Meeting the Youth of the Parish

On April 13th I sat down with many of the Youth to discuss my role and ways I could be of service to St. Luke’s. It was a very great experience to get to know the youth in a different light and to learn ways ion which St. Luke’s could be of support. Some of the pressing things that were suggested for them was having a atmosphere where they can get away and play sports. It was a delight having the youth discuss the need for getting the basketball hoop put up and having the opportunity to play sports in teams. So if you are looking for some fun sport ideas, talk to the youth and see how you can help put some of these things into play.

Other ideas that they were interested in was to have fundraisers so that they could potentially go to so real live games such as baseball, football, etc. All of the participants agreed to read a book as a group and made the suggestion to have others from the outside to come in and actually read part of the book to the group. The youth were all open to the idea of having a computer Lab where there could after school and get tutoring and a few fun classes. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

Our next steps will be to have the youth to come in monthly which will be a social hour in which will include time for our youth in addition to Safe Saturday, time for games, movies and organized enrichment . If you have any talents or special skills that you would like to share with our youth, please feel free to contact Trivia Payne at 410-779-8172.

Trivia Payne

St. Luke’s wins Neighborhood Event Grant

St. Luke’s was awarded a $500 MECU Neighborhood Event Grant for our 2016 Back to School Rally to take place in September of 2016! This event will take place on the church grounds and will be an opportunity to celebrate a successful start to the 2016-2017 school year. It will be open to the public and there will be food, music, and activities for attendees to enjoy. Activities may include face painting, a moon bounce, board games, and more.

We at St. Luke’s believe that education is fundamental, important, and worth celebrating in our community. We hope that by providing students with tools for school and books for reading outside of school at this event that our local students will feel prepared for, and optimistic about, the school year ahead.

During the summer we will take donations of school supplies to give away to students at this event. There will also be opportunities to volunteer at the rally. Please contact us if you are interested in volunteering or making a donation.

You can check here for more information about the grant and to see a list of the 103 neighborhood associations and community-based non-profit organizations that were selected to receive funding:

Shannon McCullough

Note from Fr. Van re. Sunday, May 1, 2016

I wanted to let everyone know that this Sunday, in addition to our usual first Sunday Pot-luck, we will have a brief presentation by Pam Negrin regarding a new opportunity at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School. Pam, with the support of St. Luke’s, has received an Access for All grant from Young Audiences for a fabric art project with Ms. Gough’s 3rd grade students. They will be creating a map of their neighborhood.

Please plan to be with us to learn more and to share our community meal.

Fr. Van

Safe Saturday, April 23, 2016

On Saturday April 23,  groups of volunteers gathered in the light rain to help with the neighborhood Tire Pickup and cleanup.  Students and faculty from UMBC who work in mosquito control, students and teachers from Franklin Square Elementary Middle School, other volunteers, and participants in the Safe Saturday program began working in the gray, chilly morning. Piles of tires and trash were collected in four locations around the neighborhood, ready for pickup.   By mid afternoon the weather was warm and the sun was shining.  Safe Saturday was hosting crafts, lunch, and play in the yard, a neighborhood cook-out and gathering was being held at the Sunflower Garden,  volunteers were working at the hoop houses in the  SAFE Community Farm Project, and SAFE Center kids and the Baltimore City Fire Department personnel were playing flag football.  Altogether a great day for the neighborhood.

Diane Dwyer

Sermon – Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: John Kiess

Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

How many times have you heard it?  How many times have you said it?  The twenty-third Psalm is for many of us the Psalm, the one whose inviting imagery of still waters and cups overflowing has nurtured our faith and whose elegant consolations have provided a healing balm in times of adversity, loss, and grief.  Henry Ward Beecher called it the “nightingale of the psalms,” a “moment’s opening of [the] soul” that has “filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive.”[1]  Indeed, as important as Psalm 23 is for the church, it has come to assume a broader cultural importance throughout American life.  Surveying its ubiquitous presence in literature, music, and memoir, William Holladay calls it America’s “secular icon,” arguing that its various changing uses and meanings provide a revealing glimpse into America’s fluctuating moods and preoccupations.[2]

Holladay finds it striking, for example, that although the Psalm today has a popular association with funeral services, helped along by movies that often include the scene with the priest reciting the words at graveside, it did not become a part of most funeral services until the early 20th century.  It was only in 1916 that Methodists added the Psalm to their service for the burial of the dead, and only in 1928 that the Episcopal Church added it to theirs.  Holladay challenges us to find a work of literature written before the Civil War that depicts a deathbed scene that includes it.  Yet by 1880, he says, “the psalm had triumphed.”  One factor that Holladay cites is “the enormous burden of grief left by the Civil War: hardly a household was left untouched by death.”[3]  As an example, he cites Stuart Phelps’ forgotten novel The Gates Ajar (1868), which illustrated the growing trend of conceiving heaven “no longer [as] the place to meet God (or Jesus) but the place for reunion with family members who have died.”[4]  Leave it to Mark Twain to mock the new trend in his wryly-titled novel, Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909).  Holladay goes on to describe how, against the backdrop of financial crises of 1873 and 1893, the Psalm’s consolations came to be claimed by those who “craved security against economic disaster, as well as other threats.”[5]  He then documents Psalm 23’s eventual sentimentalization in the wave of self-help literature that soon followed.  We are, he thinks, still living in that sentimental wake, as most Americans today understand the Psalm’s consolations in largely individualized terms, either as spiritual succor or a supernatural reward that awaits us in heaven.

Of course, if Holladay had continued his survey into the 1990s and 2000s, he would have found that there is at least one sector of popular culture that strongly resists these sentimentalizing tendencies, a kind of art for which Psalm 23 represents less a set of supernatural promises than a window into a particular social condition.  I’m thinking of American hip-hop, and artists such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.  The twenty-third Psalm appears with stunning regularity throughout this music, and what these artists specifically identify with is not its various consolations, but verse 4, “the valley of the shadow of death.”  For them, this verse refers not to the death that awaits all of us at the end of life, but the specific shadow of a premature death.  The Psalm’s significance for them is that it renders this fact legible; it allows them to bring a reality that is often hidden out into the open.  Listen to the opening lines of Coolio’s 1995 song, “Gangsta’s Paradise”:

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left
‘Cause I’ve been blasting and laughing so long,
That even my mama thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it
Me be treated like a punk you know that’s unheard of
You better watch how you’re talking and where you’re walking
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk

The famous chorus, “Been spending most our lives, living in the gangsta’s paradise,” is introduced, and then Coolio returns to the theme in the second verse:

Death ain’t nothing but a heartbeat away,
I’m living life do or die, what can I say
I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24
The way things is goin’ I don’t know

We then hear the haunting bridge, “Tell me why are we so blind to see/ That the ones we hurt are you and me?”[6]

That Coolio poses the bridge in the form of a question suggests his invocation of the psalms is more than ornamental.  It suggests he has a profound grasp of the mood that pervades them.  We know that the psalmists were themselves young and exposed to danger, constantly surrounded by enemies.  The presence of these enemies is palpably felt on nearly ever line they wrote.  In Psalm 18, we read: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me” (18:4).  In Psalm 116, the psalmist declares, “The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish” (116:3).  The psalmist’s first impulse is not to reach for easy consolation, but to give voice to the danger that surrounds him.  “How long must I bear pain in my soil, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (13:2).  What the psalms do is open space for this kind of lament.  They are not written in the third-person, such that when we read them we can stand at a distance and observe the author’s pain.  They do not allow us to be spectators.  Rather, we can only read the psalms in the first-person.  They are participatory.  They demand that we inhabit their world, their fears, their valleys and relate them to our own life.  And this is what Coolio grasps so well.  He knows he cannot just quote Psalm 23 and leave it.  The Psalm demands he relate its valley to his own, that he pick up where the Psalm leaves off and continue in his own voice, adding his fears and his cries.  The gift of the first-person voice of the Psalms is that they give us a medium through which to articulate our pain, to render audible those dimensions of life that have not been spoken aloud.

But they not only give us an opportunity to speak them aloud; they allow us to address these cries to God.  The psalms are the Bible’s protest songs.  “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1). “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  (13:1). The psalms are the textual space in which we contend with God, and they invite us into this contending ourselves.  This is the point powerfully grasped by Tupac Shakur in his 1995 song “So Many Tears.”[7]   Like Coolio, he begins the song by invoking verse 4 of Psalm 23, and then uses it as a point of departure for reflecting on the valley in his own life:

Back in elementary, I thrived on misery
Left me alone I grew up amongst a dyin’ breed
Inside my mind couldn’t find a place to rest
Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest
Tell me can you feel me? I’m not livin’ in the past, you wanna last
Be the first to blast, remember Kato
No longer with us he’s deceased
Call on the sirens, seen him murdered in the streets
Now rest in peace
Is there heaven for a G? Remember me
So many homies in the cemetery, shed so many tears.

Yet as the song continues, Tupac increasingly addresses his cries to God:

Lord, I suffered through the years, and shed so many tears
Lord, I lost so many peers, and shed so many tears

And this seems to open the possibility of a deeper searching, one more raw and intimate:

Now I’m lost and I’m weary, so many tears
I’m suicidal, so don’t stand near me
My every move is a calculated step, to bring me closer
to embrace an early death, now there’s nothing left
There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest
I’m barely standin’, bout to go to pieces, screamin’ peace
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it…
I’m falling to the floor; beggin’ for the Lord to let me in
to Heaven’s door – shed so many tears

What the song captures is the wrenching searching that the participatory nature of the psalms opens up.  If we are willing to speak them, if we are daring enough to allow the psalmist’s voice to become our own, to speak the psalms in our own voice, they allow us reach inside ourselves and articulate our unformed questions, our longings, our desires.  That is what contending with God is all about.

That it is verse 4 of Psalm 23 that resonates most powerfully with artists such as Coolio and Tupac should give us pause.  Indeed, the conspicuous absence of references to other parts of the Psalm speaks loudly.  Neither artist invokes the God who acts as a shepherd who helps them lie down in green pastures (23:1), or the God who leads them beside still waters (23:2); or the God who restores their soul (23:3).  A table has not been prepared for them in the presence of their enemies (23:5).  That there are some who cannot speak these verses in their own voice reveals the distance that often separates the world of the psalms from our world.  It reveals the work that must still be done in order for us to make this Psalm truly our psalm, a song whose consolations are known to us all, a hymn that we can sing together.  So the psalms not only allow us to lodge our protests to God, but they also give us a mission, demanding that we ask what would have to change for us to know Psalm 23’s consolations as our own.  They make us ask what would have to be done for those marginalized in our communities to identify with its green pastures, its cups overflowing, and its tables spread before us.

I wonder if something like this is going on in a final appropriation of Psalm 23 from this period.  The last track on the final album of the Notorious B.I.G is a play upon Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You;” the title is hauntingly replaced with the far more foreboding, “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).”[8]  Biggie himself was killed two weeks before the release of the album, which only adds to the prescience of the song.  As with the other tracks mentioned earlier, it begins with Psalm 23, but unlike them, it quotes the Psalm in its near entirety: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me/ You prepare a table for me, in the presence of my enemies/ You anoint my head with oil/ Surely goodness and love will follow me, all the days of my life/ And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The person reciting the words is not Biggie, but his friend Puff Daddy, and given the song’s dark title, one suspects that the point is to evoke the Psalm’s popular association with funerals.  We are, as listeners, being asked to listen to the song as mourners, presumably at the funeral of Biggie himself.  How then should we understand the Psalm’s consolations?  As a reward awaiting us in heaven?  Perhaps.  But there is a telling refrain throughout the song, one that is also spoken by Puff Daddy: “I don’t wanna die, God tell me why.”  In its rawness, we get the deepest cry of all: I don’t want the consolation of heaven only, I want to live.  I want life now.  And this suggests that Psalm 23’s splendid promises of still waters, of restoration, of a rod and staff that comfort us, the promise that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, are promises for this life, even if the only way we know how to claim them is through protest, through lament.

In this last use of the Psalm, we find ourselves in that strange in-between space that we as Christians often find ourselves, the space that is already and not yet.  In our New Testament lesson from Revelation, we read of a future promise, where it is said, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:14-17).

That is our future promise, that the Shepherd shall gather us to himself and guide us into life.  But our Gospel passage from John reminds us that this is a promise to be claimed now, for this life as well.  “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10: 27-28).  No one will snatch them out of my hand.  Those are the key words.  Not just for the future, but now.  If the Lord is our shepherd, then the Lord we worship calls us to make the consolations of Psalm 23 our mission, so that they might become the song of all, and that each one of us might be able to say of our life, as well as the lives of those around us, “surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.”  Amen.

[1] Henry Ward Beecher, Life Thoughts (Boston: Phillips Sampson, 1858), 8-9.
[2] William Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 359.
[3] Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 366.
[4] Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 366.
[5] Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 367.
[6] Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Gangsta’s Paradise. Tommy Boy, 1995.
[7] Tupac Shakur, “So Many Tears.” Me Against the World. Interscope, 1995.
[8] The Notorious B.I.G. “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Life After Death. Bad Boy, 1997.

Sermon – Sunday, April 3, 2016

Second Sunday of Easter

Preacher: Jeremy Funk

Text: John 20:19–31

Before I started writing these reflections, as I was sifting through a last bit of commentary on our Gospel lesson, my service dog, Levi, gave me a service he hasn’t been trained to give. He placed his forepaws on my chest playfully and tried to lick my face. I began to laugh, and as I gathered what I could of him into my lap, I wondered this: In today’s Gospel when the risen Jesus startles his gathered followers by showing up for the first time in their locked room, does he break up their wariness and weariness with something like Levi’s joyful exuberance? “Peace be with you! It’s me! I’m alive!”

At first, the disciples are anxious about what will happen to them. Of course they are missing Jesus. They have not gotten around to sharing memories of his healings or teachings. Shock and sadness are still the order of the day. Some wonder how they could’ve abandoned him. Others are bewildered by Mary Magdalene’s claims that she has seen him and that he spoke to her. Mostly, all are afraid that they might soon meet their teacher’s fate. Mostly, all are afraid that they might soon meet their teacher’s fate. During this time of grief, having only one another is not enough to sustain them.

We can only imagine the tenor of Jesus’s first greeting: “Peace be with you!” Perhaps he speaks like a friend who’s been away for quite some time. He might’ve added, “I told you I’d be back.” We learn in a few words that his arrival quickly spread the joy around: “The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord,” says the Gospel writer.

“Peace be with you”: Jesus repeats the words of peace. In his mouth they become more than the usual hello. They become a source of joy, a healing balm, a peace the world cannot give. The words become forgiveness for these close friends who had denied and abandoned him so recently. Then their forgiving Lord commissions his followers to offer his own forgiveness to others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Throughout this first encounter the risen Jesus speaks the Spirit of his love. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And with a single breath, he opens for them the new relationship to God that his whole life, death, and rising had finally now brought about. He instills within his followers his own Spirit, God’s own Spirit: the abiding, indwelling, living love he shares with God the Father.

No, having only one another is certainly not enough for these grieving disciples. One writer has said that in the Gospel of John, belief equals friendship with Jesus. Sometimes the friendship is secret, as it is for the religious leaders Nicodemus (who first visits Jesus at night, and who eventually prepares Jesus’s body for burial) and Joseph of Arimathea, who receives permission from Pilate to bury Jesus’s body. And sometimes the friendship is intimate and public, as it is for the one called “the disciple Jesus loved,” quite possibly the author of John’s gospel.

Even today, after two thousand years, trusting in Jesus does not center primarily on memorizing the Nicene Creed or a set of doctrines. Believing in Jesus, cultivating friendship with the Lord in our hearts, trusting the Spirit of the living Christ among us, centers on hearing again and telling again, week after week, the story of Jesus together in community.

After their first meeting with Jesus, the ten disciples cannot wait to tell Thomas about it, who had been absent: “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas doesn’t take their word for it. Thomas wants to see the Lord for himself, just as his friends had. I understand that. I don’t at all like to be left out either. So a week later, the Lord appears again and gives Thomas what he needs—an opportunity to touch his wounds: “Put your finger here, and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Thomas responds with a full-throated confession of faith, the central one in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”

No, in the wake of Jesus’s death meeting only with his fellow disciples is certainly not enough for Thomas. Being together is not enough. Being with Jesus is the point. Jesus is the one who enters a locked room and brightens a dark room. Thomas wants an opportunity to see Jesus for himself, and he receives the opportunity to reach out and touch his friend. But the encounter ends as the Lord blesses us, the future disciples: Jesus asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
So the question confronts us: blessed as we are, how are we to invite Jesus into our locked room here at St. Luke’s? How do we continue to cultivate friendship with Jesus? The Apostle Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ, filled with his Spirit. In John’s terms, we live and love in Jesus as Jesus lives and loves in God the Father.

Thomas’s encounter with the risen Jesus opens two arenas of thought for me. The first centers on the vulnerability of Jesus’s invitation. Jesus acts vulnerably by inviting Thomas to reach out and touch his wounds. If we are to be the body of Christ in the world, how might we work to welcome into our midst those persons—those bodies—whom society considers the most vulnerable, the most wounded, the most broken? And if we are to be the body of Christ to one another, how might we notice opportunities for greater vulnerability with one another?

Second, as a person who lives with low vision and hearing loss, I find touch to be a compelling way of connecting with the world. So I am fascinated that our lesson emphasizes touch as a way to encounter Jesus. We are not told whether Thomas does in fact reach out and touch his Lord’s hands and side. But each week when we gather here, I have an opportunity—you have the opportunity—by the power of the Holy Spirit to receive hugs and handshakes of peace from the body of Christ, just as his first disciples did that Easter evening. Each week when we gather here, I have an opportunity—you have the opportunity—by the power of the Holy Spirit to taste his body and blood.

Every week the risen Christ stands among us as a beloved friend, or leaps into our laps like a joyful dog. “Peace be with you!” says Jesus. “It’s me! I’m alive!” Amen.