St. Jude’s Day – The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude (trans.)- Sunday, October 30, 2016

Deuteronomy 32:1-4 | Ephesians 2:13-22 | John 15:17-27 | Psalm 119:89-96

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

Today we celebrate the feast of St Jude – actually the feast of St Simon and St Jude, but we sort of leave Simon out. We celebrate Jude because of the history of St Jude’s Chapel, a mission supported by this parish until it was torn down in 1957. St Jude’s Day is part of our string of saints’ days that we mark in the fall, that begin, continue, and end our stewardship pledge drive – starting with an archangel, moving through an apostle, and ending with all the saints, next week, as we bring forward our gifts and celebrate this community.

So as I did with St Michael, it seems that first, we should start with a few words about St Jude. Jude was one of the twelve disciples around Jesus, though he’s only named in the lists in two of the gospels, Luke and John. He may be the same person as Thaddeus, who makes the list in Matthew and Mark – maybe Thaddeus was a nickname of some sort for Jude (maybe meaning brawny-chested, but that seems a little weird). There’s not much about Jude in scripture, but tradition says that Jude and Simon traveled together as missionaries and were martyred together in 65 AD, so that’s perhaps why they share the feast day. Along with Bartholomew, Jude is one of the patron saints of the Armenian Church. There’s an epistle of Jude in the New Testament, but that Jude seems to be a different one; and the other well-known Jude-as caused such trouble for the name that poor St Jude became known as the saint of last resort: i.e. if you were working your way through the apostles to get them to intercede for you with God, you’d only pray to Jude as a last resort, if you were really desperate, lest you accidentally rouse the wrong Jude. St. Jude’s eagerness to prove himself not THAT Jude makes him particularly quick to respond to lost and desperate causes, or so some say. And, my personal favorite, tradition holds that Jude was vegetarian.

So much for the legacy of the saint himself. The legacy of the chapel of St Jude’s, however, is much more potent. St Jude’s Chapel began in 1909 on W. 99th St. as a mission station for the growing population of African-Americans in the neighborhood. St. Michael’s, a thriving and socially conscious community at the time, supported St Jude’s and built a lovely worship space and settlement house that opened in 1921, a focus for the African-American community with sports teams, choirs, Sunday School, social clubs, and worship. But when the Upper West Side fell on hard times in the early mid-century, St Michael’s did too, and could not afford to continue supporting St Jude’s, despite the booming membership of the chapel. So St Michael’s did not resist Robert Moses’ redevelopment plans for the neighborhood, and St Jude’s was closed and torn down in 1957, to make way for the construction of Park West Village. The church furnishings were distributed to various other churches, and the altar was brought here, where it languished on the porch until it was finally restored and installed there at the back of the church in 2007, in our bicentennial year. Having the altar here slightly redeems the scandal and tragedy of this story: those who attended St Jude’s were not made welcome at St Michael’s, either in 1909 or in 1957. African-Americans at St Jude’s were meant to stay separate from worshipers at St Michael’s. Only the altar, and a stalwart few parishioners including our own Lucille Donovan, made their way here in the end.

So we celebrate a saint whose real story we don’t much know, and who has been deemed a kind of heavenly hanger-on, only to be prayed to when you have run out of other options. And we celebrate a history of good ministry and mission in two congregations, but tainted by racism and segregation. It is a complicated legacy that we honor today.

So it seems as good a time as any to highlight the development of our corner property. The good news is that we think we are at last close to seeing something built on that ground that will provide income to support the future of the church. The wardens and I will be telling you all about that in the forum following the service, should you choose to attend. Those of you who have been around for the last decade know that the history of the corner has also been complicated – with decisions that seemed right at the time, economic downturns, a lawsuit, changes in zoning. It is not a beautiful narrative; the ending may not be everything we ever hoped and dreamed for. But it will, I believe, sustain our ministry going forward, give us the funds to care for our buildings, and free us to build on into the future. A complicated legacy. And yet something that God will use despite it all.

The letter to the Ephesians we heard today talks about us as such a building, a temple built on the legacy of those who came before us. The writer notes that we are “members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” Our house is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – which sounds perfect, except when we consider the apostles whose CV is less impressive, like our saint of last resort. In Jesus, the writer says, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord – which sounds great, except when we know that some of the parts were built imperfectly, with compromised intentions and wrong-headed ideas about other members of the household. But in Jesus, the writer concludes, we are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Even with all that is not sound about our building technique and our materials, somehow God chooses to live here anyway. That’s grace for you.

And indeed, there is grace in our story. Like many churches, like many human communities, like many human lives, our past is not perfect. The past problems bleed into our present and cause pain, the ongoing legacy of racism one particularly virulent example in our culture and in our own relationships here. Past decisions affect our present, like what we can and can’t do with the corner. There are things that legacy leaves us to correct and work on, and so we do, to the best of our ability. We struggle with issues of racial justice and try to enter those thorny topics through books and discussions and sometimes, heartfelt real conversation. We disagree and talk through concerns about our property and make hard decisions about finances and future. We pray and have coffee and ask forgiveness and try to start anew, over and over again. That’s the work of human community, good intentions and mistakes and all.

But there is still the cornerstone of Jesus Christ on which we build. We are a holy temple not because we and our ancestors did everything right – but because God makes us so. God chooses this community of St Michael’s, the community of Jesus’ followers around the world, the community of all who try to love God and neighbor, as a living temple, a dwelling place, God’s home. Our task is not to live up to an unattainable ideal of perfection, or to dissolve into conflict when we can’t – but to let God mold us from within, shape us around God’s will and mission in the world. Our prayer is for God to breathe God’s Spirit through us and give us life, taking our shoddy, badly made bricks and sloppy mortar and making them live, not just dry stones but living tissue and bones, the body of Christ. Living out and being God’s mission here on W 99th St, as all those many people of St Jude’s and St Michael’s tried to do before us. Living out and being God’s people in every part of our lives in this world.

And so we stick with our mission and stick with each other, and give to support the work of this place – not because here we find perfect human community or the fulfillment of the kingdom of God on earth, but because here we see God at work. God loving us and teaching us to love one another, God’s Spirit guiding our process and redirecting us when we go astray. God showing us in loving judgment where we are wrong, and leading us in loving desire where we should go. This place helps us learn God’s ways; each one of us brings a piece of wisdom to share; each one of us gains something to go and live out in the world. We pray in the prayer for Simon and Jude’s day that their faithfulness and zealousness for mission will be alive in us, in our ardent devotion as we make known the love and mercy of Jesus. That pretty well says it – that we, built on their foundation and the foundation of those who before us have tried to live out God’s love, will live that love out as well. May God indeed dwell here, and lead us forward. Amen.