It is truly unnerving to think that this is the next to the last time I will speak from this pulpit as your rector. The anticipation of all the changes weigh upon us both. The First Sunday of Advent urges to “Keep Awake.” There is a sense of urgency in Mark, almost as if he were facing all the possible Y2K problems that are so direly predicted. What if the world falls apart on January 1, 2000? What if the computers go haywire, the nuclear plants melt down, and catastrophes strike? Are you ready? Will you be awake?
If I were God, which is surely a scary thought, the biggest frustration would be how people that I love take God for granted. It is easier to go to sleep and pretend none of this is important in my life, than to make God a part of who I am. Jesus implores us to remember that God matters in our lives.
Speaking of taking for granted, I’ll wager there’s a lot about this place St. James’s that you do not know. For instance, did you know that this pulpit survived the fire in 1994? And did you know that it is the original pulpit from the first St. James’s Church founded in 1835 at 5th and Marshall Streets downtown? The first rector of St. James’s was a man named Adam Empie, who came from Wilmington, N.C., and brought with him the name of his Church, St. James. By the way, my first Church job was in Wilmington, North Carolina, which seems like a connection from God.
In the 1840’s St. James’s was already playing a major role in the Richmond community. The earliest parish register dates from 1838, and the very first entry under a column entitled “Charity Fund” reads: “1838 Fair for poor woman $3.00.” Other notations of giving follow, such as collections for a destroyed Texas Church, books for Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria and fuel for the Germans of Richmond. Of all the entries one of the most interesting appears in 1850 when $5.00 was appropriated for Syrian Christians and a short time later additional monies for a Church in Monrovia, Liberia in Africa. So you can see that from our very beginnings of our parish family, we have been committed to mission, even world mission.
In 1854 Dr. Joshua Peterkin arrived to be rector of St. James’s. Under his leadership, the congregation donated over $3000 for foreign and domestic missions. Even more importantly, Dr. Peterkin had pews in the gallery set aside for blacks in the community, and black children were admitted to the Sunday School, which was undoubtedly a controversial move in this city at that time in the nation’s history. Peterkin became a member of the special “committee on the Religious Instruction of the Colored Population,” formed in 1858 to attract more blacks to the Episcopal Church. In 1863 St. Philip’s Church was built on Fourth Street just a few blocks from St. James’s. In 1863 the famous “Southern Churchman” credits St. James’s with beginning the Sunday school of this new parish and supplying most of its teachers. So there was historical precedent for the work we tried to do with Fourth Baptist Church on racism in our day.
When I look at the time that I have spent with you—almost six years now—I am proud of the strong and growing sense of mission in this Church. We have rekindled the Spirit of those early days when St. James’s lived so enthusiastically into its mission. Today we will send yet another mission team to Africa. In the past six years, mission work has exploded—despite the time, energy, and funds required to rebuild our burned sanctuary. We have refused to become concerned only with our needs, and we have returned to the courage of forebears.
When I came here and read the inscription over the Church doors and altar, “Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers only,” I knew it was a place I wanted to be. Mission is the soul of this parish.
For some my ministry here has been controversial, because I have taken steps to improve what was not working, to be involved in mission around the world, and to be involved in the African American Community. We have done things, which have succeeded, and others that have failed, but we have not failed to try. When I think of St. James’s, I do not think of this lovely sanctuary—as beautiful as it is. I remember the sweaty faces in Honduras, our parishioners learning to be patient at the Peter Paul Christmas Party, which never runs smoothly, or the sacrifices that many of you have made for others in silence. Here is the soul of this Church. When I go to Atlanta to be Bishop of that Diocese I will bring with me the spirit and love of this congregation determined to be missionaries. The beauty of the Body of Christ is that it packs and travels well.
The early Christians understood that the only way to “understand” the cross is to see ourselves on it, to be participants in the crucifixion, not bystanders, the indifferent or callous ones, the anonymous and noisy crowd, but to die with Jesus, to be Christs ourselves. It means to risk our own agony and to be crucified for others. When the early Christians told us to embrace the cross, it was not for our personal salvation, but rather that we embrace others the way Jesus did.
Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, tells this story on himself.
In 1977 I went to my first Harvard hockey game. No one ever expected to pay attention to varsity sports, and I was no hockey fan. But to my surprise I enjoyed it. It is a beautiful game and though I can’t skate and never saw the game before, I found my self watching with enthusiasm. During the first period, I sat rather soberly; trying to figure out who was who. Dartmouth scored. During the second period, I hoped Harvard might accomplish something, and they did. In the crucial third and final period, I was embarrassed to find myself on my feet yelling and cheering, exhorting and scolding, investing more energy than I thought I had in a silly little game the results of which would do nothing to bring in the kingdom of God. And yet, for one critical moment, I would gladly have thrown on a pair of skates, raced out on the ice, thrown my body on the line and saved the day for dear old Harvard. I didn’t, and Harvard lost. And I learned the bittersweet joys of spectator sports: to observe but not to share is half of a loaf: there is no substitute for participation. Even defeat is somehow more bearable having been involved in the struggle.
Now imagine if we could capture the same energy some of us have for UVA or VMI or Virginia Tech football and use it in the Body of Christ. There would be no stopping us. Being a Christian is like playing the game for Jesus—the sidelines are only half a loaf.
Dorothy Sayers, a British writer of a generation or so ago, rebuked the church with some really stinging words. She said, “you have the greatest good news on earth–the incarnation of God in human life–and you treat it as an insignificant news item fit for page 14 of the chronicle of daily events!”
The greatest power that the devil has over this congregation is its need to conform. Someone actually complained to the vestry during our rebuilding that St. James’s was getting too much attention in the newspaper and on TV. Some of us think that being a Christian means we ought to be staid, rich and respectable. The only problem with that is that Christianity has never done well being staid, rich and respectable. This demon comes in all kinds of guises—usually for the Church’s good or saying things like “We’ve never done it that way before.” St. James’s: do not conform to values of Richmond, rather be conformed to values of Jesus. We have shared a great heritage, which we forget at our own peril. We were born a mission Church.