PENTECOST SUNDAY, 2021,
Jesus said to his disciples, ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
I want to thank you all for taking the time and making the effort to celebrate this golden jubilee with me and Father Angelo and Father Richard.
Curiously, my first images of priesthood arise not from a church setting but from a ritual that my grandfather enacted each Sunday as the extended family gathered for dinner in the basement of my grandparent’s home in Brooklyn. Some of you have heard me tell this story before, but please bear with me for the sake of the others. My grandfather was a quiet, gentle man of strength. He had to be silent and strong to live with my grandmother.
Each Sunday morning, grandpa would take himself to early mass and return home via Cammareri’s bakery. This was the bakery featured in the movie “Moonstruck”. There, he would buy a large round loaf of Sicilian bread. Shortly before dinner grandpa would go into the cellar and draw a pitcher of wine from one of the barrels, he had pressed the previous fall.
He carried the wine to the table and picked up the loaf of bread. He would then trace the sign of the cross upon it with the tip of his knife, kiss the bread, cradle it in the crook of his arm and slice it for the meal. In this quasi-priestly ritual, my grandfather etched upon my consciousness the power of a meal to draw people together and how bread and wine could be invested with so much love and meaning, that they become bearers of something holy, and even sacred in themselves.
As a young boy growing up in a reasonably dysfunctional family, you know, a family much like all of our families, I struggled to make a sense out of life that could include suffering and to find a meaning in life that left room for absurdity.
At an early age, I began to be fascinated by the person of Jesus and drawn to the mystery of Christ. I respect the fact that God draws people to Himself in diverse ways. But for me, the Jesus story, as told through the lens of Easter faith, and those core paradoxes that light up the gospel: that control is borne of surrender; that giving generously is already to receive lavishly; that power is made perfect in weakness; that the way of the cross is the way of life, this Jesus story, was and continues to be most compelling, engaging and exciting. And again, for me, there is simply no person more real than Jesus, and no mystery more truth-filled than Christ.
In a world that can present us with a variety of challenges, from climbing the highest mountain to amassing the largest fortune, there can be no greater challenge than stiving to live the Sermon on the Mount. This, I believe, is the first challenge we should model for our children.
The vehicle through which I came to be exposed to this Jesus was the church. The church in its liturgy, its spirituality and especially in its priestly people – good people like Sister Gloria and the other nuns who taught us. These strong and faithful women were my first teachers in the faith. Gracefully, their strength was always tempered by their tenderness and compassion. This winning combination made them the best of teachers. Among the many things they taught me, was the vital principle that in our relationship with God nothing created need ever stand between the Lord and the integrity of our conscience.
As I moved on from their care and counsel, I moved into the Maryknoll community. Within this spirit-filled family of faith, I, along with my dear brothers, was biblically and theologically formed and fashioned, as we prepared to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Here I came to embrace the deep social implications of the gospel, and its preferential option for the poor and all those whom society would marginalize and even discard. It is here also that I formed deep and lasting bonds of friendship with a band of brothers, whose enduring commitment to their baptismal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood remain, until today, a loving support of my life of faith. I thank you my dearest friends for always being there for me, then and now. You mean and matter so much to me. And I love you deeply.
As our priesthood is a gift of God made vital through his church, I can’t think of a more fitting day to celebrate a golden jubilee than this wonderful feast of Pentecost. That day when the Spirit of God descended upon that group of bereft and frightened followers of Jesus and turned them into courageous heralds of a Gospel of justice, love, and peace. That day when the church, referred to in the Book of Common Prayer as a wonderful and sacred mystery, was born nearly two thousand years ago. Two thousand years – that certainly puts fifty years into appropriate perspective.
I am sure that some of you may be thinking, are you kidding, what wonderful and sacred mystery? It is all too easy to look across the expanse of those two millennia to identify so much that is embarrassing and shameful. The church as an institution can be and has been a whore to money and power more times than is comfortable to remember. As a community of believers, we Christians can be as broken and sinful as any. And when, would be Christians, have their heads screwed on wrong, it can get pretty ugly.
Yet, in spite of its sinfulness, the church remains a wonderful and sacred mystery, testified to by the holiness of so many of her children.
Among those icons of holiness, who embraced the Sermon on the Mount without compromise, I remember today, Bishop James Edward Walsh, through whose hands the priesthood was conferred upon me and thirteen of my brothers. James Edward cared for orphans, widows and lepers in China, and was given a twenty-year prison sentence for his love. His response upon release, a few years before his death, was an uncomplicated forgiveness for those who had imprisoned him and a continuing expression of uncomplicated affection for those whom he had gone to serve. Upon his release without notice in July 1970, he said, “I could just never feel angry with any Chinese. I love the Chinese people.”
Shortly after his arrival in China in 1918, James Edward penned the following, “I saw him in the rice field. The sweat of a hot day, under the South China sun, glistened on his brow. He was a big boy for his age, but there was no comeliness in him; nobody would have looked at him twice. ‘I choose you,’ sang in my heart as I looked at my awkward farmer boy, perfect picture of the underprivileged soul. ‘I choose you, and with you the countless millions of God’s children like you… Souls of no distinction, you draw and dazzle me. Shine on, farmer boy, symbol to me of the thousand million like you who drew the Son of God from heaven to smooth and bless your weary anxieties and your puzzled brows. I choose you and dedicate myself to you and ask no other privilege but to devote the energies of my soul to such as you.”
During his many years in Africa, “I choose you” was the song that sang in Father Richard’s heart.
During his many years at Saint Gregory the Great parish in Danbury, “I choose you” was the song that sang in Father Angelo’s heart.
During my ministry at St. Margaret’s in Staatsburg, Saint Andrew’s in Beacon and here at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz, I hope that some have heard that song “I choose you” singing in my heart.
When we keep it simple, when we set the uncomplicated priorities of the kingdom: justice, love, and peace, before all the ridiculous things that the world in its way, and so many church people in their way, would have us believe are so important, then the Spirit who entered the church as flames of fire still burns very much in evidence. When we keep it simple, we are the best that we can be as baptized and ordained priests, and the best that we can be as a church.
My own priestly journey has been somewhat unconventional, to say the least. It has brought me to the edge on not a few occasions. It was at the edge that forty years ago I came to be welcomed into the Episcopal Church at Christ and Saint Stephen’s parish in Manhattan. It was at the edge that I came to find and have a wonderful son in Robert, and, more recently, a wonderful daughter in Tracy, and three grandsons who daily compete among themselves to be the most wonderful. It was at the edge that I found and fell in love with John, who has always been full-on in support of my ministry as a priest, even as he lives in daily fear of the FBI showing up at our door.
The wonder of the edges in our lives is that here we are invited to let go again and again that we might fall gracefully into the merciful hands of a God who loves us unconditionally, to the very core of our beings, and beyond our wildest imagination.
My most recent years in ministry have brought me to this community of Holy Cross/Santa Cruz. For ten years now you have endured me and my style and what, to my surprise, Adele recently referred to as my “acerbic wit”. Whatever my wit, I like to see it as my antidote for any of us taking ourselves too seriously.
I hope and trust that by this point you have some sense of my own commitment to the uncomplicated priorities of the gospel and my deep care and affection for all of you. I am deeply graced by your allowing me to share your lives, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their hopes and in their fears, and, by your commitment to your own priestly vocation to be and build up the body of Christ in this small part of God’s wonderful world.
You teach me by example, the same strong, compassionate, courageous and surrendering faith as did the good sisters. You witnessed for justice, love and peace when you voted to remake two congregations into one congregation that worships in two languages but strives for unity in every other area of our common life. You witnessed for justice, love and peace when you voted to identify Holy Cross/Santa Cruz as a sanctuary church. You witness for justice, love and peace each time you man the Soap Closet, open the Thrift Shop and engage work on behalf of our immigrant neighbors. You witness for justice, love and peace when you support the truth, that preaching the gospel demands and requires that we make no peace with oppression. I am grateful and proud to serve, alongside our dear Madre Filomena, as your priest.
In a few moments, in our collective consciousness, we will journey back beyond a basement in Brooklyn to an upper room in Jerusalem. And together we will again invoke the power of the Holy Spirit; the power of our baptismal priesthood; the power of the Church’s ministry; and joyfully surrender all that we have and all that we are and make love, yes, make love, through the bread and through the wine, through the Body and through the Blood of Christ, with the Divine Lover of our souls.
May we always delight in being a kingdom of priests unto the Lord. Priests who like our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, strive to become the sacrifice that we offer. Amen.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 23, 2021