Resources

Monday
Mar132017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for 2 Lent - 3/12/17

Audio of sermon

2 Lent Year A 3-12-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

 

I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. AMEN.

 

How evocative it is, this story of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, opening Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel. This furtive story of the Jewish leader – he’s a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish religious, legal and political authority under the Roman occupation – sneaking out to see Jesus under cover of darkness becomes even more evocative when you remember that at the end of Chapter 2, right before this, Jesus has rampaged into the Temple – God’s own house, sacrosanct to the Jewish people – and laid waste to the tables of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial animals, literally whipping them and their animals out of the courtyard where they were conducting the temple commerce essential to carrying out the rites of sacrifice at the center of the Jewish peoples’ relationship with God. When the Jewish authorities remonstrated and demanded he explain himself, Jesus compounded his offense, saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [John 2:19] Preposterous claim!

 

So now picture Nicodemus, screwing up his courage to speak to this radical, this disrupter, this dis-respecter of authority and order. No wonder he came in the dark of night. To approach Jesus in the light of day would be to court disaster to one’s own reputation, if not the national order!

 

But something is astir in Nicodemus. Something is disturbing his peace. Something is birthing questions in him. He doesn’t understand it himself. It violates all his institutional instincts. This guy Jesus is trouble. But as Nicodemus himself says in his opening words to the Rabbi, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” So he sneaks out surreptitiously and finds Jesus and opens with these words of affirmation.

 

The conversation is joined. But Jesus’ response seems like a complete disconnect. He bypasses all the politeness. “Very truly,” he begins, or perhaps more accurately, “Amen, amen,” words that always signal in John’s Gospel that Jesus is about to make a crucial and very serious proclamation of God’s truth, “Amen, amen, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above.” Or, to give the other meaning of the Greek word anothen, without being “born again.”

 

This completely confuses poor Nicodemus. He takes it literally. Born again? Who can enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born? To which Jesus answers with yet more confusion, using the Greek word, pneuma, which can mean wind or breath, and which later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will clearly use to mean, Spirit, as in, God’s Spirit: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and wind, one cannot enter the reign of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of wind is wind. Don’t be surprised that I’ve told you, ‘You all have to be born again [or from above].’ The wind blows where it likes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone that’s born of wind.” What IS Jesus discerning in Nicodemus? What IS he trying to call out in him, with all this talk of a new birth? [Translation from The Mystical Way of the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God by L. William Countryman, Fortress Press 1987]

 

You notice my translation is a little different from the one in your bulletin. That’s because it was done directly from the Greek by New Testament scholar Bill Countryman. I use Countryman’s translation because I love the way he reads the entire Gospel of John. John’s Gospel, he says, is not the collection of stories you see in so-called “synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke, powerful as they are. Where those Gospels are more like an iterative Bach Suite, with one dance movement beginning and ending, followed by another, John’s Gospel is what in music we’d call “through-composed,” all the melodic ideas unfolding from each other in Wagnerian fashion, an “endless melody” in a long, sustained, completely interconnected composition aimed at one thing for its readers: our “progress toward mystical union in the person of Jesus Christ.” [Ibid.]

 

 “Mystical,” as in, “an experience of things or persons outside myself as direct and unmediated as my experience of myself.” Mystical enlightenment: “experiencing the order of the cosmos and my place in it.” And mystical union: “an experience of full knowledge of another specific being… a complete opening of two realities into each other.” [Ibid.] John’s goal for me, the reader of his Gospel, is a complete opening of my reality into the reality of God’s very specific and particular love for me and me for God, and my complete opening into the reality of being held in an utterly love-saturated world. For John, the “world,” or “the cosmos,” as Countryman translates it, is tragically estranged from God its Creator. And to be deprived of God is to be deprived of one’s own existence, deprived of life & light. Jesus – who is life and light himself, as John has already said in Chapter 1 – is here to join the world back to right relationship with God. Jesus is the “opening humanity has upon the absolute reality of God.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Eternal life – that phrase makes its very first appearance in this very story of Nicodemus here in Chapter 3 – means to be utterly enfolded in God’s reign of shalom, God’s reign of peace and reconciliation. So John’s hope for me, for you, for anyone reading his Gospel, is that by the end of its 20 chapters, we will have moved from our state of alienation and separation into an utter state of belonging to God, “one body with Christ,” I in Christ and Christ in me.

Our estrangement is real. And “it is not to be overcome by divine fiat. The sending of the son does not force salvation on anyone.” But it IS possible, this mystical union with Jesus to which we are called, if we, in the mysterious way that we do, choose to become “doers of the truth.” “Nicodemus has come to Jesus, who proffers light; but he has come 'at night.' The ambiguity of his situation is not unique to him, but describes the human situation as such.” We are drawn to the light, but we are still prone to remain in darkness and untruth.

Jesus, with his strange words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, is inviting him – inviting us all – on a mystical path, inviting him – and us – from the first dark urges toward conversion, on into baptism, into “being born again” into Jesus. And the invitation is only beginning. And as the Gospel unfolds, baptism is only an early stage. John’s Jesus will invite us ever deeper, into Eucharist, into enlightenment and new life, and deeper and deeper into union with Christ. This “mystical path… is the point of the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus.” [Ibid.]

 

An aside for all of us 21st century empiricists: “believing,” in John’s Gospel, does NOT mean “intellectual assent” or worse, “an intellectually satisfying theological superstructure with the force of a proven scientific equation!” How COULD it mean that when Jesus is so often responding to people’s reasonable questions with seemingly unreasonable, disjointed and confusing Zen koans like the one he poses poor struggling Nicodemus, ““Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and wind, one cannot enter the reign of God… Don’t be surprised that I’ve told you, ‘You all have to be born again [or from above].’ The wind blows where it likes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That’s how it is with everyone that’s born of wind.” Of course poor Nicodemus is surprised, not to say utterly confounded! That’s because Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t mean to CONVINCE him! He means to BAPTIZE HIM. He means to help Nicodemus break out of his presuppositions, which are holding him apart from God and God’s love, imprisoning him in terrible isolation and antagonism. Jesus, like any good Zen master, aims to help Nicodemus – and all of us –  “to break with ordinary straight-line reasoning and struggle for a new world-view in which question and answer DO match. The achievement of such a breakthrough is an instance of enlightenment – not an increase of knowledge but a radical re-shifting and re-envisioning of what is already known.” It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a NEW BIRTH. [Ibid.]

 

We know what this re-shifting can look like. We experience it in miniature every time we read a good poem, which breaks open and re-orients our perspective on the most ordinary reality. We experienced it massively as a whole culture back in the 16th century, when Nicholas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler destabilized the universe, displacing the earth into a mere planet and moving the sun into its center. Hilary Mantel describes the impact of this new understanding of the moral order on her protagonist Thomas Cromwell in her novel, Wolf Hall, “After [the diners] get up from [Cromwell’s] table, his guests eat ginger comfits and candied fruits, and Kratzer makes some drawings. He draws the sun and the planets moving in their orbits according to the plan he has heard of from Father Copernicus. He shows how the world is turning on its axis, and nobody in the room denies it. Under your feet you can feel the tug and heft of it, the rocks groaning to tear away from their beds, the oceans tilting and slapping at their shores, the giddy lurch of Alpine passes, the forests of Germany ripping at their roots to be free. The world is not what it was when [Cromwell] and Vaughan were young, it is not what it was even in the cardinal Wolsey’s] day.” [https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/wolf-hall/]

 

And now, in this 21st century, we too have been having our sense of reality re-shifted and re-oriented, and it’s about time! We elected – twice – as President of the United States, an African-American – no, actually, a multi-racial person whose experience in multiracial and multicultural Hawaii, in the continental US, in Indonesia and in Kenya only compounded his sense of belonging to a much wider sphere than “mere American” can indicate. As grievous as is the wound inflicted by our history of slavery and racism, our society has nevertheless been re-shifting and re-orienting toward a majority of people of color, just as it has always been shifting and re-orienting, incorporated “the other,” not without paroxysms and reactions, not without horrific exploitations – the Gospel of John documents how horrific those resistances can be, a Way of the Cross – but moving inexorably even if confusedly and reactively to embrace its many cultural origins into its resilient and creative mix. In the same way, our academic and indeed our business life has become inextricably and inventively intertwined with the academic and commercial lives of those all around our globe. We may be in the middle of yet another massive moment of “reaction” against this disorientation in electing our current government. But we cannot stop the increasing interconnection of our society or the world. We are being invited to be born again into that larger, more inclusive, more innovative and limber reality – the reality of the reign of God who loved the WHOLE world – not just our portion of it – enough to offer the ultimate sacrifice. We are invited to be born again and again. And again. And again.

 

Where, in your life, are you disoriented? Where are you finding yourself in the darkness of the birth canal, like Nicodemus, waiting to be born again? Or alternatively, what is coming to birth in you? How is it “of the Spirit,” of the free-blowing breath of God which created all things in the beginning and continues to create them now? What is the enlightenment it offers? What is the union?

Thursday
Mar022017

January Vestry Minutes

Vestry Minutes:  January 17, 2017

Members Present:, Lucas Sanders, Jules Bertaut, Andrew Rohm, Tom Tufts, Marian King, Olivia Hamilton, Nancy McArdle, Matthew Abbate, Sylvia Weston, Sarah Forrester, Tom Beecher, Holly Antolini, Mardi Moran

Absent:  Thomas Wohlers

Guest:   Jeff Zinsmeyer

Gathering

●     Following brief check-in time, Spiritual Practice was led by Mardi, focusing on claiming God’s gifts

Nominating Committee

●     Sylvia reported that the committee is still looking for 1 at-large nominee and 2 people for ECM reps

Redevelopment Update

●     Jules moved that we enter Executive Session.  Mardi seconded. Approved unanimously.

●     Jeff Zinsmeyer presented a redevelopment update.

●     Jules moved that we exit Executive Session.  Andrew seconded. Approved unanimously.

Food Pantry

●     Holly reviewed the Pantry situation.  Had a meeting with Schochet and there are not guarantees that we would have future problems with pipes/leaks. 

●     Current plan is to go to a once a month volunteer led pantry. The Food Bank and Food for Free are amenable to this.  JT Kittredge will be the Food Bank orderer and John Bell lead organizer, so we can keep some continuity in activity before and during the period we employ a Life Together fellow

●     Mardi suggests going to Porter Square Neighborhood Assoc. to see if any of them would like to be involved.  Mardi agrees to make some connections with future Life Together fellow to do some one-on-ones with PSNA folks.

Signage

●     Olivia will be ordering the banner this week

●     Jules has contacted MaeBright about facilitating a discussion of the rainbow flag issues.  They seem excited, though we don’t have a budget yet

●     Topics would be how to welcome gender non-conforming people and what the rainbow flag means. Possibly a sermon and discussion after church.

 

Annual Meeting

●     Possible topics for discussion:  Pantry, Visions Trainers next steps, Budget

●     What to say about shared leadership?  Tom B will put something in Jr. Warden’s report of Annual Report

 

Parish Retreat

●     Liz McNerney is going to make an announcement about retreat.  We will be having the retreat in partnership with St. Mary’s Dorchester

Budget

●     Lucas presented the proposed 2017 budget

●     Based on the assumption that we will start construction May 1, we will have a $60,000 deficit after planned drawdowns from reserves

●     We have 106 pledges for $230,000

●     At the budget meeting on Sunday, the general feeling was to try to maintain programs/mission and work on fundraising, with a possible deficit

●     Jules moved we enter Executive Session.   Lucas seconded.  Approved unanimously.

●     Holly reported that Eric Litman has accepted a position as interim rector at St. Chrysostom’s in Quincy starting May 7.  Easter Sunday will be his last day with us.  We will let the parish know at Annual Meeting.  Discussed timing of beginning search and its implications for the budget.

●     Lucas moved we exit Executive Session.   Olivia seconded.  Approved unanimously.

●     Nancy moved to pass the 2017 budget with the following changes:

 

1)  $13,000 credited to general fund uses from Oaktree interest payments (approx. 1/3 of annual payments)

2)  $12,000 reduction in Asst. Rector compensation, in anticipation of vacancy during search

3)  $15,000 increase in anticipated pledge income

4)  $10,000 credited to general fund uses from Food Pantry account, a portion of the funds that had been paid from general fund to pay Director’s salary and which should have previously been refunded

5)  $10,000 as deficit, with the anticipation that some of this can be made up by fundraising

 

Jules seconded.  Approved unanimously.

●     Noted—the Treasurer takes this as a commitment from the Vestry to help obtain the future pledge income

 

Reports

Minutes of December Meeting

●     Sylvia moved that we approve the regular and executive session December minutes.  Mardi seconded. Approved unanimously.

Financial Report

●     Lucas presented the financial report.  Expenses are tracking the budget but pledges are below what was pledged.  Despite parking income being 3 times expected, total revenue still a little short of budget

●     Still looking for another counter

●     Lucas presented revised parochial reports for 2013-2015. 

●     Mardi moves that we approve revised parochial reports for 2013-2015.  Tom B. seconded. Approved unanimously

Warden’s Report

●     Sylvia reported that people associated with the redevelopment will be handling snow removal again

●     We need an evaluation of the organ. Christian Brocato has given us a name of a consultant who can recommend someone.

Rector’s Report

PARISH ACTIVITIES:

  • Apart from the desperate sound-system failure at the Pageant, Christmas services were well-attended and delightful. Thank you, Lucas, for rescuing the sound system in time for the Late Service! Pageant continues to be the growth service; we had approximately 150 people. The Late Service is more like 60 and the Christmas Morning services, perhaps 35.
  • As reported earlier in the meeting, the Food Pantry will move to once Saturday a month, Feb. 11, Mar. 11, April 8, May 13, and June 10. JT Kittredge getting certified to do the ordering with Greater Boston Food Bank; John Bell recruiting volunteers and acting as Lead Organizer; we're still a work-in-progress, but the Food Ministries Volunteers have signed on to try this out for at least three and possibly five months before they reconsider its viability. Premised on Schochet Management's willingness to continue to allow us to use their two storage closets, the lockable fridge and lockable freezer.
  • Pending approval of the budget, we'll be applying for a 30-hour-a-week Life Together intern, August 2017 to June 2018, under Holly's supervision, undertaking a community organizing project developing an effective and efficient approach involving a congregation-&-community partnership to address food insecurity in North Cambridge.
  • Annual Meeting & Vestry retreat planning continues: the dates are January 29th for Annual Meeting and February 10th (6-9 PM) & 11th (9 AM – 4 PM) at Our Saviour Arlington. We are wondering about fresh facilitation for Vestry Retreat, but so far have not found someone skilled and available for this role. For Annual Meeting, items to address are piling up: a) allow Lucas more time to talk about the redesigned budget; b) invite the VISIONS trainees to talk about their hopes for the usefulness of VISIONS training; c) ask the Food Ministries Volunteers to talk about the Food Pantry; ask Eric to talk about Church School.
  • The Currency of Money Team & the Nominating Committee continue valiantly. Nom Comm is just shy of its goal of a full slate of Vestry, diocesan and deanery reps and ECM reps. Currency of Money Team needs "job descriptions" for next year's task.
  • Kathryn is putting Parochial Report info together, assembling the Annual Report, and preparing the data base both for the Newcomer Welcome Letter & a new 2017 Directory published for the Annual Meeting. No Newcomer Dinner is planned this January; we're looking for someone to host our 35+ newcomers in Easter season.
  • Anti-Oppression Team members and others attended the ECM-sponsored Sanctuary Immigrant Rights training workshop and met the next evening to consolidate intentions to ask the Vestry in February to approve a plan for St. James's to join other congregations in providing "Level Two" support for "Level One" congregations like St. Mary's Dorchester, who are preparing to be available to house undocumented immigrants preparing a defense against deportation. The A-O Team is already partnering with Our Saviour Arlington and intends to raise the issue with the rest of our Deanery and with the Cambridge clergy group that meets monthly in Mayor Denise Simmons' office.
  • Our parish leaders will complete VISIONS training-trainers training on Saturday Feb. 18th. We will need to do some reconsideration of the relationship between the A-O Team and this new coterie of trained leaders at our February 10/11 Vestry Retreat.
  • Second Sunday Elders continue; 20's & 30's are planning a Theology Off Tap at St. James's on Feb. 20th. Prospective Lenten formation projects: Holly's five-week Episcopalians 101 class; a class exploring the Stations of the Cross in prep for designing our own "live" Stations for Good Friday evening; Olivia Hamilton and Seth Woody are planning to offer a Contemplative Action Circle Lenten class. No one yet stepping forward to oversee "Dollar A Day for Lent." (Last year, we benefited Tatua Kenya. Holly will not oversee it a second year.)
  • 8 AM parishioner eagerly considering making kick-off gift for the new Organ Fund. We also have a kick-off gift of $430 from the sale of the Men’s Choir CD at the St. Nicholas Festival. Pat working on getting a formal estimate of the work needed, and also working with Holly on co-chairs for the Organ Fund.
  • Living Epistles ahead: Jan. 22, Allen Perez on the spirituality of being an immigrant; May 21, Anne Ibsen Goldman on spirituality and her call to environmental stewardship.
  • Worship Commission members Sylvia Weston and Betsy Zeldin meet with Holly, Eric and Pat to plan Lent on Feb. 7th; Lauren Zook, Olivia Hamilton and Arne Nystrom meet with Holly, Eric & Pat on Saturday Feb. 11th to plan Holy Week & Easter.

 

DIOCESAN

  • Active with the Mission Institute Advisory Committee, particularly on the issue of congregational racial reconciliation work.
  • St. James's will have a group participating with Holly in The Women’s March in Boston, January 21st.
  • Continuing as a ROC (Recently Ordained Clergy) Mentor through May.

 

PERSONAL: NO CHANGE!

  • I continue my practice of monthly meetings with my Women Clergy Colleague Group, monthly spiritual direction, and participating in the Recently Ordained Clergy Mentoring Group quarterly. Keeps me grounded!
  • Swimming and drawing continue. I am also renovating my kitchen and bath and (eventually) finishing the attic of my condo in Arlington.
  • Following first cortisone shot December 4th, I continue to experience back trouble. I have been managing back issues since age 24, but the stress inherent in my role contributes also, especially this time of year.

 

 

 

Assistant Rector’s Report

•    The Christmas pageant, minus a few liturgical and technical glitches went very well.  A shepherd, with an errant swing of their staff accidently broke the flagon of wine in the back of the Church before the service and then the sound system decided to shut down on us, so we did the service minus a pa system.  The children still did great as did the two teen narrators.   We had a pretty big turn-out, nearly 40 children participated including 14 angels!  The angel dance had a full ensemble. 

•    The Church school classes continue to run nicely.   Our teachers continue to do a wonderful job.   

•    Epiphany youth Liturgy is scheduled for 2/26!

•    The Pine Village pre-school has asked to use the Church building an afternoon in February to host their yearly multi-cultural pot-luck.  They are outgrowing their space for meetings.  I was glad this opportunity presented itself so that we would have an opportunity to show Pine Village some generosity in return for the many years they have let use their space on Sunday mornings, entirely rent free!!  Nearly unheard of.  

•    We are working on training some new teachers for the pre-school Godly Play class, we have had a good response to this and are planning to do a ‘story teller’ training the last Sunday of January.   

•    There is a growing team coalescing around the outdoor church sandwich ministry.  I think we have a pretty good team that is committed to this work. 

•    The Scouts are doing well.  Scout service to the parish has gone very well this year under the guidance of Michelle Holmes. 

•    I preached on Christmas Day which was fun and intimate service. 

•    The youth are planning the Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner, we have a Kids-4-Peace event scheduled at St. James’s on 3/12, we are working on a Lenten retreat with Christ Church Cambridge for early April, and there is a fellowship event in the works for some time in March.       

•    Kids-4-Peace convention on April 2nd.

•    We are trying to get our 8th graders and 9th graders interested in the pre-confirmation retreat up at the BHC put on the by the diocese youth leadership academy.

•    St. J families leading the Maundy Thursday pot-luck dinner.       

 

Submitted by Nancy McArdle

Wednesday
Mar012017

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Ash Wednesday - 12 noon

Audio recording for Ash Wednesday 

Ash Wednesday 3-1-2017

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

 

As a parent cares for their children, so do you care for those who fear you, O God. For you yourself know whereof we are made; you remember that we are but dust. But you are full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. Help us in our dustiness to be so, too. AMEN.

 

Welcome to the season of baptismal preparation, the season of Lent. From the early days of the church, these days before Holy Week were set aside to prepare for the great baptismal feast of Easter. They were the culmination of a very long catechumenate – a period of instruction & preparation for the life-changing sacrament of baptism. Maybe you’re already baptized? Lent is still your baptismal season: your season to remember what it means to belong to Jesus Christ, heart & soul & mind & strength. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” asks Paul in his Letter to the Romans. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

 

Baptized or not yet baptized, Lent is your season to dive more deeply into Christ’s death, into your own death, so that you may be more fully alive. Because it is by dying – and ONLY by dying – to our everlastingly striving selves that we become fully and completely open to the gift of grace. We have nothing left to prove. No pious ax to grind. No trumpet to sound. No prayer to cry from the street corner.

 

Now death is not a popular subject in our ever-striving, ever-improving “I’ve got this!” culture. Us Baby Boomers seem more determined than any generation before us to prove we’re definitely NOT DYING. Not even aging, in fact. Look at our dyed hair, our botoxed skin, our taut muscles! So this embrace of our baptismal death to self is deeply counter-cultural. We’re not losers, we insist; we’re WINNERS! We’re not last, we’re FIRST! We’re GREAT! We DESERVE this, whatever “this” is, the “this” that we want. And we are NOT DYING. No.

 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way God made our messy world. In our messy world, we die all the time, over and over, on a thousand different levels. We DON’T get what we want. We discover we’ve let each other down, that we’ve hurt each other, asserting our wants, our “deserts.” We DON’T “win” the argument. We fail to achieve what we set out to do. We lose our friends, our parents, our partners. Our joints don’t work, whatever color of hair we select.

 

Here’s the baptismal – the resurrectional – miracle: if, instead of FIGHTING these many deaths, we embrace them as an opportunity to “die into Christ,” as an opportunity to experience God’s healing grace instead of as the final, deafening, deadening dismissal of our being, their darkness can become the “crack for the light to get in,” as Leonard Cohen sang.

Theologian Robert Farrar Capon – a poet of death and grace if there ever was one – said, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; he did not come to improve the improvable; he did not come to reform the reformable. None of these things works.” They don’t work because they fall short of acknowledging our powerlessness to “fix” ourselves or the world. All that rigorous discipline – without a holy death at the center of them – just holds our true powerlessness at bay. And all that effort also holds our truepreciousness at bay, as well. Because it keeps God’s love at arm’s length, while we go on busily proving that we can manage our salvation by ourselves.

 

So Lent is NOT about improving ourselves through a set of special disciplines – giving up chocolate; taking on exercise; reading the Bible in 40 days. Or maybe these things are only valuable when we fail at them – as we almost certainly will. Because THEN we’ll realize that our salvation is not in our own hands, but in God’s. And God has already “saved” us, in Jesus’ own loving life and death upon the Cross. Our baptismal preparation is to die into the truth of God’s great love for us and be done trying to earn it.

 

That’s why Lent opens with ashes. It’s why it opens with death. And it’s why we kneel and receive those ashes in a cross on our forehead, here, just here, where the cross of oil anoints us at our baptism, calling each and every one of us into our royal priesthood, the priesthood of all followers of Jesus Christ, sealing us by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marking us as Christ’s own, forever.  Those ashes on our baptismal cross never lose their evocative power: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

 

But this is not a morbid exercise, this ashy-ness of ours. This is not some doleful practice of what my grandfather would call, “lugubrium!” No: a Lenten practice of death is JOYFUL! It is LIBERATING! Because it is the discovery and re-discovery that we are deeply, indelibly, mercifully, utterly and eternally LOVED BY GOD, ashes or no ashes.

 

In fact, we who raise a ruckus on Mardi Gras, on Carnival, donning costumes and dancing in the streets and brandishing instruments in the wild parade, only to sober up and don our dismal faces of fasting on Ash Wednesday have the WHOLE THING UPSIDE DOWN! It’s ASH WEDNESDAY that should be the party! Because it’s only when we get down to business and die to our own arrogance and greed and will-to-power that God’s loving grace can finally get to us. It’s on Ash Wednesday that I can commence to reclaim my true dustiness – my “humility,” my humus, “my earthiness,” my soil, my compost of rotting intentions and resolutions, out of which can come, with the help of God’s grace, goodness, mercy, kindness, steadfastness, and a willingness to suspend anger.

 

Congressman John Lewis, one of the vanguard of civil rights leaders, along with Martin Luther King Jr., who made the great tectonic shift of the 1960’s happen, had a conversation with Krista Tippett this January for her program “On Being,” as a part of her “Civil Conversations” project. The two of them were in the midst of “a congressional civil rights pilgrimage led by [Lewis] and attended by 30 members of the House and Senate from both parties.” Tippett says, they “stood on the holy ground of the [Civil Rights] movement in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma. It was a journey into history [she] thought [she] knew, but didn’t really — into the Civil Rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation within themselves — and into their intricate art and work of successful nonviolence.” [http://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-action/] When Tippett asked Lewis to speak in depth about the training in non-violence that he underwent – and helped create – in preparation for what lay ahead in their resistance to the vehemence of racism in that Jim Crow era, he gave a description of the most profound possible practice of baptismal dying.

 

REP. LEWIS:  “…Long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides, or the march from Selma to Montgomery, any organized campaign that took place, we did study. I remember as a student in Nashville, Tennessee, a small group of students every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. would gather in a small Methodist church near Fisk University in downtown Nashville.

 

And we had a teacher... a young man who taught us the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We studied. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. … There would be black and white young people, students, an interracial group, playing the roles of African Americans, or an interracial group playing the roles of whites. And we went through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you. Sometimes we did pour cold water on someone — never hot — but we went through the motion… we wanted to feel like they were in the actual situation, that this could happen. … So when the time came, we were ready. We were prepared.

 

MS. TIPPETT: I also read somewhere that you were trained, even if someone was attacking you, to look them in the eye, that there was something disarming for human beings.

 

REP. LEWIS: We did go through the motion, the drama, of saying that if someone kicks you, spits on you, pulls you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, “Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human. …You have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being…[even one that is persecuting you.]

 

…We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

 

“Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign, in a city like Nashville and so many other parts of the American South, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back. There were even people who would say, “I cannot go on the sit-ins. I cannot go on the freedom ride. I may not be disciplined enough.” But we were trained. When we left to go on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die for what we believed in. …The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ‘em.””

 

And John Lewis went out and put his training into practice, being the first person struck by police attempting to stop the March to Selma, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, struck and nearly killed. And he never gave up on anyone, even his most determined persecutors. And how did he “love” them, as Dr. King abjured? Lewis says, “Suffering can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an accepting, an open heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering.” A baptismal practice indeed.

 

So if you plan a “Lenten discipline,” let it be something that helps you practice relishing the fact that God already loves you so much, God has already thrown the accounting book out the window. God is no longer keeping score. Jesus already died for your sins. Now it’s your turn to die into Christ. Me, my humble baptismal practice this Lent is to stop adding six more things to my day so I can prove to myself and everyone around me that I’m more capable than God’s own self! My Lenten discipline is to go to bed at a reasonable hour and get up at a reasonable hour and sit silently with God first thing in the morning and get absolutely NOTHING DONE in all those hours of sleep and silence! It might make a hash of my ridiculously over-ambitious life, but God will get a good giggle out of that! Because God might finally be able to get a word of grace in edgewise through all my self-congratulatory busyness!

 

And as Robert Farrar Capon says, “Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its [harmonies] to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears…” and join the jive and jitterbug. [Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace] HAPPY Ash Wednesday! Amen!

Wednesday
Feb222017

Homily on the Feast Day of Eric Liddell for the Sisters of St. Anne

The Feast of Eric Liddell

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 40:27–31, Psalm 18:21–25,29–34; 2 Peter 1:3–11; Mark 10:35–45

 

You, O Lord, are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright. With you I will break down an enclosure; with the help of my God I will scale any wall.  AMEN.

 

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” So Jesus asks his brash young followers. And so he asks all of us, perhaps with more poignancy in this present moment.

 

It’s a good time to think a bit about baptism. We’re coming up on the season of Lent, so long the season of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. For many in the earliest days of the Church, these 40 Lenten days were the culmination of years of training and teaching and formation. Then, in the flickering dark of the Vigil, baptizands were plunged head-to-foot into water three times, in the name of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer & Sustainer, an intense evocation of their willingness to “die into Christ,” to join themselves to Christ by complete self-emptying, and thereby to be infused with a new life and a new identity as a minister of reconciliation, committed to following Jesus even if to follow Jesus meant to be separated from one’s loving but unbelieving family.  Even, if necessary, into the dens of lions.

 

Because in the early days of the church, these soon-to-be Christians were subject to persecution and even martyrdom, so preparation for baptism was a much more literal preparation for death than anyone in this room is likely to have experienced, even if you were baptized as I was, as an adult. My baptism preparation – at age 28 - amounted to a single conversation with my priest, in which, after four years of singing in the choir every week, I met with him on the picnic table outside the church and screwed up my courage to say, “I think I want to be baptized,” and he responded, “Well, I think you know what you’re doing,” and made a date for the baptism. It was so quick and so negligible that it made me feel a little dizzy and uncertain, feeling by no means as prepared as I felt I should be, but embarrassed to say so in the teeth of (I may say, unwarranted!) conviction. (Or maybe his own uncertainty HOW to prepare me!)

 

I call it “the last private baptism” even though I have no evidence for that, but because it was 1980 and our Church had already adopted the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with its central liturgy of baptism and its expressed desire to have baptisms only on major feast days in the presence of the whole congregation. My baptism was a hold-over from a bygone era, three little spritzes at the font in the back of the church, held on a Saturday afternoon with my bewildered, unchurched parents; my wonderful spiritual mentor, our cleaning lady Alvainie Dawson (who resides in my own personal roster of saints); my grandmother, brought up an Episcopalian from her birth in 1895, and flipping the pages of the unfamiliar prayerbook back and forth audibly and with irritation behind me throughout the little service, as if to say, “What IS this???” and my Episcopalian husband, who sang “I heard the voice of Jesus say” for my baptism despite having told me it was a song for funerals, to which of course I pointed out, “This IS a funeral: the funeral of my old self! Now I will be risen with Christ!”

 

How innocently I could say that. How little idea I truly had then, what it would mean to “drink the cup that Christ drinks, or be baptized with the baptism that Christ is baptized with!” And once-for-all as baptism is – and I depend upon that; I RELY upon the certainty of having been SEALED by the Holy Spirit and MARKED as Christ’s own, FOREVER; I’m with Martin Luther, who, as a reminder to himself not to give up in a time of desperate stress and persecution, hiding in someone else’s house as a captive for his own safety, famously took a knife and hacked the words into the wood of his desk, “I HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED!” – as crucial as this permanence of baptism is, it is also vivid to me that the reality of one’s baptism is also something one can only grasp “through a glass dimly,” in a long process of LIVING INTO one’s baptism, of deepening one’s baptism over years of practice, of renewing and re-affirming one’s baptism over and over, in every partaking of the Eucharist, every “participation in Christ,” as Richard Hooker says of the Bread & Wine, the Body & Blood of Christ.

 

Fortunately we have models for this deepening of baptism – models in Christ’s followers who have gone before us, and who have met the challenges of their lives with faithfulness and grace, empowered to do so by clinging to Christ who is their all-in-all, by “drinking the cup that Christ drinks, and being baptized with the baptism with which Christ is baptized.” Today’s model is the British Olympic runner Eric Liddell, famous for us from the movie “Chariots of Fire,” in which we see him give up his chance at winning the 100-meter sprint – his best event – because the qualifying heat would require him to run on the sabbath day. Son of missionaries in China and devout Scottish Presbyterian that he was, defiling the Sabbath was out of the question. Still, a young man with the opportunity to demonstrate a world-conquering skill, it would have been more predictable that he would have at least hedged on his principles. The dedication with which he met that spiritual challenge – and went on to win the 400-meter at those same 1924 Olympics by running it as IF it were a sprint! – was a mere harbinger of things to come.

 

After being trained at Edinburgh University as a doctor, he returned to his parents in the missionary field in Northern China in 1925, becoming a teacher. And there he stayed even as the Imperial Japanese began to envelope China in the lead-up to World War II. Sending his Canadian wife and their three daughters back to her family in Canada, Liddell remained in solidarity with his Chinese comrades, spelling his doctor brother in a mission to the poor. When the Japanese took over the mission station in 1943, Liddell was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp (in the modern city of Weifang). There he lived in the harsh conditions of deprivation that characterized these camps under the Japanese, but with astonishing equanimity, encouraged his fellow prisoners, especially the children. “Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in his native America, said of Liddell: "Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known."[15] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Liddell]

 

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Eric Liddell drank the cup to its dregs, and dove deeper and deeper into his baptism. It certainly wasn’t what he would have chosen, that terrible life in an internment camp. But he HAD chosen to follow the sacrificial path of love his Savior had shown him, and he “poured all of himself into it,” holding nothing back. And from Langdon Gilkey’s account, it was a blessing to him, hard as it was, just as it was a blessing to all around him.

 

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died [in the camp at Weihsien], Liddell wrote of suffering a nervous breakdown due to overwork. He actually had an inoperable brain tumour; overwork and malnourishment may have hastened his death. Liddell died on 21 February 1945, five months before liberation. Langdon Gilkey later wrote, "The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric's death had left." According to a fellow missionary, Liddell's last words were, "It's complete surrender", in reference to how he had given his life to God.[19]

[Ibid.]

 

"It's complete surrender." That’s the goal of our baptisms. And it can take a lifetime to reach it. Or sometimes, in the crucible of intense suffering, one may reach it far sooner. Suffering or no, living into our baptism is a way of joy.

 

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

‘I am this dark world’s Light.

Look unto me; thy morn shall rise

And all thy day be bright.’

I looked to Jesus, and I found

In him, my star, my sun;

And in that light of life I’ll walk

Till traveling days are done.”

                        [Horatius Bonar, 1846]

Amen. 

Tuesday
Feb212017

Jane Hirschi's Living Epistle - 7 Epiphany - 2/19/17

Tuesday
Feb212017

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 7 Epiphany - 2/19/17

Audio Recording of Sermon for 7 Epiphany

7 Epiphany Year A 2-19-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; A Living Epistle of Jane Hirschi [1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23]; Matthew 5:38-48

Do we not know that we are your temple, O God, and that your Spirit dwells in us? If anyone destroys your temple, O God, you will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and we are that temple. AMEN. [1 Cor. 1:16-17]

My prayer for this morning comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, from the epistle we didn’t read because instead we had Anti-Oppression Team member Jane Hirschi’s powerful testimony in her Living Epistle. But Jane and Paul are on the same page here, anyway. Every one of us human beings is God’s very temple. As the Book of Leviticus in our first reading puts it, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We are made in the image of God, and God’s Spirit dwells in us. We dare not disrespect the temple of God by disrespecting each other. The great “I AM” who is our Creator God teaches us in Leviticus what our holiness looks like: our holiness lies in the justice and kindness with which we treat each other. If we are holy as God is holy, we will not disrespect the poor or deny the laborer her wages; we will not hoard the grain of our fields nor the grapes of our vineyards but we will share them with the very poorest and with the stranger and the immigrant among us. We will judge justly; we will speak truth and not slander; we will defend our neighbors’ right to fullness of life. We will love our neighbor as ourselves.

This holiness of the Almighty God which infuses each of us with holiness lies at the very root of why we have an Anti-Oppression Team at St. James’s. The Anti-Oppression Team represents our pledge as a congregation not to disrespect each other. Neither to disrespect each other within the congregation, nor to carry that disrespect out into the surrounding community. We pledge to see each other – every other – as a sacred being: God’s own temple.

But ours is a society that has long roots in disrespect, despite our brave experiment in democracy and human rights. We have disrespected our tribal members that were already resident here when the Europeans arrived on American shores. We profoundly disrespected those from Africa who arrived here bound in the chains of slavery, and we didn’t let up on that disrespect after the words of Emancipation were spoken, but imposed Jim Crow on them, red-lined them out of housing, discriminated against them in hiring, persecuted them with mass incarceration. We disrespected women for much of our history, not even giving them the vote until 1920. Remember that on this day in 1942, the U.S. government issued the order to round up all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast and put them in concentration camps. This, too, is our history. And our disrespect continues. We have overlooked the impacts of globalization upon the rural and post-industrial poor in our country, leaving people stranded in economically deprived communities, a prey to drug addiction and despair, and we continue to utilize the labor and creativity of millions of immigrant members of our society – tax-payers, family members, economic contributors – while leaving them terribly vulnerable to persecution by refusing them citizenship, even those who arrived here as children in the company of their parents.

 

So the Anti-Oppression Team has its work cut out for it, and this congregation has its work cut out for it, because we’re UNDOING a deeply systemic, largely unconscious legacy of disrespect. And undoing that takes a rigorous commitment to uncovering our own biases as well as a dedicated commitment to working to redress the impacts of such biases in our society. And God knows this is not a moment in our history in which our nation looks much like a “shining beacon on a hill” for this kind of redress of bias. In fact, our national leadership at the moment displays a willingness to build policy upon bias that is remarkably unvarnished and unabashed, even preening with self-congratulation.

 

Then, just as we’re getting good and angry about all this, just when our mission to respect each other comes up against such magisterial disregard, along comes Jesus, continuing his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, and ups the ante yet again on the expectations of our holiness. He makes an “ask” of us that, maybe at this particularly divisive time in American politics, is strenuously difficult to the point of unendurable, far, far beyond simply avoiding disrespect. “You have heard that it was said, declares Jesus, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

What can this MEAN for us who are joined to Jesus Christ in our baptisms? How can we POSSIBLY “love our enemies,” even those who persecute our very own family, friends, & neighbors – ourselves? - through their disrespect?

Let us turn to another follower of Jesus Christ, to African-American Congressman John Lewis for clues. In the recent documentary profile of him, called “Get In The Way,” we learn that Lewis grew up dirt-poor as the son of a sharecropper in Jim Crow Alabama. In an era of virtually unchallenged persecution and lynching of African-Americans, Lewis’ mother strictly coached him to keep his head down and not to “get in the way” of the white people in power in his community. But as a teen in the late ‘50’s, Lewis heard Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio and realized in that pivotal moment that he, John Lewis, was God’s Temple, that God’s Holy Spirit dwelt in him as much as in anyone, and that he was called to “get in the way” of the systemic racism of the time. He joined King in the Civil Rights Movement. In the profile, we watch him as a student at Fisk University, organizing sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee.  We watch him participating in the Freedom Rides in 1961, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons.  We watch him being screamed at and beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South. From 1963 to 1966, as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form, Lewis and SNCC were largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities. Already by 1963, at the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963, at which King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  [extracted from https://johnlewis.house.gov/john-lewis/biography]

 

Nothing deters Representative Lewis. Elected to Congress from Georgia’s Fifth District in 1986 after an already-distinguished career at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle, and despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries along the way, and now more than 70 years into this long faithfulness, he has remained throughout a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He has remained nonviolent because it is his conviction that to give in to hatred and violence is to join his oppressors in the prison of their racism. Instead he has sought to “love his enemies” as Jesus commanded by first claiming his own dignity as a human being. He has refused to descend to the level of their disrespect. As Michelle Obama said often during the last presidential campaign, “when his enemies went lower, he went higher.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” counseled Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In Congressman Lewis’ practice, shaped by African-American theologian Howard Thurman’s interpretation, this phrase “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is Leviticus all over again: not that you should be without fault, but rather that “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Or, as Lewis himself said, "The police came in and arrested us for taking a seat at the Woolworth's lunch counter.  I didn't feel ashamed. I held my head high, I felt liberated, I felt like I crossed over."  [http://www.documentary.org/film/get-way-journey-john-lewisWith every confrontation in which people exerted violent power over Lewis, Lewis became more firmly convinced of his own worth in the eyes of God, and stayed himself on that rock, rather than being deflected into retaliation. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” [Romans 12:19] So John Lewis left the vengeance to God.

 

The proof is in the pudding: at the end of John Lewis’ profile, a former Ku Klux Klan member, Elwin Wilson, reaches out to Lewis, to confess, in his old age, that he had been among those who had beaten Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders – the interracial bus riderswho had ridden public transportation together into Montgomery Alabama, obeying federal transportation law but offending white segregation practices – in the 1950’s. We watch Lewis meet Wilson, human being to human being, shake his hand, and tell him, eye to eye, “I forgive you.” Could I withstand such beatings non-violently, as John Lewis did, and keep coming back? Could I forgive someone who had so beaten me and others I love? Could you? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” To love your enemies doesn’t mean, don’t resist injustice. It means to treat all humans with dignity, even if they refuse to acknowledge yours, for the SAKE of your own divine dignity.

 

In a minute, we will have the honor to baptize two small “temples of God,” in whom the Spirit dwells richly, Veronica & Vernon Agard-Lynch. They also happen to be children of color, stepping into their “royal priesthood” in Christ in a world that will be all too liable to disrespect them and overlook their potential, and their sacramental presence among us. So it is all the more important that St. James’s be a place where children like Vernon & Veronica can claim the fullness of their dignity, and live into their baptismal vows, as Jane said, to “seek & serve Christ in in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being,” beginning, continuing, and ending with themselves, as it has begun, continued, and will end in the shining, courageous and unrelentingly generous spirit of Congressman John Lewis. And as they come forward for their baptisms now, together with their mom Laverne and their dad Trevor and their LEGION of godparents, please join me in singing them on their way: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”  AMEN.

Tuesday
Feb212017

Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 6 Epiphany - 2/12/17

6 Epiphany Year A 2-12-17

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Deuteronomy 30:15-20Ps. 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9Matthew 5:21-37

 

Happy are we who observe your decrees, O God, and seek you with all our hearts! We will thank you with an unfeigned heart, when we have learned your righteous judgments. AMEN.

 

May I begin this sermon with a surprising assertion, given all that “tearing out of eyes” and “cutting off of limbs” that Jesus talks about in today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel? (What DO you suppose Jesus would be tweeting, these apocalyptic days?!?) It is my conviction that though these passages this morning may seem to be all about “law & order,” in truth and at heart they are about nothing so much as God’s great, abiding, undaunted, unwavering love for us human beings.

 

Perhaps you can chalk up this optimistic interpretive scrim to my having spent the week before last immersed in the silence and prayer of the monastery of the Society of St. John Evangelist over on Memorial Drive, being renewed in Christ daily in the Eucharist. To be held in such a practice of reflection and prayer, with Scripture flowing into and around one in the daily office five times a day is a potently hope-inducing thing.  And that’s not because stringent truth isn’t spoken. There’s nothing sentimental about monastic piety, at least not as it is practiced among the brothers at SSJE. They are blunt and honest. And frank about their shortcomings, and ours. The threatening dynamics of the world’s politics – and particularly our own national politics at the moment – are not lost on them. But they’re also funny. And deeply, deeply kind. So it is when you are renewing yourself in Christ multiple times daily. And eating your meals to the tune of Beethoven’s violin sonatas or a biography of Francis of Assisi, read aloud.

 

Which brings to mind Psalm 119, which is a long, rotating, spiraling revisiting of the importance of studying, adhering to, exploring, and relying upon The Law, the Torah that lies at the heart of the Jewish faith. We sampled only a portion – the first 8 verses – of it today. There are 168 more! I used to dread its showing up every Wednesday in the Daily Office, with its everlasting repetitions of “the law, the decrees, the statutes, and the commandments.” That is, I dreaded it until I was brought up short and instructed about this Psalm by my friend and mentor the Rev. Dr. Paul van Buren, a scholar of the New Testament but more particularly a proponent of Christians learning about the living tradition of Judaism if they wished to understand their God more intimately. Paul taught me to think of the Torah functioning in Judaism very much as the Holy Spirit functions in Christian theology: the inspiring, motivating, clarifying, instructing, guiding and supporting Spirit that animates all that we know, all that we believe, all that we do. Wrapping Psalm 119 around you – wrapping the Law around you – is like wrapping the daily prayer of the brothers at the monastery around you, deepened with repetition, nourishing your spirit in The Spirit, helping you to grow in spiritual health and wholeness.

 

So with my ears tuned up from being wrapped in the monastery’s cycle of prayer for a few blessed days, I noticed something in Paul’s words to the Corinthians in our second reading today that I had never noticed before: Paul is talking about himself as if he – in Christ, as he says – were a nursing mother. Did that get by you too? “Children, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? In this passage, we are breast-feeding infants, being lovingly tended by a mother who will not press us to assimilate adult food until our digestions are up to it! Which, given how immature and contentious we’re being, Paul says we’re clearly NOT! Biblical scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa says Paul would have paid dearly for such a scandalously un-masculine image. But what did Paul care? He had already “been crucified with Christ,” and to any resident of the Roman Empire, that would be scandal beyond any other scandal. Yet “the testimony of the cross, to Paul’s ear, became the mysterious music of the spheres, and he, in turn, became the servant of the Spirit’s reconciling song, emptying himself after the manner of Christ’s own self-emptying.” [Robert P. Hoch, New Proclamation, Year A, 2011].

 

Aaahah. So now, we are not only wrapping ourselves in all the facets of God’s wisdom – God’s Wisdom, God’s Sophia, always imaged as a woman in the Hebrew Scriptures – and nursing at Sophia’s breast, but we are also tuning in to the “mysterious music of the spheres… the Spirit’s reconciling song” which is the testimony of Christ’s self-emptying upon the cross, which becomes the model for our own self-emptying, our own “servanthood” of reconciliation.

 

Moses tells the people of Israel, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” They’re his last words of instruction to them as they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land after their 40 long years of being “formed” in the struggle to survive in the wilderness. Pastor Robert P. Hoch says the “implied theological narrative” in this line from Deuteronomy is, “The Lord your God loves you with an everlasting love, calling out to you even when you are hidden and even when you turn [away], God is faithful still; God clings to you like a mother to her child, or like a child to its mother, such is the love God for you!” All this nourishing, all this immersion in the practice of “the Law,” this cultivation of the presence of the Spirit, all taking place within this utter assurance of God’s loving longing presence and attention – the assurance in Christ crucified, the mysterious music of the spheres which fueled Paul’s own long faithfulness in the teeth of trial and suffering – this all casts a different light on Moses’ command to “choose life” over death. It becomes less of a dire one-shot-only prospect and more a matter of choosing and choosing and choosing again, choosing daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, to cling to God like a child to its mother, to accept the spiritual milk we need. To choose by creating for ourselves a “habit of being,” a habitus, a disposition of spirit, by which we become available to God’s ever-present, ever-loving, animating Spirit. Choosing to empty ourselves of all our insistence on “knowing how to do it,” and instead letting ourselves be open to being supplied with what we need to choose life.

 

In this light, Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel suddenly have a different ring. There’s no doubt that they’re a solid whack upside the head, demanding a standard of moral rectitude so far beyond us as to be devastating. It’s as if Jesus is deliberately pushing us beyond the boundaries of what we can achieve. A colleague of mine suggested that if we preach on these passages, we’d better preach universal ex-communication of the American Body Politic, for as long as we’re all so completely un-reconciled to each other! But now, after what we’ve heard from Deuteronomy and Psalm 119 and Paul’s words to the Corinthians, we might hear Jesus’ extreme words a little differently, especially if we remember that earlier in the Sermon on the Mount - just last week, in fact – Jesus said, Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” If the Law is not our rule book, our formula for righteousness (or our prison), but is rather our invitation to a habitus, a habit of being immersed in the Spirit, immersed in God’s word and our prayer, a habit of “choosing life” over and over, of doing our best to remember that belittling words, not just physical violence, can kill; of doing our best to remember if our family member has anything against us, and to reach out to them to work it out; of doing our best to stay faithfully focused on the person with whom we “became one flesh,” to learn what we can of God’s faithfulness in that very-human, very-fallible relationship; of doing our best to say “yes” when we mean “yes” and a clear, firm “no” when we mean “no,” and not equivocating or manipulating or vituperating at people. (We’re getting PLENTY of practice at all this, these days, are we not?) All of this is not the end-point, but a way-station in the process of self-emptying, a practice point. This is how we become a “witness to God’s covenantal love,” by first learning to claim it for ourselves and in the process, realizing it belongs equally to everyone else, even those who drive us crazy.

 

As Robert Hoch says so beautifully, “What we are searching for is how the love of God and the love of learning fuse together as the music of devotion. When this fusion happens, it is like watching a gifted pianist play: [their] fingers move over the keys as if keys were waves of water, lifting … music into the air, saturating everything with a sound that is more than the sum total of the separate notes, skills, hours and years of practice which preceded that moment – it is like watching someone in love with a mystery, but a mystery that responds to our searching hand with the sound of music, just as love responds to the touch of the beloved. Perhaps this is one way we could come to value the law, as an instrument: it can be played badly or, as we hope, movingly [even if not perfectly], such that we do not think it is an instrument at all. Indeed, we know it is no instrument but, rather, something [beyond a mere instrument; a mystery of love made manifest in sound,] a mystery that pervades … our senses. The music of the faithful life[is] … a life worn by repetition, by renewal, and by repentance.” And it is not just fiercely honest, but also kind and funny. Because it has been nourished on the self-emptying, never-ending, always proffered love of God. [Robert P. Hoch, New Proclamation, Year A, 2011]

Thursday
Jan262017

2016 Annual Report 

Wednesday
Jan252017

Holly Lyman Antolini's Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul 1-25-17

Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 26:9-21; Ps. 67; Galatians 1:11-24; Matthew 10:16-22

 

May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.

 

To read the passage from Matthew assigned for the Feast of Paul's Conversion is always unnerving: all that being dragged before the authorities and having to account for yourself; all that "brother against brother, sister against sister, parent against children, children against parents" stuff seems so contrary to the peaceable kingdom vision that draws us to spiritual practice. It brings to mind the age-old wail from congregation members, "Why can't we keep politics out of church?" And "I come to church to be comforted; I don't need this confrontational stuff!"

Paul certainly understood the need for comfort when it comes to faith. As he wrote to the Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What can be more comforting than that?

But truth to say, what we know of Paul’s life is fraught with danger, contention, confrontation, and yes, politics. And he never shied away from it. In fact, he walked right into it, eyes wide open. And found his real comfort on the other side.

Truth to say, THIS year, on THIS Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, this Gospel message of conflict, of vulnerability, of being made to account for oneself to very unsympathetic people who have immense power over one's fate and one's future, has an especially frightening resonance to it at this particular juncture in history.

After years of being able to pursue the Christian life in the United States in freedom and without much fear of persecution, years of being able to profess dissenting opinions from the "powers that be" without being afraid of being thrown into prison, we seem to have entered a time when that freedom may not be what it was. A time when our baptismal vows might suddenly have real consequences for our immediate well-being. As they did for Paul.

If we seek and serve Christ, providing sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant who will otherwise be deported, might we ourselves find ourselves arrested for civil disobedience? If we respect the dignity of our friends, neighbors, and congregation members of color enough to stand up to police violence committed against them on little pretext, might we find ourselves "dragged before the authorities," and made to testify?

It has always been an uphill battle to advocate for the redress of systemic poverty affecting certain classes of people more than others; it has long been an uphill battle to stand for the civil rights of LGBTQ people. Now, might it be not just trying and difficult, but dangerous as well?

Might our baptismal commitments demand that we become politically active, even though that means entering the wide swathe of moral ambiguity that surrounds any and all political action? Putting our purity of spirituality at risk? As Paul did his, over and over in the Book of Acts, for the sake of his “ministry of reconciliation.”

I am, of all people, a person deeply in need of spiritual tranquility and peace. I seek it out. My prayer style of choice is a deeply contemplative one, centering prayer that seeks to move beyond words into a very deep stillness in the presence of God, without demand. That's why I take a week every year to enter the monastery of the brothers of the Society of St. John Evangelist, as I will next week, and spend five days in deep quiet, praying, worshipping, singing, sleeping, reading, eating, walking in silence. Without such times of refreshment, I find my spirit cannot keep its center in Christ.

But that cannot be my only expression of faith. From that center of silence, I am inexorably called outward, called to join my most vulnerable human family members - regardless of their "citizenship" or lack thereof, regardless of their declared religious faith, regardless of their color or gender orientation - in solidarity, ally myself with them out of respect for the dignity inherent in them because they, too, were "made in the image of God." It is precisely my faith in Jesus that calls me outward, to put my serenity and tranquility at risk. Just as his faith called Paul into danger, into constant strife. And like Paul, who refused to separate Jew and Gentile, but saw them all as one in Christ, I must make that oneness as real and concrete and palpable as I possibly can.

For as Paul wrote,  “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” AMEN.

Tuesday
Jan242017

Allen Perez's Living Epistle on the Spirituality of Being an Immigrant 1-22-17

Sisters and brothers, wrap the night, any night, with moons of solitude, in near shadows, because in a short period of time I must convey the feelings of this Costa Rican immigrant. At least I want a small cloud of mine to linger in your hearts as a gesture of deep appreciation to all of you.

I arrived six months ago to this soil in despair. I came to the US in bad shape, ill, downhearted, and with 70 dollars in my pocket.  One Sunday I caught sight of the "Black Lives Matter" sign and decided I might be welcome in this church.  I took the risk to come in and was drawn to the word of God here at Saint James Episcopal Church.  While I was enduring suffering it thrilled me to be welcomed, to be invited by the Rector to have a conversation, to surprisingly join the choir, to participate in the food pantry, in the Anti-Oppression Committee and so forth. That was the beginning of a new hope in Christ. Therefore, this House of God became my asylum, refuge and sanctuary. By grace I survived the unknown. 

That being said, let me share with tenderness the following considerations:

God manifests Himself in infinite ways.

God's relationship with each person, each group and each nation is unique and unrepeatable.

God's word is one, but the human hearing of Him is like the sand of the ocean.

The purpose of God is not divine punishment, but divine understanding of the wholeness of love.

The purpose of God is to create His community here and now on this earth.  I call that aim redemption.

Staying among us, God embraces the narrative of space and time. His glorious name is always present in our history.  He walks with us a thousand roads. With Him we rewrite the living Bible. God is the eternal immigrant. He walks with us in spirit all the geographies and languages.  He seeks refuge in us to let his Word be heard. God goes from land to land, from oceans to oceans, from mountains to mountains declaring the grace of human unity.

God loves Christians, Muslims  and Jews alike. God loves people of all colors, races and ethnic backgrounds. The grace of God is for everybody without exception.

God sanctifies sentimental unions without gender bias, without hateful barriers and blessing each person's freedom to love with kindness and integrity.

God is constantly migrating--without boundaries and borders--to construct, over generations, a just society for all. God is the most tireless immigrant, the immigrant of the divine and profane. This partnership with God is sacred because without it there is no human history. God yearns for our radical liberation and sent to us the man Jesus to teach us more about His infinite love and wisdom. I want to be in the camp of the Christians that will uphold Jesus' way of love:  inclusiveness, respect, peace, compassion, kindness, care, love and generosity.

Most of my brothers and sisters from Central America came here from rural areas, with little formal education and with big traumas. Most of them were displaced by military conflicts and outrageous poverty. Sadly the United States government did not do the right thing, financially supporting oppressive military governments.  Time has passed and the causes of economic oppression continue to be in place.  Eleven million undocumented immigrants nationwide are facing gray clouds announcing storms to come. Our congregation needs to be shoulder to shoulder with them in their defense and every member of our community should know that we are taking the first concrete steps in that direction. You have shown this welcome of love to me. My fellow immigrants need it from you, also.

When on purpose I think of myself as an immigrant, I remind myself that I was born with skin and hope. I am not asking for eternities full of white stars; indeed I yearn for tenderness, a warm dinner, silence, bread, home, community. More so, as a man of faith I like to dream. For example, I would like to have enormous hands to tear out boundaries one by one and leave as boundary just the air. I picture Jesus smiling and slowly coming to my humble home, and sitting in my little kitchen to share warm coffee, tortillas and cheese, while my friendly neighbor plays an old melody of peasant love, with no need to invoke the times of fences and borders. This is my dream. In this I believe. Amen!

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