Sunday, January 16, 2022

A Holy Refilling



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 16, 2022

Year C: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

A Holy Refilling

Well, as some of you know by now, this week I finally had to face reality and postpone the events we had scheduled at the end of the month to honor Samuel Shoemaker. 
We have rescheduled for the end of April when, hopefully, the pandemic will have eased and we can more safely gather together.
No surprise, at first I was very disappointed but I’ve also recognized that it would be much, much better to be able to attend an event about recovery and healing without worrying about catching a life-threatening illness!
The other day, just before I decided to postpone it, someone asked me why I am so excited about this program, why I’m so interested in Shoemaker.
Most of you have heard some of the reasons: I think it’s really cool that he grew up here and was baptized here and celebrated his first Holy Communion as a priest here.
And, it’s an honor that an Episcopal saint rests in our cemetery.
Although, like all of us, he was complex and imperfect, I’m in awe that his contributions to the Twelve Steps have saved countless lives – and I also think that many of his other insights about faith and the church have a lot to say to our own time and place.
But, there’s something else, too.
I have a very close friend and mentor, a priest, who is a recovering alcoholic.
I didn’t know him back in his drinking days but the bottom line was that eventually alcoholism took over his life. Eventually he lost his church and some of his family. He was out of the church for a number of years while he attended AA meetings and worked on his recovery.
By the time I met him that was all in the past, but of course it continued to shape him and his priesthood.
Because he had lost so much, and also because he knew God’s grace – because he had been refilled by Jesus - he was a humble person, willing to show us his scars, willing to say that he was just another guy on the road, willing to reach out his hand to me and many others and say, let’s walk together.
And the experience of meeting him and learning from him changed my life, and eventually led me here, to you.
And none of it would have happened without AA.
Which means none of it would have happened without Samuel Shoemaker.
So, you know, I kind of feel like I owe him a lot.
Over the past few Sundays we have been hearing about a series of epiphanies – manifestations of God’s presence and power.
First was the Epiphany itself, when the Magi followed the star to the newborn King – a sign that Jesus is King not just for Israel but for the whole world.
And then last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. This time, at least the way Luke tells the story, the epiphany is at first just for Jesus.
The heavens open and the Spirit descends like a dove. 
And Jesus hears the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
And now in today’s lesson from the Gospel of John, we heard our third epiphany – our third manifestation of God’s presence and power.
But, this time the epiphany flows directly from Jesus himself.
The setting is a wedding at a place called Cana – a wedding attended by Jesus, his mother, and his disciples.
Then, as now, weddings were very important events. 
In this case, wedding celebrations would last for days, with lots of guests coming and going. 
The wedding was a celebration for the couple, yes, but also a party for the whole community.
Many of us no longer value or practice hospitality as much as we used to, but in much of the world and certainly in ancient times, hospitality was very important.
So, for the horrified wedding hosts at Cana it would have required humility to admit that the wine had run out.
And, for the guests the last of the wine would have been a big disappointment.
  It sure must have seemed like the party was over.
Jesus’ mother tells him this unfortunate news, but Jesus seems to dismiss her.
“Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour is not yet come.”
But, for whatever reason, Jesus’ mother trusts that her son is going to do something about this problem.
“Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.
And what Jesus tells the servants must have sounded strange indeed: fill the six giant jars – each holding twenty or thirty gallons – fill them with water – fill them to the brim.
Well, you know the rest: the water is transformed into wine – and not just any wine but the best wine – the jars are overflowing – and the party is just getting started.
A holy refilling.
John never describes Jesus’ wonder works as “miracles.” 
Instead, for John, turning the water into wine, and all of Jesus’ other wonder works are signs - signs pointing to a deeper truth.
The wine is not the point of this story.
No, the point is that when we’re feeling empty, when it feels like the party is over – Jesus offers us a holy refilling.

During a week when I’ve been thinking about a story in which wine plays a starring part, I also read an interesting and enlightening book called Why Can’t Church Be More Like an AA Meeting?
It’s a question that I’ve asked myself.
I’ve seen the commitment that AA members like my friend have to the program, how they just don’t miss meetings, no matter what.
And, let’s be honest, church does not seem to inspire that same kind of urgency in very many people.
Anyway, the author suggests that one of the reasons why church can’t be like an AA meeting, or at least why it usually isn’t, is because church people are not too keen on showing vulnerability and humility – that we like to present ourselves as having our act together – that we’re here not so much for ourselves but to pray for those poor “other” people who don’t have their act together like we do.
I confess that before I knew you, I wondered if that’s what you were like.
But then I started getting to know members of the Search Committee and I was touched by their willingness to admit that the church they love so much was facing many challenges – people drifting away to other churches or no church at all, the absence of children from our Sunday School – and a pandemic that just won’t quit.
There were unsettling doubts about the future of this old and holy place.
For some of you, maybe it seemed like the wine was beginning to run out, that the party was winding down.
So, really more than anything else, it was your humility that drew me here, convinced me to accept your invitation to walk the road together.
Now, while it is true that all of the challenges I mentioned remain, I see a holy refilling taking place here at St. Thomas’.
On Monday evening, an online Bible Study that used to attract just a handful of parishioners was bursting at the virtual seams with 21 participants, including a significant number of people new to our church.
And, an idea that started with one parishioner wondering if we might use an empty house on our property to offer hospitality to Afghan refugees has gathered momentum, attracting other parishioners who know what’s needed to fix an old building and others who are skilled at navigating bureaucracy.
And, some people who had drifted away have been returning home and others are discovering us for the first time – finding a place where all are welcome, a church where having your act together is definitely not a requirement.
I believe that all of this and more is happening because of humility.
It’s the same humility that led my friend to attend his first AA meeting – the same humility that led horrified hosts at a long ago wedding to face the fact that the wine was running out.
It’s the same humility that gives Jesus all the room he needs to get to work, giving us a holy refilling.
So, my friends, here’s the good news: the party that began in 1742 is just getting started.
Amen.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Plunging Into the Depths



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 9, 2022

Year C: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Plunging Into the Depths

In the Episcopal Church and in many other faith traditions, one of the requirements for ordination is a program called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).
In most cases, CPE means spending a summer as a hospital chaplain trainee, visiting and sometimes praying with patients and their families and friends, and then reflecting with the others in the program on all that we had seen and heard and said.
So, about 15 years ago, I spent a memorable summer at Christ Hospital in Jersey City.
Since, I guess like most people, I try to avoid the hospital as much as possible, I can’t say that I was excited about fulfilling this particular requirement. I dreaded facing all the fear and pain that we encounter in the hospital. And, I was not sure at all that I would be able to offer much comfort to people in distress.
It felt like being tossed into the deep end of the pool before my first swimming lesson.
Well, one of the many things I learned that summer is that there is a real sense of community in hospitals.
There’s community among many of the people who work there, who help each other get through some really hard stuff, and I’m sure that’s especially true these days.
And, even more surprising, some patients are part of the community, too - especially people who are in for long stays, and chronically ill people who are frequently in and out of the hospital.
That summer in the hospital I got to know many members of those hospital communities, including a few people I’ll never forget.
One was a longtime patient named Paula.
At first I was really uncomfortable with Paula. 
She was about my age and she was very sick.
Despite the heroic and often very painful efforts of modern medicine, cancer was slowly but inevitably getting the better of Paula.
After a few awkward and fumbling visits, she and I began to relax together, sharing our stories, praying together, sometimes crying together, as she acknowledged her fate, grieving for all that she would be leaving behind.
Yet, despite so much pain and sadness, for the most part Paula was at peace. One time she said, “When I first got sick, I asked, ‘why me?’ But, after seeing all these other sick people, now I ask ‘why not me?’”
Amazing, right?
It was hard to be with Paula in the depths of her disease and suffering, but being close with her was also a great privilege and even, maybe strange to say, a gift that I will always cherish.
If you have been around here over the past few weeks, you know that we’ve heard a lot about John the Baptist.
John called people to live ethical lives – don’t steal from others – if you have a second coat give it to someone who has none – don’t think that just because your ancestors were holy that everything is OK between you and God.
Most of all, John preached repentance – he called on people to change their ways – to change direction – to head back toward God – and, of course this dramatic change was symbolized by baptism, a ritual washing in the River Jordan, presided over by John himself.
Despite – or maybe because of – his harsh message, John attracted big crowds.
It seems that lots of people recognized that they were on the wrong path, and realized that John offered them a way to change direction – a way to new life.
Actually, John was such a remarkable person that at least some people, maybe a lot of people, thought that he must be the long-awaited messiah.
So, it’s surprising that Jesus the Messiah presented himself to John for baptism. 
Jesus surely did not need a baptism of repentance, right?
So, what was he doing there?
Well, there is a sense that John’s work ends with the baptism of Jesus. Luke says that all the people had been baptized, including Jesus. Now it’s time for John to make way for the more powerful One.
And, Jesus’ baptism is also an example of his obedience. Jesus was baptized because the Father wanted him to be baptized.
But, on a deeper level, it’s in and through Baptism that Jesus discovers who he really is. The voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
It’s by plunging into the depths, that Jesus finds out who really is.
It’s by plunging into the depths, that Jesus fulfills God’s will.
And, for the rest of his life, Jesus will continue to plunge into the depths.
Immediately after his Baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, where he will be sorely tempted – driven into the wilderness where Satan knows how to quote the Bible and is able to come up with temptations specially designed for Jesus.
Jesus survived that experience, but for the rest of his life, Jesus will plunge into the depths of human life – hanging around with the wrong kinds of people, being close to lepers and tax collectors, offering new life to people broken by guilt, fear, disease and grief.
Jesus will plunge into the depths, eventually rejected and abandoned by just about everybody.
Into the depths, Jesus went – into the depths of the tomb, which sure looked like the end, but just as Jesus came up out of the baptismal water, he will rise again on the third day.

And now, on the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, I have the honor of baptizing Jackson.
Like at many churches, Baptism here at St. Thomas’ is a quite lot different from plunging into the Jordan, but don’t let the beautiful baptismal font and our sharp outfits fool you.
It may look like I’m just pouring a little bit of water over his head, but, in fact, Jackson is about to plunge into the depths.
And then, after the spiritual swimming lesson, Jackson will be brought back up, now with an indissoluble, unbreakable, bond that will keep him close to God forever.
In baptism, all of us are plunged into the depths and brought back up.
In baptism, all of us discover who we really are – beloved children of God.
And, for the rest of our lives, all of us are invited to plunge into the depths with God and one another – plunging into the depths to uphold each other during the hard times – plunging into the depths to face suffering and fight injustice – plunging into the depths to respect people with very different ideas and beliefs – plunging into the depths to love even the people we may not like or don’t trust one bit.
In a time when, for lots of reasons, so many of us have grown apart, remembering Jesus’ baptism, and our own baptism, is more important than ever.
So, like Jackson, let’s plunge into the depths, trusting that God will not let go of us no matter what.
Let’s plunge into the depths, knowing that this is the way of God – the way of community, the way of love – and the way of new life.
Amen.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Building Bridges and Bigger Tables



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
January 2, 2022

The Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84:1-8
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:1-15, 19-23

Building Bridges and Bigger Tables

Well, Happy New Year, everyone!
And, Merry Christmas, too!
Although the world has definitely moved on to the next thing, here in church it is still Christmas, for a few more days, anyway.
This past week was relatively quiet at St. Thomas’, giving me a chance to reflect on all that we experienced during Christmas – all the many ways that we have been so richly blessed.
Although the ongoing pandemic definitely dimmed our celebrations, it was still one of the best Christmases of my life.
So many parishioners and our church staff worked very hard to make Christmas beautiful for all of us.
Everyone who was here seemed so excited and joyful.
The music was over-the-top fantastic.
And, as many of you know, my parents were here with Sue and me.
So, I mean, really, what more could I ask for?
And, on top of all that, we got to hear the Christmas story.
On Christmas Eve we heard the Christmas story according to Luke – the story of Joseph and a pregnant Mary journeying far from home, unable to find a an appropriate place to give birth, placing the child in a manger, a pretty word for the harsh truth: the Son of God spent his first night on earth in a feeding trough meant for animals.
We heard about angels appearing to startled shepherds, and Mary pondering all these amazing things in her heart.
And then on Christmas Day and last Sunday we heard the Christmas story according to the Gospel of John – a cosmic Christmas, taking us all the way back to when God’s Word created all things – and now that Word has come among us in a flesh and blood human being, Jesus.
There is just one last missing piece of Christmas, and that’s the story according to Matthew.
It’s Matthew who tells us about Joseph.
When Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy, we can imagine his hurt, his sense of betrayal, his disappointment and anger.
But rather than publicly disgracing Mary, Joseph chose to quietly end their engagement – that is until he dreams of an angel telling him the identity of the holy child.
And then, at great cost to himself – you know how people are, they all would have heard the rumors that the child wasn’t his – they all would have gossiped about who the real father might be – at great cost to himself, righteous Joseph sticks with Mary and the holy child.
Both Luke and Matthew emphasize that Jesus was born in a particular time and place – these events did not happen on some heavenly plane but here on earth, when Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governor.
These events happened when the brutal Herod was king of Judea – a king who was ready and willing to crush any would-be rival, even a newborn child.

Today we pick up Matthew’s Christmas story with the arrival of the Magi. Studying the sky they had spotted a new star, which they interpreted as announcing the birth of a king. And, with their gifts, the Magi made their way to greet this newborn king, who would surely be found in the capital city, born among all the comforts of a palace.
Eventually, of course, the Magi find the newborn King, far from royal splendor. They present him with their gifts – gifts that were maybe not so appropriate for a child but perfect for a king, for a god, and for one who will die.
Death – the Cross - is never far from this story.
The ruthless and wily Herod was eager to eliminate his newborn rival, giving orders to kill all the young sons of Bethlehem – and forcing Joseph and Mary and the holy child to flee for their lives.
They fled to Egypt, once a place of captivity and now a land of refuge.

In telling the Christmas story, Matthew makes important theological points:
Right from the start the authorities will be hunting Jesus.
The Good News is meant not just for Israel, but for the whole world, including the Magi who know enough to pay homage to the newborn King.
And, the story of Israel is retold in and through Jesus. Just as the Israelites had gone down to Egypt, Jesus goes to Egypt. And just as the Israelites returned home, so will Jesus return home.
These are important points, but let’s not miss the harsh truth that, like so many others, past and present, political violence forced Joseph and Mary and Jesus from their home, made them run for their lives.
Joseph and Mary  - and Jesus the Son of God - were refugees.

You may have heard that some of us here at St. Thomas’ have been thinking a lot about refugees lately, specifically the many thousands of people who fled Afghanistan - the many thousands of Afghans who assisted our country and have now arrived here needing our help.
We have been looking at the possibility of using the Assistant’s House as a home for a refugee family.
As you’d guess, it’s a big project – the house needs a lot of work, and refugee resettlement is definitely complicated, and it would be a very heavy responsibility to care for a family that has traveled far from home.
But, as I’ve been thinking about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as refugees, I’ve wondered about the people who must have helped them along the way – the people who offered hospitality to a young family far from home – the people who shared what they had with no guarantee of payment – the people who welcomed God’s Son without even knowing it.
The names of those generous people are lost to us, but of course God will never forget the help that they gave.

Along with reflecting on Christmas and thinking about refugees, this past week I’ve also been reading some of the many tributes to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died last week, and whose funeral was yesterday – his small, simple pine coffin one last lesson in humility.
One of my favorite tributes to Tutu was a wonderful memory shared by the journalist Michelle Norris.
She told the story of spotting Tutu one morning at a hotel where he was having a quiet breakfast with two other people. She worked up the courage to go over to his table, to say hello to one of her heroes.
Unlike many celebrities who crave privacy, Tutu didn’t mind the interruption. In fact, he tells her to pull up a chair. 
When she politely declined, he asked a waiter to bring a chair for her.
So, there she sat as other people also approached the table and each time Tutu said, pull up a chair. As Ms. Norris put it, “What started as a two-top is now a buffet with more than a dozen people.”
She saw the experience as a metaphor for how Archbishop Tutu lived his life:
“Building bridges and bigger tables.”
And, my friends, isn’t that what Christmas – isn’t that what our Christian faith - is all about?
Building bridges and bigger tables.
At Christmas, God builds a bridge to us – a bridge that overcomes our sins and failures – a bridge that joins heaven to earth and earth to heaven.
At Christmas, God builds a bigger table – a table not just big enough for Israel but a table big enough for the whole world.
And, over and over, God invites us to build bridges, to build bigger tables.
Joseph the carpenter had to build a bridge from what he thought his life would be to the life God called him to.
Joseph the Carpenter had to build a table far bigger than he ever dreamed, a table for Mary and the Son of God, a table that will surely cost him, but a table that will change everything.
Long ago, the Magi were welcome at the table.
And, today’s visitors from faraway lands are welcome at the table, too.
Now, with all of our troubles and responsibilities, we may feel like our table is already pretty crowded, but Archbishop Tutu and so many others teach us there is always room for more.
So, in the new year, with God's help, let’s build more bridges.
With God's help, let’s you and I build a bigger table - and invite everyone to pull up a chair.
Merry Christmas to you all.
Amen.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Letting Our Light Shine




St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 26, 2021

The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Letting Our Light Shine

Merry Christmas!
We have had an amazing Christmas here at St. Thomas’.
Thanks to the creativity and hard work and generosity of parishioners, the church looks so beautiful.
And, despite their reduced numbers, Wanda and our choir produced so much glorious music – and, at our late service on Christmas Eve, the handbell choir sounded fantastic.
The children were adorable as they brought the nativity to life in the Christmas Tableau.
I knew Christmas would be amazing here but it was even more special than I had imagined.
By now, the world is beginning to move on from Christmas, on to whatever the next thing is – New Year’s Eve, I guess.
Very soon, people will be taking down their trees, and putting away the decorations for another year. 
But, here in church, Christmas has just begun.
It’s still Christmas!
Merry Christmas!
And, to add to our Christmas joy, in just a few minutes I’ll have the honor of baptizing Annalouise – yet another Christmas gift for all of us.
Some of you may remember that last month I had my first baptisms here at St. Thomas’. Baptizing people is just about my favorite thing to do as a priest, so I was really excited, but also a little anxious that everything go well.
Near the end of the baptism, I light the baptismal candle from the Paschal Candle. I hold the candle before the newly baptized and I say:
“You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 
Often newly baptized babies are captivated by the light. Sometimes they even reach out for the light.
Well, anyway, at my first baptism here, just when it was time to light the first baptismal candle, I realized that we had forgotten to light the Paschal Candle.
John Lang and I put on a kind of Keystone Kops performance, desperately trying to get the candle lighted – and after what was probably just a minute but felt like a half hour, the candle finally burned bright, the newly baptized received the light, and there was great relief and rejoicing all around.
Today, on the First Sunday after Christmas, we hear the Christmas story as told by the Evangelist John.
John doesn’t tell us anything about Mary and Joseph, or angels and shepherds. There’s nothing about no room at the inn, and no mention of a manger.
Instead, John offers us a cosmic Christmas.
In and through Jesus, God’s light shines into our shadowy world.
God’s light is so bright that it overcomes the shadows of fear and hatred – God’s light is so bright that it is stronger even than death itself.

You know, I’ve never done a Christmas baptism before, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it is absolutely perfect.
It’s perfect because it’s in the water of baptism that the light of Christ begins to shine bright in us.
It’s in the water of baptism that we really do become the light of the world.
That’s why the candle is such an important symbol – that’s why John and I were determined to get that candle burning if it was the last thing we did!
It’s in the water of baptism that the light of Christ begins to shine bright in us – but Baptism really is just the beginning.
For the rest of Annalouise’s life, and for the rest of all of our lives, with God’s help, our task is to shine our light into an often shadowy world.
With God’s help, our task is to resist evil – to be Good News for people who usually get a whole lot of bad news.
With God’s help, our task is to love our neighbor as our self – to devote our lives to justice and peace – to shine our light into the shadows so that the world may see our good works and give glory to the God who makes it all possible.
Now, I don’t know, maybe this all sounds like it’s too much to ask – maybe it sounds pie-in-the-sky – maybe it sounds like it’s impossible.
So, two things about that.
First, we have faithful role models – we have holy women and men who through the ages have allowed the light of Christ to shine through them.
This morning I woke up to the sad news that one of the holiest men of our time – Archbishop Desmond Tutu - has died.
During his life he courageously stood up to a cruel and seemingly invincible foe, absolutely convinced that light would overcome shadow.
Tutu was fearless because he knew the battle was already won. The only problem was his opponents had not realized it, yet.
And, after the fall of South Africa’s racist regime, he insisted that there needed to be truth and reconciliation, again shining light into some very deep shadows.
Once when I was in seminary, I had the privilege of hearing Archbishop Tutu preach – an experience I won’t ever forget.
The theme of his sermon was that God calls us to help with God’s mission – God calls us to shine God’s light into the shadows.
He concluded his sermon by allowing God to speak through him, saying to us over and over, “Help me, help me, help me…”
His voice grew ever softer, giving us all chills, convincing all of us that God really was – really is – calling us to shine God’s light into our shadowy world.
So, we know we can shine God’s light because others have showed us the way.

Second, while Annalouise and we can and should shine our light on our own – when we’re at work or school  - when we’re in our car or in the supermarket, the truth is that our light shines even brighter together.
And you know I’m not making that up because you’ve all seen how bright it gets in here when we’re all together, how bright it gets when we all chip in to help people in need. 
I’ve seen it myself.
For example, the mountain of gifts that you generously contributed to the Christmas Extravaganza made our parish hall so very bright.

So, St. Thomas’, this is my Christmas message:
You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Merry Christmas!
Amen.
 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Messengers of Peace



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 25, 2021

Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

Messengers of Peace

Merry Christmas!
Although the pandemic forced us to scale back in different ways, we still had glorious celebrations last night.
This old holy place looked – and still looks – so very beautiful.
I would not have thought it possible, but the music was even more glorious than I imagined.
Although we were sorry to not have a pageant, our adorable children did a great job with the Christmas tableau.
It was all quite amazing.
And now, after a quick night’s sleep, here we are again.
Merry Christmas!
I will confess to you that as beautiful as the Christmas Eve services are, it’s Christmas Day that is my favorite.
The church is still beautiful, but it has grown quieter.
Maybe this morning is a little bit like what Mary and Joseph experienced after the angels and shepherds had departed – when it was just the two of them, exhausted and excited, alone with the newborn Son of God.
Now, as the child slept softly, maybe Mary and Joseph had a few minutes at last to catch their breath, to reflect a little on what this new life means for them and for the world.

Each year on Christmas morning we read and hear the Prologue to the Gospel of John.
This familiar and rich passage is the product of several decades of divinely inspired reflection on who Jesus is and what his coming among us means for the world.
In his version of the Christmas story, John doesn’t give us any information on shepherds or angels, nothing about no room at the inn, no mention of a newborn baby placed in a manger.
Instead, John gives us a kind of cosmic Christmas, taking us all the way back to the beginning when the Word was with God – when, in and through the Word, God created everything – and now that Word has come among us in and through a real-life flesh and blood human being, Jesus.
John loves to describe Jesus as light – the light shining in our shadowy world – the light that is never overcome by the forces of fear and hate – the light that defeats death itself.
Lots of people had longed for this day, not least prophets like Isaiah who could see ahead to a time when we would abandon our fears and hatreds, when we would lay down our weapons – the day when all of us would gather on God’s holy mountain for the best party of all time.
That day arrived when Mary and Joseph placed the newborn Son of God into a feeding trough meant for animals.
That day arrived when the Risen Christ appeared to his frightened disciples, saying “Peace be with you.”
But, at the same time, we don’t have to look very hard to see that for many people the day of rejoicing has still not arrived.
And that’s where we come in.
Long ago, the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation…”
This Christmas, when it is bright and joyful in here but so shadowy and sad out there, you and I are called to be messengers of peace.
You and I are called to be messengers of peace up and down the hills and valleys of the county and on the streets of the city.
You and I are called to be messengers of peace at home, at work, in school, in line at the supermarket, and online where there is so much ugliness.
You and I are called to be messengers of peace by welcoming the stranger, sharing what we have, and offering words of comfort to the many suffering people all around us.
So, on this quiet Christmas morning, let’s reflect a little on what it means that God has come among us – the light shining in our shadowy world.
And, let’s recommit to being messengers of peace, each of us in our own way brightening the shadows with the light and love of Christ.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2021

Making Room for Christ



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 24, 2021

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

Making Room For Christ

Merry Christmas!
So, this is Christmas at St. Thomas’ Church!
Most of you know that this is my first Christmas here, and, while I had heard that our celebrations would be pretty spectacular, I confess that I was not fully prepared for how beautiful this old holy place looks, for how glorious the music sounds, and for just how much joy I feel being here with all of you.
Thank you so much to everyone who has worked very hard to prepare for this day.
And, most of all, thank you to God – the God who never gives up on us, the God who will never let go of us, no matter what.
Today’s gospel lesson is a story that somehow never loses its power, no matter how many times we hear it.
It’s the story of God coming among us, but not with pounding drums or flashing lights, not with any spectacle at all.
God comes among us as a newborn child, a child born to people nobody saw as important or powerful, born to people who could not even provide proper shelter.
Imagine their anxiety and fear, giving birth far from home, far from the people who had known Mary and Joseph their whole lives, far from the women who knew just what to do at a time like this.
Far from home, the best that Mary and Joseph could do for the child was to place him in a manger, a fancy word that we use to dress up a harsh reality: the Son of God spent his first night on earth in a feeding trough meant for animals.
See, from the very start, the world had trouble making room for Jesus – the world had trouble making room for this holy child born far from home.
The world had trouble making room for Jesus – trouble making room for a messiah who spent a lot of time with the wrong sorts of people – trouble making room for a savior who calls on us to love one another, to love especially the people we may not like or maybe trust, to love even our enemies.
The world had trouble making room for Jesus – a lord who got on his knees to wash the feet of his friends – a king who gave away his life in service to others - the Prince of Peace whose life of love seemed to end in the pain and shame of the cross.
It’s an old story.
It all happened long ago.
As Luke reminds us, first century Judea was a land ruled by the faraway Emperor Augustus. It was a land where crucifixion was a common event. It was a land where many people were frustrated, angry, and frightened – a land where at least some people still held on to the hope that God would act again as God had acted in the past – a land where people dared to dream that someday soon God would show them the way back to the garden, back to how life was always meant to be.
But, when God finally did act, the people of first century Judea had trouble making room for Jesus.
Each year we tell this story, not just because it’s old and powerful, not just because we’ve always done it, but because it is still true today.
One of my heroes, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, once said, “It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.”
“Christ is always with us, asking for room in our hearts.”

A few years from now, after I’ve been here a while, maybe I’ll take for granted the beauty of this place – maybe I’ll get used to the glorious music, and the joy of us being here together.
I hope not, but maybe.
But, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get over the hospitality and generosity of this parish.
I’ll never forget the welcome you have given to my wife Sue and me. Honestly, our first Sunday here felt like Christmas in July – and it feels like there have been a lot of Christmases since then.
Much more important, I’ll never get over the many ways you open your hearts to people in need – making all of those sandwiches for the guests at Paul’s Place, giving 185 Thanksgiving dinner bags to help people we’ll probably never meet have a wonderful holiday, and most recently, for our Christmas Extravaganza, you donated over 350 items of warm clothing, over 1600 diapers, 52 bags of toys, and 70 gift cards for guests at the Community Crisis Center and for Afghan refugees.
I’m sure that everyone who gave thought that they were just doing what they could, doing what they were supposed to do, just happy to help neighbors in need.
That’s all true – but in a very real way you were making room for Christ – making room for Christ in our troubled world, making room for Christ in your heart.
Soon our beautiful celebration will be over and we’ll head back home, maybe for a little more Christmas or maybe just for a good night’s sleep.
The world will soon move on to the next thing, but let’s hold on to Christmas, at least for the full twelve days, but hopefully even longer than that.
Like Mary, let’s ponder all of this in our hearts:
God never gives up on us, never lets go of us, no matter what.
God comes among us, not with pounding drums and flashing lights, but born to a couple of nobodies who could barely take care of the newborn child.
And, today, right and here and now, Christ is asking for room in our hearts.
Even after just a short time together, I’ve learned enough about you to know how you will respond.
Merry Christmas, St. Thomas’ Church.
Amen.

Carrying Jesus Into the World


St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve (4:00PM)
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:11-14

Carrying Jesus Into the World

Merry Christmas, everyone!
It is so good to be together here in this beautiful place, to experience the joy of Christmas.
First of all, I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make today happen – thank you to everybody who decorated the church and all those who are helping with the service.
Thank you to Wanda and our music team – and thank you to Sara and all who helped put together the “Christmas Tableau” that we’ll get to enjoy in just a few minutes.
The tableau will be wonderful, I’m sure, but we have to admit how sorry we are that for the second year in a row we’re not able to have our usual Christmas Pageant, which I know so many of you love and miss very much.
I’m sure many of you parents and grandparents here have special memories of particular Christmas pageants, when your children and grandchildren had the honor of making the Christmas story come alive for us.
As you might guess, I have been to a lot of Christmas pageants, but there is one in particular that I will always especially remember.
About a decade ago I served for a year in a church in Florida that, like St. Thomas’, had its own preschool.
Each year the schoolchildren would put on a pageant in the church on the last day of school before Christmas vacation.
Just like every pageant, the kids looked adorable in their costumes, and they all took their parts very seriously.
But, that year I noticed that the little girl playing Mary seemed especially serious – she knew and delivered all of her lines perfectly, and moved about the “stage” with a lot of confidence.
With great care, she held the doll that was meant to be the Baby Jesus – as if it really were a baby, as if it really was Jesus.
After the pageant was over, I said a few prayers and then we were done.
The children all ran to their families and there were lots of hugs and congratulations all around.
And, no surprise, the families and kids were eager to hit the road – to get Christmas going at last.
But, as the little girl who had played Mary began to leave with her family, she stopped short with a look of remembering something important.
She turned around, walked back to the manger and picked up the doll.
And, cradling the Baby Jesus in her arms, she walked beside her parents out of the church and into the world.
It was just a small moment, but you can see why I’ve never forgotten it.
Even more than in her pageant performance, in that moment the little girl captured what Mary did two thousand years ago – and in that moment the little girl captured what we Christians today are meant to do.
On the first Christmas, Jesus came among us. 
And now, you and I, all of us, no matter how young or old, we are all meant to carry Jesus into the world.
We carry Jesus into the world by being kind to everyone, even the people we don’t like.
We carry Jesus into the world by sharing what we have, especially with people who can never pay us back.
And so, I hope that in a little while when we leave this beautiful place, we will all remember to carry Jesus out into the world – out into the world that is waiting for him – out into the world that needs him so very much.
Merry Christmas to you all.
Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Visitations



St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
December 19, 2021

Year C: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-1
Luke 1:39-55

Visitations
        The other day I was telling someone about the very first class I took in seminary.
Back then, I was still a high school history teacher, and Sue and I had only been members of the Episcopal Church for a couple of years.
But, in that short time, the joy I felt in our new church reawakened in me an old sense of call to the priesthood – a call that was exciting, scary, and, frankly, more than a little inconvenient.
And it was a call that couldn’t be ignored. So, I decided to enroll in a class as a non-matriculated student at General Seminary in New York City, just a short train ride away from our home across the river in New Jersey.
The idea was to see if I liked it, if I could imagine myself as a student there, fitting in with the others – and to see if I could do the work.
So, one afternoon at the start of the fall semester, I headed over to New York for my very first class. I remember it was pouring rain as I waited outside the seminary, my stomach fluttering with what felt like a swarm of butterflies, as I tried to work up the courage to step inside.
Well, I loved that first class – it was called Christian Spiritual Practice, taught by a wise and kind professor.
It’s true that at first, I felt a little intimidated by the other students who seemed to know much more than I did, but I also thought, with some preparation maybe I could catch up.
By the time class was over, the skies had cleared and it was a beautiful evening in New York.  I was so excited as I walked those long crosstown blocks back to the train. I couldn’t wait to tell Sue all about it. It felt like I could see my new life unfolding before me. 
God is always present but there are times when God feels especially close. That night, it felt like God had visited me and was now walking by my side. 
The date was September 10, 2001.
The next morning – that impossibly clear blue morning - I was still thrilled by what felt like the first step into the rest of my life. I brought a couple of the books for the course with me to school, hoping to look them over during my free periods.
And then, out my classroom windows, my students and I saw all hell break loose, and suddenly the excitement and hope of the night before seemed long ago and far away.
God is always present, but there are times when God feels distant.
Where was God now?

Throughout the Old Testament, there are times when God seems to visit God’s people, when God feels as close as the person beside you, or closer even than that.
Think of God leading God’s people during the long exodus from slavery in Egypt to new life in the Promised Land – there was God – a cloud by day and a fire by night.
But, there were other times when God seemed to have stepped back – the days of invasion and defeat, the long years of occupation and exile, times when God seemed to have abandoned God’s people or, even worse, rejected them.
The psalmist wrote:
Restore us, O god of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
Which is a poetic way of saying, “Hey, we’re in trouble here. Where are you, God?”
The first century - when the Romans occupied Judea - when crucifixion was a common occurrence – that was one of the times when people were frightened and angry, when people called out to God, when people yearned to see God’s face, when people waited with expectation, hope, and maybe some impatience, too – waited for God to visit again.
For the past two Sundays, we have been spending time with a grown-up John the Baptist, that fiery and compelling prophet who offered a baptism of repentance, calling people to change direction, a change that for them began in the River Jordan.
Despite, or maybe because of, his tough message, John appealed to many of his fellow Jews in first century Judea, so much so that lots of people thought that he was the messiah – the long-awaited savior of Israel who would liberate the people from Roman tyranny.
But, John insisted that he was simply preparing the way for the Holy One who was soon to come.
And now, today on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we back up to before John and Jesus were born, back to nearly the start of our story.
It’s the Evangelist Luke who tells us that John and Jesus were family, related through their mothers Elizabeth and Mary.
And it’s Luke who tells us that both Elizabeth and Mary were blessed with miraculous pregnancies – both of these women, one old and the other young, became profound signs of what God always offers: new life.
Not long after she said “yes” to God, we’re told that pregnant Mary journeyed to the Judean hill country to visit her pregnant kinswoman.
I love this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, a moment that’s often called “The Visitation.”
  The Visitation is intimate – it’s just these two women – it’s just these two women who were not at all important or powerful in the eyes of the world – just these two soon-to-be mothers carrying their unborn miracle sons.
The men seem to be absent – there’s no sign of Zechariah or Joseph - it’s just these two women marveling at God’s goodness, while trusting that God will be with them through the trouble ahead – and there is always trouble when God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly.
This is how God visits us – not with pounding drums or flashing lights, not with spectacle, but quietly, as quiet as two women greeting each other in wonder, as quiet as a lullaby or a held hand, as quiet as a newborn child falling asleep in a feeding trough meant for animals, the best that Mary and Joseph will be able to do for the Son of God.

On the evening of September 11, Sue and I walked from our house to our church, St. Paul’s, where the Rector, Dave Hamilton, had invited the whole parish to a service – a service for what exactly, I’m not sure he or we could say.
We all wanted to pray for the dead and the missing, of course, for all the heartbroken and frightened – and I’m sure some of us wanted to pray for vengeance, too.
We cried out, “Hey, we’re in trouble here. Where are you, God?”
But, most of all, after a day of so much fear and loss and sorrow, it seemed important that we should all be together.
I don’t remember very much about that service, not much about whatever words Dave managed to say. I think we celebrated Holy Communion, but I’m not entirely sure.
But, gathered there in that old holy place that already meant so much to me, there in the dark and in the quiet, it felt like God was visiting once again – not the euphoria of the night before during my crosstown walk – but something deeper, something that felt more permanent – a sense that somehow God would be with me, with us, through the troubles of that day and the days ahead.
And now, for us, in our time of trouble, the days of hope and preparation and waiting are almost over.
The four Advent candles are burning bright.
It’s almost Christmas.
If you’re in town, I sure hope you will be here for our Christmas celebrations.
There are a few things I know for sure:
The music will be glorious.
The sermons will be relatively brief.
And, while God is always present, especially in this old holy place, God will surely visit us – God will feel especially close, in the Christmas joy that we will share.
For some of us, these are busy and distracting days – and for others this can be a lonely and sad time, but whether we feel overwhelmed by our many tasks or worn down by the blues – or maybe both - I encourage all of us to take up one important Christian spiritual practice: be on the look out for God to visit us, not with spectacle or flash, but in the quiet.
As Mary and Elizabeth learned, God visits us quietly, always offering us new life, reminding us that God will be with us through it all, no matter what.
Amen.