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  All of these—save crucifixion, which has been replaced by sanitized execution—are still a part of our life now.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.

"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