Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Why We Decorate


I have so many things to say about Christmas decorations that I could write a short book on the subject.  But I will spare you that, and just try to sum up for now.

Making Connections

Some decorations have obvious or intuitive origins.  For example, we put up lights to dispel the darkness of the approaching Winter Solstice, and the lights also connect us to the reading for Christmas Day, that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

(John 1:5)

And then there are the many decorations that have pagan origins (like holly, ivy, and yule logs) which we have repurposed into Christian symbols.  This is not unlike moving Jesus’ birth to December in order to supplant pagan gods’ feasts, even though the majority of scholars agree Jesus was more likely born in the spring.

But I think—given that this year will be unlike any year we’ve experienced—a good basic rule of thumb in all our holiday decorating might be to consider why we’re decorating at all.  It can be as simple as, “This pine tree smells nice,” or as personal as, “My great grandparents brought this ornament with them when they immigrated in the 1870s.”  What I mean is, consider decorating this year with purpose and intention.  Think about why you do what you do, and decorate with awareness and mindfulness.

Now, on to some specifics . . .

Advent Wreath

In my childhood home, we always put a wreath on the dining room table during Advent.  And on many nights, after we ate, we would sing carols and have a short devotion.  The basic makeup of the Advent Wreath is a circle of evergreens (to symbolize eternity in the circle, and continuous life in the greens) along with candles.  Typically, there are five candles: 3 are blue or violet, one is pink or rose, and the center one is white.  The main purpose of the candles is to mark the passage of time (which is why oil candles are not the best for this).  As we move through Advent, we can see where we’ve been and where we’re going.  If you’ve never had an Advent Wreath in your house before, the circle and the greens are not so important as the passage of time.  So, a good alternative might be to put four candles on your mantle or on a table, and just light a new one each week as you count the weeks until Christmas.

Christmas Creche

Sometimes called a manger, the creche is typically a stable setting, where we mix all the stories of Jesus’ birth together.  So, we often get the angels and shepherds from Luke, and the stable and wise men from Matthew in one compressed scene.  And that’s totally fine!  The one thing I ask, as your priest, is that you wait to put Jesus in the manger until after sundown on Christmas Eve.  Not because it’s bad luck or something, but just as a little nod that we’re still waiting during Advent.

Christmas Tree

This is the most notable decoration in our homes leading up to Christmas.  There are many different explanations of how we came to drag a cut pine tree into our homes at this time of year, but let’s skip over folklore for now, and just enjoy the absurdity of it all!  Some people decorate their trees sparsely, with matching bulbs, and others go to town with tinsel and flashing lights.  Whatever the tradition in your own home, I fully support whatever you choose to do.  But referring back to what I said above, try to be mindful of how and why you decorate as you do.  Is it because that’s how you did it as a child?  Is it because it’s not how you did it as a child?  What do you like (or not like) about having a tree in your home?  Do you have favorite ornaments?  How do you choose the space that will be set apart for this large adornment of holiday cheer?

 Twelve Days of Christmas

Okay, here’s the one thing I want to be sure to mention.  From November 29th to December 24th, we are in the Advent season.  Sure, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t come until the sun sets on December 24th.  Then we begin the twelve days of Christmas.  (Perhaps you’ve heard a song about this stretch of days.)  If you start counting Christmas as the first day, you will get to 12 on January 5th, and the next day is January 6th, which we call Epiphany, when the Magi arrive.  Point being, no matter when you put up your decorations, I encourage you to try to leave them up throughout the Christmas Season, which means until January 6th, just to be sure you get those 12 drummers drumming, if nothing else.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

As We Wait . . .


Christ the King Sunday, 2020

Dear Friends in Christ:

As you might recall, I am a bit of a stickler for not jumping ahead in the liturgical calendar.  We don’t celebrate a day or season until it arrives.  However, I’ve recently received this announcement from Dr. Kara Slade of Princeton University: 

Public notice from the liturgical police.
The following activities are allowed at any time because it's 2020:
Advent music. Christmas music. Hallmark movies. Die Hard. Any other Christmas movies. Decorations of any kind. Thank you for your cooperation, citizens.

And with that “permission,” I pass on to you that 2020 Advent rules are suspended.  If you’ve already got a Christmas tree standing in your living room, and Bing Crosby on the hi-fi, then good for you!  Have at it.

In the packet of stuff that was mailed to you, you will find several things that might be useful in the coming weeks.  You’ll see that there is an envelope for you to open each Sunday in Advent, as well as one for you to open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

In addition, you’ll find some tips and thoughts to set this season apart regarding any Christmas tree, Christmas creche, Advent wreath, and so on.

Though we cannot be together in person, we still mark time together, and we still wait together for the One who makes all things new.

May God bless you and your loved ones as we journey toward Bethlehem together.

Fr. George

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Tigers Prayer Service, 2020

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service
October 3, 2020
Hebrews 12:1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, I’m not going to lie.  You all are being asked to do a challenging thing during a very challenging time.  You’re being asked to focus on a really big game at a time when it’s nearly impossible to focus on anything for more than five minutes.  School is different, and family life is different, the football season is different, and this game is different.  Everything is different this year.  I mean, with all painter’s tape on the pews, and the masks we all have to wear, even being in this room together is different this year.

Like I said: A challenging game during a very challenging time.        And that’s why I want to tell you this:  This annual service here at St. Timothy’s is a chance to just stop everything for a minute.  A chance to sit and rest in the presence of God and one another.  For this time here today, it’s okay to just be silent.  To give yourself time to think and reflect and just sit, without taking notes, or worrying if you’re doing things right, or bracing yourself for somebody running into you full speed from the side.

A few minutes ago, I read to you that verse from the letter to the Hebrews:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, in the faith and on the field.  Some of those witnesses are people who have played on this team before you, like our own church member John Muhlbach, who went on to play for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.  And some other witnesses who are destined to simply watch the game on TV, like me.  But you are also surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer you on from a different place.  Some cheer you on from another part of the country, and some cheer you on from another place entirely.

But there’s another part of that scripture verse that I want to be sure you notice.  The writer says, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  The race marked out for us.  Because, sure, all those other people are cheering you on, happy to tell you what this game meant for the team in their day.  But today’s game is not their game; it is your game.  Today is the race marked out for you.  The race marked out . . . of a challenging game during a challenging time.  No one else will play this game, on this day, against that particular team . . . who shall not be named.

For you and your coaches, this game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  That’s the thing that I hope you’ll remember today.  This game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  God bless each and everyone of you, and go Tigers!


Friday, September 11, 2020

The Burial of PerLee Hartman

For PerLee Hartman, 9/11/20
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
Revelation 21:2-7
Psalm 23
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus said, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” 

I did not really know PerLee Hartman.  Not when he was a strong, feisty, independent man.  Well, wait that’s not true.  From the stories Janine has told me, he was a damn strong feisty man right to the end!  She’d come in every week to tell me and Candy about how PerLee had somehow worked his wheelchair to the point that he was dangling over a cliff, hanging by one finger in the middle of nowhere, and then it would end with her laughing about how it always turned out alright.

Even in his final years, PerLee could get into trouble before you could say “Get back in your wheelchair!”  I did not know PerLee well, but I feel like I knew him because of the stories Janine tells me about him.  He lived a good life, and was loved by good people.  People who miss him, and will continue to remember the joy he brought into your lives.  As crazy as that joy often was!

As I said, I did not know PerLee well, but you did.  That’s why you’re here today.  And I hope those of you who knew PerLee will keep telling stories about this remarkable man in the days ahead.  You knew PerLee.  And more importantly, Jesus did.  Jesus knew PerLee, and Jesus loved PerLee.  And here’s why that is important.

As we just heard, Jesus said, “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  And Jesus said, “I will lose nothing of all that the Father has given me.”  And Jesus also said, “all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

I can clearly see that Jesus was describing PerLee Hartman here.  He came to Jesus, and Jesus never drove him away.  PerLee was given to Jesus in his baptism, and was not lost to him.  PerLee believed in Jesus, and most often probably found Jesus in the peaceful woods and streams that God created.  Created just to remind people like PerLee that God still loved him.

PerLee was known by Jesus, and is not lost to Jesus, and PerLee will be raised up on the last day.  And I like to think that when that happens, on the last day, we will all see PerLee Hartman, standing next to an empty wheelchair and asking us all, “What the hell took you so long?"

May God’s face shine on PerLee Hartman, and may God’s face continue to shine on each one of you.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Burial of Mary Vasilo

For Mary Vasilo, 8/28/20
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
2 Cor. 4:16-5:9
Psalm 23
John 6:37-40  

Jesus said, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The thing about our dear Mary Vasilo is that she would never tell anyone how old she was.  I’m kidding, of course.  Mary loved to tell people how old she was, and always followed up with, “Can you believe it?”  It was clear to me that Mary was proud of approaching 90.  She bragged about turning 91.  She reveled in the fact that she passed 92.  Sure, she complained as she got older . . . as do I.  But Mary was not afraid to tell people how old she was.

And you know what else Mary wasn’t afraid of?  Death.  I mean, just like any rational person, she was afraid of a lot of pain, or of the sadness that we would all feel when she was gone.  But Mary wasn’t afraid of death itself.  And there’s a very simple reason for that.

Mary Vasilo trusted Jesus.  Mary trusted that Jesus would do what Jesus promised to do.  To show up in the sacraments, to walk beside her through her life, and to raise her up on the last day.  People who believe those three things—the power of the sacraments, the presence of Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection—people who believe those things can all be found in one place: church.  Because that is where those three things are proclaimed and celebrated.  And, it’s not news to anyone who is here today, Mary loved to be in church!

When I started as Rector of St. Timothy’s four years ago, everything was new to me.  Everything was kind of strange and unpredictable.  But the one thing I could count on, the one thing that was predictable each week was that I would see Mary Vasilo, every Wednesday afternoon, and again on Sunday morning.  Every.  Single.  Week.  And when Mary couldn’t be here—like when she was busy drinking apricot brandy up in Twinsburg—she would call Candy to make sure that I knew she wouldn’t be here.  I always knew how old Mary was, and I always knew when she was out of town.

Mary would be the first to tell you that she was a simple person, but I don’t think that’s true.  I would say Mary was a solid person.  And there’s a big difference.  Because Mary knew what was important, and she knew what she believed, and she knew who she loved.  And, more importantly, she knew that she was loved.  She knew she was loved by her family, and she knew she was loved by her caregiver, and she knew she was loved by the people of this church—especially the ones who checked in on her every single night.  But she also knew that she was loved by Jesus.  And I think that’s what made Mary’s life so wonderful to behold.  She knew she was loved.  And that makes all the difference in a person’s life.  Any person’s life.  To know that you are loved makes all the difference in how you live your life.

As we just heard, Jesus said, “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  And Jesus said, “I will lose nothing of all that the Father has given me.”  And Jesus also said, “all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

I can clearly see that Jesus was describing Mary Vasilo here.  She came to Jesus, and he never drove her away.  She was given to Jesus, and was not lost to him.  She believed in Jesus, and she will be raised up on the last day.  And I like to think that when that happens, on the last day, we will all see Mary Vasilo, holding a glass of apricot brandy, proudly telling everyone exactly how old she is.

May God’s face shine on Mary Vasilo, and may God’s face shine on you.  Amen.

Friday, May 29, 2020

For Will Miller, May 29, 2020

For Will Miller
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
Psalm 121
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9
Psalm 23
John 14:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This is a hard time to do a hard thing, this saying goodbye to one who was loved and cherished by so many.  There are lots of people who would like to be here today, but they can’t.  We’d love to be able to sing and to share Communion, but we can’t.  We would so appreciate to be able to share a meal together afterward, but we can’t.  And what we really want, truly, is to have back the Will we knew in October, but we can’t.

This has been a long and exhausting journey for those who were closest to Will.  The days and months and years ahead aren’t going to be easy.  But you will have each other, and you will have the people who love you, walking beside you.  Will was a special kind of person, and I know that I will miss him very much.  And I will miss him especially in a very particular way, a way that I see reflected in this gospel reading we just heard, from John.  Because Will reminded me of Thomas, on more than one occasion.

Jesus says to his disciples, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  And you know who speaks up?  Thomas.  Thomas was always willing to ask the hard questions that nobody else would ask.  Remember right after the resurrection, when the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus?  And Thomas says, “Unless I see the scars, I will not believe.”  No one else says that.  No one else asks the hard question, which in that case was:  “How do I know it’s really Jesus?  How can I believe unless I see that proof that Jesus has suffered, like I am suffering?”  It’s an important question.  And only Thomas asked that question.

And today, when Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  And Thomas—the one who asks the hard questions that no one else is willing to ask—says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  No one else asks that question.  Heck, we don’t know if anyone else even thought of that question.  But Thomas did.

In a very real and tangible way, that’s what Will did for me as his priest.  Not in an aggressive way.  Not in an accusing way.  But Will was one who would often ask me the questions that never occurred to me.  He would just walk up to me and ask, “Why do we do that this way?”  Or, “What did you mean when you said that?”  Or, “Have you ever considered trying to do this?”  Like he was always wondering about things, always curious, always willing to ask the hard questions.  And believe me, a lot more priests would do well to have a lot more Will Millers in their congregations!

And this morning, well, I guess it’s fitting that we are gathered together asking hard questions ourselves.  Questions like, “Are we really going to see Will again?”  Questions like, “Is Will in a safe place now?”  And even, “How will we ever see Will again if we don’t know where he is, when we don’t even know the place?  How can we know the way?”

And the answer to all those hard questions we are asking comes from the lips of Jesus.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  We know the way to the place where we will be reunited with Will, because we know Jesus.  And wherever Jesus is, that is where we are going to find our beloved Will.

May God give us all the strength to trust that we are going to see Will again, and he is going to be the Will we remember, the one who asked the difficult questions, the one who knew Jesus, the one who knows the way.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

Community Lenten Service, 2020

MACA Ecumenical Service, 2020
First Baptist Church, Massillon OH
John 10:1-10

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When I was a child, there was this particular book my friend and I would read to each other all the time.  It was called “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” and was kind of based on nothing but the creativity of the writers, but presented as an explanation for why people in a particular culture have shorter names these days.   The basic plot goes like this.  In a society that honored elder sons, the first child gets a name with a dozen or so difficult words in it, while a little brother might have  a name like, Joey.  So, this one older boy has a ridiculously long name starting with Tikki Tikki Tembo, and one day he falls into a well.

The little brother runs to get help, but by the time he gets to his mom, he’s so out of breath that he can’t say the entire name, and the mom won’t listen until he says it properly, out of respect for his elder brother.  This pattern repeats with other characters until eventually, the man with the ladder (who keeps falling asleep while the younger boy tries to say the name) comes and rescues the older brother, whose name then gets shortened so that things like this don’t happen again.

I was reminded of this book when thinking about this Gospel reading.  (Because that’s how my brain works, apparently.)  Jesus begins with a multilevel metaphor: "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." And then we hear, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

And I picture Jesus just looking at them and hearing the sound of crickets.  So, Jesus lops off a few sentences.  “So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.”  A little shorter and simpler.  But do they get it?  We can’t really tell.

Just to be sure, at that point, I think Jesus would’ve done well to just point at himself and say, “GATE.  That’s me.  The Gate.”

We often get distracted by lofty words and carefully constructed metaphors, and the Gospel of John certainly gives us those.  But sometimes, it’s best to cut through all the poetry and just make the point you want to make.  GATE.  Jesus is the Gate.  Don’t be distracted by all the words that surround the main point.  Jesus is the gate.

But we also get distracted by the distortions.  Jesus comes to us today, saying, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits.”  Like the sheep in his analogy, there are all sorts of other voices coming at us, voices other than the voice of Jesus.  Voices that offer theological, social, and political twisting of the main message.  But, as Jesus said, his sheep “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  I know that we cannot help but look at shiny objects, or to turn our heads toward the loudest voices, or be distracted by the threat of someone climbing over the wall into our pen.  At which point, we need for Jesus to point at himself and say to us, “GATE.  I am the Gate.”

And notice what Jesus says about the gate.  The gatekeeper opens the gate.  He doesn’t say anything about closing the gate.  And this is important.  In fact, this is the most crucial thing about this text: Jesus is the Gate that gets opened.  This metaphor only really takes off when you consider what a gate does.  A wall keeps you out; a gate lets you in.  A fence keeps us separate; a gate brings us together.  A barricade makes us enemies; a gate allows for friendship. 

Walls and fences and barricades are all meant to keep us separate, to keep us isolated, to keep us from reconciling our differences.  Jesus is not a wall.  Jesus is not a fence.  Jesus is not a barricade.  Because Jesus is the Gate.

The gate is the exception in the wall.  The gate is the solution to the fence.  The gate is the joy in the barricade.  Jesus is the Gate.  And the gate has one purpose:  TO LET YOU IN!  The gate is not part of the wall, because the wall and the gate stand opposed to each other.  They serve completely antagonistic purposes. 

As someone recently wrote on twitter (which is a terrible way to start a sentence), “When a door closes, open it.  That’s how doors work.”  And, sometimes, this word gate is translated as door.  And we get the same idea when we consider a building.  All around us in this room there are lovely walls, and beautiful windows.  And they look great and all, but you cannot enter God’s sanctuary through the walls and windows.  You need the door.  The whole point of the doors is to let us in.  We tend to think of doors as the thing we lock to keep people out.  But that is not the purpose of doors.  Those doors on our churches are a reminder that this is how you get in.  This is where you find Jesus.

Throughout history, church doors were painted red for different reasons.  Of course, there is the connection to God’s chosen people putting lamb’s blood on the doors so that the angel of death would pass over them.  But since the time Christians began building churches, the doors have often been painted red to signify a place of sanctuary: no harm would come to one who was inside these sacred walls.  And there is also a tradition, in Scotland, of painting your house door red after your mortgage has been paid off.  When you think about it, all of these apply to us, gathered here at First Baptist Church tonight.  We come into God’s sanctuary, knowing that the debt of sin has been paid; we have been claimed as God’s own children; we have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb.

But, of course, that gate and door stuff is all just a metaphor.  And a powerful one at that.  Still, we know Jesus isn’t really just a gate or door, letting people in, and then getting locked at night after we’ve all left.  The metaphor gets left at the door . . . as it were.  Once we’re gathered together, Jesus meets us somewhere else.  The place where he has promised he would be.  This is my body.  This is my blood.  In the holy meal we share together, Jesus meets us in this place.

But you know what else doors do?  Doors and gates let us out as well.  As we heard in this Gospel text, “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  The gate allows us entry into the sanctuary, where we are fed and nourished in Word and Sacrament.  And the gate also allows us to go back out into the world, following the voice of Jesus.

The churches of Massillon have served as places of refuge, places of hope, and launching pads for God’s people to go out into the world proclaiming the good news of salvation to all who will listen.  May God give us the ears to hear and the wisdom to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd as we leave this place tonight, and call us safely back together wherever Jesus is present, in this city and beyond.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

YEAR A 2020 absalom jones

Absalom Jones, Feb. 16, 2020
Isaiah 11:1-5
Psalm 137:1-6
Galatians 5:1-5
John 15:12-15

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today—with the Bishop’s permission—we are taking the unusual step of honoring Absalom Jones in both our services.  As you know, February is Black History month.  The purpose of Black History month is not so that Black Americans can celebrate their own history.  It is, rather, so that everyone can recognize the important contributions of people whom history has tended to skip over.  And the fact that most Episcopalians don’t know the name Absalom Jones kind of proves the point.

But let’s go back to that phrase I just used, “with the Bishop’s permission.”  The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has asked that clergy solicit contributions to two schools this month—you’ll see a flyer in your bulletin explaining this.  But he is not our Bishop; the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth is our Bishop.  Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has no authority over me, or this parish, because of the way the Episcopal Church is structured.  Allow me to provide a brief refresher on how all this works.

The organizing unit of the Episcopal Church is the Diocese—not the congregation, and not the national church.  The people of each Diocese periodically choose someone to lead us as Bishop; and fourteen years ago, we chose a priest from Massachusetts and ordained him our Bishop.  Technically, Mark Hollingsworth is your priest—which is why he always presides at the Eucharist when he visits us.  But since he can’t be here every week, St. Timothy’s Church calls a Rector to fill in as priest the other 101 Sundays between Bishop’s visitations.  For now, that’s me.

The Presiding Bishop is chosen by the national church to lead the House of Bishops when they meet.  You know, to preside at their meetings.  Bishop Curry is the face and figurehead of the Episcopal Church, but he has no more authority than Bishop Hollingsworth.  In fact, he has less, since he doesn’t even have a Diocese anymore.  The point is, the Presiding Bishop is no Pope, you see?  Essentially, he asked Bishop Hollingsworth to ask me to ask you for your support of these two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in honor of Absalom Jones, and so I am.

And then, I thought it would be fitting to use the readings for Absalom Jones’ feast day, which was three days ago.  But since I have no authority to just do that on my own, I asked Bishop Hollingsworth, and he said yes.  So there you have the story of how we got here today, honoring Absalom Jones, rather than observing the 6th Sunday after Epiphany.

This morning, I want to read you a couple of things, and then offer just a closing thought.
From Lesser Feasts and Fasts: Absalom Jones was born on November 6, 1746, as a house slave in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings. Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the blacks indignantly walked out as a body.

In 1787, black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17th, 1794. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1. that they be received as an organized body; 2. that they have control over their local affairs; 3. that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister.

In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802. Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the church as God’s instrument. Jones died on February 13th, 1818, in Philadelphia.

Flash forward to seventy years later, and we find this, from St. Timothy’s Parish History:  In January, 1888, [St. Timothy’s Rector] Mr. Kemp began a ministry among the black people of Massillon. The records do not indicate whether he ini­tiated the ministry, or whether they asked  him  for help. Which­ever was the case, he helped them to repair an  abandoned  church on Oak Street, and on March 18 began holding regular Sunday afternoon  services there.

After the black congregation had been using the church for about a year, they learned that it belonged to the AME Zion Con­ference.  They  surrendered  the building  to its owners·, and  began meeting in the Sunday School room at St. Timothy's until new quarters could be found. St. Timothy's vestry, having  voted  to adopt the "Colored Church" as a mission, now shouldered the responsibility of providing a building for it. 

At first they discussed the possibility of  building a chapel on  the  church grounds. Then A. J. Ricks, the Senior Warden, offered to donate a lot on Wellman Avenue, and  his offer was accepted. Mr. Kemp broke ground for the new Grace  Chapel on October 3, 1889, and it was completed the following February at a cost of $2,260.63. Approximately one­ third of this amount was raised by the  blacks,  an­other third  by  the  members of  St.  Timothy's, and  the rest was given by citizens of Massillon and outside friends.   A  simple frame building, it was finished inside with rough plaster and natural wood. Bright carpeting and cathedral glass lent color. A choir gallery containing a chapel organ was located at the right of the chancel, balanced by a small robing room on the left side. The chapel seated two hundred. Beneath it, in the basement, was a Sunday  School room.

The first service in the chapel, which was the first black Episcopal church in the Diocese of Ohio, was held on Ash Wednesday, February 19, 1890. On July 6 of that year Bishop W. A. Leonard dedicated the chapel and confirmed a class of six. [Our Rector] Mr. Kemp held services in the chapel regularly every Sunday afternoon after that, with  Mrs. Kemp playing  the organ.

From 1890 to 1893 the chapel's membership remained fairly steady, numbering just over twenty. But after 1893 only a few communicants were added to the rolls, not enough to offset the inevitable losses in membership. Mr.  Kemp's departure in 1897 was apparently the final blow to the chapel. On November 15,  1897, a committee from Grace Chapel met with St. Timothy's ves­try and tendered back all its furniture and effects. . . .

After Grace Chapel closed, several of its members transferred their affiliation to St. Timothy's. Among them were the Grant family and Wright Walker. Walker, a former slave who came to Massillon  with  the Jarvis  family, amassed  an estate  worth $41,000.00 [about $500,000 today] before his death [Feb. 18] in 1921. The bulk of his estate was left to Tuskegee Institute, but he did also leave a bequest to St. Timothy's. He is buried in the church lot in the Massillon cemetery.

Now, I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that it is my desire to be buried in the plot right next to Wright Walker.  I’ve even lay down there on the ground to consider the view.  But, not anytime soon, God willing.  Wright Walker was an exemplary man.  And you may be wondering, “What is this Tuskegee Institute to which he gave this small fortune?”  The Tuskegee Institute is another Historically Black College, located in Alabama.  In later years, the Tuskegee Airmen were all educated there.  Mr. Walker did not go to college, but he did once visit Tuskegee so that he could meet his hero, Booker T. Washington, one of the school’s founders.  Having been born a slave, Wright Walker did not even learn to read and write until he moved to New York City, before moving to Massillon.  Although he himself did not attend Tuskegee, he saw its value.

In the March 1931 edition of Tuskegee Journal, they devoted several pages to Wright Walker.  The main article about him in this issue is titled, “Born a Slave—Died a Prince.”  They say that his two hobbies were reading and going to church.  Going to church right here, in this very same building.  In fact, he paid for those choir pews in 1909, which we still use every Sunday.    The ones on the south side (soprano and alto) were dedicated in memory of  the  Rev. John Swan, our first rector, and those on the north side (tenor and bass) were in honor of the Rev. Edward Kemp "for his work among the black community" of Massillon.

The Tuskegee Journal also writes, The influence of the Jarvis family or the Burton family accounted for Mr. Walker’s becoming identified with the Episcopal Church.  This is the only way to account for his church affiliation, as the late Booker T. Washington often remarked that when you found a Negro other than Methodist or Baptist, you could be assured that some white man had tampered with his religion.

Be that as it may, they also write that “The congregation of St. Timothy’s appreciated him not only for his contribution and attendance to its services; but as one who exerted a great influence upon its members because of his pious and devoted life.”

At the time of this special edition, Wright Walker’s gift to the Tuskegee Institute was “the single biggest gift Tuskegee received from a Negro.”  They continue, “It is significant that a man who had been denied the privilege of an education could recognize the need, and deem that the best expression of his love for his race could come from leaving so large amount of his estate for the cause of education.”

In today’s gospel reading:  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  From Absalom Jones, to Wright Walker, to St. Timothy’s Church.  We have seen this love, and I know that generations to come will see this same love.  It is a very specific kind of love, the love that can only come from God, who is our Strength and our Redeemer.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Burial of Carol J. Smith

The Burial of Carol J. Smith
Wisdom 3:1-5,9
Revelation 21:2-7 
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We human beings want explanations for things.  Something happens, whether good or bad, and we want to know why—especially something tragic or devastating.  When we can’t explain why something happens, we grasp for reasons, but we also look for how we might have been responsible.  “Did I miss something?  Should I have done something?”  And we are tempted to do this with our beloved Carol’s sudden passing.  I’ve heard others do it this week, and I’ve done it myself.  “Were there clues that I should have noticed that something was wrong?”

The honest truth is, we don’t know.  And we can’t know.  But it doesn’t make us stop looking.  We have questions, and we want answers.  And in response there is only silence, and doubt.  So, it occurs to me that maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.  Or, maybe we need better questions—questions that have answers, no matter how seemingly mundane those questions might be, at first glance.

Here’s one:  Have you ever known anyone who loved animals more than Carol Smith did?  If you’re like most of us, the answer is no.  There is no one I have ever met who loved animals more than Carol Smith did.  And here’s the thing.  Carol didn’t just the “lovable” animals.  Not just the cute little puppies and the majestic quarter horses.  No, Carol loved them all.  Those two orphaned goats, the crazy wandering hobo peacock, the bizarre-looking pot-bellied goat.

I have to say, if I had a farm, there would be lots more of the cute and majestic creatures, and few—if any—of the strange and unruly beasts.  But that’s my farm; that’s not Carol’s farm.  Maple Hill Farm welcomed them all—and especially, it seems, the unwelcome ones.  The animals that others might view as ugly, or troublesome, or too much trouble are the very ones Carol seemed to seek out.  Like she couldn’t help it!

As we just heard, Jesus said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  And maybe you can see how Carol was modeling that exact thing on her little farm.  No one is beyond redemption.  No one is lost to Jesus.  No one is unwelcome, or cast off, or tossed aside.

If I’m honest, I know there are lots of people that I would prefer to exclude from God’s kingdom.  All sorts of people who I find to be so unwelcoming that I can’t find the energy to welcome them.  In short, my version of God’s kingdom would be filled with the cute puppies and the majestic horses—the ones I like—and there would be very few of the troublesome or the strange.  If I were in charge of such things, I know that in my heart of hearts, I would keep some people out.

But Jesus also said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  That I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, that I should lose no one whom God has created, that every single person will return to God, because God loves everyone.  Especially the orphans, and the wandering peacocks, and the pot-bellied goats.

Whether she knew it or not, Carol spent her life modeling how God thinks about us.  Maple Hill Farm was a glimpse of heaven, and Carol Smith was its St. Peter, recklessly throwing open the gates to all who needed a home.  With none excluded.  That’s how the Kingdom of God is.  Everyone is welcome, no exceptions.

And with that in mind, I offer this thought . . .
As we are gathered together this morning, to mourn the sudden loss of our Carol—our dear sister and friend—may God give us the grace to remember that Carol is exactly where she has always been:  wrapped in the loving arms of Jesus.  The One who promises to lose nothing he has been given, the One who always welcomes each and every one of us home, the One who will raise us all on the last day.  May the joy that Carol brought to this world inspire us to be the joy in this world as we leave this place.