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Thursday
Feb192015

Ash Wednesday 2-18-15

 

Audio recording of Sermon for Ash Wednesday

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

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

 

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Redeem my life from the grave; crown me with your mercy and loving-kindness.  AMEN.

 

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” So begins our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians for Ash Wednesday. It might be the clarion call to a holy Lent. “Be reconciled to God.”

 

Lent is the season – of all our seasons of the liturgical year – that invites us to take a good look at our sin, the things that separate us from God, our tendency to seek our own will instead of the will of God. Here’s how the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer puts it: Sin is “seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” [p. 848, Book of Common Prayer]

 

Despite the legacy of middle-class Victorian mores, sin isn’t sexual peccadilloes or the simple enjoyment of our bodies, though our bodies are certainly implicated in the ways we get separated from God. Our bodies are as much a means of being intimate with God as they are a liability in that intimacy.  So are our minds, and indeed our hearts. No: sin is much, much more than what we do with our bodies. The 12-step programs have the most vivid description of it. They call it, “self-will run riot.” When I ramp up into a rant at someone I love over a trivial incident or castigate them because they put the juice back in the wrong place in the fridge or left the milk out on the counter, my self-will has taken over. When I run up my credit card bill beyond what I can pay each month, buying things I don’t need, my self-will has taken over.  When I work too much or drink too much or eat too much (or, on the contrary, starve my body when it needs nutrients), my self-will has taken over. When I refuse to forgive someone who has injured me and instead dig into my own bitterness and resentment, my self-will has taken over. When I persistently ignore the ways in which my material comfort may be secured at the cost of someone else’s imprisonment in ignorance, poverty or violent conditions, or at the cost of our long-term supply of natural resources, clean air, clean water and species survival, my self-will has taken over. I have forgotten what God intended in creating me. I have lost touch with the love of God for me and have sought a false “love” in things that hurt me and/or others. I have placed my confidence in things that endow me with false sense of power and a false sense of self-respect. I have certainly lost touch with the capacity to regard others with the respectful and loving eyes of God, sacrificing THEIR dignity and in the process, my own. I have lost my sense of my own proportion. I have gotten alienated from my best self and the world around me.

 

So Lent is the season in which we seek to understand our sin, our “distortion of relationship” with God, other people, and indeed, all of Creation. It is the season in which we try to retrieve our appropriate sense of our proportion. It is the season in which we practice returning to “right relationship” with God. We do this in Lent as a preparation to experience with Christ his arrest and trial, his Passion and Crucifixion in the liturgies of Holy Week, and to be ready for the intense joy of his Resurrection in the Feasts of Easter Vigil and Easter morning.

 

In anticipation of that greatest of all sacraments, the Feast of the Resurrection, the season of Lent invites us into the death of Christ in order that we may find the “new life” that is promised in Christ’s resurrection. Lent invites us to see our separation from God and each other so that we can be reconciled, reconnected to God and to each other and to this fraught and beautiful world we live in. It is only by this frightening path, this giving up of “self-will run riot,” that we can “be reconciled to God.” The Second Letter to the Corinthians describes this movement from death to life as such as central part of “being reconciled to God” that I’m puzzled as to why the Lectionary begins at Verse 5:20, instead of back at Verse 14. Here’s what’s missing: “14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And Christ died for all, so that [we] who live might live no longer for [ourselves], but for him who died and was raised for [us]. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [our] trespasses against [us], and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [2 Cor. 5:16-20, pronouns changed & underlining mine]

 

How different if we see that the priority is that Christ has ALREADY reconciled us to God, “not counting our trespasses against us!” And that we are simply submitting ourselves to “death in Christ” – “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” as Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans; dead to our self-will and alive in God’s much more generous and forgiving will – to avail ourselves of that reconciliation, that “new creation.” [6:11] “Death,” you say? Isn’t that imagery a little extreme when it comes to the giving up of self-will?  Well, ask any of us who are vulnerable to “self-will run riot,” how hard it is to give it up, and to ask forgiveness for it! A million tiny deaths and sometimes some very large ones indeed.

 

And how different when we see that, being reconciled to God, we are thereby entrusted with the MESSAGE OF RECONCILIATION, indeed the MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION, ourselves. All those trials and tribulations Paul enumerates in our Second Corinthians passage today, from afflictions to imprisonments to hunger; all those swings between ill repute and good repute, between sorrow & rejoicing, even between dying and yet, being alive: these are all simply part of that “dying into Christ” – the giving up of the self-will that seeks to dominate and control – that Paul sees as THE route into intimacy with God, mere way-stations on the pilgrimage to being reconciled to God, empowerments to become ambassadors of reconciliation in the foreign territory of sin.

 

So here we are on Ash Wednesday, being invited to “a holy Lent,” to being “reconciled with God,” and so doing to engage our ministry of reconciliation. 

And the first step of that return to right relationship, that retrieval of our sense of proportion, begins with acknowledging that “we are dust, and unto dust we shall return.” Not just acknowledging it intellectually, but kneeling in a posture of submission and receiving upon our foreheads a cross of ashes made from the palms of last Palm Sunday’s commemoration of Jesus’ Crucifixion, right in the same place where the anointing oil of our baptism confirmed that we have been “marked as Christ’s own, forever,” as a reminder of our fragility and mortality and also at the very same time a reminder of Christ’s enduring, overcoming love for us [p. 308, Book of Common Prayer] Then, after the Imposition of Ashes, we are invited to the rail again in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, which intensifies this reminder of Christ’s self-offering love for us – essential to all amendment of life, essential to our capacity to bear the knowledge of our sin and our mortality.  We are always invited back into the circle of God’s love, back into the Body of Christ from which we may have separated ourselves, back from the alienation of “self-will run riot,” back into right relationship with God.

 

It is these twin dimensions of self-awareness that lie at the root of our Lenten practice. There’s the awareness of our mortality and vulnerability to sin and separation from God, the limits of our capacity to control our lives and the tendency to want to claim more control than we truly can manage, grinding ourselves and others up in the machinery of our self-will. That’s the dust part. But equally important along with it is the anointed part, the belonging-to-Christ-forever part.  The part where grace of Jesus Christ the Risen One can redeem us – save us, SALVAGE us – from the limits of our mortality and make healing and wholeness possible even in the most seemingly irredeemable situations.

 

These two essential aspects of “right relationship” with God – our limits and God’s never-failing longing to offer us the power of grace – are what power a ministry of reconciliation. Without a real sense of our own limits, our culpability, and our frailty, our attempts at the work of reconciliation risk being powered by self-will, a false assumption of our capacity. Without real humility and fellow-feeling, our attempts may work alienation, not reconciliation. At the same time, without a powerful sense of God’s grace to help in time of need, we can languish under a conviction of guilt or founder in our own sense of shame or vulnerability, or simply freeze in fear. [Hebrews: 4:6]

 

One more thing. Much of what we do in Lent, including the General Confession we say in worship every Sunday, gives us opportunities to practice reconciliation. If you want ideas, see the handout in your bulletin, “Renewal in the Season of Lent @ St. James’s.” Among other opportunities for study or alms-giving, you will find a small article about the “Rite of Reconciliation” in our Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes we find ourselves burdened with a sense of sin and separation from God that can seem unrelenting and even paralyzing. Perhaps “we have memories that sear our conscience, by they of a particular incident or of a chain of events that set off a kind of tsunami of sin in some aspect of our life.” Perhaps we are locked into “a recurring and damaging pattern of behavior.” Perhaps we suffer “a residual experience of self-loathing or shame.” If any of this is true for you, if you can’t seem to relinquish a grievous choice you made in the past, or are shaken by one you are in the midst of now, or if you are“burdened by a tedious repetitive sin,” consider making a time to meet with me and discuss the possibility of engaging in the sacrament of reconciliation. “You may need this very explicit assurance of your forgiveness, of your being liberated from an internal prison of condemnation.” [Adapted from Br. Curtis Almquist, Reconciliation: Preparing for the Sacrament,www.SSJE.org/monasticwisdom]

 

I invite you, this Lent, not to further burden your self-will by simply piling Lenten observances upon yourself, but to seek some thing or things you can do to let GO of your self-will, to ease back from the need to control everything, to let yourself feel both your own mortality and God’s great embracing desire for your flourishing, to help yourself “be reconciled to God,” so that God’s loving desire for reconciliation can shine through you to others. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the “Renewal in the Season of Lent” sheet in your bulletin, speak to me. Let’s see if we can discern or devise a renewing Lenten practice for you!

Monday
Feb092015

5 Epiphany Year B 2-8-15

 

Audio recording of Sermon for 5 Epiphany 

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

 

Lections: Isaiah 40:21-31; Ps. 147:1-12;21c; 1 Cor. 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

 

 Great are you, O God, mighty in power; there is no limit to your wisdom… You heal the brokenhearted and bind up our wounds… You are not impressed by the might of a horse; you have no pleasure in the strength of a man; but you have pleasure in those who fear you, in those who await your gracious favor. Hallelujah! AMEN.

 

Have you not known? Have you not heard?” asks the prophet Isaiah. With a God who sits above the circle of the earth, who stretches the heavens over us grasshopper-inhabitants like a tent to live in, empowered to make princes as naught and rulers of the earth as nothing, to blow a withering wind over them and carry them off in a tempest like stubble, surely things should be working better! Instead, the world’s manifestly a mess and seems to be developing new angles of atrocity by the day. Burning people alive on video now. Oy veh. In the midst of all that’s rupturing around us – let alone in the midst of SNOW! – how are we going to feel God’s presence let alone trust God with our lives?

 

As you know if you’ve been reading your Sunday News – and if you’re not getting the Sunday News, please email the office atoffice@stjames-cambridge.org - the email is in the back of your bulletin! – and let us know so Dorothy can sign you up – I’ve been on my annual week of silent prayer retreat at the monastery of Society of St. John Evangelist, on Memorial Drive, a retreat I consider so important to my functioning as your clergy that I wrote it into my Letter of Agreement with you when I came in 2008 as part of my “continuing education,” a time to reconnect with God, a time in which the sole purpose of the unspooling hours is to reach out to God and to beseech God and rest in God. To make God the center of every waking (and sleeping) minute.

 

It’s a rare luxury in this madhouse world of interconnectivity to have four days in a row of quiet, with regular prayer, chanting of psalms and singing, imbued in scripture, no need to shop, to answer the phone, to keep up with the email avalanche; little or no need to address needs, solve problems, mastermind events, check in on details. No need even to talk to other friendly humans in your immediate environs – though it’s amazing and lovely how much communication happens anyway in a silent community: shared laughter; kindly assistance; enthusiastic greetings, all conveyed w eyes and body language. The whole purpose is to still the soul and make it quiet so that perhaps – PERHAPS! – it can pick up a signal from God’s own “still small voice,” a voice that would otherwise be drowned out in all the fuss and bother of well-intentioned activity in daily life.  Here’s a poem of Edward Rowland Sill’s about stillness, from his 1868 volume of poetry, The Hermitage & Other Poems.  It’s called “Serenity.”

 

 Brook,

Be still,—be still!

Midnight’s arch is broken

In thy ceaseless ripples.

Dark and cold below them

Runs the troubled water,—

Only on its bosom,

Shimmering and trembling,

Doth the glinted star-shine
                       

Sparkle and cease.

 

Life,

Be still,—be still!

Boundless truth is shattered

On thy hurrying current.

Rest, with face uplifted,

Calm, serenely quiet;

Drink the deathless beauty—

Thrills of love and wonder

Sinking, shining, star-like;

Till the mirrored heaven

Hollow down within thee

Holy deeps unfathomed,

Where far thoughts go floating,

And low voices wander
               

Whispering peace.

Jesus knew the shattering craziness of the “hurrying current” of life and the balancing need for this pursuit of stillness, the pursuit, under the “shimmering and trembling bosom” of life’s current, in “holy deeps unfathomed,” “low voices whispering ‘Peace!’” Amid all the crowds and drama of his early ministry – remember, in our gospel passage from Mark today, we haven’t even gotten out of Chapter One yet – Jesus is already moving rapidly through Galilee ahead of crowds that gather, surge, and press in upon him, bringing all their sick or demon-possessed, driven to pursue him by their longing for the healing he offers. He’s SURROUNDED by pain and suffering! No sooner does he heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law than at sundown he finds himself surrounded by hordes of the needy, clamoring for deliverance. No wonder by morning Jesus is already withdrawing to a deserted place in search of that quiet opportunity for prayer, that opportunity to reconnect with the God who is the source of all action, all wisdom, that overarching God of Isaiah’s prophecy in our first reading today. “Everyone is searching for you!” cry the disciples. And Jesus responds soon enough, but first he knows he needs to withdraw from it all, to seek the stillness that allows him to go deeper, to stay connected to the Source of all his healing power. The withdrawal is a part of the moving forward; the stillness is a part of the action. Giving in to his own smallness and weariness and weakness – his humanity – and still knowing God loves him and wants to spring up within him as creative and reconciling power is what ALLOWS the power of God to work in him.

 

It would be easy in the charged and urgent atmosphere in which we live today, when every text message has to be answered immediately and not a moment wasted waiting for a friend or a train when it could be spent responding to an email or following a link to an article, an atmosphere in which it is important to be SEEN living your life not just by your friends and family but by innumerable anonymous “followers” on Twitter & Instagram, to take the immediacy and urgency and hurry of Mark’s Jesus, and the punch of his healing miracles – of all the Gospels, Mark’s is the one with the greatest density of miracles in proportion to its length – to take the all-out “action super-hero” mode of Jesus’ and his world-compelling miracle-doing as the heart of the Gospel matter. Even the Greek word Mark uses for “miracle” itself – dynameis - suggests dynamism, accomplishment, mobilization. “Commonly translated ‘miracles,’ the Greek word dynameis has the same root as our word ‘dynamite.’ [New Testament authority] Paul Achtemeier writes that dynameis is best translated as ‘acts of power.’” [Nancy Koester, New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000] The crowds & the disciples bought it: they thought Jesus was ALL ABOUT acts of power!

 

But the Jesus who demonstrates “acts of power” is also the Jesus who withdraws to a deserted place to pray. And here’s the thing: that solitude and stillness is as important as ALL the dynamism of his healing miracles. After all, if healing folks in nature-defying acts of power were the whole point, why would Jesus have upped anchor and headed on to the next town and left all the remaining crowds in Capernaum unhealed? Or, for that matter, why would we still, two thousand years later, still be struggling with illness and mental illness and domestic violence and sexual assault and war and what-have-you?  Wouldn’t that overarching “big-tent-ness” of Isaiah’s God have taken care of it? Why would we still be begging for healing and not getting it, at least, not the kind we asked for?

 

But Jesus does not heed the disciples and linger to heal more of the crowds in Capernaum. Leaving many untouched, he moves ahead, driven by an urgency that propels him headlong through the whole of Mark’s Gospel. "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do," he says.  It is not the simple fact of miraculous healing, but Jesus’ MESSAGE – remember it, 14 verses ago? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news?” – the MESSAGE OF REPENTANCE and the PRESENCE OF THE KINGDOM, that is Jesus’ primary concern. Healing, when it happens, is only a means to an end, a medium for the message, pointing toward truth beyond its limited moment, to the “holy deeps unfathomed” of God’s love that undergird the whole of life, time & space, the love of the “Creator of the ends of the earth,” as Isaiah says. And grasping THAT enormity of truth is a much tougher proposition than mere miracles. It’s going to involve Jesus’ death, and it involves ours too, or at least what often feels like death, to get to the resurrection and the REAL healing at the core of things.

 

As the Gospel of Mark unfolds over this Year B of the Lectionary, we will see more and more of Jesus’ impatience when people wish to make miracles of healing the point of his power. We will see Jesus try – in vain! – to make those he has healed remain silent about the healing, for fear that the magical message of the dynameis will roar louder than the message of God’s self-sacrificing, self-offering, all-inclusive love.  His baptism – our baptisms – invite us into a far more mysterious and unfathomable depth, a depth that led him in the end to the ultimate weakness: death by execution upon a cross. It took that extremity to make his point, THE point: that God loves us NOW, in our UNHEALED STATE.  UTTERLY. And that in that desert of unhealedness springs up an unimaginabledynameis that can turn our lives upside-down and the make impossible possible in us. If we will just claim that love NOW.  That’s what the desert stillness reminded Jesus. It reminded him that God’s love wasn’t about his acts of power. It preceded them, succeeded them, stood apart from them, surrounded them, excelled them beyond measure.

 

This is crucially important for us in our consideration of healing, as we move forward with our plans to make a monthly healing liturgy a part of our regular community of practice here at St. James’s. Our spiritual calling in the ministry of healing is not to the magic of short-term miracles, tempting as it is to seek a sign of that kind of tangible power. We may long and cry out for physical or mental healing, as no doubt those crowds left behind in Capernaum cried out. But even if we receive no immediate dynameis, no miracle of power, the holy deeps of God’s merciful & forgiving love hold and fill us still. If we can get still enough inside to feel them and let them. Jesus’ message is to “repent,” to turn, to turn toward God, to turn into the current of those deeps, neither predicting outcomes nor giving up faith when the results aren’t what we hoped for. Our spiritual calling – in a healing liturgy or out – is to trust that the kingdom of God, God’s great Commonwealth of justice and love is near, as near to us as our breath, the Breath of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual calling is to participate as deeply as possible – ever more deeply, if possible – in this ever-present dynamic of God’s merciful and forgiving love, even in the midst of pain and strife and even when it necessitates putting ourselves in harm’s way.

Sometimes that does make us party to some astonishing “acts of power,” and when it happens, that is a wondrous thing. More often it involves quite the opposite: it means accepting and acknowledging our own lostness, littleness and failure so that we can accompany others in their vulnerabilities and lostness and imperfections. It involves stepping outside the bounds of our competencies and our accomplishments to acknowledge and rejoice in the competencies of others, and to join our own weaknesses in solidarity with the weaknesses of others. It means letting go of any capacity for “acts of power” and pulling away to a place of stillness and smallness and letting ourselves feel how powerLESS we actually are, so that GOD can be the one with the power. That’s what Jesus was up to, withdrawing to a deserted place alone to pray. That’s what I was in search of, pulling away into the quiet of the monastery.

One more week in Epiphany, one more glorious Sunday, our annual International Sunday, in which we celebrate our broad diversity as a congregation in music and ministers and food, with Chanta Bhan our preacher and the Rev. Mary Tusuubira our presider for the Eucharist, and then we come to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, the season of preparation for the profound feasts of Holy Week and Easter, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross and his resurrection from the dead. It will be a season in which to explore in more depth the dynamic – dynameis? – of our baptism into Christ’s love, leading us from death to life, of which any miracle of healing is merely a signpost, a way-station. But here’s my take-away from a week spent in quiet retirement in the monastery of the Society of St. John Evangelist: it is good, from time to time, simply to step out of our agency for awhile, as Jesus stepped out to the deserted place, to step aside from our “screens,” step out of the press of time and contingency and accomplishment and VISIBILITY and let ourselves be still, be small, be voiceless and silent (except for singing!), and to recover the sense so easily “shattered on the hurrying current,” that the heart of all healing – of all life – is the ever-present, ever-loving, ever-sustaining GOD.  AMEN. 

Holly AntoliniSt. James's Cambridge MA
Gamble everything for love, if you're a true human being... Half-heartedness doesn't reach into majesty.  You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.  -- Rumi

Monday
Feb022015

4 Epiphany, Year B 2-1-15

 

Audio recording of Sermon for 4 Epiphany

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Ps. 111; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

 

Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.  Amen.

 

Curious that here on this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany we have for our Gospel passage this story of Jesus' authority revealed in his teaching and confirmed as he ejects the rebellious, angry spirit from the man in the synagogue, healing him and provoking amazement and bewilderment at his power among the crowd of worshiping onlookers. Curious because it arrives on the fourth of our four Sundays of Epiphany "healing liturgies," convened and led by our transitional deacon Reed Carlson.  These healing liturgies have been a pilot project of sorts that began with the premise that healing - and praying for healing - is a fundamental part of our life together as a congregation. 

 

Healing has been a fundamental part of Reed’s practice of faith, growing up in a Pentecostal church in Minnesota. Healing has been a fundamental part of the particular history of St. James's, which had regular healing services for a time in the living memory of our long-timers, and laying-on of hands for healing after the Eucharist long after that.  Healing has always had a fundamental role in the history of our faith, centrally important in the narratives of Jesus' own life and ministry and extending all the way back to the Jewish practice of anointing for healing long before the time of Jesus. Where this ends, we don't yet know, but given how many of you have participated in the Epiphany healing liturgies so far, Reed and I expect we will continue the healing liturgies, not every week, but perhaps once a month, into the future, with a different kind of healing as the focus each time. We have already made intercessory prayer our focus, with JT Kittredge, a member of our Intercessory Prayer team, at the first of these healing services; then prison ministry with St. James's companion & former prisoner Keora; and then end-of-life chaplaincy with Katie Rimer.  This afternoon, we will have the work of economic justice as “healing,” with Nicholas Hayes.  Perhaps after this afternoon’s, the next healing liturgy - sometime in March, to be determined - will focus on healing from trauma – personal trauma, or trauma in communities - or perhaps healing from addiction.  Stay tuned!

 

But in the meantime, let's take the conjunction of this Gospel story of healing and the last of our healing liturgies as an invitation to explore what healing might be, in the baptismal - the resurrectional - power of Jesus Christ in this, the season of Epiphany, the season of the epiphaneia, the “manifestation” of the nature of Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, God’s Messiah (which is the Hebrew word for “anointed one”), in whose name we anoint each person for whom we pray in the laying-on of hands for healing. If, as we proclaim in the Christian faith, Jesus embodies the transformational conjunction of the human & the divine, how can that conjunction be a healing and a transforming one in and through us?

 

Pondering this, I was blessed to come across an enlightening passage in a book called Our World, a book that memorializes the work of photographer Molly Malone Cook, pairing Cook’s photographs with text from Cook’s longtime partner, the poet Mary Oliver.  Oliver reflects on the heart of their fruitful love for each other over many decades:

"It has frequently been remarked about my own writings,” she writes, “that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way that the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching Molly when she was taking photographs and watching her in the darkroom, and no less, watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about.  Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness -- an empathy -- was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance and gave away freely. I was in my late twenties & early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words -- the world with words. Then Molly instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles."

[http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/20/mary-oliver-molly-malone-cook-our-world/?mc_cid=03189789e8&mc_eid=f917c4705f, underlining mine]

Might this be a word to us about the heart of the matter when it comes to healing?  Might we be called, not just in this season of Epiphany - the season of revelation, the season of divine manifestation - but always in our lives of seeking and serving Christ in every human being; seeking & serving Christ in ALL being, at all times, in all places – might we be called to this transformational attention, a “seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles?” An attention that combines openness AND empathy for someone, no matter what their predicament, no matter how beset, how ill, how impeded, even how DYING they might be? Seeing BEYOND our own prejudices? Seeing beyond the immediately obvious to the imminently possible, the potentiality within each person?  Might we be called fundamentally in Christ to this empathic attention that reveals the particular, unique divine spark in the one attended to, their own unique capacity to respond to God's ever-proffered grace with their own creative inspiration? And mightn’t that attention itself be filled with God’s grace of healing, God’s grace of resurrection?

 

For if the energy of God in the world is fundamentally the energy of love, and if we participate in that divine energy when WE love, it does seem to me that our love for each other is most essentially, most particularly a matter of attention, of paying attention (praying attention?), but only if it's done in empathy, an attention based in a "for-you-ness" rather than the ever-self-regarding attention of the "selfie," the "for-me-ness" of our contemporary self-inserting, self-involved view of the world. An attention deeply curious about the other and deeply, insistently determined to SEE in the other something worth seeing, worth understanding better. What more healing thing could we do?

 

Of course, in this era of social media and the avalanche of interconnection that deluges our limbic system and hijacks our dopamine production, there is ever-increasingly the danger that the function of our brains will be so impeded by our constant hyper-stimulus and multitasking that we are no longer even capable of this kind of sustained and empathic attention. If so, we will miss the very divine essence of things which God so particularly wishes to reveal to us, that "incarnation" which is Jesus' fundamental gift of being. And we will miss our opportunity to offer each other healing, to offer each other the wholeness that springs from being SEEN and LOVED by another, each of us the incarnate vehicle for the Divine Other to express the all-encompassing love of God. And healing, after all, is a two-way street: if we miss attending with empathy to others, we will miss the wholeness, the healing, that redounds to us when we pay that loving attention! [http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload]

 

Those of us privileged to attend the healing liturgies have had this experience of slowing down and allowing ourselves to pay attention, with empathy, to one another, for just a little space, blessedly if briefly without the pings and clicks and vibrations of distracting media.  For me, an indelible memory from this quiet time together in pursuit of healing is the memory of our conversation with Keora, the woman our folks in the St. James’s Prison Ministry accompanied in her college education behind bars through the Partakers program, until she was paroled last year.  Then Prison Ministry members began a new relationship with Keora in her new life “on the outside,” as she sought work against the odds raised by the assumptions made about her by potential employers on the basis of her record of incarceration.  Talk about the destructiveness of people who refuse to pay attention with empathy to others!  Yet despite being turned down for job after job and finally having to resort to a position at McDonald’s, Keora continues her journey into wholeness, a journey whose beginning she pegs to the moment when Prison Ministry member Yvette hesitantly proposed to pray with her on a prison visit some years ago. In our Healing Liturgy, Keora spoke of how, even as she discovered, painfully, how reluctant the structures of both the prison environment and our society, post-incarceration, were to accord her any worth, to pay attention to her with any empathy whatsoever, the members of the St. James’s Prison Ministry met her with openness and empathy so that, despite being subject to the persistent indignities of prison routine and prison power relationships, Keora began to discover and trust that she herself had worth. And all the while that Keora was speaking in our Healing Liturgy that afternoon with such power and straightforwardness about her own journey toward healing, I could see our Prison Ministry founder and Partakers board member Tom Tufts welling up with tears of joy, himself clearly affirmed and in his own way healed to have been and continue to be a participant in her healing.

 

How wondrous and amazing to be given this healing ministry of attention! How wondrous simply to be invited into each other’s presence with openness and empathy, and to have that spring up as new life! Not that it is easy. Anyone who is attempting to practice this kind of open attention in our sped-up, frazzled-out, fragmented, opinionated and distracted time knows it is a discipleship indeed. So let us return to Mary Oliver again for the last word, a word in her poem, “Mindful” [Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press, Boston, 2004]

 

Mindful

Every day

   I see or I hear

      something

         that more or less

 

kills me

   with delight,

      that leaves me

         like a needle

 

in the haystack

   of light.

      It is what I was born for ---

         To look, to listen,

 

to lose myself

   inside this soft world ---

      to instruct myself

         over and over

 

in joy,

   and acclamation.

      Nor am I talking

         About the exceptional,

 

the fearful, the dreadful,

   the very extravagant ---

      but of the ordinary,

         the common, the very drab,

 

the daily presentations.

   Oh, good scholar,

      I say to myself,

         How can you help

 

but grow wise

   with such teachings

      as these ---

         the untrimmable light

 

of the world,

   the ocean’s shine,

      the prayers that are made

         out of grass? 

Thursday
Jan292015

2 Epiphany Yr B 1-18-15

 

Audio recording of Sermon for 2 Epiphany 

 

FOR YOUR SERVANT IS LISTENING
A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA

on the Second after the Epiphany (Year B), Jan 18, 2015 

1 Sam 3:1-10(11-20) | Ps 139:1-5, 12-17 | 1 Cor 6:12-20 | Jn 1:43-51

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu

1.

The church where I grew up was planted in 1991.

We met in an elementary school gymnasium for the first 20 years

And at the beginning there were two pastors on staff: the senior pastor and the family pastor, a young woman named Chris.

As you might expect, growing up in this kind of church gave me a very different picture of what a church was.

We didn’t have an organ. We didn’t have pews or hymnals.

Almost everything that the church used for worship was located in the back of a trailer and there were teams of people who would rotate each Sunday morning setting up and tearing down for the Sunday morning service

They also had to set up for the church school or as I used to call it, “Kid’s Church.”

When I look back on my childhood in this community, there are a number of ways that I recognize how it has shaped me.

But what I want to tell you about this morning is my time in Kid’s Church.

The family pastor, Chris, didn’t have a lot to work with so of course she had to be creative.

And what she and her husband, Tony, came up with were puppets.

This was the early 90s. Computer animation hadn’t taken over movies and tv yet.

Sesame Street and the Muppets were still popular with kids.

So Chris and Tony (who were both very gifted craftspeople) invested a lot of their own money and time buying, building, and inventing very elaborate and professional, puppets.

They made up characters, props, sets, stages.

And since this was a new and small church, there weren’t a lot of adult volunteers available yet, so they actually trained a number of us older kids to be their team.

We would use these puppets to tell Bible stories, put on skits.

We used some published resources, but sometimes we wrote our own stuff.

A few times we put on shows for the community.

We would also travel around to other churches.

A few times we actually went to a puppet festival that was in the twin cities.

And when I look back on it now, it’s quite remarkable what Chris and Tony accomplished with a group of about 8-10 fourth and fifth graders.

I have no way of knowing this, of course, because I was a kid, but in my mind our productions were fantastic.

But as I get older, I realize that the truly remarkable thing that Pastor Chris did, wasn’t just the elaborate puppet shows.

It was the time and investment in me and the other children during this crucial stage of our lives.

From this early age, I had this sense of being involved in something much bigger than myself.

When we got together to practice we would also talk about what we were doing and why we were doing it.

And I think what impresses me most was how seriously Chris took our own opinions and experiences and emotions in this project.

When we prayed together as a group, when we read Bible stories, I always remember feeling like my experience of God was very real, and very important, and worth sharing.

 

2.

Now, why am I telling you all of this?

Well actually, the rest of my sermon today I am going to perform for you with a puppet. I’ve brought one with me today and I’m just going to duck behind the lectern here and…

No, just kidding.

Actually, I’m telling you this because I think our reading this morning from the book of 1 Samuel invites us to consider the spirituality of children.

This is something that some of you folks here who work with children probably consider regularly—particularly if you volunteer with the St. James’s church school—but for the rest of us, maybe it doesn’t come up too often.

Maybe you have children, maybe you have grandchildren, maybe you’re an uncle or an aunt, or maybe you simply want to have children some day.

If so, I think it’s important for you to consider the ways in which God speaks to children, and to ask yourself how you can encourage that.

But, maybe you’re sitting here this morning and you hate kids.

Kids smell. And they’re loud.

And, I don’t know, they like Spider Man too much. I don’t know.

If so, that’s fine. Believe or not, I still think it’s important for you to consider the spiritual lives of children too. I’ll give you two reasons.

First, children are some of the most marginal people in our society.

They have very little power.

They don’t really have a voice to articulate their needs.

Social scientists tell us that they are the most likely members of society to experience abuse, neglect, and emotional damage from family dysfunction.

They suffer disproportionately in war, and in economic hard times.

They need advocates in all of us, whether we want to have kids of our own or not.

Second, you were a child once.

And it’s highly possible that you had a spiritual life then.

And maybe it wasn’t taken seriously when you were a kid.

And now that you are an adult, you continue that trend, and you deny that child in you the recognition of God’s agency in your life.

I’m going to talk a little bit more about that shortly.

But first, let’s look at the text.

 

3.

Whenever I read or hear the Bible I always like to situate myself in the biblical story.

And an easy way to do that is to divide that story into five parts: Origins, Israel, Jesus, Church, and New Creation.

I’ll say it again, Origins, Israel, Jesus, Church, and New Creation.

Every text from the Christian Bible can be kind of pegged to at least one of these points in the continuum, and often more than one.

So on that timeline, our story this morning falls in the Israel category.

This is after the time of Moses and the Exodus but its before Jesus, its before even King David, though not much before.

The Israelites have come into the Promised Land, and they are in the process of forming a new nation. There is no king yet.

And in the early days of this new nation the holy shrine of God was not located in Jerusalem, it was actually located in the north at a place called Shiloh.

And the high priest, the kind of pope guy, was a man named Eli.

The story we read this morning is often titled, the Calling of Samuel.

Because Samuel would eventually become one of the most famous prophets in Israel’s history.

But in our story, Samuel is just a boy. And he works in the temple as an assistant to Eli and to the other priests.

So right at the beginning of the story we learn that the word of the LORD, and specifically visions, was very rare in those days.

This is something that we are not supposed to miss.

God chooses to break the silence by speaking to a boy.

Not to the high priest of all of Israel, but to a boy.

 

4.

As the story unfolds, God speaks to Samuel three times. But Samuel doesn’t recognize it.

Developmental Psychologists tell us that children very rarely have all the cognitive tools they need to make sense of their world.

They observe things—often better than adults do—but they lack the experience and sometimes even the matured brain development to put their experiences into perspective.

So when children experience a dramatic loss, a drastic change, or any kind of trauma, they often need adults to help them do the processing.

In this particular story, Samuel hears God’s voice loud and clear but he doesn’t know the right response.

The boy goes to the high priest Eli who dismisses him initially but eventually, after the third time, he realizes that something else is going on.

To me, this makes Eli’s patience all the more impressive.

Even after being woken up by this annoying kid three times, he still has the presence of mind and the sensitivity to realize that it is God who is speaking.

He doesn’t lose his patience, instead he instructs Samuel to respond to the voice and to see what happens.

 

5.

I think this is actually a very difficult thing for adults to do.

Not just because we would be annoyed about being woken up, but because Eli recognizes that Samuel is having an encounter with God that doesn’t go through him.

I think this is a tough idea for many people—particularly parents.

After all, everything that your kid encounters in their entire life has been more or less through you.

Whether it’s food, play, clothing, entertainment, education we like to think that we can kind of control that input.

But an independent experience with God?

This is something a little harder to grasp.

When we keep reading, we discover that while the experience of God is not filtered through Eli, the prophecy that Samuel receives has a lot to do with him and with his family.

In those days in Israel, the office of priest was (like most jobs) a hereditary position.

But as we discover in the chapter just before, while Eli himself seems to be a very good priest, his sons are very bad.

In fact they use their positions of power to manipulate the system of sacrifice for dishonest gain, and Eli does nothing to stop them.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we have in this text another account of children and their encounters with God.

While Eli’s two sons were undoubtedly older than Samuel, we are left wondering what kind of childhoods they had that had brought them to this point where there could be such a harsh judgment against them.

I don’t think I’m importing too much into the story if I draw parallels between Eli’s important position and the difficulties that children today face when parents are absent or disconnected from their lives—particularly their spiritual lives.

If you’ve spent very much of your life in protestant churches, you may be familiar with this kind of trope of the rebellious children of church leaders.

It’s kind of a joke but it’s also kind of true.

PKs (as they’re often called—Priests’ Kids or Pastor’s Kids) live sometimes very complicated, double lives.

Now like everyone, children are ultimately independent people who make their own decisions, and I don’t think it’s always fair to blame good parents for the bad decisions of their children.

But when I read this story I have to wonder: perhaps Eli, having watched his sons go astray, is aware of the risk of not tending to the spiritual lives of young people and this is why he is so careful in how he deals with Samuel.

It is a testament to his patience and his faith that instead of trying to correct Samuel or discipline him when he hears the bad news of the vision, he simply says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

 

6.

Like so many of these Bible stories that some of us probably heard as kids, this story is a way of providing us with language to describe and interpret our own stories.

This narrative about Samuel is often taught in connection with the idea of calling or vocation—and I think that’s quite appropriate.

Today we often teach our children to develop valuable skills, to make goals about college or a career, to find meaningful work.

These encouragements are important and necessary, but I wonder how often we consider God’s role in shaping the vocations of our children.

How often are we willing to say, “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him” in regards to our children.

Perhaps we’re not even really open to the idea that our children can have genuine experiences of God at such a young age.

 

7.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that some of the most important spiritual experiences I have had in my life happened before I turned sixteen.

One when I was four years old.

Fortunately, for me, I had people like Pastor Chris, who were willing to take these experiences seriously, and help me think about what they meant.

This morning in the gospel reading, we heard about the calling of two of Jesus’ disciples, Philip and Nathaniel.

Now, we tend to think of Jesus’ disciples as kind of mid-30s men with families, but probably most if not all of these disciples were teenagers, perhaps as young as fifteen.

How does that affect your conception of when and how God speaks and works through young people?

 

8.

Thankfully, we go to a church that takes the spiritual lives of children very seriously.

I know from my conversations with the leadership of our church school and our confirmation program, and our young adult groups that these issues are very much at the forefront of their minds when they’re planning, when they’re teaching, and when they’re interacting with our young people.

But spirituality is not a one-day a week kind of thing—especially if you’re a kid.

For young people, the world can be a 24-hour a day experience of wonderment, and curiosity, and sometimes confusion.

And often it is only the families and friends that surround children who are in the position to help kids make sense of their very real, very influential, very spiritual experiences of the world.

The ministries for young people in this church can only be effective if we as a community could make the commitment and say:

yes, the spiritual lives of children matter, yes, when the children of my community are experiencing God, somehow, in some mystical, unexplainable way, my own experience of God is that much more enriched.

 

9.

I have one final thought.

Some of you here this morning had a profound experience of God when you were young.

Perhaps as a teenager or adolescent, but maybe a few of you as a small child.

It could have been a time when you were wandering out in nature, or maybe an interaction with someone when there was a true spiritual connection.

Maybe when you were reading something or observing the world around you and you learned something very true about God or about God’s creation.

Maybe it was something truly mystical and unexplainable like the sort of experience that Samuel had.

But for whatever reason—perhaps it was the adults in your life at that time, perhaps it was your own maturing process—you have been taught to doubt the authenticity of that spiritual experience simply because you were young.

For whatever reason, you have come to believe that young people cannot experience God in that way, because they are naïve or uneducated or whatever.

Please listen carefully when I say this: You are wrong.

Jesus Christ was sent to reveal the true nature of God and the true nature of humanity to all people.

The spiritual experiences of an adult are no more nor less authentically spiritual or human than those of a child.

So if that’s you this morning, I think God is inviting you to revisit that experience—to reevaluate it.

We don’t necessarily have to privilege youthful experience over older perspective, but nor do I think we should ignore it.

As Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Amen.

Thursday
Jan222015

2014 Annual Report

Sunday
Jan112015

1 Epiphany Year B 1-11-15

 

Audio recording of Sermon for 1 Epiphany 

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Genesis 1:1-5; Ps. 29:1-11; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

 

Ascribe to the LORD, you small humans, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. AMEN.

 

This is a week in which it is easy to feel quite overwhelmed by the painful course of human events and our smallness in relation to them. As a believer in democracy, it has been easy this week for me to tremble at its fragility, as gunmen kill cartoonists in broad daylight amid the urbanity of Paris and desperate Syrians are turned away from Lebanese borders because, Syrian refugees making up fully a quarter of the entire population of Lebanon, there is simply not enough social and economic fabric to cover the influx with even flimzy shelter amid the winter blizzards. It has been a week in which I feel, and I imagine many of us feel, quite powerless in relation to the terrible reaper’s blade of events.

 

In the same week, the opening of the movie Selma invites us to remember a great if also terrifying and destabilizing moment in our own history of democracy, the moment at which the tides of racial politics in our country took an important turn toward justice, a moment in which there could easily have been other, very different outcomes were it not for the toweringly visionary and compelling leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of other women & men of color who led (often sacrificially) along with him, and I must add, were it not for the wily-coyote-like political leadership and commitment of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who fares badly in the dramatic narrative of the film but in historical fact contributed crucially to the success of the movement for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Small we may be, but at certain moments, any one of us can be given a power for good that affects the ages. The vision that propelled Martin Luther King came straight from his own baptism in Jesus Christ.  He called his vision “the beloved community.” Love was at its center.   Martin Luther King was passionately convinced of the worthiness of every human being to be loved, convinced of the dignity of every human being, convinced of God’s desire for our dignity to flourish, every one of us, brothers & sisters of Jesus Christ, children of God. In the strength of that vision, he said “YES!” to his extraordinary moment, not once, but over and over, as it led him deeper and deeper into the hard, frightening and sacrificial work of transforming our whole political landscape in the United States.

 

So this morning, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we face into the strange counterpoint of truth about ourselves: our smallness and inadequacy in the face of events… and our importance, our dignity, our worthiness to be loved, our capacity to express that love transformationally in the world.  Isn’t that what baptism is all about?  Christ’s baptism is a “new beginning of Creation,” the lectionary wants us to know, as it pairs the Genesis One story of Creation with Mark’s story of Jesus’ own baptism and also pairs it with the baptizing of Gentiles into Jesus by Paul in the Book of Acts, expanding the promises of God to ALL people, not merely to the Jews – God’s “chosen people” – among whom Jesus – and Paul – were born. And Christ’s baptism is the baptism that imbued them and imbues us with the Holy Spirit, the creative Breath of God that can transform our smallness, so prone to a terrible frailty, prone to ill-informed choices and destructive deployment of what little power we have in our humanity, into God’s transformational power to imagine, to affirm, and to love.  We literally need to lose our little separate lives in order to participate together in the mighty transformative life of God.

 

I’m thinking of those two misguided young men in Paris, trying to use their little power transformatively, and completely forgetting that the outcome is dignity for all.

 

Jesus set the model, willingly offering his own little life in “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, “ says Mark, in order to become part of God’s mighty work of mercy and justice in the world. At the same time that it names our smallness and inadequacy, baptism affirms that in its power we can turn and turn again toward God – repentance, metanoia in Greek – that in its power we can release – forgive, áphesin, in Greek – whatever has marred our dignity in the past and claim our full dignity in the future, immersing ourselves ever more deeply in God’s love, love for us and through us, for all others.

 

I want to offer a parable of baptism, a story of smallness to the point of invisibility, and of dignity and capacity beyond all imagining. It’s a story I heard on “All Things Considered” Friday night, the story of Martin Pistorius.  Martin grew up in South Africa in a normal childhood, until at age 12 he had a headache that turned out to be both a rare form of meningitis and “tuberculosis of the brain.” It worsened progressively until he lost all capacity to move, even his eyeballs, and to speak.  He entered what doctors call “a vegetative state,” and he was sent home with his parents to die.  But he didn’t die. Instead, he persisted in this complete paralysis, year after grueling year. Everyone assumed he had no consciousness to speak of, since he gave no sign of any.  But inside his inert body, his brain eventually “woke up” and he became “aware of everything just like a normal person. But he couldn’t move his body.

 

Everyone was so used to him not being there that they didn't notice when he began to be present again. Though he could see and understand everything, he couldn't find a way to let anybody know. The stark reality hit him that he was going to spend the rest of his life like that - totally alone. He was trapped with only his thoughts for company. And they weren't particularly nice thoughts. ‘I will never be rescued,’ he thought. ‘No one will ever show me tenderness.’ The thoughts battered him, berated him. ‘No one will ever love me,’ he thought. ‘You are doomed.’ And, of course, there was no way to escape, take a walk or talk to a friend. ‘You will never get out,’ he thought, ‘You are powerless. You will be alone forever.’ So he figured his only option was to leave his thoughts behind, simply let them all just float by. That was his first strategy, disengaging his thoughts, and …he got really good at it. ‘You don’t really think about anything. You simply exist.’”

 

And worst: because he was in a vegetative state, his carers would leave him in front of the TV and play “Barney” re-runs by the hour, day after day.  He HATED Barney. One day, he decided he had had enough. He needed to know what time it was because if he could know what time it was, he could know when [the torture by Barney] would end! But he was rarely seated near a clock, so he would watch how the sun moved across the room or how a shadow moved throughout the day. He began to match what he saw with little bits of information he was able to collect - what he heard on the television, a nurse mentioning the time. And within a few months he could read the shadows like a clock. It was his first semblance of control. Simply knowing where he was in the day gave him the sense of being able to climb through it.

He started to take his thoughts on again. Only now, “when a dark thought came up, instead of letting it just float by he would try to find some new relationship to it. Like, one time, shortly after having the drool wiped from his chin by a nurse, he started to think, “You are pathetic.” But just then, “He happened to notice that a song was playing on the radio - Whitney Houston's ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’” In the midst of that terrible isolation – after year after year of it – the truly “baptismal” moment arrived. In the song Houston sings, “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity because the greatest love of all is happening to me… I found the greatest love of all inside of me.”

Little by little, “Martin found a way to reframe, reinterpret even the ugliest thoughts that haunted him. Like the time his mother, in desperate frustration and thinking Martin couldn’t understand, said baldly to him, “I hope you die.” “But [unbeknownst to her,] he was conscious when his mom told him that. The rest of the world felt so far away when she said those words. But he began to wrestle with it. Why would a mother say that? As time passed, he gradually learned to understand his mother's desperation, [that] every time she looked at him, she could see only a cruel parody of the once-healthy child she had loved so much.” What an amazing capacity for compassion he forged, to be able to see his mother this way.

“And over time [as] Martin began reengaging with his thoughts, and slowly, as his mind felt better, something else happened. His body began to get better. It’s a “long story, involving inexplicable neurological developments,” but the short version is that “at age 26, Martin passed a test where he identified different objects by pointing at them with his eyes.” That was when he finally got the electronic “tools to communicate” via a computer-generated voice similar to Dr. Stephen Hawking’s. “He forges ahead,” becomes wheel-chair mobile, “gets a job at a local government office….Eventually, he scraps that job – too elementary! – and goes to college. In computer science. Starts a web company. He writes a book. He's learning to drive…He’s met a woman – a friend of his sister’s, and they’ve fallen in love and gotten married.  She says “the thing that drew her to Martin was his humor about the human condition, his frankness.” She goes on, “If I ask him anything, he'll give me an honest answer. There was no pretend. Oh, OK, well, he's in a wheelchair and he doesn't speak, but I love this guy. He's amazing. Then it just so quickly turned into love,’” she laughs. And Martin, at long last, had no trouble expressing what he felt inside.” He says, “My face would hurt from smiling so much.”

Martin Pistorius in his illness became so small and so desperately isolated that he was literally invisible even to those who loved and cared for him daily and sacrificed for him unthinkably. Yet his capacity now seems mind-blowing. He “thinks it may have been his decision to lean into those dark thoughts – to claim his dignity, as Whitney Houston told him to – that helped him to get the very best thing in his life,” his wife, his love, and his connection to and power in the world.

 

The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.” And the heavens were torn apart and “a voice came from heaven,You are my… Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’"

 

Dare we take Martin Pistorius’s story as a Word to us, a word of hope in the teeth of all that threatens our dignity; a word of power in the teeth of our weakness; and above all, a word of love in the teeth of all that is hate-filled and destructive? We may not be called to a work on the scope of Martin Luther King.  But we ARE called to our OWN scale of work to claim our own dignity and to connect to and support the dignity of others, in the power – the sometimes miraculous power – of our baptism into Christ, our brother, and our God.   AMEN.

 

Lulu Miller: “Trapped in his body for 12 years, a man breaks free” All Things Considered, 1-9-15 http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=376084137

 

Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/whitneyhouston/greatestloveofall.html

 

Monday
Dec292014

Christmas Day Year B 2014

 

Audio recording of Sermon for Christmas Day

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Collect for 2nd Sunday of Christmas; Isaiah 52:7-10; Ps. 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14 

 

Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.  AMEN.

 

Here we are, gathered in the quiet morning light after all the drama of Christmas Eve, feeling (at least in my case) slightly stunned as if we were like the shepherds, who had trailed home in wonderment after their normal life had been disrupted the night before, when the night sky over their heads erupted with angel wings and “Alleluias” propelled them out of fields and down the hills to the stable where they found the tiny infant promised to be Emmanuel, God Incarnate in human flesh, God with us, God IN us, and then woke up the next morning and wondered, “What was all THAT about???” And on Christmas morning, along comes John the Evangelist and says, “I’ll tell you!”

 

And what does John tell us of the power of the Incarnation THIS year, this year of terrible travesty, of Ebola ravaging West Africa, and Russians invading Crimea and North Koreans sabotaging Sony and the grim ISIS in Syria & Iraq, demonstrating the very worst in human behavior as if we needed reminding what the worst looks like?  How does the Lord comfort us, as Isaiah promises, this Christmas, here on the ground in the U.S., where we have had thrust into our collective consciousness the dismaying phenomenon of injustice to people of color due to a racism so endemic and systemic in our culture that too much of the time it doesn’t even rise to the level of conscious thought, but brews fear and persecution in the subconscious with a demoralizing and devastating persistence? “Ruins of Jerusalem,” indeed! How will we “break forth into singing?”

 

Let me share a story with you, a story that comes from the blog of Al Letson, playwright and – full disclosure – my daughter Tina’s boss, executive producer of the NPR program, The State of the Re:Union, which seeks to document how people transcend challenging circumstances to create community in cities and communities all around the country. “The common theme in Al’s work is his effort to bring people together. By examining difficult topics and influential historical themes, he strives to focus on our common humanity… [http://stateofthereunion.com/about/staff/]  Al, African-American, and my daughter Tina, indubitably white, are in themselves a work of reconciliation and mutual understanding as they have forged their teamwork to create radio programs that bring a message of hope and power grounded in the most concrete of human experience to their listeners. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news…” says Isaiah.

 

That said, Al also tells it “like it is,” which is part of why I trust him to tell the truth when he’s delivering hope as well as when he’s setting the record straight. In the wake of the grand jury decisions about the deaths of Michael Brown & Eric Garner, Al wrote the following:

 

At 14 or 15 years old, I was with my father when he got pulled over by a police officer. The cop, much younger than him, spoke to my dad like he was trash — I swear the cop called him boy — but my father was cool. He said "Yes sir," and "No sir" and dealt with this young cop's horrible attitude.

 

After he finished emasculating my dad, the officer let us go, but I remember how silent the car ride was the rest of the way. I could feel the anger emanating from my father. I know now how much that encounter must have hurt, but for the sake of his family, he took it. Later, my father told me how to behave when you encounter a police officer, because he wanted to keep me safe. This is America, as it is.

 

In 2001, I won custody of my oldest son; it had been a long, weird, journey. I didn't know I had a son until he was 6 years old and I was 23. Getting custody was necessary but a difficult transition for both of us. They don't have a handbook about parenting an 11-year-old child, especially when you haven't learned any skills leading to that point. [Normally,] you grow with your child and unfortunately for both him and I, we hadn't been afforded that luxury.

 

Not long after he came to live with me, he and I were driving in Jacksonville [Florida, where we live]. I stopped at a convenience store to get us a snack. An older black man, who looked homeless, stumbled into the store and slipped on the floor while talking incoherently. He must have been running from the cops because they came in behind him and started to beat the man bloody. My first inclination was to step in and stop them from hurting him so badly. But they were cops. What could I do?

 

I looked out of the window and saw my kid trying to look into the store from the car. I didn't know much about parenting at that point, but I knew he shouldn't see this. I left the soda and chips on the counter, threw my hands up and slid out of the store. We drove away and my son asked me what happened. I didn't respond, I just tried to hide the tears from him and continued to drive as the truth hit me hard: I cannot protect him.

 

I never got the handbook on how to raise a black boy in America, but I remember[ed] the words my father said to me. I took a deep breath, steadied my voice, and started telling my son what to do when confronted by the police. As I spoke, that uncomfortable feeling in my chest blossomed, squeezing my internal organs, making it hard to breathe. This is America, as it is.

 

In 2014, my now 23-year-old son called me. He had been filming (he shoots and edits videos) in downtown Jacksonville, when a police officer came up to him and started talking to him in a very disrespectful manner, clearly egging him into a confrontation. The officer was becoming more aggressive and my son was furious. I don't know if he called me for advice, or to talk him out of doing something stupid or just to vent, but my immediate reaction was anger.

 

I told him loudly, forcibly: "SHUT UP! Pack your stuff and get in your car and go home now!" I ran to my car and drove downtown, and when I got there he was gone. There were no police officers in sight, just people hanging out in Hemming Plaza. When I finally got my son on the phone, he was home, safe. I sat on a bench and could hardly breathe as that familiar pressure spread across my chest. This is America as it is.

 

Months later, Michael BrownEric Garner[Tamir Rice,] Darrien Hunt and John Crawford were all killed by police. None of them had any weapons (unless you include toy swords and fake guns). At this point, justice has not been served in any of these cases. Each time a new tragedy happens, I feel that pressure in my chest, a pain that is equal parts anger, fear and helplessness.

 

Every time I see the images on the news it reminds me of my father's story, of my story, of my children's story. It reminds me that every day in America a small part of this country dies, whenever a parent must tell a child how to "behave" to survive an encounter with police officers.

 

This is not an indictment of police officers. One of the most influential people in my life was a police officer, but we as a country have work to do. This is an indictment of a system that is clearly not working. I believe in the power of story. I have to, because on days like this, it's all I have. So I am telling my story so you might know my world. This is America, as it is, but if we look at its true reflection, we can fix it and become America, as it should be.” [Al Letson, blogging at the NPR site, Code SwitchFrontiers of Race, Culture & Ethnicity,  http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/12/07/369013140/this-is-america-as-it-is]

 

At Christmas, we affirm that we have seen how God is, in human flesh.  We have seen how God loves in human flesh, in the person – the vulnerable, persecuted, grace-filled, loving flesh of Jesus Christ. We have ourselves been imbued with that power to love, albeit imperfectly, nevertheless with power, because God forsook God’s own Godhead to become human and dwell among us, demonstrating our own capacity for grace & truth, if we will only claim it.  As John the Evangelist puts it, “To all who receive him… the Word gives power to become children of God.” John is not sentimental about this.  He is very straightforward: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Like those policemen in Al’s story, we all too often do not recognize the true light in our brothers & sisters of color, any more than we recognized it in the person of Jesus. Bound up in our presuppositions, white people miss it.  Even more horrifying, experiment after experiment shows that even people of color miss the true light in EACH OTHER. That’s how deeply skewed our perspective is.

 

But John gives us the promise of the Incarnation: “What has come into being in the Word is life,” says John the Evangelist, “and the life is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it…” The promise of the Incarnation is that IF WE WILL ONLY LOOK, WE WILL FIND GOD’S GRACE & TRUTH IN EVERYONE, EVERYONE A CHILD OF GOD. Christ, our Life, the Light in the darkness, CALLS US TO LOOK FOR THE LIGHT IN EACH & EVERY “OTHER,” and testify to it when we find it. As we WILL find it! Because our human being – EVERY human being – has been dignified by the presence of divinity in our humanity, children of God. And when we DO take the time and bend our attention to look for that divine light in our fellow humans, it will brighten and shine in them.  Despite that tight recurring anger in his chest, Al Letson has been looking for and finding it in people and communities all over this country. It’s our job to join him in the search, in the expectation of finding Jesus, not in the stable, but everywhere we look. So let us pray again the words of our Collect of the Incarnation:  “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, page 251]

 

 

Monday
Dec292014

Christmas Eve Year B 12-24-14

 

Audio recording of Sermon for Christmas Eve 

 

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 9:2-7; Ps. 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

 

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sins and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.  Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel! AMEN.

[Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written 4 years after the founding of St. James’s]

 

This is a moment of solemn joy in the life of this congregation, and not just because we are celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ, God become human flesh, God stepping out of God’s Godness into our limited, short-lived, all-too-short-sighted human being – and stepping into humanity at the “wrong end” of the economic and political spectrum, too: the end of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the refugee, the undocumented immigrant, the voiceless, the invisible - to prove that God’s love can still shine in the dross and confusion and terrible vulnerability and uncertainty of this mortal life.  This, this very hour, also marks the 150th anniversary of another birth, a lesser light but one, God willing, that reflects the divine Light of Christ: the life of the Body of Christ that is St. James’s Episcopal Church.

 

As our putative Parish Historians John Hixson & Eric Maynard like to point out, we began life in the last winter of the Civil War, on December 24th, 1864, four days after General Grant’s army had taken the city of Savannah, Georgia, on a snowy night, in a congregation gathered in the room over Atwill’s Store – lit only by kerosene lamps, as the gas had gone out, the first of many “energy crises” in the life of St. James’s! – in what our 1904 History of St. James’s Cambridge calls “the moral wilds” of North Cambridge, the neighborhood that served as the stockyards to the City of Boston.  Cattle driven in on what later became the commuter rail-line were penned right here and slaughtered and tanned and cut up into what are famous as “porter house steaks,” named after the Porter House hotel on the square. It was a rough hard-working neighborhood, a neighborhood, so thought the evangelical “Church Union” members of Christ Church in the more gentrified Harvard Square and of Emmanuel Church Newbury St., who came to found this congregation, that needed praying for, and praying with. We North Cantabrigians were apparently much in need of hearing the Good News, prone as we may have been to offsetting the numbing cold and tough, odoriferous, ungrateful work of maneuvering cattle with obscenities and a nip too much of liquid courage.  Moreover, some of us were probably “out-of-towners,” cattle-drovers, “furriners” with leather-working skills; who knows IF or WHAT we believed? The work was low-skill and low-pay, life was hard & Sunday was not a “day of rest,” but the day of preparation before Monday Cattle-Trading Day. Undoubtedly, redemption was called for!

 

In the wider scope of things American in 1864, redemption was called for too, and hope may have been hard-come-by, at least in the previous summer when the Church Union was laying plans to evangelize Porter Square, and when the Northern Union soldiers looked to be losing the Civil War to the Southern Confederacy, or at any rate, trapping the country in the seemingly endless degradation of a dragged-out and devastatingly bloody & costly war of attrition. But then General Sherman turned the tide by sacking Atlanta in the fall, and despite everyone’s prognostications, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in November, and the abolitionist agenda of emancipation was given the go-ahead once again.  That Christmas Eve congregation over Atwill’s Store almost surely reflected New England’s long leadership on the issue of the abolition of slavery, even as it almost surely was an entirely white congregation. There would have been prayers of rejoicing indeed that the Union was like to be saved, and that the slaves were like to be freed for good and all. But there would also have been little idea of how very resistant the country’s white majority – Yankee or Confederate – would prove to be to the ACTUAL acceptance of people of color as full human citizens, deserving of the right to vote and the right to equal education and equal economic opportunity alongside whites.

 

Twenty years later, the time came to build a church big enough to hold the burgeoning congregation and the “corner lot” was purchased – that “corner lot” that had housed the tavern where British soldiers, so the legend goes, had quaffed their last before heading to Lexington and their encounter with the Minutemen; Miss Meacham’s “corner lot” behind which the entrepreneurial congregation had erected their parish house and first-ever church gymnasium next to their first little wooden Carpenter Gothic church on Beech St., only to find they’d unintentionally coopted 18 inches of that “corner lot,” and when they tried to treat to purchase just those 18 inches to make things right, Miss Meacham refused, and challenged them instead to buy the whole corner, though they had no idea where the money would come from for the land alone, let alone the huge magisterial church it called for. And lo and behold, forward came “the widow of a wealthy merchant,” the redoubtable and generous Mary Longfellow Greenleaf, friend of then-rector the Rev. Edward Abbot, offering the parish $25,000 to build their church.  And build it they did, never asking themselves where that widow’s money came from. It wasn’t until nearly 130 years later, in 2008, when you and I embarked ourselves upon the current equally venturesome, hopeful and ground-breaking campaign to build a new parish house as part of a condominium complex on the neighboring car wash and across the back of that very lot where that ground-breaking first parish house had been built, a new parish house surrounding and embracing into the center of our life the Knights Garden we had planted in 1915 in place of the decrepit old stables that shouldered our new stone church, with the help of the Masons’ Knights Templar, that Charlie Wibiralske, our advisor from Episcopal City Mission, researched Mary Greenleaf’s money and found that her deceased husband James had accumulated it in the cotton trade in New Orleans in the 1850’s – the days leading up to the Civil War, when Southern slave labor made many Northerners like James – abolitionists though they may have been – wealthy off of King Cotton.

 

And those Knights Templar of the Masons? What were they doing helping a Christian congregation build a garden?  Turns out most of our St. James’s men were Masons back in that day, up until the Rev. Sam Abbott – no relation of Edward, but our Rector in the 1980’s – told the men they couldn’t be both Episcopalians and Masons! Yet it was the Masons who were the early adopters of men of color into their ranks when most fraternal organizations were keeping a strict color line, and who helped St. James’s wake up to our own “color line” in the 1960’s.  In fact it was white Newfoundlander Vera June Fifield and African-Jamaican-American Ena Gladden who teamed up in the middle ‘60’s to go door-to-door in the neighborhood and breach our own racial bias as a congregation, reaching out to the Maynard family from Barbados, lifelong Anglicans but literally turned away from our doors when they first visited by ushers who suggested that “their” church must be the Cornerstone Baptist one, since that congregation was African-American.  And so out of that anguished disenfranchisement, healed by the hand of interracial friendship between June and Ena, was birthed the great blessing of our Caribbean-American membership in St. James’s congregation. Not only did acolyte Eric Maynard’s father eventually get elected to the Vestry, but Eric’s grandmother is literally built into our building, shown talking with Jesus in the clerestory stained-glass windows on the Mass Ave side of the nave!

 

Why am I telling you all these stories on this wondrous Christmas Eve, the 150th year of St. James’s life in Christ here at the corner of Beech St. and Mass Ave? First, because if the Gospel, the Good News of Christmas in Luke tells us anything, it is that God acts not in some rarified realm of purity but IN HISTORY, in the mess and turmoil of things going wrong and things going right, preparing the way of the Lord using the clueless and the prejudiced as well as the enlightened and the wise, working the work of God’s Kingdom, God’s Commonwealth in the very earthy and unsanctified stuff of our ordinary human lives, redeeming our mistakes in ways we could never have imagined, rending and smashing us up in our cruelties to break open our hardened souls so that they can bring forth the tender shoots of redemption, including the weak and the strong together in the work.  It’s all very well for Titus to say in our second reading, harking ahead on this Feast of the Nativity to the story of the Crucifixion, that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” But the good news is, Jesus isn’t waiting for us to be purified.  Emmanuel, God is WITH US in our short-sightedness.  Emmanuel, God is WITH US in our bull-headedness.  Emmanuel, God is WITH US in our self-servingness.  Emmanuel, God has been WITH US THROUGHOUT OUR COMPLEX HISTORY as St. James’s Church, as we did good and failed to do good, saw the possibilities and failed to see the possibilities, and sometimes acted in blindness but in ways that opened up new sight, new hope, new opportunity for justice to be done in more ways than we could ask or imagine.

 

In and through all this history, this parish, born in abolitionist New England and yet housed in the Neo-Romanesque beauty of this sanctuary made possible by the fraught and repellent economics of slave labor, has been given an immense and deeply challenging gift – a charism, as it is in Greek – despite our many sins of omission and commission – a charism of hospitality to the whole varied wideness of God’s beloved human children. In the midst of our Pie Socials and Gilbert-and-Sullivan musicals, we funded an Outreach Ministry as early as 1890, staffed first by “Parish Visitor” Sister Dorothy and then by the redoubtable Mrs. Luke H. (Mary) Whitney, and we supported Ugandan priest the Rev. William Bamutungire during his studies at Episcopal Theological School in the 1960’s, the first of many, many precious friends and fellow pilgrims over the years from the continents of Africa, Asia & South America who have shared their prayers and gifts with ours. This charism – this gift and calling of ours – is a gift of the Incarnation, a call to open our eyes to God’s handiwork, God’s creative power, God’s IMAGE in ALL PEOPLE. It’s a call we carry forward in the work of our Anti-Oppression Team, our Prison Ministry and Food Ministries, our Welcoming Ministry & Church School, our Missions Committee.  God willing, it is the call we’ll carry forward in our new Parish House, where we can dedicate ourselves to make its use as socially impactful as possible. 

 

Rejoicing in the power of the Incarnation in the ministry of this congregation, let us close this 150th Christmas Eve sermon with the 100th Anniversary Prayer, written by our then-Rector Russell Way:  

 

O Almighty God, Our Heavenly Father, who would have us give thanks for all things, dread nothing but separation from thee and would have us cast all our cares on thee, who carest for us, preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties. Give us a positive vision of thy love and goodness.  Grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of thy love which is manifested unto us in thy Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Direct us in all our deliberations that we may be used as vessels of thy work here.  May our lives set forth and accomplish thy purpose for the children of [all humanity] in this community [and around the world]. Open our minds, our hearts, and our wills that they may be used for this purpose.  Bless the members of this congregation that they may be so enlightened in this Anniversary Year that thy will and purpose may be their will and purpose.  Send down upon us thy Holy Spirit to direct us in all things, through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

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

 

Monday
Dec222014

1 Advent Year B 11-30-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Isaiah 64:1-9; Ps. 80:1-7; 16-18; 1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13: 24-37

 

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  [1 Cor. 1:4-5]

 

We have arrived again at the beginning, at the season of Advent with which we open the church year. It's a dramatic irony that we begin the church year at the end of the chronological year, promising light and fruition just when, at least in this northern part of the world, the light is palpably diminishing day by day, dwindling to its minimum just three weeks from now.

 

As Anglican priest & poet T.S. Eliot reminds us in his fourth of The Four Quartets, Little Gidding,

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

 

Today we are making a beginning not just of the church year but also of the Christian life of small Daniella Dierdorff, whom we will baptize today. Baptism, like Advent, is full of irony: we drown the baptized into life, just as we begin our year at the end. And the ironies continue. We want to name and distinguish this small person; yet at the same time we want to subsume her as only one member among many, all of them equally important in the Body of Christ.  We long for her to become wise.  Yet in Christ, says Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians, foolishness is the only wisdom, and powerlessness the only power, when and if it opens to the loving and transformational power of God.  We want Daniella to be safe, so we kill her into Christ!  We want to protect her to SEAL her in Christs protection. So we invite her into the absolute vulnerability of the Cross.

 

Such is the baptismal life.  Such is the Advent life!  It is a life lived between the already of Jesus loving and saving work among us and the not-yet of Christs reconciling, peaceful Reign, still only just flowering tentatively amid the forces of destruction all around us.  Baptism is a once-only moment in Daniellas life, complete in itself, never needing to be repeated. And yet, it will take her whole lifes practice of the Christian life to explore widely enough and deeply enough to begin to glimpse the fullness of what she has become in her baptism: Jesus own sister, imbued with the capacity to love which makes others around her flourish.

 

When my children were small, my friend the painter and printmaker Alan Magee gave us a print he'd made of a very small and vulnerable-looking boy in a sailor suit, dwarfed under an immense and immensely beautiful night sky.  We were a bit in awe at possessing such a work by such a well-known artist and asked Alan how we should frame it.  No! he told us, DONT frame it!  Put it up on the refrigerator with the girls school art! So we did.  For years, it stayed there on the refrigerator door, fraying and curling at the edges just like Tessas neighboring finger painting, and faintly spattered with grease, and every time I walked by my refrigerator, It was an Advent reminder to me just how very small and vulnerable and faintly spattered with grease I really am, no matter how taken up with my own importance at any given moment, and how immense is the wonder of Gods universe and God's eternity around me.

 

This is the smallness and the immensity into which we invite Daniella in her baptism today, this First Sunday in Advent.  This is the life of irony and paradox, the beginning that is the fruit of ending, the life that springs from death, the protection of absolute vulnerability.  But instead of breeding cynicism, the irony & paradox of Advent breed hope.  We do not know what lies ahead.  We CANNOT know it. And the uncertainty often seems dire, especially in a world of ISIS and ebola and nuclear weaponry and melting ice caps. Yet at the same time, because this is Gods beloved universe, encompassed by Gods care and concern for every minute living creature, we can EXPECT justice.  We can EXPECT shalom, the peace of wholeness.  We can EXPECT healing and reconciliation and love. Amidst all the strangeness, we can EXPECT to find ourselves at home.

 

Beware, keep alert! counsels Marks Jesus (or whomever may have been redacting Marks Gospel for later concerns this gospel passage in Mark seems to be made up of bits and pieces from many possible origins, assembled together to form an apocalyptic warning that may or may not have come directly from Jesus). Time is sifting away from us at the seemingly accelerating pace of glacial melt. But God is present to us, Emmanuel, "God with us," as we will shortly affirm at the Feast of Christmas.  And if we tune our spirits to Gods own celestial music, we will hear the echo of that Advent promise, anywhere, at any time. If we bend our spirits, we can lean into Gods love instead of the destructive and divisive dynamics that surround us, and collaborate with Gods intention of shalom.

 

Like the young American Peter Kassig, who traveled to Syria to serve the well-being of a people being devastated by their own government, and who served those strangers in the most elemental way, bringing food to those who hunger and binding up the wounds of the broken-bodied and the broken-hearted, we can lend ourselves our whole selves to be part of Gods goodness even in the midst of the worst destruction imaginable. Such is the promise of Advent, and the promise of baptism. Yes, Peter Kassig was horrifically beheaded for his effort.  But out of the terrible ashes of that destruction rose the beautiful and hopeful prayer of exiled Sunni imam, Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, speaking at Kassigs funeral, speaking up in a voice of Islam too often overlooked and suppressed by a media too preoccupied with the most flamboyant of religiously-sanctioned violence instead of attending to the religious voices for healing and tolerance. Perhaps you missed al-Yaqoubi's prayer amid all the "chatter" and "noise" of our 24-hour news cycle. I was blessed to catch it, firmly expressing thanksgiving for an American willing to give himself for the well-being of Syrian Muslims, and firmly expressing a Muslim hope for an Advent vision of reconciliation between Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Yasidi, let alone Muslims and Christians, when at last the Syrian War will end.

 

Muslim though he is, Sheikh al-Yaqoubi was naming the kairos of Advent, the kairos of baptism kairos, the Greek word meaning opportunity time, in contrast to clock and calendar time or linear time, eternal time, the time in which Peter Kassig lived and served and into which we are inviting Daniella today, the eternity in which everything is NOW, the NOW of Gods love, the already and the not-yet folded into one,

A condition of complete simplicity

 (Costing not less than everything), says T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding, in which

... all shall be well and

And all manner of thing shall be well…”

 

In her baptism, we will pray for Daniella to have a spirit to know and love God," paired with the gift of joy and wonder in all Gods works. [Holy Baptism, Book of Common Prayer, p. 308] These two gifts, hand in hand with one another, freighted upon her inquiring & discerning heart and her courage to will & to persevere, will see Daniella into many moments of kairos, moments of opportunity to be the priest of Christs goodness and affiliation in a divided and broken world. Our prayer for her is that she will allow herself to be sustained by the Holy Spirit in which we are sealing her in her baptism today, sustained in her capacity to grow into Christ's loving offering of himself.

 

Well give the last Advent word in this first Advent sermon to another Anglican priest-poet, the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, in his poem "The Bright Field:"

 

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure hid in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past.  It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

            [http://emilyspoetryblog.com/2013/10/23/the-bright-field-by-r-s-thomas/]

 

A blessed Advent full of the eternal NOW of God's love, to Daniella and to us all! Amen.

 

As you know, you who have been walking the long journey of my parents dying with me over the last three years, last Friday was the first anniversary of my mothers death, after two-and-a-half years of her waiting for death, confined to her bed.  Yet in some ways, those two-and-a-half very quiet years were some of the most vibrant of her life, quite apart from her diet of avocados and lemon vinaigrette! 

Tuesday
Dec162014

He Came To Testify To The Light

A Sermon Preached at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, MA

on the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B), Dec 14, 2014 

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 | Psalm 126 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 | John 1:6-8,19-28

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu

 

 

1.
When I started seminary I got this part-time job at one of those trendy coffee shops.
Maybe you know the kind of place I’m talking about.
These are the kind of people for whom Starbucks is lowbrow.
They treated coffee like a fine wine.
No syrups, no decaf.
There was milk but only whole milk,
Because skim was … too mainstream or something
And they would make designs in the top of your cappuccino—like a leaf, or a clover, or a heart.
I wanted to work at this place for two reasons.
First, I genuinely enjoyed good coffee and still do. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.
And second, I wanted to learn how to pour hearts into lattes and impress girls.
Because even then I knew that when you tell people you want to be a priest—it’s not really the best pickup line.
So anyway I got the job and they put me on the evening shift
And the evening shift at a coffee shop that doesn’t sell decaf is like a graveyard, right? It’s empty most of the time.
But there was one regular who would always come in on my shifts. His name was Jan.
And Jan was a unique guy because he was also preparing for ordination.
He was studying to become a Zen Buddhist Priest.
And he would come in at night when it was slow and we would talk about our programs and what we were doing, what books we were reading—stuff like that.
One night he came in and he was reading this newspaper article about a some recent studies that had been done on the American religious environment.
One of the questions was about the attitudes of American Christians towards other religions.
And something like 50+ percent of Christians had said that they believed that it didn’t matter what religion you were—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—when you died, you would go to heaven.
And Jan really got a kick out of this because he didn’t believe in heaven.
In fact for him (and it sounds like for certain kinds of Buddhists), the idea of post-mortem bliss is actually the exact opposite of what he believed.
Jan didn’t really want to go to heaven.
And the point that he was making to me—and what we ended up talking about that night—was that he understood that these folks were trying to be nice.
They were trying to be accommodating of other religions.
But in their nicety, in their unwillingness to kind of overstep their place, they actually ended up erasing a crucial distinction in another religion.
It kind of backfired.
2.
Now, this morning I don’t really want to talk about what happens to Buddhists after they die, mostly because, I don’t know.
I don’t even really want to talk about what a Christian should or should not believe about that question.
(Though it’s a very important question and I don’t think we should ignore it.)
But I actually just want to start with something much more simple.
I want to talk about that motivation, that unwillingness to put our beliefs too far out there...
to risk imposing our own faith on someone else, even to the point where we kind of confuse what our own faith is and what someone else’s is.
Now, this hesitancy it makes perfect sense.
We live in a complicated world, with lots of different belief systems.
More than ever before in human history, we’ve become aware of how disagreements between different groups can result in conflict and violence and suffering.
Further, we’ve all been preached at about something. If it’s not religion, it’s gluten free, or a fad workout program, or a TV series.
And nobody wants to be that guy, right?
And so, I think, because we’re so aware of all of this we just want to be as unassuming in our faith as possible, right?
Just live and let live.
I think most of us would probably prefer that.
I know I would.
3.
The problem, as I see it, is our reading this morning.
Right there in the Bible, we’ve got people like John the Baptist.
That guy was marching around Judea telling people—Jews, Romans, whoever would listen—to repent of their sins.
And it wasn’t just him, when we read the book of Acts, we see how Christianity was and is a missionary religion.
So it seems like evangelism is an inescapable component of being a Christian.
4.
So the question I want to know is:
Is it possible to stay rooted in a faith that is unashamed to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus while at the same time acknowledging that we now live in a very complicated, pluralistic world.
Can we acknowledge that other people have genuine encounters with the divine—encounters that we don’t always understand—while at the same time, can we speak honestly about the ways that God is and has been real in our lives?
Is it possible to walk that line?
Obviously I’m not going to be able to completely answer this question in my remaining time this morning.
But I do believe that our reading from the Gospel of John this morning can give us a start in how we think about this very difficult question.
So let’s take a look.
 
5.
As Judith pointed out last week during her sermon, John the Baptist shows up in each of the four gospels.
Jesus and John the Baptist were somehow related.
(Its possible that their mothers were cousins but this is not clear.)
So it should come as no surprise that they had similar messages about repentance and about the kingdom of God.
Now something that might be lost on us today but that would not have been lost on ancient hearers of this text was that during this time among many Jews there was an enormous amount of expectation for a coming Messiah.
This messiah was believed to be not just a religious figure but also a political figure who would liberate the Jews from domination by the Roman Empire.
It’s quite a fascinating study, because if you study ancient Jewish texts like I do, you discover within this period of a few hundred years, a bunch of figures—both before and after Jesus—who claimed to be the messiah.
And in the popular imagination of the time, the portrait of this messiah was painted from various Old Testament scriptures—many of them are the ones that we read during this season of Advent.
So when the religious authorities ask John, “Are you the Messiah?” there is a “here we go again” quality to the question, that isn’t necessarily obvious just from hearing it read in church.
The same thing goes for the Elijah question. According to the book of 2 Kings in the Old Testament, Elijah never died.
He was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Some of you maybe know this story.
This is somewhat unusual, even for the Bible, and so some Jews at that time thought that Elijah would return some day and lead them to freedom.
Finally, when they ask John, “Are you the prophet?” They don’t mean just any old prophet.
They are referring to a specific passage in Deuteronomy, way back when the Israelites were in the wilderness.
In this passage Moses says to the people of Israel, someday God will raise up a prophet like me.
So during this time, there were some Jews that expected this messiah to be a prophet like Moses, and lead the Jews to a new promised land.
6. 
Now this is all very interesting to people like me who study this sort of stuff, but the point I want you to pick up on is that to each question, John says “no.”
“No, I am not the messiah. No, I am not Elijah. No, I am not the prophet like Moses.”
Instead, I am here to point to the one you’re looking for.
I’m here to get you ready.
This, I think, is an essential part of what God calls us to as Christians.
This is evangelism.
Now we often think of the evangelist as someone who makes others convert to their religion.
In the tradition that I grew up in, Pentecostalism, I often heard people talking about how many conversions they had had at their church, or at a revival over the weekend, or how many they had saved on a recent trip to the grocery store.
And without doubting their genuinely good intentions or the possibility that they probably had real and positive effects in some people’s lives,
Even then I found myself wondering when I heard this kind of talk, who is it that’s doing the saving here, is it God or is it you?
You see, There is no ambiguity when we read about John the Baptist. He says, “I’m baptizing with water but the one who comes after me, he’s actually the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
7.
This “getting people ready” idea that John embodies, I think it can be helpful for us as we reflect on that question of how to live an evangelistic faith in a time of pluralism.
Our job as Christians it’s not really to convert people, it’s not to make others come around to our way of seeing the world.
We can’t baptize in the Holy Spirit. Only God can do that.
Instead, I believe that we are called to live our lives in such a way that we help others around us be prepared for God to work in them however God will.
As is almost always the case, when God is at work in our lives or the lives of those around us, it happens in ways that we can’t expect and certainly shouldn’t try to control.
8.
So what does that look like, how does that work?
In these last few minutes I want to share with you two ways, that I think we can prepare the way for Jesus in our world.
First, over the past year or so that I have been attending St. James’s Episcopal Church, many of you have told me incredible stories about the things that God has done, and is doing in your lives.
There are some powerful stories of God’s provision, of God’s healing, of God’s love, and kindness in this room right now.
And the thing is, you don’t even know how these stories have encouraged me, and blessed me.
By telling me these stories, you have helped prepare me for ways that God could work in my life.
The problem is that I’m a minister, and so to some degree, I’m the kind of person you’re “supposed” to tell this stuff to.
But I so wish, that we as a community could start telling these stories to each other and to those around us more often.
This is called “testimony.”
It doesn’t have to confrontative, it doesn’t have to come with any threats or arguments.
It’s simply telling the story of what God has done in our lives.
For some of us, that makes us nervous, either because we are embarrassed to admit that we are spiritual beings, or we are afraid of seeming unintellectual or superstitious, or maybe because we are afraid of imposing our beliefs on others.
If you feel that way this morning, that’s fine. I understand. I’ve felt that way too.
But believe me when I say that you and I are surrounded by people who could really use a powerful story about God right about now.
And sometimes I think God is calling you to tell it.
You don’t even have to go out of your way to find opportunities to tell these stories, if you just go through life with an open heart, the opportunities come, they just come.
So let me encourage you this morning, to share your testimony. Maybe say a prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to keep you aware and ready for situations when it would be appropriate to share your story of what God has done in your life.
You’re not converting anyone. You’re preparing the way for God to do whatever God is going to do.
8.
Here’s the second way, and then I’m done.
Another way that we help prepare those around us for God to work is by confronting barriers to God’s kingdom.
And right now is one of those rare moments in the public consciousness of a society when we have a communal reality check about significant barriers in our common life together.
As a nation, we are beginning to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: that pervasive, systemic racism continues to plague our nation, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and 50 years after the civil rights movement.
And we as Christians, flawed though we are, without denying our complicity in the problem, nevertheless have an opportunity to live our lives in such a way that we can point to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the solution.
We know that we can’t fix it on our own.
We see the consequences of sin in our justice system, in our economics, in the way our differences are portrayed in the media but nevertheless we have the opportunity to claim to prepare the way of the Lord in our society by confronting these barriers of prejudice, of hate, of distrust, and of sin in our communities.
Because that is what we are called to do.
That’s the other way of sharing your testimony.
We can point to Christ not just by telling our story, but by the way we live our lives.
You’re going to find out more about some concrete ways to do just that as our service continues this morning.
Let us pray,
Holy God, this morning we remember that we ourselves are not the light. But like John the Baptist may we testify to the light through our words and through our lives. 
Amen.

 

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