The Tavern Owner grew up in north Baltimore, the second son of a family known for its swell house parties in the 19th century. In those days, guests would arrive by horse and carriage and stay for the weekend, to dance and eat shaved ice and escape the city’s heat. By the time he and his siblings came along, teenagers would pile into station wagons and drag the new road leading out to the reservoir. He went to Gilman and later boarding school, but his eyes were never really on the books or the corner office.
As a 17-year-old, he scavenged used car lots and built a vehicle which he stashed in the woods beyond the sight of his headmaster. When the engine was running, he and his buddies would take it to New York for a cold drink. More often than not, though, his own head was under the hood talking to the same friends about why the car wouldn’t go, and he seemed to like those tinkering conversations as much as the drives.
Back in Maryland, he sold real estate for a while, but his soul was never really in the deals. He saved his passion for a used motorcycle and the bikers he began to meet on rides. He bought a house in East Baltimore and filled it with tools and warm conversations with people who had never even heard of the fancy schools he once attended. They shared frustrations and dreams, and if anyone asked for help, he always found a way.
One summer after surgery, the doctors at Bayview told him to stay off his feet except when he was in rehab. Not satisfied with their advice, he built a motorized wheelchair—not the kind you buy at the medical supply, but a real chair that he outfitted with wheels, connected to a car battery. He sat in it that August, rolling back in forth behind a push mower he used to trim his lawn.
The Tavern Owner had a huge heart, which was never more evident than in his decision to buy the Lucky Spirits bar and run it like an extension of his house and kitchen. The gift of hospitality really means something at the intersection of Lombard and Haven streets—whether you pulled up on a Harley Davidson or were dropped off from the suburbs by your driver, there was room in his embrace for you. Raised at Redeemer, trained as an acolyte, he was by then not religious in any conventional way. The open road was his cathedral or the water near Dundalk his sanctuary, where he would put in a little sailboat and let the wind blow him here and there.
He would chuckle at the analogy, but the bar at Lucky Spirits was his welcome table, a place where strangers and friends presented their broken lives for solace and strength. No longer a drinker himself, the Tavern Owner drew out each person’s story, question by question. In his bones he knew that conversation is a sacrament, that listening deeply and letting people tell who they are and what they need is the real communion modeled 2000 years ago, by another man who found his way among people who needed a second or third chance. No wonder he called it Lucky Spirits.
The Tavern Owner departed this life just after the new year, an icon of the Baltimore I love. The young man to the manor born became, for a time, the daily host of a scruffy bar off 895, where pretense was dropped at the door. So, here’s to creating more welcome tables, the way the Tavern Owner did, at a time and in a city that sorely needs them, and to the humble altars we build whenever a tired friend or wounded stranger is invited to new life.
Yesterday during our 7:30 a.m. Wednesday service, we discussed the Gospel passage we’ll hear at all 3 of our church services this weekend, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jesus’ familiar words are powerful and clear, hard to digest and even harder to follow:
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt ….” (Luke 6:27-29).
While this, I imagine, is what “holy people do”, I wrestled with understanding this passage whenever I heard and really thought about it myself. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also ….” Really? Is this what Jesus really means? Doesn’t this condone physical and emotional abuse? And let violent abusers of power have their way? How can passivity in the face of evil possibly be “Good News”? Are we as faithful Christians supposed to be doormats, if we are to be true to our Lord and Savior? No wonder church attendance around the country is plummeting!
Then a few years ago, I was introduced to the work of Walter Wink, biblical scholar and theologian (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in A World of Domination, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992). By delving deep into the historical, cultural, political and social context of Jesus’ time, Wink offers an enlightened lens through which to see the real picture being painted by Jesus: a picture of resisting violence non-violently by creating an opportunity for your oppressor to “wake up”, see the evil s/he is inflicting, and “repent” and change.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ hard-to-digest exhortation, to offer your other cheek to someone who has already struck you on the face. Matthew’s version is more useful in understanding what Jesus had in mind: “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also …” (Matthew 5:39).
The word translated in English as “resist” is the Greek word antistenai which conveys “standing against” in a forceful, violent way. Jesus, therefore, is saying: “Do not stand against evil and violence in an evil, violent way, yourself.” There is another way, a different way, a “third” way. The example he uses highlights a situation common in Jesus’ day: a Roman backhanding a Jew on the right side of his face, to keep him in his place. By turning your face and offering the Roman your left cheek, you would be forcing your oppressor to either backhand you again with his left hand — which simply was not done, back then, because left-handed actions were reserved for private “dirty” tasks at home — or to slap you with his own right hand, which would be treating you as an equal. Jesus’ additional examples in Matthew’s Gospel, of “going the second mile” and “letting him have your cloak as well”, are similar, creative, non-violent responses to your abuser, turning the table on him to become more conscious and offering an opportunity to choose differently.
So as we hear Jesus’ words this weekend and remember the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I invite us all to reflect and imagine what this “third way” might look like, applied to our own lives, communities and world.
Epiphanies are both unbelievable and entirely ordinary, coming together “by chance collisions and quaint accidents” according to Wordsworth, a comet’s tail molded into something we can use. A gift like that describes the crowd’s experience at Jesus’s baptism, which comes around again this Sunday. The fiery prophet is disconcerting and compelling at the same time. He’s covered in animal skins stitched together on the run, his stomach full of nothing but what he could scavenge, his eyes burning for truth. “Prepare God’s way,” he cries: mountains of privilege lowered, valleys of despair filled in with light. The justice of a level playing field is in our hands, he says. “Turn toward it. And cut down every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit.” The people who stream to him are sure of nothing but their longing for change, to die to one way of living and rise to a new one, to wash off in the Jordan River anything that’s keeping them stuck. The raw materials are water and hope.
And then a man comes along who says, “Stay with me a while. It’s going to take time to forge a new path, not to mention a new heart. Come and see what you can do with God’s help. Seek a way which chooses compassion instead of violence, the common good instead of selfishness, reconciliation instead of pride.” And John knows the One coming into the world when he sees him: this is not the warrior king he was looking for, but the shepherd king that we need. John admits that he doesn’t feel worthy to untie his sandals, yet this morning star surrenders to the Baptist’s washing. “Let’s act together in this way,” Jesus responds. “It helps make things right.”
It’s been a tough week. Uncontrollable fires burning in Australia. Earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Continued mistrust in Washington. Bombs dropping in Iran. Two murders in the first two days of the year in Baltimore and more since. It’s enough to shake your faith and make you go looking for a warrior instead of a lamb. Truth be told, on some days I’d like a God who feels more conventionally powerful, one who stops bullets before they strike, who silences the violent voices inside us and around us.
But my epiphany is this, and it also has something to do with surrender. The story of Jesus’s life is that God’s power has been given over to humanity. It’s been there all the time, but it took a revelation of perfect love to make it plain to us. What John meets on the shore of that life-giving river is the mystery of compassion, of suffering with, of leadership like he’d never imagined, of a shepherd-king who brings every single lost sheep to the center of the party. The star we follow illumines the darkest, deepest mystery of God: true power is discovered in the crucible of vulnerability, wisdom is born of pain, real strength comes from embracing weakness.
The epiphany here is hard won, but sustaining: violence will always engender more violence, even the kind that has hitched its wagon to righteousness, but love will always give birth to more love. Yielding and sacrifice and compassion recreate us, and when we are born again in this way, through us God saves the world.
Have you ever considered the fact that STORY is how we live our lives? There is a beginning, middle, and end with numerous plots and subplots along the way. Think about how you tell a friend what you did over the holidays. We tell the events of our lives as a story and our friend gets it! Every life is just a BIG STORY whose theme or running thread is the meaning and purpose of that life. The same holds true for institutions, systems, etc. Everything has a STORY. The stories may look different, but ultimately they serve the purpose of identifying the spiritual in life—what gives meaning, purpose, and texture to living. Our life’s story helps us make sense of the big questions like: WHO AM I? and WHY AM I HERE?
In the African-American tradition, stories have always been important to maintain the legacy of a peoples cut off from their own truth and reality and forcibly placed in a reality not of their choosing. The stories of my childhood, young adulthood, and even now are full of faith and endurance giving hope and resilience to all who hear them. The stories of the African diaspora are even larger filling up the hunger for transcendence and spiritual meaning.
Although the Holy Bible is a library of books and a glorious piece of literature, it is also the story of a people who believed that the Divine Presence was very much a part of their lives and so they weaved that Presence into the stories they told. The stories of their lives were filled with stories of that Presence and their interactions with it. It is an overarching story of the human and Divine Presence in one accord…as one. Through it we hear the voice of Holy Mystery calling the human being back into communion, as well as the on-again-off-again sometimes-hot, sometimes-cold love of the human being for Holy Mystery. Through the biblical story we can discover and explore a GOD bigger and more awe-inspiring than any human could have ever imagined on their own.
So now, I’ve said all of that to say this: you might not be one for New Year’s resolutions, but change is coming to your life this year as each previous year has already proven. And sometimes the story we tell of our lives requires our own personalized touch of change instead of just allowing things to happen to us. So try this one on for size. Consider reading or re-reading one of the many stories of Scripture aloud. Try David, the boy king, in 1 and 2nd Samuel for example. Read, not to critique but to hear what is being said; not to judge but to wonder what do you hear the words saying to you. Hear the story as if for the first time. Read it in your own voice. Allow your ears to pick up the sound of the words and imagine them flowing down into the center of your chest…into your heart. That’s where the message is truly heard; together with your head, it is your heart that will bear the fruit of communion with the One who loves you. It is always our hearts that bear witness to the Mystery of the Divine Presence in everything and everywhere. That is the Christian story after-all, is it not? God enfleshed in creation and moving into our human neighborhood?
I pray that this new year and new decade bring more LIGHT to you than you could ever imagine with much Peace and great LOVE.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and here in this place,
The people had gathered, for warmth and for grace,
To hear the old story of Gabriel’s voice,
Of young Mary’s courage and angels’ rejoice.
The stockings are hung by the chimney at home,
With the hope there’s a visit by a bearded old gnome.
Our walls have been swagged, and there’re flowers brand new,
Thanks to volunteers, youth group, and dear Mr. Vu.
The shepherds—how merry! The sheep—there’s a lot.
The angels in bedsheets, the Kings in culottes?
The building is shining, and here’s a home run:
Jesus was played by Mark Schroeder’s wee son.
The children have shown us with lines they have learned
How miracles happen, when humble hearts yearn
To hear the good news, and make its joy plain,
That God’s light can shine in the dark, where there’s pain.
And what to our wondering eyes should appear,
But a babe in a manger, with Joseph quite near.
The child in mom’s arms, in the flesh, was the Word,
Which the prophet foretold, in the scripture, we heard.
“The people in darkness have seen a great light:
From the lowliest places, God comes with his might,
To make the world just and the rough places healed.”
“Let it be, as you say,” mother Mary revealed.
We follow this star to Bethlehem rising,
Where straw becomes gold and three kings, surprising
Will show that the nations can bow at his feet,
Bend swords into ploughshares, make peace that’s complete.
In the world and this land and our city that’s charmed,
We’ve got plenty of work to keep people from harm,
To make streets become safe and schools that are strong,
And churches that show “all folks here belong.”
And speaking of Bal’more, we’re a town that is cravin’
A superbowl ring for Lamar-velous Ravens,
With Jackson QB, they’re running and throwing,
And giving us joy with hope they’re bestowing.
I see it as well, this spirit of healing,
In community partners, our allies appealing.
There’s BUILD and ReBuild, and Habitat work-days,
Govans and HUM and Turnaround Tuesdays.
There’s Paul’s Place and GEDCO and library Pratt.
The sky is the limit with colleagues like that.
On Thread! On Ceasefire! On ICJS!
On Next One Up, CASA, and ways to say, “Yes!”
So what can we do with the spirit we feel,
On this night when the light is kindled, and real,
To carry the news that God has moved in,
To live in our hearts and save us from sin?
Here’s a thought, as we gather, to try on for size:
This table is God’s; all humans: allies.
We are brothers and sisters, one family, one race,
Which is born in this manger with grit and with grace.
We are agents of peace, of pardon and love,
Forged in struggles that shape us, yet lit from above,
And the real gift of Christmas begins in this way,
Feed hungry, heal broken, help lost find their way.
You’re loved here, each one; there’s no one like you,
This place is made better with you. It is true!
And so as you go from this altar of light,
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.