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Monday
Oct272014

IF YOUR PRESENCE WILL NOT GO, DO NOT CARRY US UP FROM HERE- Sept 19, 2014 sermon 

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

on the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year A), Sept 19, 2014 

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

By Reed Carlson

reed_carlson@mail.harvard.edu

 

1.

Not too long ago my very first girlfriend ever sent me a friend request on Facebook.

I’ll call her Sarah though that is not her real name.

I hadn’t seen or heard from Sarah since high school, so of course I was curious.

It turns out she went to college in Iowa. She got married.

Nothing terribly interesting or scandalous to report.

Nevertheless, I cringed a little when I realized who she was.

You see after all these years, I’m still a little embarrassed of how our whole relationship went down.

I haven’t told this story to too many people, so naturally when I thought of appropriate places to work through mortifying moments from adolescence, Sunday morning at St. James’s seemed like the obvious place.

We were in 7th grade and we were in a play together at Dakota Hills Middle School.

I don’t remember what the show was or what part I had but what I do remember is that everyone in the show was pairing off.

It seemed like every week there was some new couple.

It was like a disease spreading through the junior high cast.

And I remember being fascinated by this.

By today’s standards, I think I was a pretty naïve seventh grader.

But I had no idea what one was supposed to do with a girlfriend.

I’m the oldest child in my family, so my notion of dating was largely a hybrid of stuff I’d seen on the Disney channel and Old Testament Bible stories.

To be honest if you asked my wife, I don’t think she would say I’ve progressed much further beyond that.

But what I did know was that having a boyfriend or girlfriend somehow changed people. Fundamentally. It was like a superpower.

So after a few months of this, my last chance came at the cast party after our last show.

I finally worked up the courage to ask a girl out.

I picked Sarah mostly because another girl who I actually had a crush on, said that we would be cute together.

I remember it quite vividly. She was eating popcorn. I was holding a can of Mountain Dew.

I said, “So do you want to be my girlfriend or something?” And she said, “Sure.”

We hung out a bit at the party. I think we even held hands.

And that night I went home knowing that I had a girlfriend.

I had been ontologically changed.

I then proceeded to completely ignore her for an entire summer.

She would call my house. I wouldn’t answer the phone.

One time she left a message with my mom asking if I wanted to ride bikes.

When my mom asked me who Sarah was, I claimed to have no idea.

When I saw her at school the following year, I explained to her that, you know, things probably weren’t going to work out.

We had different life goals and we had to think about the long term.

 

2.

This is perhaps one of the cruelest things I think I’ve ever done.

And when I look back on it, I just cringe.

I have no idea why I did anything of these things.

But I think that is often the case with adolescents—they are difficult to understand (I see some parents nodding).

But one thing that I think was true about me then was that I assumed that having a girlfriend would somehow fundamentally change who I was.

And I wanted to experience that.

I wanted that reputation, I wanted that identity.

I wanted to know what it felt like.

But I didn’t really want to be too invested in it.

Specifically, I didn’t want the relationship part. I just wanted the status.

And because of these kind of mixed desires, I ended up hurting someone.

 

3.

Our story this morning from Exodus is another story about a relationship—far more intimate than the one I had with my first girlfriend

—but like it, this relationship in Exodus was also damaged by a reluctance to invest.

It’s the relationship between God and God’s people—the Israelites.

This is also one of those stories from the Old Testament where you really need the whole context in order to make sense of it.

If you’ve been coming to church the last few weeks you know that we’ve been tracing the story of the Israelites through the wilderness.

Two weeks ago they received the law at Mount Sinai.

This is a section of the Bible that begins with the ten commandments.

Then last week, we heard the story of the golden calf.

It seems that as Moses was up on the mountain receiving the law from God, the people became impatient and made two calves out of gold.

They proclaimed that these were the gods who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and then they declared a festival.

This was all the more scandalous because the ten commandments begin with God saying you shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make any graven images.

So now, this week, we encounter the aftermath of this, really, betrayal by the Israelites.

And in the first part of this chapter that we didn’t read, God says to Moses:

“I cannot go with you the rest of the way to the promised land.

This people is too stubborn, I am too angry, I cannot go any further.

However, I know that I promised your ancestors that I would keep you safe, that I would deliver you, that you would inherit this land.

So, I’m going to send an angel with you instead to do everything I promised that I would do.

But I. I cannot go with you.”

 

4.

It is a fascinatingly sparse conversation in the Bible.

We don’t know a lot about what God is thinking, but I think scripture invites us to wonder.

Other parts of the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, uses the metaphor of a parent and a child to describe the relationship between God and Israel.

When Israel is unfaithful, we read in the prophet Hosea that God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. / It was I who taught Ephraim to walk [this is another word for Israel in Hosea]

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. / I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. / I was like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down to them and I fed them.

Interestingly, in these verses it sounds like God’s feelings have been hurt.

The Old Testament God often has this reputation for being angry, and admittedly we have numerous stories about God’s anger in both the Old and the New Testaments.

But Hosea describes that anger is that off a mother bear protecting her cubs.

So when we come back to this question of why God cannot go any further with Israel in the wilderness,

I believe it is because God is heartbroken.

 

5.

The idea of a heartbroken God is not always an easy concept for us to accept.

I remember when I was a teenager, I got into an argument with my mother.

And we were both very angry. We were shouting.

And I said something very hurtful.

And she started crying and she abruptly left the room.

And in that moment I was so surprised, and I felt very confused and very powerful in a way that I did not want to feel powerful.

I realized that my mom could be hurt. That, in fact, I could hurt her.

She was not immune anymore.

And that was terrifying.

 

6.

After God makes this proposition to Moses.

The way that the author has kind of arranged these stories, we have something that could be interpreted as a kind of flashback to a time before the golden calf.

Perhaps even before Sinai, when the Israelites had just started in the wilderness.

It’s a story about the way things used to be.

It seems that Moses used to actually meet God in a tent outside of the camp.

These stories tell us that the Mount Sinai was surrounded by this billowing cloud that was cloaking God’s presence.

Well this cloud used to descend on this tent.

And Moses would go into this thing and the Bible says that he would see God “face to face.”

This is remarkable because just a handful of verses later on, in our reading this morning, God says to Moses “you cannot see my face.”

No one can see my face and live.

That intimacy of the tent and the cloud it’s been broken.

 

7.

This is a pattern that we see throughout the Bible.

One of the consequences of human sin is broken intimacy with God.

In the Adam and Eve story, the first sin results in the loss of the intimacy of the garden, where God used to walk—physically walk—with the first humans in the cool breeze of the evening.

Right before the flood story, we read that God is sorry—God experiences regret—for having ever created humanity, because sin has become so destructive.

And so what is amazing for me when I read this story is that God gives Moses and Israel the option of carrying on without that intimacy.

They still get the land. They still get the security in the wilderness. They still get what they bargained for.

It’s like my relationship with my first girlfriend. They still get the status and the special feelings

But they don’t have to deal with any of the messy, complicated, energy-sucking relationship stuff.

 

7.

Many of you know that in our lives, it’s often possible to be in relationships like this, where you get the status and the identify but you don’t really have to be invested.

In fact this is something very easy to do in our relationship with God.

We can go church, we can consider ourselves to be Christian. And what’s great is we get that status, that identity, just automatically through God’s grace.

But some of us never invest in that relationship afterwards.

This can be a relationship with God, but it can also be a relationship with your community.

You can go years, an entire lifetime, knowing and trusting that you’ll get to the promised land some day, but never experiencing true intimacy with God.

 

8.

In our reading this morning, Moses kind of draws a line in the sand and says to God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”

You see for him, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to get to the promised land, if the relationship isn’t there to make the journey worth it.

“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”

I wonder how many of us are willing to make that kind of demand of God or of our faith community.

For Moses it is especially bold, because Israel has just finished destroying that intimacy, betraying God, and yet he asks for it again.

For some of us here, we used to have that intimacy with God. But it’s been lost.

Maybe we grew up and we think we’ve grown out of it.

Maybe we made a decision that we regret, and we don’t believe that a relationship with God could be repaired.

Maybe we did nothing wrong, but something happened to us, some tragedy.

Maybe someone in the church failed you—maybe someone in this church failed you.

And you don’t know if its worth it to invest all that time and energy again.

If that’s you this morning, let me challenge you just to think about whether or not it’s worth it for you to go through this life with God’s intimate presence.

Now what that actually means might be something different to each one of us here.

For some, it might mean praying more. Not just when we need something from God, but actually inviting the Holy Spirit to be a part of our daily decision making—to actually change the way we live.

For others, it might mean reprioritizing our energy around the relationships that are most important—our families and our friends—and less around relationships with people who we think might be useful to us.

And actually, I think for others of us here, inviting God’s intimate presence in part means making a commitment to investing—giving of your time and energy and money to a community that is going to bring you and God closer together.

You see, God gives each one of us the option of going through the motions of church, of faith, of our entire lives without ever truly knowing God’s presence.

But let me challenge you—this morning and every morning—pray with Moses: “Holy God, if your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”

Because it is when we pray with that boldness, when we risk investing in something much bigger than ourselves, that is when we hear God say:

“I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Amen.

Thursday
Oct232014

“Preserve the Works” - Living Epistle by Kate Hornstein - Oct. 19, 2014

Seven years ago, I took my family to England for a brief vacation. I’m half-English, and, like my mother, have always been a huge Anglophile. The trip was a disaster. My family was grumpy (my daughters were ages 8 and 12 at the time), the weather was terrible (it poured buckets almost every day without stopping) and my younger daughter ended up with a severe case of head lice which she then shared with several of us.

Where was the England of my childhood? Of my college days? Of my early adulthood?

Seeking the “peace that passes all understanding,” which if you have young children you know is often hard to find, I decided to visit an Anglican church in back of my hotel on a Sunday morning. I remembered visiting an urban church like this one in the early 80’s with my college friends--it had been packed, and lively. But when I went back in 2007, I was among 3 or 4 people who gathered there to celebrate communion.

I asked the priest how many people usually attended--was it something about its being August? He smiled and looked at his assistant priest and said, “Well, what lies can we tell her??” They explained that many of these urban churches in London had been largely abandoned. Secularism, competition for family time, and longer work hours, were all competing for parishioners.

Today in the collect we read, “Preserve the works of your mercy.”

There is that old chestnut about the church’s being a “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. I think too often in this modern day, people do think of the church as being a museum, or a place where only the deeply pious go. And in many places throughout England and Europe, that’s what churches have become.

Holly suggested that I talk today about the things I’ve done here at St. James’s and in other religious communities, and what I’ve gained from them, as the reason why I’m a parishioner here.

 But that’s not the reason I come to St. James’s. I come here because I’m a sinner like everyone else on Planet Earth. I am a patient in need of a hospital, not a museum visitor.

I’m a “nice person” like many of you. How can we be “sinners,” such an old-fashioned term that suggests criminality or just plain being awful? Well I have a long list for you…I am often not grateful for what I have, am prone to be negative, people bug me and I can be cheap. I spend far too much time looking at real estate online. I use way too many of our earth’s resources. I am often impatient, vain and prideful.

I am not looking for a museum for saints. I’m looking for a place where I can seek forgiveness, aspire to an ideal, and experience that sense of peace which can only come from God. I’m looking for a Sunday experience I can carry with me throughout the week.

In thinking about the pledge drive, let’s think not only about what we want St. James’s to be in the next year--what do we want St. James’s to be 30 years from now? Do we want our church to be a museum of the past? Or do we want it to be a dynamic part of our lives, our children’s lives, and the lives of this neighborhood, and city. Do we want it to continue to be a hospital for all of us sinners?

If so, we need to support our church so that it’s there for us and for others when we are in need of mercy, and in need of peace.

So here is my “call;” I want everyone here to do one thing this next week. If you have never pledged before, make a pledge. If you have pledged before, consider raising your pledge by at least $1 a week--maybe you can think of one thing to do to make that dollar: turn off a light, get a smaller cup of coffee. If you can do more, that’s even better! And if you are in a place where you can’t do any of this, think about one person you might reach out to and invite to St. James’s--maybe that person can give $1 a week or more.

Together, we can ensure that our hospital is here and ready for its patients for another year. Together, we can preserve the works of St. James’s.

Tuesday
Oct142014

Lauren Zook Sermon - Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014

When I agreed to preach on this Sunday, Holly very helpfully provided me with a selection of commentaries on the readings; and in one of those commentaries on today's gospel, I discovered that none other than Martin Luther called this parable “the terrible gospel which he did not like to preach.” Which was not a terribly auspicious moment in my sermon preparation. And when I was discussing these readings on the phone with my mother, she proved equally unhelpful: “Oh, yeah,” she said, “that's the one where the guy gets in trouble for being dressed wrong.”

Well, if God is going to go around punishing people for being dressed wrong, I, for one, am in for a lifetime of anxiety. The intricacies of fashion and the subtle messages of clothes are a mystery to me; my wardrobe has largely been assembled by my mother and sister while I trail after them through clothing departments and say yes or no to whatever they pick out. Whenever I have to go to some event where it's unclear what sort of attire is expected, I can drive myself crazy trying to decide what I'm supposed to wear, envisioning scenarios where I'm hideously underdressed, or hideously overdressed, and absolutely everyone around me stares at me in disapproval; and then, after I've settled on an outfit and gone out, I completely forget to pay attention to what anyone else is wearing, so the next time I'm invited to a similar event, I'm just as clueless as before.

But as I've gotten older, I've found some of this anxiety ebbing—after all, I have to wear clothes every day, so it was exhausting to maintain. I make a conscious effort these days to dress for myself, in ways that make me happy; whenever I'm debating whether a particular outfit will look silly or old-fashioned or out-of-place, I try to stop and ask myself, “But do I like it?” And I'm gradually getting comfortable with the idea that, while clothes are important social signifiers, by and large I'm not going to suffer any really dire consequences if I leave the house looking slightly unusual. I've come not to care—or, as Paul says in today's epistle, not to worry.

So one of the things I've discovered, in my trend towards pleasing myself, is that I like to dress up. I never used to be particularly interested in matching clothes and shoes and accessories, but now it turns out to be something I enjoy from time to time, even if I don't really know what I'm doing. There are random Sundays when I go all out for church: one of my nicer dresses, a necklace, earrings, maybe even eyeliner if I'm feeling adventurous. And when I put care into my outfit, putting together something that specifically pleases me, it leads to an experience that still feels very strange. There are times now when I look in the mirror and think: I look good. I look pretty. Maybe, just maybe, I'm even beautiful.

In today's reading from Exodus, we learn that the Israelites, even in the desert, wore gold jewelry; in fact, three chapters later, it is their jewelry that the Israelites will take off and give to Moses for the building of the tabernacle. But not in today's lesson. No, today we see the Israelites strip off their adornments to make a golden calf. Moses has gone up the mountain and hasn't come down; the Israelites are wandering in a trackless wilderness with no end in sight; God brought them up out of Egypt, but now they do not know where God is. They are afraid. They are afraid to be abandoned, and in that fear, they find comfort in something that can be clearly seen. Looking at the image Aaron has set up, the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” and they are relieved. Before the calf, God was invisible, and the Israelites didn't trust that God was still there—small wonder that they wished for something more concrete. But not only have the Israelites lost their trust in God, they have lost their trust in themselves. They look at the wilderness and think, “I can't. I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing.” They are, understandably, worried. And they no longer trust that Moses, their leader and kinsman and guide, will come back to them and lead them through the desert.

But Moses, faced with the “stiff necks” of his people and God's wrath burning hot against them, does something miraculous. He lets his requests be made known to God. He begs the Lord to relent, stating his case with intelligence and vigor, reminding God of God's promise to the ancestors and of how the Egyptians will react, directly saying to his God, “Change your mind.” And God does! Now there is much for theologians to say about God's actions in this passage, but what I find myself struck by is how brave Moses is in this moment. His courage and his love for his people are enough to compel him to argue with the Being who is more powerful than anything else in the universe, who is beyond mortal comprehension; Moses is only a man, but he has the audacity to express his desires to a God.

Not so the underdressed wedding guest of Jesus' parable. “Friend,” the king asks him, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” We might well ask the same question, and ask also why the guest has failed to put on the proper garment in the first place. But we will get no answers, because the man is speechless; in fact, another translation of the Greek efimothe could be “he was muzzled.” Now I don't know why this man is dressed as he is, but I will hazard a guess as to why he says nothing: I suspect he is afraid. Here is his host, a mighty king, looming over him and demanding to know the reason for his gross social faux pas, and the man is paralyzed by the knowledge of his own mistake. How could he not be afraid? He's been scooped off the street by this rich host who has, bizarrely, invited a random crowd of guests, the worthless and the good alike. This guest knows he is not worthy to be there; he knows he's not at all the right kind of person. But who is? None of us is really worthy, on our own merits, to be invited to God's wedding banquet; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And so, when we are confronted with our mistakes, our sins, we have a choice. We can behave like the wedding guest and remain silent, fearing God as a merciless and wrathful master, knowing that we are so worthless as for nothing to be said in our defense. Among other things, this is a pretty unflattering view of God to take: it supposes that God cares so little about us as to not even listen to what we have to say. This, I suggest, is the reason for the guest's punishment. We need not be afraid to be dressed wrong because the man is punished: the man is punished because he is afraid to be dressed wrong, because his fear outweighs his belief in God's love.

And so instead of following the speechless guest, let us choose to emulate Moses. What do we possibly have to lose by letting God know about our desires, our feelings, our requests? What a different story it might have been had the wedding guest spoken up for himself. Perhaps the king might have agreed and changed his mind; or perhaps he might have explained to the guest why he acted wrongly, and the man might have learned to amend his thinking. I don't need a God who grants my every wish, but I cannot live with a God who is deaf or unfeeling, and fortunately, that is not the God we have. God listens to Moses; is there really anything we could say that God would be unwilling to hear? And if we are creatures who can communicate with the Lord God Almighty, people who can talk to our Creator as to a parent or teacher or friend who wants us to succeed—well! Wretched sinners that we are, we are loved by God! We might as well love ourselves then: be kind to ourselves, wear the clothes that make us feel good, speak up in defence of our lives and choices, look at ourselves in the mirror and think that we are beautiful. And if we can start with trust in God's love and belief that we ourselves have been invited to the feast, then that love can radiate outwards, so that we can truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

Confidence in the radical openness of God's invitation is breathtaking; it is, as Paul says, peace which surpasses all understanding. It will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, a shield against depression and hate and fear. And Paul roots our prayers and our faith in joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” There is much in this world to fear, so much to beg God to put right. But Paul reminds us never to forget how much we have to rejoice in, even while we are pleading before God: “Do not worry about anything,” he says, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In the midst of the dark periods of our lives, let us start by making the effort to rejoice; then let us seek comfort in speaking to our God, and the rest will come. And there will always be at least one thing you have to rejoice about, something that you carry with you everywhere: yourself. Even if you seem to have nothing else, you can thank God for your life, your body. This is easier for some of us than for others, and I admit it isn't easy for me. But even if you hate the way your hair looks, or you wish you were stronger or taller or had clearer skin, or you're self-conscious about the scars you carry, or you were born with the wrong genitalia, or your body is sick or aging or weak—whatever it is you've hated or railed against or wanted to change, it's your body. God gave it to you. God gave it to you to live in and change in the ways you need to and dress in fine clothes: in wedding garments, gold jewelry, pretty dresses, nice suits, well-worn sweatshirts, ratty jeans, joke T-shirts, saris, Easter bonnets, cheap clothes, expensive clothes, clothes that match perfectly and clothes that don't match at all, clothes that help you fit in and clothes that help you stand out: in short, anything, anything, in which you can serve the Lord your God and love yourself while doing it.

There's a poem I've been thinking about a lot these last couple of weeks. It's called “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, the second-to-last poem in a collection of the same name. Many of the poems in the book deal with the author's relationship to her brother as he's dying of AIDS; the title poem is set after his death, and in it she walks around the streets of our very own Cambridge, going about her ordinary daily errands, and reflecting that this is what the living do. I'd just like to read you the last few lines of the poem, which have stayed with me since I first read them in my sophomore year of college. She writes: “But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep // for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless: / I am living. I remember you.”

This is the speechlessness I long for: not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of my own errors, but to catch sight of myself in the window glass and be struck dumb by the full knowledge that my life is precious, that humankind is a miracle, and that God's expansive, abundant love truly has no limits and no end.

Monday
Oct062014

Homily for A Blessing of John Thomas Kittredge's & Charles Morehead's Relationship - October 4, 2014

©Holly Lyman Antolini

I apologize in advance for this, but it's irresistible to point out that these two men, whom we love so dearly, are inviting a blessing upon their relationship on the feast day of the saint in whose name we regularly bless our animals! Mind you, this was not their original plan.  Charles and JT had originally chosen September 13th for their ceremony, but then the Diocese of Massachusetts went and most inconveniently consecrated a bishop on that date!  So the Holy Spirit organized things instead so that JT and Charles and St. Francis will become inextricably linked in our minds henceforward. And, I believe, the Holy Spirit did so, so that we would see clearly that blessing all our beloved companions, human and otherwise, is a fundamental part of our human role in God's Mission of love and reconciliation on this beautiful, precious, and fragile earth, our island home. At the same time, I think the Holy Spirit is inviting us to see what is unique and special about blessing a relationship between two human beings in the name of Jesus Christ, our Crucified & Risen Lord, because in so blessing it, we invite the Spirit to continue the work of conversion which is at the core of a truly covenantal relationship between two human beings who strive to love one another unconditionally.

 

To bless something begins, as Episcopal preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says, with “seeing it as it is.” [An Altar in the World] (Thank you, Mary Beth Mills Curran, for pointing this passage out to me!) Blessing begins with “seeing something – or someone- as they are,” not as we would WANT them to be, but as God made them, flawed and beautiful, annoying and endearing. This makes special sense in the case of this blessing of Charles & JT, because “what is” in their case is 21 years of weaving themselves together as a couple, and doing so in the context of worship & prayer.  Today, we, their community in Christ, are tuning ourselves to SEE THAT, FULLY.  That’s the first move in our act of blessing today.  We are seeing two people who have moved ‘way beyond the starry-eyed beginnings of an intimate relationship, when neither person can do “any wrong,” and when each will go out of their way to make gestures of generosity toward the other. (As in the case of my husband & me in the early days of our relationship, when we would carefully peel CARROTS for each other, even though – when the blinders of romance finally fell – it turned out NEITHER of us would ever peel a carrot for OURSELF!) JT & Charles have long learned that as good as “fellow feeling” is in a relationship, sometimes thegreatest tensile strength of a relationship is not the romantic fervor of the moment, but rather the willingness to know oneself and one’s perspective to be limited and incomplete, and to know oneself capable of “repentance,” of turning from the way one has viewed things to see them in a new way because the other person sees them differently.  Charles & JT have stretched and grown toward each other over years, and have stretched and grown, each of them, into their own larger, more mature SELF in the context of the other.  They have blessed each other by seeing each other – and themselves – more and more clearly, with a bias in each other’s favor, as God sees them both.

 

The second move of blessing something, according to Brown Taylor, is to NOTICE & NAME it for what it is.  So let us notice and name that this stretching and growing JT & Charles have been about, we believe as Christians, is a COVENANTAL compact, a BAPTISMAL movement of the spirit, a giving up of one’s own priority and prerogative, a pouring out of one’s self on behalf of the other, that mirrors Christ’s pouring out of himself on the Cross, giving up his life so that we can have ours.  I know this is not the popular view of the covenant we call “marriage,” with its poofy white meringue $1000’s-of-dollars dresses and crates of champagne.  The popular view of such a covenant is all on the fulfillment side of the ledger.  Which could be one of its problems as a social institution! Because while there is joy and fulfillment in the companionship of long and steadfast commitment, it is a joy that comes through self-offering and frequently, self-abnegation, in acts often small but, sometimes, large indeed. St. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In the Book of Common Prayer, we put it like this, that there is something in the partnership of two people that mirrors the relationship of Christ and his Church.  And in fact, we can discover Christ in the willingness to sacrifice one’s life in multiple ways for the other’s well-being, from putting the orange juice back in the right spot in the fridge to accepting a profound inconvenience and challenge to our own career when our spouse has real opportunity in theirs. 

 

The testimony to how well Charles & JT know this about their relationship shines in their choice of the passage from the Letter to the Colossians, letting the word of God dwell in them richly and, in all their little ways of bearing with one another, discovering the deeppeace of Christ.  This willingness to forego judgment and condemnation of each other, to forgive and be forgiven, is, as the Gospel of Luke says, a much deeper source of wellness than all the wealth of the world could possibly bring, “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, poured into your lap.

 

And now that we have noticed and named the depth of covenant into which JT & Charles have come to be joined, the last movement of blessing is to pray that that good measure they have enjoyed already, by which we the onlookers, the blessers, are LIKEWISE blessed and encouraged to seek a similar depth of care and compassion, steadfastness and self-offering, will be sustained on into the future, for the whole length of their lives. That in their chesed, their steadfast loving kindness for each other, they will continue to bless each other and bless all of us around them, their family & friends, by the light of Christ that shines in them. Because this is the third and ultimate movement of blessing, a multiplier that makes the blessing not just the property of those blessed but the property of all around them.  God’s blessings don’t stay put, after all. They are profoundly generative.  Blessing begets blessing.  So it has been in your relationship, Charles & JT, and so may it continue, we pray in our blessing of you, from this day forward, forevermore.  AMEN.

Tuesday
Sep302014

Homily for the Marriage of Carolyn Doyle & Jason Sparapani - September 25, 2014

Make these words more than words, and give us the Spirit of Jesus.   Amen.

 

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it! Good to be reminded of that when you’re getting married on a rainy day!

 

Good to be celebrating a marriage between two people who won’t freak out at a little rain on an important day, two people who have learned a thing or two about life and about their own limitations as human beings, who have entered into this commitment to each other “reverently, deliberately,” and with God’s grace and love in mind.

 

Many young couples go into marriage quite starry-eyed about their capacity for "the perfect relationship," still firmly ensconced in the delicious preliminary experience of "cathecting" completely with one another, agreeing about everything, delighting in everything about the other person, believing firmly that that state of harmony will persist forever, because "true love" has finally been found. 

 

Not Jason & Carolyn.  “True love” has acquired for them a much more nuanced, though no less deep and compelling definition.  Each of them in their own unique way has had their spirit smelted in the crucible of life. Jason has traveled to far corners of the world, Nepal, Korea, challenging his sense of self in contexts utterly unlike the New Haven he grew up in.  Carolyn has traveled into and out of a previous marriage, learning the hard way, as Paul says to the Corinthians, that “When we are children, we speak like children, we think like children, we reason like children; but when we become adults, we put an end to childish ways,” and some of the decisions we make when young no longer fit us when we are older. Carolyn and Jason, each in their own way learned through these “foreign travels” not just a sober realization of their own limits, but also a firmer realization of their own value, their own unique preciousness, their own strength. When they chose a Gospel that affirms they are “a light to the world,” that is not naïvely said. It is claimed by Carolyn and Jason as a reality they both accept now and at the same time, paradoxically, intend to live into: an “already” and a “not-yet” just as God’s Kingdom is both present among us and made manifest in their love for each other, and yet is still to come in its fullness, brought evermore fully into being by our willing collaboration with God’s intention for us all.

 

When the time came that the Holy Spirit saw fit to bring them together – and you’ve got to give the Spirit credit for imagination, bringing Jason all the way back from the Far East and Carolyn from the Far North to meet up in Boston! – they were both ready to begin the REAL discipline and gift of marriage as God intends marriage to be: nothing less than a sacrament of God’s own unconditional love; an outward and visible sign – not perfect, but resilient and full of the dynamics of constant reconciliation – of the inward and spiritual grace of God’s love, a merciful and forgiving, consoling and renewing love, slow to anger and full of steadfast loving kindness, in which the beloved has scope to grow, constantly affirmed in their lovability, whatever buffets life may throw at them. Jason and Carolyn have learned to create for each other a holy space in which each can experiment and risk and fail and succeed in becoming the person God made them to be, supported by each other.  What must they do to safeguard that space for growth? Paul tells us how that space is created and safeguarded in his famous words from the Thirteenth Chapter of the First Letter: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That’s a life-time assignment, for sure! And full of grace.

 

And light of the world that Jason & Carolyn know themselves to be, they are setting themselves on the lampstand of marriage.  All of us - who behold them as they work out their salvation with each other, discovering the height and depth and breadth of God’s love - can not only support them in their love for each other, as we have just vowed to do, but also can ourselves access the grace that keeps them going, so that we also are blessed, strengthened in our own lives and confirmed our own loyalties, as we’ll pray in a moment. Because contrary to our culture’s romantic view of marriage, marriage ISN’T just about two people “falling in love” with each other!  We, their community, are PARTICIPANTS in their marriage!  You, Jason’s and Carolyn’s family and friends, already know this, because they have been knitting you together into a new community for some time now.  And we at St. James’s have been becoming part of that extended “family,” too, as we have welcomed them into our Eucharistic circle here and they have taken up roles in our life, Jason even becoming a church schoolteacher.  In marrying each other, in taking the risk to proclaim that they will, with all that they are and all that they have, continue to honor and support one another come thick and thin, Carolyn & Jason are helping all of us as well as themselves to meet our very deepest need as human beings, the need to know that we are abidingly loved.  They are helping us all to learn again more deeply that love, which is God, is at the very center of all that is, the gravitational pull that holds all our molecules together, the dark energy of the universe, not dark because it’s malevolent but dark because it’s mysterious, the mysterium tremendum, holding Jason and Carolyn together and all of us to each other, making us part of the great Oneness of everything.

 

Thank you, Carolyn & Jason, for letting our blessing of your marriage bless us in turn!  And thanks be to God!  AMEN.

 

Monday
Sep222014

Homily for Melissa Milner & Thomas Wohlers - September 20, 2014

Make these words more than words, O God, and give us the spirit of Jesus.   Amen.

It's always a joy to gather and bless the marriage of a couple, to acknowledge the tremendous, soul-shaking affirmation of being loved as unconditionally as humanly possible by another person, to express the hope that that commitment, affirmation and unconditionality can be sustained on into the future as long as the couple shall live.  Why do you think we invest so much in the ceremony and cultural phenomenon of a wedding, if not to express such deep need, such deep longing? Why would Melissa commit to fabric such amazing, endless lengths of gold and deep scarlet embroidery, hours and hours of labor, if not to express the importance of this hope?

And for THIS marriage in particular, between Thomas and Melissa, we also get to SING our joy and hope and blessing more thoroughly than I've ever before experienced in 23 years of officiating at weddings!  I hope you will continue to invest yourself in the songs as a way of showing forth your willingness, as you have promised, to do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their life together!

As the passage we read from the First Letter of John says, though we may not see God, when we behold love between people, we get as close a clue about God's nature as possible.  But more than that: in loving one another, bearing with, believing in, forgiving and enduring one another, GOD LIVES IN US. If we can manage to ABIDE in love, God ABIDES in us, strengthening us, enabling us to see beyond the end of our noses to perceive the importance of the other person's best interests, enabling us to remember that the other person's messy imperfection is mirrored in our own, so that we neither dismiss them nor, in so doing, dismiss ourselves! And in our ever-stretching empathy for one another, our own individual best possibility can become reality, because that's how God grows us.

Now mind you, many young couples go into marriage quite starry-eyed about their capacity for "the perfect relationship," still firmly ensconced in the delicious preliminary experience of "cathecting" completely with one another, agreeing about everything, delighting in everything about the other person, believing firmly that that state of harmony will persist forever, because "true love" has finally been found.  But such innocent illusions are not for Thomas & Melissa.  They have been through too much "real life" already to be able to remain in such a bubble.  Real life has meant long sojourns in the hospital, educational time-tables extended, energy gone missing, terrible fear about what the future might hold and terrible powerlessness over the outcome.  Melissa & Thomas have had their love tested.  They have HAD to be patient with one another.  They have HAD to forgive each other.  They have HAD to sustain hope when all hope seemed lost.  They have HAD to discover and learn to rely upon the power of grace - God's grace - that enters just when our own powers are played out and sustains us against all probabilities.

The Pulitzer-prizewinning author of the novels "Gilead" and "Home," Marilynne Robinson, is just coming out with a new novel, “Lila,” a novel about the young wife of the aging Calvinist minister Ted Ames from her novel "Gilead." A review in The Atlantic Magazine gave me a poignant quote from "Lila" that speaks to the tested tensile strength of Melissa & Thomas' love for each other, which they extend generously to their wide community of friends and relations.  The reviewer, Leslie Jamison, writes of Robinson's story, "Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn't mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined." Then she quotes Robinson's own prose, it's not "grace will never deliver you from this mess," but "grace IS the mess." Or at least, "grace is in the mess with you."

As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, God has CHOSEN Thomas & Melissa for each other (assisted, of course, by that well-known agent of God's Kingdom, the Society for Creative Anachronism!), chosen and invested them with grace in the midst of the mess that is their life (and OUR lives too, if we're honest)! Melissa & Thomas are not merely chosen but APPOINTED, says John: appointed by God to bear fruit, fruit that will last.  That fruit may take explicit and concrete shape in the form of children.  But even if it doesn't, it is already taking shape in their faithfulness to each other through some thick and some very, very thin indeed.  "For richer for poorer, in sickness & in health:" these words from the traditional marriage service are not the exact ones Melissa & Thomas chose to use in their amalgamation of the old marriage service and the new service of blessing.  They didn't need to.  They've already LIVED them.  They've already demonstrated a perseverance many of any age would find challenging, and have done so with determined confidence in the presence of God's grace in them and with them, despite evidence to the contrary. They have quite literally laid down their lives for each other, and found their lives restored to them manifold. Given the nature of the health issues Thomas faces, they know they are going to have to submit to this dynamic of resurrection again.  And still they stand before us, handfasting themselves to each other in the ceremony of marriage, trusting that love really is the most essential reality, and pitting themselves upon it. We, their onlookers, are part of the power of love that will sustain them through whatever lies ahead. And watching them access the grace that keeps them going will bless us also, strengthening our lives and confirming our loyalties too.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Monday
Sep082014

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 9/7/2014

Proper 18 Year A 9-7-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 12:1-14; Ps. 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

 

Hallelujah! Let us sing to you a new song, O God; let us sing your praise in the congregation of the faithful. Let us praise your Name in the dance; let us sing praise to you with timbrel and harp! AMEN.

 

Happy Homecoming Sunday, everyone!  I hope you have all found opportunities for rest and refreshment during your summer, so you can return to the beginning of our fall season full of energy for the coming program year!  I know that in my own life, summer is a critical time to cultivate the Holy Currency of Wellness, one of the many “Holy Currencies” that flow together and reinforce each other to keep our ministry both sustainable and missional, outward-facing.  When it comes to the Currency of Wellness, I can’t imagine what I would do without summer’s chance to get outdoors and remind myself that I am part of a much larger community of being than the merely human; without the chance to remember how small (but important) my agency is as I get my hands deep into the mysterious fertility of earth and plant things and watch them grow and blossom; without the long walks with nothing on my mind but how wondrous God’s creation is, letting myself be enveloped by bird-and-insect-and-wind-and-leaf song, my imagination soaring with cloud formations, my spirit stilled in the stillness of pondwater or sparkling like light on ocean. What would I do if I resumed the pace of our program year without having set the wine bottle in the middle of the dining table and sat long into the evening with friends, talking about anything and everything over fresh corn-on-the-cob and salads of vegetables still singing from the garden as the sun slowly inches toward the horizon and the late light slants long across the field?  These opportunities to let the task list go, to sit on the porch, hands empty, and simply bask in rest and sunlight: these currencies of wellness, counter-cultural as they are in our frenzied culture of accomplishment, provide the springs of so much energetic work later on.

 

I don’t know how it was for you, but this summer, in particular, also held a rich Holy Currency of Relationship for me: reunions of many kinds with very old friends and with a whole variety of cousins, as we said a last “farewell” to my parents’ and my aunt’s ashes on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine and as I journeyed west to revisit places I had traveled and people I knew when I was growing up on the Pacific Ocean. Such currency of Relationship flows directly into Wellness, too, as the Currencies are inseparable but supplement and complement each other, each building on the other.

 

One relationship renewed in a trip to New York City, in a weekend spent with an elderly first-cousin-once-removed, my father’s cousin, also opened some painful but Holy Currency of Truth long held back, as she revealed her parents’ severe alcoholism and her father’s physical and sexual abuse of her and her two sisters when they were girls – truth that I didn’t want to have to hear, but which explained much in my father’s family dynamics.  Painful as that history was, the Wellness that resulted from our sharing the story in common, no longer “keeping secrets,” but grounding ourselves in reality and not some mythic construction of family harmony, and upholding one another’s learning and growth beyond that pain, was profound.

 

My summer also held much other Holy Currency of Truth, not least in my continuing education workshop in Los Angeles on the Holy Currencies with the Rev. Dr. Eric Law, continuing work I’ve been engaged in since Edwin Johnson first joined us in 2010 and we attended our first-ever Holy Currencies workshop at the Trinity Conference Center as part of our mentoring work together. It is important for me be reminded regularly of the fruitfulness that results in a congregation when ALL the Currencies are attended to and sustained, each enhancing the other, and none neglected. That reminder to keep ALL the currencies on my horizon and flowing is part of my cultivation of the Holy Currency of Gracious Leadership here at St. James’s, my OWN!  In particular, it was good to be reminded of the importance of cultivating a Currency of Relationship that strategically and committedly welcomes all voices in a congregation or any community, so that it flows directly into the Currency of Truth that helps us learn things, important things, we will miss if some voices are privileged over others, and that helps us hold each other accountable as Jesus counsels accountability in the Gospel of Matthew for today.  If we learned nothing else from the rioting in Ferguson MO this summer in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, we learned that Currency of Relationship and Truth are essential to build the bonds of trust that make our communities work.  In the Holy Currencies workshop, I was renewed in my commitment to our Anti-Oppression work, here at St. James’s: work that enhances both Currency of Relationship and Currency of Truth in a way that offers promise for a Currency of Wellness in VERY short supply in our society and our world as whole. So, too, do the ongoing work of the Prison Ministry and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, as well as the Food Pantry, Women’s Meal and the Outdoor Church: all ways in which we cultivate relationship and hear voices and concerns that too often lie unattended to, beneath our social radar.

 

As I say, the Holy Currencies workshop was an important investment on my own Currency of Gracious Leadership, and summer is also a time to cultivate the Holy Currency of Gracious Leadership of many of YOU in our congregation, first and foremost by letting our Officers & Vestry take a month off in August from the press of work they attend to the rest of the year – Currency of Wellness flowing into Currency of Gracious Leadership, as they MUST flow together or leadership becomes impossibly burdensome! Also summer is the time that we set goals for staff for the coming year in our staff evaluation process – again, Currency of Gracious Leadership - so that we can stay focused on the welfare of the whole Body of the congregation the rest of the year.

 

And while that work continued in summer, so did the work of the Sound & Light Committee, an ad hoc group working to smooth out some of the most immediate problems we have with our lighting and our microphones here in the church – enhancing the Holy Currency of Place in a way that we hope will impact our worship weekly. And the work of the Redevelopment Committee and Property Committee rolled forward as ever, laying the groundwork for us to be ready for start building as soon as the courts dismiss the latest attempt by a few neighbors to hold up the construction process, creating a stoppage in the flow of our Currency of Place that impacts so much in our life together as a community, only proving again how important the Holy Currency of Place is - the currency of kitchen & garden, nursery & classroom, space for feasts and bible studies and ministry to the needs of the community -  for the flow of our other currencies.

 

The church school takes a break in the summer, as do most of the adult formation programs, but that didn’t prevent the teaching staff from devoting the Holy Currency of Time to polishing up their Currency of Gracious Leadership for the coming season of teaching and learning. At the Celebrations today, we’ll be commissioning all the teachers for their Gracious Leadership in the church school season ahead, and commissioning all our students who will be dedicating important Currency of Time to attending church school regularly (and whose parents will likewise be devoting Currency of Time to bringing them for church school regularly!) so that their spirits can be informed and strengthened and their Currency of Relationship with each other and with Jesus Christ solidly established. Other groups that devote a great deal of Currency of Time to enhancing our worship – and therefore our Currency of Wellness! – are the Choirs: the Adult Choir, the Greenleaf and Gospel Schola choirs, the Men’s Choir.  We’ll be commissioning THEM NEXT Sunday!

 

And the Sunday after that, we hope to commission our Nominating Committee to expand afresh their own Currency of Gracious Leadership, raising up candidates for leadership on our Vestry and as representatives at Deanery and Diocese, for the January Annual Meeting Election.

 

Now that the fall season is here and the pace of our life together as a congregation is picking up, the last of the Holy Currencies - the one that usually commands the most attention! – also moves to the front burner: the Currency of Money!  When we commission the Nominating Committee, it’s our intention also to commission a new Currency of Money Committee specifically convened to lead us in the fall pledge campaign, soliciting all of us to commit to support our missional ministry with sustainable funds.  This summer, our Currency of Money has been a bit of a sluggish stream, as we’ve all been off and away at one time or another.  In 2013, we stretched a long way to afford our wonderful Associate Rector for Church School & Family Ministry and we can’t let the Currency of Money become a brackish backwater if we want to keep the immense grace of Judith’s ministry flowing into an increase of ALL the Holy Currencies here at St. James’s, as it has over her wonderfully productive year with us!

 

We also plan on the last Sunday of September, September 28th, to celebrate with loud HUZZAH’S and ALLELUIA’s the completion of our “Growing Together, Building in Faith” building fund to furnish and fit-out the new Parish House when it is built.  Many of those who pledged in the campaign three years ago have now paid their complete pledge, and some have even paid BEYOND their pledge, while a number of you who weren’t here to pledge in the campaign have nevertheless given generously toward it even without a pledge.  That meant we could afford already to accomplish our wonderful – and desperately needed! – repairs to the historic slate roof on the church! Some of us still have money owing on our building fund pledges.  If that is you, we hope you may be able to progress toward completion in time for the Campaign Completion celebration that Sunday.

 

Because the Currency of Money really only flows richly in a congregation when all the OTHER Holy Currencies are flowing well, the Vestry plans to accompany the celebration of the completion of the Building Together Fund with a Holy Currencies Ministries Fair.  Gracious Leaders from all our many, many initiatives at St. James’s - in social justice ministry and Missions work, in Christian formation, in pastoral care, in vibrant worship – will be present and ready to tell you about their particular call to ministry, whether planning for our new Parish House, or leading bible study or visiting prisoners or marching in the People’s Climate March in New York, or putting worship together at St. James’s or participating in the advocacy work of GBIO or stocking the Helping Hand Food Pantry or taking communion to the ill and shut-in, all part of the flow of Holy Currencies that animates our congregation and streams out to help transform the world. 


The softer, gentler pace of summer is behind us and as the air turns crisp, the flow of Holy Currencies quickens.  As Paul tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light! And let us, through ALL the Holy Currencies, open up the “grace margin” to love one another, which is the aim and fulfillment of all our activities as a congregation, of God’s law itself. AMEN.

Tuesday
Aug262014

Marriage Homily for Susan Tweed & Michael Proscia

August 23rd, 2014

©Holly Lyman Antolini

 

In this beautiful summer of bright days & cool nights – the perfect wedding summer, wouldn’t you say? – it is a delight to gather together and bless your marriage, Michael & Susan.  With the world blossoming and burgeoning all around us, it just seems natural to celebrate the blossoming and burgeoning of love.  It feels like cosmic coherence in this beautiful season to celebrate your dedication to love one another not just with sentiment but with will and moral force, to put each other’s interests on a par with your own, to promise to pour yourselves out for each other with more sustained vigor than flood or the fire, as the Song of Solomon says.

 

More than that, it actually feels HEALING to gather and express so much hope for the spiritual and emotional capacity of humankind in the context of a world that feels more than a little crazy at the moment, full of strife and intolerance, illness, desperation and war.  Not to weigh too much on you two, of course! By marrying each other, we can’t expect you to fix all the problems of a troubled world, any more than you can knit together Lorne’s Achilles tendon!  But thanks for giving us a chance to raise our spirits and see and know in the two of you that human beings can realize their promise for good!

 

It’s a powerful part of the mission of marriage, this raising of hope, your own hope, encouraged and supported by your intimate knowledge of each other’s character, strengths and, yes, weaknesses. But also OUR hope, your onlookers, your family and friends, your community, who have all just promised to do all in our power to uphold you in your marriage.  Because, whatever the romantic illusions of our contemporary culture, you really are NOT just marrying each other.  You have been together long enough now to know that you are also marrying each other’s family, each other’s HISTORY, knitting together a whole new community in your community with each other.  And marriage is INTENDED to be a witness to us, your community, as we will pray in the prayers shortly, a BAPTISMAL witness: a witness to the power of forgiveness and honesty and respect and the willingness to remain open and to go the extra mile, a witness that strengthens our own lives and confirms our own loyalties in your own strength and loyalty. In your striving for fidelity – real, deep faith-keeping with each other, not just physical continence – we will see “a sign of Christ's love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”  As you will vow in the exchange of your rings in a minute, as you continually bring “all that you are and all that you have” into the honoring of each other in this relationship over time, we will truly see the power of resurrection in you, as you will continue to discover it in each other.

 

I said, today you are embarking on the mission of marriage.  Did you KNOW that marriage is a MISSION, a showing-forth of God’s love in the ordinary stuff of your own bodies, hearts, and spirits? So it is! And like all missions, it sometimes thrives, but at other times, it doesn’t seem so very productive, successful or satisfying. You’re in this mission for the long haul, though, and you’ve already practiced sustaining it by forbearing, hoping and enduring together in the thinner and less agreeable moments.  You might say, you’ve been “marrying each other” for awhile now, and have learned to keep minds and hearts open in the moments when you’re finding the mission difficult and each other’s point of view or actions opaque if not inexplicable.  Through joys and trials, you have discovered in each other the deep companionship and yes, friendship, that comes from that resiliency and intimacy.  You have also asked God’s grace into the process, into the mission, and you intend to continue, as the reading from Colossians says, to let “the word of God dwell in you richly” as you pursue your marriage mission. You have tested the tensile strength of your relationship and it has held. Today, we are blessing that strength to continue to hold and grow, by God’s grace, over the long mission of marriage ahead.

 

Then this will not merely be a passing summer of love and blossoming.  It will be, in your marriage to each other, a testimony to the enduring, ever-loving unity of the kingdom of God that is promised us, whatever tribulations our poor broken world is suffering at the moment.

Thursday
Aug212014

John Thomas Kittredge's Sermon on 8/17/2014

Proper 15, Year A                                                              

2014 August 17

Lection: Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: 10-28

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Good morning. It’s such a pleasure to speak to you all this morning on this occasion of welcoming Emery into the church. For us, a baptism is not primarily about celebrating the birth of a baby — as exciting as that is, and as wonderful as Emery is — but about initiating a new Christian into a life of discipleship.

 

So, what does it mean to be a Christian? As it happens, that’s our topic this morning, just as it is every Sunday morning.

 

When I read over today’s lessons, I first thought to connect the lessons by how God does not as act as we expect or even think appropriate. In the Genesis reading, we see that when Joseph’s brothers conspired him to sell him into slavery, God manages to turn their heinous crime into a crucial event in the salvation history of Israel. In the Gospel reading, we first see Jesus speaking of bodily functions—defecation to not put too fine a point on it—and then letting himself be schooled by a mortal, and a woman at that! Surely the Son of God should speak in loftier language and be above correction!

 

But, with your indulgence, I’d actually like to focus on another aspect of the Gospel lesson, which might seem uncontroversial, where Jesus states that following kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, is not necessary for holiness. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

 

None of us is likely to have a problem with that. To our modern, Western sensibilities, the whole idea of foods that are forbidden purely for ritual reasons is likely to seem bizarre and primitive.

 

But, I’ve been reconsidering purity laws ever since I read a book called The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral psychology. He says that most ethical systems work on one of two axes, either minimizing harm or maximizing justice. Much of moral philosophy is concerned with reconciling these two imperatives when they conflict with one another.

But Haidt says that this is true only of cultures like ours. He borrows the acronym WEIRD, for Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, to emphasize what an outlier we are in how we think about morality. The other cultures that he has studied also place a high value on minimizing harm and maximizing justice, but they have three or four additional axes that matter. For instance, showing loyalty to one’s own group; respecting authority; and honoring the sacred while avoiding the impure.

 

Haidt found differences even within the US, with conservatives showing more affinity with these additional axes. Liberals, on the other hand were WEIRDer, and the WEIRDest communities he studied were college towns, like, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

But his finding that really interested me was that conservatives are much better at understanding the liberal viewpoint, than vice versa. That is, a conservative was better at predicting what a liberal would think on a moral question, even if she disagreed with it. To a liberal, on the other hand, conservative moral values seem bizarre and incomprehensible, and are usually ascribed to self-interest or bigotry.

 

I think that Haidt’s insight has implications for how we WEIRD people understand others. And also for how we understand ourselves, because I have come to think that those other moral axes are latent in us and come out in ways we don’t recognize.

 

Years ago, my partner Charles and I were having lunch at a Thai restaurant with our friend Liz. We ordered three dishes to share, one with meat and two without, since Liz is a vegetarian. At one point, Liz picked up a spoon and said, “This has been in the meat dish, so please make sure it doesn’t go back in the vegetarian dishes.”

 

I was taken aback, because, while there are many health and moral reasons to be vegetarian, under none that I know of would it matter if a few particles of shrimp contaminated the tofu. It would be different, of course, if she were keeping kosher. But after reading Haidt, it makes perfect sense to me that if you’re devoted to vegetarianism as a moral principle, avoiding meat assumes a ritual purity aspect.

 

On a different tack entirely, in the debates over same-sex marriage, the proponents often observe that the opponents’ arguments seem utterly incoherent. They talk about children, disregarding that many mixed-sex marriages are childless, and many same-sex couples raise children together. Or they talk about social stability, prompting the question, “how would your marriage be harmed by other people getting married?”

 

But if you think that marriage is sacred, and you consider sacredness a moral value, then protecting its sanctity is its own justification. And turning it around, I had an epiphany that the other side felt the same way; it was because they also saw marriage as sacred that it was so important for them to gain it for their own relationships. In fact, the push for marriage equality did not start with the gay activists — who are mostly very liberal and secular — but as a grassroots movement among more traditionally-minded gay people.

 

And turning it back around to the other side, I am convinced that a big reason that opinion has changed so fast on same-sex marriage is because former opponents have come to see that the proponents do honor marriage. They want it not to gain better tax treatment, but because marriage is sacred to them.

 

Pardon the long digression, but I am trying to get you to sympathize with the Pharisees who felt threatened by Jesus’ blithe attitude to the laws of ritual purity, and maybe even imagine how you might feel similarly threatened if something you hold sacred were challenged.

 

For the truth is that God’s word continually challenges our ideas of justice. Another of the moral axes I mentioned is challenged in the very next section of the Gospel, the axis of loyalty to your own people.

 

Under many ancient moral codes, including the Torah, there is a duty of hospitality to the stranger. But it is not right to treat the stranger as one of your own, still less to give to the stranger at the expense of your own.

 

This is the principle that Jesus feels is threatened by the request of the desperate mother. I think here we have to remember how the Gospels paint scene after scene where Jesus is so beset by crowds clamoring for healing that he has no time to sleep or even to go off by himself to pray. One can guess how he might feel that there’s not enough of him to serve Israel, let alone the gentiles, too.

 

But the humble, yet challenging reply of the Canaanite woman teaches him that his duty is otherwise.

 

I know that many people are troubled by this passage; not only is Jesus at first hostile, but his language is so harsh, referring to her people as dogs. The rector at my old church in Chicago, once said in a sermon that he hated this passage. I think that the reason this never troubled me is that I don’t believe that being incarnation of God means that Jesus was superhuman — omniscient and free of every human limitation. On the contrary, I tend to the treasure those moments when Jesus is the most human and earthy, as when he speaks frankly of the digestive tract.

 

On the hand, taking the whole of his teaching and his life — especially his offering himself up on the cross and his resurrection — I find it quite plausible that he embodies the totality of God among us. I think back to that passage in John’s Gospel, where Jesus asks his disciples if they want to leave, and “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

 

In his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus himself learns a lesson that he has taught over and again in his parables, that the Kingdom of God is unfair. It’s unfair in the Parable of the Vineyard, that the workers who labored all day got no more than those who worked a single hour! It’s unfair that the prodigal son who wasted his father’s inheritance is welcomed back by a feast with the fatted calf. Can you not sympathize with the plaint of the good son: “all these years I worked like a slave, and you never even gave me a young goat to share with my friends!”

 

But, of course, it is this unfairness that makes the Gospel good news. For there is so much that God gives that we don’t deserve, including forgiveness for the wrongs we have done.

 

In the Kingdom of God, Haidt’s five moral axes count for nothing. Reading about them, I gained understanding that other moral codes have foundations that are no less inherently rational than my own. But to me, the point for Christian discipleship is not that we therefore have to accept things like honor killings, or the subjugation of women, or the vilification of homosexuals, as equally valid moral values.

 

The point to me, is what use do we make of our moral system? If we use it to make provisional judgments on living as best we can in this messy world, that’s one thing. If we use it to justify ourselves, that’s entirely different.

 

I think it’s important to acknowledge how desperately each of us wants to prove, to others and ourselves, that we are a moral, just, and worthwhile person. But there, the teachings of Jesus give us no succor. They make it clear that all of our moral axes count as nothing before God.

 

The only reason that we have any worth in the Kingdom of God is that God loves us. Deeply. Totally. Unconditionally. Utterly.

 

It is this life into which we initiate Emery today. She has already begun to get a taste of God’s love in her young life, in the love that her mothers give her.

 

We are about to renounce sin and evil on her behalf in the Baptismal Vows. That might seem ridiculous for an infant, but the truth is that evil is in the world around us, which you can see just be reading the daily news. If you can bear it, which I mostly can’t these days.

 

And, if Emery is like the rest of us, she will also know sin as she grows. She is likely to try her mothers’ patience and maybe even cause them heartache. But I have no doubt that she will always know that she is loved, whether she has earned it or not.

 

And this morning we pray that she will also grow in the Church and come to know that God’s love for her is even deeper than her mothers’, and will be learn to spread that good news to the world.

 

In the name of Christ. Amen.

Wednesday
Aug132014

Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's Sermon for 8/10/2014

Proper 14 Year A 8-10-14

©Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Gen. 37:1-4,12-28; Ps. 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Rom. 10:5-15; Matt. 14:22-33

 

We search for you, O God, and your strength; we continually seek your face!  Amen.

 

Last weekend, I spent two nights in a tent on a small island in the middle of Penobscot Bay Maine, gathering with my siblings and cousins and their families (and assorted dogs) for the scattering of my parents’ and my aunt’s ashes on the “sunset rocks” above the island’s harbor.  Both nights, I rose in the middle of the night to find the whole Milky Way stretched overhead, the sky thick with stars over the shifting night waters of the Bay, the summer wind warm and soft, the stillness profound. Like “balm in Gilead,” it brought to mind and heart Samuel Barber’s song “Sure on this Shining Night,” set to the words of poet James Agee – I wish I could sing it for you instead of read it, but believe me, you would not appreciate my high G’s!

Sure on this shining night

Of star-made shadows round,

Kindness must watch for me,

This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.

All is healed, all is health.

High summer holds the earth.

Hearts all whole.

Sure on this shining night

I weep for wonder,

Wand’ring far alone

Of shadows on the stars.

All is healed.  All is health.  It’s hardly how the world feels, these days, summer or no, eh? Hearts riven, not whole. Reading the news feels a bit the way I imagine Jesus felt with each crowd he faced: burdened, driven by the myriad troubles and their intractability; beset.  Shall I weep for those trapped in violence, whether in Kurdistan, Gaza, Syria, eastern Ukraine, or south Sudan? Or for those trying to work out a strategy to contain the ebola virus and those losing loved ones to its ravages and fearing for their own safety? Shall I weep for the children piled up on our borders, trying to flee the drug-and-poverty-fueled violence of their Central American hometowns?  Or those right here in Cambridge whose single mothers work minimum-wage jobs and cannot afford summer camp and oversight for them? And behind it all, the menace of global weather shifts, of cyber-hacking, of religious intolerance, of addiction?

 

No surprise that Jesus needed a “time out,” sending the disciples off across the lake while he dismissed the crowds he had just fed the bread and fish of the Eucharist.  No wonder he needed time on the mountain alone to pray, to allow the sloshing distress of so many to settle until his heart could, for a moment, be serene.

We ALL need “time out!”  To pretend otherwise is to pretend not to be human!  We all need a way to detach from the onslaught of strife and rivalry and tribal animosity, from the press of problems demanding solutions, from the “cry of the poor,” to allow our spirits to unwind and find rest.  Remembering that for Jesus, the “time out” wasn’t just the pursuit of solitude and peace; it was the pursuit of God, the forsaking of the immediate context of pain and division in order to return to the ultimate context of kinship and love. To be reminded that “Sure on this shining night, kindness must watch for us, this side the ground.” To step out of the artificial light and see the sweep of the Milky Way so vast above us, and to know ourselves held in that immensity, “hearts all whole.

 

Of course, the dominant image in our Gospel story from Matthew isn’t Jesus’ tranquility on the mountainside at all.  That is just the prelude, if you will, before the wind rises. (Or I prefer to think of it as “the preparation,” the re-centering necessary before Jesus could embark, unprotected, on foot, across the stormy waters to his embattled disciples in their wind-and-event-tossed boat.

 

And even Jesus’ wondrous water-walking is not the heart of the matter. Jesus’ walk is only setting the stage – setting the model! – for Peter’s wild plunge from the safety of the boat directly into the roiling water.

 

It’s a model for US to come down off the mountain – off the island, in my case! – and “take the plunge,” to make ourselves vulnerable to the whole wild maelstrom of world events, to set out upon them on mission without even a boats-worth of protection and insulation, to bring whatever we can to the problems around us. Like the Medecins Sans Frontiere nurses and doctors working the Ebola crisis, Jesus, fortified by prayer, sets the standard for unprotected participation in the struggle with “what ails us,” and the assurance that we need not be overcome, need not drown. That no matter what the storm, we reach out our hands, ultimately connected, kin to all who struggle, by God’s love, upholding one another.

 

One of the ways I was centering myself during my week off in Maine was by continuing to read the remarkable chronicle of the work of “Homeboy Industries,” Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Gregory Boyle. Just as Jesus’ prayer on the mountain provided context for his next steps in ministry, Fr. G’s stories provide the ultimate context of God’s kinship and love to buoy those who have been sucked down into the Davy Jones’ locker of gang violence by the undertow of poverty and addiction and family dysfunction, and we who feel helpless in the face of that storm.  Fr. G is himself a water-walker of the first order.  He lives, works, and serves God in the most embattled territory of our urban wasteland, the largely Latino housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village in East Los Angeles. If he once looks down to note the waves beneath his feet – and he often looks down – he surely takes on water and begins to sink, crying out just as Peter does in the Gospel story, “Lord, save me!” But Fr. G has lived on the water and in the storm long enough now to know he needs to keep tight hold of Jesus’ hand to stay afloat. And when he remembers to do so, then there, right there, not later in the boat or on land in Gennesaret, but right there in the midst of the storm-surge, when he grabs hold of faith and lets the fear and doubt go, he finds “high summer holds the earth.” He finds the face of God in the tattooed faces around him, the kinship of God in kinship with them.

 

Fr. G tells a story, “Fifteen years ago, Bandit came to see me.  He had been well named by his homies [ -- the young men in his gang -- ] being at home in all things illegal. He… had put in time running up to cars and selling crack in Aliso Village.  He spent a lot of time locked up and had always seemed impervious to help.  But then that day, fifteen years ago, his resistance broke.  He sat in my office and said he was ‘tired of being tired.’ I escorted him to one of our four job developers and, as luck would have it, they located an entry-level job in a warehouse.  Unskilled, low-paying, a first job.

 

Cut to fifteen years [and lots of support, counseling, reality-testing and spiritual cheerleading from Homeboy] later, Bandit calls me near closing time on Friday.  He now runs the warehouse, owns his own home, is married with three kids.  I hadn’t heard from him in some time.  No news is usually good news with homies.  He speaks in something like a breathless panic.  ‘G, ya gotta bless my daughter.’ ‘Is she OK?’ I ask. ‘I mean, is she sick, or in the hospital?’ ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘on Sunday, she’s goin’ to Humboldt College.  Imagine, my oldest, my Carolina, goin’ to college.  But …I’m scared for her.  So do ya think you could give her a little send-off ‘bendición,’ [blessing]?

 

I schedule them to come the next day to Dolores Mission …Bandit, his wife, and three kids, including the college-bound Carolina, arrive…[and] I situate them all in front of the altar, Carolina planted in the middle. We encircle her, and I guide them to place their hands on her head or shoulder, to touch her as we close our eyes and bow our heads.  Then, as the homies would say, I do a ‘long-ass prayer,’ and before we know it, we all become ‘chillones,’ [crybabies,]sniffling our way through this thing.”

 

Sure on this shining night, we weep for wonder…”

 

“I’m not entirely sure why we’re all crying,” continues Fr. G, “except, I suppose, for the fact that Bandit and his wife don’t know anybody who’s gone to college – except, I guess, me.  Certainly no one in either one of their families.  So we end the prayer, and we laugh at how mushy we all just got.  Wiping our tears, I turn to Carolina and ask, ‘So, what are ya gonna study at Humboldt?’ She says without missing a beat, ‘Forensic psychology.’ ‘Daaamn, forensic psychology?’ Bandit chimes in, ‘Yeah, she wants to study the criminal mind.’ 

 

Silence.  Carolina turns slowly to Bandit, holds up one hand, and points to her dad, her pointing finger blocked by her other hand, so he won’t notice.  We allnotice and howl and Bandit says, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be her first subject!’ We laugh and walk to the car.  Everyone piles in, but Bandit hangs back. ‘Can I tell you something, dog?’ I ask [him], standing in the parking lot.  ‘I give you credit for the man you’ve chosen to become. I’m proud of you.’  ‘Sabes qué?’ he says, eyes watering, ‘I’m proud of myself.  All my life, people called me a lowlife, a bueno para nada [good for nothing]. I guess I showed ‘em.’”

 

Hearts all whole. Peter. Fr. G.  Bandit himself.  Walking on water, hand in hand with Jesus.  Now, you all: OUT OF THE BOAT!  Let’s DO THIS!  Amen!

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