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Tuesday
Sep082015

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 15 Pentecost 9-6-15

Audio recording of Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 15 Pentecost

 

Proper 18 Year B, Track 2, 9-6-13

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Ps. 146; [James 2:1-17], Mark 7:24-37

“Ephphátha: be Opened!” Open us, O God, to your power! Open us to our own power to speak and act, fueled by your grace! Open us to trust enough in your generous love to take risks with that power! AMEN.

In the chapter just before today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has just miraculously multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd of Five Thousand. Now, he has traveled out of Jewish territory and into Gentile territory, in the region of Tyre. He’s basically hiding out there, because in addition to already being in trouble with his own Jewish authorities, he’s a foreigner at risk in hostile Gentile territory. But, as the Gospel passage says, healer and miracle-worker that he’s already known to be, “he couldn’t escape notice,” and a woman shows up whose daughter is afflicted, seeking healing, as any mother would. The only trouble is, this mother happens to be a Greek Gentile, as Mark is firm in pointing out. So a Jew like Jesus shouldn’t let her associate with him. Let alone she’s a woman, and no woman in her culture should speak to a strange man in public, nor the man to her. But speak she does, bold enough – and desperate enough on her daughter’s behalf – to ask Jesus to “cast the demon out of her daughter.

Jesus’ answer to this boundary-crossing woman is more “culturally appropriate,” even if doesn’t sound like the compassionate Jesus we know and love. To be honest, he sounds more like a page out of the anti-immigrant playbook in the current presidential campaign: “Let the children – the children of Israel, he means – be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is the kind of dismissive answer that would silence just about anyone other than Jorge Ramos of Univision! “Dogs,” after all, are reviled, dirty creatures: an insult of the first order! But it doesn’t silence this Syrophoenician mother. She comes right back at Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!

It is hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine the full force of the dynamics in this brief interchange between Jesus and the Gentile woman. First there’s the layer of Gentile vs. Jewish, a highly fraught matter of national enmities and rivalries, in which the upstart Jews are viewed by the Gentiles as having long since “stolen” territory rightfully theirs. Then there’s the gender dynamic. Women – Gentile OR Jewish – are to be silent. Men are the speakers. Women are to be dependent upon men for their welfare and for their voice. This is not just a matter of practicalities. It’s a matter for fundamental value: a man’s honor is everything to the man’s identity and his whole family’s identity. For a woman to argue with a man in public – let alone to WIN the argument – is to threaten his honor. It is to show him at a disadvantage, in weakness. It is to SHAME him.

The Syrophoenician woman didn’t just speak up against Jesus’ dismissal. She turned his own argument on him and BESTED HIM. In front of his disciples and everyone in the gathered crowd, she SHAMED HIM.

And how did he respond? Did he lash back and throw her out into the hallway? Did he curl up in a defensive ball? Did he whine about how they shouldn’t have let her in in the first place? No. Ephphatha. He was opened. His eyes, his mind, his heart were opened in that moment. And his tongue loosened in compassion. Just as he had multiplied the loaves for the hungry five thousand (and will multiply them again for another hungry four thousand in Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel), he realized that there were crumbs enough to go around for all. And he said, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.

In these paired Gospel stories of Mark’s, the deaf-mute man is opened. The Syrophoenician woman is opened. Her daughter is opened. Jesus is opened. Can we dare to be opened, ourselves? We who are bound by our fear of scarcity, can we open our tight-fisted grip and share? Alternatively, we who are diminished and even traumatized by society, dismissed as having no voice, can we dare to be opened and speak boldly, to claim our rightful share of the world’s good?

This week, refugees from war and economic hardship flooded across the Mediterranean seeking asylum and opportunity only to be imprisoned in Hungary if not drowned in the sea and Europe’s government continued to dither helplessly about who should take responsibility and exhibit generosity. Our presidential debate continued to revolve around so-called “illegals.” And, after the shooting of an officer in Texas, the debate on the “Black Lives Matter” movement sharpened a new edge of defensiveness among those who would describe the police as the ones threatened, not the African-Americans. As I read and reread this Gospel story in this environment, it began to seem as if the whole world is closed like a fist around our fear of scarcity and fissured by divisions between those who have voice and those who have none.

Then I read and reread joyous Psalm 146, and the first reading, filled with Isaiah’s lyrical encouragement, and I let the rejoicing sink in, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, opening eyes, unstopping ears, inspiring the lame to leap and the speechless not just to speak but to sing for joy!”

And I thought of how the Syrophoenician mother had the courage to take these promises of Isaiah’s and the Psalm’s seriously, and step right over the social boundaries and ask for what she needed, and not take “no” for an answer. It’s as if she’d just read TED talker and scholar/writer Brené Brown’s latest book, exhorting us to  “Dare Greatly!

Brown would say Jesus’ resistance to the woman’s request comes from the fear of scarcity, fear that the crumbs won’t stretch far enough. She quotes global activist Lynne Twist, who writes, “For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next one is, ‘I don’t have enough time.’ Whether true or not, that thought of ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of… Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life…” [pp. 25-26, Dare Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent & Lead]

But interestingly, Brené Brown says that “the counterapproach to living in scarcity is not about abundance. In fact,” she says, “I think abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance or ‘more than you could ever imagine.’ [God knows, if abundance were the cure, this society would be awash in open-handed generosity!] The opposite of scarcity is enough, or,” she says, “what I call Wholeheartedness… there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is [both] vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing [in the face of all that, that nevertheless] I am enough.” [Ibid., p. 29, underlining and edits mine]

The Syrophoenician woman’s “Wholeheartedness” opened her mouth and gave her voice to speak up boldly to the Jewish healer. And the Jewish healer, Jesus, received her boldness with “Wholeheartedness” enough – vulnerability and worthiness enough – to open his own heart, even though those around him would view him as having been shamed.

For me, as a White person in this moment of awareness in the Black Lives Matter Movement, “Wholeheartedness” means being able to receive the anger and frustration of my Black friends and colleagues without personalizing their rage to mean that I personally am shamed and devalued. “Wholeheartedness” means I can be open – ephphatha – to that frustration and take it into my spirit without being diminished or disabled by it, but instead can allow myself to be persuaded by it to take action to push back against the huge tectonic plates of racism that grind people of color into generational economic and educational and emotional disadvantage. I can take action by speaking up about the truth of that racism in a voice other White people can hear because – like it or not – it’s a White voice.

What would “Wholeheartedness” call YOU to hear, see, or do that you haven’t the courage to hear, see or do when fear of scarcity rules the day? Or when your own diminishment has deprived you of a voice? Ephphatha! Leap like a deer! Rejoice and SING! AMEN.

Monday
Aug312015

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 14 Pentecost 8-30-15

Audio recording of Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 14 Pentecost

 

Proper 17 Year B Option 2 8-30-15

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps. 15; [James 1:17-27]; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Implant your word in us, O God, that we may be quick to listen but slow to speak and slow to anger, so that we may become doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves. AMEN. [adapted from James 1:19-21]

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…Grafting…”“Increasing…” “Nourishing…” “Bringing forth…” If you have been shopping the burgeoning farmers’ markets as I have during these weeks of my vacation, or better yet, if you have been harvesting beans, squashes and tomatoes from your own vines, this wonderful language of growth and harvest from our Collect for this morning will feel comfortable in your mind, like a warm heirloom tomato in the palm, heavy with juice pressing beneath the tender smoothness of the thin skin, ready to burst. It’s delightful to think of our faith as swelling, tomato-like, in our souls, nurtured by God’s grace until it overflows irresistibly in the succulent sweetness of good works!

But anyone who has grown tomatoes knows, it’s not quite that simple. As mysterious and miraculous, ultimately, as the tomato is – how DID the Holy Spirit conceive something at once so beautiful and so delicious, so broadly various in its utility, capable of being devoured in its freshness or being stored almost infinitely for future use? – it takes serious work to get a tomato to fruition. It takes the cultivation of a soil rich in nutrients; it must be trained up on wires; it must be patrolled for boring insects, mold, and blight; it must be fed and watered at the right times and given enough sunlight; in fact, if you REALLY want your tomatoes to succeed, you must even pluck off the excess leaves so that the sunlight can reach the fruit directly.

So it’s not such a surprise that, even as the Collect frames up our worship for today with the language of harvest, as if the grace of God simply went to work within us to bring forth plenteous kindness, deep listening, and mercy, the passages from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Mark – yes, we’ve returned to Mark for the remainder of the year, having completed our deep reflection on holy communion in John’s Gospel this summer – these passages suggest something far more strenuous and tenuous, something, as Deuteronomy says, that must be “observed diligently,” cultivated consistently and continuously, never allowed to slip from the mind and be forgotten even for a moment. Yet, as Jesus seems intent upon conveying to the “Pharisees” in Mark’s Gospel (Pharisees being “a code word in Mark for [any]official Jewish religious attitudes”), the very discipline of cultivation itself – the sedulous washing of hands, cups, pots, and bronze kettles, like so many of the other detailed requirements of daily life contained in the “tradition of the elders” for the purpose of keeping our awareness of God burnished and bright - can become fraught and problematic, becoming an instrument of domination and cruelty towards the ostensibly less-observant, accruing to itself and to us, its practitioners, too much power and too much credit for the outcome; eventually ending up in idolatrous judgment, distracting us from God’s grace and hurting others. [Gail Ramshaw, Proper 17, New Proclamation Year B 2003]

This summer’s cultivation for me was not tomatoes, but the labor, together with my two brothers and my sister, of dividing up the material harvest of our parents’ lives: the photographs and paintings, some even by the hand of an ancestor or family member, redolent of family history or peculiarly mute and inscrutable when the figures are not identified; the books with their under-linings and dedications to one relative or another, many worn with repeated readings - my grandmother’s French New Testament, tiny to fit in the gloved hand in church, my dad’s seminal work on the First British Labor Government, the Margaret Wise Brown and Robert McCloskey children’s books; and then the furniture and pottery, brass and fabrics, all telling tales of time and use and often, love. This distribution came within the context of burying the last of our parents’ ashes in my mother’s family burial plot in Manchester Vermont, placing ourselves within a long continuum of loss and life stretching back to 1801, when my great great great grandfather Joseph Dresser Wickham, as a tot, climbed a tree in a graveyard to hear Alexander Hamilton speak in Thomas Jefferson’s presidential election. Everything we regarded, my siblings and I, everything whose fate we had to decide – whether to keep it, or to let it go - was saturated with memory and significance, layers upon layers of family tradition and myth.

Surely the distribution of such a legacy might be supposed, like those heirloom tomatoes, to have simply fallen into our hands with the richness and gratitude of grace. But we discovered, as one does wherever grief is the underground river that runs, silent and dark, under one’s activities, that we had truly been raised in the “tradition of our elders,” and that useful as that tradition was, it too often smacked more of competitive “fairness” than of mercy. And matters were all the more complicated because not one of us – white, highly educated, economically and socially privileged as we are – was entirely at home in our material inheritance. In fact, we were, each in our own way, embarrassed of our good fortune and uncomfortable with our position in the wider inequity in a society of ever-more privileged “haves” and ever-more challenged “have-not-so-much,” and “have less-and-less.” Our process of selection, as carefully constructed as it was to insure that all had equal access to the things that mattered to them and as scrupulously as we observed it, became the instrument of long-held resentments and internal ambivalences imposed in judgment upon each other and even erupting in fury.  As my sister observed midway through the process, our family “doctrine of exceptionalism” extended to our insistence that each of us had THE exceptional process of handling our discomfort with our own good fortune in coming from a family possessed of so much privilege, so much history, and so much darned STUFF! We are formed in many ways by many things, and not all of them, no matter how “virtuous” their origins, are helpful in the ambiguous enterprise of being a human being in relationship with other human beings, any more than that observant washing of cups was for Jesus’ compatriots!

As I read Mark’s Gospel for today, I can see Jesus, perched on the old carved footstool to one side of our Vermont living room, looking on at our proceedings with a gently skeptical eye, and prompting us, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Understand me: neither Jesus nor I am recommending that we abandon Deuteronomy’s council of discipline. The tomato will not simply grow itself. I’m grateful in so many ways for my siblings’ and my long family discipline of fairness and concern for others. But in the end, no amount of scrupulosity on our parts as fallible human beings will ever get it perfectly right. In the end that scrupulosity turns upon itself and begins to devour its own hind-end. Because in the end, all the discipline in the world is only to bring us closer to God, to enable us to trustenough in the largeness of God to allow our little human selves to be more open, more vulnerable, more willing to “listen deeply” and learn new things, more willing to see our own shortcomings and forgive others theirs, more willing to let grace and mercy trump righteousness.

Whatever care we’ve lavished on them, in the end what makes our tomatoes the thing of beauty that they are is as mysterious as ever. We owe it to them – to ourselves, to my brothers and sister and to each fallible “other” of us – to be humble – and kind – in the face of them. And give God thanks and praise. AMEN.

Tuesday
Aug252015

Eric Litman's Sermon for 13 Pentecost 8-23-15

St. James’s Episcopal Church
August 23rd, 2015
John 6:56-69

I have something personal and a little embarrassing that I want to share with you this morning.  The site of my own blood makes me pass out and lose consciousness.  Fortunately, the only time I typically encounter the site of my blood is during the blood test at my yearly check-up.  Where, I have to shamefully remind the person drawing my blood that I am not allowed to sit in a chair and that I have to lie down….for safety.  I usually get a returned glance with a little surprise and maybe a bit of pity.  More than a few times the story where I fell out of my chair while getting my blood drawn, the story where I woke up to smelling salts, and an alarm going off and a crowd of doctors and nurses hovering over me is retold…for safety reasons and also for a good chuckle.  I am not fearful of blood or in any real pain when my blood is drawn, yet there is something about this process that triggers this involuntary over reaction.  The response is not rationale.  Most of our blood is supposed to stay in our bodies, without blood the complexities of our human biological systems would not persist or function.  Blood gives life and the loss of blood can end it.  I think this reality is somehow too intense for my psyche to rationalize while watching blood flow in the wrong direction out of my body.  It at least makes me feel like less of a wimp to get philosophical about it.  The thought of blood can evoke strong reactions.  It certainly did for the disciples in this morning’s gospel reading.    

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

This phrase was difficult for the disciples to hear.   The text says many of them could not accept this teaching and left.  And some, although still uncertain as to what this actually meant, stayed with Jesus because they believed Jesus was truly the Messiah.  Jesus is clearly being provocative here, but is this merely Jesus as provocateur, Jesus as antagonist, creator of controversy and challenger of traditional religion?  Or is there something even more radical going on here than the consumption of actual flesh and blood.  Several commentators note, that in first century Palestine the phrase “flesh and blood” was an idiom for “the whole person.”  It does not seem likely that Jesus was trying to unsettle dietary laws or use any type of pagan images of cannibalism.  He was asking his disciples a simple question, “do you accept the whole me," not a caricature of me, but my flesh and my blood?  Will you love and accept me so intimately that you will eat and drink of my personhood, of my humanity?        

Over the past several weeks in the Gospel of John we’ve heard Jesus refer to himself as the “Bread of Life,” and the “Bread of Heaven,” more than a few times.  This language evokes more of a cosmic image of Jesus, a heavenly provider who sends us spiritual sustenance when we are hungry and weary.  This discourse on the bread of life explores the divine aspect of Jesus nature, but in the incarnation the divine, heavenly Jesus collides with flesh and blood.  The heavens and the earth become one.  The incarnation of Jesus formed an organic union between God and humanity.  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, those who know and follow me, the Messiah, the Son of God, will abide in me, and I in them.”  In our earliest Anglican liturgies we find this phrase in our Eucharist prayer, “that he may dwell in us and we in him.”  God is in us and we are in God.  The material and the spiritual exist dialectically together, affirming our humanity and the divine sanctity of the natural world in which we live.  This concept has always been central to the Anglican traditions understanding of faith and being.  

Richard Hooker called this organic union between God and humanity, divine participation.  God participates in our being and we participate in God’s being and mission.  This very idea that Jesus abides in us and we in Him provides a very different context for our experience of God in this world.  God is not confined to a far off cosmic resting place, or the Church, or the Bible or to sacred objects, God abides in all of creation and God continues to bring healing to the world through our participation in the extension of God’s grace and love.   Our primary calling as Christians is not to be preservationists, to protect safe places for God to exist in the world but rather we are called live lives that recognize the presence of God in all things, to recognize the divine image and dignity present within all of humanity and to recognize the sanctity of the natural world in which we live. 

When Jesus says, ““Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he’s affirming this very reality.  This language seems to hint towards the institution of the Eucharist. The Eucharist being our ancient ritual; that mystically and symbolically reminds us of the reality that God is with us always, with our flesh and blood.

Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox priest; he wrote this about the Eucharist:
“The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom [on earth]. We use the word 'dimension' because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies 'come alive' when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”

When we process into the world knowing that God is dwelling in us and among us, we see things differently, from a different vantage point.  The mundane becomes sacred, the untouchable becomes touchable and our life together takes on new meaning.

When we receive the Eucharist we use the language found in the Gospel of John: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” Jesus abiding in each of us and we in Him.  Let our Amens be affirmations of God’s abiding love in us all. 

Amen.  

Tuesday
Aug182015

Reed Carlson's Sermon for 12 Pentecost 8-16-15

Audio recording of Reed Carlson's Sermon for 12 Pentecost

 

HOW CAN THIS MAN GIVE US FLESH TO EAT?
A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA

on the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost (Year B), Aug 16, 2015

Proverbs 9:1-6 | Psalm 34:9-14 | Ephesians 5:15-20 | John 6:51-58

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu

1.

Have you ever changed your mind about something?

Not just something little, I’m talking about one of your hard core beliefs.

How did that happen?

Was it instantaneous?

Was there a process leading up to it?

Did you relapse and then come around again?

When my wife and I were dating, I realized pretty early on that I was going to have to change my mind about something: dancing.

Now, I am from Minnesota.

And I am of Scandinavian descent.

I do not like dancing.

Rhythm. Arms. Swaying. It’s just not my thing.

I like music.

I even like dance music.

But my attitude has always been this: Why wreck a perfectly good song by moving during it?

Incidentally, do you know why so many northern europeans don’t like dancing?

It’s because it’s too much like expressing your feelings.

Except it’s worse because you’re expressing your feelings with your body.

The problem is that none of these excuses would work on my wife.

She is also from Minnesota and she is also Scandinavian and she also loves dancing—salsa dancing, in particular.

So I realized early on that if this relationship was going to work out, I had to change my mind about dancing.

So, I let her give me a few pointers.

We went out to salsa clubs with her friends.

I actually took a few lessons.

And what I learned from all of this is that, actually, I am a terrible salsa dancer.

But despite that, I had changed my mind.

There have been a few times in my life when I actually enjoyed dancing.

Now, it’s still not my “go to” activity.

But, one of my hardcore beliefs: “I don’t like dancing” had changed.

 

2.

In Christian tradition and in many of our scriptures there is often a heavy emphasis on belief.

John 3:16, maybe the most famous Bible verse in English: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

We confess it in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…”

For some people, what you believe is the most important part of being a Christian—particularly if you’re convinced that you have to believe everything exactly right in order to be saved.

In its most extreme form, for these folks, becoming a Christian can be seen as kind of an intellectual, interior experience—either you believe or you don’t.

 

3.

Other Christians put less emphasis on belief.

After all, there are also a lot of scriptures and traditions that emphasize what you do,

how you act towards one another, what community you belong to,

what rituals you regularly participate in and find life-giving.

On this side, there can sometimes be a reaction against the first camp.

Not so much an anti-belief Christianity, but perhaps a discomfort with believe-talk,

a tendency to kind of say, “Yeah, but…”

This can stem from just an honest, intellectual difficulty with some of the doctrines of the church.

or perhaps a desire not to be mistaken by friends and peers as a fundamentalist.

It can also come from the very true conviction that there is more to faith than simply counting how many dogmatic boxes you can check off in your head.

So what, then, is a Christian’s responsibility to “belief”?

That’s what I would like to talk about for a few more minutes this morning.

 

4.

A few moments ago, Eric read to us from the Gospel of John.

This Gospel maybe has more to say to us about “belief” than any of the others.

Now, just so that we’re all on the same page, in church we often talk about the four Gospels.

These are four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life.

If you grew up in church or if you’ve done some studying on this, you might know that while these books agree substantially on the major points, they tell the story of Jesus differently.

Some contain stories that others don’t.

Sometimes they tell the same story with different details.

Sometimes they disagree on the timeline of Jesus’ life.

These are not old observations.

The church has always been aware of these differences.

For millennia, theologians, scholars, people of faith and people with no faith have been analyzing and hypothesizing about the relationships between these books as well as other ancient accounts of Jesus that aren’t even in our Bibles.

To some degree, the church decided that preserving a multiplicity of perspectives on Jesus was important.

That’s why we have four gospels instead of one.

This morning’s reading is one of those moments where having that multiplicity is important.

You see, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much more in common with each other than they do with John.

None of them disagree about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but John is missing some things that we might think of as essential, like Jesus’ birth, or his baptism, or the fact that Jesus told parables.

Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John was probably the last one to be written.

And many scholars also agree that John probably knew about these other traditions about Jesus.

So it’s not so much that he is ignoring the other stories,

rather, he wants to say some things about Jesus that had not yet been said.

For example, it’s only in John that we get the stories of turning water into wine, the woman at the well, and the raising of Lazarus.

It’s also only in John that we get the long discourse about “the bread of life” that we have been immersed in for 4 weeks now with one more segment next week.

 

5.

This text has often been interpreted as alluding to communion.

I mean after all, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

(I mean if this isn’t a metaphor for communion, what kind of weird cult are we are we dealing with here?)

But it’s worth noting that bread, wine and table are not really mentioned here.

In fact, no where in the Gospel of John is there anything resembling the last supper.

According to John, on the night before he dies, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

So what am I saying?

Is it really cannibalism after all?

Yes!

 

6.

(No, just kidding)

However, I do think we are supposed to be a little grossed out by this.

His audience even says it for us, “How can this man give us flesh to eat?

Additionally, I think we’re supposed to hear echoes of the Eucharist—even though it’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and there’s no last supper.

It can be hard to follow the argument here, because Jesus’ entire speech is spread out over five weeks in our schedule,

but the point that Jesus has been building towards is that believing is like eating.

Believing is like eating. That’s his big idea.

He says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

I am the bread of life.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever;

and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

This kind of code switching and mixing metaphors might be frowned upon in modern discourse, but in the ancient world, this was a recognized literary form.

It was designed to be meditated on over and over again.

(Chewed on, if you will).

And one of things that I realize as I chew on this passage is that there is an aspect of faith that is so visceral, so dramatic, and so essential to our lives, that it’s like eating.

And that aspect is belief.

When it says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” but intentionally does not reference communion, we’re meant to recognize that the communion table is not the only place where we eat the bread of life.

You have to believe. Believing is like eating.

 

7.

However, I think for Jesus, belief is so much more than a kind of parody of intellectual assent.

I think it might be analogous in some way to my experience with changing my mind about dancing when I met my wife.

Belief is often a process.

It’s something you have to live into a little bit.

It might be something that you waver on and perhaps always hold with a little bit of tension.

Most importantly, when Jesus talks about belief, it is always rooted in relationship.

You know, when it comes to believing, it’s going to feel different for everyone.

For some people, belief comes quite naturally.

The Bible calls that the Spiritual Gift of Faith and it’s something to be celebrated and not discredited as naïve or uneducated.

But for other people, belief is hard.

I mean, let’s be honest, Christianity makes some pretty outstanding claims.

That’s why things like a loving community, thoughtful worship and ritual are so important.

They give us a chance to rehearse being a Christian—

—to belong before we believe.

The thing is, I have met people who are so hard on themselves or so convinced that faith is not for them because they struggle with this aspect the Gospel.

But the thing is, sometimes skepticism is actually a manifestation of another Spiritual Gift—

—the Gift of Wisdom.

The Gift of Refusing Easy Answers.

It’s no accident that this Gospel of John that puts so much emphasis on belief is also the Gospel that tells us the story of Thomas, sometimes called “Doubting Thomas.”

He is best remembered as the apostle who would not settle for anything less intimate than literally touching the resurrected flesh of Jesus.

In this sense, belief is not the first step in Christian faith, but the meals that we eat that keep us going on the journey.

The body of Christ is full of people like Thomas.

It’s full of people like you.

And Jesus speaks about you as well when he says, I will raise them up on the last day.

Amen. 

Tuesday
Aug112015

Reed Carlson's Sermon for 11 Pentecost 8-9-15

Audio recording of Reed Carlson's Sermon for 11 Pentecost

 

WHOEVER EATS OF THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER
A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA

on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost (Year B), Aug 9, 2015

1 Kings 19:4-8 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Ephesians 4:25-5:2 | John 6:35, 41-51

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu

1.

Last week I had the opportunity to watch a free performance of Romeo and Juliet in a graveyard.

The production was sponsored by a community arts group up in Lynn.

The show was great. I really enjoyed it.

One of the things I was thinking about as I was watching was how different the play seemed to me now.

I remember having to read it in english class in high school.

I remember watching the Baz Luhrman movie version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

But now, as an adult, I realized that I was bringing a completely different perspective to the play.

My questions had changed.

In high school I had asked stuff like this: 

Was Juliet hot?

If everything I said was a poem, would that help me get a girlfriend?

How is it that Romeo and Juliet fell in love so fast?

Is that what love is like?

But this past weekend I was asking stuff like this:

Why is Romeo such an idiot?

Is Juliet old enough to be making these kinds of decisions?

Doesn’t the friar realize that his meddling is just making things worse?

Is young love really so destructive? 

2.

You see, the play is rich enough to provoke questions from a wide range of audiences.

It’s one of those rare pieces of art that doesn’t change and yet changes with you as you get older.

I don’t know know about some of you, but for me, this reminds me of my experience of faith.

On the one hand, the stories of the Bible, the creeds of the church, these things don’t really change

and yet as I get older, I come to them with new questions and new perspectives.

This isn’t true only for individuals.

I think it also applies to cultures and to generations.

The questions that fascinated people of faith generations ago are not the same that we ask today.

For example, a few centuries ago, when the Episcopal or Anglican church was becoming distinct from the Roman Catholic church, one of the big questions was this: Does God love me?

And over the years, and decades, it was followed up by a lot of related questions:

How does God love me?

How do I know that God loves me?

Do I have to do something to deserve God’s love?

Does God love other people?

Does God love some people more than other people?

For much of modern history, Does God love me? has been THE question that Christians have been asking and in turn answering.

If you grew up in the church, you might have heard lots of answers to all of those questions.

But today I think, many people around us are asking new questions.

One of them is this: What kind of God?

What kind of God is the Christian God versus some other god?

What kind of God includes some people but excludes other people?

What kind of God makes a bunch of rules and punishes you if you don’t follow them?

In other words, before you tell me about God loving me and all that stuff, what kind of God are we talking about here?

The thing is, Christians, we’re not always well equipped to answer these questions.

Someone may ask:

What kind of God would say that there is only one way to live your life?

We stick our hands in our pockets. Get this knowing look on our face.

Well you see, Jesus’ death is a propitiating atonement, which sates God’s wrath and thereby substitutes for the…

(It’s not good enough, right?)

It’s not that we don’t have the resources in our tradition to address some of these questions, it’s that for hundreds of years, Christians haven’t had to consider them.

3.

Our gospel reading this morning has a kind of what kind of God feel to it.

Jesus is trying to talk about this very spiritual “bread of life” stuff but he’s interrupted.

People say, Hold on, where is it you come from again?

Don’t we know your parents?

You can’t be that special.

You see, it’s the kind of question that’s a little more skeptical but also more thorough.

I like to think of it like kicking the tires before you buy the car.

4.

This passage in the gospel of John is very rich in resonances with the Old Testament.

One of those resonances is with the stories of manna in the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers.

You see, during the time of Moses, when the Israelites came out of Egypt they wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the promised land.

And while they were out there, God fed them with a heavenly bread called manna that would settle like dew in the grounds around their camp.

Despite this miracle, the Israelites were constantly complaining in these stories, it’s kind of a theme.

This was a story well known in Jesus’ day and it’s this story he is riffing on when he says, Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

Jesus even casts them in the role of the murmuring Israelites when he says, Do not complain among yourselves.

Jesus alludes to another passage, Isaiah 54.

He says, It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.”

These words were hundreds of years old, but by the time of Jesus they had been interpreted together with other Old Testament passages to mean that when the messiah came, no longer would Jews need someone to explain the scriptures to them, because God would teach them almost in-person and write the words on their hearts.

Now these references might seem very cryptic and almost academic to us, but in Jesus’ world of first century Judaism, the references probably would have been instantly recognizable to many people.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they asked Jesus a very practical, direct question and he answered in a very spiritual, kind of obscure way.

What kind of God offers “bread of life,” when people are just hungry for real bread.

5.

I think part of what Jesus is doing in this passage and in other places is trying to answer that question, what kind of God.

And he’s doing it from their own scriptures, in hopes that they will recognize him.

He explains who he is and what he offers that you can’t get anywhere else.

Bread is available everywhere, miraculous bread even, the Israelites enjoyed in the wilderness.

But Jesus says, I am the bread of life.

Later on, it’s light. Jesus says, I am the light of the world.

I am the door, he says in John 10. I am the good shepherd.

I am the true vine.

I am the resurrection and the life.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

These are the things that Jesus claims to be.

And by the end of the story before Easter, this is the kind of God that Jesus claims to be. 

6.

You know, when people come through the doors of our churches, I don’t think they come looking for part time, unpaid, volunteer work.

I don’t think they’re looking for a social club.

I don’t think they’re looking for a British heritage society.

They’re looking for the bread of life.

They’re looking for the light of the world.

Because all of that other stuff is available outside of our doors.

In fact, often times they do it better out there.

But in here, in this place, we do good shepherd, we do true vine, we do resurrection and life, that’s our specialty.

Sometimes I think we lean on those other things because we don’t know how to answer the question, what kind of God.

And hey, I am just as guilty of this as anyone else is.

Because in the world we live in, it’s much easier to say something like this:

Welcome to church, do you want to sign up for this thing?

That’s easier to say than something like this:

Welcome to church, this is the place where we eat the bread of life and live forever.

7.

Now, I hope you’re hearing me correctly on this.

I am not saying that our social justice work is misguided.

Or that the fellowship we enjoy together is some how not sacred.

Or that it’s a waste that our volunteers give so much of their time to keep the lights on and the kids safe.

I’m not saying that, just the opposite in fact.

We do all of these things not because we’re trying to hide our kind of God but because we’re trying to show it.

Every meal we make for the homeless, every step we march against injustice, every boring committee meeting—we do it because, as the psalmist says, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

It’s my prayer that this church and every church would take that challenge seriously, what kind of God?

Because, in the end, that’s what we’re here for—to tell people.

Some of us answer doing.

Some of us answer by giving.

Some of us answer by speaking out.

But all of us can answer by believing.

As Jesus says, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.

Amen.

Monday
Aug102015

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 10 Pentecost 8-2-15

Audio recording of Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 10 Pentecost

 

Proper 13 Year B 8-2-15

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Ps. 78:23-29; John 6:24-35

May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in us, direct and uphold us in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen. [Prayer for Reaffirmation of Baptism, Book of Common Prayer p. 310]

What a lovely conjunction it is to be baptizing small Nathaniel Sackton on this high-summer Sunday in which we begin to read deeply into the Gospel of John Chapter Six, which is where John’s Jesus addresses the sacrament of the Eucharist. So today we bring together – simply because this was the convenient baptismal day for Nathaniel’s family – the two “Great Sacraments” of the Church: the sacrament of Baptism and the sacrament of the Eucharist.  Which is how they have always been experienced, like two halves of a circle, says liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanaugh, each leading into the other, and both inviting us, as 16th century theologian Richard Hooker wrote in the early days of the formation of the Anglican Church of which we are a part, to “participate more and more deeply in Christ.” Think of Baptism as our initiation into Jesus Christ, dying – literally “drowning” – to our separate self and identifying utterly with Jesus’ loving unity with God. Then think of Eucharist – or “Communion,” as we often call it – as the weekly renewing and deepening of that baptismal identity and union between ourselves and Christ and Christ and God, re-member-ing Christ’s own loving self-offering so “that they may all be one,” as Jesus later prays to God in Chapter 17 of the Gospel, on the eve of his crucifixion, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me“ [John 17:21-23]

Now Jesus in John’s Gospel often seems to be confusing things as much as he is clarifying things, leaving the disciples and the crowds and all of us even 2000 years later often a little off-balance, a little flat-footed, a little perplexed. But if you were to read the whole Gospel and then place these verses from Chapter Six in the early middle, you might begin to get the feeling that this confusion of ours is intentional on John’s part. He doesn’t want us ever to get too comfortable with our own interpretation! He doesn’t want us to settle for mere cognitive comprehension. He doesn’t want us to get too comfortable in our material lives. He doesn’t even want us to get too comfortable in our sacramental lives. He wants us to keep moving us into a much more mysterious, dare I say “mystical” union with God such as Jesus is trying to evoke in that wonderful swirling language of the Chapter 17 prayer: I in you and you in me, and they in us and all are becoming completely one.” Because if John’s Gospel is anything, it’s an invitation into a lifelong journey in which we pass through and discard layer upon layer of understanding as we move deeper into Jesus’ love. If conversion and baptism are the beginning of this journey, as Nathaniel’s baptism today is the beginning of his journey into union with Christ in God, and the practice of joining himself and ourselves to Jesus’ offering of his own body in sacrificial love in the Eucharist, in communion, invites us further on along the way of learning to “abide in Christ,” the vision of oneness is always somewhere out in front of us, drawing us onward.

So in the passages of Chapter 6 that precede today’s reading, Jesus miraculously feeds the crowd of five thousand with the mysterious multiplication of five barley loaves and two fish, and then walks on storm-waves to bring the wind-tossed boat of his disciples safely to shore. It certainly gets everyone’s attention! But in today’s passage, he seems to dismiss these things as too material, too limited in their significance to hold the whole of God’s promise for them. "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Pardonably, the crowd tries to nail him down on what he means, asking, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." And they say, “Well, do you mean we’ll have another miracle like the manna that fed our ancestors in the wilderness?” And he says, “No, this is going to be “the true bread from heaven… which gives life to the world.” And when they say, “Give us this bread always!” he replies, “I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We cannot be satisfied even with the bread and wine of the Eucharist, any more than we can be satisfied with the water of Baptism. Jesus is always inviting us beyond that, to a larger and more mysterious, more encompassing, more centering concord with the divine than we can easily fathom. Yet – just to confuse things further – that larger reality is always sending us back into the very material world in loving service to the well-being of others. Because if we are ONE with God, we are ONE with God’s beloved cosmos, as well.

So, small Nathaniel, in honor of your baptism today, it only seems appropriate to touch upon another mystic of the contemporary world whose enlarged sense of connection in loving service we have come to appreciate through his many books over time. And it seems appropriate, given that you come from a scientific family, that this particular mystic should be a scientist, a neurologist, in fact, the writer Dr. Oliver Sacks. Sacks, now in his 80’s, is dying of a rare melanoma cancer, and in that forge of eternity, has written a memoir, “On the Move,” that Atlantic reviewer Michael Roth says, “throws open [that vital] window” [on the world that Sacks’ work has long offered,] “paying attention to people whose illness might have rendered them invisible but for his gift of seeing them as beings with histories, with contexts… As a writer, he shifts our gaze from the horror of deficits to the wonder at the human ability to find a way to make sense of, even thrive in, an altered world. He says of his subjects that ‘[t]heir ‘conditions’ were fundamental to their lives and often a source of originality and creativity... In this volume Sacks opens himself to recognition, much as he has opened the lives of others to being recognized in their fullness. In brief remarks on his almost 50 years of psychoanalysis, Sacks tells the reader that his analyst, Leonard Shengold, ‘has taught me about paying attention, listening to what lies beyond consciousness or words.’ This is what Sacks has taught so many through his practice as a healer and through his work as a writer.” [http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/05/oliver-sacks-knows-what-it-really-means-to-live/393410/]

You might say that Oliver Sacks has, over the years, with a Eucharistic sensibility Jesus would recognize, moved from the very particular and vulnerable – his human patients afflicted with devastating neurological impairments – to the vastly meaningful and loving, seeing every patient as a testimony to unfathomable potential, imagination, and creativity. Without sacrificing one iota of the materiality in which he is embedded and to which he bends his very particular insight and concern, he has sought – and then illuminated for us, his readers – the universal, transpersonal, transformative.

So it’s no surprise that Sacks also writes about his impending death with similar transcendence. In February, when he received his terminal diagnosis, he wrote, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I feel a sudden clear focus & perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends…” [http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html]

Then just last Sunday in the New York Times, having just turned 82, Sacks writes of his return, as his life draws to a close, to his lifelong hunger to know about the physical sciences, thirsting for new knowledge, such as the weight of neutrons vs protons (infinitesimally heavier, he reports, “a trivial difference, one might think, but if it were otherwise the universe as we know it could never have developed”). And he tells of how he prioritized with his last good energy “a trip to North Carolina to see the wonderful lemur research center at Duke University. Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose,” he writes, “and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

Small Nathaniel, we are about to welcome you into the Body of Christ at St. James’s and seal you as Christ’s own, forever. Then we will pray that in the power of your baptism, you may be “sustained in the Holy Spirit,” that you may have “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” Such it is that Jesus invites us to partake of in the “bread of life” we receive in the Eucharist, a life that deeply values – no, treasures – this very material cosmos, as Oliver Sacks has treasured it, yet at the same time a baptismal life that opens far beyond mere nourishment, into the mystical realm of union, a love that binds us all into one.

Let’s give Sacks the last word: “A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city,” he writes, “I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death. I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.” “We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.” He sums up, “I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.”

May your life, Nathaniel, and ours, held in Jesus’ love, in the deepening of your baptism in the practice of Eucharist, have such a scope. AMEN.

Monday
Jul272015

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for the 150th St. James's Day 7-26-15

Audio recording of Holly Antolini's Sermon for the 150th St. James's Day 

 

150th St. James’s Day, 7-26-15

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Jeremiah 45:1-5; Ps. 7; Matthew 20:20-28

May our lives set forth and accomplish your purpose for the children of [all humanity] in this community [and around the world]. Open our minds, our hearts, and our wills that they may be used for this purpose.  Bless the members of this congregation that they may be so enlightened in this Anniversary Year that[your] will and purpose may be their will and purpose.  Send down upon us [your] Holy Spirit to direct us in all things, through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

[The Rev. Russell Way, from 1864-1964 Centennial Year St. James’s Parish]

That opening prayer is adapted from one the Rev. Russell Way, who served this congregation for 21 years, from 1961 to 1982, wrote in 1964 in honor of our 100th anniversary. Thank God we are a church that saves the record of those who came before us so we can find treasures like this to use on occasions like our 150th Anniversary of the Feast of St. James’s in Porter Square! [Am I right, Charlie Sullivan, Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission and preserver of the treasures of the past?!?] Thank God we have confidence in a God who chooses to work and has always chosen to work IN & THROUGH history, all history, even our own very particular, often fraught history! And a God who chooses to work in and through us, each of us struggling individual people, with our limitations of perspective and skill, bumbling about trying – with more and less success, depending on the odds of the moment and our native capacity - to live with purpose and make a contribution to the welfare of the world.

As our readings for St. James’s Day make very vividly and even painfully clear, that “working through us” that God chose to do in the making of Creation, the rendering of human beings from the dust of the earth and placing us amid the myriads of imaginative acts forming all around us, from the Kuiper Belt of Pluto to the ants that are most likely seeking out that enticingly sweet watermelon for our picnic at this very minute in our Garden, isn’t always a pretty process.

Anyone who gardens with any dedication has watched compost happen, watched that same “dust of the earth” become nutritious soil. We’ve tossed all our cast-off coffee grounds and peach skins and egg shells and carrot peels into the composter and glimpsed the rotting and breaking down and all the bug-and-bacterial life carrying on in that composter with a certain trepidation and even disgust. Then, long, long afterward, if we’ve stuck with it, we have dug out the moist, sweet-smelling chocolate-black soil all that messiness has created, and put it hopefully and happily around our newly planted seeds and newly rooted plants to nourish their growth and fruitfulness.

We are God’s compost, folks! There’s a whole lot of breaking down that has to go along with the building up, as we bring in God’s Kingdom, God’s commonwealth. It’s how God rolls! God didn’t create a world that’s neat and tidy. God didn’t create a world without suffering! Right now, we seem to be in an especially ROTTING phase of God’s ongoing Creation of the world, with a whole lot of “biting and devouring” going on generally in the compost of our current history. It would be easy either to give up on God or to give up on ourselves, in the face of it.

That’s precisely why it’s helpful to have a MARTYR for a patron saint!!! We at St. James’s have been shaped in our life together and our vision of God’s Mission, the missio Dei – God’s great Dream of Shalom for all of God’s Creation – in which we are all called to participate, by the fact that every year we celebrate the Feast Day of St. James’s.  So every year, for 150 years, we get reminded of how our patron saint, St. James, one of the original Apostles, in a time of famine in the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius – according to the Book of Acts Chapter 12 – attempted to make an ingathering for the relief of the starving little Christian community in Jerusalem, and in so doing, brought the wrath of King Herod down upon his head and wound up executed by the sword.

That means that when we, with our “good works,” our dedication of time, talent and treasure to address food insecurity in North Cambridge with the Food Pantry, or convene community for those who lack it in the “safe space” of the weekly Women’s Meal; we who partner with Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues and Christian congregations of all descriptions to advocate for a public policy that serves the most vulnerable in our greater metropolis in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization; we who commit a significant portion of our annual operating budget to the currency of relationship with those serving to educate orphans in Haiti and to empower community organizers in Nairobi Kenya, to keep girls in school in rural Kenya by providing menstrual materials, to grow a community of witness to Jesus’ liberating power in San Jose Costa Rica, to educate lay ministers in Lesotho in Southern Africa, to plant a new Latino ministry in East Boston or support an emerging church worshiping at our Cathedral, to support the incarcerated to earn college credits from Boston University in our prison ministry or worship on the streets in our Outdoor Church; when we begin to preen ourselves about all this and get on our moral high horse and say to ourselves, “Why shouldn’t WE be at Jesus’ right hand or at his left in the Kingdom of Heaven? Aren’t we just the spiffiest emerging Episcopal congregation going?” Jesus gets right up in our face every St. James’s Day in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew and asks us, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?"

Do you GET IT about compost, Jesus has been asking us, every summer in late July, for 150 years??? Do you GET how much TROUBLE YOU’RE IN? Do you GET how much “breaking down” lies ahead before the “building up” begins??? Do you GET what the baptismal life entails – which is that cup of his, you know, the cup Jesus later, on the eve of the Crucifixion, sweating blood in fear and anguish, prays to be spared, the cup he has to drink in the end, the cup of public humiliation, torture and excruciating execution, before he can be raised up and show us that it’s all worth it, that it’s all about LIFE not DEATH, that it’s about LOVE and SELF-OFFERING, not about showing everyone who’s the BEST?

If Jesus’ reminders aren’t enough, about the need to serve even at great cost, and even if you don’t get the recognition you’d like or the obvious success you hoped for, we have the Hebrew Scriptures passage from the prophet Jeremiah to help set us straight. As Reed Carlson reminded me, “Jeremiah is remembered as the "weeping prophet" and the sorrowful prophet and the suffering prophet... (and for some church fathers his suffering was a prefigurement of Jesus).” Jeremiah lived and prophesied at a most unpromising point in Jewish history, when the Kingdom of Judah was being harrowingly vanquished by the Babylonians, its Temple razed to the ground and its leaders hauled off into captivity. Jeremiah’s scribe “Baruch likely suffered many of the same injustices as the prophet whom he worked for. Jeremiah was constantly putting himself on the line, speaking truth even when those in power didn't want to hear it and likely as not Baruch was silently suffering right alongside him. Like James, Baruch too was a helper who suffered for the sake of something much greater than himself.” [In the text we read today,] Jeremiah acknowledges that Baruch too has suffered and even reminds him that there is no reward waiting for him.” [the Rev. Reed Carlson, email on 7-23-15"Thus says the LORD,” Jeremiah tells Baruch, “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted-- that is, the whole land. And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them!”

So, people of St. James’s! Here we are, more than two millennia later, with more familiarity than we would like with the “breaking down & plucking up” part of that equation, having lived for at least a generation in a parish house and garden that suffered perennial and ultimately irremediable dilapidation because every available extra dollar needed to go into the maintenance of our grand old lady of a sanctuary. We have had to learn to claim God’s Mission of loving service in the midst of the real and persisting QUANDARY of our remarkable physical premises. Sometimes we have had to claim that mission of loving service despite and even OVER AGAINST that dilemma, unable properly to steward our buildings and grounds yet refusing to let the impossibility of our predicament sink us or distract us from the work God has given us to do, to invite people of all ages and backgrounds and races and orientations to join us joyfully in the praise of God’s loving might and power of resurrection, to draw strength and courage and renewal from that praise and to put ourselves to work, in our wondrous array of God’s creative imagination, looking for ways to increase the well-being of God’s people everywhere, locally in Porter Square and Boston, and to the far corners of the earth.

So as we embark on another 150 years, let us continue to lean in and listen carefully, even sacrificially, to others different from us in our congregation, diocese, and community, both locally and around the world, and then and only then to speak the truth boldly in our anti-oppression and advocacy work. Let us willingly continue to serve the well-being especially of those who find it difficult to advocate for themselves, and continue to serve without return or even recognition despite a culture that demands that we be “followed” with enthusiasm in every word we speak and eyebrow we raise. God willing, let us do this in our new parish house so that even more becomes possible for us. But whatever comes, let us live our vocation as a congregation in the power of our baptism into Jesus’ Resurrection, never making peace with oppression, any more than Jeremiah did, but taking our lumps and continuing to rejoice. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Monday
Jul272015

June Vestry Minutes 6-16-15

Vestry Minutes: 2015-06-16

Approved as amended July 21, 2015

Presiding: Rev Holly Lyman Antolini

Members Present: Sylvia Weston, Isaac Martinez, Lucas Sanders, Nancy McArdle, Tom Beecher, John Thomas Kittredge, Mary Beth Mills-Curran, Jean Clark, Marian King, Matthew Abbate, Thomas Wohlers

Members Absent: Dana Evelyn, Nicholas Hayes

Guests: Jeff Zinsmeyer, Peter Roth, Rev Reed Carlson

Gathering

●        We shared a delicious and nourishing soup and salad supper provided by L Sanders, M Abbate, and J Clark.

●        The Rector led a spiritual reflection on the song “The Lone Wild Bird.”

Regular Agenda

Redevelopment Update

●        J Zinsmeyer and P Roth reviewed the plans and current status of the Redevelopment Project for the Vestry.

●        The Rector also discussed possibility of raising community support for the project in lieu of the previously proposed Porter Sq History Fair.

ECF Fellowship

●        R Carlson gave the Vestry an update on his plans:

○     He has been granted a fellowship by the Episcopal Church Foundation in support of his scholarship in the Old Testament.

○     He and the Rector are discussing the possibility of offering some of his teaching to the parish.

○     He is planning on joining his wife, the Rev Britta Carlson, a Lutheran pastor, in her project of planting a Spanish-speaking ministry (or ministries) in E Boston and Lynn (or both).

○     He will continue to be at St James regularly (planning for at least once a month) as celebrant, preacher, etc. for the medium term.

Community Relations

●        The Rector reported on plans on reaching out to the community

○     There was not enough leadership energy in the congregation to make the proposed Porter Sq History Fair happen.

○     She has arranged with Miles Thomas-Moore to make a short subject introducing the people of St James to the community.

■     He has already filmed the first subject: the Senior Warden.

○     N McArdle solicited ideas from the Vestry at large on how we might reach to the Porter Sq community.

○     Rector would still like to do a Pie Social in the Porter Sq parking lot.

Action Plan from Vestry Retreat

●        I Martinez presented a plan for a revised  Vestry Ministries Liaison Program

○     The plan includes liaison assignments.

○     The Liaisons are asked to contact the groups in their area and circulate to the Vestry with a summary on each program before the July meeting.

○     Assignments:

■     Property: S Weston

■     Formation:  N McArdle, M Abbate

■     Administration: I Martinez

■     Worship: J Clark, T Wohlers

■     Communications: N Hayes

■     Fellowship: T Beecher, D Evelyn

■     Outreach: L Sanders, JT Kittredge

Reports


Minutes from May Meeting

●        I Martinez moved approval of the minutes.

○     T Beecher seconded.

○     Motion passed unopposed.

Financial Report

●        L Sanders, Treasurer, reported:

○     Oaktree paid its arrears to St James in June.

○     The Capital Campaign funds are in good shape.

○     The benefit dinner for relief of Nepal was a big success.

○     Ed Wu, after years of yeoman service, is unable to continue as a counter; Lauren Zook has volunteered to replace him.

■     The Treasurer asked that the Vestry thank E Wu for his service.

○     The reports have been corrected because a large sum had been misattributed to open plate that was in fact pledge income.

■     This means that our pledge income for 2015 is in better shape than we thought.

○     The Discovering God’s Economy bible study, led by N Hayes, has generated interest in making a loan to a local business that would help it build the economy of its neighborhood.

■     The participants have committed or considering committing to $100 each for the loan.

■      St Mary’s, Dorchester is interested in joining us in this venture.

■     Holly is talking to other parishes in the Alewife Deanery in also joining.

■     The neighborhood and borrower for the loan have not yet been decided.

●        The Treasurer moved that:

○     “The Vestry commit to a one-to-one match of any money pledged by St James parishioners for this proposed loan, up to a maximum of $1000, to be administered by an agent chosen by the Finance Committee.”

○     JT Kittredge seconded the motion.

○     Motion passed unopposed.

●        The Treasurer further moved that:

○     “The Assistant Rector’s housing allowance be in the amount of $11,603.08 effective 2015-06-01.”

○     This is the entire budgeted amount of his compensation.

○     I Martinez seconded.

○     Motion passed unopposed.

●        The Treasurer further moved that his report be accepted.

○     The Senior Warden seconded.

○     The motion passed unopposed.

●        The Treasurer reminded the Vestry of the urgency of planning for the Fall Currency of Money Campaign before the summer goes much further.

○     I Martinez reported that the Diocese is holding a one day workshop on planning stewardship campaigns.

Calendar Planning

●        Postponing change to 9:30 service until after Church School ends was discussed, with pros and cons. 

●        The St James Day celebration with the Bishop was discussed.

○     The thought of inviting local worthies was raised.

Rector’s Report

Parish Activities May & June:

- Eric has begun! Commissioned in the June 7 worship. Still settling in but all systems are go.

 (See Assistant Rector’s Report!)

- Eric’s ordination June 6th; prep for Reed’s first Eucharist celebration after his ordination.

- Nursery Families had dinner w Eric & farewell to Monte at Eliza Petrow’s

- Preached 7 of the last 8 Sundays: unusual for St. James’s.

- Church School Graduation

- EfM (Education for Ministry) graduation on June 7th

- ECM (Episcopal City Mission) Annual Dinner, June 9th.

- “A Night for Nepal” dinner a big success; over $2000 raised; great currency of relationship w

 diocese, deanery, community

- Kathryn is working on website and data base updates. She’ll take Church Helpmate training while I’m at General Convention. She’s immensely efficient. She and I are preparing ahead on bulletins for my time away; Eric will oversee “Sunday News,” and handle pastoral calls.

- Investment of time working toward the July 15 redevelopment amendment deadline:

            Meeting w Jeff & Peter

            Meeting w Peter & Gwen

            Meeting w the whole Oaktree team

- Investment in creating the “Re-Presenting the Redevelopment” presentation for last Sunday

- Serious pastoral care issues with three elders

- one couple in pre-marital preparation

- Food Pantry move to 364 Rindge Ave. completed; dealing w new smaller, shared space and

 timing challenges

- EDS graduation for Monte; HDS graduation for Olivia Hamilton (potentially our fourth

 postulant candidate)

- Work w Miles Thomas-Moore on a “St. James’s in its 150th Year” video snapshot

- A-O Team continues to meet, progress on our plans. Plans to apply for diocesan congregational development grant for more VISIONS training, to train some of us to be “trainers” ourselves. Also plan to add members to group for September resumption of work, and resume lay leadership. (I’ve been leading for this year, to get us back in motion after the sabbatical.)

- “God’s Economy” class met for dinner at my house, plan to meet with the St. Mary’s Dorchester God’s Economy group on July 19th for a walk-around the neighborhood in Dorchester and exploration of loan options.

- Worship Commission plan in place for July 19th dinner meeting.

- Our 150th Anniversary St. James’s Day w Bishop Gates; Susan and Tom Harris signed on to cook hot dogs and hamburgers for our picnic.

- Parish Retreat ahead with 90 people enrolled! Great work by the Parish Retreat team.

Diocesan Activity

- Last Alewife Deanery Assembly this school year, May 20

- Last Alewife Deanery Clericus this school year, June 9 (will have two more in autumn before I retire from deaning at the November Diocesan Convention)

- John De Beer’s retirement Eucharist June 14th

- Annual Deans’ Retreat at BCH Camp, June 17th

- General Convention preparation; will be writing for The Consultation’s daily journal, ISSUES.

- One week of vacation July 4-11 in California after General Convention. Remaining vacation will be Aug. 7 - 29 in Vermont & Maine with family stuff, still handling my parents’ estate. Reed Carlson – priested in June – will supply for those weeks.

Senior Warden’s Report

●        The Senior Warden reported:

○     She does much lay pastoral work with parishioners that the Vestry doesn’t hear about because of its confidentiality.

○     She has contacted Charlie Allen about getting an export to evaluate any interior damage from the ice dams this past winter.

■     This prompted discussion of the need for a photo inventory of the interior before construction.

○     She is going on vacation to Antigua for five weeks in June and July.

The Assistant Rector’s Report

●        The Assistant Rector was not able to attend due to moving next week.

●        He submitted a written report (see attached).

New Business

●        J Clark raised the lack of gatherings for the Church School families.

●        M King pointed out that the table in the Sacristy bathroom makes it unable to fit a wheelchair and assistant.

Closing

The Rector led us all in the Lord’s Prayer to close the meeting.

Prepared by JT Kittredge
Submitted (with thanks to JT) by Nancy McArdle

 

Assistant Rector’s Report

Dear Vestry,
                      I want to thank you again for inviting me (and my family) to join the St. James's community as your assistant rector for family and church school ministry.  We have been welcomed warmly by the community!  I have spent the last two weeks getting generally oriented to parish life.  Attending staff meeting, dropping in on church school classes and visiting the nursery.  This past Saturday evening I attended, with Holly and my wife Emily, a get together for nursery families.  The event gave the nursery families an opportunity to say thank you and goodbye to Monty and it gave me a chance to meet many of the nursery families.  It was a very nice gathering.  I am working on planning an end of the year gathering of church school teachers, which will likely be scheduled for either Tuesday evening July the 7th or Sunday noonon July the 12th.  I would love to meet all of the teachers and hear reflections, joys and commentary on the church school year and begin to discuss and plan church school for the 2015-2016 school year.  
                     We move this coming weekend, and we still have some packing to do!  If anyone is curating a collection of VHS tapes I may have some treasures for you.  We are looking forward to being settled and to being close to the parish community.  This summer I hope families can meet for a series of casual drop in, outdoor family gatherings at Raymond Park (or any other preferred outdoor space), possibly on Saturday afternoons in July and August.  I look forward to attending vestry meetings in the future, but this week is a bit crazy with our move.  I look forward to seeing you all soon.

Warmly,

Eric   

Monday
Jul202015

Micah Lott's Sermon for 8 Pentecost 7-19-15

Audio recording of Micah Lott's Sermon for 8 Pentecost

 

St James Episcopal Church

Cambridge, MA

19 July 2015

 

Lectionary Readings:

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 23

Ephesians 2:1-11

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

You will have probably have noticed the prevalence of shepherds in the lectionary readings for today. In the passage from the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah delivers a two-fold message of woe and hope: 1) woe to “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture”, and 2) hope that God will gather the flock and raise up new shepherds – including a good and just king who will be called “The LORD is our righteousness”.

Jeremiah was born a little over 600 years before Christ, and he lived through the traumatic period of the Babylonian conquest of Judah. This culminated in the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the forced deportation of many of its inhabitants.

But the Babylonians are not the shepherds who destroy the sheep in this passage. Those are the kings of Judah. In the preceding chapters, Jeremiah has delivered a series of oracles against the rulers of Judah because they are living in luxury and exploiting the poor, they are abandoning justice and practicing violence. As Jeremiah says in the previous chapter, 22:

 

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,

and his upper rooms by injustice

Who makes is neighbors work for nothing

and does not give them their wages

Who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms

and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting in with vermillion.

Are you a king because you compete in cedar?

Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?

Then it was well with him.

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;

Then it was well.

Is not this to know me?

Says the Lord.

But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain,

For shedding innocent blood,

And for practicing oppression and violence.

 

Written over 2,500 years ago, these are powerful words for our time as well. You know as well as I do – or probably even better than I do – how much violence, injustice, and exploitation shapes our world. Consider just one staggering fact from a 2015 Oxfam report: “The wealth of [the world’s richest] 80 individuals is now the same as that owned by the bottom 50% of the global population, such that 3.5 billion people share between them the same amount of wealth as that of these extremely wealthy 80 people.”

And we know that we are bound up with structures of injustice in complicated ways – that we receive benefits, as well as harms, from institutions and attitudes and ways of life that perpetuate dishonest gain, that deny some their wages, that foster the shedding of innocent blood. Jeremiah’s call for justice reaches across the centuries and speaks to us.

But Jeremiah’s message is not all condemnation. He also speaks of promised deliverance and redemption. In place of violence there will be safety, in place of exploitation there will be justice and uprightness. God will raise up new shepherds for God’s people. Indeed, in a deeper sense, it is God who is the shepherd: “I myself will gather in the remnant of my flock”.

And of course the image of God as shepherd is central to the 23rd Psalm as well. In turning to the psalm, we encounter a shift in point of view. Rather than the “thus says the LORD” formulation of the prophets, now we have the 1st person point of view of the Psalmist. We get, as it were, the point of view of the sheep: “the LORD is my shepherd”.

The 23rd psalm radiates intimacy and tenderness between God and an individual. The image of the shepherd conveys hope and comfort in the midst of trials. It is easy to see why this is one of the most beloved of the psalms. And this psalm, too, shows a concern for righteousness – i.e., for uprightness and justice. God-the-shepherd leads his sheep in “right paths” or “paths of righteousness”. This phrase translates a version of the Hebrew word tzedekah – the same word Jeremiah uses to describe the hoped-for King whose name is “The LORD is our righteousness”.

In the passage from Mark’s gospel, we encounter the shepherd metaphor a third time. Jesus has compassion for the crowd “because they (are) like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34). And we see Jesus acting as a shepherd, both to his disciples and to the crowd – leading them to rest, teaching them, healing them. In fact, in between the passages in our lectionary, Mark tells the story of Jesus performing  two miracles. He multiples the loaves and fish to feed the crowd – i.e., he prepares a banquet before them. And he comes to the disciples by walking on the water to their boat – and the rough sea becomes still waters when Jesus gets into the boat with them.  

Now, I don’t know if Mark intends us to make those particular connections with the 23rd psalm. But there can be no doubt that Mark intends us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets’ hope for a righteous king and for the redemption of Israel. The very first verses of Mark’s gospel tells us that this gospel is about Jesus Christ – i.e., Jesus the Messiah – the Son of God, who was spoken of by the prophets. In Jesus, the LORD is gathering his flock, proclaiming good news for the poor and oppressed, healing their wounds, and leading them in paths of righteousness.

Now, it might seem that we shift gears altogether in the passage from Ephesians – after all, there is no mention and sheep or shepherds here! We have a new emphasis: Christ’s death on the cross. And we have a new audience, too. Paul is speaking to “you Gentiles”.

But Paul is not simply changing the topic, or giving us a different story. Rather he proclaiming two mysteries about how it is the LORD – the God of Israel – is bringing about the promised deliverance that prophets like Jeremiah spoke of:

The first mystery is this – the way that Chris the righteous King shepherds his people is by laying down his life for them. As Jesus says in John’s gospel: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” (10:11)

The second mystery is this – the redemption of Israel in Christ includes the bringing in of the Gentiles into the community of God’s flock. Like a wild olive shoot, the Gentiles are being grafted onto the tree of Israel, as Paul says in Romans 11. Or again from John’s gospel: “I have other sheep that do not belong this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (10:16)

And these two things  –  Christ’s death and resurrection, and the bringing in of the Gentiles – are connected. For they are part of the same Divine plan for the redemption of all humanity. Indeed, Paul proclaims that God is doing nothing less than making “one new humanity”.

This passage from Ephesians is intricately woven, with complex thoughts expressed in complex sentences. But the central idea is clear: In Christ, God is reconciling human beings to Godself, and God is reconciling human beings to one another. A dual reconciliation. Or we might say, a dual wholeness – a dual way of being complete.

And Paul’s word for this wholeness is peace: Christ is our peace (v14). And again: Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off (the Gentiles) and peace to you who were near (the Jews), for thorough Christ both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father”. (v16)

To describe this state of peace, Paul appeals to a set of metaphors different from the image of sheep and shepherds. Instead of pastures, we have images drawn from civic life and architecture. There is the “commonwealth of Israel”, from which the Gentiles weere once “aliens and strangers” (v12). But now in Christ the Gentiles have become citizens and, shifting metaphors slightly, members of the household of God. Indeed, Jews and Gentiles alike are now parts of a single building – a temple built together in the Spirit, with Christ as the cornerstone, and a dwelling place for God.  (v19-22)

It seems to me that in verses 19 – 22, the images increase in the intensity of inter-connectedness: from citizens we shift  to the closer intimacy of a household, and from the household to the even tighter connection of stones joined in a building. And this might recall for us another Pauline image of even greater intimacy: that we are all members of one body – the body of Christ. (1:23, cf. 1 Cor 12).

So we have a vision of redeemed humanity, now including Jew and Gentile alike, as a community of peace. What does this peace look like?

Well, it is not mere passivity. Rather it is a wholeness of relationship that is the opposite of the violence and exploitation that Jeremiah condemns. It is care for the poor, the doing of justice. It is turning away from pride and vainglory and the idolatry of success. It is walking in humility and thankfulness and forgiveness. As Paul says later in Ephesians: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together will all malice, and be kind of one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This is where Christ the Good Shepherd leads his people: in paths of righteousness, into reconciliation and a community of peace. A community based on love of God and love of neighbor – those things on which hang all the law and the prophets.

It is into this community of peace that we are about to welcome Donal in baptism. Of course, as Donal will learn, we do not always experience peace, and we do not have reconciliation in all our relationships. It often seems that we are lead beside strange waters, and that instead of a banquet we face scarcity and hardship. And we Christians can be full of bitterness, unkind and slow to forgive. And poverty and injustice remain.

The message of the New Testament is that Christ has come and achieved victory over sin and death and reconciled us to God – yet the ultimate redemption of creation is still to come. To shift the sheep metaphor one last time: Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but we are not yet at the marriage supper of the Lamb, when God will be all, in all. What we have now is a foretaste, living in a time of “already and not yet”.

So as we turn to the sacrament of baptism, let us give thanks to God. Let us rejoice with Donal! Let us confess our faith and pray for healing and renewal. Let us ask for grace – for Donal and for ourselves – to live as imitators of God, in the joy and freedom of God’s dearly beloved children. 

Monday
Jul132015

Eric Litman's Sermon for 7 Pentecost 7-12-15

Audio recording of Eric Litman's Sermon for 7 Pentecost

 

St. James’s Episcopal Church
July 12th, 2015
Amos 7:7-17

In the name of our one God, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.   Please be seated. 

Amos and Amaziah.  The navi and the Cohen.  The prophet and the priest.  This morning we find ourselves in the middle of a contentious story about tradition and justice, about prosperity and morality.  Traditional Judaism employed two forms of religious leadership, one who was charged with keeping the law, the priest, and one who was charged with keeping justice, the prophet.  One commentator noted, “The priest speaks the word of God for all time the prophet speaks the work of God for this time,” the curator of tradition and the disruptor of tradition.  This morning we find ourselves in the brief but powerful prophetic writings of Amos.  Amos was active in 8th century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel reportedly during a time of great affluence and stability.  In many ways things were good in the Kingdom, at least for some.  Economic prosperity and national security had become very important, cultishly important and religious idealism was not going to impede economic progress and the accumulation of wealth.  Does this sound familiar, the cult of personal stability, personal wealth, personal security.

I recently heard a columnist from New York Times lamenting the loss of moral expertise in public discourse.  As our own economic system has become more esoteric and derivitized our public discourse has increasingly looked to the expertise of economists to help us understand how exactly our economic devices work.   I assume you’ve heard the one about the economists?  If you line up all the economists in the world head to toe…they still won’t reach a conclusion.  I joke.  The wisdom of economists is extremely important, but our public discourse has become neurotic about the mechanics of economy.  We have still not really dealt with our national moral failings over issues of justice and inequality and it seems like maybe we could use at least a few public experts speaking to issues of ethics and morality.  Our economy works extremely well for some, but for others, as Amos barbed in chapter 2:7, “…they have their heads trampled into the dust of the earth.”  Where are our modern day prophets?  Who is calling for righteousness and justice?  In Amos time, there does not seem to have been any public intellectuals arguing for a more just society, but there was a herdsman, a tree pruner, who made a long journey from his home town to speak on behalf of God in that moment.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says this about the prophetic tradition, “A prophet hears not one imperative but two:  guidance and compassion, a love of truth and abiding solidarity with those for whom that truth has become eclipsed.  To preserve tradition and at the same time defend those who others condemn is the difficult, necessary task of religious leadership in an unreligious age.”   To simplify, we are called to simultaneously keep and tradition and justice. 

Amos told the people of Israel that God is, “setting a plumb line in the midst of God’s people.”  A plumb line is a measuring device used by a carpenter or mason to determine a true vertical plane.  This was helpful to ensure that walls were straight and floors level.  When God set a religious plumb line, God was re-establishing what was right and true.  The most succinct affirmation of Jewish religion is the Shema, recorded in Deuteronomy 6 it begins, “the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” a powerful liturgical phrase affirming a monotheistic religious belief. In this case the plumb line seems to be a reminder of this simple critical belief.  God is warning God’s people; do not make false Gods out of affluence and prosperity.

Enter Amaziah.  Amaziah, the Chief priest is charged with keeping the tradition, and guarding the purity of religious practice.  Amaziah thinks that Amos is to radical and that he has gone too far.  Amaziah is a learned religious professional, from an elite dynastic line of priests, he almost certainly recognizes that what Amos is saying is theologically and morally correct but he also knows that making this moral correction back towards, justice, equality and love – will be too revolutionary, and too disruptive.  It might destabilize the nation’s current prosperity, and anger the King and the wealthy elite.  Amaziah does not want God interfering with kingdom business.  Amaziah, not pleased that Amos has come to town and begun to challenge the status quo, accuses Amos of treason, knowing that the most likely penalty for treason is death, thinking that this will put an end to this religious insurrection.  Amaziah desperately wants to keep God confined to ritual and tradition, but God did not place the plumb line in the Temple God placed the plumb line, “in the midst of the people.”  There are no far corners of life where the love of God cannot reach.  Amaziah then moves from threats to pettiness by calling Amos a “Seer.” Hey you fortune teller, bring your religious commentary to another land, we are not interested.  Amos comes right back, retorting, I am not claiming to be a notable prophet, I am not a priest or a sage, I am a herdsman and I raise sycamore trees, God called me from the anonymity of the fields, to deliver this message to God’s people.    

This is a powerful indication about the mechanics of God’s economy.  God does not run a meritocracy, as Amos has reminded us, you don’t need to be wealthy, you don’t need to be a religion scholar and you certainly don’t need to be a clergy person to be prophetic.  Amos came from a humble background and a small town, does this archetype sound familiar.  Jesus of Nazareth too came from a humble family and a small town.  This is a common detail in many stories about God’s people, one might think that God is trying to tell us something about the shared value, dignity and usefulness of all people.  In Jesus these two roles of prophet and priest are joined together, the law and justice are brought together.  God has placed a plumb line in the midst of us.  In the incarnation, the plumb line was not just a prophetic message, but the divine manifestation of God’s self.  Jesus is our plumb line, the standard by which our lives and religion are encouraged and measured, the means by which God offers divine love to all the people of the world, in this moment and for eternity.  Our simple prophetic message is captured in the greatest commandments found in the Gospel of Matthew, another instance where Jesus has kept and modified tradition.   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Love God- the law, love they neighbor – justice.  Our charter as Christians is to participate in God’s mission on earth to bring love and healing to all people, so when we confess our faith during the Creed, and we affirm that we believe in one God, we are affirming a singular commitment to God’s love and justice.  Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted Amos’ radical vision for humanities life together on earth and we will know that this vision has become manifest when, “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”   Amen.  

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