering and re-membering.
And now, I believe that God is calling us to a challenging and also beautiful task of remembering and re-membering.
For several years, a couple of parishioners wondered about the handful of gravestones that are located north of the churchyard wall – the monuments that many of us pass on our way from the parking lot to the church and back again.
After asking around about these graves and getting a variety of uncertain answers, they discovered the truth. It’s right there on page 321 in the official history of our church: that strip of land, north of the churchyard wall, had been used as what was called the “Colored Cemetery” – a burial ground for enslaved people and their descendants, especially the Breckinridge family.
In fact, Mary Breckinridge was the last person to be buried out there.
In 2012. 
For the past year or more, the wardens, vestry, and I have spent a lot of time learning about, and reflecting on, what we’ve been calling the North Cemetery.
The vestry voted unanimously to commission a brilliant researcher and genealogist named Malissa Ruffner to learn as much as she could about the history of that piece of land and the people who are buried there.
She produced a fascinating report that tells a complex tale of interconnected families and the division and distribution of parcels of land.
It seems clear that this particular piece of land was chosen for burials because of its proximity to the sacred space of St. Thomas’. But, one of the biggest surprises was that the North Cemetery did not come into the church’s possession until quite late – it was offered as gift in 1931 but, for whatever reason, not accepted until 1954.
In addition to commissioning Malissa Ruffner’s report, the vestry also unanimously voted to create a committee to formulate a plan for how we might respond to what we have learned.
How might we remember this part of our story?
And how might we re-member the North Cemetery and the people buried there?
And so the members of what we call the Cemetery Unity Committee – parishioners Betsy Baetjer, Annette Brown, Shyla Cadogan, Bob Kenyon, Cassandra Naylor, Frances Rockwell, Tuck Washburne, Senior Warden Jesse VanGeison, and I – have been meeting and have begun formulating a proposal – a plan that will enclose the North Cemetery, treating it as the sacred space it has always been, and using design elements that will unite it to the rest of the cemetery.
There will also be a memorial listing the names of the additional people we have learned are buried there, and acknowledging that there are others whose names will remain unknown to us, though never forgotten by the God who remembers us all. 
Our aim is to remember – and to re-member.

In Malissa Ruffner’s report there is passing mention of the fact that one of my predecessors hired out an enslaved man named Nick. Nick’s owner got the money, not Nick, of course.
Not shocking, but I found it painful to read and hard to accept.
But, here’s the thing: I’m not guilty of anything done by my predecessors.
And we are not guilty of anything done by our spiritual ancestors - or even our literal ancestors.
But we – you and I - are responsible for what we do here and now.

As you would guess, I have spent a lot of time thinking and praying about all of this.
Some people who knew what was coming have asked me if I was nervous to speak with you today.
And while I have certainly felt the weight of trying to find the right words, I haven’t been nervous - because what I dared to imagine nearly three years ago on a gray December morning has come to pass.
Just like you, my story has become part of the story of this place – this old and holy church, filled with so many sacred hearts - this old and holy church, built on the sure foundation of Christ.
Our stories have been woven together.
And now, God calls us as God has always called us – to remember the past – to re-member the broken and divided pieces of creation – and to renew our little corner of God’s world.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

No Outcasts

St. Thomas’ Church, Owings Mills MD
September 10, 2023

Year A, Proper 18: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

No Outcasts

I don’t want to sound super-obvious but, whether we like it or not, change is inevitable.
For example, Sue and I have lived in Owings Mills for just a little over two years now, and we’ve already witnessed a good bit of change around here. Sometimes we joke about it – how, we remember the days when we didn’t have that fancy stand-alone Starbucks with the drive-thru on Reisterstown Road. No, “back in the day,” all we had was that little hole-in-the-wall Starbucks, nearly hidden away in the shopping plaza.
People don’t know how good they have it today!
Or, in a reverse example, we’ll sometimes say that we go so far back that we remember the big stand-alone Barnes and Noble in Pikesville – shaking our heads in mock sadness at how people new to the community only know the nice, but smaller, scaled-down bookstore.
And, don’t get us started on the new townhouses going up near the bottom of St. Thomas Lane!
What in the world is happening to our neighborhood!?!
Yes, change is inevitable – in our communities – and also in the church.
You “Cradle Episcopalians” of a certain vintage have certainly witnessed a great deal of change in the church.
There was the ordination of women, the introduction of the “new” Prayer Book in 1979 and the “new” Hymnal in 1982.
There has been the open inclusion of LGBTQ people and the blessing of their love.
And, especially the last few years, the Episcopal Church has begun the hard but necessary work of facing the racism that stains our history and still lurks in the church today.
        A lot of change. Not always easy.
I once heard a bishop say that he believed that there had been two most transformative changes in the Episcopal Church in his lifetime.
One was the reintroduction of the ancient practice of Exchanging the Peace, which he believed went a long way to “warming up” the church, reminding us that we gather here each Sunday not so much as individuals but as a community – a community, no matter our differences, whose members, with God’s help, should be at peace with one another.
I’m not a “Cradle Episcopalian” but I can tell you that more than twenty years ago, when Sue and I first walked into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, we were so impressed by – nearly overwhelmed by, really - the Exchange of Peace.
That first Sunday we kind of hung back shyly, staying in our pew, giving some  hesitant waves, shaking a few hands, watching in wonder as most parishioners were out in the aisle greeting each other with hugs and smiles and laughter, like they hadn’t seen each other in forever, seemingly genuinely delighted to see each other.
That Exchange of Peace made a huge impression on us.
And soon enough, just a Sunday or two later, we joined the crowd out in the aisle.
Years later, when I was Rector of that church, a longtime parishioner complained that I was not giving enough time for the Peace.
When I asked why she that felt that way, she said, because she wasn’t able to get around and greet every single person in church!
How about that?

The bishop said that the second most transformative change that he had witnessed was the introduction of the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Back in the 1970s, the people crafting the new prayer book wanted to restore Baptism back to the center of church life (hooray!) and they also recognized that we could no longer assume that people knew the basics of Christianity.
And so the Baptismal Covenant, which begins with an ancient statement of belief, the Apostles’ Creed, and then concludes with five promises – promises that we renew each time there is a Baptism – promises that we will renew next week during Renewal Sunday.
With God’s help, we promise to gather here in our community – we promise to turn away from sin and ask forgiveness when we mess up – we promise to proclaim the Good News by word and example – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self – we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Truly awesome promises – promises we can only hope to keep with God’s help – promises that did and do transform us – promises that continue to transform the church, getting us to think and act bigger and bolder, and with much more love.
As Paul wrote to church in Rome, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
The idea – the hope - is that these changes to our worship – exchanging peace and making big Baptismal promises – they should change the way the church lives, not just when we’re in here, but when we’re out there, too.
For example, when Edmond Browning was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1985, just a few years after the new Prayer Book, he boldly declared, “I want to be very clear – this church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts – the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”
“This church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts.”

In today’s gospel lesson, at first glance it might seem that Jesus does not agree with Bishop Browning.
In this excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus lays out some procedures for the church – what to do when a member of the church sins against us.
First, we are to point out the fault privately.
If that doesn’t work, then we bring one or two others along with us to serve as witnesses.
And if that doesn’t get us anywhere, then we tell the whole church.
Jesus wants us to give the offending party every possible opportunity to repent and change their ways.
But, if they won’t listen to church, Jesus says, “then let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Which sure sounds like: “That’s it, we’ve tried everything we can think of, nothing worked, so we’re done with you!”
It sounds like they’re being cast out.
Or, it would sound like that, except we know that Jesus cast out demons, not people.
We know that Jesus offered healing to Gentiles, to non-Jews like the Canaanite woman’s tormented daughter, who we heard about just a few weeks ago.
And we know that Jesus hung around with tax collectors, people who were despised by their own people as traitors and cheats – not only did Jesus spend time with tax collectors, he invited one of them, Matthew, to be one of the Twelve, one of his closest followers.
So, when Jesus says, “…then let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” I don’t hear, “cast them out!”
No, I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t ever give up on them! Always keep the door open to healing and renewal.”
No outcasts.

We live in a time of great change, changes much bigger, deeper, and more challenging than a fancy new Starbucks or a scaled-back Barnes and Noble, or a couple of townhouses getting built down the road.
But no matter the changes ahead in our community and here in the church - my prayer is that we will continue to open wide our doors, to welcome and serve everyone.
During this time of change and renewal, my prayer is that we here at St. Thomas’ will continue to embrace one another – everyone - in peace and love. 
Who knows, maybe we’ll even give a little more time for the Peace!
My prayer is that we will try our best, with God’s help, to live out our Baptismal promises – that we will continue to build a church that is open to all, where there are no outcasts.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

The Parable of the Orioles (Or, Remaining Faithful to the Hard Road)

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
September 3, 2023

Year A, Proper 17: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

The Parable of the Orioles (Or, Remaining Faithful to the Hard Road)

Sometimes – like when I stop by the Parish Hall early on a Wednesday morning and visit with our faithful parishioners making a mountain of sandwiches for the guests at Paul’s Place, or like the other day when I turned into the driveway and saw the sunlight bouncing off the copper trim of our beautiful new church roof – sometimes I ask myself, how did I get here?
In a very real way, that journey began way back in the 1950s, with a Jersey City boy – my future dad - a baseball fan, who rooted for the almost always terrible St. Louis Browns.
Why the Browns, you ask? I really don’t know. I think maybe he just liked rooting for the underdog.
And when the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, my loyal dad transferred his allegiance to the Orioles, and has rooted for them ever since.
As many of you know, when my sister and I were little, my family made several trips to Baltimore, which always included at least one Orioles game at Memorial Stadium.
In those days, the players just parked in a lot with no apparent security and, if you got there early enough, you could see them making their way into the stadium, and you could ask them for autographs.
One time, when I was eleven years old, my dad and I were at the stadium early and we spotted the star pitcher Jim Palmer, who happened to be carrying his laundry. I went over and shyly asked for his autograph. He was about to sign but then saw a bunch of other kids running over. He said since he was pitching he couldn’t sign for everybody. So, instead, I got a picture of Number 22, his laundry, and me – a future, though very different, number 22!
    (I'm the 22nd Rector of St. Thomas'.)
    (And, by the way, Palmer pitched 12 innings that game. Something that would NEVER happen today!)

Although those family trips eventually came to an end, I never lost my interest in, and fondness for, Baltimore.
Fast forward to seven years ago.
I suggested to my dad that we should restart the tradition of those trips, head down to Baltimore, take in an Orioles game or two, see some of the sights, and, most important, spend some time together.
And that’s what we did – and it was great – and became an annual event.
Unfortunately, the revival of our family tradition coincided almost exactly with the total collapse of the Orioles - and the start of the long and painful rebuild.
As many of you know only too well, the new General Manager of the Orioles, Mike Elias, formulated a plan of rebuilding – or, you might say, renewal – that involved nurturing young minor league talent while leaving the major league team – and its fans – to suffer so many ugly and painful defeats.
During our annual trips to Camden Yards, my father and I saw quite a few terrible games, usually surrounded by delighted fans of the opposing team.
It was a hard road, one that required a lot of faith in the plan and a lot of hope for the future. And I bet there was a lot of pressure to choose a quicker and easier way, but, to their credit, the Orioles stuck with this hard road and now are experiencing the joy of new life – so much joy and so much new life that well over 100 of us have signed up to go to the last home game of the season, including that Jersey City kid who transferred his allegiance to the team way back in 1954!
The Parable of the Orioles.
Or, remaining faithful to a hard road.

If you were here last week, you may remember that Peter had a really good day.
Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”
And to everyone’s surprise, including probably his own, it’s Peter – well-meaning but often bumbling Peter – who gets the answer exactly right:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” he says.
Jesus then goes on to declare that Peter will be the first stone upon which he will build the Church.
A really good – even glorious - day for Peter.
And now in today’s gospel lesson we pick up right where we left off last week, and, well, Peter’s glory sure is fleeting, isn’t it?
Jesus describes to his disciples the hard road ahead, “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter is so shocked, devastated, by what Jesus has said that he is unable to hear the promise of new life – the promise of renewal – at the end of the hard road.
Instead, all Peter can hear is that Jesus – his friend and Lord, the one he had correctly identified as Messiah and Son of God – all Peter can hear is suffering and death.
And so Peter takes Jesus aside and he “rebukes” Jesus.
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
That’s a strong word, “rebuke.”
And Jesus, he goes right back at Peter – rebuking Peter in return – “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Strong words that must have been hard for Peter to hear.
Why did Jesus rebuke Peter?
Probably because Jesus really was tempted to turn away from the hard road of his mission, the hard road of the cross.
And, knowing what we know is waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem, who could blame him?
But, Jesus knows that the hard road, as painful as it is, is the only way to Easter, the only way to new life, the only way to renewal.
And so, Jesus remains faithful to the hard road.

As we know from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and also from the Parable of the Orioles – there are no shortcuts on the hard road to new life, the hard road to renewal.
People in recovery know this – the Twelve Steps that our friend Sam Shoemaker helped to develop – they chart a hard road: recognizing and admitting powerlessness over addiction, taking a searching and fearless moral inventory, making amends for the wrongs done – a hard road indeed.
And our own Baptismal Covenant is a hard road – proclaiming the Good News by word and example – seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self, striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being – a hard road, a road we can travel only with God’s help.
A hard road that we are often tempted to turn away from.
A hard road that, fortunately, we travel together.

In two weeks, we will celebrate Renewal Sunday.
It will be a time to celebrate how far we have traveled on our hard road – how we have done the hard work of rebuilding and enhancing both our buildings and our ministries – how we have done the hard work of opening our doors to absolutely everybody – how we have done the hard work of looking beyond our church walls, looking for those who need our help, looking for those we may have forgotten.
Renewal Sunday won’t be the end of the road – just another step in our journey.
And if we remain faithful to the way of Jesus, the road ahead will no doubt be hard.
We may be tempted to turn away.
But, as Jesus – and, yes, the Orioles - teach us, the hard road is the only way to new life, the only way to renewal.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

The Foundation

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
August 27, 2023

Year A: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

The Foundation

For the past sixteen years, Sue and I have lived in church housing of one kind or another, including for the last two years in the rather grand rectory just down the road from here, surrounded by what feels like our own personal park.
Living in church housing has been an interesting experience. There are pros and cons to everything, but I have to say that I’ve always been grateful that when things go wrong at the house, I can just pick up the phone and there are people who take care of it!
I really appreciate that because it was not always so.
Although it’s so long ago now that I sometimes forget, in the early years of our marriage Sue and I owned a house in Jersey City.
It was the center house in a small row of three.
It was narrow – only fourteen feet wide, I think – not quite as narrow as a Baltimore row house, but still.
Built around 1900, it had lots of charming details that we loved – and, most of all, it was ours – our biggest investment – a place where we thought we’d live for far longer than we actually did.
I remember when we were in the process of buying the house and the home inspector made his walk-through. Since the house was fairly old, there were some issues – there are always issues, right? But I’ll never forget something the inspector said to us:
The foundation is the most important part of the house. Anything else can be fixed, but if the foundation is no good, then the house is no good.
Some years later when we were selling that same house and the buyer’s inspector came through – their inspector turned out to be much more thorough than ours, by the way – but when we were selling and I was sweating, I remembered those words about the foundation and breathed a deep sigh of relief when, although there were plenty of problems, the foundation was still solid.
The foundation is the most important part of the house. 
And that’s true for the church – not just the old building with a new roof across the driveway – but our community.
And that’s true for each of us, individually, too.
The foundation is the most important part of the house.

We hear a bit about foundations – about our foundation – in today’s gospel lesson.
As Jesus made his way from village to village, teaching and healing, he attracted lots of interest.
No doubt, some people wanted some of his good food – all that bread and fish – that they had heard about.
Others wanted healing, for themselves or for a tormented family member.
Others, like some of the religious authorities, were suspicious of - felt threatened by - this mysterious teacher and healer. 
As we heard in today’s gospel lesson, in some ways Jesus reminded people of other holy people - John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophet.
But, although Jesus was reminiscent of others, he also taught and healed like no one had ever seen or heard.
So, who is he?
We know that Jesus’ disciples had a hard time figuring him out, so the question he poses to his friends, “But who do you say that I am?” seems like it’s going to be a tough one for them to answer.
But, probably to everyone’s surprise including his own, it’s Simon Peter – lovable but often bumbling Peter – it’s Peter who gets the answer exactly right.
The fisherman says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
I imagine all the others turning and looking at Peter, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Jesus declares that Peter didn’t figure this out on his own, and he didn’t hear about it from one of the others. No, God has given Peter this insight and understanding.
And then, Jesus makes a bold pronouncement.
With some wordplay that we miss in the English translation, Jesus declares that Simon - whose nickname “Peter” comes from a word meaning rock or stone – Simon Peter will be the first stone in the church Jesus will build – a church with the power resist evil – a church that holds the keys to heaven and to hell.
Now, at this point, if you’ve been following along, you might be getting a little confused or even nervous.
I mean we know Simon Peter pretty well – and we know that, like us, he messed up pretty regularly, sometimes in really big ways. Yes, he had a good day today, but if you come back next week, you’ll hear about one of Peter’s worst mistakes, when he tries to talk Jesus out of his mission.
So, if Peter – or any of us, for that matter - is the foundation of the church or even the foundation of our own lives, then we’re in serious trouble.
I can already see the cracks forming.
As a Church and as individuals, we often rely on our history, our wealth, our talents, our intelligence, our relationships, and that often works out OK. But, those foundations can crack oh so easily, endangering the whole house.
No, Christ is the only sure foundation of the Church – and Christ is the only sure foundation of our lives.

What might a life built on Christ’s foundation look like?

Back in Jersey City, we used to offer a service at a local nursing home.
Although many of the nursing home employees tried their best, this was a place for very poor people, kind of run down and with no fancy amenities.
Anyway, once a month, our choir director and I and a few other parishioners would head over a brief service that included prayers and a Bible reading, and some familiar hymns. I’d give a short homily and then make my way around the room, offering Holy Oil to anyone who wanted.
They almost all wanted to be anointed.
Many of the residents in the congregation were kind of in and out – more or less engaged during the singing and during the Lord’s Prayer – while many nodded off or zoned out during my homily – if you can believe it!
But there was one woman, about 70 years old, who was always fully alert and attentive to everything – saying the prayers with feeling and listening to my words, hoping – needing – to be fed, it seemed to me.
Her name was Theresa.
Eventually, we started exchanging a few words after the service. 
Later, I would go over to the nursing home just to visit her. We’d meet in her room – really half a room – with barely the space for a twin bed, a dresser, and a chair where I could sit.
We would talk and pray and have Communion.
And gradually, she shared her story with me.
As a young woman she had been a nun but after a few years she left the convent and pursued a career in science, earning her PhD and working as a researcher at a prestigious university.
(She gave me a copy of her CV, maybe suspecting that I wouldn’t totally believe her story.)
But then her life fell apart – the death of a loved one, physical ailments, understandable emotional trouble – and eventually she lost nearly everything - her work and her home and her money and even her freedom – she ended up with a state-appointed guardian who made every decision for her.
I remember thinking, how can this happen?
But the truth is, it happens all the time.
All of Theresa’s foundations had cracked and failed, except, of course, for the One Foundation.
Having lost so much and now stuck in her crummy room, I would have expected Theresa to be profoundly depressed and angry – angry at God, certainly – and not wanting to talk with me.
But, although she definitely got frustrated at her circumstances, for sure, the truth was her faith had only deepened as she came to understand that all those other foundations she had thought she could count on were not so reliable after all.
She came to know the sureness of Christ’s foundation, supporting her no matter what, without fail.
Theresa was also a poet and I was honored that she shared some of her poetry with me – all of it beautiful, expressing both searing pain and confident faith.
Here’s an excerpt from a poem that she wrote in her little room:
I have been cloistered
In this room.
There are times that it is quiet;
Times I can immerse myself
In prayer with You, my Lord,
And I can be open
And still enough
For my heart to hear You.
One day I went over to the nursing home to visit Theresa and found her half-room empty, her few possessions gone.
I asked at the nurses’ station and they told me that she had died a week before. I never found out what happened to her or where she ended up.
I was so sad – and pretty angry at the nursing home – but now, mostly I feel very grateful to have known Theresa, and to have witnessed her faith.
Like all of us, I would really prefer to avoid her fate.
But, she will always remind me that the foundations of our life serve their purposes but they can all, each one of them, crack and fail.
There is only one sure foundation for the Church and for each of us – and it’s not Peter or me or any of us.
The sure foundation is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Sacred Hearts

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
August 20, 2023

Year A, Proper 15: The 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

Sacred Hearts

You’ve probably heard of the very popular Roman Catholic devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – if for no other reason than the Roman Catholic Church over in Reisterstown is named “Sacred Heart.”
In this devotion, Jesus’ sacred heart is viewed as a symbol of God’s overflowing love of humanity – God’s unlimited love for all of us, no matter what.
We know from the gospels that Jesus has a deep concern about our hearts.
Jesus teaches that what is going on in our heart is most important – because it is a quick trip from what is going “in here” to what we actually do “out here.”
And we certainly hear this heart teaching in the first part of today’s gospel lesson.
It’s a familiar scene: a conflict between Jesus and religious leaders, in this case, the Pharisees.
Back in the first century, just like today, Judaism was diverse – there were lots of different groups with various ideas about how best to obey and worship God.
One of those groups was the Pharisees. We don’t actually know that much about them, but it seems they aimed to make everyday life holy by teaching people to take on various religious practices.
In the gospels, the Pharisees are almost always depicted as opponents of Jesus.
Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees’ emphasis on religious practices because he sees it as putting unnecessary burdens on already overburdened people. All that is truly necessary is to love God and love neighbor, Jesus teaches.
And, as we heard today, Jesus is skeptical of religious practices because there is the great danger that we will focus too much on the externals – saying and doing the “right things” - while not paying enough attention to what’s going on in our hearts – in our hearts, which are meant to be sacred but are often hardened and defiled by fear, hate, and greed.
Our sacred hearts are meant to be like Jesus’ Sacred Heart – a sign and symbol of God’s overflowing love for everybody, very much including people who are different than us, very much including people we don’t even know.
In the second part of today’s gospel lesson, I think we heard our brother Jesus’ heart grow in love and sacredness.
We’re told that Jesus is in or near Tyre and Sidon, a non-Jewish land, probably an unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable place for the Jewish Jesus.
As we heard, It’s there that a Canaanite woman desperately asks Jesus to help her daughter who is “tormented by a demon.”
Surprisingly, at first Jesus seems to ignore her.
And, the disciples, well, they continue their losing streak by being annoyed by her shouting. No compassion there. They ask Jesus to send her away.
And, surprise, Jesus seems to do just that – he dismisses this poor woman pleading for her daughter:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says.
But this Canaanite woman, this loving mother, this woman with a sacred heart of her own, she persists with heartbreaking words: 
“Lord, help me.”
And then, in one of the most shocking moments in the gospels, a very un-Jesus-like Jesus seems to insult this pleading woman:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman responds with an extraordinarily bold comeback:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Not everyone would agree with me about this but I believe in this moment, something shifts in Jesus – in this encounter with a pleading, loving, courageous foreign woman, Jesus’ Sacred Heart grows a little bit bigger and holier as he realizes that his mission is bigger than maybe even he had previously recognized.
Jesus’ Sacred Heart is a sign and symbol of God’s overflowing love for everybody – very much including a Canaanite woman willing to spar with God’s Son to save her daughter’s life.

Sacred hearts.
Well, we offer a number of spiritual practices here at St. Thomas’ – from Bible Study to Morning Prayer - but Jesus is clear that those practices only have value if they make our sacred hearts more loving.
Sometimes this may seem to be too difficult, or even impossible.
We don’t have to look far to see people whose hearts are hardened and defiled by fear, anger, and greed – plenty of people in public life, certainly – and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, sometimes our hearts are hardened and defiled, too.
Considering the state of our land and our world, it would be easy to conclude that this “heart work” just isn’t worth it.
And yet, over and over, God offers us examples of sacred hearts shining God’s overflowing love for everybody.
Just a couple of recent examples:

Last Sunday night, Robert Horne, 50 years old, a security guard at the Baltimore Convention Center, was driving on Interstate 395 near the Inner Harbor when he spotted a disabled vehicle stopped by the side of the road.
Mr. Horne – a husband and father – pulled over to offer assistance – not knowing the driver – not knowing what he would encounter but just willing to help.
This was not the first time he had done something like this.  While most of us would just keep going and leave it to others whose job it is to help, Robert Horne stepped into the unknown, at great risk to himself, and offered help to a stranger.
Tragically, as you may have seen on the news, another car crashed into the disabled car. The impact sent Robert Horne over the side of the road and into the water below, where he lost his life.
Sacred Hearts.

That same day, a Jesuit priest named Fr. Jim Keenan died, at age 86, after more than 60 years of religious life. He was a very able administrator, and over his long career he led several Jesuit high schools in the Northeast, including serving as President of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City when I taught there.
But what all of us will always remember about Jim was his personal care and love for everybody.
He was famous for presiding at countless weddings of former students and at the baptisms of their children and grandchildren. And he was beloved for remembering – and making the time – to call people on significant days – birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the anniversaries of a loved one’s death.
Jim had a deep and booming voice – Prep kids used to liken it to Darth Vader – but his words were gentle.
Jim reached out to the many, many people he had encountered over the years  – and that would’ve been enough – but he also reached out to people he had never even met.
Christopher Smith is a young Jesuit here in Baltimore and here’s what he wrote about Jim:
“Every year on January 19, without fail, the little icon indicating I had a new voicemail would pop up on my phone. When I’d listen, the same deep voice would greet me. The tenor of the message was always the same: he’d thank me for my yes to God, assure me of his prayers, and inform me that he had offered mass that day for the repose of the soul of my great-grandmother.
I never met the man. I never even remembered my great-grandmother’s anniversary prior to his yearly mass (because I didn’t even know her). This brother of mine had simply read an article that I wrote once, was touched by it, and remembered me and my family in prayer.”
On the day that Jim Keenan died, he had baptized one final baby – and I can’t think of a more appropriate way for him to conclude his ministry, leave this life, and enter eternity with God.
Sacred hearts.

So, with God’s help, this is what’s possible for us – for our hearts.
God has made our hearts to be sacred – to shine overflowing love into the world - love for the people we know – love for the stranger – love for absolutely everybody.
May it be so.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Trust Issues

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
August 13, 2023

Year A, Proper 14: The 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-23

Trust Issues

It seems that each week brings terrifying and troubling reminders of the big and challenging problems that we face as a people.
We’ve had catastrophes caused, probably in large part, by climate change: the fiery and deadly destruction on beautiful Maui and the increasingly powerful storms that keep rolling though our area, including the one the other day that knocked down all those utility poles in Westminster, leaving drivers trapped in their cars for hours and cutting off power for days.
Here at St. Thomas’, we’re still dealing with, and will be dealing with for a long time, the aftermath of the storm from a couple of weeks ago that brought down an old tree into a churchyard, doing terrible damage to some of our oldest monuments.
In our public life, the government isn’t really doing much governing. Instead, we’re consumed with partisan bickering and countless accusations and investigations – of which there is no end in sight.
And, everyone I know looks ahead to next year’s presidential election with dread.
A lot of ink gets spilled trying to figure out why we’re in such a mess.
And I’m certainly not the first to say that the fundamental problem is a break down in trust.
Yes, we have big time trust issues.
Sometimes with good reason and sometimes not, we don’t trust many – most – of our leaders and institutions – we don’t trust scientists, journalists, politicians, and even teachers, and, yes, the clergy.
We also don’t trust each other – sometimes for good reason but often because we just don’t know each other in the way that people in the past knew each other.
This is one reason why church – why this church - is so important.
This is one of the few remaining places where people from different walks of life and with different viewpoints can come together and get to know each other and do good together and love each other – to be different and diverse, sure, but also to be one in everything that really matters.
But even we have our trust issues, right?
Since we don’t know each other as well as we might or should, we may not totally trust one another.
  And, worst of all, we may not really trust God, especially when life gets difficult.
If we’re being totally honest with ourselves, we might admit that often we are what are sometimes called “functional atheists” – we say we believe in God but we don’t really trust God. Instead, we believe that ultimate responsibility rests on us.
We have trust issues.
Among all of Jesus’ disciples, we know the most about Peter the fisherman. 
Jesus says that Peter is “the rock” upon whom he will build his church.
But we know that this “rock” was often not so solid.
Like us, Peter is a mixed bag – sometimes faithful and courageous, – and other times doubtful and frightened.
And in today’s gospel lesson, we see Peter’s mixed bag nature on full display, don’t we?
The setting is right after one of Jesus’ greatest miracles - the Feeding of the Multitudes – when Jesus took a woefully insufficient amount of bread and fish and transformed it into a meal of overflowing abundance – enough food to feed the huge crowd, with plenty of leftovers.
After that big and miraculous meal, we’re told that Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and “go on ahead to the other side” while Jesus dismissed the well-fed crowd, which I bet wasn’t so easy.
I know I’d want to stick around for more of that free delicious miracle food!
But after the disciples survive a stormy night at sea, we’re told that Jesus walks on the water toward the probably exhausted and definitely terrified disciples, who reasonably conclude that they are seeing ghost.
Jesus tries to reassure his friends.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” he says.
Our friend Peter is not totally convinced, not totally trusting. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Which is a strange request, right?
It sounds a little like Peter is saying I want to be God, too.
But, to his credit, Peter, does trust. He steps out in faith, steps out of the boat, and manages to take a few miraculous steps on the water. But the wind kicks up and his trust – in himself and in Jesus - quickly falters. And when he begins to sink he cries out to the Lord to save him, which Jesus does without delay.
Like all of us imperfect people, Peter had trust issues.
But, as Peter learned that day as he was sinking, the very good news is that God will not let go of us, no matter our trust issues, no matter what.

Over the past couple of years, you’ve heard me mention the fact that I was a teacher before I went to seminary and was ordained a priest.
In fact, I mentioned that in last week’s sermon, when I said that I had been out of the classroom for about twenty years.
That’s almost entirely true, but it glosses over that about eight years ago, I made a very brief return to teaching.
A little background:
I had always missed teaching – missed spending my days surrounded by other people – missed having colleagues who, in many cases, were also good friends.
Also, clergy are expensive – worth every penny, of course! – but expensive, and that bothered me.
So, when I heard that my alma mater – the school I later taught at and left to go to seminary – was looking for a Religion teacher, I thought that this was the answer to my prayers.
I could get back to teaching, but teaching religion, so that would align with my priestly vocation.
At the same time, I would continue at my church, but only part-time, which would ease financial pressure for the church while also giving me a little security.
Others had doubts, but I convinced myself that I could do my job at the same level in half the time.
If this is sounding like functional atheism, you’re right!
At first, it was great to be back at school, to see old friends, to prepare my classes.
But then classes actually started and I discovered that I was really rusty and that education had changed a whole lot since I was gone, now much more reliant on technology.
If I could’ve brought Sue to school with me for tech support, maybe I could’ve pulled it off.
And then, I came home from school and had to do my church work. Maybe if I were twenty years younger, I could have done both jobs, but not now.
It only took a couple of days for me to realize that I had made a terrible mistake and was sinking fast – and so I asked to speak to the school’s principal, who, by the way, happened to have been a classmate and one of my closest friends.
I told him that I just couldn’t do it and apologized for making his life much more difficult.
And, I talked to the leaders of the church and asked if, uh, maybe we could go back to the way things had been before – like a week ago - and they very graciously and, I think, happily obliged.
Since I’m standing up here telling you all this, I guess I’m pretty much over it. But, at the time, and for years after, I was so embarrassed that I had misjudged things so badly and created such a mess.
As I’ve reflected on that painful experience, I’ve come to see that when I stepped out in faith, it was mostly misplaced faith in myself – somehow I thought that I could do two full-time jobs – rather than faith, or trust, in God.
I had grown so fearful about the future – about my future - that I no longer trusted that God would not let go of me, no matter what.

But God did not let go of me and, with God’s help, in the following years we were able to do some wonderful work in Jersey City.
And my good friend the principal and I are still good friends.
And eventually, God invited me to a seemingly unlikely place, a place I might never had encountered unless, I don’t know, my father and I made a wrong turn on our way to Camden Yards.
So, Peter and I have learned some important lessons.
No matter our many real and challenging problems, no matter how mixed up we are, no matter if it feels like we are sinking, God is trustworthy.
No matter our trust issues, God is trustworthy.

And our trustworthy God will never let go of us, no matter what.