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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.