Resources

Wednesday
Sep272017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/24/2017  

Click here to listen

Proper 20 Year A 1st option 9-24-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 16:2-15; Ps. 105:1-6, 37-45; Phil. 1:21-30; Matt. 20:1-16

 

In the wilderness we cry out, O God, and quails appear; you satisfy us with bread from heaven. You open the rock and the waters flow; the river runs in dry places. Help us to remember your goodness. Help us to give as generously out of our own abundance, which comes only from you. AMEN.

 

OK, buckle your seatbelts, all: we’re going to have us a little bit of bible study! Today’s parable about the laborers in the vineyard – the second in a lectionary line-up from Matthew’s Gospel that will continue all fall long – is a part of the collection of Jesus’ stories that bible scholar Robert Farrar Capon calls, “the parables of judgment.” Capon wrote three books about Jesus’ parables and titled them “The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace, and The Parables of Judgment.” While we’re pretty eager for parables that assure us of the presence (or coming) of God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of shalom, and we’re always right ready to learn about the parables of grace from stories that overwhelm us with the generosity of God, the parables of judgment aren’t quite so high on our list of desirables. Judgment is a less-popular topic! And well we should be leery of them: they lead us straight to Jesus’ Crucifixion. And Jesus’ Crucifixion is “the scandal” that confounded the disciples and continues to confound us regularly in the spiritual life. Because we want our mighty God straight-up, no ambiguities about him. None of that giving-up of power. None of that putting aside of swords. We want to be the first into the vineyard, earning a well-defined “wage” of salvation. We want “fire and fury” to solve all our problems (just so long as we’re not on the receiving end). So we tend only to want to hear about judgment when it applies to “those other people,” the ones who are “wrong,” the ones who showed up too late to earn a living wage.

 

Sorry to tell you, but we’re in for a whole line-up of judgment in the coming weeks, and it’s not going to let us off the hook. Jesus’ parables of judgment are “equal opportunity;” we’re all implicated. Much as we would like to get “on the right side of God” and stay there – much as we’d like to be able to “earn” our salvation – life is much more problematic than that. The rain doth fall upon the just as well as the unjust. Just because we love God doesn’t mean we are spared. Things fall apart; the center doesn’t hold; and we are left to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all. We can’t do that very successfully as long as we’re trying to live into a “prosperity gospel” or a “works-righteousness” gospel. The minute we’re up against an intransigent adversity such as flattened the islands of Barbuda (under Hurricane Irma) and Dominika & Puerto Rico (under Hurricane Maria), our linking of our own effort to the reception of God’s goodness easily becomes a punishment and an anguish instead of life-giving. It leaves us little option but to give up on God.

 

So how CAN the parables of judgment be life-giving? If our efforts to be good don’t buy us salvation, how CAN we participate in God’s goodness… or even BELIEVE in it? Sorry to tell you, it’s all about baptismal dying, dying into Christ.

 

Capon teaches us this: “The theme of judgment – of crisis, of decisive, history-altering and history-fulfilling action on the part of God – is present in Jesus’ teaching from the earliest days of his ministry. At first, his pronouncements about judgment are couched in more or less traditional language: like the stock apocalyptic scenarios of the later prophets and the revivalist movements of Jesus’ time, their imagery implies that God will intervene in history at some final day and settle its score not only with a bang but with plenty of whimpering on the part of the world. In a word, Jesus starts out sounding like John the Baptist. But as he develops the theme, this judgment, this “krisis” [in Greek, “krisis” means judgment, accusation, even damnation], this “krisis” gradually becomes more complex. Simple intervention on God’s part is replaced by puzzling images of nonintervention. Direct, right-handed action that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked is downplayed in favor of a mysterious, left-handed dispensation that indiscriminately exalts the last, the lost, the least, and the little – a dispensation, in fact, that achieves its goal by the vast leveling action of a universal resurrection of the dead. So much so, that when Jesus finally comes to deliver his formal parables of judgment, he tells [all the judgment parables] in the last few days before the crucifixion. Therefore, if there is a single, major subtext to his developed teaching about judgment – if he has in mind any unifying, governing principle in these parables – it is sure to be something closely linked to his own death and resurrection.” [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI]

 

Sure enough, if we look back over our Gospel passages of the last few weeks, they are launched by Jesus’ first two predictions of his impending trial, torture and crucifixion – predictions profoundly unpalatable to his disciples, who have been anticipating his successful seizing of power, as any good Messiah would, from the imperial Romans. And today’s Gospel passage from Matthew Chapter 20, which is a bit of a leap from last week’s passage from Chapter 18, comes right before Jesus’ third prediction: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” [Matt. 20:17-19]

 

And Chapter 19, the one the lectionary skips over this time around? It winds up by foreshadowing the final words of TODAY’s passage, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

 

The “last will be first, and the first will be last.” If we could frame the fundamental theme of Jesus’ parables of judgment, this would be it. Today’s story is no exception. Even were we not living in a time when we know undocumented immigrants have often lined up on specific street corners and town squares across our country, hoping to be hired for day’s labor at whatever wage the “landowners” or business owners choose to offer, and even if we were not living in a time when it is now too dangerous even to seek work in this visible way for fear the Immigration & Customs Enforcement officers will show up and cart you away for deportation, separating your from your family and consigning you to years in detention and a return to an economically hopeless context in your country of origin, we would know that those last, waiting workless in the hot late-afternoon sun, are what Capon calls “the least, the last, the lost & the littlest.” Today, they would be the unluckiest of all in our society, mostly people of color, many without even a command of American English, certainly possessing little opportunity to improve their lives or even support their families decently. And we know that our undocumented immigrants are perennially “the last:” the last to have arrived and therefore somehow the unworthy of the economic blessings of the American context. Unworthy, now, even of medical care, of education, of any future whatsoever.

 

Yet Jesus’ story is unequivocal. The last ARE hired, and in the end, the last are paid the same as the first. The first, having “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” knowing that they have earned every penny of their day’s wages, are understandably pissed off. Never mind that at the story’s beginning, they had negotiated their salary with the business owner, who had “agreed with the laborers for the usual daily wage,” says Matthew’s Jesus, and that is precisely what they’ve received. It’s the fact that these others have only worked six hours, three hours, even just one hour, that makes the earlier laborers so angry. What justice is this? Any ten-year-old with an allowance knows that the five-year-old shouldn’t get the same amount!

 

Friend,” says the landowner in the parable, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

 

This – this senseless magnanimity, this scandalous generosity – is what manifests the presence of God’s realm of love. The parables of judgment lay bare our unwillingness to rejoice that others might be recipients of that generosity, that love. They expose our clutching desire to maintain our right to whatever largesse (or advantage) we possess. As Robert Farrar Capon says, they reveal our bookkeeper’s approach to life, maintaining the constant ledger that tots up our right to our privileges. (Or, worse yet, consigns us to perennial disadvantage because our ledgers don’t add up.) Yes indeed we are envious. And our envy mandates and extends the inequities of situation and privilege through millennia of human history. And imprisons us in its accountant’s logic.

 

Jesus tries so hard to talk us out of this. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, the harder he works to persuade us to give up our advantages, to see every other as worthy of equal consideration and blessing. The more vivid his probable fate, the more he tries to convince us to throw out the ledgers altogether, and realize that WE ARE ALL are qualified equally for God’s love, no matter how many hours we’ve worked in the vineyard. We remain obtuse. In the end, the only way he has to make the case is to give himself up entirely. Capon writes, “There is no way of leaving what Jesus actually did as the final act of his ministry out of our assessment of what he thought and taught about the ultimate action of God in judgment. It says that the “krisis,” the judgment, is precisely one of forgiveness, of a saving grace that works by death and resurrection. For at the consummate moment of God’s mysterious intervention in history, he operates by nonintervention – by a hands-off rather than a hands-on policy. On the cross, with nails through his hands and feet, he does all that judges needs doing; and he does it all by doing precisely nothing. He just dies. He does not get mad. He does not get even. He just gets out.” [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]

 

To accept so radical a salvation is to accept death – the death of our own calculations, our own accounting, our own insistence upon our “just deserts.” “God gave up on salvation by the books,” Capon says. “He cancelled everyone’s records in the death of Jesus and rewarded us all, equally and fully, with a new creation in the resurrection from the dead. And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take their stand on a life [that shuts God’s generosity out] rather than on a death [that welcomes God in]. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking into himself – down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind – and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads.” [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]

 

Quails and the manna-bread: the generosity of God is freely given, yet recognized only in the wilderness. Now, in this time when the bookkeepers are manifestly in charge of the world and shouting imprecations at each other, is the time for us to die to our own advantages, and rise to a new life lived in God’s generosity – to support the undocumented; to advocate for immigration reform and criminal justice reform; and most immediately, to extend the hand of generosity to the Antiguans and Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans and Houstonians, whose lives have been flattened or drowned by hurricanes, to Mexicans crushed by earthquakes. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says in Matthew. This is God’s divine, eternal banquet, God’s party! And you, beloved, only have to die to your own advantage to be welcome there, along with everybody else.  “Heaven,” writes Capon, “is what all the rednecks and [immigrants], all the [workers] who never showed up – all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up winning – simply waltz up to the bar of judgment with full pay envelopes and get down [to the party] that makes the new creation go round.” AMEN. [Op cit., The Parables of Judgment]

 

Monday
Sep182017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/17/2017

Proper 19, Year A 1st option 9-17-17

© Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 14:19-31; Ps. 114; A Living Epistle from Alfredo Garcia; [Romans 14:1-12]; Matthew 18:21-35

 

The very earth trembles, O God, at your healing, liberating presence. And so we cry out and plead with you, turn the hard rock of our resentments into a pool of living water and the flint-stone of our abiding prejudices into a flowing spring. Stretch out your hand of power and liberate us from our bondage to judgment and contention. Make our hearts skip with forgiveness and turn us back to your reconciliation. Restore us to you and to each other. AMEN.

 

To talk about division is almost becoming a tired old trope these days. We’re living in a time and in a society rife with fierce prejudice. It rises on every political side, making it very hard for us to have a productive conversation about all the things that ail us as a society.

 

Our intemperance has the feel to me of the “time of troubles” I so well remember in the depths of the Vietnam War and with the quaking social shifts of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960’s, a time of riots and persecution, of terrorism that unleashed unbridled counter-terrorism, of liberation that fomented a frightening display of oppressive opposition, guard-dogs chafing at the leash to bite demonstrators; fire hoses knocking marchers over; snarling mobs beating innocent civilians. The time when hatred took grim root and flowered into the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was the time that heiress Patty Hearst – only two-and-a-half years older than me - was kidnapped right by the Berkeley campus by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and I, just across the Bay and, though no heiress, still visible as the daughter of Stanford University’s President Richard Lyman, used to ride my bicycle across Palo Alto to my job with Sunset Books with my heart pounding for fear I too might be swept up by terrorists. It was a time in which my father was in the black books of some for having called the riot police to campus to quell a violent anti-war demonstration and in the black books of others for having insisted on having Black Panther Angela Davis speak on campus at the invitation of the Black Student Union.

 

Then, as now, the turgid dynamics of social animosity thrust people onto “sides,” regardless of their effort at nuance. Then, as now, it felt perilous, as if the entire fabric of democratic society might – and on occasion, did – not just shred but literally explode into violent contention.

 

You don’t have to have been following the dispute over former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s invitation to a Harvard Kennedy School fellowship to sense that, in this climate of intolerance, the notion of “free speech,” so crucial to any real democracy, indeed, to any community that values “the currency of truth,” is imperiled, as we argue about what speech is allowable and what speech is impermissible if democracy (and basic community) is to be served. We’ve come too far to believe that “free speech” is a simple matter of allowing people to say whatever they think, even if it foments a climate of oppression and harm to others. Yet our definitions of “harm” have, in some settings, become so delicately calibrated that any disagreement seems liable to provoke a shut-down of speech.

 

This polarization and indeed, this sensitivity even affects us at St. James’s. Some of you have come to me in concern that my preaching or our community prayers have become politically divisive. Others of you have been diligently and sometimes painfully holding us accountable for speech that is exclusionary of people among us who have long suffered from the dynamics of social prejudice and exclusion. These are the dangers we run, being a church of real diversity that is open to its community and world, a church dedicated to the work of the transformation both inward in our own community as a congregation and outward into the world around us, a church attempting to be both grounded in the real world and real people’s experience and at the same time aspiring to offer glimpses of God’s realm, God’s dream of the Beloved Community in which every single person “has a voice in the conversation,” as Ruby Sales, founder of the SpiritHouse Project, a mission in inner-city Decatur Georgia, says in her interview with “On Being’s” Krista Tippett – an interview we’ll be listening and responding to with conversation and song tonight at our open Anti-Oppression Team meeting, so y’all come! 5 to 7 PM, here at the church. Bring something to share for the potluck! All are welcome![https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/] As Ruby Sales herself says, “No one is disposable! All are essential players in society!” 

 

Sales says that growing up held in the powerful tradition of what she calls “black folk religion” taught her “something serene about love,” something with non-violence in its essence long before Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in it, something that abided in her and carried her through all the assaults of the Civil Rights Movement. She participated, at the age of 17, in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. That year she was arrested in August with some fellow activists in Fort Deposit in Lowndes County[Alabama], where they were picketing a whites-only store. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had prohibited such segregation. They were taken to the county seat of Hayneville and jailed for six days. After being released, she and a few others went to purchase sodas at a nearby store. She was threatened by a shotgun-wielding construction worker, Tom Coleman, who was a special county deputy. One of Sales' fellow marchers, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian from the Episcopal Theological School – [our own Episcopal Divinity School] –  pushed her out of the way and took the shot meant for her, dying instantly.”  Even the attempt on her life, which traumatized her into silence for seven months, and even the death threats that succeeded it, when she insisted on testifying at Coleman’s trial, didn’t shake her resolve.  She talks in her Tippett interview about growing up steeped in the songs and spirituals that sprang from slaves’ refusal to be coerced by the abuse of their “masters” into hatred and enmity, even as they contended against the oppression of slavery, songs like “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart. You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.” Sure enough, even after the shooter was acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, “the result of the trial led to legal challenges and a reform of the jury selection procedures, which had long excluded blacks, first because they were disenfranchised from voting before 1965, then because of a discriminatory process in developing the jury pool.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Sales]

 

Into this history – and into our contentious “moment” in that history – speak our readings for today. They, too, are full of contention. First there is the God who saves the enslaved Jewish people through the power he endows the out-stretched hand of Moses, parting the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites can flee their bondage and then closing those dread seas over the heads of the pursuing Egyptians so that the entire army is drowned. “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians,” says the Book of Exodus.  We talk about “being personally saved” by Jesus from our sins, but in this, the earliest biblical passage about the salvation of God, it’s the liberation of a whole people from economic and political oppression that is God’s saving act. God is not of two minds about the human players in this situation; in this story, God is biased – lethally biased, in fact – toward the poor and the oppressed. If there is sin in this story, it is clearly the sin of the “masters” who hold the human power and use it to neglect and oppress others.

 

Then, as if it were a further “gloss” on God’s bias, there is the hierarchy of slaves in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 18, in which the first slave – clearly monumentally wealthy despite his enslaved status – owes his king a debt so enormous that it’s equivalent to 150,000 years-worth of the wages the second slave might earn. But where the king forgives the first debtor that nearly incalculably enormous debt, the first refuses to forgive the second debtor a mere 100 days’ worth of wages. That petty refusal, in the end, imprisons the first debtor himself in torture. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” says the king to the mean-spirited debtor. (My heart always palpitates at dire pronouncements like this in Matthew!)

 

And the frame Matthew sets around this drastic scenario of indebtedness? This opening sentence: “Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Seven: the biblical number of completion, “the earthly culmination of a divine thought.” [Esperanza Spalding in TIME, Sept. 18, 2017] We, the incalculable debtors, are to forgive seventy times that completion. Our forgiveness is to be boundless.

 

Clearly we are to join God in God’s bias toward those who have suffered oppression. But how are we EVER to heal from our history of oppression? How are we EVER to recover from the contentious intolerance of our current moment? There’s no formula for this. If there were, we would have overcome our bondage to the sin of oppressing the “other,” many generations ago, certainly after the 1960's & the Civil Rights Movement. But if Ruby Sales has anything to say about it – and I think Ruby has been listening to Jesus, in this amazing resurrection life of hers, lived deeply into the ultimate sacrifice of another’s human life, the ultimate payment, on her behalf – it all begins and ends with forgiveness. It is only when the safety of forgiveness and the foregoing of judgment is assured that all voices dare speak out and take their essential place in the conversation.

 

Which is why all our “Guidelines for Communication” that are written on the yellow card in your bulletin and on that banner over there are actually a process of “forgiveness-in-motion,” and “forgiveness in community. As we always do at every meeting, we will begin at the opening of the Anti-Oppression Team meeting tonight by refreshing these Guidelines in our minds and hearts, because they are so deep, so broad and so high – as broad and high and deep as the love of God – that we have to keep practicing them over and over in order to even begin to glimpse what they offer us, like Ruby Sales, singing over and over "I love everybody... you can't make me hate you!" All of the Guidelines together are, in fact, a process for opening up a margin of grace in our hearts and in our community, to allow each other different points of view and incomplete processes of spiritual transformation, to be gentle with ourselves and each other, recognizing that we are often wrong or short-sighted in our perceptions and harmful in our impact even when our intentions are honorable, to begin to acknowledge where we ourselves hold power, and to be biased in favor of the least powerful – the least accepted – voices among us so that those voices can be strengthened to share their crucial “currency of truth” with the community.

 

Because as the radical amounts of forgiveness in Matthew’s parable suggest, in the end, “forgiveness is not a calculable reality but the extension of a gracious spirit to each other from our hearts.” Not quantifiable. Not transactional. No absolute number. No limit. No boundary. No “finish line,” at which enough generosity has been shown. A “wildly extravagant generosity.” [Thomas Troeger, New Proclamation Series A 1999] A truly liberating forgiveness. AMEN.

Thursday
Sep142017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/10/2017

Thursday
Sep142017

Life Together Fellow, Meredith Wade's Living Epistle 9/10/17

Thursday
Sep072017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/3/2017

Click to listen

Proper 17 Year A 1st option 9-3-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 3:1-15; Ps. 105:1-6,23-26,45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28

 

We glory in your holy Name, O God; let the hearts of those who seek you rejoiceLet us search for you and your strength; let us continually, at all times & in all places, seek your face.  AMEN.

 

Search for the Lord and his strength, says our Psalm. Continually seek God’s face. For years, I have had a little illuminated postcard in my study with those words emblazoned on it in gold script. It reassures me. God’s strength is there for me. God’s face is ready to shine upon me, as the ancient Jewish Aaronic blessing has it. And at the same time, it names my seemingly never-ending process of seeking, the yearning that drives it, the absence that dogs it. Still searching. Still seeking. It names the life of faith as I find myself living it, forever pursuing the loving face of God that I trust is bending towards us to name and affirm each and every one us in the fullness of our calling into being, in our “becoming,” forever hunting the all-abundant, ever-elusive, un-domesticated, wild, essential grace of God.

 

In a way, this sense of continual “process” toward God seems directly to contradict the great genesis of baptism. Episcopalian Anglicans, after all, don’t do “re-baptisms.” We are baptized into the death of Jesus once for all, as Paul says in the reading from Chapter Six of his Letter to the Romans that we read at the baptismal feast of Great Vigil of Easter every year. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6:3-4] Baptism is the definitive beginning of a “new life in the Spirit.” So then, don’t we HAVE “the Lord and her strength,” from then on?

 

But then, in our first reading for today from the Book of Exodus, Moses, who has been banished to the desert among foreigners because he tried to use violence to free his Hebrew people from enslavement by the Egyptians (it ended badly), is lured out of his trudging, discouraged exile’s path by the sudden extravagant, wildly unexpected flaring of a bush burning in the middle of the desert. Then he is terrified to be addressed directly by God’s own voice, telling him to put off his sandals and approach unguarded and unprotected. Just as we would think our baptism would “seal the deal with God” for good, so you would think that, were you to come across God face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice, since that fiery bush was all that was to be seen), shoeless, you would KNOW God, fully and finally, at last. But Moses has to ask God who God is. And God’s answer is, in itself, not a finality but instead names a mysterious, hard-to-decipher PROCESS: YHWH, “I AM WHO I AM BECOMING.”

 

Which brings to mind Martin Luther’s insistence that our life IN God is more like a life TOWARD God, an endless, revolving “repentance,” a daily turning back to God; an endless, daily RENEWAL of baptism; an endless, daily FLINGING OF OURSELVES BACK INTO THE DEATH OF JESUS in order to be filled again with the risen life of Jesus.

 

What a powerfully overwhelming time in which we “live & move & have our being,” in these difficult days. [Book of Common Prayer, “Collect for Guidance,” p. 100] It feels as if the incentives for our moral discrimination and our moral commitment come at us with unrelenting rapidity, rising around us like the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, inundating us before we can draw breath from one surge to the next. Whatever gap there is between our divine searching and our finding, we are as surely stuck in it as Beaumont Texas was stuck under the tropical depression that stalled on the Louisiana-Texas line.

 

Search for the Lord and his strength. Continually seek God’s face. Every day is a day to renew our baptism. Watching our Houstonian fellow seekers haul their carpets and furniture, toys and clothing to the curb, we know ourselves to be vulnerable, sandal-less, unprotected by stuff, unprotected by the status quo. Our lives may be asked of us in a heartbeat. Even if our streets are dry and not buried under feet of water and mud, our lives are inundated with spiritual assault and spiritual discernment. How can we keep discerning, keep discriminating between one moral option and another?

 

Here’s an example: how do we manifest our conviction that Black Lives Matter as much as any lives matter? Is it even possible for a white person like me, who so longs to be an ally, to manifest this with effective power? How do I escape the sentimental ease of a Facebook post and make a palpable, measurable commitment? Should I manifest it nonviolently, simply imposing my body, my naked, identifiable face, before those who would harm a person of color? Or like the antifa, the anti-fascist movement, need I mask my face and bring a weapon – even so slight-seeming a weapon as mace or a stick – and interpose THAT? If I do that in order to protect others without weapons, is there a moral line – beyond a romantic one of small scale and technological simplicity – between that choice of weaponry and the military-style garb and armament of the white supremacist, the neo-Nazi? Does my motive justify my weaponry? How can I be sure of my motive?

 

And that’s only one of so many matters presenting themselves for my response –recovery from the largest hurricane impact we’ve seen, especially fraught for those who are undocumented and afraid of ICE and ineligible for FEMA relief. LGBTQ rights. Gas pipelines and mining rights on wilderness land and the erosion of national monument protection and the pull-out from the Paris Climate Change Accord. Nuclear armament and nuclear deployment. Immigrant rights; addiction treatment; drone warfare; tax reform; still the niggling undermining of health care reform! And oh dear God, Syria and Palestine and Israel and Libya and Yemen and Mali and Kenya and on and on and on… “And thick and fast, they come at last and more and more and MORE!” [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass]

 

Is this what Jesus felt like, in the moment in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 16 when, having just been affirmed as the Son of God, he begins the heavily difficult process of “showing” the resistant disciples that his Messiah-ship, Jesus’ own kingship, far from being a triumphal victory march into Jerusalem to toss out the Romans imperial forces and resume David’s great Kingship ("Make David Great Again?") , will begin with arrest and trial and persecution and crucifixion? Peter, full of protective pride, we presume, from having been the one to speak first in declaring Jesus as Messiah moments before, isn’t having all this negativity. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you! We’re not going to let those haters get away with it!” Peter is playing Joel Osteen here, Senior Pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, one of the 8 richest pastors in the U.S., owner of a massive mansion and a massive yacht, preacher of the “prosperity gospel,” doyenne of a 16,500-seat mega-church that he kept adamantly closed to those driven homeless by Hurricane Harvey until he was shamed on social media into reluctantly opening his doors. For the impulsive Peter, Jesus being the Messiah should mean a direct route to success.

 

Yet Jesus turns and rebukes Peter – the language in Matthew is very strong – “Get behind me, Tempter! You are a stumbling block to me! A skandalon, a scandal! Would you try to dissuade me from the vulnerability God is asking of me? That’s a human response, that desire to protect yourself. Divine love makes no such concession!” And he goes on to tell all the disciples, “If you want to hang onto your life, you’ll lose it. If you’re willing to lose it, following in my way of nonviolent love, you’ll find it.” If the floodwaters are rising, Pastor Joel, get ready to dirty up your church! Follow your neighbor Muslims’ example, who turned their mosques into homeless shelters the minute the storm hit, with whatever loaves & fishes, volunteers and supplies they could muster, and put you to shame. Who knows when your life will be demanded of you, your barns of riches pulled down?

 

Do we really want to hear this any more than Peter (or Joel) did? Have we North American Christians, whose faith has been so protected, so comfortably ensconced in material abundance and political liberality, any more willingness to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus into such dire self-offering? Are we any readier than Joel Osteen to open the doors of our palaces to the massive, overwhelming tide of need? Are we ready to renew our baptisms, to die to ourselves so that we can live to God?

 

In the face of the floodwaters of moral demand that are rising around us, no wonder we feel we are drowning. Let us drown INTO God. This place of suffering and confusion and longing and fear is holy ground. Let us remove our shoes and admit that we are powerless and need a Power greater than ourselves to restore us and guide us. Let us turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God, the mighty Becoming of God for whom we seek and search. God is listening for our cry. And God will indeed use us, undefended by anything other than God’s grace, to extend the risen life to others. As did Moses. As did Jesus. AMEN.

 

Monday
Aug282017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/27/2017

Proper 16 Year A 1st option 8-27-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 1:8-2:10, Ps. 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

 

Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done. AMEN.

 

That song is attributed to Blind Willie Johnson, an African-American gospel blues singer who recorded it in 1928. Born in 1897, a sharecropper’s son near Waco Texas, Blind Willie grew up in and suffered from the systemic prejudices of the Jim Crow South, including being refused a hospital bed when he suffered from malaria in 1945, after a career of performing & recording.

 

The Jim Crow laws may have been undone in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but let’s listen to the words of Damon Davis, who offered a “Brief but Spectacular” perspective just this last Thursday on the PBS Newshour. Davis is African-American filmmaker, whose new documentary “Whose Streets” chronicles – often with raw iPhone video footage shot during demonstrations – the events following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri in 2014. “It’s time to get really uncomfortable and talk about racism,” he says. Then he details what it is to be a black citizen of the United States today: “There are things that you must think about to survive daily being black in America. The neighborhood you’re in. The clothes you got on. The way you talk to people…the weight that you carry and the darker your skin is, is so terrifying, that, like, you’re just walking on eggshells your whole life. And the level of anxiety that comes along with that, I don’t know any black person that doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I been harassed by police. I been pulled out of cars, sat on the curbs, humiliated. There’s a huge chunk of the population that this is everyday life for. And think about how privileged you must be to not be afraid, every day you walk out of your house. To not be worried about, I’m driving and one of my tail lights is out. Or I’m driving in the wrong neighborhood. This tally list you have to go through being black in America…”

 

Then he says, “It’s time to take some responsibility, some culpability, and really get uncomfortable. Think about the everyday role people play in racism. Whether it be locker room jokes… Thanksgiving dinner jokes… down to systematic and systemic racism in the jobs, and the roles that people play in it. You know when they talk about being an alcoholic, the first step to recovery is, acknowledging you have a problem. Well, America has a pretty big problem with doing that, you know?” [https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/225552/damon-davis]

 

Won’t you join me and give this song a try? Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done.

 

All this week, even before I heard Davis speak about living in his black body in American society in 2017; even before I re-read Ta Nehisi Coates’ reminder about the history of black bodies in the United States in his book Between the World & Me, where he reminded his teenage son that, “At the onset of the civil war, our stolen [enslaved] bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret… ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery, …the greatest material interest in the world’ declared Mississippi …as it left the union;’” even before all these words had reached me, I’d been thinking about bodies.

 

I’d been thinking about the courage of the midwives in our Exodus story, who refuse to give in to the coercion of imperial power and to participate in the genocide of their enslaved fellow Israelites, but instead secretly rescue male babies’ bodies at the risk of their own. The midwives are named Shiphrah & Puah, “names being precious, a source and locus of power in Israelite culture,” whereas the Pharaoh is never named, so that the midwives have power in the story but the oppressor, “whose cruelty displaces his individual humanity [has] his name… withheld.” Bible commentator Thomas Troeger went on with the following, written in 1999, long before our present predicaments. He said of Exodus Chapters 1 & 2, “Either the Pharoah was a frightened man or he was playing up to the jingoism of the rabid patriots, or perhaps both. He had gone on public record that the growing number of resident aliens was a political threat: ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.’ [1:8] Completely forgotten was Joseph, a resident alien who had rescued from famine not only his own family but the Pharaoh’s ancestors and the whole nation of Egypt. The Pharaoh does not appear to be someone who studied the past to gain what wisdom it might offer him in understanding the present. When he suggested ‘They will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land,’ it was not a totally logical position if you consider the last phrase: if they escaped, they would be gone! But the Pharaoh appears to be no more attentive to logic than he is to history.” Troeger continues, “There were surely many who cheered on the chief of state for attacking the resident aliens. Any two-penny dictator knows that if you focus the frustration on the aliens you will have a lot less pressure on yourself. But what the Pharaoh could not control, what dictators can never command, is the heart that fears God. And so this nameless tyrant, playing to all the worst in his own people, was to find his pogrom derailed by Shiphrah and Puah, two courageous, faithful midwives who kept alive not only Israelite infants but also the work of God.” [New Proclamation Series A 1999] Humble, faithful bodies combatting tyrannical injustice and refusing to let prejudice win.

 

I’d been thinking, too, about Paul’s cry in the Epistle, written some 500 years later (and some 50 or 60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus), to the new little Christian community in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, my beloved family, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Presenting our bodies, Paul says – and the word he uses is the word for our physical bodies, not some idealized abstraction, but our flesh itself – offering our bodies, making the living sacrifice of our bodies is the means by which our minds are transformed, renewed, removed from lock-step conformity to the “ways of the world,” and able to discern “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Our bodies are the offering we must make if we are to become “members one of another,” to be forged into the Body of Christ. “For as in one body we have many members …so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Moreover, Paul implies, if we truly offer our bodies, we will no longer “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but … [will] think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The Body of Christ is forged of the humility we feel when, able by the grace and mercy of God to allow ourselves to come to the full knowledge of our own gifts and shortcomings, we are then able to bring our real, whole, fallible, blessed, creative, messed-up bodies to each other, no one better than anyone else, every single member necessary.

 

And, in the wake of Charlottesville and with all that has been spinning – spewing – out of our “body politic” in the weeks since Heather Heyer’s body was smashed by a van driven by a man who was persuaded that his white male body was entitled to enact that destruction, entitled to be privileged over any other color or orientation of body, I have been thinking about the singular gift of our congregation of St. James’s, our little local “body of Christ,” our life brought bodily together every week in this amazing reverential space, black and white, gender-queer and cisgender, old & young, wildly differently abled, employed and unemployed, housed and unhoused, and how we are trying devotedly to realize the fullness of that gift, that INCARNATION of the many, many members of God’s grace, arriving Sunday by Sunday in our rainbow of bodies. How with our anti-oppression team and our VISIONS training and our Sanctuary Team supporting the small Ecuadoran family-of-color sequestered at University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square so they can continue their pursuit of asylum from the violence of their Ecuadoran context, with our food pantry offering food to people whose circumstances – often conditioned by racism, classism, anti-immigrant prejudice and mental illness - render them food-insecure (and that’s just to name just a few of the many things we members of Christ’s Body at St. James’s devote ourselves to), we express our willingness as a congregation, as Damon Davis says, to “get really uncomfortable and talk about racism” and the other ‘isms that divide us and pit some of us against others, competing for privilege. Week by week, we arrive here or at our various ministries, offering our bodies as a “living sacrifice” of time and presence and commitment and prayer, to try to make ourselves available to transformation, the renewing of our minds, so that we can discern the will of God for us as followers of Jesus Christ, enactors of Christ’s love, Christ’s justice and mercy, in this American democracy at this critical point in history.

 

Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in our Gospel passage for today. We can’t answer that question today without remembering Paul’s plea for us to offer our whole human selves to each other in humility and openness if we wish to discern God’s will, and without remembering the midwives of the Hebrew people combatting the injustice, small-mindedness, and demagogic persecution of the tyrannical Pharaoh. Our faith CALLS US in our own small, often misdirected, seemingly powerless individual bodies, to forge ourselves together, week by week, prayer by prayer, and to strengthen and renew each other for the work of making EVERY BODY WELCOME in our nation and in the family of God. So please get on your feet if you can and sing with me:

 

Children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary; children, don’t get weary till the work is done… keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning; keep your lamps trimmed and burning, O see what God has done. AMEN.

 

 

 

Thursday
Aug172017

The Rev. Laurie Rofinot's sermon for The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 8/13/17

Tuesday
Aug082017

The Rev. Reed Carlson's sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, 8/6/17

Thursday
Aug032017

The Rev. James Weiss' sermon for The 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/30/2017

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost, Year A

The Rev’d. James M. Weiss

St. James’s Parish, Cambridge, 30 July 2017

Genesis 29: 15-28, Romans 8: 26-29, Matthew 13: 31-33 & 44-52

 

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

 

            Good morning. I am James, a member of the parish now and also for several years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You are the parish who sponsored me for ordination and my love for this place and this people runs very deep. I cannot thank you enough and I am so happy to be one of you.

 

            Now, I don’t pray often enough or well enough. I’m not sure I know the right way to pray: there must be a method. And what should I expect from prayer anyway?

            Yes, you’re hearing this from me  -- but let me tell you how often I hear it from everyone: devout family members, friends with Gospel values, people seeking spiritual direction, and  -- yes -- other clergy. (I’m letting you in on a little secret here: clergy have as many issues with prayer as anyone else. )

            Perhaps that’s why our second reading is hands down one of the most popular selections from the New Testament. Why? I’ll try to get at it, but I’d be happier to hear how you have learned what prayer is. And indeed, people at St. James’s have a lot to teach each other about prayer. I am talking this morning about private prayer, the kind of prayer we open up to at home on our own – not the prayer of our small groups or of the great weekly shared prayer i at our Sunday Eucharist.

 

            Now first, listen up! Prayer is not chiefly about what we do: it is about what God is already doing in us, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Prayer is like a radio program:  it’s going on already, the music flows all the time. Our task is to tune in and learn to listen. Or better, to move with the music. Or better yet, let the music flow through us and invite others to dance along.

            In other words, the proper subject of the question about prayer is not I, but God. Not “How should I pray?” but “How is God moving or acting or speaking? Is God maybe keeping silence?” As Paul reminds us : “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but … the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words … and God searches our hearts …”  So God has found us even before we begin searching for God … and God can work around the holes in our souls.

 

            That’s the genius of Jesus’s vision in this morning’s Gospel: that God’s energy is at work unseen in our midst. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he is NOT talking about a realm to come after death. He means the slow advance of God’s reign here in our lives. God’s coming may be hidden like a mustard seed in the ground or like yeast in a lump of dough or like a treasure buried in a vacant lot -- but if we give it time to work, it grows in us and we grow with it.

            It changes the way we look at things, it changes who we are. An example of this familiar to many of us is the Twelve Step Program for people helplessly addicted whether to alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex or eating. Over and over again, I’ve seen peoples’ lives and families transformed by the Twelve Steps. Yet they describe their recovery not so much as something they did, but as something they let happen within them: they admitted a need and requested their Higher Power for help … one day at a time …

            Even when they fell off the wagon, the yeast of God kept working to build them up because “the Spirit [within them] intercede[d] with sighs too deep for words”.

 

            But what does it mean when we don’t receive what we pray for – when our seeds don’t become big shrubs, when we keep digging at a project or a person and can’t find the buried treasure? Well, that question puts us  in good company. St. Paul reminds us that prayer takes place in a context of becoming “conformed to the image of [Christ]”. Our requests to God may not fulfill our wishes but they do unite us more closely to God in Christ. In a sense the relationship itself is more important than the gifts we receive from it.

            Remember -- Jesus warned us that his task on earth remained incomplete and he needed each of us to carry it further. So in each of us Christ lives out another life – and we cannot expect any better than what he could expect.

            Whatever anxieties possessed Jesus’s soul and whatever evil powers befell him, he never lost the urgency of God’s justice and love pulsing through him.

            So let’s take our cue from Jesus. Prayer does not guarantee a desired outcome: it prepares us to meet any outcome .. trusting that God’s love can be active in it and God’s justice will go on … and receiving a new strength just as the Holy Spirit gave Jesus.

 

            This summer, on a trip to Norway, Glenn and I visited the museum of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo. What struck us was how many Nobel laureates were relatively unknown, in obscure situations, with minimal resources. Even after the Peace Prize, their work remained incomplete and in some cases doomed. Yet these people were mustard seeds and buried treasures who did change the landscape around them. Think of Malala Yousafzai, the 12-year-old Pakistani blogger whose near-assassination gave prominence to the right of girls to education. Or of Rigoberta Menchù,  the Guatemalan woman who kept fighting for the rights of Indians and indigenous people even as her government killed her family one by one, and yet she had the genius to fight also for a program of reconciliation.  Yes, and of Liu Xiaobo, whose struggle for human rights in China cost him his life this month.           

            I am reminded, too, of those boys whom Jodi Michalachki preached to us about a few weeks ago, the forty young  martyrs of Burundi, Hutus and Tutsis who protected each other in the face of death and protested “We are all children of God.”

            Hidden treasures every one – many still unknown, but resiliently at work for peace, health, and justice. Sitting there in Oslo, they reminded me equally of so many people right here in St. James’s who keep alive the fire of kindness and justice and caring and protest, burning in their commitments or jobs or volunteering or activism.

            St. Paul summed up  the point – and summed up the spirit of St. James’s -- so well: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress” and we might add, or cancer, or divorce, or the economy, or election results? No, as St. Paul goes on, “As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ . . .   [Yet] I am convinced that . . . nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “

            So what could our Twelve Step friends and Nobel laureates tell us about prayer and its outcomes?

            First, prayer is not about what we do. It is about tuning in and letting the God do … well, do whatever God needs to do. We won’t know until we settle down.

            Second, it helps to set aside time to pray, a regular period, regardless of everything. Once we come to prayer, our minds will fill up with random thoughts. So to tune in to the Spirit, we practice deep breathing and let those thoughts come and go like traffic on the street while we focus on a friend … Now make one clear request, “Dear God, what do you want me to feel or hear or know or do?” …

            And now let go … slowly read some brief passage from the Bible, from our Sunday lessons, from a poem … or gaze upon a work of art or something in nature … When your mind wanders – and it will wander --, bring it back to your breathing or your text or your view. Keep trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide you … perhaps simply into silence. Sometimes, of course, prayer is not all peace and consolation: sometimes, the Spirit may make us wrestle with something we’d rather ignore – wrestle with ourselves, wrestle with an unsettled relationship, or wrestle as Jacob did all night long with God’s own self.

            So much of prayer involves learning what to hang on to and what to let go. Have you ever noticed that the requests in the Lord’s Prayer are all passive requests, letting go of our world into God’s unpredictable timing:

            may your Name be held holy

            may your will be done our earth,

            may You feed us and keep us from evil.

            No matter what we pray for, no matter how bad the doctor’s diagnosis is, no matter how long a civil war tears a country apart, what God wants to give us chiefly – above all other good gifts – is God’s own self. God does not ask us to be successful, only faithful. And as Paul promises us,

“Nothing … nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            Let me conclude with Mary Oliver’s poem about praying. She even takes Jesus’s image of an empty field with a buried treasure to remind us of who’s in charge when we pray.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.” 

 

Monday
Jul242017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 7th Day after Pentecost, St. James Day 7-23-2017

Proper 11 Year A 1st option 7-23-17 (St. James’s Day)

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Genesis 28:10-19a; Ps. 139: 1-11; 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. AMEN.

 

 Happy St. James’s Day, everyone! When I left for my hysterectomy surgery in June, I was determined to be back in time to celebrate our feast day together with all of you, and here I am, maybe not back to tip-top energy yet, but ON MY WAY! I used to ask my elder friend Fran Merritt how he was, each Sunday morning in his 90’s that he managed to get to church, and he would say, with his beneficent smile, “Well, I’m upright!” I’m immensely grateful for all the beautiful cards, poems, flowers and well-wishes, and especially for the prayers during my healing; I’m so grateful to our clergy associates, who have been leading worship and will continue to lead worship as I leave again to continue the healing on my vacation starting this week. And I’m most PARTICULARLY grateful to our staff and Vestry for all THEY are doing to keep everything ship-shape in my absence!

 

Every year, as St. James’s Day approaches, Pat and I wrestle with whether to use the readings for our feast day, which feature the Matthew passage that gave us our congregational motto, “Not to be served but to serve” which comes from the end of the passage, in which Jesus calls the disciples together and warns them, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant… just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Or whether to use the lectionary proper readings for the day, in this case, those for Proper 11. This year, we chose the St. James’s Day readings, thinking that the reminder “not to be served but to serve” certainly frames up a mostly timely Christian mandate for us. We thought, too, of the concerted service our many members of the new St. James’s Sanctuary Team are offering as part of the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition that supports immigrants facing deportation.

 

But then at our PRAXIS prayer group on Tuesday morning, I realized that in passing up the regular readings for this Sunday, we were passing up Jacob’s Ladder in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Letter to the Romans, Paul’s testimony to hope even as the whole creation groans in labor pains. And suddenly, I just felt we NEEDED these passages to support us just now, on this particular St. James’s Day, as another year passes and we continue to “hope for what we do not see” in the way of a parish house and a whole lot more in the world today! Certainly these days it can feel, from time to time, as if “the creation might WELL be subjected to futility,” as Paul says, yes? And I don’t know about you, but as I wait with what I pray is passing for patience, I need to be reminded that I “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but I have received a spirit of adoption,” adoption into God’s own family, the Spirit bearing witness in my spirit that I do not hope in vain!

 

On St. James’s Day, it always feels like a time to reaffirm our importance to each other and to the world, as we reaffirm the presence of God’s Spirit here with us, to strengthen and guide and support us, so that as “we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” Yes, we are called “not to be served, but to serve.” But we are also called to help each other remember that we do not do this alone, or even on our own energy. We do this, by God’s grace.

 

It feels important to remember, on St. James’s Day, that St. James’s is our “Bethel:” beth-El – the house of God, as Jacob named the lonely spot where he dreamt his visionary dream - the place where we can count on God to supply messengers, ascending and descending the heavenly ladder to be present with us, the place where God’s own Self is present with us, reminding us, “I am the Lord, the God of your nurturing, Way-showing, faith-modeling ancestors… know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…” It’s the place where we’ve erected not ONE stone but MANY in our 152 years, and plan to erect many more, soon & very soon, we hope!

 

And if angels are messengers of God, testifying to God’s loving presence and loving kindness and care for the hapless Jacob, then it’s not a stretch to say, angels are all around us right here, right now, on St. James’ Day. They may be “in disguise” as normal, fallible human beings, but don’t let that fool you. If their actions testify to loving kindness, steadfastness, and care, you’ll know them when you see them. They might be ushering right this very minute, right there at the back of the church! They might be singing God’s glory, or serving on the altar, or meeting in your Vestry to consider a redevelopment question – yes, yet another in the long line of redevelopment questions – between the worship service and the picnic.

 

I happen to know, because I’ve SEEN them for the angels they are – that angels are already firing up the barbecue in the garden and putting on the hot dogs and tofu burgers for the St. James’s Day picnic as they always do, year in, year out, no matter how hot or what the danger of rain! They look remarkably like our friends John & Barbara Butler and Susan and Tom Harris, but make no doubt about it: they are messengers of the love of God!

 

In fact, my dear fellow congregants, those angels might and CAN be YOU, yourself, showing forth God’s presence here at St. James’s and in the community beyond. You may be doing it by the simplest human warmth welcoming newcomers trying us out. You may be doing it as a newcomer yourself, daring to try us out and enriching us with your unique history, insights and questions, your wonderings and longings, your “experience, strength & hope.”

 

You who prepare bags of food in the Food Pantry, grow gardens in elementary school play-yards, lobby legislators about prison reform, even run for elected office, are messengers of God’s love! As you sing concerts in the Arnold Arboretum or write poetry in the local coffee shop. As you bicycle to cut down on your carbon footprint, or stand up to racial injustice. As you give children safe places to play, learn, and experience life’s goodness in economically challenged communities. You are messengers of God’s love as you stay up nights with a vulnerable immigrant family seeking sanctuary so that they will not be deported back into intolerable poverty or danger but can continue to contribute to this great nation of immigrants who bring their creativity, their aspiration, and their endless hard work into the bloodstream of democracy here in United States.

 

And here in the Bethel of St. James’s, it can’t be all “energy out,” either!  I hope some of you angels have also been finding places of respite this summer: here in the worship in this space; or out in the wild, in the company of trees, water, animals and birds, recharging your spirits and replenishing your bodies so you can continue “not to be served but to serve.” After all, we ARE human beings, not some kind of invulnerable celestial stardust. And God’s presence with us means that there are times when we just need to be as small as we are and as vulnerable as we are and as TIRED as we are, and lie down and sleep on a stone awhile (or hopefully something softer) and let others climb up and down the ladder and support us and care for us awhile!

 

BUT, say we, how can we rest?!? “An enemy” is manifestly sowing weeds among the wheat! If we pause for even a minute, the place will go completely to seed! But then we have Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, telling the anxious tenders of the field to “let the weeds remain among the wheat, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…

Believe me: as one who tended a large organic kitchen garden over years up in Maine, I know how tenderly you must go about weeding if you don’t want to disrupt the good growth, and how wrongly you can judge an emerging plant. If you want a testimony to how wrongly we can judge between wheat and weeds, just read the story of MIT custodian Francisco Rodriguez’s deportation proceedings – Rodriguez, 11-year resident of the U.S., father of three, tax-paying, law-abiding member of our community, who followed all the rules in applying for asylum from the violence in his native El Salvador and maintained his registration with Immigration & Customs Enforcement year-to-year, yet was suddenly deemed unsafe for our nation and jailed -http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/a-deportation-at-mit-and-new-risks-for-the-undocumented. When we know Francisco Rodriguez’s story, we garden-tenders, we messengers of God’s loving kindness, must become DEFENDERS of the “weeds,” not uprooters thereof!

Whatever winnowing needs to take place can take place in God’s good time and in God’s good hands, not ours. We – angels though we may be, testifying by our kindness to God’s love – are just plain not up to the discrimination needed for that kind of weeding. Every time in human history that we humans have thought we should uproot the weeds wholesale – be it the Crusades; the Inquisition; the fascist movements of the 1930’s; the Stalinist Soviet Union; Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia; Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution in China – we have been deeply, perniciously, murderously wrong. When we get started on a purist campaign to pull up anything we discern to be evil, we can turn goodness on its head and wreck the whole enterprise of Creation. We are not cut out for that kind of comprehensive policing of goodness. Only God is.

Consider Jacob for one more moment: when he has his dream of the ladder full of angels, he has just mis-led his dad and tricked his elder brother out of his birthright. He’s running from the law! A weed if there ever was one. Yet he is allowed by God to continue to grow “among the wheat.” And long after he erects the stone at Bethel, he becomes one of the patriarchs of our Judeo-Christian faith, renamed by yet another angel, “Israel,” “May God Prevail!”

So back to St. James’s Day. Whether you are called to active service or called in this deep summer to rest, you can count on this: God is with you. Whether you’re utilizing your battery in service or recharging your battery here at St. James’s, God is with you. Weeds and wheat together, we’re called to grow as a congregation in the conviction of God’s goodness. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” cries Jacob. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” AMEN.