Dwelling Together - Joseph Wood

It can be easy to miss the Psalm during our Sunday morning worship, passing over it as more of a bridge between the day’s lessons than a piece of scripture to itself experience. But, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a reason that it’s captivated not one, not two, but three different religions—every Abrahamic faith has a fundamental relationship with the collection of Ancient Hebrew songs. They’re part of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, and Islamic tradition recognizes them as scripture. They’ve been a part of worship since the Temple. The vulnerability of the words, the way they express the fullness of faith, is hard to replicate. The Psalms run the full gamut of life from the deeply personal to the national and even cosmic, touching upon almost every conceivable emotion along the way. Millennia of faith communities have found their voice in the book, and it is hard to imagine our relationship to God without them.

But it can also be easy to misread the Psalms, forgetting their context due to the deep familiarity they evoke. When we read together Psalm 133 this Sunday, please listen to its words carefully. Pray them if you can, especially because I think we need to recognize the psalmist’s exultation of what it means to “live together in unity” for what it is. Those words don’t describe the world of the Psalm; rather, they’re a vision of a society that the author longs for, a vision of the Messianic age. We’re offered the extended image of “fine oil upon the head,” because it’s how people (and things) were sanctified in Ancient Israel. Aaron may have been the first, but generations of priests and kings were thus consecrated and set apart. This act is where the title of Messiah/Christ* comes from, and it’s why we continue to chrismate people to welcome them into the fullness of the Church. Notice also how the oil is described as running “down” just as the live-giving “dew of Harmon” falls. The repetition of downward movement and use of Harmon should remind us of Amos, including Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The “good and pleasant” unity that opens the Psalm is the goal, not the means. It names a personal challenge and a cosmic commitment. Just as we go out into the world after services, we are called by the psalmist to go down into the land, our land, and share in making it holy. Only then can we fully claim to be the Body of Christ, ordained by the Lord as “a blessing” that draws all towards “life forevermore.”


*same word, different languages

Meditation - Jim Holmes

The New York Times last week had two articles about religion in America.  One is about the conflict between the Pope and conservative bishops who have seemingly aligned the Roman Catholic Church in this country with evangelical Protestants and with the Republican party.  Conservatives accuse the Pope and his supporters of diluting doctrine and wrecking the Church.  Yet one American cardinal who supports the Pope said, "We should speak in a way that invites people and creates a sense of unity in society," as opposed to stripping the poor of health coverage and giving assent to the gun rights lobby.

The other was an article entitled "Trump Can't save American Christianity."  The author, Rod Dreher, says, "The truth is, Christianity is declining in the United States.  As a theologically conservative believer, I take no pleasure in saying that.  In fact, the waning of Christianity will be not only a catastrophe for the church but also a calamity for civil society in ways secular Americans to not appreciate."  He posits that the faith that American Christians profess is "shockingly thin," meaning that they have strayed from the historical doctrines of biblical Christianity to "feel good, vaguely spiritual nostrums." 

In both articles, there is seen a call by some to return to orthodoxy (right opinion) as a way of strengthening the Church.  Some say that if the Church returns to the beliefs as defined by the early Church, then it will be stronger, and perhaps it will entice people who have left to return and will be more attractive to those with no prior connection.

I myself am not sure that there is any such thing as orthodoxy because the beliefs and teachings of the Church throughout its history have varied greatly.  Yes, there is the Bible, but how we view its words have been and are a cause of division among Christians as well as sign of unity.  Yes, there are the creeds, but the understanding of the creeds varies widely, from those who are literalists faithful to a particular translation to those who see them only as historical documents.  Look at the Athanasian Creed or the Thirty-nine Articles (found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer) to see examples of how understandings change.

I find orthopraxis (right action) a more compelling way to see the strengthening of the Church.  Teaching and modeling Christ by loving, forgiving, extending mercy, feeding, healing are the hallmarks of a Church which I think is faithful to our heritage, and ready to engage the world which we are called to serve.  In the third century the theologian Tertullian described the Christians in Rome by saying, "See, how they love one another."

Let it be said of us that we not only love one another, but that we love our fellow human beings and all of God's creation.

Transfigured - Timothy Sabin

Did you know that for “transfiguration,” you get 19 Scrabble points? Not so much, really. In Scripture, too, the word is not quite the heavy lifter we have been taught to believe. It’s Latin, and means in day-to-day God talk to make a total change of outward form into something more beautiful, or well, more spiritual. A lot of baggage has been brought down to us along with a goodly number of lovely paintings of glowing faces and poor Moses and Elijah perched precariously on one foot each.

Some late-19th Century French painters were despised by the Academy because their oils showed us not a pretty Jesus, but a coarse, working-class laborer. Following their lead, we can speak of seeing the “transfigured” in the face of a mother holding her dying child in Patterson Park, or an old man comforting his starving wife in the desert of Yemen, or a face more vacant than dust of some genderless soul in a Memory Care unit. Our transfigurations nowadays are not for the faint of heart.

The Church keeps the Feast of the Transfiguration this Sunday, on August 6—unless it is being trendy, and postpones it to Epiphanytide. There is a good lesson to be learned in seeing Jesus transfigured on August 6. Let us remember that on that date in 1945, we bombed Hiroshima. In President Truman’s pious ratiocination, we shortened the war. We also shortened the lives of some 150,000 persons at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki, conservatively speaking, of course. Also, at least another 60,000 would be dead by year’s end from nuclear poison.

Those who own the faith of Jesus see Him not just in the forced-marches of Japan’s Imperial Army, in the daily horror of their prison camps, in their tortured slaughter at Nanking and Shanghai. The wounded Jesus as transfigured Christ rises through the blood-red sky above imprisonment and mushroom cloud alike.

So then: The real meaning of “transfigure” is found in the Greek: it says that Jesus “μετεμορφωθη” (metamorphoses) and that means “change shape” or if you will allow me, “Jesus changed how he was seen.” Let us change the shape of our lives; let us learn from the horrors done by ourselves and others; let us change how we are seen to the world. As you read these words and as you come to service at Emmanuel, say to those you meet that we do what is our constant work: we bond as one in the breaking of the bread and the prayers, and we offer to those beyond the door to Cathedral and Read that priceless metamorphosis which is our heritage and our glory.

The Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

City of Losers - Matthew Crenson

Parishioner and vestrymember Dr. Matthew Crenson offers a meditation that, in our opinion, speaks to both our city and this week's New Testament lesson (Rom 8:26-39). Matt's latest book, Baltimore: A Political History, comes out on September 10.

Baltimore. Sitting here on the Eastern Seaboard between stately Washington and cosmopolitan New York, it has been said to resemble the stupid kid assigned by mistake to the advanced class.  Russell Baker called it the city of losers. He grew up in Baltimore, worked as a reporter for the Sun, and then ascended to the New York Times. But Baker thought that there was something to be said for Baltimore’s losers. Living with their city’s shortcomings and embarrassments helped Baltimoreans to develop a realistic acceptance of human failings, moral and otherwise. They recognized that sin was an elemental constituent of the human condition. It followed, wrote Baker, that theirs was a subtle ,“permissive” city, not given to moralistic crusades.    

The Prohibition crusade, for example, made few converts in Baltimore. In a 1916 referendum, almost 75 percent of the city’s voters rejected a proposal that would make Baltimore ‘dry.’ When the nation ratified the 18th Amendment in 1918, a delegation from Baltimore – led by the city’s Republican mayor – stormed Annapolis to demand that the legislature rescind its approval of the Prohibition Amendment and challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court. Their appeal failed. Baltimoreans pursued another approach to Prohibition. They ignored it.

In 1922 Prohibition agents raided a moonshine plant on East Pratt Street that produced 300 gallons of liquor a day. It was thought to be the largest bootlegging operation in the United States, until they raided a building on East Street that housed 22 stills and 3500 gallons of mash.  Criminal syndicates of the kind that bloodied Chicago and Detroit never took hold in Baltimore.  Baltimoreans didn’t need much in the way of organized crime to keep them supplied with intoxicating beverages. They excelled at disorganized crime.

For some Baltimoreans – and Marylanders – opposition to Prohibition was a matter of principle, not just thirst.  Governor Albert Ritchie insisted that states’ rights precluded the federal government’s interference with the regulation of alcohol. Mayor Howard Jackson, elected in 1923, was uniquely suited to carry on the resistance to Prohibition. He was a staunch advocate of states’ rights and an alcoholic – a sinner. 

Four years later local and state political bosses decided that Jackson should not run for reelection. His repeated absences from City Hall had interfered with the functioning of government. Baltimoreans drew the line at sin that had serious and harmful consequences for others. But in 1931, Jackson ran once again for mayor.  He had stopped drinking.  Baltimoreans put him back in City Hall. They understood redemption as well as sin.  Jackson gave them four years of sober service.  

Russell Baker noted that Baltimoreans made a distinction between sin and “vice.”  Vice, he said, did serious harm to people other than the sinner.  It was not to be tolerated.  Today Baltimore falters under a burden of hurtful vice.  Some see solutions in harsh penalties or righteous crusades. These are un-Baltimorean responses, not likely to make much headway here. We need to look for practical, proven, and quietly effective approaches that will turn sinners against evil.  Sinners want to know, not only what’s wrong, but what works.

On the Lord's Prayer - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

A couple of weeks ago my spouse Tim and a friend were in church.  After the service they reported that they had prayed conflicting Lord's Prayers, one using the "old" Lord's Prayer, the one printed in the service leaflet, and the other using the "new" Lord's Prayer which is found as an alternative in Rite II services.

Having different Lord's Prayers is nothing new.  There are two versions in the Bible.  The one in Matthew is a longer form and was a part of the Sermon on the Mount.  The one in Luke is shorter and is given in response to a request from the disciples to have a prayer that they could say, just at John the Baptist's disciples had a prayer.  Matthew's version concludes with "deliver us from evil" while Luke's ends with "lead us not into temptation."

If we visit a Presbyterian Church we will hear "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" rather than "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."  If we visit a place which still uses the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer we will hear "which art in heaven," rather than "who art", "in earth" rather than "on earth" and so on.  If we visit a Roman Catholic church we might note that the doxology (for thine is the kingdom. . . .) is missing, or comes in later.

Far from dividing us in the various translations, however, the Lord's Prayer is something which virtually all Christians throughout the world use as a part of their worship.  And which virtually all Christians use as a part of their personal devotions.  When I visit people with memory issues, even severe ones, the Lord's Prayer is something which most remember even when other memories have vanished.

When you come to Emmanuel I invite you to use the Lord's Prayer which is most comfortable for you.   "Our Father who art in heaven," "Our Father in heaven,"  "Pater noster, qui es in caelis,"  "Πατερ ἡμων ὁ ἐν τοις οὐρανοις,"  "Vater unser im Himmel," "Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos," "Notre Père, qui es aux cieux," "Отче наш, Иже еси на небесех!"

It is the prayer our Savior has taught us, so we continue to pray it regularly as we await the Kingdom for which it asks.

Sometimes It's Okay to Be a Seed Eaten by Birds - Taylor Daynes

In this week’s lectionary we encounter the famous parable of the sower. In some ways it seems very apt as I think about the role Emmanuel has played in my life: though I’ve nominally belonged to many organizations and groups, Emmanuel is the first religious community in which I’ve felt truly accepted and necessary. Drawing on the language of the parable, Emmanuel is the soil that’s allowed me to develop roots as a person of faith. I am so grateful to have landed here.

I will tell you that when I started attending services at Emmanuel I had no intention of becoming active in the community. My relationship to God was private. I wasn’t looking for a new responsibilities, new friends. Even now I can imagine many scenarios in which I might never have opened myself to this community. But, little by little, thanks to all kinds of quiet hospitality, gestures of friendship, and even the rocky-terrain we’ve walked together, I’ve come to look on Emmanuel as one of the formative communities of my life.

Still, prescient as the parable seems, there are ways in which it’s also misleading. The idea that some seeds are fated to fail simply because of soil conditions--this bothers me on a metaphorical level as well as a literal one. Horticulturally (I worked as a gardener for several years after college) it’s true that some soil is rich in nutrients and therefore better suited to support certain kinds of plant-life; it’s also true that some species prefer rocky soil, and that many others rely on birds for their propagation. But more troublesome than horticultural half-truths is the notion that some of us, if we are the seeds in the parable, are fated to misunderstand, turn away from, or ignore “the word,” while other lucky seeds will hear it and bear fruit. Are we really to believe that God predestines some of us to be eaten by birds, and insists that the forms and structures of Christian faith are necessary for a fruitful life?

I think not. I read the parable of the sower as being about the grace of God’s love, not its limitations. Sometimes we're in the thorns or in the beak of a bird, sometimes we're in a rich loamy field. Sometimes the only difference is the way we choose to understand our surroundings. The simple recognition that God loves us no matter where we are--this is grace. At their best, the communities in which we find ourselves planted and growing roots can help us reach that holy recognition.

This broad interpretation of the parable feels appropriate to my own situation as I prepare to leave the community that has recognized and affirmed my call to the priesthood--which I’ve experienced as a gratuitous blessing--and in keeping with what Emmanuel continually affirms about God’s freely offered gifts. That is, that all are welcome. Always. Such hospitality bears fruit.

As I’ve said, I can imagine many scenarios in which my little seed wouldn’t have been planted at Emmanuel. But, thankfully, here I am, and, more importantly, here we all are--necessary members of a spirit-filled community collectively learning to hear and speak and understand the love of God. Together, we name this common understanding Christ. I will never forget the special way I have heard, spoke, and lived within that holy knowledge along with Emmanuel. Thank you. 

What's Love Got to Do with It - Joseph Wood

I want to linger a moment more on “The Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-14), both because of that story’s centrality and how this week’s Old Testament lesson reflects it. At the very beginning of Genesis 22, God specifies just how Abraham is to be tested by making abundantly clear who the proposed victim of the sacrifice is: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go…” (Gen 22:2) I spoke a little bit about this odd-looking repetition during my sermon last week, but there’s a rather essential detail I treated only fleetingly when I was preaching—the description “whom you love” is the first mention of love in the Bible. Certainly, love lingers, implicit, throughout the previous chapters of Genesis, but Abraham’s love for Isaac is the first definite example we’re offered as readers of what the Biblical authors recognize love to be. (Given Hebrew grammatical ambiguity, the verse could even be understood to say something along the lines of “your son, Isaac, the only one whom you love.”) The word here is a form of אַהֵב, ahab, and it quickly expands outward from this initial relationship to encompass a whole network of connects. It can refer to love that is familial, friendly, romantic, national, ethical, devote—and even, in some instances, one’s appetite for something. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for the Septuagint, this multivalent love became ἀγαπάω, agape, which you’ve heard me talk about before. No one is entirely sure where the word agape came from or quite what it means, but it quickly becomes archetypal, becomes the go-to word when trying to grasp what the Biblical definition of love might be. In fact, it’s the word most often translated as love in the New Testament.

The second time love appears in the Bible is at the end of this week’s lesson, closing out the quest to find Isaac a wife: “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Gen 24:67) Though passive throughout most of the narrative, Isaac suddenly claims his agency, bringing Rebecca into his family and thus healing it once more. It’s a moment of beautiful simplicity. The patriarch who is most know for enduring the righteous side of love deftly overthrows any neat understandings. (The exact same words are used in the Hebrew and Greek too.) Love isn’t just about being tested, isn’t just about what faith might cost us. It’s also about redemption, about those moments, big and small, where a little bit of communion bleeds in and we’re able to sense the Divine life at work around us. Sometimes love is about mountaintop moments and seemingly impossible choices, but sometimes it’s about gently welcoming the beloved home and mutual wholeness. Our tradition invites us to claim both instances and innumerable others besides, because to do otherwise would diminish God or ourselves, beginning the descent towards idolatry. Love is complex. Faith is complex. We are complex. And that complexity is part of what makes each of them holy. So, may the loves in your life be full, complicated, and holy—and may laughter* be ever at their center.

*The meaning of Isaac's name is “he will laugh.”

Ecclectic, Enlightening & Engaging Summer Music - Jim Holmes

This Sunday Emmanuel welcomes at the father and son hammered dulcimer, banjo, and fiddle due Ken and Brad Kolodner who will play the voluntaries, lead the hymns and service music joined by our Music Director, John Repulski on the piano. It should be an exciting morning of Bluegrass music in the context of our celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

This is another example of the musical excellence which we have come to know at Emmanuel. Please invite your friends to join us. Let us all hale Emmanuel: Eclectic, Enlightening, Engaging.  

E Pluribus Unum - Jim Holmes

E pluribus unum, out of many, one, has been the unofficial motto of the United States since the earliest days of the republic.  Out of thirteen colonies, one nation.  The motto, officially superseded in 1956 by "In God We Trust", still appears on the great seal of the United States and on much of its coinage.

We speak often of the divisiveness which pervades life in this country now and wonder if in fact we are one, or are we many pulling in our separate directions with no common purpose, no unity?  Was it ever thus?  We only need to look back to the mid-nineteenth century to see the country rent asunder by differing views of slavery and states rights, leading to the loss of some 750,000 lives by some estimates.  Did the civil war ever really end, or did it morph into ongoing conflicts over immigration, race, religion, nationality, money, and on and on?

In my own seventy years I recall the violent divisions over desegregation with the bill-boards demanding "Impeach Earl Warren" to the fire hoses of Bull Conner in Birmingham to various governors standing in school-house doors.  This was followed quickly by the internal conflict over the war in Vietnam and the other seemingly endless wars we have fought.  We are violently divided over access to guns and access to abortion among so many other things.

The notion of this country as a melting pot where people from many places, many cultures became one with shared values and shared goals seems not to work any more. 

Perhaps we as Christians have another metaphor which might help.  In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks about the differing parts of the body having differing roles.  "If the ear would say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body, that wouldn't make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would hearing be?' . . ."

In the Church we affirming that we are different, with different gifts, different abilities, different callings, but we use them all to the building up of the whole body.  Thus we work together for the good of all.

Perhaps in our nation we can recognize that we do have different gifts, different beliefs, different insights.  How do we come to an understanding of the common good to which we all aspire?  Looking to the founding documents may help.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."  We are clearly not there yet, but if we have a common aspiration to equality, perhaps we can become more of one out of many.

Updates from the Rev. James Holmes

Dear Friends,

I am delighted to be back at Emmanuel as your Interim Rector.  Our six months here 2015 - 2016 was a great time for both Tim and me, and we look forward to being with you again.  Since leaving Emmanuel I have served as the supply priest for several months at St. John's in the Village here in Baltimore, and then as the supply priest at St. Alban's in Glen Burnie, again for several months.  I have just finished a short supply at All Hallows', Davidsonville, where Canon Sulerud (to be called Mother Mary there) is now the Interim Rector.  Being a supply priest has given me a chance to be with congregations of various sizes and demographics, as well as in various places on their corporate journeys.

As you may remember, we moved into a retirement community in Prince George's County while we were here before.  We are well settled there.  Tim is the head of the drama committee and has already directed several plays and other events.  He has also become quite adept at designing posters for the committee.  Tim serves the Episcopal congregation as a lay Eucharistic minister, taking Communion on a regular basis to residents of the nursing and assisted living units.  I work weekly in the Country Store, a small convenience store particularly for residents who no longer drive.  I have officiated at several funerals, and officiate at the weekly Episcopal service from time to time.

Don't worry, we have not forgotten travel.  We spent several weeks on a lake in Western Maine last year, as well as ten days in Italy, visiting the Cinque Terre and Sorrento for the first time.  This spring we spent a couple of weeks in St. Remy de Provence, just south of Avignon in France.  It was fun renting a house which was a great base for touring as well as being within easy walking distance of a splendid bakery and several restaurants.

I am excited to be back with Emmanuel's wonderful people and I look forward to reconnecting with you in the weeks ahead.

Jim Holmes