Here We Go Again - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

  During the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus urges his disciples to "not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." (John 14:27) It's part of a larger teaching that he's trying to offer them, with which he's trying to help prepare them by articulating the complicated nature of leave-taking and homecoming in the life of faith. It's only by "going away" from his students and friends that Christ can come to them. (John 14:28) It's only in loving that we become lovable in the divine sense. Peace finds its fulfillment in leaving and giving. Identities resist any neat delineation, even in the midst of the telling--let alone the experience.

  No wonder the disciples struggle to understand! No wonder Jesus has to repeat the perennial greeting of God's messengers throughout the Bible ("Fear not!") to even begin to reveal the fellowship that he's offering his community. I don't know about you, but I often find my heart troubled, even afraid, no matter what I hope to let it do or not do. Keeping his word can feel like an impossible task. We may love his words, but we also forget again and again and again that there is any way to give other than that of the world. We forget what Jesus has said almost as quickly as he tells us. As much as we hope to welcome the Father home, we struggle to even recognize the Son.

  But the Triune life is one of grace. Our God knows us down to even what W.H. Auden--a good Anglican--calls our "crooked heart."* Even as we forget, even as we fail to recognize, God enters in. An Advocate is sent to us, and we are reminded again and again and again what we might be. We are taught what it means to live a life that the Divine might call home. The task might still sometimes feel impossible, we might still sometimes find our hearts troubled, but the Holy Spirit moves among us. The Holy Spirit is our spirit. As often as we go away, we are given the opportunity to return--and sometimes where we return to appears nothing like what we thought we had left.

  So, even as we welcome the Rev. Anne Marie Richards and her family home this Sunday, listen for Christ's words. Listen for invitations to leave-takings and homecomings known and unknown, done and undone. Try to hold both the fear and the joy lightly, because greater things are coming. And peace runs on.

 -Joseph Wood

*From his poem "As I Walked Out One Evening"

A Letter from Our New Rector

Dear Friends,

 Early in St. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth he writes, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s a pretty good greeting, all in all, right? But it doesn’t quite capture what I want to say to you all today, so I think I’ll start with slightly different words:

 Here we go!

 Here we go on the adventure that God has called us all to take.

 Here we go on a journey of joy, peace, hope, mercy, justice, and love.

 Here we go in word, sacrament, song, silence, prayer, conversation, and holy listening.

 I am excited to be joining you in life and ministry and mission, and to be coming at such a wonderful time in the life of Emmanuel. I’m so grateful to Fr. Jim for the work he has done during the interim period, and to Fr. Joe for continuing to guide the parish before my official arrival on Monday. I know the staff has been hard at work through changes and transitions, as have the Vestry and Wardens. It is because of their work, and the work of so many others, that you and I begin this next chapter in such a good way. I hope that you all will thank these folks for their efforts.

As for me, I am coming to you ready to do the work that we have been given to do. My husband, Brook, and I are mostly settled into our house on N. Calvert Street, and have already begun exploring the city. Among my favorite finds so far? A Senegalese restaurant, Nailah’s Kitchen; the delicious lattes at Baby’s on Fire; and the cool house stuff at Nouveau Designs. But more than those fabulous discoveries, I am filled with joy because we have met the most wonderful people in Baltimore, and been blessed with stories of deep faith in Jesus Christ. Even the man at the MVA prayed for me and my new ministry while transferring the title of my car. Truly, the Holy Spirit is at work here in Charm City.

In due time we will come to know one another deeply. We’ll share our stories, our blessings, our burdens, our faith, and our doubts. For now, please know that you are in my prayers and that I ask for yours in return. God is doing a new thing among us, and for that I give thanks and praise.

 Here we go!

The Rev. Anne Marie Richards,   Rector-elect

The Rev. Anne Marie Richards,

A Pastoral Letter on Racial Reconciliation

May 2019

Dear Friends in Christ,

We know that God has a great vision for all of us - the dream of our becoming and living as a Beloved Community. In this dream of God’s, all people experience dignity and abundant life, and see themselves and others as beloved children of God. The dream is deeply rooted in our Christian faith and expressed in our Baptismal covenant. It is a hope that promises transformation throughout the Church and the world by following the way of Christ, by actually striving to live in the way Christ taught us—respecting and loving every person, and advocating for true peace and true justice.

In the Diocese of Maryland, we are faithfully living into our vision of being a community of love. The imperative to love finds its roots in that long-awaited hope that God dream even at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Israelites – a battered nation of freed slaves – were becoming the called people of God.

People in the United States, in the Episcopal Church and in the Diocese of Maryland have inherited our share of breaches and broken places, especially with our legacy of slavery (See Appendix A). For generations the bodies of black and brown people did not belong to themselves, but were bred, used, and sold for the purpose of attaining wealth. Not only did our nation prosper under this evil institution, but our beloved Episcopal Church profited as well. However, as Jesus teaches us, a structure with a broken foundation cannot hope to stand.

The subject of reparations is mired in emotion; it is often mischaracterized and certainly largely misunderstood. It is a complex issue that involves economic, political, and sociological dimensions that are difficult to grasp without a willingness to engage more deeply than having a quick emotional response to the word. The issue highlights the racial divide among us, creates varying levels of resentment and suspicion, and accentuates a pain that has long plagued our country since its founding.

Reparations, at its base, means to repair that which has been broken. It is not just about monetary compensation. An act of reparation is the attempt to make whole again, and/or to restore; to offer atonement; to make amends; to reconcile for a wrong or injury.

Isn’t that our work in this broken world? As the Church, our primary mission is “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, p. 855). This is our primary call and charge, and we take on this responsibility by praying, worshipping, proclaiming the Gospel and promoting justice and love. Our mission is further met by understanding and living out our Baptismal Covenant (BCP, p. 416), not only with one another, but in the world as witnesses to God’s love for all of God’s people. We reaffirm these covenant vows whenever we baptize, confirm, or receive into this communion.

Our own commitment to this vision will require honest reflection and a holy devotion to reconciliation. Forgiveness alone is but one step in the long journey to reconcile our past with the present. We need to repair the broken places and wounds that we have all inherited from centuries of the degrading treatment of our fellow human beings.

The Episcopal Church, at its 78th General Convention in 2015, made a commitment to building the Beloved Community, in part through a devotion to racial healing. The four steps of the ‘Beloved Community’ process are Telling the Truth; Proclaiming the Dream; Practicing the Way of Love; and Repairing the Breach. Isaiah prophesied that we will be “repairers of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12) as we loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free and share our bread with the hungry. This letter and accompanying materials lay out the beginning steps of what our commitment to “repair” – reparations – can look like in the Diocese of Maryland.

While we take our own share in God’s blessing through the saving work of Jesus Christ, we remain responsible to the call to care for those who are vulnerable, and we must continually be engaged in the work of reconciliation and repair. This is what being a community of love means. There is a heavy burden that comes with being called the people of God, and we must be willing to bear that burden to do those things that God says are important—to care for the poor, to welcome the stranger, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Otherwise we risk becoming hypocrites or false prophets.

While the history of slavery is widely understood in the U.S., the continuing impact of its legacy is less understood – even in the Church. Some Episcopal bishops, clergy and laity stood up for the fair and equal treatment of African American slaves and free people. Bishops from James Kemp in the early 19th century to William Whittingham in the latter half of the 19th century to Robert Ihloff in the 21st century; and many white lay people and clergy, such as Mary Miller and the Rev. Bill Fallowfield (see Appendix B), worked for the well-being of African Americans as equal to all children of God. More often, however, Episcopal bishops, clergy and laity supported segregation of diocesan schools, churches, and institutions through the 1960’s. Episcopal clergy and diocesan leadership were active participants in the continued segregation of housing and schools in Baltimore City and across the State of Maryland. The symptoms and wounds of that old sin continue to poison our society and threaten the health of the Body of Christ of which we are all a part.

After the hard-fought abolition of slavery, there was a fateful denial in our nation of reparations for freed African American people for their centuries of undeserved bondage, even though in many instances white plantation owners received reparations in the form of compensation for the losses they incurred from the Civil War and the end of slavery. Racism and greed fueled that basic injustice, and those attitudes have poisoned race relations ever since. From the implementation of Jim Crow laws, lynching, segregation, redlining, job discrimination and unequal funding for majority African American school districts, to our own segregated church demographics, we see that we have not fully reckoned with our past. We are not yet fully a community of love.

The concepts of power and powerlessness have strong emotional impact for each of us. Most of us experience one or both during our lifetimes. The ability to have control of our lives can give us a general sense of security and well-being, while the inability to control our lives leads to a sense of powerlessness, to insecurity, depression and anger. There are consequences to constantly feeling powerless. When we have limited agency, it is incredibly hard to build a life of success, security, and love. Repeated exposure to trauma can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, which only enhances the feeling of powerlessness, as well as further social isolation. As we know from our own family lives, psychological damage from all forms of abuse, verbal and physical, trauma and addiction, penetrates generations. Living under these circumstances is not a recipe for success. This simply isn’t part of God’s dream for us. We Christians are called to weep with our God in sorrow over the love denied our human family members. We are called to weep, pray, love and then act—to repair and reconcile.

It is time for all of us to understand how power gained by force and wielded unevenly impacts African Americans in this country. We can all celebrate the tremendous strides that have been made in racial attitudes in our nation, and we are very proud of the accomplishments of many individuals who have overcome great odds to achieve success. But for the millions of descendants of American slaves who are trapped in a pernicious cycle of hopelessness, poverty and rage due to their real experience of racial segregation, redlining, inferior schools and the like, the widespread assumption that everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a long way from being accurate. They know that the odds are against them on so many fronts: they cannot change their environment, and they cannot change the color of their dark skin.

All of these factors have played into creating a lack of power for brown and black people. This lack is a social problem: it goes beyond an individual’s character and will. It is time for all of us to move towards a place of acceptance of humans who want the same things we do, but who have not been found to be worthy of those desires by the dominant society. Self-examination, learning about how the self reacts emotionally to those who are different and acknowledging preconceived expectations of another race or culture that lie inside the human being is vital to creating an environment where communication between the races can exist (See Appendix C).

Beloved, it will be by our lives and actions with regard to racial reconciliation that we will speak most prophetically to the world. In this way, we are writing a “living Epistle” to the whole Church. This holy missive was begun with God’s call of freedom to the people of Israel in Egypt, continued with Jesus’ proclamation of freedom to the captives in the synagogue, and Paul’s invitation to his friend Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. It continues through the action and dedication of our forebears in the Civil Rights era who were convicted by the Gospel imperative of love and justice.

The biblical mandate to justice (see Appendix B) is to hold leadership accountable for the fair and equal treatment of all God’s people. All of us have been taught to love everyone regardless of their race and human condition. However, we must come to acknowledge that there can be no love without justice, and there can be no justice without some form of repairing an injustice. Through prayerful and dedicated study, combined with deep discussion and loving actions, I believe we can do the work of repair. Through reparations, we can be leaders in the long-awaited process of reconciliation, of creating God’s dream for us—a truly Beloved Community.

Finally, please know that our conversation on reparations in the Church is, and should be, different from the ones we hear in the political arena. For us, “repairing the breach” is not a mandate from a government or leader, but a mandate from our God to commit to the rebuilding of a relationship between the world and God, between individuals and communities and to seek a better world for our children. The Sutton Scholars® High School Enrichment Program is a good example of a type of reparations. This diocesan program is designed to help inner city youth, particularly black youth, to realize their life’s hopes and dreams, and equip them to become the young men and women that God intended them to be. It empowers them not to fall prey to the many traps that often confront them – including the prevailing belief that they are “less than” others in our society. Programs such as this have proven to be a significant contribution to helping young black youth achieve success and stay out of the criminal justice system. These kinds of programs are invaluable; might the diocese fund such initiatives as these to repair and heal the past?

Please join me in studying the issue of reparations and prayerfully consider how all of us in the Diocese of Maryland – of whatever race, background or national origin - can together embark on this journey of repairing the breach we’ve all inherited from our nation’s past. Attached are other resources to help us all engage in this work together, including a history of the legacy of slavery in our diocese; a look at biblical and theological views on slavery; a description of the psychological ramifications of the powerlessness created by slavery; and, a series of reflection questions. A workshop prepared by the diocesan Reparations Committee will be offered this fall. I urge you to enter into this holy work with me. As a community of love we will collaborate, question and discuss how we heal the past through our present actions. In so doing, we all proclaim “the message of reconciliation to which God has called us as ambassadors for Christ.” (II Corinthians 5:18-20)

Blessings and peace,

Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.png

(Originally found here.)

The Paschal Homily - St. John Chrysostom

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine rite, it's tradition to read out St. John Chrysostom's Paschal homily (circa 400 C.E.) as part of the Easter celebrations. Some Anglican churches have similarly taken up the practice of reading it as the sermon during the Great Vigil of Easter. Now that we find ourselves sharing in this season of Resurrection with our Orthodox siblings, it seems only appropriate to offer it to you:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."*
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

*Isaiah 14:9

The Great Week - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

  We are about to embark upon Holy Week, also called “The Great Week,” the days leading up to the central feast of the Christian Church: Easter.

Sometimes I would like to skip Holy Week, go right from the triumphal entry in Jerusalem with the people shouting “Hosanna” to the empty tomb and the proclamation ”He is Risen!”  There is enough tribulation in the world about us to know that evil exists and it is seemingly triumphant.  Violence and corruption are everywhere, and we do not need to look far beyond the doors of Emmanuel Church to find them.

  But it is important to hear the stories of Holy Week again.  Betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and finally crucifixion, which Cicero termed “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.”  All of these—save crucifixion, which has been replaced by sanitized execution—are still a part of our life now.  So, when we hear that Jesus went through this week, we know it to be an archetype of what happened before him and after him.  In the events of the week, we acknowledge that it has ever been thus.

  We recognize that people who have experienced for themselves the things that Jesus experienced have been broken by them. Many of us at Emmanuel have experienced betrayal at some time in our lives, some torture, be it physical or psychological.  Perhaps hearing that Jesus went though the same is helpful, or perhaps it brings memories flooding back.

  This is a pretty bleak meditation so far, but I call to mind the hymn which we will sing in Eastertide:  “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”

  As we journey through Holy Week, we always have in mind that in the end Christ is victorious, and in his victory is our victory.  That we not only will be but are victorious over the powers of evil, the powers of death, can give us strength to bear what comes our way, those powers which, in Luther’s words, “should threaten to undo us.” 

 Let us remember that we know how the story comes out. 

 —Jim Holmes

In Remembrance of Her - Joseph Wood

  In this week’s Gospel reading from John, we are told a version of a story that is found in all four gospels.* Six days before the Passover, Jesus comes to Bethany to have dinner with his friend Lazarus, whom he has recently raised from the dead. While Jesus is at table with him, Lazarus’ sister Martha serves them their meal. Meanwhile, their other sister Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,” anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and wipes them dry with her hair. We are told by the narrator that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (Jn 12:3) 

  We’ll get to the rest of the story, but I want to stop here a moment to point out the similarities and differences that are already apparent between this account and how an analogous event is told in the other gospels. In all four of the Gospel retellings, the scene is set while Jesus is dining, though the woman goes unnamed by three of the four evangelists. Even the host of the dinner is shrouded in some ambiguity, since he is described as “Simon the Leper” (who continues to live in Bethany) in Matthew and Mark, but Luke only says that he is “one of the Pharisees” without any geographical reference. (Lk 7:36) Part of the reason for this notable departure in the Lukan version is almost certainly because the meal becomes the first in a sequence of three edifying dinners that Jesus and his disciples have with various Pharisees, but each of the convergences and divergences between the gospels emphasize the near impossibility of trying to pin down fixed identities as each author molds their narrative to emphasize what they understand as the story’s importance. The scene is always set by a scandalous dinner—with a dead man, with a leper, with a Pharisee—that is interrupted by the even more scandalous ministrations of a woman. In Matthew and Mark, the nameless heroine seems like little more than a prop, a chance for the disciples to once again misunderstand the situation and for Jesus to once again chastise them accordingly. She is slightly more fleshed out in Luke, described as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner,” and her anointing is intermingled with her “weeping.” (Lk 7:37-38) While John doesn’t give us explicit insight into Mary’s motivations, it seems clear that her act is one of some overwhelming mixture of gratitude, worship, and perhaps even a touch of Luke’s penance. After all, the last words that she spoke to her teacher in this gospel were that quiet rebuke, kneeling at his feet, for the callous fact of her brother’s death: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11:32) The descriptions of the perfume similarly shift between each reading: an alabaster jar of ointment (“very costly” according to Mk 14:3 and Mt 26:7) in the Synoptic Gospels, while John sees fit to go into specifics of weight, price, and its identity as “pure nard.” Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, even the question of quite what is anointed is a matter of some dispute. Matthew and Mark envision the woman pouring the ointment over Christ’s head; however, Luke’s sinner and John’s Mary are focused on Christ’s feet. The former act should remind you of chrismation, of the priestly and kingly anointings that shape the Hebrew Bible. The latter act could have valences closer to supplication or burial rites, though I could not tell you for sure what is happening aside from startling intimacy. In short, we’re again and again confronted with the limitations of fact before the power of the Gospel, and we’re left with a plurality of witness in its wake.

  John goes on to put the outrage that the disciples voice in the other gospels about what the cost of the perfume/ointment could have done to further the preferential option for the poor in Judas’ mouth particularly, who only cares because he was stealing from the common purse. (Why miss a chance to reinforce your villain’s duplicity?) Jesus responds cryptically to this objection, though the wording remains pretty consistent in three of the gospels:** “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:7-8) Matthew and Mark echo almost all the same language of burial, the poor, and the looming end of Jesus’ ministry—yet Jesus is a little more expansive in their versions, describing what the woman has done as “a good service.” (Mk 14:6, Mt 26:10) While the Gospel of Mark is usual the sparest, Jesus spells out the faithful’s relationship to the poor the most explicitly there: “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” (Mk 14:7) This clarification manages to be both more reassuring and more troubling in the same moment. The major divergence, however, between the Gospel of John and the two other gospels is how Jesus ends his remarks in Matthew and Mark, giving the woman pride of place in salvation history: “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mt 26:13)

  This is a woman (or women) who doesn’t have a name three out of the four times we meet her in the Bible. Even the Gospel of John, which would seem pretty clear on the specific relationships involved, has become conflated over the centuries with the next chapter in the Gospel of Luke and the introduction of “Mary, called Magdalene” and her “seven demons.” (Lk 8:2) Thus Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene have become the same woman in Christianity’s shared memory. (The situation is complicated by each Mary and her respective place in the Resurrection narratives.) The Lukan “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” has likewise been incorporated into this amalgamation, and it has become common knowledge—even though her sins are never specified—that this double Mary was a whore. Now, there has been a fairly significant amount of work done over the last few decades to right this wrong, to banish this caricature of womanhood and allow each of these characters to exist in all of her complicated convergences and divergences. Even Dan Brown has done his part. But, like the poor, she is still with us. 

  If the final phrase “will be told in remembrance of her” from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark strikes you as achingly familiar, it’s because it is an almost perfect echo of the Words of Institution, of the Biblical language we repeat during each and every Eucharistic prayer to remind us of how and why Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Just as we are welcomed again and again to the holy table, I’d like to think that we have an opportunity “whenever [we] wish” to unlatch the doors, metaphorically and literally, and welcome her to the holy table too. To welcome the sister, the disciple, the sinner, the penitent, the possessed, the poor, the woman to the feast, whatever form she may take. As each of the evangelist tries to tell us in their own way, the plurality involved is fundamental to our experience of the Gospel. And, likewise, there is no Gospel without her. She has so much to teach us about ministry.

*More specifically, the iterations can be found at John 12:1-8Luke 7:36-50Mark 14:3-9, and Matthew 26:6-13

**The rest of the story in Luke is different enough that I don’t think I can do it justice in this meditation

Repenting & Rejoicing - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

"Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me: 'we shall go into the House of the Lord!'"

Thus reads the traditional introit (opening musical part of the service) in the Roman Rite. It gives the name Laetare (rejoice) to the the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Also called Mid-Lent Sunday, the day marks a lessening of the rigors of Lent for one Sunday as we begin to more actively anticipate Easter. It's also called Rose Sunday from the custom of switching from the Lenten purple to rose-colored vestments—a custom observed in some high church Episcopal parishes as well as in many Roman Catholic ones.  (The third Sunday in Advent is also a Rose Sunday with the introit’s first word being Gaudete, which is similarly translated from the Latin as “rejoice.” There can be rose vestments on this Sunday, as well as a rose candle on the Advent Wreath.)

We do not have rose-colored vestments at Emmanuel, so we stick with the purple. Whether or not there is rose candle on the Advent Wreath is up to the liturgical sensibilities (or whim) of the rector. Since we do not have the rose vestments, I chose last Advent not to have a rose candle.

Lessening the rigors of Lent is a more important topic than the color of the vestments. Perhaps it's just me, but I do not think much any more about the rigors of Lent. It is, of course, a season of repentance and preparation for Easter, but all seasons should be ones of repentance as we turn from self-seeking, sinful ways to the self-giving, compassionate ways of Christ. Each Sunday is a recollection of Easter as we celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in our midst.

The older habit of giving up things for Lent such as chocolate or alcohol or meat on Fridays has served people well as it helped to focus Lent for them. The newer habit of taking on good works in Lent also helps to prepare for Easter and becomes a pattern for year-round living. Neither giving up nor taking on as practiced now involves much rigor, but rather we fit it into our busy lives. This is not a lamentation but rather a recognition of the way things are.

Rejoicing should always be a part of who we are. Even in the midst of personal or communal troubles, of sins of omission or commission, we can rejoice that Christ is risen and is present with us. Easter is always in sight. That is at the heart of our identity.

-Jim Holmes

Called Together - Joseph Wood

  The Book of Genesis tells us that, on the last day of creation, God made humanity in the Divine likeness and image, placing the earth and everything upon it under our care. Having done so, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Gen 1:31) As I’ve mentioned before, there’s an important shift in this final verse of the chapter. At the end of each previous day, God had observed creation and recognized its goodness, but it is only this final act that somehow brings everything to fulfillment, that allows it to be “very good” in a way that satisfies God’s purpose. According to Muslim tradition, it is in acknowledgement of our place in creation’s wholeness that believers should gather together for congregational prayer (salat al-Jumu’ah) each Friday. Or, as the Qur’an puts it (62:9-10):

O you who believe! When you are called to the congregational prayer, hasten to the remembrance of God and leave off trade. That is better for you, if you but knew. And when the prayer is completed, disperse throughout the land and seek the Bounty of God, and remember God much, that haply you may prosper. 

Similar to Jewish traditions of Sabbath or our understanding of the Lord’s Day, the Muslim community is called to set aside life as usual (“leave off trade”) and participate in communal worship in a way that both is set apart from time and anchors it. Thus, the repetition of “the remembrance of God” and “remember God much” in these two verses as the faithful enter into the practice of Jumu’ah and then return to the ways of the world. To do so is “better,” is very good, and it allows Muslims to share in “the Bounty of God” and “prosper” by participating in the continued enactment of creation. The entire Muslim week is defined by the rhythms of prayer, but it is Jumu’ah that exemplifies the purpose behind those rhythms. After all, we are made in the Divine likeness and image, and that creation is inseparable from our charge to care for all that the Lord has made in perpetual acts of holy recognition.

  It is no accident that a gunman entered two masajid, two mosques, in Christchurch, New Zealand, today to perpetuate an unspeakable act of terror, killing at least 49 people and wounding at least 20 more. (That nation’s deadliest attack.) He and his conspirators knew well that they would be disrupting one of the holiest moments of the Muslim week. They knew that the masjid would be that much fuller for it. They knew the profanations they were committing, and they hoped to be all the more successful in their efforts to sow destruction and fear for them. It was utterly anathema to God’s bounty in creation, to our stewardship of the same, and to the very principle of congregational prayer. We are diminished by our Muslim cousins’ loss and pain.

  Not that I think any in the Emmanuel community disagree with what I’m writing. But doesn’t that make it worse? We know that we are called to something better, and yet we continue to live in a world defined as much by violence as it should be by prayer. To borrow from this week’s Gospel reading, all manner of prophets continue to be killed in all manner of Jerusalems. We continue to stone those sent to us. It can be so easy to despair.

  But we too are called to leave off the ways of the world. We too are called to remember who we are, to remember how very good creation can be, even at such times—perhaps especially at such times. The fundamental act of faith is believing that things might be different, better. So, I join with the Muslim community in Christchurch and around the world in praying, out of their tradition, for those who have died: “Allah! Make their affair light, render easy what they are going to face after this, bless them with Your vision, and make their new abode better for them than the one they have left behind.” At the same time, I pray that God might be gracious with us who have gone astray, with us who are left behind, that we might have the strength and courage to share in making this abode what it ought to be. I pray that we might prosper. Amen.

The Descent - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends, 

Pete Powell asked last Sunday about a phrase in Susan Bock’s “Affirmation of Faith for Epiphany,” which we’ve used for the last couple of months.  The phrase “who went down to darkness” is reminiscent of the phrase “He descended into hell” that’s found in the Apostles’ Creed, which we’ll be using throughout Lent.

The earliest form of the Apostles’ Creed dates from about the year 140, but the phrase “descended into hell” did not appear in the creed until the mid-seventh century.  The familiar phrase continued in most traditions until fairly recently, when the phrase “descended to the dead” or “descended to the place of departed spirits” replaced it.  Early on, the Methodists dropped the phrase altogether.

So, what does it mean?  I wish there were a clear, simple answer, but there’s not.  Most agree that it refers to the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection, refers to what we’ve come to call Holy Saturday.  He was dead.  Did he go to Gehenna, the Hebrew word normally translated as “hell,” the place of eternal damnation, of fire and torment, from which no one escapes?  Did he go to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל), “in the Hebrew Bible a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God”?*  Hades (Ἅιδης) is the Greek equivalent.  The King James Version of the bible translates Gehenna, Sheol, and Hades all as “hell.”

Why would Jesus go there?  The long-taught but now somewhat out of favor theological proposition called “The Harrowing of Hell” offers one answer.  It asserts that Jesus went to hell in triumph so that he could bring salvation to the righteous who had gone before him.  Martin Luther puts it in these words:  “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” 

A contemporary Methodist puts it much more simply and, for me, more compellingly: “It means there is no part of human existence to which Christ did not ‘descend.’”   Or, as we will sing in Eastertide:  “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed.”

There is no place where the love of God cannot and does not reach.  That’s Good News in these often dark days.

—Jim Holmes

*It’s worth noting that, in Jewish traditions, Sheol is generally understood as a temporary state of being

"Break, Blow, Burn" - Joseph Wood

For years, I loathed John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet XIV,” dismissing it as Donne being unable to envision anything beyond the abusive power dynamics that so often permeate our world. Its language and imagery seemed too haunted by sexual violence, too mired in a dichotomy between an overpowering God and a humanity delineated only by sin. Like so many LGBTQAI+ Christians, I had spent years praying that God would change me, hoping to be delivered from that part of myself that I was told again and again both silently and aloud was unacceptable in God’s sight. As I sought to claim my share in the Beloved Community, to recognize the Divine image and likeness within myself, I felt weary of being so defined. Hadn’t I wrestled enough?

  Before we discuss quite what shifted, let me share the poem with you in all of its complicated, even heartbreaking, beauty:

 Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

As you may have noticed, Donne’s sonnet reworks texts from the Hebrew Bible to articulate a startlingly intimate relationship with our “three-person’d God” and how it is constrained by human failings. He plays with the prophetic metaphor of God, Israel, and their covenant as that of one spouse to another (especially as seen in Hosea); Jacob’s night of struggling with the celestial at the Ford of Jabbok (Genesis 23); and the breathless longing for consummation from the Song of Songs: “I opened to my beloved, /but my beloved had turned and was gone. /My soul failed me when he spoke. /I sought him, but did not find him; /I called him, but he gave no answer.” (5:6) The narrator yearns to be transfigured, to be remade in a new creation, so that they may “rise and stand” in the fullness of communion with our Lord. Even as they “dearly love” God, their intentions to realize that love are all too often stymied by their own preconceptions and shame. Unable to welcome God wholly into their heart, they beg God to possess it in the understandings of the society around them. The repetition of the verbs throughout the poem reiterate this divide, weighing the reader down in their relentless and martial reverberation. In short, the very language of the poem strains against itself. 

  Yes, Donne’s poem is about a love disfigured by force. And one reading would suggest that it’s a form of the same struggle that I experienced as a young queer Christian between who I am and who the Church said I ought to be if I wished to truly love God. But I would argue that such a reading is falling into the same trap as the narrator of the sonnet. We speak in divisions and violence because it is how we are taught to perceive this world. As I’ve noted before, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes the nature of war in his book Leviathan as consisting not in the actually fighting, but in all the time when there is no assurance to the contrary. In much the same way, Donne speaks in terms of force because all too often that is how our love, even our love of God, is experienced—with no assurance to the contrary. We know shame, so we assume that sin must be the same thing. We know that we are not as we ought to be, so we perpetuate the cycle of harm that we have inherited. We are imprisoned by our own lack of imagination.

  The issue is that shame is exactly the kind of sin from which Donne begs God to deliver us. It’s a distortion of the relationship with oneself, a distortion that we often thrust upon each other to try to justify our own shortcomings, our own need for Divine grace. Shame is the internalization of external expectations, not a true accounting of what it is to “be free” to love God as we ought. Or to love ourselves as we ought. There is a world of difference between the prayer to be good, even better, and the prayer to be good enough. One acknowledges that redemption remains a process for us, remains a continual re-forging as we are bit by bit transfigured into the fullness of our glory. We are children of God already, and we have also not yet grown wholly into ourselves. The other is to elide ourselves from salvation history, suggesting that we are only redeemable insofar as it diverges from who we currently are. It’s to make little room for grace.

  These days, I recognize myself in “Holy Sonnet XIV.” (It might be worth noting that Donne was ordained a priest by the time he wrote it—not that clergypeople don’t get it wrong from time to time.) It can be so easy to let myself get caught up in the understandings of the world, leaving little room for grace. Reading the news from the special session of the United Methodist General Conference, I lamented all of ways that we’re prone to confuse sin and shame, love and force. So, if this week has reopened old wounds, reminding you of struggles that you thought long past, know that you are not alone. If this week has you feeling smug about how much better the Episcopal Church is at loving God’s LGBTQAI+ children, remember how much it’s still a process for us. Thus, I’ll end with a rewording of Samuel Beckett that I think Donne would surely recognize: Love again. Fail again. Love better.