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Thursday
May292014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini Sermon from Sunday, May 25th, 2014

6 Easter Year A 5-25-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 17:22-31; Ps. 66:7-18; (I Peter 3:13-22); John 14: 15-21

Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.  AMEN.

As many of you know, I spent most of the last week on my annual silent prayer retreat at the monastery of the Society of St. John Evangelist on Memorial Drive. Even though there was more coming-and-going than I usually experience in this precious week of prayer, still I had the experience I always have at the monastery.  It’s an experience of sinking into the quiet, only music in liturgy to stir up the silence, and reading aloud at meals (this time, a book about the remarkable abilities of BIRDS!).  No chitchat.  No broadcasts. It’s an experience of being held in the prayer of a whole community, renewed every three hours or so in the services of the daily office and daily Eucharist, with God’s word opened and explored in a constant tidal rhythm each day.  We’re not trying to sustain our relationship with God on our own, but rather are joining a great unending stream of prayer, like the eternal procession of the Charles River outside the guesthouse windows.  Being at the monastery on retreat is an experience of internal freedom: freedom to read and think and gaze at the world without the to-do list dragging our attention forward and outward.  It’s a time to pay attention within ourselves without distraction.  No need to posture or construct one’s persona in any way.  No need to persuade anyone of anything, or recruit anyone to anything.  (But lots of room to care about many, many people, whose faces bubble up into prayer, sometimes accompanied by tears of fellow feeling or joy.)  Cell phone (mostly) off.  Screens (mostly) blank.  Heart and mind tuned to a slower, gentler frequency, a frequency that allows for probing but kindly self-examination and forbearance, for discernment, for weighing and balancing what’s important and what’s not, for letting oneself be little and inconsequential on the great stage of life without feeling badly about it.  Time opened up to let the regrets creep out from the little backwaters to which they’ve eddied in the general busyness and get addressed, and for things rejoiced in to have their full appreciation.

 

Mind you, on the monastery brothers’ side of the ledger, this grace-filled atmosphere of prayer and freedom is full of effort, as they design, preach, and lead the services, learn the music, welcome and attend to the guests, keep the building and gardens tranquil, inviting & clean and the (delicious) food arriving at table, and in and through it all, provide spiritual direction in person and on their website. But for me as their guest, being at the monastery opens a time inside me and outside me that liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop would call a “laetissimum spatium,” a “most joyful space,” a space in which to luxuriate in and expand into the baptismal truth that no matter what our failures and shortcomings, no matter the trials and tribulations of our daily lives and situation, we abide in Christ’s love in the power of the resurrection.  

 

Lathrop was using that term, the “laetissimum spatium” in which to abide in Christ’s resurrection, not to describe a monastery retreat but to describe the fifty days of the season of Eastertide. A little history: the Church had been celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter from the mid-2nd century on, to honor the “pascha,” the suffering of Christ in his “Passover” through humiliating death to limitless life in the resurrection.  By the beginning of the 3rd century, barely a half-century later, the Church had adopted the custom of holding open that “most joyful space” for the full fifty days from the Feast of the Resurrection, the same fifty days the Jewish people had celebrated between the Passover and the spring harvest festival called in Hebrew, Shavuoth, the feast of Weeks, and later, in the Greek of Hellenistic Judaism, “Pentecost.” This fifty-day period – a seventh of the whole church year – became known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, so that just as every Sunday is the seventh day of the week, the day of Resurrection, so the fifty days of Eastertide became the Sunday of the year, a whole SEASON of resurrection, like a whole season of being on retreat from “life as usual.”

 

And here we are on Day 36 of those fifty days of laetissimum spatium. our “most joyful space” of Eastertide.  And my time in the monastery has encouraged me to hear Jesus’ discourse with the disciples in John’s Gospel for today a little differently than I might have, had I been motoring along in my life as usual.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever,” says Jesus. (“To be with you forever:” the word John uses is “abide,” an Advocate who will abide with us forever.) “This is the Spirit of truth,” he goes on, “whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” That word, “abide,” is the same one John goes on to use in the next chapter of Jesus’ discourse with the disciples, in which he advises them to “abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches…” [John 15:4-5a] And he goes on: “…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15:10, 12] If we follow this swirling invitation to abide in love for one another and for Jesus, Jesus promises that we will abide in a laetissimum spatium, “a most joyful space.”  He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” [John 15:11]

 

Of course, there’s a catch in there.  The Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will come and abide with us, even IN us.  But the “world,” says John’s Jesus, cannot receive that Spirit of truth, because it neither sees truth nor knows truth.  On my third day at the monastery, I finally made it all the way through the New York Times Magazine for the Sunday BEFORE last (yes, it’s hopeless, isn’t it?). At the back, I came upon a book review by writer Steve Almond for a little-heeded novel called “Stoner.” It’s a novel, he says, about “the life of an academic named William Stoner, a man forgotten by his students and colleagues, by history itself.”  Stoner never rises out of his inconspicuousness.  He’s “a dubious leading man, introverted and passive.  He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife.  The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires, inhibitions and compromises.” [Steve Almond, New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2014]

 

Why would I burden you with this little story about such an undistinguished little man in the most joyful space of Eastertide?  Because, in the language of John’s Gospel, “the Spirit of Truth abides with Stoner and IN Stoner,” though the world cannot see it or know it.  Almond notes that Stoner’s unrelieved obscurity “makes it hard for some readers… to see that Stoner makes courageous decisions.  The dutiful son of a poor farmer, he discovers the power of literature in college and pursues his calling.  He labors to honor the mission of teaching and gives himself over to a passionate affair he knows will end in ruin…” [Ibid.] because “in his middle age he began to know that [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion…” but more “…a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” [Stoner, by John Williams] With all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength… Though “…these events play out not on the grand stage of history but the small rooms of [Stoner’s] workplace and home,” Stoner learns from them to pay attention to his life. And that quality of attention, the kind of attention a monastery retreat invites is, says Almond, “the deepest lesson of “Stoner;” it’s what makes his life heroic. Stoner doesn’t shy away from his smallness. He abides. And love grows in him, moment by moment, day by day.  It’s not a retreat but a poem in a literature class that creates the laetissimum spatium in which Stoner awakes to “the miracle of consciousness. The sky and trees take on an almost unbearable intensity.  He senses his own blood flowing invisibly through his veins. His fellow students appear illuminated from within, and he feels ‘very distant from them and very close to them.’”[Op. cit.] How curious that Stoner’s awakening to his own soul, to the need to pay attention to his life, involves feeling this intense sense of connection. As John’s Jesus puts it in his circling fashion, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” [John 14:20]

 

But “the world,” as John’s Gospel puts it, doesn’t get it.  Almond again: “…How shallow our conception of the heroic has become.  Americans worship athletes and moguls and movie stars, those who possess the glittering gifts we equate with worth and happiness.  The stories that flash across our screens tend to be paeans to reckless ambition…It’s not just that we’re all toting around omniscient devices the size of candy bars. It’s the staggering acceleration of our intellectual and emotional metabolisms: our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward, our readiness to privilege action over contemplation.  And, most of all, our desperate compulsion to be known by the world rather than seeking to know ourselves… If the ancient ideal had been to lead an examined life, the modern goal became to lead a life that was displayed… if you want to be among those who count… well then, make some noise.  Put your wit – or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks – on public display.  Otherwise you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

 

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end?” asks Almond.  “Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?  As a fictional hero, William Stoner will have to dwell in obscurity forever. But that, too, is our destiny.  Our most profound acts of virtue and vice, of heroism and villainy, will [likely] be known by only those closest to us and forgotten soon enough.  Even our deepest feelings will, for the most part, lay concealed within the vault of our hearts.  Much of the reason we construct these garish fantasies of fame is to distract ourselves from these painful truths.  We confess so much to so many, as if by these disclosures we might escape the terror of confronting our hidden selves.  What makes “Stoner” such a radical work of art is that it portrays this confrontation [with the hidden self] not as a tragedy, but the essential source of our redemption.” [Op. cit.] The world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees truth nor knows truth.  But if we abide in love, if we take the risk to pay attention as Stoner does, as one does on retreat, if we allow ourselves to go deeper into the truth of our lives, messy and disappointing and painful as it often is, without pretending otherwise, the baptismal joy and love of the resurrected Christ lies there, in the obscure bottom of that quality of attention.

 

All that we do on retreat at the monastery, all that we do in these fifty days of Eastertide, this most joyful space of the resurrection, is aimed at waking us up to our lives as Stoner wakes to his.  Not to make them ready for prime time, quite the contrary: to let ourselves be precisely as human, as fallible, as perplexed and overwhelmed as we truly are, without shying away from that truth.  Because, whatever the chattering, facebooking, sensation-seeking world says, we need not shy away.  Jesus will not leave us orphaned.  He has prepared a home in which we are invited to abide in our full humanity, loved, forgiven, encouraged, shot through with the divine creativity, the divine possibility, the divine at-one-ment, illuminated from within ourselves and surrounded by people – all people, no matter how fallible and human THEY are too – whom, like us, we discover may also illumined from within, with whom we are indelibly connected in love even as we remain our separate, unique and precious selves. Just as I experience this at the monastery, so the Risen Jesus is inviting us to discover it day by day in the laetissimum spatium of Easter, so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete.  AMEN.

 

 

Holly Antolini 5-25-2014

Thursday
May292014

A Homily for the Burial of Ebert Calvin Agard - May 24, 2014

May 24, 2014

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:2-7; John 11:21-27

 

Let us pray:

Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.  AMEN.

 

There's a virtue that we underestimate in this world of innovation and sensation and hyper-stimulation and "the Next Big Thing," and that's the virtue of steadfastness.  When I think of Ebert Calvin Agard, I think of a man who provided for his family, who worked the same job at MIT for four decades, revolving through the shifts week by week, one week, 7 AM to 3 PM; then the next, 3 PM to 11 PM, and then to 11 PM to 7 AM, and around again, moving his sleeping times accordingly without complaint.  (Then there was the time in an emergency in 1997 when he served three shifts straight!)  Ebert was a man who supported his colleagues on the job.  He was a faithful spectator and firm fan of the Patriots and his beloved Red Sox, on WEEI if not at Fenway itself with his kids by his side.  I mean, how many fans do you know who watch a Red Sox game, and then watch it again in the edited "Sox-in-Two" version later?!?  And Ebert was a choir member at St. James's every Sunday for decades too -- a fine tenor from the days of his youth at St. Martin's Church in Barbados, I note, though I never got to hear him.  Boy howdy could we use him in the choir now, right, Pat!? Going to have to rely on him in the angel choir, now, the cherubim that the Orthodox say come down from heaven and join us here on earth every time we start to sing!

 

When I think of Ebert, I think of a man who cleaved to his God in the Anglican Church all his life and to his wife Elaine through their 45th and then their 50th wedding anniversary -- still twinkling at her from his hospital bed even when he couldn't speak -- and celebrated those anniversaries in style with all his extended family around him.  I think of a man who came from Barbados and steadily made his own way and raised a big family in the house he and Elaine owned on Cherry St. and tended their beloved dogs, Rhoda, Sam & Toby, and took everyone on vacation every year and out to dinner at fine restaurants for celebrations, a man who saw to it that all his kids went to college, which was an opportunity he never had growing up (and saw to it that they had all kinds of other lessons too, along the way, including learning to swim, whether they wanted to or not, which was another opportunity he'd missed out on!).

 

In and through it all, it's the word "steadfast" that comes to mind when I think about Ebert. A man who sat in the same big chair at the head of the table for every meal.  (No one else dared sit in it, even after he died, till I did without realizing the tradition I was breaking!)  Ebert Agard: a man who could be relied upon.

 

Ebert wasn't a big conversationalist.  You had to depend on his relatives to learn the stories about him.  But he was a DO-ER.  He always had some task or project in hand, WEEI playing in the background. He was a determined handyman, always ready to fix anything that went haywire.  Even after his own brain went haywire on him, in the terrible stroke that afflicted him 13 years ago, he was still determined to fix things.  Elaine found him down cellar trying to re-light the boiler when he could barely stir from his chair!  Imagine the frustration when such a man loses the use of one side of his body!  The fact that Ebert kept his equanimity as well as he did after the stroke is a tribute to Elaine's and the kids' own steadfastness, and to the grace of God on whom Ebert relied, quietly, without fanfare or a lot of theological talk.

 

Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."  I don't think Ebert would have been especially interested in telling you what he thought about the resurrection.  But I think he trusted in the Good Shepherd in his beloved Psalm 23.  He knew who was "the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning & the end."  He trusted that, ultimately, as Job says, in his flesh, he would see God, face to face.  And I think that, in his own unostentatious, unassuming, steadfast way, Ebert lived a resurrection life. I bet I can get some "AMENS!" to that in this congregation!

 

That why I love the realization Ebert's daughter Angela and I shared after Ebert up and died so suddenly at the end of that long sojourn in the ICU, after all those nights with Elaine by his side, sleeping in a chair, just when we though he might be pulling around again.  When we were condoling together that morning, Angela told me that before he fell ill, Ebert had been very excited about making the trip out to California to celebrate his granddaughter Daysha's graduation from Scripps College last weekend.  In fact, though he hadn't been walking at all for some months, he was pretty determined he was going to buy himself a new pair of shoes and walk to Daysha's graduation. 

 

Angela was in the midst of telling me she couldn't see how he ever could have pulled that off, and especially after the terrible battle he'd waged in the hospital all through April and into May, when suddenly we looked at each other and realized in a flash that Ebert DID find a way to make it Daysha's graduation!  He just decided to show up in his HEAVENLY body instead of his earthly one! He just put on his HEAVENLY shoes and danced there in the communion of saints, that's what he did!

 

So in the end, deeply as we mourn his passing, acutely as we'll miss him, we also rejoice that Ebert at last has his working body back.  And in just a minute we'll pray, in the prayers Reverend Gloria will lead us in, that he will "go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in the heavenly kingdom."  And since he IS such a do-er, maybe he can do some heavenly fixing up for us down here, while he's at it!

 

So let us stand up right now and get the angels down here to help us sing, "I GOT SHOES," in Ebert's honor.  Pat, will you please lead us?  AMEN!

Holly Antolini Homily for Ebert Agard

Thursday
May152014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon from Sunday, May 11th, 2014

4 Easter Year A 5-11-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 2:42-47; Ps. 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  AMEN.

 

Psalm 23 is always moving to me, but this week, its limpid testimonial to the reliability of God’s care is particularly poignant.  From the first day our congregation member Ebert Agard was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital for evaluation nearly two months ago, when his wife (and our Hospitality Committee Chair) Elaine found that he couldn’t speak clearly one morning, Elaine and their adult children Laverne and Angela and Mark and Steven, and so many others in the Agard family and community of friends have been praying Psalm 23 regularly with and for Ebert.  An American from the Caribbean island of Barbados, and the survivor of a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on one side thirteen years ago, Ebert could join us in saying those familiar words that first day in the ER, his eyes twinkling in characteristic fashion, but almost immediately his condition worsened and he was swept off to the ICU where he remained until last week, sedated, on a ventilator, and out of communication.  Still we said his favorite psalm for him, day by day, trusting that his spirit was joining in.  And when he seemed to be recovering and was moved out of the ICU and off all the extra equipment, we were hopeful that the Lord was shepherding him back to at least a degree of health.  Sadly, it was not to be.  Ebert went into respiratory distress Thursdaymorning as Elaine and Angela stood by him, and no intervention could keep his heart going.  Yet even after he had died, we surrounded his bedside and said Psalm 23 again, a circle of trust that yea, though he had indeed walked through the valley of the shadow of death, God was with him as steadfastly as Elaine had been with him, sleeping in a chair by his side week after week, just as she had been with him year after year, tending to his needs in the wake of his first stroke.  The sadness of his loss was still acute.  But it was somehow more bearable, believing, as we did in that moment, that no matter what transpires, no matter what the loss or the suffering, we are dwelling in the house of the Lord, with goodness and mercy abounding around us.

 

The Lord’s household.  The Lord’s oeconomia, which is the Greek for “household.” The Lord’s ECONOMY.  “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the ECONOMY of the Lord, forever.”  Fascinating that on Good Shepherd Sunday – which is what we call the Fourth Sunday of Easter every year, reading scripture that refers to shepherding – we should have, in addition to Psalm 23, the reading from the end of Acts Chapter 2, with its radical vision of the gathered church, cultivating their discipleship of “the Good Shepherd Jesus” by “devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann argues that this practice of teaching & study, fellowship, breaking of bread & prayers is not simply a reference only to liturgy because Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, “has no clear dividing line between the activities of daily life and those of liturgical life. Rather, he sees all the routines of human living as a unity, including the act of eating bread in remembrance of Jesus and of eating bread as an ordinary meal.” [Nancy Claire Pittman, New Proclamation Year A 2011] The new community in Jesus’ name was cultivating its discipleship of Jesus both in and out of worship; their discipleship infused their whole lives. Living ALWAYS in the "economy," the "household" of God.

 

The other thing we have to remember about this newly gathered community in Chapter 2 of Acts is that following the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost earlier in the chapter, they have been gathered into fellowship – into koinonia –

from “every family, language, people and nation,” as Morning Prayer’s “Song to the Lamb” puts it. “Neither kinship nor common nationality nor language brought them together; only their common belief in a God who had fulfilled Gods promise to the Jewish people in Jesus Christ held them together.” [Ibid.] But despite their immense diversity, Acts says, their first impulse was to belong to one another and “hold all things in common, selling possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need;” sharing worship; sharing food. “Not only did they trust God; they trusted one another and the apostles to take care of them and to take care of their sisters and brothers in Christ.  This is not some newfound pre-Marxist vision of“communism,” though. “The real wonder is not that people held things in common; similar practices were maintained through extended families and patron-client systems all over the Greco-Roman world.  What is significant in Lukes portrayal is that people are sharing their material goods outside of familial relationships. A wholly new family, with all attendant rights and responsibilities yet not bound by blood or patronage, has been formed.” …This kind of trusting koinonia is a gift from the Spirit and a sign that Gods new age had actually begun in this radical reordering of social patterns and relationships.  [Ibid., adapted]  A new economy, God's economy, God's household, in which all are members.

 

On this Good Shepherd Sunday at St. Jamess, we are challenged anew, in the power of the Spirit, to extend the boundaries of Gods household, Gods economy, and the boundaries of our koinonia in Christ because many of our congregation members are worshiping  -- devoting themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers  not here at St. Jamess but in Dorchester at the Mothers Day March for Peace, where hundreds of Episcopalians are joining thousands of others as a powerful witness against the persistence of poverty and violence in many neighborhoods of our city. Our Eucharist this morning is not bound by these walls nor by who consumes the Body and Blood of Christ at this altar.  This Mothers Day morning, we are extending the circle of our communion all the way to Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, making part of ourkoinonia the citizens who deal daily with gun violence and drug trafficking, with desperate lack of jobs and high incarceration rates that drive crime and under-education according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenage unemployment in the nation overall is running at 19.1 percent, and blacks in general at 11.6 percent, whereas for whites its running 5.3 percent. One can only imagine how those statistics soar in the inner city.

 

And next Sunday we'll be challenged again in a similar way to extend our household again, to reach out for a new koinonia and a new economy of God, to make the practice of eucharist a daily practice infusing our entire lives as the early followers of Jesus were doing in the Book of Acts, as Micah Fellow Greg Johnston comes to update us on the Episcopal City Mission's participation in the coalition built to support the "Raise Up" legislation seeking to increase the minimum wage in Massachusetts, include sick days and benchmark it to the rate of inflation so that it won't get out of step with cost-of-living increases in the future.

 

Finally, and closest to home, the passage from Acts Chapter Two challenges us here at St. James's to renew our dedicated use of the gift we have been given, the gift I was blessed with many times over in the days that Elaine and her family and I prayed Psalm 23 for Ebert at Mass General Hospital, the gift of our diversity of race & class, ethnic background and age, orientation and gender, mental and physical status of health, truly drawn from every family, language, people and nation.” I’ve said many times to all of you, we have a unique call at St. James’s to cultivate this extraordinary koinonia of God’s household by committed work against the unconscious dynamics of racism and all the other “isms” that fragment us as a people and drive much of the economic woe suffered by the people of our inner cities.  We have an Anti-Oppression Team that languished in the last year following my sabbatical, and it is time to renew its membership and its mission within and without our congregation.  Anti-oppression work is very hard, spiritual work: it demands sacrifice on all sides because we resist the uncovering of the dynamics of racism and its ilk, with its attendant anger and shame and confusing attribution of blame. On this Mother’s Day of solidarity with our inner-city mothers and their families, I invite you to consider whether God may be calling YOU to join in this work by joining the Anti-Oppression Team at St. James’s in its renewal of mission.

 

Because if the vision of the goodness and mercy of the house of the Lord in Acts Chapter 2 is right, and if Jesus is indeed both "the Good Shepherd," anointing and inviting us to join him in his kindly ministry of justice & love, and also the access "Gate" to do so, as the Gospel of John says, then this household of God here at St. Jamess needs to hold ALL things in common, including our legacy of oppression and pain, privilege and deprivation, in explicit and dedicated Anti-Oppression work.  We need to be willing to walk through that valley of the shadow of death. And for that, we turn to yet another figure of speech for Jesus, as we sang in our Gospel Acclamation:  Jesus is NOT just the Good Shepherd. He is also himself "the Lamb of God," who showed us how to sacrifice our own comfort to extend the comfort of others.  As we are invited to follow him as tenders of the welfare of others, so we are invited to share the sufferings of others, to let their suffering weigh with us and make demands upon our compassion. 

 

Please stand and sing one more time:

Lamb O Lamb of God, join with us,

share the life of your people;

Redeemer of the world, join with us,

share the life of your people;

Lamb, O Lamb of God, show that you’re one with us,

One with the helpless, the poor and the humble,

who pray for oppression to cease;

one with your children, in fear and in poverty,

bringing us all to your peace!

[Carlos Megia Godoy & Pablo Martinez, from Mass of the Nicaraguan People]

Holly Antolini 5-11-14

Monday
May052014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Sunday, May 4th, 2014

3 Easter Year A 5-4-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Ps. 116: 1-3, 10-17; Luke 24: 13-35

Now that we have purified our souls by our obedience to the truth so that we have genuine mutual love, we will love one another deeply from the heart. We have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through your living and enduring word, O God.

The words of my prayer this morning, which I took again from the lectionary reading we DIDN’T read, from First Peter Chapter 1, says an astonishing thing: obedience to the truth will be the imperishable seed from which we are born anew into genuine mutual love.  In telling each other the truth, we will find ourselves able to love one another deeply from the heart. 

Now I don’t know about you, but learning to “love one another deeply from the heart” is a major spiritual challenge for me, an ongoing life’s work.  Loving one another in that realm of “niceness” where we’re on our best behavior, loving one another until the going gets rough, I’ve got that knocked.  But when the going gets rough and the truth comes out – that “truth” we’re being “obedient to” in my First Peter prayer – and I discover that you and I don’t see eye-to-eye, or worse,  I find you have done something that hurts me or hurts someone else I care about, to keep on loving you deeply from the heart? In the face of such truth?  That may be an aspiration of mine but REALITY?  Not so much! 

So let me start this morning with a true story that’s hard to believe, a story I got from Robert Krulwich’s Radio Lab yesterday, a story about an 86-year-old man named Hector Black.  The first thing you need to know about Hector is that he is a white New Yorker who, after serving in WWII, getting a degree at Harvard and getting married, when he heard about Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s, packed his bags and moved to Atlanta to be part of the civil rights movement. And that’s where he and his wife met Patricia, a little girl in the neighborhood who hung around their house as kids sometimes do, the child of an alcoholic single mom who drank up the money and neglected her daughter.  At around 11, Patricia asked Hector and his wife if they would adopt her. So they did. And out of that shy, impetigo-afflicted child blossomed a creative, dedicated, articulate, caring woman, who taught kids to read and eventually adopted some kids of her own, just as she had been adopted.

Then, in November of 2000, tragedy struck. Patricia was murdered by an intruder who had broken into her house looking for money for his drug habit. He strangled her and then the autopsy showed that he had assaulted her sexually as well. When Hector learned of this, his first reaction was to yell out, “I’ll kill the (fill in the blank so-and-so)! What kind of a monster would do a thing like this!” The man – his name was Ivan Simpson – soon confessed.  And all year, awaiting the trial, Hector was tortured by visions of what the murderer had done to his beloved daughter, as if the murderer had control of him too.  He was so furious that he really did want Ivan to be given the death penalty.  But then he thought, “No!  This is a test, of my principles, my beliefs!” and he decided he would not pursue the death penalty.

When the trial took place, Hector came with a written statement to give but when he stood to speak, he couldn’t look at the prisoner at all. He told everyone how much he and his wife loved Patricia, how much she meant to them, how wounded they were by what had happened.  And then he said, “I don’t know that I’ve forgiven you, Ivan Simpson, but I don’t hate you.  I hate what you did to my beloved daughter.”  Then he worked up his nerve to turn around, to face the man who’d killed his daughter, as he said the last thing he’d written: “I wish for all of us who have been so wounded by this crime, I wish that we might find God’s peace… and I wish that also for you, Ivan Simpson.” When Hector looked up from his paper, he saw tears were streaming down Ivan’s cheeks. Hector says, “It was the first time I looked into his eyes, and it was like a soul in hell. It was just indescribable, looking there.”

Ivan Simpson got sentenced to life in prison without parole.  But what happened next is astonishing. Hector couldn’t sleep, that first night after the trial, tossing in his hotel bed.  He says he’d never had a look like that ever in his life and he couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Finally he got up and grabbed pen and paper and started writing. “Dear Ivan Simpson, I am writing because I want you to know how I feel after the court hearing, Monday.  When I turned around while I was reading my statement and looked at you, it was a very powerful moment for me. When you raised your tear-stained face to look at me… ever since this happened I have been trying to find something good in all the horror and pain… I have tried to be a better person.” Then, maybe to push himself to be that better person, he wrote, “I forgive you for what you did to our beloved daughter. I don’t know if this will be of any comfort to you but I wanted to tell you.  We will both have to live our lives with the pain of this deed always there.  Patricia tried to make the world a better place.  We should also try.”

About four weeks later, a letter shows up.  “Dear Mr. Hector Black & Family, I first want to say, God bless you all in all things.  Second, I have to go straight to the point. I know God has forgiven me; you have forgiven me; but I can’t forgive myself, not yet anyway.  I have so much anger at myself right now, it’s unbelievable. … I will always be remorseful. I used to hear God speak to me all the time. But I guess after what I did, he took away his touch from me.  Right now, I miss his voice. I don’t know the level of love Miss Patricia had but if it’s anything like your example of it, it is great. God comfort you all in everything. Feel free to ask me anything you’d like.  If I can, I will try to answer it.”

Hector wrote back, “Dear Ivan, I was very glad to have your letter. I think it is important that we be as honest as possible with one another and so I have to tell you that it is hard for me to write to you. I would really like to hear about your life… about the people who loved you, the people who hurt you…” He wanted to know what had happened to Ivan that made him do a thing like that. In letters back, the story came out, Ivan being adopted by his grandmother’s sister at two days old because his mother was schizophrenic, but nevertheless being left with her while his adoptive mom worked, so that his natural mom beat him, and blurted out, “I’m glad I got rid of you!” When he was maybe 11 or so, this mentally ill mom took him and his little brother and sister to a swimming pool and tried to drown all three.  She proceeded to drown the sister in front of his eyes.

Knowing all this doesn’t make Hector let Ivan off the hook.  He still blames him for the murder.  “He made the choices,” he points out.  But knowing Ivan’s life history also made him want to write back, and tell him about his own life. And then Ivan responded, describing his drug and alcohol addiction, and Hector responded, “Dear Ivan, I don’t think God has abandoned you…” And the letters continued.  At some point in this back and forth of many, many letters, they became almost casual, about mundane details… basically the two men became friends.  Hector says, “It’s not at all what I expected to have happen.  It’s so absolutely crazy… Oh gosh… We started to send Christmas packages!  And I’d see the box on the floor and I’d think, ‘You crazy old man! You’re sending Christmas packages to the man who murdered your daughter.  What the hell is wrong with you!’  It’s just so totally… out of orbit, or something! And I guess I was! Because people just don’t DO that!  Maybe I’m trying to exact meaning from it.  I don’t know.  Because I struggled so hard with, ‘Why?  WHY?’”

Eventually, after years of writing letters, Hector decided to ask that “Why” question, “What happened that night?” And Ivan answered.  I’ll spare you the very difficult details which Hector reads on the Radio Lab program, but suffice it to say, Ivan tells it very scrupulously, searingly, devastatingly honestly.  When he ties Patricia up, she tells him he needs to get help for his drug habit.  Hector, reading the letter aloud on the program, pauses and says, “Yeah, that’s… that’s Trish.  She had no compunctions about telling people off when they were in the wrong.” Then she warmed up chicken and rolls for Ivan, despite being tied up. Nevertheless, under the influence of crack cocaine, he went on to commit his heinous act against Patricia, killing and then assaulting her. He writes, “I was really hoping they would kill me in the electric chair because I shouldn’t be able to live with myself and God after what I had done. I just don’t why I had to do it.  Was it because of the items and money? No. [Fear of getting caught?] No. Control or power? No. Her car? No. Because she saw my face? No. She didn’t see me at no time. Fingerprints left on something? NO.  I just don’t understand why I did it.” Then he writes, “Well I feel a pressure has left me for telling you first what happened.  My mom doesn’t even know.  I’ve been keeping all this inside and it hurts so.  I’m truly sorry for what happened. May God bless you all.

Strangely, it helped Hector to know the whole story, and to see in the story Trish’s own fearlessness, her strength.  He says, “I was just amazed that she could be so strong.  When you love somebody so much you want to know about her last hours.  And Ivan just wrote it in a way that I found… very kind… I mean, “kind” is a weird word to put there.” But that’s the word Hector chose.  Kind. And after that letter, they still write.  They’ve been writing for ten years now.  Hector has folders and stacks of these papers.  [http://www.radiolab.org/story/317629-dear-hector/]

Now that we have purified our souls by our obedience to the truth so that we have genuine mutual love, we will love one another deeply from the heart.  This is an astonishing story of two people sticking to a nearly unbearable truth until they find in it the imperishable seed of new life and of a deeply genuine and mutual love that makes no common sense whatsoever.  But is it any MORE astonishing than the story of Jesus joining the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them all day and breaking bread with them at evening in that touching foreshadowing of the Eucharist, and only then, as he vanishes, do they realize who he is and that he has risen indeed from the dead?

Is this story of Hector and Ivan – and Patricia, let’s not forget her! – is this not a story of resurrection?  Who would believe it? But I know, hearing it, that my heart burned within me.  It’s THAT love, that Eucharistic, reconciling, forgiving, searing love beyond love, that deep sharing of humanity, brokenness and all, that I’m living toward. You, too?  AMEN.

Tuesday
Apr292014

Homilies for Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014, by JonTom Kittredge and Micah Fellow Kacey Minnick

The Passover of Liberation - JonTom Kittredge

“Why is tonight not like any other night?” That’s the first of the four questions of the Passover Seder, asked by the youngest person present, in a dialogue intended to pass on the meaning of the ritual.

I won’t pretend to be some kind of expert — the only Seder I’ve been to was back in college — but that question always rings in my ears at this service. Of course, for those of us celebrating Maundy Thursday, what makes this night not like any other night is the foot washing, which we only do once a year.

It’s a powerful rite, but it shouldn’t overshadow what we are about to do together. After all, even though we celebrate it almost every time we meet as a congregation, this is the big night for the Eucharist, too, and it’s the center of our life together.

That's not a given. Thirty years ago, to have Communion every Sunday marked a parish as “High Church.” Back then, I spoke slightingly of once-a-monthers to my mother, who was raised Episcopalian, and she said, “That’s how it supposed to be: the first Sunday of the month, and every week at the eight o’clock service for the little old ladies.”

Some feel that we’ve lost something important by making Communion habitual, without stressing that communicants need to prepare themselves for it through self-examination, repentance and prayer. But I’m grateful for the change, because it’s a source of great comfort and strength to me.

Some people, I know, can reach God at any time through prayer, but my prayer often seems so weak and God so distant. It’s a relief to have something to depend on that doesn’t rely on my own thought and will power. To be fed spiritually, I need to be fed concretely.

During this Lent, one phrase from the Eucharistic prayer we’ve been using has stuck with me, “Jesus, ... earnestly desired to eat with his companions the Passover of liberation.”

At its heart, the Passover story is about God’s power to set his people free from slavery. “The Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and for re-dedication to the idea of liberation.” I got that from Wikipedia, so you know it’s true.

That theme of deliverance would have been much on the mind of Jesus and his followers when they gathered in that upper room, and it’s what gives force to the language that the New Testament uses of Jesus as the Lamb of God whose blood frees us from bondage to sin and death. “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed,” Paul says in the First Letter to the Corinthians, “Therefore, let us keep the feast.”

To be honest, exhortations to liberation are intimidating to me. Like the Israelites in Egypt, I’m too comfortable in my slavery. My longing for God seems far too weak compared to my reliance on daily patterns of sin and resistance to God’s will. But the message of the Passover is that God is the one who breaks the chains.

Just as God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; God has delivered us from slavery to sin through the offering that Jesus, his incarnate son, made of his own body. And, week by week, Christ gives us power to be free by feeding us with his body and blood.

I always remember an adage that I heard years ago, from the priest Robert Rae: “the most important acts of Eucharistic devotion are chewing, swallowing, and digesting.” I take his point to be that the power of Communion is not as a symbol, but as an act. It doesn’t happen in our intellect, but in our guts.

Those who hold that Communion is too powerful, too sacred to be treated lightly have a point. Taking Communion changes us. At least, I feel that it changes me. But I don’t think that I’m the only one.

The last time I preached here, about a year ago, I asserted that the biblical language of the Church as the Body of Christ was not just a metaphor, but a deep reality. That it is in our life together as a community that we live out the Gospel.

Afterwards at the Communion, Holly asked me to help distribute the host at the altar rail. As I spoke those words, “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” and put the wafers into hands, I was almost overcome by the faces looking up at me. “Transfixed” is the only word I can think of for their expressions. This was clearly not a routine transaction for them.

The Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. The confusion of terms is no accident.

Stephen Burns taught me a wonderful quotation from St Augustine, “Receive the Body of Christ, receive what you are, and become what you receive.”

__________________________

Kacey Minnick

I have a few confessions to make.

Confession #1: When I first heard about Maundy Thursday, I had no idea what it was. When I was told that it was a service involving foot-washing, my immediate reaction was “Ew. Groooooss. Who wants to touch feet that probably smell like cornchips? Certainly not me.” 

Confession #2: I find feet a little icky. Sure, I don’t mind me getting a foot massage, but me touching someone else’s feet? I resist that idea, and until recently, I didn’t know why. 

Pause for a moment and take a look at your feet. You’re probably wearing socks and shoes, right? Stuff to protect your feet. To shield them from dust, and dirt, from stubbing your toes on the stumbling brick sidewalks of Cambridge or stepping on an errant item. Socks to warm your toes, to keep them dry, to absorb the sweat from running to catch the T.

Now imagine your toes in the sand, toes in the mud, toes on freshly mowed grass and in the salty ocean. Maybe you have scars. Maybe you have blisters and calluses. Maybe you painted your toes. Maybe you walked all day today. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you broke an ankle, or tripped on the steps, or maybe you’ve struggled with staying on your feet all along. Maybe you’ve never really thought about it at all.

Chances are you’ve got a lot of stories there, right underneath those laces.  There’s a lot of vulnerability when it comes to those ten little digits at the bottom of our bodies. After all, it’s where we have our Achilles’ Heel. It’s often where people, including myself, are ticklish. If your foot gets stepped on, it’s not only a painful moment but an intrusion of body space. It’s where, after a long day, a loving friend, family member or significant other, will rub tension out of your toes. 

It’s also where Jesus humbles himself the most.

This is where I make my last confession: I want to be a good Christian and say I’m like Jesus, because I spend much of my time serving others who the world often views as distasteful or “dirty.”

But I’m not.  I confess I am much more like Peter.  Peter, who thinks Jesus is just kidding around when he wraps the towel around his waist and pours water into a basin. Peter, who is ashamed that Jesus is going to wash the feet that’s been walking in the hot dirt all day, and even more so that Jesus is stooping to wash them. Peter even says, “You will never wash my feet.” And then in the moment after, when Jesus calls him out, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share,” Peter wants the whole deal. He wants his feet and his head washed!

I’m like that. I was incredibly nervous the first time I worked with the Outdoor church and distributed elements to people who have literally been outside for days. I returned to the church and scrubbed my hands a few times, because I was so fearful. And then I was mortified, because what was I doing? I was resisting the idea of being in contact with a stranger’s dirtiness, even though I had my own.  Yet I called myself someone who followed Jesus?

I, like Peter, am ashamed, am blustering for excuses. Like Peter, I am embarrassed to remove my socks, to remove the soles of my shoes, because then people would see the imperfections of my soul. I cringe with chagrin at the grittiness of every-day living, especially when everyone else sees the dirt all over my toes.

Jesus, however, did not resist the grittiness.  Jesus embraced it. He sat with those who made “normal” –note the air quotes - people uncomfortable. Jesus, who knew the importance of this moment, demonstrated the willingness to wash someone else’s dirtiness, to love despite shame, guilt, and embarrassment.

Through the foot-washing, Jesus offers his intent to love. Understanding that love makes someone whole, Jesus is offering a full relationship with him.

Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t that awesome, that by the mere act of wiping someone’s dirt away, you are engaging in a whole new relationship? That’s what Jesus says we need to do. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet.” 

I’m only one person in one church in one state in one country, but I think about this every time I walk into women’s meal and serve food to a woman on kidney dialysis. I think about this as I share the peace at the Porter T with men and women who haven’t had access to clean water in several days, as I bag food for a Russian man who teaches me how to say thank you in his language, as I was reprimanded by a blind woman who had taken my arm for guidance that I was walking too fast, no, too slow.

And I think of this now, as I will remove my own sweaty socks and show off my own hobbit feet. My heart’s not so much on my feet as it is now on my toes.

At last, I am learning a little bit every day to be like Jesus, and not be ashamed of the dirt of every-day life. This is the vulnerability I find in foot-washing. This is the idea I used to resist: to be vulnerable with a stranger, a stranger who is actually our neighbor, our friend, our lover, our family. And who might want a foot-washing, too. 

Tuesday
Apr292014

Good Friday, April 18th: Seven Last Words of Christ

Seven Last Words of Christ Number One: Olivia Hamilton

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

When I got home last night I collapsed on the couch. It’s been one of those weeks: the kind when it feels like there is no end in sight, when the to-do list grows so long that you begin to get tangled up and trip over it, when you can’t help but take traffic jams personally. After laying on the couch and staring at the wall for a while, I open my computer to begin writing this sermon, the topic of which has yet to reveal itself to me. As I do this, my dog Mingus, who has been with me on the couch all along, wiggles over to me. He puts his floppy head onto my keyboard and twiggy legs up in the air, making it impossible to type, and stares at me with his the saddest brown eyes, as if to say, “you’ve been gone all day, every day, and now you’re finally home and you want the computer to sit on your lap and not me?!” "Come on Mingus," I say. "I’ve got to do some serious theological reflection about the nature of forgiveness, and your protest, however cute, is not helping." I push him away, yet he persists. Just then it becomes obvious that in a strange way, Mingus helps me to understand Jesus’s words on the cross perhaps more than anything or anyone else in my life.

You see, Mingus has a special story; in his former life in Tennessee, a woman saw him being kicked and intimidated by a group of teenage boys, and rescued him. The next day a vet told her that one of his back legs was injured so badly that they’d have to amputate it. There are pictures of him from that first day of his new life, emaciated dirty and cowering, that I still have trouble looking at. After a month of recovery, either we found Mingus or he found us, but either way, thanks be to God, he came to Cambridge to live with me and Molly. I don’t know if it’s possible for dogs to forgive, but what I do know is that this three-legged creature, despite the ways that his old life sometimes haunts the new, wants nothing more than to love and be loved. It is clear that he trusts and believes in the goodness of everyone he meets. People young and old squeal with delight when they meet him; they see his resilience, and I believe this allows them to encounter and honor their own resilient nature, as well.

What Jesus seems to be saying, as he hangs from the cross, beaten, bloody and bruised, is that hurt people hurt people. I often wonder what might have happened to those teenage boys, what kind of hurt they must have endured, to make them harden their hearts to this small and suffering animal as they did; perhaps the pain of fitting in, the pain of being taught that to be a man is to be aggressive. I will never know. As he dies, Jesus pleads, “forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” Perhaps in the faces of the men that taunt him and abuse him, he sees little boys, who, like Mingus, want nothing more than to love and be loved. This profound gesture of forgiveness reminds us of the tender hearts that beat within us all, beneath the wounds that harden them. Jesus's wide open soft heart on the cross shows us that the time and place to soften to one another is always here and now, with God’s help.

 

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Two: Mary Beth Mills-Curran

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

As Jesus hung on the cross one of the thieves turned to him – asking Jesus to remember him when he comes into his Kingdom. We might expect Jesus to simply agree to the man’s request, but as always, Jesus’s response is surprising – saying rather that the thief will be joining him in Paradise today.

TODAY.

Not some far off distant future, as implied by the thief’s words.

This Paradise that Jesus names is very near indeed. A heaven we can nearly touch.

As a child, I grew up thinking heaven was some far off distant place that people went when they died – and if I’m honest, I don’t think I was ever terribly convinced in its reality – already questioning a God of Magic.

Even as we age, I think these models taught to us when we are young can be hard to break free from.

But this is not the way Jesus talks about heaven. Even in the Lord’s prayer “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” these two realms come close together – and are united by God’s forgiveness and love.

Perhaps you have heard hell described as separation from God, and heaven conversely as being in the presence of God.

During his final hours Jesus’s promise to those that die in faith, like thief, will join him in paradise. A paradise that is so near we can almost taste it – one that can be found today.  God’s realm where our wrongdoing and debts are forgiven and where our needs are met, today.

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Three: Jonathan Povilonis

“Woman, here is your son. Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”

(John 19:26-27)

Obviously I will never know what it’s like to be a mother; many of you are much more qualified to speak on this topic than I am now or will ever be. But I do know what it’s like to have a mother, and so from this perspective I will offer my thoughts.

Another thing that’s obvious to me as I stand here is that all of you also have or have had a mother, and thus my own reflections here do not claim to be unique, apart from the fact that they are simply my own, of and from me. And being from me they, de facto, unfold out of a man who is nearing the completion of his 23rd year of life, a year for which we have no record when it comes to the life of Jesus. There is no account, canonical or apocryphal, of Jesus’ life in his early twenties—and I find myself so curious as to what he would have been doing, and, in regards to this passage, what his relationship to his family would have been like. Was he a protégé of a rabbi? Or living with his parents as a laborer in his father’s trade? Or both? Or was he—and recent media attention requires me to ask here—married? Or what I find more a plausible and more intriguing question anyway: was he considering getting married—did he ever have a schoolboy crush, or even fall in love? He was, as it is written, tempted in every way that we are, after all.

But information regarding this time in Jesus’ life is so utterly absent that perhaps the only reason we have for even believing he was ever 23 is that we have reason to believe he was older when he was crucified. As is often stated in sermons and illustrations, the only piece of Jesus’ life we have between his birth and his ministry is the story from when he was 12 of his remaining in the Temple in Jerusalem, when his parents begin the journey home after Passover. And upon their return, the tone Jesus strikes up can hardly be considered ‘honoring’ or ‘humble’—“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” he says in Luke 2. Or take Matthew 12 when he’s told his mother and brother are outside asking for him and he responds by claiming what amounts to ‘Who are they to me, if they do not do the will of my Father.’

These words leave us wondering if any familial or worldly concern is important enough to demand attention from our Savior. So much of his teaching and ministry is committed to the Kingdom of Heaven which, whatever its place in this world, in some way radically displaces and replaces it—and his relationships to his mother and brothers were explicitly included in this displacement. The Kingdom of God shakes the foundation of the family—but it does not leave the pieces on the ground. Here, on the cross, he says that familial concerns are this-worldly concerns, but they are still concerns. He looks down to them and says “Woman, here is your son” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother”—he looks down to them and says, “I am leaving you here; but I am not leaving you alone.” Amen.

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Four: Amanda Dausman

 “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? Which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

I never used to understand this service.  Good Friday.  I would try to feel sad as a way of preparing for the joy of Easter morning—I would feel sad—but somehow the service didn’t connect with my life.

And then one year, I had just gone through what amounted to a bad breakup. I knew that not seeing this person anymore was absolutely the right thing to do, and it was also the exact opposite of what I wanted.

As Christians, God can ask this of us.  We have agreed that our lives are not our own.  We are God’s people and His presence in the world.  He can ask us to sacrifice our own happiness, our hopes and desires, for the sake of bringing healing to others.  But somehow, we never really think we will have to sacrifice something that is truly important to us. If it happens, when it happens, no matter how okay we think we are with the concept of sacrifice, it feels like abandonment.  It feels like death—the death of our old selves.

"In those moments, we have two sources of consolation.  First, that all the sorrow and frustration and anger we feel at the imperfection and injustice in the world is just a tiny echo of what God must feel for all of us.  And second, that we believe in a God who understands exactly how we feel and would never ask us to do anything He wouldn’t do for us."

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Five: Sarah Christine Borgatti

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

In today’s day and age, where it often seems like we are stuck in an endless cycle of violence and tragedy, we repeatedly search for reasons why: how this could have happened, what went wrong, who should be held responsible.  Our search is a thirst for knowledge and understanding, one that in the aftermath of such events results in cries of outrage and calls to action, of demands that justice be served.  But for all the times when action is taken and justice is served, there are many, many more heartbreaking tragedies, where there is no discernible retribution, lives are shattered, and healing never occurs.

What we thirst for is complex, and impossible to fully quench.  But in Christ being given a drink while on the Cross, we are shown a thirst that is poignant in its very simplicity.  Perhaps then, in order to stop these tragedies, our thirst for knowledge and understanding, for justice, must be broadened to likewise include such simple thirsts.

These simple thirsts are thirsts for righteousness and connection, for peace and contentment, and they take place all around us.  Acknowledging a horrific story, providing a presence, lending a shoulder to cry on, letting someone know you believe in them—these are all powerful examples of a thirst being quenched.  Like the act of giving someone a drink, at first glance they may not seem like much, but in reality they know no bounds, and their potential is endless.

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Six: Seth Warren

“It is finished!” (John 19:30)        

It is hard to know what exactly to say about “It is finished.” We finish a meal.  We finish a crossword puzzle.  What does it mean for Jesus to say, “It is finished.  He must mean that his time on Earth is finished.   There is nothing left for him to do but put his trust in God.  This part of his journey with us is finished.  But Jesus’ journey continues after death.  His relationship with God will go on.  It is finished. He must mean “My time in Israel is finished; now the rest can begin.” We, as humans, do this every day. We finish, and then move on.

Before he was put on the cross and before he was finished,  Jesus had a strong sense of vocation, of doing his job .  He went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist.  He moved on to share food with the hungry.  He was especially attentive to include outsiders, like-the 5,000 hungry on the hillside, the frightened disciples on the stormy sea of Galilee, the tax collector Zaccheus, Blind Bartimeus, the rejected Samaritan women at the well.

Jesus goes to Jerusalem to meet the powers of the day—the Roman government and temple authorities.  Rather than mount an army and violent conflict, he continues to love and share with his friends until the end during the Lord’s Supper. Jesus bears rejection himself.  He knows how to celebrate, and accept suffering.  Even on the cross, he trusts in love.  He may utter that it is finished, but he only means his lifer on earth is finished,. Easter shows the power of love is stronger than that of hate or indifference.

My father, a minister in Maine, said “Jesus’ vocation is to be Israel’s Messiah..  That is not my vocation or yours.  Ours is to be a friend, teacher, and neighbor.  We are called through Jesus’ love through God to complete these works. Jesus helps us trust that God will finish what we only begin. Now we can go on, and try, and fall down, and try again because God’s spirit, in Christ will carry on.

Seven Last Words of Christ Number Seven: Isaac Martinez

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)

On a cold Monday morning last month, I was rushing out of the house, late to work, having stayed in bed way too long debating whether or not I would call in sick. Having finally decided that there was too much to do to justify playing hooky, I stepped out of the house into the snow. It took only one glance down the white steps to think “hmm, maybe I should go back inside and put on my boots.” But knowing that would make me even later, I resolved to “be safe,” sticking to the roadway and avoiding the sidewalks. Halfway between home and the bus stop, however, there was a car coming down the road and I had to step onto the concrete. Before I knew it, I was falling. Not even a second later I felt a sharp pain in my left arm and I let out the loudest, rawest scream since I was probably a child. I had broken my arm. And as I kneeled there on the cold, wet ground, flakes swirling around me, unable to find my phone to let my boss know I would be really late, I wished desperately for someone to help me.

Many people, including so many of you, have helped me since then, but I want to tell you about this particular pain I felt, the loud voice I cried out with, my teary-eyed search for a savior, because we live in a culture that seems to want to fly past pain, to seek immediate relief from it, or to ascribe some purpose to it, remembering it only as a momentary way-station in our lives and not as something that can define us. But tonight, we do remember pain; we remember that Jesus suffered, and that he did it for us. We remember pain, yet we don’t revel in it.

As we’ve heard from my friends here tonight, Jesus, being fully human, being God with us, also tried some ways to avoid his pain. And yet, as we come to the last Word he spoke from that cross, we hear him making not a request, or a demand, of anyone, we only hear him, loudly declaring his faith: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

So tonight, I ask you, what is making you shout out in a loud voice? What is causing you pain? And to whom are you calling out in your distress? Can you find God when you call out? Can you commend your pain, your joy, your whole life into his hands?

Good Friday 4-18-14

Tuesday
Apr292014

Monte Tugwete's Sermon for International Sunday, March 2, 2014

Experience, experience, experience! This is what is written all over in a human being’s life from the very first moment they set their foot on the planet for their first experience is of breathing oxygen through their own lungs, and they cry - new environment, and new experiences. We all did and for some of us it has been a familiar experience ever since, which from time to time we revisit and has become a routine. Since today is International Day here at St. James, I will tell you about my experience visiting the United States of America for the first time in person in August of 2013, August 23, to be particular. Having started from Zimbabwe, Africa, on the 22nd of August and connected via France, I was picked up from the airport punch drunk from jet lag as my body was supposed to be sleeping at that particular time. Greetings were done, and I was told to get in the car as my bags were being loaded, I found myself face-to-face with the steering wheel. Wait Monte, I said to myself, we cannot be driving in this state, to which my welcomer shouted, “Do you want to drive now?” I have been a driver for the past ten years now, and going to the passenger’s side is a learned experience, but the steering wheel was just at the wrong side! Welcome to America, Pastor Monte – STRIKE NUMBER 1.

Then I decided to joke about it, in my British English mixed with my native Shona accent, “Oh, obvious, I do not have the car keys!” To which I got the response, “You cannot be saying that sir, you are putting them on!” Obviously, my welcomer had heard “khakis” and was referring to the khaki cargo pants that I was wearing instead of the “carrrrrrrrrr keys” that go into the ignition to start the carrrrrr! You have to drag your r’s Pastor Monte to be heard in this part of the world – STRIKE NUMBER 2 – LANGUAGE. This was to form part of my welcome experience to America, huge cars, huge buildings, and a different way of speaking. Take the instance I went into the cafeteria, and there were young people seating behind me having a conversation. All I could hear was, “Like, like, like, like, like!” Never in my life had I listened to a sentence with five “likes” at one go. “I was like walking in, and I like saw this guy and he was like staggering, and I was like dude, you are like so drunk!” Of course, I had to turn around to see if a trick was not being played on me by playing a recorded statement that kept repeating itself. You never can stop getting these experiences, can you? When I went shopping for food, I needed about 4kilogrammes of meat packaged in smaller packets and the shop did not have the familiar KGs and even the smaller denomination of grams, but it had LBS and OZ for pounds and ounces. And when I wanted to pay I asked for the nearest till, and I was told, “No Sir it is a check-out counter!” I love America!

I will monumentalize my times in writing my memoirs about it so that those who come after me will know of my experiences, just like what you folks did with the Statue of Liberty in Upper New York on Liberty Island. There are eleven symbols each standing for something that reminds you of “Liberty Enlightening the World.” I will just mention the eleven in passing and not talk about them. These are The Torch, The Crown, The Tablet, The Writing on the Tablet, The 25 Windows of the Crown, The Shape of The Tablet, The Sandals, The Robe, The Broken Chains, The Shields, and The Granite Brick. American founding fathers built it as a reminder for what America stands for. And my second three words in succession will be Monuments, monuments, monuments.

Well by now, some are wondering at what I am angling at; so let me go to today’s gospel on the transfiguration. I want to draw your focus on the not do very often visited words of Peter; “Lord, it  is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Friends, do you now see it all now making sense. Peter is like any one of us in here today. What was his default reaction upon such an amazing experience? Monument 1 for Jesus, Monument 2 for Moses, Monument 3 for Elijah. Monument, monument, monument. I guess my rhetorical question is, “Is that not how we behave at high moments in life, turning them into monuments?

What was happening here was beyond what beheld the eye. To the children of Israel, to whom Peter, James, and John belonged, Moses represented all the law, the Torah, Elijah represented all the prophets, and for them their ways of life was hung on the Law and the Prophets. The Bible records that at one time, a Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). On these two commandments hangs all the law and the prophets – this was the defining moment being enacted before Peter, James, and John. Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36 has what Jesus, Moses and Elijah spoke about, but that is not what we are focusing on today, today we are focusing at the defining moment which defines our belief as Christians, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). It was such a defining moment and Peter’s reaction, having this experience, as a normal human being as you and me, was to monumentalize the moment.

What am I driving at, one may ask. Let me give you a personal example of what happened to me when I was searching for a place to worship in Cambridge.

I went to many other churches that I will not mention by name, then I came to St. James, this very same place that I am preaching in today and I heard:

Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!

It is God’s Word that changes us! Alleluia!  

Come Holy Spirit, melt and break our hearts of stone

Until we give our lives to God and God alone[1]

Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!

It is God’s Word that changes us! Alleluia! 

And there is this melody that Pat Michael makes with it that I could not place. Just listen to it – Pat. I could not place it until I stumbled upon the song in St. James Sings, Song number 7 and then I realized - it is the song that I have danced to over a dozen times back home, and we sing it thus:

Ngariende Vhangeri

Ngariende (Spread the Gospel) x 4

Chinguri ndakuudza

Kuti ngariende (Since I told you to spread the Gospel) x 4

Ooooh, alleluia hosanna, praise be to God – monument building times Pastor Monte! One for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. It was the music for me, but it could be in your baptism that was performed here at that beautiful font, or your wedding ceremony that was performed in this sanctuary, or it could be the Holy Eucharist that you receive every Sunday here at St. James. It could be any of the Christian feasts that we have, like the Christian high of Easter that has 40 days of Lent. God, I love God’s church; all these Christian highs give us adrenaline rushes that makes us say, “Lord, it  is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Now, what is wrong with that, one might ask. I will give the story of what happened back home in Africa. One Sunday the priest’s wife came with a lorry full of household goods whilst he was preaching in the pulpit. She then entered movie style in the church whilst carrying two huge suitcases with one kid on her back and the other by her side. “What is the meaning of this?!” the preaching husband demanded. The wife addressed the congregation and said, “Well since he is a loving person here at church and treats people much better that he does at home, we have decided to relocate to the church premises here!” The priest had built his monument at the church. As for Peter, James and John, the issue was not to build a monument on the mountain and stay there, but the real need was in the valley. When you continue reading the story, you will notice something.

When they came down to the valley, a need immediately met with them. In the valley, that is where you will meet with the need. There was a demon-possessed boy who needed deliverance. Jesus’s disciples could not deal with this need; the focus was on the high monument time on the mountain. Friends just as just two of the symbols of the Statue of Liberty stand, the:

Tablet: The Statue holds a tablet in her left hand. It is a book of law based on the founding principles of this nation, a nation based on law.[2] 

Broken Chains: Located at the Statue's feet symbolize the freedom that Lady Liberty has. It demonstrates that the Statue is free from slavery and bondage.[3] 

Friends, the United States of America will not be the United States of America if these only remained as monuments on the Statue of Liberty. You do not enact these things and Americans would scream until they are done.

What bothers me as a preacher is that, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” remains a monument to which we visit on Sundays especially. In our day-to-day lives, we operate in other modes until we revisit the monument on Sunday.

And thanks to Rev. Holly of late she spent a month reminding us of our baptismal highs, and every Sunday we come in for the high of the Eucharist and we monumentalize these. Friends, it is not about monumentalizing but going ahead and listening to what the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” St. Peter in reproducing this moment in the Epistle’s reading for today highlights, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased,” words which endorsed Christ right there in their face. If they thought that the same words were a fluke at Jesus’s baptism, God repeated them for the second time, and there was no excuse from that time onwards not to talk, walk, and live the Christian life.

Some have said to me, well in Africa you can publicly shout, walk, and live your faith, here in the United States you cannot. Friends, Romans 12:9-21 has given me about 20 ways of Christian living that you can adopt without monumentalizing your Christianity to Sundays only. They can never charge you outside of this building for 1. sincerity, 2. for goodness, 3. for brotherly and sisterly love, 4. for honor and respect, 5. for never giving up, 6. for eagerly following the Spirit, 7. for serving the Lord, 8. for hope and gladness, 9. for patience, 10. for a prayerful life, 11. for charity, 12. for hospitality, 13. for loving your enemy, 14. for rejoicing in others’ happiness, 15. for friendliness, 16. for humility, 17. for not taking revenge and 18. for having respect for another human being, 19. for being peace, and 20. for defeating evil with good

The Son, whom we are supposed to listen to, said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” that for me is your own transfiguration in your day-to-day, not monumentalizing your Christianity. Experience, experience, experience can lead to monument, monument, monument! However, the choice is yours. And today I have come with a word of faith in action, not faith in monument as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and as you love your neighbor as yourself, ACTION, ACTION, ACTION.

In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.   

 

Monte Tugwete 3-2-14

Tuesday
Apr292014

Ordinand Intern Reed Carlson's Sermon for Sunday April 6th, 2014

PROPHESY TO THESE BONES
A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA

on the Fifth Sunday In Lent (Year A), April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14 | Psalm 130 | Romans 8:6-11 | John 11:1-45

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu 

From a young age I had always wanted to do something big with my life. I felt like I was meant to do something important—something with purpose. I think that’s probably a characteristic of my generation. When I was eleven years old I felt like this was a calling to go into ministry. I wanted to be a pastor or a missionary or an evangelist or something. And so all through school this was what I thought I was going to be. This was my purpose. When I graduated, I went to a conservative Christian Bible College downtown Minneapolis and I started studying theology. But I hated it. I was asking these really tough questions about God and the Bible, and my teachers didn’t always want to answer me and if they did, I wasn’t always satisfied with what they said. I lived in this dorm room about the size of a minivan with three other guys. And even though I was on this floor with 50 other people all crammed in there, it was probably the loneliest time of my life.

Things started going downhill very quickly. I broke up with my girlfriend, I lost my job, I wasn’t going to class very often and I started having really serious doubts. Even during that time of my life, I never really doubted the existence of God. But I did doubt everything that I thought I knew about God. I doubted that God cared about me, or that God cared anybody or what we did, or what happened in the world. I doubted that there was such a thing as a calling or a purpose, and I had just been foolish forever even believing in it. Probably more than anything else I just felt betrayed. Here I had done exactly what I had thought God wanted me to do. But it was wrong. And I didn’t know what to do about it.

During my freshman year, I would often go out late at night on my bicycle and I would ride around downtown Minneapolis. I think I was looking for trouble. I wanted some way to rebel. But the problem was that I didn’t really know how to do that. I don’t know if any of you knew someone in high school who wanted to be a missionary when they grew up but they probably weren’t the life of the party. It wasn’t a line that really charmed a lot of young ladies. I had never tasted alcohol. I had never even been around drugs. I didn’t really know anyone who had. So I’d just go out on my bike and ride around downtown and want to do something rebellious but have no idea what to do. Inevitably, I would end up at the Metrodome. This was where the Minnesota Twins and the Vikings used to play. And what I would do is I would ride around the metrodome in circles for hours. And I would tell myself that I wasn’t going home until God spoke to me. I had my discman and I would listen to Radiohead on repeat. And I would just ride and wait for God to do something.

This morning we read kind of a weird story from the book of Ezekiel. In the story, Ezekiel’s people had been taken away from their country in chains by this foreign power, the Babylonians. They were refugees of this terrible war that had decimated their entire region. Ezekiel found himself in this situation of profound uncertainty and doubt. You see, long ago God had made these promises to Ezekiel’s people—promises about a home, and protection, and even God’s own presence. There was even a promise of a sacred purpose, to enlighten all the nations of the world. But instead, they were exiled and their homeland was in ruins. That’s what these dry bones represent in Ezekiel’s vision. These are his people. These are God’s people. But they’re not what they should be. They’re dried up. They’re dead.

So it’s this amazing story about God’s power of resurrection. It seems like God’s favorite thing to do is to make things new. God takes the dry bones and reconnects them—gives them muscle and skin. God breathes into them the breath of life just like God breathed into Adam at the beginning of creation. This vision was a prophecy about the return from exile. Ezekiel’s people would eventually go home and rebuild. They would start over.

But before any of that happens. Before the reconnecting and the muscles and spirit and stuff, There’s this mystifying exchange between God and Ezekiel God asks the question that’s already on Ezekiel’s mind: “Can these bones live?” It’s almost as if God is with Ezekiel even in his doubt. God is there. God is almost wondering with Ezekiel. I think Ezekiel answers quite honestly. “God, you know. (But I don’t).” And then God says something amazing. “Prophesy…to the bones.” “Something incredible is gonna happen but first I’m asking you to prophesy to these dry bones.”

Every night that I went out on my bike, riding around the metrodome, I would eventually come home. God hadn’t said anything to me, but I was tired and my legs hurt. Eventually I got so frustrated that I quit school. But I had this wonderful opportunity to volunteer with a non-profit abroad. I did that for a year. I travelled and I just worked with this organization. And it completely changed my life. I came home and started school again and I had this new perspective and a new attitude. It felt like God was starting to knit my bones back together.  For me, I had to do something. I had to act. I had to prophesy. And I think sometimes when we’re frustrated, we can wait for God to do something, wait for God to fix it. But God is saying to us, “No, let’s do this together. I am about to do something awesome but I want you to do it with me. Prophesy to these bones, and watch what happens.”

Some of you here this morning might have a situation in your life where you’re wondering if those dry bones could ever live again. Maybe it’s a relationship, maybe it’s a marriage. It could be a situation at work or an illness. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on in your lives. But God does. And I believe that God is with you, is with us this morning, even if we’re wondering. And so let me encourage you. Prophesy to those bones. Say something. Do something. Take a step of faith. It doesn’t necessarily mean everything will get resolved exactly how you want it to. It doesn’t mean God is going to give you a vision of dry bones or something—though I believe that’s possible. What I think it does mean is that you are saying to God, to the world, and to yourself that you want to be part of renewal in that situation. You want to join God in bringing new life to whatever is going on, and you’re open whatever that might look like. So let me encourage you, prophesy to those bones. And see what God does. So as we move into a time of reflection, let me ask you: what situations in your life might God be asking you to prophesy to? Alternatively, what was a situation where you took a step of faith and God brought renewal?

Reed Carlson 4-6-14

Wednesday
Apr232014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Year A 4-20-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Acts 10:34-43; Ps. 118:1-2, 14-24; Col. 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

We have been raised with you, O Christ… We will set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for we have died, and our life is hidden with you in God. You are our life; when you are revealed, our life is revealed with you in glory.  Amen.

My prayer, which comes from the Letter to the Colossians Chapter 3, the lectionary reading for Easter Day that we did NOT read this morning, uses pretty drastic language to talk about the spiritual life.  It says baldly, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We have DIED.  Not, “we will die, by and by.”  We HAVE died. And our life is hidden.  Hidden from us.  Hidden from all.  Cannot be measured as the world measures.  Cannot even be SEEN as the world sees.  In the world’s terms, we are both invisible and dead.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene herself – whether or not she was Jesus’ fiancé or Jesus’ wife or his girlfriend, all speculations that swirl up periodically in the cultural discourse, or whether she was just his friend and follower, his disciple – cannot “see” Jesus for who he is when she encounters him outside the empty tomb on Easter morning.  In her grief and desolation, her incredulity, she mistakes him for the gardener.

We have died. For the most part, we live in a time and place, a culture that is all about life, lifeLIFE and not about death.  Death is a most unwelcome guest in our culture. We avoid death.  We fight it to the last blood product in hospitals and when it wins anyway, we whisk it away to morgues and try to diagnosis its backwash of grief and loss as “mental illness” and treat it as an abnormality.

And speaking of loss and failure, we’re not much into THAT, either.  Economically and emotionally, we’re all about “gain, gain, GAIN!” and success.  Being in control.  Being on the “up-and-up.”  Capturing the world’s imagination with a you-tube video or a new app and seizing the big contract and making a pile and retiring to “the good life” at 35. Some of us even distort the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, by what we call “the prosperity Gospel:” a piece of religious chicanery that attempts to persuade us that by believing in Jesus, our “righteousness” will entitle us to worldly success of the most flamboyant kind.  Seems to grab the imagination broadly enough to insure its chief proclaimers quite visible success of their own: plenty of “bling” to sparkle around and convince their followers that in Christ they will all inherit the same.  And that’s just the “bling” version of the same kind of “gospel” that proclaims that in Christ we will have MORAL SUCCESS of the same magnitude, that if we simply believe in Jesus we can be CERTAIN WE’RE MORALLY RIGHT, so certain that we’re no longer in need of hearing others or negotiating with the differing perceptions of others, and devil take the hindmost who doesn’t see it our way.

But Colossians is unequivocal: we haven’t gotten rich.  We haven’t cornered the market on morality.  We haven’t slipped the noose of our mortality.  IN CHRIST WE HAVE DIED.  And our life is hidden, has slipped down off the radar, isn’t even showing up impressively, with photographs, on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest. Our life – the important part of our life – is taking place quietly and often in sacrifice, a behind-the-scenes washing of gnarled and smelly feet no one else wants to look at.  Hidden in a patient restoring of motion to those who have lost limbs and equanimity to those emotionally traumatized in the Marathon bombings a year ago. Hidden in an owning and being able to tell the story of our own trauma or loss without shying away from its horror any longer but simply letting the terrible experience take its place as part of our history, and letting others know they are not alone in their trauma or loss.  Hidden in the simple act of looking with genuine love and hope upon someone convinced they aren’t worth loving, our eyes communicating what our tongues will fail to do with any persuasiveness.

The capacity to lead a life hidden in God comes directly from our death.  It is only when we willingly die, embrace our death, embrace and no longer reject the fundamental fact of our humanity that we are dust, that we are clay; that we only know partially, see partially; that we miss the Christ in front of our face as Mary Magdalene did in the tomb’s garden; that we are failing to meet the challenge of saving a world apparently bent in its blindness upon destroying itself in innumerable ways, from the hubris of post-Soviet Russia to the citizen-pounding animus of the Syrian regime to our relentless consumption of fossil fuels like someone on a bender, moving on to our tenth shot of bourbon, tottering off our stool… it is only when we acknowledge how frail and vulnerable and off-base we are, that our spiritual life even BEGINS.  Begins with tears, usually, which are the baptism God built into our very bodies themselves.

Because this is all about baptism.  We have died, but we haven’t just wasted away.  We have DIED INTO CHRIST, WHO DIED FOR US. Who endured rejection.  Who showed us how to abjure success and “bling.”  Abjure violence.  Abjure the insistence of our own ego, our own determination to be right, even as we remain willing to speak honestly and openly about what we believe IS right despite the fact that that honesty may provoke angry retaliation from those who fear our truth might cause them loss. We have died into Christ, who showed us that we cannot fight evil with more evil. Who showed us that any attempt at coercion, whether with weapons or with argument, will only breed more destruction no matter how noble the motive.  Who showed us how to love, even all the way – when necessary – to the point of death.

And in that shining morning garden with the tomb yawning empty behind them, speaking Mary’s name with tenderness so that, at last, she could hear it, could recognize the voice, could see Christ revealed, he showed us that love, in the end, brings us to life again.  Because our lives are HIDDEN not in darkness but in GOD, God the Eternal Everlasting LOVER-INTO-BEING – LOVER-INTO-BECOMING – of all things, all people, all history, all Universes. GOD whose LIFE will not be denied, in whom our abiding LIFE is revealed! “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

Somehow I was blessed, in the season of Lent just ended, I was blessed to pick up the novel by Dave Eggers called “What Is the What?  It’s a novel, but nearly a memoir, of a Sudanese Lost Boy, a young Denka man named Valentino Achak Deng.  Through the vehicle of flashbacks, the young Sudanese man relives the horror of civil war in Southern Sudan and the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, as he deals with poverty, disappointment, racism, cultural confusion, frustration and vulnerability as an immigrant in the United States.  Much of the book is nearly unbearable in its evocation of fear, loss and death, inhumanity and prejudiced ignorance of every kind, and yet threaded through it all is Achak’s own vibrantly hopeful, humorous and forbearing humanity and that of people he meets along his terrifying way.  It’s what kept me going when I thought I couldn’t stand to hear about one more horror, either in Sudan or in the States.

At one of the most poignant moments, Achak is struggling to cope with the murder of his distant girlfriend Tabitha at the hands of her abusive ex-lover Duluma, another Sudanese survivor of the war that has blasted all three of them. He says to the dead Tabitha in his imagination, “Tabitha, I have been reading Mother Teresa and Brother Roger’s book called Seeking the Heart of God, and each time I revisit it, I find different passages that seem written for me, describing what I feel in your absence.  In the book, Brother Roger says this to me: ‘Four hundred years after Christ, a believer named Augustine lived in North Africa. He had experienced misfortunes, the death of his loved ones. One day he was able to say to Christ: ‘Light of my heart, do not let my darkness speak to me.’ In his trials, St. Augustine realized that the presence of the Risen Christ had never left him; it was the light in the midst of his darkness.”

 “There have been times,” continues Achak to Tabitha in his thoughts, “when those words have helped me and times when I found those words hollow and unconvincing. These authors, for whom I have great respect, still do not seem to know the doubts that one might have in the angriest corners of one’s soul.  Too often they tell me to answer my doubts with prayer, which seems very much like addressing one’s hunger by thinking about food. 

But still,’ he says, “even when I am frustrated, I look elsewhere and can find a new passage that speaks to me. There is this, from Mother Teresa, ‘Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together, is joy.  Remember that the passion of Christ ends always in the joy of the resurrection of Christ, so when you feel in your own heart the suffering of Christ, remember the resurrection has yet to come – the joy of Easter has yet to dawn.’ And,” says Achak, Mother Teresa “provides a prayer that I have prayed many times in these last weeks [since your death, Tabitha,] and that I whisper tonight in my car, on this street of overhanging trees and amber streetlights.

Lord Jesus, make us realize

That it is only by frequent deaths of ourselves

And our self-centered desires

That we can come to live more fully;

For it is only by dying with you

That we can rise with you.”          [What is the What?, Dave Eggers, p. 358]

 

It is nearly inconceivable, in the terms of our culture of gain and success, that a boy like Achak Deng could survive what he survived – and so many boys and girls like him in just that ONE place of conflict in a world FULL of SO MANY equally irrational and destructively self-serving conflicts – with any kind of hopefulness at all. Yet survive and thrive and grow in love he did.  He had died many times over, but his life, amazingly, was hidden in God and as he encounters with compassion the face of Christ revealed in person after person – desperate, needy person and giving person alike – his life is revealed too, a shining and beautiful and loving life, a life of RESURRECTION. 

Let us pray in the words of the Easter hymn:

 When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,

Thy touch can bring us back to life again;

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.  Amen.

Rev Antolini Easter

Wednesday
Apr232014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Sunday, March 30th, 2014

4 Lent Year A 3-30-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: 1 Samuel  16:1-13; Ps. 23; John 9:1-41

You anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  AMEN.

This week, I’ve been thinking about blindness. My meditation began abruptly early in the week, in early morning, on my way to the Tuesday PRAXIS bible study, when I made a left turn onto Gray St., on the Heights above my place in Arlington, only to have a horn blare and find a gray car suddenly approaching on my left, its irate driver stomping on the brakes.  I completed the turn, shaking my head at myself: I had LOOKED BOTH WAYS, just as I was taught, and had seen no one.  How could I have missed so obvious a vehicle?  I proceeded on my way without mishap, but stunned at how editorial my consciousness is, even when it is tuned up, or at least so I think. And I am not alone in being such a numb-wit. All the studies of the accuracy of eye-witnesses confirm that we miss details all the time, many of them crucial.

Rattled and filled with this newly sharpened awareness of my own dullness of perception, I arrived at the Tuesday morning PRAXIS to find we were reading this vivid Gospel drama of “the man born blind” from John, a story used in Lent by the third century in the early Church to prepare people for Easter baptism. It’s a marvelously complex and psychologically acute story, and ends with a stumper of an observation from Jesus about his mission: "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Let me say that again in case you missed its strangeness: “Jesus said, I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Those who know they are blind will receive sight! Those who are confident of their sight will learn how blind they are.

The week continued to unspool, with those words of Jesus grumbling like a ground bass, repeating over and under and through my days.  A conversation reminded me how an appalling experience of assault at a young age leaves residual trauma that makes it terribly hard for one to perceive anything good about oneself: how such a trespass upon someone’s innocence can act hideously to blind that person to their own giftedness and belovedness.  Someone requested laying-on of hands, as their eyesight is literally threatened by an ailment that demands delicate surgery of uncertain outcome. A gathering with our developer partners for what I called “a diaspora tour,” opened their eyes to how we must live our congregational life flung over the Cambridge neighborhoods, our food pantry and women’s meal bus-rides away; our younger children walking two blocks to church school; our older children fully three blocks away; our nursery compressed into the Vestry room with bright rugs thrown down to keep street grit from small knees, as we wait for construction to begin on our new parish house. A message from our beloved Nursery Caretaker Shari Moy revealed that after three months of agonizing back pain while being stalled and stymied by medical personnel, she was finally given the MRI that revealed a fractured vertebra, requiring surgery and a rod and screws for repair!  And in every newscast throughout the week rumbled the manifest blindness of lost aircraft in the Indian Ocean and shattered hillside in Washington and of the partisanship that keeps the world and our own government in turmoil so we cannot see our way forward toward God’s Mission of reconciliation and restoration. 

Everywhere I looked, I came up against blindness, my own and that of others, some of it disturbingly unfair and calling out for some deep spiritual healing, but too much of it willful and unacknowledged, the product of unwillingness to see what might tend to undermine one’s advantages, an unwillingness that, like the barrel bombs of the Assad regime in Syria, visits destruction on innocents like the children in the streets of Aleppo. Or as with the man born blind in John’s story, who, the minute he has washed his eyes and retrieved his sight in the pool of Siloam, which means “Sent,” finds himself “sent” indeed, right into the center of the controversy brewing among the religious authorities who are determined not to see anything good about Jesus.

It’s important to note that the man is “sent” into that controversy at the Temple, the center of Jewish life and power, from the very margins of Jewish society, where anyone born blind was consigned, since they were believed somehow to have earned such devastating injury by their own malfeasance or that of their parents, as the disciples themselves betray in the opening verses of John’s story, "’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ To which Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” In John’s story, God’s works are revealed to extend far beyond mere physical healing.  The story is about much more than just the reclaiming of eyesight in a man born blind, miraculous and compelling as it is.  It is also a remarkable record of a man assumed (because of his disability) to have been marked by God as inherently sinful, a man of no value in the society of his day, utterly outcast and marginalized and useless, who discovers not only that sight is available to him, but also voice and moral force as well, a moral force that stands up even to the highest authorities when they challenge him.  Thanks to John’s story-telling gifts, we are privileged to watch this moral force develop in the man, encounter by encounter even while he is still very confused about the nature of Jesus and about the momentous thing that has occurred to him. And we are privileged to see the authorities harden in their insistence upon NOT seeing what is seemingly inescapably manifested before them, refusing to be shifted to a new perspective.  When they will not believe the evidence of his healing, the man himself says, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where [Jesus] comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." To which they answer with outraged obtuseness, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drive him out of the synagogue, back to the margins again, where he again encounters Jesus and, this time, can see clearly that Jesus is, as Jesus says, “the Light of the World.”

The progression of the man born blind out of his blindness and gradually, step by step and challenge by challenge, into a sight so clear it illuminates and trumps the blindness of the authorities around him is not the only story of progression toward enlightenment in our readings for today.  The story of the prophet Samuel anointing the shepherd boy David the future King of Israel is also a story of progression toward enlightenment.  In this story, the prophet himself is the one who begins in blindness, assuming that the strapping first son of Jesse the Bethlehemite is the obvious candidate of kingship.   But the Lord says to Samuel, strapping son after strapping son, "Do not look on their appearance or on their height of stature, because I have rejected them; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." And in the end, it is David, the son too young even to be present, the one left tending the sheep, who is called in all his dirt to be king.

My week’s exploration of blindness wrapped up in the monastery of the Society of St. John Evangelist on Saturday morning, where Brother David Vryhof led a “discernment retreat” for a wonderful “crowd of witnesses,” 16 people from St. James’s and The Crossing who are serving on not one but THREE committees charged with helping our three “ordination inquirers,” Mary Beth Mills-Curran, Isaac Martinez, and Nicholas Hayes, to discern whether they might be called to be ordained to the priesthood in this Church.  Brother David reminded us that it is not just the three ordination inquirers who are called to a vocation, but that every one of us has a vocation, a “purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God,” as Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says. But because of our inherent human propensity for blindness, we often have great difficulty determining what that vocation is.  Brother David reminded us that Jesus himself, human as well as divine, seems to have wrestled mightily with his own sense of call, from the temptations in the wilderness right through to the drops of sweaty anxiety he shed in the Garden of Gethsemane when it was becoming clear that crucifixion lay ahead of him.

It was a morning rich with illuminations, but in the context of the learning curve of the man born blind as he struggled for insight under the assaults of the religious authorities and the prophet Samuel’s learning curve when faced with the sons of Jesse, I found most helpful Brother David’s counsel to all of us in discernment to “hold our own opinions lightly, so as to remain open…” open to new learning, new insight, new enlightenment.  Not to clench down upon our convictions as the religious authorities do in John’s story, determined to mold the world to their expectations, but rather, like the man born blind, to let new evidence open our bodies, hearts and spirits to new possibility.  Filled with the sober awareness that in our blindness, we can often miss the car in front of our face, we need to start from the assumption that what God wants for us may be utterly different from what we first suspect or even think we desire. But, as Brother David reminded us, we are God’s beloved children no matter what stands in the way of our sight, and it is God’s intention for God’s work of love to be revealed to us and IN us. If we remain open as did the man born blind, nothing, not the trauma of childhood assault, not a possible loss of vision in surgery, not a fracture of the vertebra, not our pre-construction diaspora, not even the terrible atrocities of barrel bombs in Syria can prevent “the works of God from being revealed” in the resurrection power of Christ the Light of the World. 

To what have you been blind?  And how is your heart being enlightened?

GONG

SILENCE

GONG

RESPONSE TIME

Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s People!

AMEN.

Rev. Antolini Mar 30