The Greatest Resolution - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends -

Once again it is time for New Year's resolutions, though there seems to be less talk about them than I remember in earlier years—maybe they seem trivial in the face of such difficulties facing our world. 

Resolving to lose weight, to be nicer to in-laws, to read more and watch TV less, are good things, but they do not seem to address the overwhelming issues of global warming, of starving children, of refugees stuck in squalid camps, of increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots, of dishonesty and incompetence at the highest levels.  And on and on.  Taking up our comfy blanket and retreating to some supposed safe place rather than taking action seems much more attractive.

But that is not who we are.  We have been given two resolutions which should be ours each day:  to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We hear these great commandments of Jesus again and again—and we resolve to keep them—but then the realities of life in this world cause us to turn from God, wondering where  God might be in the midst of such horrors.  We turn from love to perhaps hatred, but more often to indifference, rationalizing that there is nothing we can do.

We are a people who believe that God is in fact in our midst, that God dwells with us, no matter the outward circumstances.  We are a people who hope that we may come to understand more and more what God would have us do.  We are a people who trust that in the end God will bring us and all of creation to completion.

With those things in mind, let us resolve again today and tomorrow and the next day to love God and to love our neighbors, to think lovingly and to work kindly, for in so doing we witness to the fact that light conquers darkness in our world, in our country, in our church, in our families, in every corner of life.

May the new year bring that resolve into our hearts and into our actions.

-Jim Holmes

O Little Town of Bethlehem - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

I don’t need to tell people who have been coming to Emmanuel for some time what a treasure trove of art and architecture are to be found in and around the church. I see new things each time I enter the building. From the Daniel Chester French font to the exquisitely carved pulpit to the small statues over the doors to the narthex, there are amazing and affecting works of beauty to be seen.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the audience for the Peabody Brass concert, and I noticed for the first time on the bottom-right of the Great East Window a man vested as an Episcopal bishop. It is the figure of Phillips Brooks, one of the great preachers of the late nineteenth century. He served as rector of Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and then, for many years, as rector of Trinity Church in Boston—where one of his successors was Theodore Parker Ferris, rector of Emmanuel in the late 1930’s. Brooks later served for a time as Bishop of Massachusetts.

While he was widely renowned for his sermons, his most lasting impact may well be that he was the lyricist of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which we will sing this weekend. He wrote the hymn for his church’s Sunday school while he was in Philadelphia. The composer of the tune that accompanies his words, “St. Louis,” said: “neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

Happily, they were wrong. It’s now part of the Christmas tradition for countless people, though we sometimes sing it to various tunes. The reference to Bethlehem in the words “how still we see thee lie” is a vision of a time long ago, for Bethlehem is now caught up in the seemingly endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The “hopes and fears of all the years” resound there, yet they are not resolved.

This is a time when we proclaim with the angels, “peace to people of good will.” Let us be the people who pray and work for stillness in Bethlehem, peace around the world, and the turning of hearts so that the promise of Christmas—Emmanuel, God-with-us—will resound throughout creation.

— Jim Holmes

The Feast of St. Thomas Merton - Joseph Wood

Dear Friends,

This last Monday, December 10, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Merton, OCSO. (He was added to the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in 2006.) Perhaps the most influential American spiritual writer of the 20th century, it seems especially appropriate to mark the occasion by sharing with you one of his most famous prayers:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

As this Advent season edges closer and closer to Christmas once more, may your journey be defined by the desire to please God--even in the midst of uncertainty. After all, there is no spiritual life without uncertainty. May your road lead you home rejoicing, accompanied by the breath of the Spirit in all those that travel the way with you. And may you know the trust which is not the absence of darkness but a quiet shining of light out of what means to be yourself.

-Joseph Wood

Thomas Merton.jpg

The Way of the Lord - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

Andy Warhol said we each get fifteen minutes of fame.  I do not believe it, but I did have my fifteen seconds of fame on the Second Sunday of Advent in, I think, 1990.  I was the associate rector of St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square in Washington, and it was my turn to preside at the 8:00 a.m. eucharist.  It was always a relatively brief service with only the priest and the chalice-bearer vested, but it was often attended by the President of the United States.
  The gospel lesson then, as now, was about John the Baptist.  In my homily I spoke about how John’s message of repentance was often dismissed by people who mocked his strange dress of a camel’s hair cloak (not from Brooks Brothers) and his diet of locusts and wild honey.  How could one pay attention to someone so peculiar, so jarring?  Rejecting John’s dress and diet was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.

  I then went on to compare John to Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader whose message of equality and justice was often delivered in strident terms.  “He is so arrogant,” people would say, “and he is so angry,” why would we listen to him?  Others accused him of being a “womanizer,” thus lacking any moral authority.  Rejecting Jackson’s tone and his personal behavior was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.

  Paying attention to both of them is what I charged the congregation with doing, repenting of our sins, our destructive behaviors, and embracing the movement for justice and equality.
  After communion, as they were leaving the service, Mrs. Bush said to me, “That was very interesting, Mr. Holmes.”  The president wished me a good day.

  Alas, there were also reporters there.  The news of my remarks spread around the country, even to Baton Rouge, where my Republican mother was chagrined.  I got a couple of “how dare you?” notes, but the issue never gained traction and soon faded.  The Bushes were back in church the next Sunday, and they even invited Tim and me to a White House Christmas party the next year.
  This all came back to mind on the occasion of President Bush’s death last week.  The messages of repentance, of embracing justice and equality, are ones I have repeated many times since then, including here at Emmanuel.  I believe, in fact, that they were virtues held by George H.W. Bush as well.

Requiescas in pace, Mr. President.

-Jim Holmes

Holding the Gyre - Joseph Wood

            Gyre is a somewhat antiquated word these days. From Ancient Greek (guros, γῦρος) originally, it finally made its way into Late Middle English through Latin (gyrus). It means moving in a swirl, a spiral, or a vortex, but it has proven more of a stumbling block for many an English student as they wrestle with W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Indeed, it is generally Yeats’ famous opening lines to that poem which introduce gyre to those of us who have some faint recollection of the word: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre /The falcon cannot hear the falconer; /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” As we stand, poised to enter into yet another cycle of the church year, I cannot help but be reminded of gyre and ponder what it means for the centre to hold.

             After all, the Christian liturgical life is one defined by ever widening circles. Each day might be marked off by the perpetual cadence of Morning Prayer, Noonday, and Evening Prayer as we travel from first light into night and back again. Each week is an echo of Holy Week. Each Sunday is illuminated by the reflected brilliance of the Resurrection, even as each Friday bears something of the soberness of Golgotha. (That’s actually why Roman Catholics and others use to, traditionally, keep a partial fast by abstaining from meat on Fridays.) In the same way, we move each year from Advent through Epiphany into Lent, culminating in Easter and surging forth from there ever outwards again into the work of Pentecost—to say nothing about the procession of other feasts, saintly and otherwise, that again and again mark our way. With the advent (see what I did there) of the Revised Common Lectionary, yet another circle enfolds us through the three years of the appointed lectionary readings. Thus, even our experience of the Gospel is marked by a spiral-shaped journey from Matthew to Mark to Luke, with the Gospel of John filling in as needed. This Sunday, we will set aside the sparseness of the Gospel of Mark that so defines “Year B” and return once more to “Year C” and the societal concern of the Gospel of Luke.  

            In “The Second Coming,” Yeats expresses clear pessimism about our ability to continue to maintain this pattern. Surveying the state of post-war Europe in 1919, it is little wonder that he questions if a “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” out of the spirit of the world, has upset the motion first felt through “a rocking cradle” in Bethlehem. Is there even a centre anymore around which to orientate ourselves? Or are things falling apart as we slowly spin out of orbit from what once held our communities close together? 

            I believe there is. While that centre has certainly been complicated—or, at least, our assumptions about what that centre is have been complicated as we acknowledge the multifarious extents of our world. Yet I cannot imagine that the God-given complexity of our Creation is inherently unbalanced. The challenge is to set aside the idea that the motion of history is towards a particular end and try to embrace the idea a little more wholly that it is a movement around, is a movement with. The questions remain, though: What are we gathering around? Who do we recognize as moving with us? In the first moments of this holiday season, I think we can all benefit by holding those questions within us. Notice where you and the people in your life congregate, notice what is setting the course of your rhythms, and notice which individuals draw close to your path again and again. Whether the answers to those questions look more like gentle rocking or something slouching, we are left with the glorious promise of the cycle. We are left to, as best we can, prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our lives again.

Attitude of Gratitude - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,  

         I have several friends who are members of AA and who try to live their lives in “an Attitude of Gratitude.” Gratitude for one more day or year of sobriety, of course, but further with gratitude for the many things in their lives which are better because of sobriety, as well as for all of the good things which come their way.

         Living in an attitude of gratitude is not easy in this sad world in which we live. The natural disasters of fire, floods, earthquakes; the human catastrophes of mass shootings, hate crimes and more: these are not occasions of gratitude when we wrestle with the question of why some people survive and why some die. The anger and criminal dysfunction of institutions small and large do not make me give thanks but in fact cause me to struggle against putting my head into the sand.

         As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, we step back and think of all of the things for which we are nevertheless grateful. For some of us it is family, even though families can be—shall we say—complicated. For others it is friends, people who are honest with us and who stick with us no matter what comes.  For lots of people it is country, even with the exasperation felt by so many these days, because we are thankful for the freedoms we still enjoy as we pray for wisdom to use these blessings for the benefit of all.  We offer thanks for the beauty of nature, for the creativity of human beings, for the opportunity to be with people unlike ourselves and to visit places which broaden our understanding of the human community.

         I, as well as so many of you, am grateful for Emmanuel Church. For the beauty of the building, for the splendor of the music, for the programs which encourage us to be built bridges to our neighbors. I am most grateful for the people of Emmanuel who come from many places, literally and figuratively, to take part in this diverse and, yes, imperfect community. You bring a commitment and steadfastness to Emmanuel that gives us muscles to move forward to an exciting new chapter in our parish life.

         But most of all let us be thankful for God. I speak of the God who loves us unreservedly, who enlivens us with the Spirit, who forgives us, who gives us the strength to reconcile ourselves with those with whom we have been at enmity.  The God who dwells with us and who calls each one of us by name.

          In an attitude of gratitude, I say “Happy Thanksgiving” to you all.

                                                                                  —Jim Holmes

In Whose Perfect Kingdom No Sword Is Drawn - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. Baltimore time marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice which ended the hostilities of the Great War—not often called World War I until around 1940 when, alas, there was World War II.  The signing took place in a small railroad car in Compiegne, France, and was meant to conclude “the war to end all wars.” 

Memorial at Mareuil le Port, Champagne-Ardennes

Memorial at Mareuil le Port, Champagne-Ardennes

In virtually every town and village Tim and I have visited in France over the years—and in Britain as well—there is a monument erected to the Great War, and particularly to those who lost their lives.  In every instance the list is a long one as the carnage of that war was nearly unparalleled.  Most of the monuments now have engravings on the other sides for World War II deaths; including in France a listing of those “deported,” meaning sent to the death camps.  And then there are listings for wars in Indochina and in Afghanistan.  These lists are nowhere nearly as long as those for World War I, but they do tell us that the war to end all wars did not.

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery & Memorial

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery & Memorial

As brothers and sisters of the Prince of Peace, we will gather on Sunday not only to remember those who served and those who died, but to recommit ourselves to the search for peace.   As many of the veterans of combat will tell us, war is not the answer, it is hell.  We gather to pray together and work together so that the next hundred years are not as bloody and violent as the last one hundred years. 

—Jim Holmes

For All the Saints - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

         I am of two minds about this week’s meditation. Should it be about All Saints’ Day--one of the great feasts of the Church Year--or should it be about voting? So let me do a little about one, and a little more about the other.

         It is dismaying to read the statistics about voter turnout, particularly in midterm elections. Some people do not vote because they think it does not matter. They are wrong. Some do not vote because they are prevented from voting by one or another of the voter suppression efforts about which we read. That is unjust and un-American. Those for whom we vote should pledge themselves to address such disparity. Some do not vote because election day is a work day. Only a minority of businesses give people time off to vote. We should consider making election day a holiday, or moving the election to weekends as a number of states already do.

         Most of us at Emmanuel have access to the polls, either early or on election day. Though I cannot suggest to you how to vote (I wish I could!), I urge each of you to vote. It is important and is one of the ways we can move forward to heal a deeply divided country.

         All Saints’ is the great festival of connectedness. Through the love of God we are connected with all those who have gone before, the great cloud of witnesses. Not all were heroes or heroines, not all were Christians or even religious at all--most were people we have never heard of. Because death is not the last word, and because all are children of God, created in God’s likeness and image, we are in communion with them, known or unknown, admired or despised. We are connected with Matthew Shepard, with the eleven people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue, with the two people murdered in Kentucky, with the five people killed in Baltimore last weekend. “For all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia.”

         But the connection is not only with those who have gone before, it is with all of humanity who are alive now. It is with those who are a part of the devastated congregation in Pittsburgh, with those families grieving the senseless shootings in Baltimore, with those living in the terror of Yemen or Syria or Central America or any of a hundred other places, with those of our own parish household who are ill or shut-in, with those who sit next to us in the pews Sunday after Sunday. 

         With connectedness comes responsibility. As saints, the people of God, we are called to make the world a better, safer, more just place for all of our sisters and brothers. We do that by praying, by voting, by giving, by hands-on efforts. We do it because we know that we are loved by God and are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

         See you in church this Sunday as we celebrate All Saints’. See you at the polls on Tuesday if not before.

-Jim Holmes

Anamnesis - Joseph Wood

            Yesterday, as Matthew Shepard was laid to rest in the National Cathedral twenty years after his martyrdom, the Right Rev. Gene Robinson preached about the concept of anamnesis. From the Ancient Greek, anamnesis comes to us from two different words: ana (ανα), a preposition that denotes up, above, or again; and mneme (μνημη), meaning memory or remembrance. From its early beginnings, anamnesis has accrued a great deal of philosophical and historical connotations—for us, it’s particularly used to describe the moment during the Eucharistic prayer when we recall the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ as a community. In other words, when we enter into the Biblical memory again, collapsing the distinction between the present and the past into a single, transcendent moment. When we live the Gospel, however briefly. Bishop Robinson argued that, just as we believe that we enter sacred time during our services, the memory of Matthew should prompt a similar transfiguration in our lives and work. 

            The thing is, I have never really known a world where Matthew hadn’t died, hadn’t been taken from us too soon. I was 10 when he was hanging on a fence in a lonely corner of Laramie, Wyoming, and the fact of it is one of the first news stories I can remember taking any notice of. The entirety of my adult life—and particularly my life as part of the LGBTQ community—has been in some small way bounded by his death. Just as James Byrd, Jr., might have helped to define yours. Or Kitty Genovese. Or the at least 22 transgender people who have already been martyred this year. We are rarely in short supply of righteous dead; it’s the living saint who is a rarity.

            I don’t mean to sound grim, but I wonder if it’s really Matthew who we need to worry about. For whatever reason, his death prompted people to take notice. The gay community and the rest of the world were roused, and people made Matthew’s story their own in ways real and immediate. We demanded action, demanded that, even in the out-of-the-way corners of the country, LGBTQ people should be allowed to be who they are with dignity. We didn’t get it all right, but the outcry around his death transformed the dialogue in this nation, reshaping communities in ways that I will never truly know—I only know what it means to walk in a world indelibly marked by his footsteps. And on Friday, the young political science student who dreamed of changing the world was laid to rest in state, untold thousands collapsing time and distance to seem him safely home and finally at rest.  

            As I read the news about attacks on immigrant and trans communities this week, I pray that there is a day when there is no more need for anamnesis, no more need to recall the martyrs who have journey the way before us. May we treasure each death the way we treasure Matthew. May treasure each life even more. After all, we are each and everyone one of us made in the image and likeness of God, loved beyond any possibility of our comprehension. Too often we have let ourselves forget that fact, let ourselves leave some behind. So, let’s get up; let’s remember not just who we have been but who we might be; and let’s demand dignity for ourselves and our neighbors once more. Resurrection is for all of us—again and again and again.

Stone Upon Stone - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends,

         If I remember correctly, I preached a stewardship sermon at Emmanuel three years ago quoting from the hymn, “‘till not a stone was left on stone and all those nations’ pride, o’erthrown, went down to dust beside thee.”  The point was that neither Emmanuel nor any of us would last forever, and that it was important to build a strong Emmanuel in the present.

         The author of the hymn, Walter Russell Bowie, was an Episcopal priest who spent part of World War I in the area where we are staying and I suspect that the image of “not a stone was left on stone” came from the horrors he saw here.  A couple of weeks ago, I described Soissons Cathedral, which has been rebuilt stone upon stone. 

         The small town where we are staying, Dormans, was flattened just as surely as Soissons—but, rather than rebuild to look as it had before, it was built anew.  The stores and houses reflected the needs and styles of the 1920’s where people actually lived and worked and built new lives, even while surrounded by French, British, and German graves and the men who had returned alive but terribly damaged from the fighting.

         As our 2019 annual giving campaign continues, I believe that we are building for the needs of today and for tomorrow.  Of course we need to keep our historic building in good condition, but we are looking how to make it more accessible and inviting to people who want and need it now as well.  In our worship and music, we use words and tunes which pre-date Emmanuel and also words and music which are quite contemporary.  The old and new blend together to stir us to move forward as a community.   Our outreach addresses needs as old as humanity such as homelessness, and as new as the opioid crisis which envelops Baltimore and its sister other cities.  Our educational programs are meant to give us a context for what we do and a basis for moving forward.

         Our stewardship is rooted in who we have been, who we are, and who we are going to become.  Though the expressions are different, the essence is the same.  We are the people of God called to make known God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ.  We are asked to give so that we might be more effective in sharing the story which shapes us, which gives us life.          

         Your generosity will help Emmanuel to move forward.  A new rector will be in place (Godwilling) in the coming months, and a strong response from you in this stewardship effort will continue to enable Emmanuel to serve today and tomorrow as a vital sign of God’s presence in the troubled times.

                                                                                          —Jim Holmes