I am very happy to be with you this morning at this Sunday worship service here at Bethel A-M-E. I offer my heartfelt thanks to your pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Reid, III for so kindly inviting me to worship with you today and for the privilege of sharing the pulpit from which he preaches the Word of God so effectively. Pastor Reid has ministered to you and to this congregation with great love and devotion for these past 27 years. I would like to add my own congratulations to yours on the occasion of his recent anniversary.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has long enjoyed a close friendship with this church, and with your pastor. Reverend Reid and my predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler, have been close friends for many, many years; Bishop Denis Madden also has joined with your pastor in working on projects for the betterment of our beloved City. Their example inspires me to build upon this lasting legacy of faith & friendship.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that preparing for today’s sermon was a little more challenging than when I am preparing for a typical Sunday homily. For one thing, most Catholics like short sermons. But for me the real significance and joy of this day is the opportunity to speak about things that really matter in our lives and in our community. As my preparations proceeded, it became a labor of love to reflect on the similarities between our two communities of faith and the good that we can accomplish together, united in God’s boundless love.
I am also happy to say that this occasion prompted me to become much more familiar with this historic and well-respected church. For example, I was grateful to come upon a list of beliefs, a framework, if you will, for what you, the members of Bethel A-M-E believe, teach, and live. I was taken by this wonderful summary of your faith commitment and I’d like to thank you in advance for the privilege and opportunity of bringing my perspective to your framework of beliefs.
The Three “T’s”
For purposes of my message today, I’ll focus on two areas of the framework. The first is the three “T’s”: Truth, Trust, and Transformation.
Let’s begin with truth. Our churches share a common love, respect, and quest for truth. We believe that it is the truth, God’s truth that sets us free. Jesus prayed that we be consecrated in the truth and we strive to live as people in whom the truth of Jesus has found a home. The truth of Jesus opens our minds & hearts to the God-given dignity of each person. It helps us see that each of us is made in God’s image, possesses inherent dignity, and is therefore deserving of respect, protection, and decent life. What could this mean for both our communities in practice?
Pope Francis often speaks about society’s failure to recognize and pursue the full truth about human life and dignity. Sometimes this failure occurs because of government laws and policies. But sometimes it happens in the decisions people make every day. Surveying the scene, Pope Francis labeled it a “throwaway culture”, & went on to say: “Every civil right is based on the recognition of the first, fundamental right, the right to life, which is not subject to any condition of a qualitative, economic, and certainly not of an ideological nature. Just as the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ places a clear limit, guaranteeing the value of human life, today we must also say ‘No to an economy of exclusion and inequality.’ That economy kills. Human beings in that economy are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throwaway’ culture which is now spreading. In this way too life is discarded.”
In the truth we profess, God calls us to build a society that respects the humanity and dignity of each person, especially the most vulnerable. This belief will undergo a big test this coming year, right here in Maryland, when our elected officials will once again consider legislation that would make it easy for people with a terminal diagnosis to end their lives prematurely. This legislation would make it legal for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of pills to those patients who request it. This proposed law is championed by a group once known as the Hemlock Society and they describe this legislation as providing for “death with dignity”. What they don’t point out is that a dose of 100 lethal pills can be prescribed without the patient’s being screened for depression nor does it require that anyone, let alone a medical professional, be present when the patient consumes this lethal cocktail.
Who among us doesn’t know at least one person diagnosed with a terminal disease and given a set number of months to live – but who lived a lot longer than even the medical professionals predicted? This is what happened to a very dear friend and a good, holy priest that we lost just a few months ago. The Rector of our Basilica, Msgr. Art Valenzano, suffered with leukemia for the better part of a decade. He received a terminal diagnosis several years ago – and kept beating the odds. He lived several more happy and productive years, and in the process, touched many lives, brought countless people closer to Christ. Only God knows the day and the hour. Illness and death are heartbreaking but let us never regard the sick and vulnerable as burdens. The taking one’s own life is anything but death with dignity; suicide consoles no one.
We can also build a just society and help people attain their God-given dignity by providing our young people with excellent educational opportunities. We all want the best for our children. We want them to have every chance to better their lives and achieve their potential. Education is the clearest path to achieve these goals. Well-educated young people strengthen families. They strengthen our City. They strengthen our society. Well-educated young people achieve success in life; model that success for others; and give back to their neighborhoods and communities. Sometimes parents must go beyond their own communities to find a school that helps their child get the education he or she deserves & needs.
I see this every day in our Catholic schools which educate children of all faiths from just about every neighborhood in our City. Parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles – they sacrifice so their child can have a quality education, a better life, and more opportunities for happiness and success. Here again, the State of Maryland can help make that dream a reality. For the past several years, together with Pastor Reid, we’ve supported a bill that would make real school choice a reality for all families in Maryland. It provides tax credits to businesses that donate to organizations that provide scholarships. It benefits both public and private schools – but mostly it benefits students and their families by driving down the costs associated with education.
And, of course, we live the truth about human dignity through loving families. What a beautiful example of a loving family you have here in the Reid family. Revered Reid, Lady Marlaa’ Reid, and their two daughters, FranShon Reid-Barnes and Faith Reid – they are a beautiful witness and testimony to the importance of a loving family. As you know, Pope Francis attended the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It’s an event held every three years in a different city around the world … It’s purpose is to lift up the importance of family life. And, as you know, just last month Pope Francis also hosted an important meeting of Roman Catholic bishops from around the world to discuss how we can better support families in face of so many challenges. The family is the building block of society. Both our faith communities know the importance of building up our families, supporting parents in their role and giving them the resources they need to form their children in truth, in virtue, and skill and knowledge.
Now, I went on a long time on the “T” known as truth and promise to make up the pace! The second “T” in your framework is Trust. Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship, isn’t it? We trust in God. We trust in Jesus. We trust in the Word of God. So too trust is fundamental to husbands and wives and to families. When I think of the importance of trust I think also about the challenges that our beloved City of Baltimore is facing and on the challenge we face as an ecumenical and inter-religious community. The challenge is this: to reknit the bonds of trust in our community.
We do this when we walk the streets together in a prayer vigil following the death of yet another person whose life was cut short by violence.
We do this when we stock a food pantry, hold a clothing drive, and offer job opportunities for people in our neighborhoods.
We do this when we work to strengthen relationships between our citizens and elected officials and those sworn to protect us.
And we do this when we come together to stand before our civic leaders in support of efforts that promote the dignity of every person we represent.
The final “T” is transformation. We believe in the need for transformation. Our calling is to be agents of change for the good of others. But before we can do this we need to look within our own hearts to see what interior change is required of us. This we must do before we can think about going out to change the minds and hearts of others. Whether we are Catholics or African Methodist Episcopal, Jesus calls each one of us to undergo a conversion of mind and heart. We are called to lead incredibly purposeful lives that radiate the truth and love of Christ and touch others with the transforming message of the Gospel. We do this when we pray, when we give thanks, when live our faith, and when we serve the common good of society.
We will succeed in changing our City for the better not primarily through programs and strategies—important as they may be—but rather by converting hearts, by leading others to freedom from sin and evil, by helping them discover the liberating power of Christ’s love. In a phrase, we’re called to conquer evil with good and hatred with love. This is the way the Lord builds civilizations.
Three “F’s”: Faith, Forgiveness, and Freedom
Now I really need to pick up the pace by addressing briefly the second belief framework that inspires me so much, namely, Faith, Forgiveness, and Freedom.
We believe—you and me—that all things are possible in and through Christ. If our faith is the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains! (Cf. Mt. 17:20). We believe in Christ. We have faith in our Savior and our Redeemer. We have faith not only in some historical figure that we read about but in the living Person of Christ – our Redeemer, our Vindicator lives! The stronger, the more vibrant, the more sincere our faith in Christ Jesus, the better able we are to come together in common discipleship, the better equipped we are to bear witness to Christ – witness to a common hope we share, a hope that will not disappoint. In a society that is fragmented, torn apart in so many ways – but especially by poverty, drugs, violence, gangs, and death – how important that we united in bearing witness to the Christian faith, the faith that helps us lead lives of hope and lives of love. What greater way for us to work together for the good of our City and for our sisters and brothers who live, as Pope Francis says, “on the margins” – than by bearing witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Source of our Joy; the Reason for our Hope; and the Purpose of our lives.
The second is “forgiveness”. We are taught from an early age to forgive those who have offended us. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” we say. Included in that prayer is our personal need for God’s mercy for God’s forgiveness. When you and I come to grips with our need for reconciliation and forgiveness, then we can be agents of reconciliation in our families, in the workplace, and in the wider community, bringing about healing and hope. ◊◊◊ In the Gospel of John, we hear about the meeting between Jesus & his disciples shortly after his death on the Cross and his Resurrection from the dead. After showing them his scars, Jesus breathes on them and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23).
This community knows well the power of mercy…you are a living sign of God’s mercy. The church community I represent is about to enter what we call ‘a Year of Mercy’, based on St. Paul to the Ephesians when he said, “God is rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). By calling for a Year of Mercy, Pope Francis focuses attention on the merciful God who invites all men and women to return to him in trust and love. In his 2015 message for Lent, the Pope said: “How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference.” I join with you, dear friends, in bringing mercy and compassion to the seas of indifference so prevalent in our City and in other communities.
And finally, there is freedom. During his historic visit to the United States, a little more than a month ago, Pope Francis invoked the image and the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Addressing a joint session of the Congress, he said: “I think of the march that Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of a campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans” and the Pope added: “That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams’. Dreams which lead to action; to participation; to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
I was proud of the Holy Father’s reference to Selma where people of all faiths came together for the cause of freedom. I remember the images of Catholic priests and sisters marching arm in arm with people of so many different faiths and backgrounds – an image that was not lost on me this past spring when we found ourselves – clergy and people of all faiths—standing shoulder to shoulder—saying in solidarity: “This is not acceptable. We will not stand for the status quo”.
The events of this past spring in Baltimore made it clear, shockingly clear, to anyone who is watching and thinking: the struggle for freedom is not over. Fifty years after Selma far too many members of the Black community in our City and in our Nation still struggle to attain Dr. King’s dream. We cannot call ourselves a nation of freedom so long as there is even one person for whom freedom is out of reach.
While there is no greater threat to freedom than the sin and scourge of racism, there is no greater enemy of racism than religion. People of religion, people of faith must make their voices heard if we are truly going to bring about the kind of hope, the kind of peace, and the kind of healing that comes from God, that changes hearts, that transforms communities.
I can’t tell you how happy I am to be with you today. I thank you for your kind attention this morning and extend to each of you, dear friends, an open invitation. Our doors and our hearts are always open to you.
Neither the Archdiocese of Baltimore nor Bethel A-M-E, acting alone, can bring healing and hope to a suffering City. But together we can achieve this and I look forward to working with Rev. Dr. Reid and with each of you in sharing the truth of Christ’s love in word, worship, and action with our fellow citizens in our beloved City of Baltimore.
Please count on my prayers for you and for our City and please know how much the faith community I represent values your prayers, your witness, and your friendship! May God bless you and keep you always in His love!