A Message from The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church
Delivered in her sermon at Saint James' Episcopal Church on January 15, 2012
Happy Anniversary – and welcome to a journey into the future. This year of celebration brings an invitation to reflect and give thanks, but it's not a stopping place. The church is always on a journey toward the reign of God, and that means it's always changing, because we're not there yet. We have always struggled with what the house of the Lord is supposed to be. Solomon wanted to remind God to keep a descendant of Israel on the throne – and the throne in those days meant head of the religious community, with no separation between church and state. Yet even in the midst of his prayer to keep the tradition, Solomon recognizes that God is usually up to something new: "Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!"
The people of St. James have built a lovely house over the last 250 years – not just a series of worship spaces and parish houses, but the spiritual house Peter reminds us about. Come to God as living stones, he says, so that you may be built up into a spiritual house that does God's holy, healing work in the world.
There's a fascinating twist in this reading from 1 Peter. On the Sunday after Easter in the medieval church, the second verse of that reading was sung at the beginning of the service (the Introit): "Like newborn infants, desire the milk of the Word, so you can grow up into health and salvation." In Latin, it begins, "Quasimodo," and the hunchback of Notre Dame received that name when he was discovered as a foundling, an abandoned baby, on the cathedral steps on that Sunday. Victor Hugo tells his story as an image of growing into a healed human being, in a not yet healed human community. Is there room in this spiritual house for the Quasimodos of this world? Peter is telling the newly baptized, and all Christian communities, that their future lies in spiritual milk, the milk of the Word incarnate, and growing toward healing, wholeness, holiness, or what's more often translated as salvation – for ourselves as part of the communities around us.
That is the fundamental work of a church. You've been at it for 250 years. As you dig deep into the details of your history over the coming year, you will certainly discover scandal and saintliness, and themes that transcend the years, still informing your life in community today. You may find other themes, but we already know about a continuing concern for education, worship, and the life of the larger community around you.
What was the community like here when St. James was a foundling? In 1762, things were just beginning to heat up in the colonies. Benedict Arnold had just turned 21 and started a business in New Haven. Nathan Hale and Noah Webster were still small children. George Washington was not quite 30, but already a seasoned military leader. This was a Church of England congregation, and whatever priest came to offer communion had been ordained in England. He was probably a loyalist, rather than a supporter of revolutionary ideas. Nobody ever got confirmed, because no bishops ever made the journey across the Atlantic. It would be more than 20 years before the new Episcopal Church emerged and got its first bishop – your own Samuel Seabury. This congregation almost certainly had its start because of the energetic work of a group of lay people, who in the colonies made most of the decisions about parish life and raised the funds to build and support the ministry of this congregation. There were probably slaves present in the congregation. The existence of this congregation meant that there was at least some measure of religious freedom in this colony.
Contrast that with the church in England, which had resident clergy, usually paid from the income of land belonging to the parish. It was an established church, with the king in charge, a bishop in the neighborhood, and relatively little lay participation in decision-making. Everybody in the local community was a member of the church, whether they wanted to be or not. Non-attendance at worship carried penalties. Other religious traditions were at least discouraged, and had their religious practice restricted. There were few or no hereditary slaves, but there were indentured servants, forced labor in poorhouses, the transportation of convicts, and many farmers tied to the land. England was just beginning to become conscious about freeing slaves. St. James started life in ways that were already quite different from life in its mother church.
I would encourage you to spend some time in the coming year reflecting on how this community has changed, and how current realities are challenging you to continue to grow into a community of healing. You will be able to name far more of those changes than I, but I would note a few. Immigration continues, although it's from other parts of the world than a few decades or centuries ago. Younger generations around us do things differently. For one, they don't join churches or organizations the way many people here have done. They have much less interest in denominational boundaries, but they are deeply hungry for communities of belonging, holy practice, and spiritual exploration. We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than most of us can imagine: climate, population, economics, government, communication. This world is still threatened with destruction, from war or human neglect in caring for it. In the midst of all those radical changes, what is most needed is still the house of the Lord, temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ – the community of healing which gives itself away for the world.
This amazing body called "church" brings people into it to be formed and fed and healed and then sent out into the world as agents of healing. We can't just camp out here, awaiting either Armageddon or the Rapture. That's some of what Jesus is railing against in the Temple. His table-turning challenges those who use it for their own ends, who keep the business turned inward, rather than moving out into a world in need of the healing presence of God.
Jesus reverses the pattern that tends to see the house of the Lord as a private club for those who serve themselves. He invites the wounded in, and rejoices with the children, and when the clubbers complain about the noisy children, he makes a tart rejoinder about children praising God because that's what they've been created to do. It's actually a misquote of Psalm 8, which says something rather more critical, essentially, that God has made children's voices to confront the enemy . The most significant things we can learn may be the purpose of the spiritual house, and how it's built and remodeled.
God is always doing something new, and it often comes to us through those younger than ourselves. The "child shall lead them" includes the five year old teaching his grandmother how to put new apps on her phone. This Church learned a lot when we opened the communion table to children before they were confirmed – and some of the younger among us continue to ask why there is any fence around this table of healing. Victor Hugo challenged us about the rejection of children of God like Quasimodo. What do today's children, youth, and young adults say to a 250 year old church? What are the hungers of the young in the community around you? They are likely about meaning in life, education and life opportunity, relationships that mean something, and having a community of belonging.
Wisdom, and you have wisdom in abundance, comes from yearning for the spiritual milk that can be found in a community like this one. If you keep yearning, and helping others answer those hungers, you will grow and flourish in the coming years, and you will likely still be here as a community of healing a quarter millennium from now. Keep yearning – and blessings on the journey!
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