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5-14-17 The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for 5 Easter

Sermon Audio

5 Easter Year A 5-14-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 7:55-60; Ps. 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14


Be our strong rock, a castle to keep us safe, for you are our crag and our stronghold; for the sake of your Name, lead us and guide us. AMEN.


I’ve just returned from one of my little two-night sabbaths at my place in Maine. It’s definitely spring up there, as it is here: there are brand-new singers – the small, feathered kind – that I’ve never heard before, inhabiting the hawthorn-and-bittersweet hedges, the gift of global warming, pressing species northward. Spring in Maine even amid global warming, though, is an odd, prolonged business, much more equivocal in its claiming of new life than spring in Massachusetts. Here, we’re busting out blooming already. There, the grass has greened in and there is a fluff of pale yellow-green hazing the wooded understory, suggestive of leaves to come. But the branches of the oaks & maples remain bare and gray, as if the landscape had not yet completely made up its mind to lean towards resurrection.


Easter season is synonymous with spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere, unlike the Australians, whose seasonal iconography is upside-down, leaves falling from trees as the Feast of the Resurrection takes place. For us, Easter season is always wrestling with the juxtaposition of death and new life, as are we humans, I believe. We would like the “new life” thing to be nice and straightforwardly linear, firmly established. But death keeps intruding, reclaiming our attention, opening the wound of loss in our optimism. It’s fundamentally confusing to us that God DID in fact walk straight into death; we’d so much rather have a more muscular kind of divinity. We’d like God to just up and delete death completely. We’d like the season of resurrection – of spring – to be more like Memorial Day weekend in Maine, when spring finally and definitively arrives and the entire world suddenly swerves violently into bloom all at once, for three days of no death anywhere, just wall-to-wall blossoms and new green leaves unfurling from soil and branch, an explosion of new life, before Pentecost and summer sets in.


It was my observation, during the twelve years I served congregations in Maine, that I seemed to spend a lot of Easter season officiating burials in graveyards and not just because the ground had softened and people who had died in the winter could more easily be interred. Rather, it seemed that people often died on the edge of spring. Odd, isn’t it? As if the work of claiming another year of new life were just too much for them?


This ambiguity of resurrection is a mark of our readings from the Gospel of John in this Easter season as well. Take today’s passage, from John Chapter 14. If you’ve been hanging around the Episcopal Church for any length of time, you’ve most often heard this passage read at funerals, one of those most frequently chosen by families struggling with grief and loss. “In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places.” That sense of the one who has died not merely departing from us but also coming home is something people find consoling. “I go to prepare a place for you… and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also,” Jesus says. In the teeth of loss, we long to know that those we have lost have a place, and that we too have a place in that same house with them, a place to be, a place to belong, a place to be together again.


For generations, Christians have deployed this passage at funerals in the hope that, in fact, it DOES offer a literal “map” to eternal life. Never mind that when we read on, we find that the disciples in the passage are more perplexed than consoled, bewildered by the nature of this “place,” and how to get there. They know the inadequacy of their spiritual “google maps app!” Still we cling to the hope that this passage – and Jesus – will sort out the straightforwardly linear path to heaven, to that place of eternal belonging that the human spirit longs for when confronted with the finality of death.


But – and I’m sorry to take away that simple optimism – this is really NOT what John is about, writing this beautiful Gospel passage. We must resist what New Testament theologian Barbara Rossing calls “a strictly heavenist interpretation” of Jesus’ words in this passage. The Greek word John uses for “dwelling place” is “mone,” resting place or way station, from the Greek “menein,” “to remain.” Only a few verses further on, in Chapter 14 verse 23, Jesus uses the word again, saying “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John’s Jesus is not talking about some distant geographical PLACE to which people will be brought in the by-and-by. John is – as he has been since Chapter One when he told us that The Word came to “dwell” with us, and as he will again and again, ever-more poignantly as Jesus nears his crucifixion in passages we will read next Sunday and the Sunday after, the last two Sundays of the Easter season, inviting us, as Jesus invited his disciples, to a mutual in-dwelling in God NOW, right here, in the middle of the world, global warming and constitutional crises and all. “Where I am, you will be also.” In fact, in a short three weeks, we’ll celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, in which we rejoice that, even as Jesus himself “departs” from bodily presence with us, the loving, guiding Spirit of Jesus continues to INDWELL IN US by the gift of God’s grace.


Remember as you listen to these familiarly funereal-sounding words, that Jesus is still at the Last Supper, and only verses before, was washing the dusty feet of the disciples and urging them to do likewise, capping off that lesson with the new commandment to love one another as he loved them. He’s struggling to imbue the disciples with the knowledge he has of God and God’s love before he gets nailed to the Cross, the shadow of which is deepening around him. As lovely as our eternal hope might be, burnished by this passage, in it, Jesus is actually commanding us to DO LOVE NOW, to BE LOVE NOW. “Far more important than going up to heaven is the in-ness and one-ness Jesus wants us to experience already with God – that same in-ness and one-ness that Jesus [himself] has with the Father. In the rich relationship of mutual in-dwelling, the eternal life is already ours. Never would John’s Gospel say that Jesus and God are now up in heaven, waiting until the end times to come back to earth and take us away to heaven…” in some Rapture or other. “God dwells with us now, on earth, in mystical communion through the Spirit…”  [Barbara Rossing, New Proclamation Year A 2005].


And what about that many-mansioned “house” of God? When John promised us in Chapter 1 verse 14 that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he also warned right there at the beginning that “he came to his own, and his own people did not accept him.” We dwell already in God’s house – God’s “oikos,” God’s “oikonomia,” God’s economy. But we are all-too inclined not to recognize it. And because we don’t recognize it, we don’t follow the new commandment, and we don’t exhibit the kind of all-embracing, all-inclusive love that Jesus shone with and bid us take into ourselves, becoming one with him – one with God – in the power of that love.


Nevertheless, despite our difficulty SEEING this divine “household,” this divine economy surrounding and holding us NOW and at all times, in all places, the passage we read from 1 Peter should give us confidence: we are BEING BUILT TOGETHER – LIVING STONES IN CHRIST THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE – into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, God’s own people, “in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are not awaiting some heavenly dwelling. We are EVEN NOW BEING BUILT INTO GOD’S oikos, God’s household. God in Christ DWELLS among us and WITHIN US, and WE ARE TO BE RESURRECTION, WE ARE TO BE GOD’S GLORY in a dark and dying world. Even if we have been “nobody,” God has made each and every one of us SOMEBODY in Christ, “hewing us, shaping us, building us together in a home into a community with others.” [ibid.]


In fact, I would submit to you that St. James’s itself has been having this experience of being built together into God’s dwelling place throughout the many years of waiting for construction to begin on our new parish house. Like the landscape in Maine, the trees have been barren a very long time, yet the experience of being spread over the landscape “in diaspora” for years together has been “hewing us, shaping us, building us together” in unexpected ways. Despite the endless frustration and yes, real grief and loss in not being able to provide collations for the funerals of our loved ones, not being able to cook meals for the hungry and the lonely in our neighborhood, not being able to house the growing-up and formation of our children in our own “house,” we have STILL been learning and learning ever more deeply, how God’s love can abide and thrive and expand in us even without that palpable “dwelling place” for our parish life. God knows I long for the resurrection of our life of formation and fellowship in that beautiful building-to-be. But I am not waiting for that to embrace God’s call to loving mission. And I know you also are not waiting passively.


Believe in me …but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” If you doubt me, just come to Sylvia, Lauren’s and Lucas’ introduction to the Communications Guidelines we’re using in the Anti-Oppression Team to combat our own racism, after this service today. Or just sign up to join your fellow congregation members in attending next Thursday’s Greater Boston Interfaith Organization action at Temple Israel on Longwood Ave. in Boston, an action dedicated to providing affordable housing – dwelling places – in the greater Boston metropolis and to combating the impact of mass incarceration in undermining the economic well-being of our neighbors and family members of color. GBIO is, beyond anything, an experience of being “living stones,” built together into God’s new economy of resurrection, God’s economy of love.


I don’t know about you, but at this moment, in this particular Easter season, this issue of loss and grief is not reserved for the experience of a friend or loved one’s dying. In this Easter season, I am experiencing a profound sense of loss and grief at the demise of a certain confidence I had in the rational, civic power of democracy. The oak branches of democracy, in these last few weeks and months, have seemed to me stripped bare, grimly and worryingly denuded. Birdsong and green grass aside, it has been hard to believe in resurrection. The wound of loss has been gaping in my soul, threatening my optimism.


But far from undermining my faith, this experience of loss, of wounded confidence, has rather driven my faith deeper into my spirit, rather as I imagine the impending threat of crucifixion did Jesus’ own faith. At least I fondly claim this Jesus of the Last Supper as my Way, my Truth & my Life for just such a time as this. So I was delighted to read that my New Testament professor Dr. L. William Countryman – one of my chief mentors in the dynamics of resurrection and tutors in the abiding love of God – was speaker at the Diocese of Los Angeles Clergy Conference recently. There he reminded everyone, “Hope carries on creatively when optimism has been forced to yield.” [the Rev. Susan Russell’s Facebook page, 5-10-17]


Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me,” says Jesus in John’s Gospel. “In my Father’s house there are many resting places.” Come, rest in God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And let that resting imbue you with hope, the hope carries on creatively, whatever the loss, however dire the conditions around you, trusting in the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.