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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