Resources

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon Advent 1 2018 - Matt Stewart

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

My first emotional response when I read that passage this past week wasn’t fear or confusion. It was exhaustion. Jesus’s challenge to us to “be on guard” and to “be alert at all times,” I just found it tiring. I feel like life all too often demands that I be on guard. Be vigilant. Be on top of my schedule. Be on top of my kids. Be on top of my professional obligations. Be on top of my personal obligations. Be on top of my to do list. I don’t particularly like the idea that Jesus wants me to be MORE vigilant. And the demands on my life pale in comparison to most of those in the world. The undocumented immigrant. The young black male. The transwoman. I’ve got it comparatively easy. What is Jesus up to here? And how does this jibe with other things he says like, “Do not worry” or “Be not afraid’

Well, I think maybe I’ve got it wrong here. Got it wrong about the kind of “being on guard” and the kind of “being alert” that Jesus wants from us. I don’t think that Jesus wants a brand of alertness born of worry and fear. Indeed he says in today’s Gospel, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” So, then, what is this kind of alertness and awareness that isn’t driven by worry?

Well I wonder if the prophets give us a sense of what this looks like. Throughout the church season of Advent, we hear from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. This week it’s Jeremiah. And then, here at St. James’s, we thought this year for Advent, we’d add in some present day prophetic voices to our readings. Thanks to Meredith Wade, we have four weeks of modern prophets as well as ancient prophets. Today we heard from James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook.”

So, what does a prophet do? A prophet names with clarity the brokenness and darkness and pain of the world even when others don’t want to hear it. James Baldwin, back in 1963, named how white people, even those who might on some level know better, fail to be able to live with the reality that black folks are not inferior. Tragically I’m not sure much has changed there over the past 50 years. As for Jeremiah, he spent his life traveling around telling everyone how Jerusalem would fall for its faithlessness. No one wanted to hear Jeremiah what had to say. They tossed him in a hole. But Jerusalem did fall.

But here’s the flip side of prophecy. The prophets always also hold on to a vision of hope… a vision of something better that is both coming in the future and also is already present. Light coming into the darkness. And light already in the darkness. This tricky prophetic balancing act, I think it might be that alertness that Jesus asks of us. Of naming what’s wrong in the world and in ourselves with honesty and vulnerability but never being overcome by it because we know that God will make things right and God does make this right.

And you know this prophetic way of living in the world… this way of Jeremiah, and James Baldwin, and chiefly for us found in Jesus… this kind of alertness I think actually isn’t just fear-free but actually does open up for us a deep joy. Somehow. In the breaking of bread at the altar, there is joy. In the relationships we cultivate, there is joy. In figuring out how to live and be when there’s constant construction not only literally outside these walls but also always in our lives, in that chaos, there is joy. In the hard conversations and exhausting demands of life, even there there is joy.

[In a few minutes, we’ll hear from Lisa Hayles. On this Pledge Ingathering Sunday, Lisa will share about why she is choosing to make a financial pledge to St. James’s for 2019. How this place is for her prophetic… asking her hard questions and giving her the hope and joy not only just to make it but for her life to flourish. And then for the communities and worlds in which she walks to flourish as well.] And there are so many stories like Lisa will share in this place. St. James’s is a truly prophetic community… a community that doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff… racism, transphobia, classism, green justice… there’s not an -ism that this place won’t touch. But it’s also a place that allows to face all that stuff not with a sense of exhaustion but with a spring in our step born of the abiding joy that the Spirit pours into us. A sense that Jesus makes things right and so the twinkle in our eye and the hope in our hearts is never taken away. This is what Jesus does at St. James’s Episcopal Church. Amen.

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon Last Sunday of Pentecost - Matt Stewart

For better and for worse, the American holiday season is upon us once more. I long ago gave up on talking much about consumerism or the Santa Clausification of the world that happens at this time of year. It feels to me almost too obvious to complain about it… you know, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  But I will say that when I got up from my family’s Thanksgiving Day meal on Thursday and headed into the living room… and the kids were watching the newest Netflix Santa movie it did cause me to have a little bit of nervous twitch.  I am absolutely not ready this year mentally for Christmas or any of the myriad Advent and Christmas preparations that need to happen both in my personal life and also here in the church. I used to be, in late November, beginning to switch gears. I even used to be one of those annoying folks who got all the Christmas shopping done before December.  But I am not even close to any of that this year. 

For this reason, I appreciate that this one of those anomalous years where the church calendar doesn’t switch us into Advent immediately the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Most years it is that way. We begin Advent, that season of longing for the coming of God and God’s way, four days after Thanksgiving most of the time. But this year, with Thanksgiving being on the early side, we get one week before Advent starts. This Sunday we are celebrating the church feast that is traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday… and here, in our desire to move away from needlessly masculine and therefore exclusive language, we are now calling it the Feast of the Reign of Christ. 

And, to even more shift us out more of holiday thinking, the Gospel reading assigned for this particular year is one that we usually hear on Good Friday, Christian Black Friday. The conversation that we heard today between Pilate and Jesus; it comes immediately before Jesus is tortured and executed on a cross. It’s not exactly the part of the Jesus story that fits into the “Ho ho ho” and twinkling light vibe that is beginning to emerge around us. 

Pilate says, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate says, “So you are a king?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I like the fact that we’ve changed the name of this day from Christ the King to the Reign of Christ not just because I think it’s a helpful step in trying to be less patriarchal and sexist in our language but also because Jesus doesn’t seem all that interested in being called a king. Rather he invites Pilate and those that are listening into a deeper brand of reflection. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus cares about truth and belonging to the truth moreso than being labeled as a King. I wonder honestly if this whole Christ the King Sunday is a good thing. You know it’s pretty modern invention. It started in the Roman Catholic church in the 1920’s as a sort of a response against challenges the church was experiencing vis a vis modernity. Call Jesus a king to assert authority when the authority of the church was starting to come under attack. Protestant denominations including ours fell into step with this throughout the 20th century. But, given how Jesus responded to Pilate, I don’t know that he’d be all that thrilled with our relatively modern innovation of Christ the King Sunday. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  It harkens back to the moment in the Hebrew Scripture when the Hebrew people were a clamoring for the stability of a king. Prior to this they had a looser and more egalitarian form of government with Judges. But they want to feel like the other bigger nations around them that had kings. And God gives them a king: first Saul, then David. But God is not all that thrilled with it. God wants them in a more egalitarian, more countercultural way of being in community for the people. A way of living where they would trust more deeply in God and in each other, rather than a structured, traditional hierarchy that would inevitably fall into oppression, social stratification, and violence. But the Hebrew settle for the broken ways that human power typically operates. 

Jesus absolutely does not want us to settle for any kind of king that oppresses, any kind of king that exercises authority through manipulation or violence, any kind of king that fails to be always inviting us into a new consideration of truth. “For this reason, I came into the world to testify to the world- to testify to the truth.”

But, of course, the question then is, and it is what Pontius Pilate ask Jesus right after this, “What is truth?”

It’s a question that people of faith are always asking in every age but today, in this era of “fake news,” in this era where all forms of media including social media deluge us with so much information such that we are paralyzed by our oversaturation, in this era where the helpful insights of postmodernity have been corrupted and the genuine realities of injustice and suffering in our world are obscured and ignored. In this world where not only Presidents and other tyrants but also WE evade hard truths in the interests of protecting our own worldview and ego.

To us who have made a choice in way or another to let Jesus show the way to live, he says, “Belong to the truth and listen to my voice.” But Jesus doesn’t define truth as a particular set of principles or creeds. He doesn’t define truth, as many of us might want in our political climate, as being rooted in facts. He doesn’t even define truth as something static and or something we can claim intellectually and feel the comfort of mastery or completion.       

The truth for Jesus is elusive. He communicates it in parable and image rather than didactic assertion or explicit teaching.

Now it’s not that we can’t know some things about truth. For Jesus, truth is also wrapped in loving relationship, with God and each other. For Jesus, truth never benefits some at the expense of others. For Jesus, truth is always bringing to the center those from margins. For Jesus, truth always leads us to know that we are enough and that we have enough. And that we can always be even more.

For Jesus, truth sets us free. But it doesn’t sit idle, truth is found in that wild Spirit of God which ebbs and flows, which dashes and dances amidst our lives and amidst our world. Being a follower of the truth doesn’t really give many answers, it just carries us ever deeper into the mystery of love.

The mystery of love is probably my best stab at describing what that reign of Christ, too, what that kingdom of God is.

You know every Sunday we start off our worship with the priest saying something like, “Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” And the gathered community responds, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.” It’s one of those lines that most of us don’t think about much. But to say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is in some sense to proclaim that the wonderful life-changing live-affirming inclusive mystery-laden love of God is still the fabric of our lives and is still the fabric of the world even when it seems like everything is falling apart or everything is already broken. To say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is our radically countercultural way of saying yes to God and God’s love in the face of world that says no to that love. Blessed be God’s kingdom now and forever. Amen.

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon November 4th, 2018 -- Matt Stewart

Today is the Sunday on which we celebrate All Saints Day.  For those of you who might be a little newer to the tradition, All Saints is this day where we do a number of things. First of all, we remember what a friend of mine calls “the Big S” saints… those famous folks from the history of Christianity who demonstrate to us in some way how to live a faithful life… but we also remember the “Little S” saints as well.  Folks from our own lives, either dead or living, who have shown us the light in some way.  In just a few minutes, those that want to will be invited to come forward and light a candle in remembrance of the Little S saints from their lives that have died.  And lastly, All Saints Day is about us too. How we are already living lives as saintly followers of Jesus and how we might be called to go deeper down that path. All Saints is this wonderful messy mishmash of a feast that brings together what God has done in Christian community in the past with what God is doing in Christian community now. And it brings together those that are followers of Jesus in this world now together with those that have gone on into whatever is beyond.

 

Now, this year, the Gospel reading prescribed for All Saints Day is the raising of Lazarus. Like many of the stories of the Gospels, part of what makes it compelling is how much is going on it.   We’ve got Mary’s incredible if incomplete faith in Jesus, kneeling at his feet believing he could have healed Lazarus before his death. We’ve got the moment where the normally stoic Jesus of John’s Gospel breaks down in tears for love of Lazarus. We’ve got the central amazing moment where Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb, demonstrating the power of God to bring new life out of death. But what I was most struck by this year is how the story ends.  “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

 

When you see images in art of the raising of Lazarus, it usually renders Lazarus as coming out of a tomb wrapped with white cloths everywhere except his face. But the text expressly says that his face is wrapped in a cloth. When you imagine it, it kind of has this appropriate for Halloween season mummy kind of vibe to it. Lazarus is alive and out of the tomb but he’s still bound up… still enveloped in the fabric of his death. And Jesus, he doesn’t finish the job. He leaves that to the community... to his followers. When Jesus stops, Lazarus is alive but he’s still a mess. Jesus has done the impossible, bringing life from death. But the completion of the resurrecting work- that is what he asks of his disciples. That is what he asks of the saints. That is what he ask of you and me. “Unbind him, and let him go.” For whatever crazy reason, God asks us to complete the unbinding and freeing work of Jesus’s resurrection.

 

So, what does that look like in reality… in our lives now? Where are the places that Jesus has called forth new life that we’re to follow up on… to continue the work? What does God want of the saints now? Well, surely, there are lots of ways to tackle these questions but three brief answers occur to me today.

 

One, when I think about the candle lighting ritual we’re about to engage in, remembering loved ones who have passed on… I’m reminded of just how important memory is… just how important holding on to our history is…  Not that we reject change to protect history… but that we remember those who have gone on as they can show us the way forward now.  Remembering how Jesus has opened tombs in the past can give us the eyes to see the new tombs being opened now… Every saint is, at some level, a historian.

 Two, I was struck by a quote I stumbled across this week. It comes from Leonard Cohen’s wild and risqué book Beautiful Losers. It’s a little long a sermon and it uses male language way too much for our 21st century sensibilities but humor me because I think this long quote is worth it.  Cohen writes, “What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is the caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.”

Balancing monsters of love. Not those who are separate from the world but those who love it deeply in all its complexity and messiness, and those who coast around gracefully amidst all its imperfection and transitoriness. In order to be one of those saints who sees resurrection, we need not only to know our history but, to be deeply and passionately IN the world, loving the world. Really loving it, “tracing with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape.”   

And one last bit of wisdom… from Mina, our baptismal candidate for today. I met with Mina a couple weeks ago in preparation for today. To talk about baptism. Now, baptismal preparation can be kind of like pulling teeth. You meet with the parents of a baby to be baptized and ask them why they want their kid baptized and they’ll say it’s because they were baptized. You then ask them what it will mean for their life and you begin to hear the crickets chirp. And so, you go into baptismal preparation meetings these days expecting to do a lot of teaching and often to be met with blank stares and nods. So, I go into meet Mina over at Panera Bread. I ask her the question, “Why do you want be baptized?”  And, unlike my normal experience, I get this tidal wave of her colossally profound reflections and questions.  She shares with me about her life. She shares with me the wide array of things she looks for in a faith community for it to be a place that would nurture her faith. She tells me about this about comparison study she’s done on different belief systems and worldviews. She talks about the parts of Christianity and the Episcopal Church that make sense to her and what she still wrestles with. Unlike most baptismal preparation, I did not have to do most of the talking. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as ready to be baptized as Mina. Honestly, there was so much in that hour long conversation that I can’t remember the half of it. But one thing that stuck with me that she said is that one thing that she looks for in a church is the “practice of inclusion.” The practice of inclusion. Now I don’t know exactly what she meant by that but I was struck by the idea that she’s not looking for inclusion as a statement of belief but as an ongoing practice. You know, if you drove around Greater Boston and got a nickel for every church that had an “All Are Welcome” sign outside, you could probably buy yourself a Tesla when you were done. But whether welcome is genuinely practiced inside those churches… who knows… 

Inclusion and welcoming as the communal practice of churches and as the individual practice of the saints from those churches in their daily lives, I think that’s perhaps the truest brand these days of the unbinding that Jesus calls us to. Of the freedom and new life that Jesus wants us to join him in manifesting. A welcome that brings life-giving freedom.  

In God’s economy, particularly in our world today, I believe we are called to offer a life-giving welcome to those who are the victims of hatred and violence, and we are called to offer a life-giving welcome to those who are paralyzed by the hatred in their own hearts. We are to called to offer a life-giving welcome to immigrants and a life-giving welcome to those who scapegoat immigrants in response to their own insecurities. We are called to welcome those very much like us and to those very different from us. To welcome those whom we think highly of and those whom we have a lot of trouble valuing. Friend and family and stranger and enemy.

In a world of division and tribalism and separation, the practice of inclusion is not a mealy-mouthed evangelism strategy for those of us who are too shy to share our faith, but rather a way we can spread Jesus’s powerful, transforming love. That loves that frees our hearts. Frees our minds. Frees our lives. And, it just might, if we can learn to do the hard work of unbinding, free the whole world.

 

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon October 21st, 2018 -- Matt Stewart

In the early 1980’s, the people of St. James had a conversation about their mission... about who they thought they were as a community at the time, and about what they believed the Spirit was calling them to do and to be. And so, out of that time of discernment, in 1983, St. James changed its tagline, its motto. Previously, Saint James had identified itself to the world as “The Church of the Paul Revere Bell.”  But (and I’m guessing here as to what folks were thinking at the time) my suspicion is, as proud as the people of St. James rightly were of their history,  (it’s really groovy to have that bell over there) that the people of St. James felt that mission and their tagline should be more about how they were in the present and what they felt called in the future.  And so out of the time came the mission statement that we also find in today’s Gospel reading… “Not to be served, but to serve”

And that mission statement… it stuck… often times these sorts of things will come and go… a church vestry will have a committee that will carefully craft a statement… they’ll present it to the congregation… the congregation will smile and nod… and three to four years later… no one will really remember it.  But, more than thirty years later, “Not to be served but to serve” remains a central articulation of itself for St. James. And I absolutely believe it’s apt. St. James does a LOT of service. Distributing food at pantries, and supporting families in sanctuary, and hosting progressive scout troops, and having hard conversation about oppression and bullying in the world and in the church, and visiting prisoners, and doing faith based community organizing, and I’m I’m forgetting and missing things both from the present and the past. This is a church that serves a LOT.  You know, when clergy come into a church, their first order of business is meeting the leaders… And usually by the second week, they’ve pretty much talked to everybody.  I’m wrapping up my third week, and maybe I’ve connected with a third of folks that lead the ministries in this place. This place does service and so that tagline makes all the sense of the world.  “Not to be served, but to serve.”

That being said, I must say I’m a little wary to talk about service without some framing.  I say this because the Christian word for service is deeply related to the word slave… Indeed both words come up in today’s Gospel. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” And, of course, the church has a horrific history with this language. Justifying America’s original sin of slavery based off passages like this. Telling battered wives to return to their abusive husbands because it was their service and their cup of suffering to drink. These ideas of service and slavery and sacrifice and self-denial have been horribly misappropriated to justify all manner of injustices in the past. And, while we certainly have made progress, we still have a long way to go. We’re just beginning to grapple with all the ways that power and privilege are weaved into the fabric of our culture in ways that maintain inequities and only dole out opportunities in the most  uneven of ways. As a person of privilege, I am guaranteed, I think, to fall terribly short when talking about what a healthy brand of Christian service or “slavery” could look like. I can speak to what service isn’t but I’m not so sure how much I can speak to what it truly is.

But, of course, if we waited to have conversations about challenging topics until we figured it all out, we’d never speak. So, here’s my best stab right now at what we can say Jesus asks of us as those who serve… as servants.

For starters, I do not believe Jesus ever takes away our freedom. There is always a choice. There is no forced servitude. Jesus was incredibly persuasive to those he met and taught… and he remains incredibly persuasive with us today.  ut he was and is never coercive. We CHOOSE to be servants so, on some level, the word slave simply doesn’t work.

Another thing that I think is crucial is that Christian service is never dehumanizing… It never puts the servant in a place where we are made less… where we’re devalued… rather I think it actually fills us up.  Makes us more the person we are meant to be.  More enlivened than drained.  More integrated with God and with the communities we walk in rather than separated from them or subjugated under them. If what you find yourself doing in your life is this radical drain on your sense of self and your sense of being beloved then chances are: it’s not the service that God wants you to be about.

If you’re someone who wrestles with your sense of self-esteem, who doesn’t always feel you deserve blessing and joy… if you’re someone where part of you thinks you deserve to suffer and so your service is a way of beating yourself up. That’s not what God wants for you. God does not wish suffering on any of us, for any reason, at any time. God’s love is utterly forgiving and utterly accepting. God loves you for who you are and wants you to love yourself every bit as much.

 

Now, this doesn’t mean that Christian service is supposed to be easy all the time… there is sacrifice asked of Christians occasionally.  But I don’t think that radical self-denial is supposed to be the norm… you know Jesus himself just spent seven days walking that Holy Week road of suffering toward the cross.  Before that he spend three years roaming the countryside with his friends, talking with and healing people… and before that, thirtyish years with his family. Sometimes we glorify suffering as if Jesus spent thirty three years hanging from the cross. It’s simply not the case.  God certainly doesn’t desire that our sacrifice should outstrip Jesus’s.

But, we certainly are called to stretch ourselves. Both as individuals and as churches.  And to think in new and creative ways about service… about how Jesus served and how we should. There’s this church I visited last year in Indianapolis that fascinated me… it’s a church with some money that sits sort on the border of a more affluent downtown area and this incredibly poverty-stricken residential area.  And when you walk into the church’s office you see a sign up on the wall that’s shocking at first. It says “Don’t help.” Your first thought is this is some incredibly heartless place, but it’s actually born of this church’s long and deep reflection on the best way it can engage in service.  The pastor of this church had spent roughly fifteen years, in the past, building feeding ministries and clothing ministries and other social services. And, after fifteen years, he realized his work had had almost no impact on the community… there was more poverty… more hunger… no more jobs… more despair. Indeed, he realized that the feeding ministry was actually disempowering. It’s hard to be the constant recipient of help without feeling less than… without feeling a sense of valuelessness and disempowerment. And so they just blew it all up and started over. They stopped ministries that “helped” and started ministries that went out into the neighborhood. They went into the communities and learned about people’s gifts and capitalized on those. When it turned out a lot were artists, the church hosted dinners so the artists could build relationships and find ways to receive a better incomes from their gifts. When it turned out a lot these folks in poverty were really highly educated, the church again hosted meals so folks could connect. These folks started a mentoring and tutoring business for the neighborhood. 

I’m really fascinated by this approach to ministry which, for the record, is often called Asset Based Community Development because it does, in indirect kind of way, help. But it’s not a brand of helping that creates an “us vs them” dynamic… a better/worse dynamic… it’s a brand of helping that is both empowering and also connecting. This church builds relationships with people as a central piece of this service. And, in this, not only were those in the neighborhoods given a new sense of purpose and of hope but so was the church.

I’m not really sure that Jesus ever wants us in brands of service that aren’t utterly wrapped up in building new relationships. Relationships, of course, are what support and challenge us. They are what build us up and, when necessary, break us down. They are what allows for the building of that collective power than is necessary for social transformation. They are what gives us the capacity to hold onto hope in the face of all the brokenness and tragedy and evil of the world. And they are, I think, the only road to becoming the same of the kind of lover of the world that Jesus was.

I think it’s telling that Jesus says, in the Gospel today, that we are to be slaves OF ALL.  Not slaves of those that have the power or resources to own us. Not slaves of our community or family. Not even slaves of God. Jesus says slave of all. I think Jesus wants us to situate ourselves as servants of the whole world that we might be opened to the whole world in love. That our souls and minds and hearts might expand, that we might reach that place where every person we meet and every moment we experience is blessing. Amen.

Thursday
Sep062018

Sermon for Proper 17 Year B First Option 9-2-18

Proper 17B 2018

September 2, 2002

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

In the name of our one living God who creates abundantly, loves extravagantly, and sustains eternally: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

          Week in and week out the preacher is called to preach on the lectionary lessons.  The tricky part is to find a unifying theme that would tie together lessons that were composed individually over hundreds of years by different cultures in various circumstances.  Sometimes it’s a snap.  Other times I am tempted to Google to see who was on the committee that picked the Sunday readings! This was one of those weeks but prayer and patience usually see me through.

          I learned that this Sunday’s lectionary selection is the only week in all three lectionary years that a reading from the Song of Songs was chosen. That in itself warrants attention.  When I have heard sermons on today’s text they have preached by treating the lesson allegorically – in one case I recall as pointing to the love between Jesus and the Church. Now that is a stretch!  That is what my homiletics professor in seminary would call “Trampoline Preaching” – jumping so hard on a text so that you can bounce as far away from it as possible!

          Let’s face it – it is about two lovers- a man and a woman who long for one another both spiritually and physically.  If you read the whole Song of Solomon, you will immediately note that it is set in and celebrates nature. It speaks of the beauty and bounty of God’s Creation and celebrates our human existence as part of that Creation. Perhaps one of the lessons we can pull out from this text is that we humans - if we are to live with integrity - must not only acknowledge our oneness with nature but also our dependence on it.  We must celebrate with thanks both our Earthly home and our human sexuality.

          Truth be told, our very existence is the result od earthly love, passion and desire.  All of us are born of an act of nature and at our end we return to the earth when we die – another natural act.

          Today’s lesson needs also to be seen in light of our degradation of the earth as we pollute the air and water we depend upon.  It challenges us to see how we distort and abuse our human sexuality. It reminds that we are part of and dependent upon those very gifts of the natural world that we are greedily destroying.  Our power over our natural world has its limits. When we ignore and exceed these limits we destroy the very things that make our lives possible.  Do you remember the poisoning of the water supply in Detroit?  That poisoned our children as they drank from the water fountains at school!  That is only a minor example.

          Psalm 15 is one of my favorites. It teaches us how to live in God’s House.  It beckons us to live with respect and honesty in our relations with one another. It condemns what we call “pay to play” politics and heaping contempt upon others as a means of political or financial gain. Again, this has resonance in the world we live in today.  We are all called to live in God’s tent.  Indeed, there is room for all – but only if we accept that invitation with humility and gratitude.  Too often we try to make God’s tent ours alone and shut out others so that we may have more.

          Our Epistle from the short Letter of James is basically an introduction to and summation of the chapters that follow it. It calls for patience and self-restraint in dealing with one another.  Intemperate speech and stirring up anger within the community do not further God’s purposes. This another admonition that has resonance today! Rather, the author advises his readers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  What good advice for our times!  One’s ability to stir up confusion, doubt, fear, anger – indeed even hatred and violence- has been amplified a thousand fold by our new technology and the world-wide web.

          James also reminds us of another great biblical insight – true love for our Creator, for the world we have been given and for our very being is empty unless we translate that into action! “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

          If we want to do an inventory about where we are under this standard – whether as a person, a community, a business, or a nation – look at the balance sheet – both the income side and the expenditure side!  Look also at whom we embrace and invite into community with us.  Maybe – and perhaps most especially – look at the level of contentment and joy.

          In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is asked a seemingly innocent question but he responds forcefully and with anger.  Why?  I think it is because he knows it is not an honest question but one meant by the Pharisees to “put him in his place”.  While it is good sanitation to wash before eating not everyone has the means and resources to do ules.so.  For the Pharisees, this was a religious tradition from the Temple rules that they adopted for daily life.

          Tradition is good but like everything it can be abused.  Tradition can be called to justify restraining, oppressing or demeaning others.  I remember hearing the phrase – “the normative power of the actual” meaning that which is is right!  That is an abuse of tradition.  If anyone has any doubts about this, just ask women, people of color, the LGBT community, people who come from different places and cultures.  Traditions can indeed be used to oppress and constrain others.

          I was thinking about this sermon as I watched the Burial Office for Sen. John McCain this morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. Did any one here also watch it? It brought back for me the many funerals I officiated at over the years. It brought back memories of the Army and of being in Vietnam.  It was a wonderful dignified service with great music and liturgy.  There is a reason I am an Episcopalian!

          But something seemed “off”, something seemed “missing”’ something seemed “not quite right”. Watching the politicians, celebrities and newscasters pouring out of the Cathedral after the service, it suddenly struck me. Where were the men with whom he was imprisoned for years?  Where were their families?  Where were their widows and orphans?  Everyone seemed powerful, affluent and privileged.  Tradition can indeed be used to paper over our neglect for our neighbor.

Amen.

Thursday
Sep062018

Sermon for Proper 16 Year B First Option 8-26-18

Proper 16B 2018

August 26, 2018

          In our first reading we hear of Solomon at the height of his glory.  He has accomplished what the Lord would not permit his father David to attempt – he has built a house for God. The history of the Ark is worth reviewing to cast light on our readings today.  It was built in the Sinai Desert to house Yahweh as He led his people from slavery to freedom and safety. It was carried through the parted waters of the Jordan into the Promised Land. It was carried around the walls of Jericho before they came tumbling down.  When it was captured by the Philistines it did nothing but bring them woe – they couldn’t get rid of it fast enough and sent it back. After the victory over the Philistines and Saul becoming king, it was shunted aside and parked like a used car on a corner lot with a farmer named Abinidab. When David learned it brought Abinidab luck, he brought into Jerusalem.

            Today we learn of its enthronement of the Ark in the grand temple that Solomon has built with his immense wealth (conveniently next door to his palace.)  Solomon offers praise and prays that God will always be faithful to God’s people.

          We can see Solomon’s wisdom in his praise and prayers.  He notes that God’s promise of David’s lineal succession is conditional.  It depends on his children looking to their way and walking before God as David had done.  As happy as Solomon is to see the glory of God filling the Temple, he questions whether the Lord God creator of all can limit His dwelling to this spot on earth.  He knows that “even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less the house I have built!”  He also knows that the Creator of all cannot be asked to limit his attention to the Israelites.  He knows that foreigners will come to pay homage to God and that all peoples of the earth will call upon God’s name.  He prays that God hears them also.  Solomon wisely knows that no Temple, ritual or doctrine can fully encompass the wonder of God.

          While we humans are limited to living in a particular time, place and culture, God is not.  Entirely local gods – limited to a particular place and time and culture – lead to exclusionary ethics, to limiting or denying hospitality to others and to denigrating or even dehumanizing others.  Solomon wisely knows that God is bigger than that.

          It is informative to know that the Book of Kings was not written in Solomon’s times.  Most scholars concur that it was composed 500 years later during the Babylonian Captivity.  Solomon’s beautiful Temple and Jerusalem lay in ruins.  The last King of Judea died more than a generation ago and the throne was gone.  The authors of the Book of Kings attributed this to the kings and those in power forgetting God’s ways and the ethics of a Universal God of all Creation.  At the same time there were others in the community who wrote a different history attributing their current state to failing to follow the laws and rituals strictly enough.  Their God was an increasingly local God one limited to their people and culture.

          A theologian friend once said that people often prefer religion to God.  Now I don’t think these are opposing concepts.  Indeed they should be related in a vibrant and living way.  But to many, religion is about rules and power and control.  Rules can be controlled and enforced by those in power.  The certainty and confidence such religions inspire is illusory but it is comforting and it does given one a sense of certainty and of things being in control.  God for many can be too overwhelming and uncertain leaving them without a sense of security and order.  In today’s world there are both those who embrace a universal God who is bigger than our imagination and there are those whose God is a local God limited to their time and culture and place.

          We are hearing a lot in our public discourseand will be hearing more in the coming months about “a war being waged on religion.”  Personally, I do not think that is at all the case.  I think it is no coincidence that those speaking most loudly about their religious freedom being under attack often belong to religious bodies that are authoritarian in doctrine and practice and hierarchical in structure.  I also think is not a coincidence that many of these religious bodies exclude women from positions within this hierarchical structure. Where in this is the wonder and majesty of the God of all Creation?

          Our second reading from Ephesians has a lot of militaristic imagery based on the weaponry of the Roman soldiers of that time and a theme of a world filled with images of cosmic and demonic powers.  It is language that may make many 21st century western people uncomfortable.  We don’t live in that first or early second century world where people thought that God was up in heaven and we are on earth and the space in-between was filled with a chaotic blend of chaotic and demonic forces.  We can also recognize without belittling others that there are forces beyond the individual that are destructive and harmful.  There are forces of greed that would resort to violence or exclude others in order to gain power, that would value wealth over justice, that would incite fear in order to exclude or persecute others.

          The letter to the Ephesians tells that small Christian community to stand firm in their beliefs, to pray and to lead a disciplined life as protection against the forces that would devour their community.  We. too, need a prayerful awareness of the love and justice of the God of all creation in order to speak out for justice, especially justice for those whom others would silence, diminish exclude – or worse.

          I think this is what John is getting at in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus is speaking the strong language of hyperbole.  The words he is using were meant to be shocking if taken literally.  Cannibalism was no less repulsive then than it is today.  Drinking blood is a major violation of the Jewish purity law.  Drinking human blood was unthinkable.  The language points to violence and physical brutality – something that did happen on the cross at the hands of those whose power Jesus challenged.

          But it points to more.  It points to the truth that our best protection from the forces of evil and injustice is to put Jesus at the core of our very being.  It allows us to see clearly and to have the values and ethics that will lead to true peace and justice.  When the many were frightened of this and left, Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter’s answer is the greatest statement of faith.  When we have experienced the love and forgiveness of the living God, where else is there to go?  Jesus empowers us to see ourselves, others and the entire Universe as God’s beloved Creation.  That indeed protects us from the dark powers that would have us see otherwise.  AMEN

 

 

Tuesday
Jul312018

Sermon for St. James's Day & the Rector's Retirement 7-29-18

St. James’s Day 7-29-18

(on the occasion of Holly’s retirement from St. James’s Cambridge)

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Jeremiah 45:1-5; Psalm 7:1-10 (Psalm 23 for St. James’s); Acts 11:27-12:3; Matthew 20:20-28

The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need, She makes me lie down in green meadows, Beside the still waters, She will lead. She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, She leads me in a path of good things, And fills my heart with songs. Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land, There is nothing that can shake me, She has said She won't forsake me, I'm in her hand.                                                                                                                                         [Bobby McFerrin’s version]

When the mother of James and John approaches Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to claim seats for her sons on Jesus’ right and left hand, it’s clear that her intentions are glory for her offspring. (No wonder the rest of the disciples were up in arms! If there was glory going around, they wanted a piece of it!) Jesus doesn’t mince words. “Glory,” if there’s any to be had, doesn’t come from “lording it over” people. Glory – God’s glory; not our own – comes in giving up one’s life for others: “drinking the cup” that would not pass from Jesus’ lips though he pled with God to remove it in the Garden of Gethsemane; taking up our cross and following Jesus to his. Giving our lives as a ransom for the widest possible welfare, not our own. Not to be served, but to serve.

This is my last sermon for the people of St. James’s as your Rector. I found the composing of it saturated with feeling:

1)   The feeling of frustration that - though it is completely approved and signed and ready to go - I don’t have our building permit for our new parish house in my hands before retiring. (Good news: your prayers were powerful, and by the end of our meeting with him last Thursday, the Mayor of Cambridge, Mark McGovern, was able unambiguously to affirm that we deserve our permit, and promise that he will advocate with the City Manager Louis DiPasquale and head of Inspectional Service Department Ranjit Singanayagam to LIBERATE IT!)

2)   The feeling of grief as I realize at ever-deeper levels the profundity of loss I will experience in our year-long hiatus in our myriad of relationships, diocesan canonical wisdom allowing you time to bond with my gifted successor, soon to be announced.

3)   OK, I admit it: the feeling of relief at no longer shouldering the many-layered responsibility of “managing” this ebullient parish with its multiplicity of ministries!

4)   The feeling of joyous anticipation as I embark on my study of painting and my array of travel in company with my beloved friend Fred Strebeigh, beginning with Maine right away and India & Nepal in the fall.

5)   The feeling of anxiety: how will I find ANY other worshiping community so animated and enlivened by its commitment to God’s justice and joy; so full of the comprehensiveness of musical possibility from the depths of Pat Michaels’ heart and imagination (and yours, dear composing congregation), and from across the world; worship so fully prayed into being each week by you, its spiritually grounded, spiritually connected congregation; worship so wheeling and whirling with the dancing Spirit of the Holy Three-in-One?!?

6)   But most abidingly, radiantly, and gracefully, my feeling of deep, tear-welling gratitude for you, the people of St. James’s, who have shared your joys and your sorrows with me, danced with me, taught me, witnessed to me, confronted me, hung in there through all the thick and thin of the redevelopment with me and each other, shared leadership with me, flowed with all the Holy Currencies of missional ministry with me, been the sacrament of God to me and to the world, “the outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace,” for these ten years. Each of us doing our best “not to be served, but to serve!”

After all, not just for ten but for 154 years, St. James’s has been convening itself under this rubric, “Not to be served, but to serve.” We wear this line from Matthew’s Gospel story proudly on the masthead of our website, and it has formed our life more than we may even have been aware. For the whole last generation, it has meant living in the impossible predicament of an unsustainable historic building, an often over-grown garden, and a decrepit old parish house falling down around our ears,without losing hope and without losing sight of the great Missio Dei, the Mission of God, which has always been more about people than buildings, and about loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Ten years ago, in April 2008, when I was privileged to step into the great ever-flowing stream of life in Christ at St. James’s as your Rector and to become a part of your effort to further the rolling-down of justice like waters, the gates of the Corner and West doors were chained and padlocked shut to prevent homeless residency, and the homeless were vaulting the iron fence and taking up residence under the overhanging bushes in the garden whenever the temperature went above freezing.We didn’t LOOK to the outside passersby as if we were the caring, open, adventuresome, committed, exuberantly singing and praying People of God that we were on the inside! To the outside passersby, we looked closed. People used to ask me, “Are you closed?!?”

Yet within the conundrum of that carapace, your faithful animation has proven resilient beyond all imagining. In fact, I believe your faithfulness was nurtured precisely BY the impossibility of our premises! Before the prospect of a new parish house as part of a condominium development along the Car Wash had ever entered our heads, you had learned over a generation to live a pilgrim’s life in spite of your insoluble questions, trusting in God’s Spirit to lead you through no matter what wilderness. So 10 years to obtain our building permit for our new parish house? 8 of those years without a parish house at all? 8 years of our children processing down the street to church school and our food pantry at the Rindge Towers? We never missed a beat. 4.5% of our budget continued to go to the Food Justice Ministry and 5.5% to the Missions Committee, and we continued to serve the education of people in prison, the homeless in the Outdoor Church, and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We chartered the most inclusive Scout troop in the nation – Scout Collective 56 – “being the change” for the Boy Scouts of America, who have finally caught up with them! We continued to raise up young adults for ordination. It didn’t mean we ignored our church and garden; far from it. We restored our church interior and our Rose Window and repaired a great deal of “the most complicated slate roof in Cambridge.” But we didn’t wait to begin our life of service until a new parish house was at hand. We simply continued as we had in the old, dilapidated one, keeping the focus on the needs of the world. Not to be served, but to serve.

I think of it as St. James’s, living into its “baptismal life.” What do I mean by that? What do Jesus’ words to James & John and their mother in Matthew’s Gospel say about it? What is the “cup we must drink,” on the way to glory? Jesus was clear: to seek God’s glory is to be utterly vulnerable, utterly human, utterly willing to bend our own needs to accommodate the needs of others as equally valid, utterly willing to die if that’s what it takes to reach new life on God’s and not our own terms. Utterly in solidarity with the rest of creation in its mortality and vulnerability, its equal right to new life alongside our own.

St. James’s has learned the baptismal life the hard way - which, my dear companions, is the only way, as James & John will learn soon enough. St. James’s, before I ever got here, was accustomed to living a life in which death always loomed as a possibility, in crumbling linoleum tiles and crumbling bell towers. You, the congregation, have consistently claimed life in spite of it, even THROUGH it. You knew you didn’t have it all together – that was manifest all around you! You knew life wasn’t in your control. The cold wind, after all, was bleeding through our rotting window frames and sewage was dripping from our pipes into the Kesher Hebrew School! It bred in you a kind of spiritual humility; a willingness to long for, tolerate, and embrace change; a kind of humble welcome of “the other” without judgment. If others – from wherever in the world – were willing to be in your slightly skeezy premises, you were happy to have them join you. Accustoming yourselves to the need to hope against hope, to have faith in things unseen, your baptismal life, with the humility and sense of “unfinished business” those unremittingly marginal premises bred in you, became “a grace margin,” a space for trust beyond your own comforts & competencies, a place of encounter with unexpected new life.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me,” sings the Psalmist. Or, in Bobby McFerrin’s version, “Even though I walk through a dark & dreary land, there is nothing that can shake me; She has said She won't forsake me; I'm in her hand.” Such is the grace margin of the baptismal life: in it, in the Body of Christ, we can take the risk to acknowledge we don’t have it all together, that we have things to learn, things that others, even others whom we may be serving, may be able to teach us. “Served” and “servant” become interchangeable categories in the grace margin. We can move out of our comfortably safe familiarities into that fearful possibility of change, which in the human psyche always carries the threat of death, without succumbing reactively to the fear. A grace margin is a space in which to let God – incarnated in the presence of others different from ourselves – transform us. To risk such humility is only possible in trust, a trust wider than our own certainties. A grace margin depends upon our awareness that nothing that can shake us; God has said She won't forsake us; we’re in her hand.”

This grace margin long predates my arrival at St. James’s. But as you know, at St. James’s, since the founding of the Anti-Oppression Team in 2011, we’ve been consciously working to keep the grace margin of our baptismal life open with the help of the Guidelines for Communication Across Difference - you have them in the back of your bulletin. Each Guideline demands of us a willingness to open ourselves to each other, to let both our thoughts and feelings be teachers, to tolerate new awareness and the discomfort of the unfamiliar, to be gentle and gracious to ourselves and each other even in that discomfort, to let people know when things are messy and we’ve been hurt, but without blaming, shaming or attacking ourselves or each other; to reach toward understanding each other without defensiveness and without trying to keep everything “nice” or “neat” or resolved. That’s why we sang Pat’s hymn on Guideline Number Two: “It is OK to disagree!” It’s only OK to disagree when we’re inhabiting a grace margin in which God – not our fallible selves – is in charge. When the point is not to be served, but to serve.

If I have a parting prayer for us on this St. James’s Day, my last as your Rector, it is that this wonderful, grace-filled congregation will never lose sight, even as you build and move into your new parish house & garden, of the baptismal life in which you have been formed together, using the Guidelines in all that you do to keep your grace margin as wide open as possible. My prayer is that no matter how you grow, no matter how wondrous your new premises, you will never lose sight of death - that dying-into-Christ; that death to self-will – that gives birth to an utterly and unimaginably new life and new community beyond all your expectations. A life with room for all to thrive: a life centered in God’s – not our own – shalom,the peace that passes understanding, keeping your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Now and unto ages of ages.

Let us stand as we are able and close with the beautiful hymn we always sing as we gather for our agape meal, footwashing & Eucharist every Maundy Thursday, learning again how not to be served, but to serve.

Fellow pilgrims, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.
 

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven
we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve known together
of Christ’s love and agony.

Fellow pilgrims, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

Words: Richard A. M. Gillard , 1977

Tuesday
Jul242018

Sermon for Proper 11 Year B First Option 7-22-18

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

Proper 11 Year B 1st option 7-22-18

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Make these words more than words, O God, and give us the Spirit of Jesus! AMEN.

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” My environmentalist-journalist friend Fred Strebeigh is, at this moment of writing, in just such a “deserted place.” He has just disembarked from the scientific-research vessel Kosatka, having plied the cold and misty waters of the North Pacific off the coast of the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, participating in a Russian study of orca whales, more commonly known as “killer whales” because many are mammal-eaters, killing seals and other such creatures for food. Next, he heads to the South Kamchatka Nature Reserve, at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he’ll intern in a study of the intersection between the teaming grizzly population around the salmon breeding grounds of Kuril Lake and the humans who want to see them. These studies are part of a massive complex of scientific research taking place across the entire continent of Russia as part of the Russian Nature Reserve network called the “zapovedniki,” a network launched under the tsars in the late 19th century with the founding of the Barguzin Nature Reserve on the deepest and still-purest body of fresh water in the world, Lake Baikal, to study and protect the population of the fur-bearing weasel relative called the sable. But it was vastly increased in 1919 under Lenin as part of the Soviet plan to secure land from private ownership.

Zapovednik” (plural, zapovedniki) means "sacred, prohibited from disturbance, committed [to protect], committed [to heritage].” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapovednik] “The roots of the zapovedniki were holy. Priests for years had sanctified forests by proclaiming a zapoved, or commandment: Thou shalt not cut. By the early 20th century, the sacred was resonating with the scientific: Mankind was exterminating “primordial nature,” a Moscow biology professor, Grigorii Kozhevnikov, told a conference in 1908. He argued that anthropogenic dominance would soon leave humanity unable to see nature except through man-made imitation, “obscuring the image of the vanished past.” He proposed that Russia preserve vast lands where “nature must be left alone.” Each would serve not as a “pleasuring-ground” for people (the words of the law that created the first of America’s national parks, about which Russians were aware) but as a baseline established by observation of natural systems untrampled by people.”

[Fred Strebeigh, “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/opinion/lenin-environment-siberia.html]

So these Russian nature reserves – though founded at the same time as our national parks and partially inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s commitment to keeping areas of beauty open and unspoiled – were always different from our park system. “The fundamental idea of ‘zapovednost' is the exclusion of people and the prohibition of economic activity, the only exceptions being non-intrusive access allowed to scientists and rangers. Zapovedniks are intended to be parcels of untouched natural ecosystems that can be studied as standards with which to compare managed ecosystems, such as are created in agriculture and forestry. To this end, zapovedniks need to be large enough to be self-sufficient, with a complete range of [species] up to the top predators.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapovednik] The zapovedniki are fiercely – and sometime riskily – protected by a whole tribe of young Russian scientists who have named themselves “Druzhina,” “after the medieval warriors who defended their homeland against invaders seeking to destroy Russia’s Christian faith,” [op. cit., “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors] serving as under-compensated rangers in the zapovedniki, and committed – even to the point of citizen-arresting poachers at gun point – to a sacrificial vision of preserving species and eco-systems in these nature reserves. These are my friend Fred’s hosts, teachers, and companions as he reports to the Western world on this singular, massive undertaking, so very much at odds with our fraught American perspective on the Russian society and culture at this time. And these Druzhini live in these “deserted places,” places barely accessed by the social media and concomitant dynamics that roil and agitate the rest of our planet. If there is any “away,” the zapovedniki and theirdruzhini have come to it!

Surely we in Cambridge recognize the deep weariness of Jesus’ disciples, who have been trying to respond to every need around them so that they don’t even have time to eat, in these days and weeks and months in which we have felt obliged to respond to a positive avalanche of need for our active and principled response. Surely we, too, in the heart of summer, long to “come away and rest,” to find a place on the margins of the world where the world is no longer “too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending!” [William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us”] And surely the Evangelist Mark MEANT us – as Jesus MEANT for the disciples – to come away, to find a deserted place where rest is possible, to rest in God, to be restored in the priority of God’s intention, in trust in God’s future.

But when Jesus bid them come away, and gathered them onto the boat and traveled deliberately to that deserted place, the world, pulled like iron filings to a magnet, swirled after them and before them and beat them to it. And there, Mark tells us, Jesus, perceiving these desperate crowds to be “like sheep without a shepherd,” perceiving the spiritual chaos of them, the complete lack of any core sense of spiritual value, leaving them at the mercy of whatever leader nominates him, her or themselves a “great” one, had compassion on them, and turned again to teach, to provide moral structure, to invite them to orient themselves to the depth of unshakable value in which his foundation in God’s love gave him root.

It was Alice Killian in our Tuesday morning PRAXIS group, doing lectio divina on the coming Sunday Gospel as we do each week, who made the connection between the word “compassion” and the word “compass.” Compassion – com, from the Latin “together” & pati – to suffer (as in the Passio, the Passion of Jesus Christ): the sharing of each other’s affliction. And compass – the same Latin com – “together,” now paired with passus – a step or pace: the stepping together in concert. For Jesus, the deepest taproot of value of them all is exactly that comprehensive fellow feeling, that moving into alignment with God and each other. Loving one another just as Jesus has loved us, laying down our lives for each other. [John 13:34, 38] As Alice was resolving, so Jesus resolved: compassion would be his ultimate compass. And so he lived.

Back to the zapovedniki, those beautiful places, protected to remain “deserted.” As I am living, day by day receiving photos on my WhatsApp application from Fred, I know deeply that NO PLACE is “away,” anymore. Because, as the Ephesians author says, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and we all, who “once were far off,” are now “brought near,” near to each and every other, Russian, North Korean, Nicaraguan, Nigerian, Canadian. Family, in fact, in Christ. And I daresay we are family with grizzlies, too, and orcas, and sables, even if our 23-&-Me doesn’t yet confirm it! We can no longer act as if one can be “great” at the expense of another. Our knowledge of the fractal algorithms of the physical world forbid it. We can only “simplify” ourselves into hostile antipathies by a willed obtuseness about that! Which may feel simpler for a moment but can only end in massive mutual destruction. God’s temple is neither in a traveling tent NOR a tabernacle on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the holy City of God, as 2 Samuel envisions it. It is everywhere. We are living on its border and in its center at all times in all places. It is most manifest in spaces like this magisterial one at St. James’s… AND in the places of pain like Bowdoin St. in Dorchester or the ICE detention center in Boston or on our mercilessly fraught border with Mexico or in the migrants’ boats tossing on the Mediterranean sea in search of refuge, or the relentless “heat islands” of Dhaka & Lagos, or in the towns and villages ravaged by decades of slow-burning war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And God’s temple is wildly manifest in the place of grizzlies & salmon, orcas & seals, shearwaters & fulmars & tufted puffins, where my friend Fred is, amid still-active volcanoes in the zapovedniki on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. Let us follow the sacred example of the Druzhini, and NEVER FORGET that all these creatures are also part of the household – the FAMILY – of God, joined together and growing – painfully halting and resistant step by painfully halting and resistant step – into a holy temple in the Lord, the dwelling place for God!

I’m sure there’s a biological imperative to our tribalism, our “us-versus-them-ness.” In pre-history, as people defended only by our spears and clubs, we needed quickly to discern who was friend and who was foe, and our measures couldn’t have been that sophisticated with such close-range weaponry all we had.  But we are LONG beyond that biological imperative, LONG in a position to take up Jesus’ invitation to put an end to such hostility, to such an in-the-end arbitrary carving-up of the world. Once we had looked back upon ourselves from the moon as I watched on TV in the summer I spent in Thailand on American Field Service in 1969 – and once we had devised the means to destroy ourselves without distinction many times over, either instantly through nuclear war or with paralyzing slowness through global climate change – we learned that it is our INTERCONNECTIONS, not our separations, that matter.  

So praise God for opportunities to “come away and rest awhile” in deserted places, so that our spirits can give up for a moment all our effort and agency and return to God for refreshment, as Fred is being deeply refreshed by the great community of being he is surrounded by and held in, in Siberia. And praise God we cannot depart from the compass in the center of our human – our GODLY – being, our being in the natural world, which DEMANDS our compassion as our primary response to the world, rooted and grounded in God’s infinite love for everything God has made, every human soul, every Borzoi dog and fat Siberian horse and golden rhododendron, built together into a dwelling place for God. AMEN.

Tuesday
Jul172018

Sermon for Proper 10 Year B 1st option 7-15-18

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

Proper 10 Year B 1st option 7-15-18

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ps. 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

The earth is yours, O Lord, and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein. For it is you who founded it upon the seas and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep. Therefore, we will be stewards of the whole of it, in your name. AMEN.

This morning I preach to you from the ridiculously “long, loose-limbed & exalted” opening sentence of gratitude which makes up our passage for this morning from the Letter to the Ephesians, which our translators have broken up with punctuation, but which in Greek is all one long thought [L. William Countryman, New Proclamation Year B 2003]. The heart of the matter for this writer, who was probably an apostle of Paul’s, is: We are blessed with every blessing by God – no matter what we may feel or experience in the moment. The rest is all elaboration on how that blessing expresses itself. The writer piles clause upon clause to open for us “a vast world-historical, even cosmic context for God’s engagement with [and empowerment of] the Christian community” [ibid.]. God chose us “before the foundation of the world,” he says. God chose us to be “holy and blameless in love.” God destined us for adoption as God’s own beloved children, through the “grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved, [Christ our Lord].” That grace does not remove our capacity for wrong-doing, but it does promise us a liberating and empowering forgiveness, a release from our past. And if we set our hope on Christ, we will access “the word of truth,” God’s own wisdom and insight, revealing the mystery of God’s loving will for us and for all of God’s Creation, “things in heaven and things on earth.” We’ve been marked by the “seal of the Holy Spirit” to live “for the praise of his glory,” and participate in his “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is the hope – both cosmic & intimate – by which we are to live as followers of “the Beloved.” Nothing more and nothing less.

I’ve said in previous sermons that I am, in a sense, consolidating what I feel is most important to pass on to you in these, my last few sermons as rector of St. James’s, before my retirement on July 29th. Today, in service of this radiantly cosmic prayer of gratitude and adoration in Ephesians, so illumined with a promise of hope for a time in which it is tempting to give in to hopelessness or at least helplessness, I want to speak to you about my call, responded to over 10 years here and 17 before that as a priest in other parts of this Church, to be a “public theologian.”

I’ve never liked this term, “public theologian.” After all, what is its antithesis, a “private” theologian?!? Aren’t all theologians “public” in some sense: probing the nature of God in order to illuminate what we can of the mysteries for anyone who longs to come closer to God? To be spokespeople for the claiming of God’s blessing? But the more I read about the term “public theologian,” the more I’ve thought it apt for what the Ephesians writer is calling us to, and what I do instinctively: to bring my faith and its traditions into constant dialogue with the society, the academy, and the church, with science, economics, law, the market, the arts, and the media, and with other religious communities, in the conviction that that very grounded (and often messy) practicality can stretch for the full scope and reach of God’s plan for the fullness of time. That in fact theology MUST enter the mess and practicality of all of society and all of humanity – and indeed, all of the natural world – if it is EVER to work for and reach for the promised Kingdom – the Realm – of God. In other words, I cannot to let “religion” become a thing divorced from public life, but must recognize in Jesus a fellow “public theologian,” one who always saw the implications of what he taught both for the most particular person in front of him in their most particular context, and at the same time, for the widest possible society, all of it, without exception, held in God’s love.

Public theology has six characteristics:

1)    It is always incarnational: based in the conviction that Jesus in his humanity highlighted the dignity of all human nature by drawing attention to the spark of divinity at our center, we human siblings of his, which we all are by grace. Jesus’ divinity is GROUNDED in our humanity, so our humanity is holy, redeemed by God.

2)    Public theology is never meant to be confined to the church, but meant to be relevant to all people – all “publics!” Theology must always be concerned with all aspects of human society, and must be visible in the public sphere, not merely behind church walls.

3)    It is interdisciplinary, drawing from any and all fields of study. Nothing is outside its purview.

4)    It invites dialogue and critique with and from both church & society. Because there IS NO SECULAR WORLD. ALL IS SACRED.

5)    It takes a global perspective, because many issues of tremendous moral and spiritual import – immigration, or climate change, for example – affect many countries across borders.

6)    And public theology is PERFORMED, not merely PROCLAIMED. It develops and evolves as it expresses itself in action in the world. I cannot merely say “Jesus saves me;” I must live his commandment to love others as I love God and myself, and do so in active, visible, dare I say, “political” ways. [adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_theology]

So public theologians of a caliber entirely beyond my own, exemplars I would emulate, include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Dorothee Soelle, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr.

As a public theologian, then, I cannot overlook our terrible Gospel story for today, no matter how much I might like to concentrate only on blessings in the Letter to the Ephesians. We can’t claim those blessings without grappling with this story, and this story is too resonant with events in the present to let it pass unexplored. A corrupt and vulnerable politician, the Roman puppet Herod, falls victim to the schemes of an even-more vulnerable politician, his wife Herodias, and gets maneuvered into the position of further violating any instincts – let’s not dignify them with the word “principles” – any instincts he had that John the Baptist, whom he was holding prisoner in the first place for being a rabble-rouser and disturber of the peace but whom he protected because he liked to listen to him, might be speaking truth in his condemnation of a corrupt society. At the mercy of everyone in this story is Herod’s daughter, also named Herodias, the little dancer at the story’s center. She’s in a classic “#metoo” bind: made to dance for the drunken king and his courtiers (one can only imagine the dance). Then, when the king, pandering to his “courtiers and officers and Galilean leaders” (who, in turn, are toadying him and fail throughout the story to make any objection to anything the king proposes) over-praises his daughter leeringly, the daughter has no idea what to do and asks her mother for advice. The mother sees her moment of opportunity to vanquish the critical John, and her gruesome request is transmitted back to the king by the hapless daughter. What trauma does that child suffer when, like a scene from “Game of Thrones,” John the Baptist’s head is delivered to her on a platter?!? No one comes out of this self-serving story looking good except poor John, head on platter and body delivered to his disciples for burial.

As a public theologian, it’s my responsibility to make clear that this horrific story – exposing dynamics that still plague us, from self-serving and short-sighted Chief Executives to fawning courtiers abandoning any responsibility for moral leadership, to the scheming of those who feel powerless, trying to use what little power they can leverage regardless of the consequences, to the sexploitation of women & young girls by those in the highest echelons of power – has far too much pertinence in our own day. And to point out its jarring contrast with the way of living implied in Ephesians’ beautiful opening blessing prayer: nothing here speaks of a life lived holy and blameless in love. Nothing hints at the operation of grace to redeem our faults. Nothing contributes directly to God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Except for one thing, which belongs not to this passage in Mark chosen for the lectionary today but to its wider context in the Gospel, Mark’s embracing Good News: and that one thing is that John’s death, horrific as it is, a gut-wrenching testament to the evils of unaccountable power, is not an end in itself, but is the signal to Jesus to step forward, full of the power of his baptism, and take up John’s cry for repentance, turning it into a mission of transformation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:15]

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God’s Realm is right to hand, my dear friends at St. James’s. You have been adopted into God’s own family to participate in that Realm fully, and NOW, by God’s grace. Wherever you have come from, whatever faith you may or may not have espoused, knowingly or unknowingly (because often we misinterpret our earthly willingness to love and to sacrifice, to admit wrong and turn again and try again to live in a way that serves the well-being of others as well as our own, as “mere secular conviction” when it’s as clearly the working of faith as anything done consciously in the name of Jesus Christ), whatever your past, whatever your appearance or orientation of being, YOU ARE BLESSED to be part of God’s greatSHALOM. As Philip Burnham – whose life we celebrated in his burial service yesterday – said in one of his very last poems, called “Liminal,” written only days before his death, open the portals of your heart to the “word of truth,” “the mystery of God’s will,” and “the Good News of your salvation” already achieved in Christ and merely now to be lived. And then, put your feet in motion to enact the mystery of love you find inside your heart’s doors, concretely, in the world. Is it to join our Sanctuary team and support the little Ecuadoran family at University Lutheran as the mom seeks to gain asylum? Is it to study climate science, in an era when our government wants to shut it down? Is it to support a prisoner with a life sentence as she seeks a college education? Or to lobby your legislature to undo the effects of mass incarceration, removing onerous fees or restoring driver’s licenses or the right to vote? Is it simply to show up for your fellow congregation members when they are ill or grieved and in need of company and a meal? Or sing in the Choir?!? Then learn what you need to learn from that action to amend your awareness of what love means and what love demands. And put your feet in motion and try again. By God’s grace. AMEN.

Tuesday
Jul172018

Homily for Philip Burnham's Burial, 7-14-15

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

A Homily for Philip Burnham on the Occasion of his Burial

St. James’s Episcopal Church, Le Quatorze Juillet, 2018

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 25:6-9; Ps. 23; Romans 8:14-39; John 14:1-6

Let us pray:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord, for ever. AMEN.

It is my job, in preaching someone’s burial, to deliver a word of sustenance into the hungering maw of grief, to speak an everlasting word of love to defy definitive loss, a word of life to vanquish death’s power. That’s a tall order even when NOT doing all this in honor of a consummate wordsmith like Philip Burnham.

Fortunately for me, Philip’s own life preaches all this so powerfully, all I need are his own poems and the simple facts of his life, truly a “foretaste of the heavenly banquet,” a Eucharistic life lived to its very last sweet mouthful scraped from the very bottom of the dish, and then a finger used to swipe the rest.

Let Isaiah have his imagery of a feast of rich food filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear. Let the Psalmist’s cup runneth over. For Philip, life was:

Poetry for Breakfast

I’m having poetry for breakfast, he wrote in a poem of this name.

Straight from the cupboard and the fridge,

If you are looking for it at the store,

It’s in aisle thirteen point four between

The natural and the unnatural produce.

To begin, a sweet but bitter grapefruit,

Trusting itself to go by contraries,

Sweetheart rose pink, bitter lemon yellow,

Then Wheaties from a box of champions,

Jack Armstrong to Lance Armstrong,

That all-American fourteenth of July, hero,

Topped with fresh peaches, french vanilla yogurt,

Passion smothered in velvet sensuality,

Transport from the kitchen to the bedroom,

Where Prince of Denmark raspberry jam –

Hamlet’s own – waits to be spread over

Separated moons of un-English muffins,

Rounded with a little cup of coffee,

Ground from the darkest hour of the night,

Poured through the morning’s filter of sun & shadow,

Tasted at the porcelain rim of the day. [Housekeeping: Poems out of the ordinary, 2005]

Trusting himself to go by contraries,” Philip was a man who shied away neither from the bitter nor the sweet.  Enamored of history, he learned to live completely in the present moment. “A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief,” as Isaiah says in a Suffering Servant Song, a different passage than we read today [Isaiah 53:3], Philip knew loss “ground from the darkest hour of night,” but nevertheless lived life on the cusp of joy, “tasted at the porcelain rim of the day,” “holding fast to the things that shall endure” even “while placed among things that are passing away,” as we pray in our Collect for Proper 20 of the season of “ordinary time,” which was – most appropriately – the season in which Philip died. He saw no inconsistency between life’s most ordinary pleasures and the extraordinary promises of life and love. Wheaties and peaches could transport him passionately from kitchen to bedroom in “the most velvet of sensualities.” “Americanness” of heroism did not rule out Le Quatorze Juillet as Independence Day! If he could no longer read, he listened to books on audible.com and to the works of Brahms and Beethoven on the stereo. Poetry poured out of him to the very end, until his handwriting had become completely illegible. He knew himself to be ashes to ashes and dust bound for dust, but he knew it to be stardust, bound also for reuniting love. “The portals of his heart stayed open” to the very end, his arms raised in greeting when Nicholas came into the room from California, joining Frannie and Lizzie and Phil to complete the circle of Philip’s most beloved family for his passing over.

You need no more evidence of the open portal of Philip’s heart than his decision to marry his fellow poet Frannie Lindsay less than two years ago, in the season of Advent, the darkest season of the year – the season of the “already” and the “not-yet,” as we theologians like to say, a season which claims the promised fruition of God’s Mission of restoration and shalom even as it poignantly anatomizes the long distance we fallible and self-destructive human beings have yet to travel to be ready to inhabit those ever-proffered “dwelling places prepared for us.” Frannie’s and Philip’s was a love late in both their lives, lives already outpoured; already fraught with things “done and left undone,” as we say in our general confession; already pinched and amended by the ravages of time in so many ways; Philip already long under sentence of death from metastasized cancer. If Advent is the season of the “already,” it is the already of Christ’s incarnation, imminent in the feast of Christmas, well-loved and well-memorialized by Philip and his beloved first wife Louise, mother of Phil and Lizzie and Nicholas, in their many illustrated poetic Christmas cards. And the wonder of the Incarnation is not Christ’s perfection – remember, after all, that Jesus arrives as a refugee baby lost in the machinery of Empire, and laid in an animal trough for lack of a room in an inn – so much as it is the affirmation of our human dignity, wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored” by that same infant Jesus, so that we, no matter how humble, no matter how disenfranchised, can share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share ourhumanity.” [Collect of the Incarnation, page 252, Book of Common Prayer] Marrying Frannie – and Frannie marrying Philip – was an affirmation of the dignity and promise of human nature regardless of our mortality and our fallibility, as it was also an affirmation of what mystical writer Jean Pierre de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.” 

I only knew Philip as a man already bound to a cane, already on his umpty-umpth chemotherapy protocol, a man living well over the edge of his “time allotted.” You would never have known it, were it not for the limp. I have never known anyone so determined to be utterly alive, even as, capacity by capacity and sense by precious sense, his connection to that vitality was being stripped away. As his pastor, I can tell you it was immensely hard work just to get him to acknowledge his own grief (or anyone else’s), even to acknowledge there was punctuation – someday, somehow – at the end of his vibrant, enthusiastic, exuberant sentence. In his zeal for life, he lived and died as if truly “nothing could separate him from the love of Jesus Christ.” Even when he was unable to move, almost unable to breathe for pain, in the terrible weekend before he finally accepted the megawatts of pain medication he needed a week and some before his death, he bent himself to receive communion, Christ’s broken body for healing; his blood poured out to everlasting life. A meal “poured through the filter of sun and shadow,” indeed.

As Frannie herself says, whatever incentives for despair might propose themselves, Philip “vowed to live every single day of his life with gratitude and praise.” As he did when being American Vice-Consul of Marseilles proved a boring job, so, as he recalled, he spent the first year at his desk reading all the great American novels, and the second year, all the great French ones, Philip made lemonade whenever lemons were proffered. (And left Marseilles to study medieval history, which he then taught for the rest of his professional life, though his heart never completely departed from France, a country whose gusto for the everyday good things he found utterly congenial to his own general philosophy of life.)

In 2012, already long diagnosed with the metastasis that, only after six more years, managed to subsume his vitality in its own, Philip published one of his many books of poetry, this one calledShore Lines. Loathe as he was to contemplate his own death, death was clearly on his generous and omnivorous mind. So we will close with another poem of his from this collection, a tribute to the 13th century Moslem writer Ibn Khallikan, “whose parings from his reed pens,” as Philip notes in the preface to the poem, “were used to heat the water to wash his corpse.

Ibn Khallikan’s Bequest

Dear gentle readers and good friends,

I leave the parings of my pens,

Cut from the fertile river’s reeds

Swept, gathered, stored as fire seeds

To heat the water when I fail,

To wash my corpse from hair to nails.

There’s quantity enough for me

To be washed warmly, carefully,

That I may enter Paradise

Clean and perfumed, or even spiced,

Where all the faithful host will be

Impressed with my prolixity.

 

If you would write as much, don’t ask

Another to perform the task

Of finding wood to heat the water

To bathe you for the ever after,

With Ibn Khallikan as guide,

Or Robert Frost, Provide, provide!

How Philip has provided for all of us who are left among the un-English muffins, the pots of geraniums and marigolds flourishing on our back decks, the depths of Brahms’ harmonies in which Philip took such pleasure and found such sustenance. We have only to seek within ourselves the seeds of gratitude he sowed there. By God’s grace.

And so let us close by returning to our dust and his, in poetry from the hymn “Come Down O Love Divine,” with which we opened Philip’s service today, so that, as we will soon sing in the great Orthodox Kontakion, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

O let [Love] freely burn,

till earthly passions turn

to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;

and let thy glorious light

shine ever on our sight

and clothe us round, the while our path illuming. 

AMEN.