Sermon for the Patronal Feast of St James the Apostle, 2010 -- the 157th anniversary of the founding of the parish.
SJF • July 25 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
How fitting are these words for us to hear, we gathered here on this festival of Saint James the Apostle, our Patron! For although I have the privilege and responsibility to bear the title of Minister in a formal way, yet each of us is a minister in this place — and a minister beyond this place. Each of you has a ministry to carry out as much as I. I have spoken many times before of the responsibility each Christian bears to witness to the saving gift of Christ, to witness to the truth that is in you as you go about your daily life in the world at large.
This is a vital ministry, a life-giving and life-saving ministry, particularly in our day when the church has ceased to be at the center of society. When this parish was founded 157 years ago, those who gathered to begin that noble work were not such as we: working people, tradespeople, students, craftspeople, laborers. No, they were the cream of their society, men — and in those days they were as the founders all men, though women played a very important part, of which I will soon say more — but men of wealth and influence, captains of industry and commerce, leaders in trade and politics, mayors of cities, diplomats, and generals and admirals in the army and navy.
And yet all of them served — however high they were on the scale of earthly achievement, they did not think themselves too high and mighty to soil their hands with the hard work of providing a place for the people of God to worship. They did not flinch from digging deep into their own pockets to provide for a parish that would stand the test of time, stand for more than a century and a half, as a testimony and a tribute to their devotion and their ministry. And I want to name just a few of them, from those early days.
Gustav Schwab, one of the wealthiest men in this Borough in his day, chaired the building committee for the construction of this church, paid for many of its appointments, including all of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, from his own pocket, and worked long hours diligently to serve the people, without any reward. Truly he was a Minister who served.
George Cammann, of whom I’ve spoken before: a renowned physician of this City, the chief physician of the Home for Orphans and Foundlings, did not think to profit from the stethoscope that he invented, but made it free to the public domain, so that anyone could manufacture it, thus spreading the reach of this powerful tool for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Truly he was a great servant of all people.
Franklin Edson, the Mayor of the City of New York, served this parish as a vestryman for 21 years, taking time from his civic work to attend meetings and serve on committees with diligence and skill. Truly a Minister who served.
William B. Ogden, the first Mayor of Chicago and president of the Union Pacific Railroad, who loved Saint James so much that he loaned its name to the cathedral he founded in Nebraska, who was baptized and confirmed late in life, at the age of seventy-one at this very altar rail, who died and was buried from this place the following year — truly he was a great servant to the people.
Closer to our own time, some of you here will remember those gentle spirits Ralph, Ken and Gladstone, true gentlemen and gentle men, who served in this sanctuary and sang in this choir — or our dear Rita and Rosetta, just last year taken from us to serve in a greater choir.
And who can forget Florine, or Rhena, Mervis, Katherine, or Noel, Viola, Maggie, or Jane, or Mercedes, or Ira, or the names of so many other women who did so much to build up this church, to keep it going when others were ready to let it go. Recall that it was the women of the church who provided it with the chalices from which we still take the sacred blood of Christ, and the magnificent paten upon which rests his consecrated Body, when they dedicated those gifts in 1853. All of these, and so many others whom time will not permit their naming, were Ministers who served, great servants of the people.
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In this is one of the great mysteries of Christ: that whoever seeks greatness must do so not by exaltation but by service, not by putting oneself forward, but by putting oneself to work, not by standing prominently on the street-corner making an empty show of religion, but by stooping down to wash the feet of the poor, to bend one’s back under the cross of service day by day, that alone makes one worthy to bear the name of “Christian.”
Our Lord came not to be ministered to, but to be a minister to all; he came not to Lord it over us, but to raise us up by his own descent to the very depths. His was a baptism of pain and suffering that he knew he must undergo, his a death in which he knew he must go under: even unto the grave, even unto hell itself, to free from bondage all imprisoned there since the day our ancient parents fell from grace. For only in giving his life as a ransom for many, only by drinking that bitter cup of betrayal and death, only by this full and perfect sacrifice of himself once offered upon the cross could he be sure that nothing would be lost: to catch us all from falling, to lift us up from where we had already fallen, he would place himself beneath us all, beneath us as a servant, and a savior, to catch us as we fell, and to raise us up with him.
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Each of us is challenged to do the same: not seeking exaltation and glory, the best seats at the banquet and the roles of power and prestige, but instead diligently to seek for the opportunities to serve that present themselves to us day by day and year by year. To ask oneself: Is there some church committee or group that needs my help, that needs the skill I have, the gift God gave me, and yet which I am not using for God’s purposes? Am I storing up my treasure in a barn, or burying it in the field instead of putting it to work as God would have me do?
Or is there some opportunity for me to witness to the love of God to those with whom I work, by showing them the faith and joy of one who serves the Lord? Dare I pass among the byways of the outer world and keep such grace as I have known in this place secret? Dare I let it be said of me by those with whom I worked, after I am gone, “We never knew he was a Christian”?
Or is there in my neighborhood some task to be accomplished that needs my help, some task in which my hands might make the difference, and making the difference, further or complete the work? Do my friends and neighbors know me as one to whom they can turn for help, for comfort or for aid? How do I witness to my Lord to those among whom I live?
Or is there even in my own family someone from whom I have been estranged, some kith or kin with whom I have not spoken through some grudge or past wrong yet unforgiven or unrepented? And might my reaching out bring the balm of healing to that wound, in a true ministry of charity and love, a ministry commanded by our Lord, who urged us to forgive, even as we are forgiven?
These are the ministries that God places before us as he placed them before the disciples James and John. We do not know who will find themselves in the exalted seats of honor in the kingdom of God when he comes in glory to judge and rule the world. But we do know that the baptism of Christ is the baptism into which we have been baptized; that the cup from which he drank is offered to us still to drink from; that the cross he bore is offered to each of us day by day to bear — or to refuse. God offers us this choice, and offers us the promise that those who do God’s will on earth will truly find their reward. May we always choose to follow our Lord as ministers and servants, ministering to each other and to those whom God places on our path, that we may do the will of him alone to whom we now ascribe, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+