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.

"The Convictions and Hopes of All" - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

In January of 1986, Edmond Browning, Bishop of Hawaii, was installed as the 24th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  It was a Church still divided over the role of ordained women, and as yet there were no bishops who were female.  That would come in 1989.  The Church was divided over the role of openly gay clergy with “progressive” dioceses allowing such clergy to be called as rectors and associates in parishes, while other “conservative” dioceses banned such action.  Racism continued to gnaw at the church.  Against this background, Browning declared “I want to be very clear: This church of ours is open to all — there will be no outcasts — the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”

To pick up on the old Virginia Slims ad, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”  Women are serving at all levels of the Church.  The 26th Presiding Bishop was a woman, as is the current Bishop of Washington.  More and more African Americans and other people of color are serving at all levels as well, with our current Presiding Bishop and the Bishop of Maryland both being African American.

Though not particularly visible in Maryland, there continues to be a divide over the place of openly gay, married clergy.  The election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 nearly split the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion apart.   You may remember that he, like the first woman bishop elected, was advised to wear a bullet-proof vest for his consecration.  There are dioceses where openly gay, married people are not allowed into the ordination process nor, if already ordained, to be called to church positions.  But since Bishop Robinson’s election in 2003, Maryland’s own Mary Glasspool was elected a bishop in Los Angeles in 2010 with much less controversy, and a couple of weeks ago the Diocese of Maine elected an openly gay, married man to be its next bishop. 

So why am I writing about this topic, since things seem—at least from my perspective—to be moving in the right direction? I believe what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But just last week, it was reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury in sending out invitations to the next Lambeth Conference (an every-ten year gathering of Anglican bishops*), including invitations to their spouses—except the same-gendered spouses of openly gay bishops.  What a petty action!  To be sure the number is tiny (two in the U.S., one in Canada), but the Archbishop fears offending conservative bishops.  So, in fact, there are still outcasts in the Anglican Communion.

This exclusion will not last.  Gene Robinson was not invited to the last Lambeth Conference, but openly gay bishops are being invited to this one.  It is up to us who love this Church to speak out against attempts to close the Church and to move forward to the day that Bishop Browning envisioned. 

 —Jim Holmes

*That is, all active bishops within the Anglican Communion around the world

It Tolls for Thee - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

  In 1966, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words as part of his essay "No Religion is an Island" in the Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review:

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting of men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility and contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind's reaching out for God, where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements, where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God's commandment, while stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith. 

Perhaps best known for his commitment to the civil rights movement—he described marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma as "praying with [his] feet"—Heschel was also a Polish rabbi and scholar who was able to escape Warsaw mere weeks before the German invasion. His eventual emigration to the United States was a major factor in the Jewish renewal of the late 20th century and the flowering of American Judaism following the Second Wold War. As some of you know from my regular citations of him (especially his book The Sabbath), he’s also one of my personal heroes and inspirations. Accordingly, as the various controversies around Rep. Ilhan Omar's tweets unfolded this week, my thoughts returned again and again to Heschel's observation about what binds us together across traditional identities in the face of "the tragic insufficiency of human faith."

  Of course, Heschel borrows the title of his essay and its rough themes from a much older and arguably more famous piece, John Donne's “Meditation XVII” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. A 17th century Anglican priest and poet, Donne asserts in his meditation that we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the world when we think about ourselves solely as individuals and/or in the context of our personal circumstances: "No man is an island, entire of itself; [...] any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." While Donne's subject is death rather than interfaith relations, both authors recognize that our lives are defined as much by our insufficiency as they are by any accomplishment. The loss of any person echoes and presages our own losses; the longing for God must always fall short of realizing our divine purpose. We are, in short, united in being brought up short. The challenge is to see these truths as a cause for hope rather than despair.

I try hard to avoid talking too much about politics in my ministry, and that fact is doubly true when it comes to discussions of the modern state of Israel. I would personally consider myself a Zionist, but I know that such an assertion might lump me in with the likes of the “Christian Zionism” that I find difficult to name as either. I also think that there can—and must!—be critique of Israel and a number of its policies, especially when it comes to the rights of Palestinians. But why is it one of the few, if not only, countries whose right to exist we feel comfortable debating? At the same time, why are we so quick to censer a young, Muslim woman of color? Why do we find it so easy to label her not only Antizionist, but Antisemitic? To paraphrase something that Bishop Sutton said during his visitation a few weeks ago, our faith must always be political without being partisan. Thus, I am not here to discuss AIPAC or the place of lobbying in our democracy. I am not here to pass judgement on Rep. Omar, BDS, or any of the public comments that have been made as the story has ballooned. I’ll even resist the urge to dissect the term Antizionism. People of faith are all faced with “the urgency of answering God's commandment,” however we might define that. We are all called again and again and again to be better than we are. I think that the entire situation has been a beautiful, deeply flawed example of our manifold attempts to respond to that urgency, to reach towards the Divine.

On the Israeli West Bank Barrier (read: wall), someone has defiantly scrawled a giant message in graffiti: Existence is resistance. Our challenge is to recognize how utterly true that statement is for the communities on both sides of the wall. Perhaps it always will be. But I hope, I have faith, that they are both called to something greater. What will it mean for us to be a part of it? I think that Heschel and Donne would agree that our task is not so much having an answer as recognizing how easy it is to diminish ourselves in responding—and yet still we are called to continue the holy work. After all, we’re in this together.

-Joseph Wood

The Pelican in Her Piety - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends, 

  As you know, I grew up in Louisiana, where the state bird is the brown pelican and the state flag has at its center a depiction of the medieval symbol called the "pelican in her piety." It shows the pelican plucking her own breast to feed her starving young with her blood.  From very early in the life of the Church, it has been used as a symbol of the self-sacrificing love of Christ on the Cross—and also of the Eucharist, where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.

The Louisiana State Flag

The Louisiana State Flag

  The pelican in her piety has long been an important symbol at Emmanuel Church too. It's on the official seal of the parish, and for many decades the weekly newsletter which was mailed to parishioners was called "The Pelican." It contained news and announcements, and only ceased publication in 2005, when we moved to our current e-news format. The pelican is seen in the splendidly worked green frontal which is on the high altar now as well as in a lovely wood carving in the priests' vesting room. She is found on the head of our verger's wand, and there is even a small depiction of it in the stained glass in the rector's study. There may be other instances at Emmanuel which I have not yet discovered.

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

  The pelican in her piety is a lovely myth, though ornithologists who have studied pelicans tell us that the birds do not really behave this way at all. It may look like they are piercing their breasts when, in fact, they are reaching into their pouches for food.

  But the myth, like all good myths, leads us to truth. Self-giving and self-sacrifice are pre-eminent Christian virtues. Jesus tells us:  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)  Most of us are not called to lay down our lives, but we are called to put others first, to offer our lives to Christ's service. In the words of the Geoffrey A.S. Kennedy's stalwart hymn: 

"To give and give, and give again, 

What God hath given thee; 

To spend thyself nor count the cost; 

To serve right gloriously 

The God who gave all worlds that are, 

And all that are to be."

-Jim Holmes

Blessed Memory - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

  As some of you know, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, a skilled nursing home in Rockville, Maryland. Two-thirds of the way through my seminary career, I had already realized that interfaith dialogue would be a cornerstone of my ministry, so I sought out the program that would immerse me as fully as possible into the rhythms of Jewish life and community. Perhaps, though, I should back up even further and explain what CPE is. CPE is a requirement for ordination in most denominations, a kind of crash course in pastoral care in which seminarians are called to experience briefly—usually over the course of a single summer—the life of a chaplain and what it means to be present and provide spiritual care for residents of liminal, even crisis-filled, spaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. While it's certainly challenging, many of us end up describing the process as one of the single most important elements of our formation, of learning what it is to be a clergyperson.

  Now, let's get back to Hebrew Home itself. While I had anticipated and even actively sought out the Judaism of the experience, I can't say that I had really processed the difference in what it means to be a chaplain in a nursing home as opposed to a more typical health care setting. Most of the visits that you make to people in a hospital will be relatively brief, echoing the brevity (if not immensity) of the experience in their overall lives. Occasionally, you might see someone once or twice more, but you go into most rooms knowing that you’ve probably never met this person or people and you are unlikely to interact with them again. Which is not to diminish the experience, but it's a very different one from an environment where you build up relationships with the residents over weeks and even months. Different skills are involved when the visits and interactions are with people who have slowly been woven into the fabric of your daily life. There's a different kind of knowing involved, a different kind of trust when you meet them again and again and are able to share more and more moments together.

  There are innumerable stories I could tell about Hebrew Home, both in regards to the program itself and how I grew from all of the ways that the residents taught me to see them and share those moments in ways that might actually be helpful. I'm not sure that I'll ever fully understand all that they gave me, even as I was striving to pastor them. In short, I'm still learning their lessons. This week, I've particularly had in mind one woman and my last experience with her. Let's call her Sonia. Sonia was a long-term, relatively conversant resident who, like many of her peers, felt a little isolated and cut off from the life that she had known before she came to live in the home. Over our time together, she slowly warmed to me, and we had spent a number of hours talking about her life—how she had survived the Holocaust, meeting her husband after the war, coming to America, raising a family, and the state of her relationships with her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She seemed to appreciate my visits, and she'd even try to grandmother me whenever she got the chance. For both our sakes, I tried to keep those chances rare.

The last time Sonia and I spoke was in one of the final hours of my CPE program. Excited to have made it through CPE and even picked up a skill or two, I was making my final rounds to check on my residents and say a last good-bye to them. As bittersweet as those visits were, I couldn’t help but feel a certain restless excitement to be off and on to the the next stage of my seminary journey. For whatever reason, Sonia ended up being one of my very last interactions as I found myself less and less able to practice the presence and mindfulness that I had spent all summer cultivating. Even as I tried to honor her and the dynamic we had shared, my mind kept wandering back to the final supervision session that I, the rabbi, and the other program members would be having shortly. Sonia, on the other hand, was tearfully and utterly present in the moment. Even as my thoughts wandered, I noticed that her farewells were entangled with stories that she had never mentioned before. She spoke of the experiments that Dr. Mengele had performed on her and her sister; about escaping through the woods; and about those hours were she and her companions had no idea (nor particular concern) whether they would actually be able to enjoy the freedom they had wrestled for themselves. Shamed by her final, loving gift to me and all that we had shared, I mentally shook myself and tried to listen close. I was late for supervision.

We didn’t particular talk about it at the time, but last Sunday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I know firsthand that it can be all too easy to let those stories become background noise, to miss the incredible vulnerability and gift in the stories of those who survived—and those who didn’t. It’s a simply fact of our world that there will be fewer and fewer survivors to tell those histories as the years go on. Let’s listen while we can. Let’s pay attention to the horrific realities of the Holocaust, of the anti-Semitism present in our world today (and statistically on the rise), and let’s remember that, though the mirror may be dim, we must ever strive to know each other more and more fully. In the reading from First Corinthians this week, Paul opens by talking about what it means to speak with or without love (1 Cor 13:1), which is certainly vitally important in bringing the Kingdom. But if CPE taught me anything, it’s that first we must simply listen.

—Joseph Wood

The Dance of Carla Blair - Tom Culbertson

Walking with Carla
is to dance
compelling one’s feet
to get in sync. 

Her eyes are full of care
a smile embraces you
warmth engulfs you
love dances around you.

Let the children come to me,
quickly they come to know
heaven’s touch is close
God’s care is like this.

A broken heart knows
where pain resides,
knows too the balm
of ancient Gilead.

When horizon bears news
of the last dance
Martha of Bethany will
greet with warm embrace.

Our Lord stands close;
this is the one who
watched my children;
sit at table with me.

The Bishop Is Coming! - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

This Sunday, Emmanuel will have an “Episcopal Visitation.”  In more current parlance: “The Bishop is coming!  The Bishop is coming!”   It’s customary in the Diocese of Maryland that either the Bishop, the Assistant Bishop, or the Canon to the Ordinary (the Bishop’s right-hand person) visit each parish yearly.   This week, the Right Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, visits us.

Perhaps a note on church polity—church governance—is appropriate at this time.  Generally speaking, there are three types of polity:  episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational.   

The episcopal model—from the Greek word episkopos, meaning overseer—involves having bishops at the top of a hierarchical ladder, though there are variations in how this works.  The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, the Anglican churches, the Scandinavian Lutherans (though not until recently the German and some American Lutherans) and the United Methodist Church in the United States (but not in England), are all episcopal churches.  In the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, the Pope or Metropolitan bishops have the final say on matters of church governance.

In Anglican churches such as ours, the bishop of a diocese or the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has a great deal of authority, but the final authority in a diocese is the diocesan convention and in the national church is the General Convention.  For instance, a bishop alone or bishops acting in concert could not have ordained women or approved recognizing the sacramentality  of same-sex marriage by themselves.  It required the action of conventions—and where the diocesan convention and the General Convention are at odds, the General Convention’s actions prevail. 

The presbyterian model—from a Greek word for elder, presbus—is another form of polity.  In it authority rests with a body of elders, not with a single individual.  In some presbyterian churches, there is a hierarchy of boards of elders stretching to a national General Assembly.  In others, the elders govern the local church but are not connected to other churches or congregations.  In the United States, there are a wide variety of Presbyterian churches which have split from other Presbyterian churches over the interpretation of Scripture or the role of women in the church.  The Reformed churches in this country are also often governed by presbyters.

Congregational churches are exactly what they sound like.  The decision-making authority rests with the individual congregation in matters as important as calling a minister to less important ones, though no less contentious, such as what color to paint the doors.  Some congregational church unite with others, such as the Southern Baptists or American Baptists conventions, but the larger denomination cannot dictate to the congregation.  The United Church of Christ, which includes congregationalists from the time of the pilgrims, states: “Our covenanting emphasizes trustful relationships rather than legal agreements.”

In our time, so-called ”megachurches” defy categorization.  They are congregational in that they stand alone, but they are often tightly controlled by the minister (sometimes called a bishop), and when he or she either dies or retires or, alas, leaves amid a scandal, the church sometimes collapses.

Emmanuel is an Episcopal Church.  We pray for our bishop at every service, and we consult with him—and he with us—about the needs of the parish and the diocese.  We send voting delegates to the annual diocesan convention.  We support the work of the diocese, and through the diocese the national church, with a contribution of over $100,000 each year.  Members of Emmanuel serve on various diocesan committees, and the diocesan transitions officer is working closely with our Vestry through the process of calling a new rector.  Though there is sometimes tension between this parish (or any other parish for that matter) and the diocese, we remain closely tied together.

We welcome Bishop Sutton this Sunday. 

—Jim Holmes

A Message from Bishop Sutton from the Holy Land

On January 8, Bishop Sutton wrote the following letter to the diocese as he continues his pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine.  We commend it to you as timely, especially as our nation faces its own difficult decisions around issues of immigration.  Please remember that he will be visiting Emmanuel next Sunday, January 20, and will have a time for questions and answers at the end of the 10:30 service.  -Jim Holmes & Joseph Wood

This is not the way we’re meant to live. Walls won’t get us what we really want.

Everyone wants to live in secure communities, free from violence, and free from terror. We want to live in peace, enjoying good and healthy relationships with neighbors who want the same things as we do. This is how we were meant to be in community: living in harmony with each other, with God, and with all creation.

But walls of separation, based in fear and mistrust, do not get us there.

As I write this, I’m looking out over Jerusalem from my window, this divided city on the border between Israel and (a hoped for) future Palestine. I’m leading a pilgrimage from the Diocese of Maryland to the Holy Land, as I have been doing about every two years since becoming bishop. Bringing pilgrims to a foreign land is one of the best ways to get us to gaze into a mirror at ourselves, our own lives in our own land.  And when I take a long look into that mirror, what do I increasingly see?


The pilgrims and I were blessed to be in Bethlehem, the City of David, celebrating Christmas with our Palestinian Arab Christian brothers and sisters on January 6 (which is Christmas in the Eastern liturgical calendar, and the Feast of the Epiphany in our Western church year.)

We celebrated the birth of Christ there, and were thrilled to be able to prayerfully kneel and touch the stone manger in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity where 2,000 years of Christian tradition holds that the Son of God was born into the human family.

But the Prince of Peace was born into a city that is now walled off by ethnicity and religion, preventing its inhabitants from being able to travel freely to other parts of the nation. A wall that was erected in fear to keep some populations from others painfully divides the city of Jesus’ birth, who himself was born into a poor family who would quickly become refugees.

Whether or not intended to provide security for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants, or a way to justify and protect an illegal land grab by settlers, the effect is the same:  economic desperation, deprivation, anger, and daily humiliation for the Arab inhabitants of Bethlehem. This is not the way they should have to live.

Nor is it the way that the Jewish citizens Israel should live. The Wall dehumanizes both them and their Arab neighbors, causing both sides to become less than they were intended to be by God – and how they themselves want to be. Who among us wants to be an oppressor? And who among us wants to live as a perpetual victim?

And yet, as I gaze into that mirror to look at what is happening halfway around the globe, I see the same moral conflict in my own country that I see in the Holy Land. We as Americans imagine ourselves to be a generous, welcoming people for those who want to make a new life here, but we are also afraid that these newcomers will cause us harm. Whether from fear or racism – or both – we don’t want them here.

So, let’s build a wall.  Even if that wall causes hostility, suspicion, violence and hatred between peoples. Even if that wall sacrifices our core values, and causes us to act in ways contrary to a free, egalitarian and democratic society.

Every nation needs and deserves secure borders, but building massive, fortified, concrete or steel walls do not get us there. They foster more anger and violence, not security and peace.

And who cares that history shows that walls of separation, fear and mistrust do not work, and eventually are all dismantled or destroyed either violently or by popular demand? (Or they become tourist attractions for later generations.). If they make us feel safe, then isn’t that good enough? Well, not to God.

Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

This summary of all of Jesus’ teachings is based on love, which casts out all fear. But how can we love God and our neighbor if we turn away from God and try to prevent ourselves from knowing or even meeting our neighbors?

Let me be clear. Walls – either psychological or physical – that are intended to keep individuals or nations from encountering and engaging with the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, refugees, and other marginalized persons are inherently immoral, unjust and unworthy of people of faith. They make a mockery of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of God’s vision for a just, loving and harmonious world. The are deeply offensive to those on the other side of that racial, ethnic and economic divide, serving as a daily reminder that they are seen as threats and not fellow human beings.

If it’s not your thing to live according to what God wants, and you believe that the Bible is merely a collection of folk tales that do not have to be taken seriously, then please just take it from those who have to live and work on either side of walled hostile borders: you really don’t want to live that way.

From the Holy Land
January 2019