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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!

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

Come Holy Spirit, melt and break our hearts of stone

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

Listen now for the Gospel, Alleluia!

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

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

Ngariende Vhangeri

Ngariende (Spread the Gospel) x 4

Chinguri ndakuudza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monte Tugwete 3-2-14


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

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

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

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

By Reed Carlson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reed Carlson 4-6-14


Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Year A 4-20-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Jesus, make us realize

That it is only by frequent deaths of ourselves

And our self-centered desires

That we can come to live more fully;

For it is only by dying with you

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


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

Let us pray in the words of the Easter hymn:

 When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,

Thy touch can bring us back to life again;

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

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

Rev Antolini Easter


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

4 Lent Year A 3-30-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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


Rev. Antolini Mar 30


Vestry Minutes, March 25, 2014

Present:  Sylvia Weston, Isaac Martinez, Susan Rice, Iselma Carrington, Joanna Kline, JT Kittredge Nancy McArdle, Tom Beecher, Thomas Wohlers, Rev. Holly Antolini, Rev. Judith Atkinson, Lucas Sanders

Absent: John Irvine, Marian King, Saskia Grunberger,

Sylvia leads us in spiritual practice.

Mar Vestry Minutes


Vestry Minutes, February 18, 2014

Present:  Sylvia Weston, Isaac Martinez, Marian King, Susan Rice, Nancy McArdle, Marian King, Tom Beecher, Thomas Woehlers, Rev. Holly Antolini, Rev. Judith Atkinson

Absent: John Irvine, Saskia Grunberger, Iselma Carrington, Joanna Kline, JT Kittredge

Guests: Nicholas Hayes, Jeff Zinsmeyer, Bob Orsi, Lucas Sanders

Holly leads us in spiritual practice.

Feb Vestry Minutes


Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

3 Lent Year A 3-23-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95; [Romans 5:1-11], John 4:5-42

We harden not our hearts as our forebears did in the wilderness, O God our God, at Meribah – “the Place of Quarrels” – and Massah – “the Place of the Test” – when we tempted you, when we put you to the test though we had seen your works… Forgive us our faithlessness!  Take us into your rest!  AMEN.

The Living Water of Lent.  Have you drunk of it?  Have you yet found its source?

I’m going to begin this morning with a poem of the Sufi poet Rumi, who lived in the early 1200’s, an era when there was much cross-fertilization of Christian, Jewish & Muslim life in his region of Persia.  It’s a poem I received by spending a meditation morning at Bethany House in Arlington the day after the Bishop Walkabouts were over, a poem used in the Thursday Contemplative Prayer there.  I invite you to approach it as if you were entering the realm of prayer. Settle back.  Close your eyes if you like.  Let the flow of words pour over you. Don’t seize after meaning.  Let the images float into you.

This world-river has no water in it.

Come back, spring.  Bring water

more fresh than Khidr, the Green Man,

the Islamic guide to the Water of Life,

or Elijah knew,

from the fountain that pulses

in the well of the soul.

Where water is, there bread arrives.

But not the reverse.

Water never comes from loaves.

You are the honored guest.

Do not weep like a beggar

for pieces of the world.

The river vanishes because of that desiring.

Swim out of your little pond.

Go where all the fish are Khidrs,

where there are no secondary causes.

That water rises in the date tree

and in the roses in your cheek.

When it flows toward you,

you will feel a deep contentment.

The night watchman shakes his rattle

as part of his fear.

You will not need him anymore.

Water itself guards the fish

That are in it.

[“Water from the Well of My Soul,” Rumi; Bethany House of Prayer]

So how is Lent going for you, halfway in?  Is the night watchman still shaking his rattle in your fear?  Is your world-river dry?  Have you yet “swum out of your little pond?” Have you discovered even a little spring in the well of your soul? Or is the mud still hard at the bottom?  Benedictine nun Joan Chittister says, “Lent is our salvation from the depths of nothingness.  It is our guide to the more of life.”  [Bethany House of Prayer] Are you still parched and floundering on the bank of nothingness?  Is the “more of life” rising in you as the brooks are rising out of the ground in the first spring thaw in Maine?

If Lent is the invitation into “the more of life,” as Rumi describes it, what does that invitation look like in your life right now?  In mine, the “more” of the bishop discernment, with its five days of “walkabouts” – three straight hours a day of talk-talk-talking for five consecutive days, seven rooms of questions per day, thirty-five twenty-minute intervals of my words, bubbling and chortling out of me like a spring brook, attempting to answer with authenticity whatever has been asked without having the chance to know the questioner and the questioner’s underlying concerns, each answer necessarily constrained to three minutes or less; in total, upwards of 300 soundbites of my theology, spiritual grounding and experience, my vision of God’s Mission and strategic sense of how to get there – all that “more” has been TOO MUCH, pitching me right over the edge into unmanageability! This little Khidr fish was thrown RIGHT OUT of her pond and ‘way down the road!  Any water to hold me was going to have to emerge STRAIGHT OUT OF THE ROCK!

And I suspect that’s how Moses felt, most of the time he and the people of Israel spent wandering around in the wilderness, seeking the Promised Land, as gradually  the memory of the miraculous liberation from Pharoah got swallowed up in the misery and uncertainty of the present moment, their present trials; serpents crawling around; heat unremitting; food and water so scarce there was no knowing where or WHETHER either might show up next. No wonder the people start to grumble and whine and kvetsch and quarrel with each other and with Moses!  No wonder he threw up his hands and complained to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” 

And then Jesus, sitting by the well in the baking sun of noonday in alien Samaritan territory, and, violating all kinds of prohibitions against speaking with either Samaritans or women, asks the Samaritan woman – already clearly designated as troublesome in that she must seek water at sweltering midday and not with the other women in the cool of morning or evening – for a drink. The whole of this story of John’s is deliciously confusing. Jesus is the Living Water, yet he needs the woman to help him to a drink from the Jacob’s deep well.  The woman is outcast even to her own people, yet Jesus chooses her as his Prophet, his Proclaimer.  Jesus does not select a person guaranteed to be “holy” enough to receive his wisdom.  He selects a person with a record of sketchy choices.  And he says the water of life will become a spring gushing up in her – even in HER! – to eternal life.  No one is left high and dry.  Everyone – EVERYONE! – can worship in spirit & in truth.

And that Water does spring up in her, a torrent impelling her back down into town, leaving Jesus and her water jar beached behind her, to spread the word, suddenly finding she has voice and influence to draw others up to the well in their thirst.

Having already done the “more” and “MORE!” of the bishop walkabouts, I find now that the invitation of Lent in me is that LESS is “more!”  Less certainty about where I’m headed.  Less time that is “my own.” Less self-will and more of God’s will because my self-will so clearly will not bridge the baptismal river but will only drop me off in deep and turbulent waters.  More letting go in silence and “letting God” be in charge.  I’m with poet Mary Oliver for this second half of Lent, through the bishop election and on into Holy Week.  She says,

Lord, I will learn to kneel down

     into the world of the invisible,

          the inscrutable and the everlasting.

Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree

     on a day of no wind,

          bathed in light,

like the wanderer who has come home at last

and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;

every motion; even words.

     [Mary Oliver, Thirst: Poems]


And finally in the words of Scottish pastor

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

Behold, I freely give

The living water, thirsty one.

Stoop down, and drink and live.

I came to Jesus and I drank of that life-giving stream.

My thirst was quenched.  My soul revived. 

And now I live in him.

            [words: Horatius Bonar; tune: Thomas Tallis, 1561]

Do you KNOW that your roots are already down into the Living Water that springs eternally? What’s blocking your access?





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


Antolini March 23


Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Sunday, March 9th, 2014

1 Lent Year A 3-9-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Ps. 32; Matthew 4:1-11

All the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble, O God; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. You are our hiding-place; you preserve us from trouble; you surround us with shouts of deliverance.  AMEN.

Welcome to Lent!  Welcome to the special Lenten invitation to journey deeper into our faith in this time in which we prepare to remember Jesus’ Passion – his suffering – and death in Holy Week and to celebrate his overcoming of that suffering in the Resurrection on Easter. Welcome to the Lenten challenge of discovering in our spiritual life both the dynamics of dying and the dynamics of resurrection, sometimes all at the same time, alongside the challenge of allowing doubt to accompany faith.

Because in the Christian life, as in Jesus’ life, “death” and “life” are not the “mutual exclusives” we make them out to be, any more than “doubt” and “belief” are opposites. Somehow we tend to get doubt and belief crossways of each other, as if one cancelled out the other.  As if faith in Jesus would mean absence of doubt. But doubt and confusion seem woven along with faith into the very fabric of our humanity, the very way God created us, so that we must remain humble about how much we know, and must ever turn and turn to God for help.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the stories of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness pose a very different sort of "enemy" of faith than either doubt or death.  In these stories, the enemy of faith is power.  All three temptations posed by "the Tempter," as Matthew calls the devil, are temptations to hold power, whether power for good OR power for power's sake.  Power tempts us not to need God.

Turning stones into bread: how seductive is that promise to the good liberals of urban Massachusetts!  No more trouble with funding for the Greater Boston Food Bank!  Or, extrapolating from bread to other necessities, no more transitional housing in cheap hotels with microwave foods and no laundry!  No more concentrations of poverty in one or another district of the city!  No more people left off the economic ladder!  What power that would be!

Throwing ourselves off the pinnacle of the temple: no more limits to our human frailty!  We can sleep four hours a night and work the other 20!  We can sign our kids up for fifteen after-school activities and still expect them to complete an hour of community service and three hours of homework every night, without showing signs of stress!  We can text and email while driving!  We can drink three quarts of coffee and still toss back "Five-Hour Energy" in between!

Being in charge of all we survey: oh my goodness, we could command the end to global warming!  From one vantage point, we could end all the strip mining, the fracking, the over-fishing, the acid rain and air pollution! We could reduce oil & gas consumption to nothing! From another, we could remove any temptation on the part of former Soviets to continue the old Communist policy of neighbor-domination!  We could end tensions in the Holy Land, rescue the Syrian citizenry and stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear projects!

To all of these prospects, Jesus consistently tells the tempter, No. No: that's not the way God chose to design the world.  God's design is so infinitely complicated and so fluidly and continuously imaginative that none of us can get on top of it, even though God blessed us as God’s partners in its stewardship.  When we acquire the illusion that we CAN get on top of it – read Adam & Eve and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – we only expose our naked limitations, our human frailties. We must take our place within the mighty and turbulent current of God’s ever-emerging Creation, working out our salvation in fear and trembling alongside all our fellow humans, all of whom struggle along as we do between clarity and confusion, doubt and faith, death and life.  We must be connected with those fellow humans in order to have any hope of having enough insight and oversight, enough perspective to solve problems.  Our individual contribution is invaluable but only as it connects up with the contributions of others, humbly aware of our shortcomings. 

And we, from the vantage point of the First Sunday of Lent, know something of what lies ahead for Jesus in the working-out of his own salvation, now that he’s turned down the Tempter’s offers of power.  We know he’s headed toward Holy Week before he gets to Easter.  He’s headed toward powerlessness in its most acute form.  There will be plenty of accomplishment along the way for Jesus, but also plenty of confusion, pain, fear and trembling.  And ultimately there will be a cross, the stark testimonial to the dynamics of the Tempter's use of power when spurred by fear of the loss of that power.

In his letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, Paul summed up the need we have for one another as followers of Jesus, stepping boldly into our doubt and our death in the humility of our humanity:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

In this wild Creation that God made for us, even God’s own Son – God’s own Self, in the Triune God – must empty himself and endure powerlessness before being “highly exalted,” as Paul puts it, in resurrection and ascension.  Therefore, my beloved,” continues Paul to the Philippians, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Poet Christian Wiman, himself one who has discovered the profoundest life in the teeth of terrible cancer that threatens him with death at any moment, and faith in the teeth of his enduring and endemic doubt, invokes Jesus’ and our self-emptying this way, “Doubt in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) who is at once our God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, wondrously open in order to flower into living faith.” [Excerpt From: Wiman, Christian. “My Bright Abyss.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]

This week, I was blessed to attend a screening sponsored by our own Episcopal City Mission of a small documentary called The Vigil, about the Arizona law SB 1070, a law that criminalized the presence of undocumented people by forcing them to present immigration papers at any time, and by demanding their arrest, internment and deportation for even minor traffic infractions if they could not produce such papers. 

The film focuses on a months-long vigil sponsored by Roman Catholic undocumented immigrants, held on the statehouse lawn in the period between Governor Jan Brewer's signing of the law and the date of implementation, as part of a much-wider effort to challenge the law’s implementation.  In the film’s opening frames, a statue of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, the symbol of Mexican faith and also of Mexican independence and fortitude, is traveling belted into the passenger seat of a car.  She is unloaded and set up in front of the state house and, as she is each and every day, loving decorated with a lace mantilla and flowers and beads and other adornments, as she presides over the long Vigil. Under her gentle plaster gaze gather immigrant families of all ages, in prayer and non-violence. Men are involved; we see a priest in a chasuble periodically at the Vigil.  But the primary participants are undocumented housewives and their children, who spend every day from sun-up to nightfall under the Virgin of Guadalupe on folding chairs, making witness despite the danger of being visible in public in a climate of intense and realistic fear of arrest.

The chief protagonists of The Vigil are two women, one a housewife, Rosa, and the other Gina, the owner of a small second-hand shop.  Both are mothers, and their children appear centrally in the film, Rosa's daughter, Dulce Matuz, who as a young-adult political organizer was chosen as one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2012, and Gina's 10-year-old son, Brian, fearful of losing his mother to arrest for her activism at The Vigil.  The story unfolds very much through the mothers’ eyes and their narrative (in Spanish), and through them, we begin to see the real hardships and privations, the struggles and terrors of the life of an undocumented immigrant in Arizona, as the powers-that-be in the state become more and more antagonistic and inclined to see “aliens” as the source of their economic and social woes.  Thanks to the up-close interviews the women granted the filmmakers Jenny Alexander and Alexandra de Gonzalez, we are privileged to witness the two women stepping out of the safety of their hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding anonymity, braving their fear and their truly alarming vulnerability, stepping out in faith, in order to witness to the injustice of the power dynamics at work in SB 1070.  Gina could easily lose her son if she were deported; she even completes papers to assure that he will go to his grandparents in Mexico should that happen.  Rosa DOES lose her daughter to arrest in Washington D.C. in a demonstration against SB 1070, and suffers the terror of uncertainty about whether Dulce will be released and whether she will be deported.  Ultimately Dulce IS released and NOT deported, and ultimately three of the four provisions of the law itself, challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, are struck down as violations of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, leaving only the provision requiring immigration status checks during law enforcement stops, a provision left standing but with the warning that further judicial action may be taken against that provision if it proves to invite racial profiling, as its critics insist it will.

What we see in The Vigil is a wondrous Lenten journey by two women into their vulnerability and fear for the sake of the wider welfare, demonstrating “the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus,” as Paul told the Philippians, a mind not to let doubt or the threat of death dissuade them nor to let it undermine their faith and life, but to go forward in humility, looking to the interests of others, finding their encouragement in Christ. 

On the very last day of the Vigil, after Dulce has been released and celebrated and the ruling has been given on the legislation, the Virgin comes down from her perch above the Vigil grounds.  After days and months of safe passage to and from the Vigil and even a trip to demonstrate in Washington D.C. in front of the Supreme Court, the statue now falls and breaks into dozens of pieces, her loving face split apart on the grass.  “It’s as if her job was done,” comments Gina.  But she takes the Virgin’s pieces home anyway, and we see her, at the film’s end, reassembling and gluing them back together, the seams of Mary’s accident visible across her face.

It’s a fitting icon of our Lenten journey and our Lenten spiritual task: to say “NO!” to the Tempter’s offers of power; to allow ourselves – like Gina & Rosa, Dulce and Brian, like the Virgin herself – to risk breakage in our insistence on stepping out on behalf of the interests of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, not “counting equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptying ourselves” of our power, …being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” with Jesus, in humility and the knowledge that, though we suffer doubt and court death, God’s new life lies ahead.  AMEN.


Olivia Hamilton's Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Amen.

The language of physics is like poetry to me; I do not attempt to know or understand or make sense of it, I read it for its possibility and not for its certainty, I make meaning with it but I do not claim to know what it means. In other words, I stand before you with a very miniscule understanding of anything having to do with anything cosmic or even molecular, but with a profound love of the strange and wonderful images and questions that these concepts stir in me.

Take the notion that we are all made of stardust, that has been popularized over time by astrophysicists and pop-science gurus such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan: Tyson reminds us that our bodies are quite literally made of the chemically rich guts of stars that exploded eons ago, that we are fundamentally tied to one another and the cosmos at large through what he calls the “chemistry of life.” Carl Sagan imagines that our bodies, the star-stuff of which we are made, act as a way for the universe to know itself; in much the same way, my own imagination points me toward a loving Creator who breathes us and all cosmic matter into being, a Creator that comes to know itself as the source of all love by seeing us enact and embody that love.

With the knowledge that we are all made of star-stuff, Tyson feels compelled to shake people as they walk down the street, shouting “did you know this, have you heard that the very atoms that compose each of us erupted from stars, that the universe is not only around us but within us!?” In much the same way that Tyson’s light-bulb moment draws him closer to the stranger on the street, this knowledge of our cosmic interdependence sends me spiraling ever closer to God, the great mystery, God who is the endless potential that creates us and stirs within us and all matter, God who is the very impulse to reach out and communicate with the stranger walking down the street. God who is often the question and not the answer, God who, like poetry and physics, is possibility and not certainty. God whose limitless love surrounds us not only in times of expansion and new life but also as stars burn out, as we experience death in the cosmos and in our communities, not as a metaphor but as a daily reality.

A star burns out when, under immense pressure, it collapses under the weight of its own gravitation. Such stars are optically invisible; I think of a generation of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, who have died of AIDS, who we know but cannot see, and young people of color who still contract the virus at alarming rates today. I think of transgender women who have been murdered on our streets, Lorena Escalera, Islan Nettles, Eryicka Morgan, in a world not yet ready to celebrate their brilliance. I think of young people full of questions, of expansive energy, of endless potential, and a justice system that attempts to dim and diminish, young people who die through acts of violence that are ignored if not sanctioned by the state. A world where a nineteen-year old boy like Jorge Fuentes can catch a stray bullet to the head while walking his dog in Dorchester, while some thousands of miles away, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, a factory town on the border of Arizona, sixteen year old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez is hit seven times by bullets fired by the U.S. Border Patrol, allegedly because he threw a rock at their watchtower. These young men are now optically invisible, though the candles that burn at vigils in Boston and are placed in a makeshift memorial on the section of border wall where José Antonio was murdered remind us of their brilliance.

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. As Episcopal theologian Sylvia Sweeney suggests, the rites that we participate in on Ash Wednesday “seek to speak to the potentiality and vulnerability of the human person and the human community as we stand on the knife edge of life and death, and seek to understand what, if anything, lies beyond.”[1] Christ pulls toward a world that is fundamentally different than the one we know, one wherein no one collapses under the immense pressure that injustice exerts, wherein no one must struggle to survive against the gravitation of their own dreams, their own expansive energy.

As we move into the Season of Lent, with its taking on and taking away, Jesus warns us not to practice our piety in order to gain attention or acknowledgement from others; is it not the case that so often, our cries for justice are inexplicably bound with our own sense of moral aptitude, that we wade in the waters of self-righteousness rather than prophecy? Jesus advises us, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” – it seems we get so lost in resisting the reality as it is that we forget to imagine the reality as it could be. Our very bodies are made of star-stuff, and through these bodies we can imagine and know the universe that is within us and around us, just as we can imagine and know a world that is safe for Jorge Fuentes, safe for Eryicka Morgan, safe for the victims of violence whose names we do not know and cannot speak today.

We are stardust, we are dust. We are as noble as that bright star that burned in the East, leading the three Wise Men through the dark night with nothing but hope that a new world was possible; we are as fragile and transient as dust, when the wind blows over us we are gone. It seems that just as Jesus invites us to create a world that is different than the one we know, he also points us toward our own incapacity to fix, to solve, to repair.  Reminded of our own limitations, it seems that sometimes the most radical political act is to be gentle to ourselves, to be kind to the mistakes we make as we try and fail and try to make a world that is safe for us all.

The imposition of the ashes invites us to both remember our finite nature, but also to honor and imagine the sacred reality within us, around us, and beyond us. We are dust, we are stardust. The very smallest particles within us, the quirks and quarks that make each of us the strange and wonderful divine creatures we are, are the same that stretch and unfold and expand and contract throughout the mysterious cosmos that God imagines and adores.

Please pray with me:

Loving Creator,

Remind us that you have made our bones with the stuff of stars, so that we may use them to restore the streets we live in, to make those streets safe for Jorge, safe for Islan, safe for those whose bodies bear the brokenness of our healthcare system, safe for young people, and all people,

Call to out to us with your poetic language, open our eyes to the mysteriousness of your creation, as death surrounds us, widen our hearts so that we may heal and be healed, but also that we may be gentle to our own limitations,

As we transition into the season of Lent, that knife edge season, inspire us to imagine other possible worlds, in which we all can live and thrive.


[1] Sylvia Sweeney,  An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent, p. 8.

Olivia Hamilton Sermon


Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

7 Epiphany Year A 2-23-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Ps. 119:33-40; 1 Cor. 3:10-11; 16-23; Matt. 5:38-48

Turn our eyes from watching what is worthless; give us life in your ways. Amen.

I’m going to begin today by sharing a gripe with you about these famous and much beloved passages of Scripture from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount!  Whether it’s the opening Beatitudes themselves – “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” – or, further into the sermon, last week’s “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out!” – or this week’s extremity of turning the other cheek, giving away both cloak and shirt, walking the extra mile, and on top of all that, loving your enemy.

My gripe is this: despite all we know about the ways Jesus tended to bring his teachings vividly to life by whopping us up the side of the head (or at any rate, on both cheeks, for sure!) with imagery so drastic we couldn’t ignore it, we still want to literalize it.  Even those of us dedicated to NOT literalizing scripture still try to adopt the line “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” in a way that drives us toward high principles of holiness that are sickeningly dizzying in their expectations, worse than imagining yourself at the top of the Sochi Grand Slalom course with no way out but down!

I don’t know about you, but here’s the temptation for me:  at the very same moment that I feel CONVICTED of falling desperately & perpetually short of Jesus’ expectations by the Sermon on the Mount, I yearn for the Sermon to lay out the principles of sanctity for me so I can ultimately prove myself worthy of God’s love and God’s forgiveness and healing. It’s a devil’s compact, unfortunately.  My unworthiness dogs me in the face of this imagery of giving to all who ask of me and forgiving my enemies.  And at precisely the same time, my aspirations vaunt all the more strenuously to master every twist and turn of the spiritual Grand Slalom, to win the Gold of salvation.  I’m afraid it’s precisely this toxic blend of self-denigration and over-scrupulous self-righteousness that leads dedicatedly religious people to act out in ways that hurt themselves and others around them, ways that I’m convinced make Jesus weep, partly in sympathy and partly in frustration! We might as well impose the rule of Law all over again and forget about grace.

Yet even the Law – the Jewish law embraced so passionately by our psalmist today – is not simply the set of legalistic principles we so often make it out to be in the spiritual life of Jewish believers.  I’ll never forget the Rev. Dr. Paul Van Buren, a member of my tiny Deer Isle Maine congregation of St. Brendan’s, instructing me out a quarter-century of his study and collegiality with Jewish theologians, his fellow scholars at Temple University. Far from being legalistic rule-binding, the Law, the Torah to which the writer of Psalm 119 refers in nearly every verse, was actually more akin in the Jewish life of prayer to the Christian theology of the breath of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in and for us, animating all goodness in us and around us.  Listen again to the Psalmist’s longing with the Holy Spirit in mind in place of the words “statutes,” “law,” & “commandments,” and see if it feels different, as if the Law were not so much a statutory code as a life-blood, necessary for breathing:

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; I shall keep it with all my heart.

Make me go in the path of your commandments, for that is my desire.

Behold, I long for your commandments; in your righteousness preserve my life.

Imagine that Jesus, good Jew that he was, understood the Law in this way himself, so that when he speaks about fulfilling the Law, he’s not talking about imposing some new graduate level of spiritual principles upon us but instead trying to drive deep into us the full scope of God’s own passionately merciful and forgiving “for-us-ness,” a for-us-ness that forgives our worst evil-doing. A for-us-ness that sends down the rain upon us whether we’re just or unjust, and makes the sun rise on us, the evil and the good, together. A divine for-us-ness that turns the other cheek and offers cloak and shirt and does not refuse us.  A for-us-ness that willingly went to the Cross FOR US. The divine for-us-ness. Jesus is trying to say, already infuses everything in us and around us.  It is just waiting for us to claim it. And when we DO claim it, it transforms our whole moral universe and makes us act in generously magnanimous ways the world would say were crazy foolishness.

When I was a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I had the honor of meeting the first black South-African ever consecrated a Lutheran bishop, Dean & Bishop Tshenuwani Simon Farisani.  Consecrated in the middle of the anti-apartheid struggle despite being a member of the African National Congress that was so despised and feared by the South African government at the time, Tshenuwani was arrested four times over the course of the anti-apartheid struggle, and physically tortured the first three.  As the tensions mounted, the violence against such a perceived ANC leader ratcheted up, so that each time he was tortured, the torture was more extreme.  He suffered two heart attacks during torture and his health became increasingly frail. Amnesty International was involved in his release each time. The fourth and final time of his arrest, not much more than a year before I met him, did not involve physical but rather psychological torture, which turned out to be even more destructive.  He was questioned from five to 10 hours a day, and threatened with death for himself and members of his family. Tshenuwani realized that he was very close to dying at the hands of his torturer.  In that moment, as he related it to me and the other students meeting with him, as he looked at his torturer, in a blinding flash of spiritual insight a word came to him for the man at whose hands he was suffering.  He said to him with immense compassion, “You know, you can kill me physically, but you cannot harm me spiritually because Jesus loves me and will raise me up.  So really, in hurting me, you are only hurting yourself.” The man was unable to continue the torture.  And Tshenuwani, ultimately, was again let go, at which point the Lutherans in South Africa sent him into exile for his own protection, overseas to America for treatment in the Center for Torture Victims in Minneapolis and then to the Graduate Theological Union to complete a PhD.

And here is what I want to say about my experience in the presence of Tshenuwani Farisani: this was a man who had suffered untold harm at the hands of his enemies, his literal enemies in the apartheid regime, as had so very many black South Africans.  He had every reason for bitterness and self-righteousness about those who had persecuted him.  It certainly drove him to a dedicated determination that they would not prevail in their racist policies.  But it had not embittered him.  In fact, I have never heard anyone speak about the dynamics of racism with more searing honesty but simultaneously with a more compelling and comprehensive compassion for all involved, black & white. Not one ounce of sentimentality, mind you.  His honesty about the destructiveness of apartheid and its counterpart in our own persistent racism and racial inequality in the US was not in the least softened.  But shining in the core of his critique was his forgiveness and love. 

That’s because Tschenuwani’s “foundation,” as Paul said to the Corinthians in our first lesson, was not principle, but Jesus Christ’s loving presence. It makes me think of a wonderful passage from an essay by Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner, in which he messes up the Grand Slalom interpretation of Jesus’ “love your enemies:”

Principles are what people have instead of God. To be a Christian means among other things to be willing if necessary to sacrifice even your highest principles for God’s or your neighbor’s sake the way a Christian pacifist must be willing to pick up a baseball bat if there is no other way to stop a man from savagely beating a child. Jesus didn’t forgive his executioners on principle but because in some unimaginable way he was able to love them.”  [Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973)]

Why is it so very, very hard to hear the core of Jesus’ message inside these extreme exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount?  It is so easy to miss that, despite all their impossible standards, at their heart, they’re the ANTITHESIS of the self-denigration and self-righteousness that comes from trying so strenuously to make them principles to live by. In them, Jesus is pleading for us to accept what is already IN us: God’s loving forgiveness.  It reminds me of Paul pleading with the Corinthians – themselves aiming to be medalists in the spiritual Olympics – to hear him. “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? ...For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple… So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” “It has been said… but I say to you,” Jesus says over and over in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, pleading with us not to get tied up with the letter of the Law but to let the breath of Spirit infuse the whole of us, the weak and frail parts and the gifted and capable parts of us, filling us with grace as God intended us to be filled.  If we really love God as much as God loves us, we will finally be able to feel the truth of Paul’s proclamation, that despite all our foolishness, despite our wayward adherence to “the wisdom of the world,” EVERYONE & EVERYTHING – ourselves, our world, our enemies – already belong to each other and to Christ, ONE as Christ and the Creator are ONE.  The sooner we grasp that, the sooner the shalom of God’s great Dream of Commonwealth will come into being.  In fact, WHEREVER and WHENEVER we grasp that, even a little, even for a moment, God’s Commonwealth IS COMING INTO BEING, transforming us from haters to lovers, completing us, completing God’s good creation.  “To be completed” is what the word “perfect” in Jesus’ Sermon really means.  “Be completed as your Creator is complete!” Tshenuwani’s moment of compassion for his torturer was a moment of COMPLETION: an in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in the midst of the worst of the worst travesty of human perfidy, the worst enmity. HALLELUJAH!

Because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t inviting us into a spiritual Grand Slalom or any other Olympic contest.  He just wants us to know the full scope of God’s love for us. Because if and whenever we ever truly sense the scope of that merciful love, our own mercy will expand to include the whole world and everyone in it.  AMEN.

Antolini 2-23