The Feast of Saints Simon and Jude: October 29. 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of Saint Michael’s Church
Happy St Jude’s Day, everyone. On this day each year we remember and honor the work and mission of St Jude’s Chapel, a church that St Michael’s planted in 1909 and supported for many years. St. Michael’s, thriving and socially conscious, built a lovely worship space and settlement house in 1921, a focus for the African-American community with worship, sports teams, choirs, Sunday School, and social clubs. 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. St Jude’s was closed and torn down in 1957, to make way for the construction of Park West Village. The altar was brought here and stored on the porch until it was finally restored and installed there at the back of the church in 2007, our bicentennial year. The hard tragedy of this story is that St. Jude’s was founded in 1909 because African-Americans were meant to stay separate from worshipers at St Michael’s. They were not made much more welcome in 1957. Only the altar, and a stalwart few parishioners including our own Lucille Donovan, made their way here in the end.
I think it is by God’s good grace that on this feast day, we are granted the reading from Ephesians that we heard today. The writer assures his listeners, a diverse gathering of Jews and Gentiles in Asia Minor, that Christ ‘has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.’ That there are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens, all of us members of the household of God, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. That Christ creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. These are words that judge this history of St Michael’s and St Jude’s – and words that continue to call us to do better.
For the writer of Ephesians, the wall in question was a very real one. In the temple in Jerusalem, the ancient historian Josephus reports that on the stone wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the temple proper was an inscription in Greek and Latin ‘which forbade any foreigner to go in, under pain of death.’ The wall caused a great deal of conflict and, sometimes, even violent protests – one example being a story from Acts, when Paul is accused of bringing a Gentile past that wall into the temple.1
The audience in Asia Minor listening to this was a long way from the temple in Jerusalem. But if they missed that reference, they would certainly catch the next one about aliens and citizens. To be a citizen in the Roman empire was a rare and exclusive status – so valued that some of those conquered by Rome would pay a great deal of money for citizenship. The claim that in Christ all are citizens would have meant something real.2
And if even that missed them, all the talk of peace would have done it. For people living under the Pax Romana, ‘peace’ meant an enforced peace, sustained through military dominance. Roman emperors were hailed as the semi-divine bringers of a peace that would settle the turbulent rivalries of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, lauded in public speeches as ‘peace-bringers.’ That peace would be maintained with terror – specifically, the terror of crucifixion for anyone who tried challenge peace on the Empire’s terms. Just such a crucified one is claimed by the writer of Ephesians as the peace-bringer, not the emperor – treasonous talk.3
That’s what the words of this letter meant in the time that it was written. But it’s not so much different today. In a time of national debate over who is a citizen and who is not, when walls along the border are seriously contemplated, when groups use violence to assert their ideas, these words ring out even more starkly. Would that this work of reconciliation were complete. It feels like an ever-receding goal.
All of this makes what we do here at St Michael’s so very important. Church is not just a place to come and be nice. Church is meant to be a place where the barriers are broken down – to be witness and reconciler to the divided world. Which means that, as one writer puts it, ‘what we do here is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sundays…where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we scrupulously avoid the rest of the time. The church is the daring practice of a new politics – a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross.’ Being part of this church is deep stuff. This is a place where people of different kinds come together, where we work on the barriers that divide us – including barriers of our own making, in our own history. This is a place where we refuel to go out and tackle those barriers in the world. None of this is easy. But it is all the work of a Christian community – work none of us are exempt from.
I’ve mentioned before the idea from St Benedict of the community as a school of faith. Here in a parish church we come to learn and to practice. Here we have a place to try out what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. Which doesn’t mean we do it perfectly, by any means. We mess up in church as much as anyone does outside of it, maybe more. But if we are living out our faith, we keep trying, repenting, apologizing, re-knitting bonds that have frayed – over and over again. We get honest with ourselves and one another. We practice reconciliation because that’s the only way to keep going.
And there are some very practical implications for that idea. For one, we don’t come to church as isolated individuals. We aren’t Christians by ourselves alone; we’re not spiritual seekers by ourselves alone. Everything we believe or desire plays out in how we are with others. In a world where everything is individualized, this is hard to let sink in – there are plenty of churches where members feel more like consumers than parts of the body. And there are plenty of ways that each of us act just that way – coming and going based on our own schedules and inclinations; talking to some and not others based on our own proclivities; pursuing our own pet projects based on what we alone have determined to be important. It is hard to allow ourselves to be healed from our innate individualism and consumerism – but it’s a piece of the work we need to do here.
Which also means that we have to work on our priorities. Church isn’t meant to be just one more in a list of activities and affiliations in our lives – just as focusing on our spiritual growth, making time for prayer and scripture, isn’t just one more in a list of things we get to if there’s time – just as giving of our resources to God’s work isn’t just something we do if we happen to have something left over. The tasks we are about here, the work that we are trying to focus on, are profoundly important: it’s the work of growing in our relationships and love of God. It’s worth our time and attention; it’s worth making our priority. It’s worth doing first, because when we put God first, other things have a way of falling into place. Ask any of our elders, or our super prayer warriors, or any of the other deeply faithful people around here. It’s worth making time for God, because doing so makes everything else possible. It makes true reconciliation real.
And being part of church also means that we recognize that other people need us. It’s worth our showing up and committing not simply because it feeds us and grows us; it’s what fuels other people also. When we are here, we help make the community that other people need. When we are here, we provide the space and welcome for other people to come into. When we are here, we help feed and nourish and heal others who are suffering. When we aren’t here, there’s less of all of that for everyone.
The letter to the Ephesians goes on to say that we are not just united citizens of God’s kingdom – we together are the holy temple, the dwelling place of God. God chooses to make a home with us; God chooses to use us, fragile and uncertain as we are, to build with. It’s an awesome thought – a holy risk. God worked 2000 years ago through a divided people uncertain of their future in an oppressive regime. God has continued to work throughout the centuries through people who exclude and abuse one another, and who are excluded and abused. God even now is working through us, in all of our divisions and lack of faith, to bring about reconciliation. It’s a work in progress. And it’s a work that God will not give up on.
Ultimately the work here at St Michael’s is God’s work – throughout our checkered history, now, and on into what will probably continue to be our checkered future. We are human, after all, and we fail, over and over again, to love one another well. Yet God is about something here, through us and despite us. The more we participate in the work of love, the more that work can be accomplished. We are brought here by God’s grace; we are the dwelling place of God. May we find ourselves at home in God, and make this place a home for all. Amen.