The Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude: October 27, 2013
Deuteronomy 32:1-4; Psalm 119:89-96; Ephesians 2:13-22; John 15:17-27
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning. It’s a great day at St. Michael’s. We are celebrating our second patronal feast– the day we remember St. Jude, and celebrate the story of St. Jude’s chapel, an important chapter in our history. And as if to mark that occasion, our bells started ringing again this week! They have been silent ever since I got to St. Michael’s this last July, as work was underway to repair the tower. The work was finished this week, and on Tuesday we again began to hear the beautiful sound of our bells, marking time and announcing the witness of St. Michael’s in this neighborhood.
St. Jude, of course, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus (along with St. Simon, also honored today, but only a sort of also-ran for our purposes). Jude is mentioned only a few times in the Bible, in lists of apostles. In the Roman Catholic Church he is the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations.
I wonder which of these attributions led to the naming St. Jude’s Chapel, created first in 1909 as a mission of St. Cyprian’s Church? I suspect many of you know the history of St. Jude’s Chapel, no doubt due to the excellent article by our own historian Jean Terepka (copies are available at the back of the church), but for those who are unfamiliar, let me briefly recap: in the early 1900’s the West 90’s between Amsterdam and Central Park West became predominantly African-American. The Chapel was created to serve this new population, and by the end of World War I it was a thriving enterprise.
Since the Chapel fell within the bounds of this parish, the vestry of St. Michael’s voted in 1919, “to take over St. Jude’s Mission on 99th Street, and to become responsible for [its] support and maintenance.”[i] The following year the vestry used a large bequest from Elizabeth Zimmerman to build a new building for St. Jude’s, which had been meeting in various temporary locations.
By June 1923 the Chapel boasted four services each Sunday with an average of 700 worshippers each week. The Chapel ran a day nursery, a thriving Sunday School, and athletic, musical and special interest groups for teenagers. All of this was done under the watchful eye of The Rev. Floarda Howard, the Chapel’s first and only spiritual leader.
Following World War II, however, the fortunes of St. Jude’s as well as St. Michael’s began to falter. The entire neighborhood became impoverished and fragmented. Interestingly, while both parishes struggled, St. Jude’s actually increased its membership while St. Michael’s shrank. But in the early 1950s Robert Moses, the powerful city planner who reshaped our city and region, proposed the Park West Village project, which led to “the systematic removal of residents and the razing of buildings.”[ii] St. Jude’s fell in the area that was to be repurposed, just east of where we are today, and in December 1956 Father Howard celebrated the last service in the chapel.
St. Jude’s furnishings were distributed among various parishes in the city. Fortunately for us, the altar was stored at St. Michael’s, and, although forgotten for many years, it was restored, reconsecrated, and placed in the Northeast corner of this room in 2007.
St. Jude’s is an important part of our history—and also, I believe, of our mandate for mission.
The Letter to the Church in Ephesus, from which we heard a short passage this morning, revolves around the mission for the Church as understood by the writer. In the early days of Christianity there was great debate about whether Jewish and Gentile Christians could be one church. The writer of the epistle sends a certain message that we are all one in Christ. Our divisions are dissolved by our common faith—by our common identity as the beloved of Christ. We become one at God’s table; in the fellowship of Christ we are all reconciled to God, and this reconciliation ends our hostility toward one another.
Well, at least that’s the theory. Sadly, Christian history is filled with examples of ways that we have built and maintained walls and clung to segregation.
The very creation of St. Jude’s Chapel came about because white Episcopalians would not worship with black Episcopalians. Rather than St. Michael’s serving all of the people of the neighborhood as complexions changed, a new church had to be created. And with that division came not one congregation struggling in hard times, but two. One wonders how the story of our parish might be different if we had been united, rather than segregated?
So much of human history seems to revolve around separation, and around the perception of difference. Here in the United States, and to be more specific here in the city of New York and in our parish’s own history, we see the ways that we have made ourselves smaller and our lives less through the sins of racial and economic segregation. As our eyes have been opened to see the false barriers we have erected, and as we have worked to dismantle those walls (an ongoing process, to be sure), we have begun to reap the riches that come from unity.
We have learned how to listen to each other’s stories; to value the many different roads that brought us to this place; and to cry and laugh together about the past and present. And all of these experiences equip us to move forward in a way that values all, and provides opportunities for everyone to flourish. Let me give you just two examples from the last week of such experiences I have had that fill me with hope.
Last weekend, I and three St. Michael’s parishioners (Chris Ashley, Roberta Holder-Mosley, and Ursula Moran) were in Sparkill, New York, in the first chapter of our participation in the diocesan Continuing Indaba process. The Indaba movement in the Anglican Communion began in 2008, when Archbishop Rowan Williams used this method of listening and speaking for that year’s meeting of all Anglican Bishops. Williams said, “We have given these [conversations] the African name of indaba groups, groups where, in traditional African culture, people get together to sort out the problems that affect them all, where everyone has a voice and where there is an attempt to find a common mind or a common story that everyone is able to tell when they go away from it. This is how we approached it. This is what we heard. This is where we arrived as we prayed and thought and talked together.”[iii]
Bishop Dietsche has asked us to participate in an Indaba group here in the Diocese of New York – in fact, our diocese is the first in the Anglican Communion to undertake Indaba as a diocese. We at St. Michael’s were paired with two other parishes – Christ Church in Sparkill, on the southern edge of Rockland County, and the Haitian Congregation of the Good Samaritan in the Bronx. We spent two days this last weekend in Sparkill, learning about Christ Church, talking and eating with their parishioners, spending the night in their homes, and worshipping with them on Sunday.
We came away understanding how much we have in common with this small congregation that seemed so very different at first glance. We left envious of some of the things that this village congregation has that we don’t. We developed a new appreciation for the treasures of St. Michael’s Church.
And, most importantly, we made friendships. As we embarked on this journey the bishop said that the expected outcomes of Indaba are deeper relationships, enriched lives, and a way to grow together. I know that Ursula, Robert and Chris would agree with me that these outcomes have already begun to develop. These two congregations are no longer strangers to us—they are our friends. And we look forward to welcoming the two Indaba teams when they visit here in January – and introducing you to them!
Until then, there are pictures representing these congregations on the St. Jude’s altar. I hope you will look at them, and hope you will carry these two congregations in your prayer, as they carry us.
The other hopeful experience I have had is embarking on the SNAP Challenge. You have probably read a description of this challenge in Looking Ahead: We have joined with other Christian and Jewish congregations on the Upper West Side to focus on food justice issues. Our first activity is to invite congregants to take the SNAP Challenge – to try living on just $5.00 a day per person for all food and drink. That’s the average amount of food assistance dollars that those who are hungry in New York City receive in what we used to call “food stamps.” It is our hope that this challenge will call attention to the hungry in our city, and to the fact that our government is reducing the already meager amount of support that we give to these people to ward off hunger.
While Don and I have not been able to begin the challenge until today, I have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues in the last week. (By the way, there is still time for you to take the challenge: I’m glad to give you more information!) I am the moderator of a blog through which we invited those taking the challenge to write about their experience. What I have seen is the creation of empathy. The simple act of being mindful about what we eat—and trying to imagine what it might be like to face these challenges for months or years, and not just a few days—seems far more effective than any sermon or stump speech. Bloggers have noted their own struggle, and then begun to imagine having to feel these constraints day in and day out. They have experienced the resentment of those who don’t have to be careful about their food budgets. They have noticed the lethargy that comes with poor nutrition. They have felt the stares that come from having to make choices in the checkout lane, putting back the items that can’t be afforded on a fixed budget.
Something as simple as the SNAP Challenge can bring us closer to the “one new humanity in place of the two” that the epistler speaks of in today’s reading. But in order to find that place of unity, we must make an effort. We must step outside of our own comfort zones and dare to see that we are just like those we call “other.” We must live into the reality that we are all the same at the Lord’s table—and then we must demand that all of society recognize that common humanity.
Here at St. Michael’s we have a history of segregation and isolation. But we also have a strong and more recent history of compassion and activism as a caring diverse community, one that more closely resembles the neighborhood in which we stand. I believe that St. Michael’s today is one of those places where we champion the things that unite us rather than divide us. But that embracing of unity in diversity is not guaranteed in the future. It is our job to continually model that unity for the neighborhood, the city, and for ourselves, and to speak out loudly on behalf of those that the world treats as less or as other, so that the value of that unity never diminishes, and our commitment never wanes.
“So then,” says the epistler, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
May St. Michael’s Church ever stand strong, recognizing the important part of its legacy that is St. Jude’s Chapel, and its foundation in Jesus Christ. May God take away the arrogance and hatred that affect our hearts, break down the walls that separate us, and unite us in bonds of love.[iv] And in the memorable words that were part of the struggle for civil rights in the last century, may we continue to ring out love between our brothers and our sisters all over this land. Amen.