State of the Parish, 1/27/2019

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From our rector, the Rev. Clarence E. Butler.
3 Epiphany, 27 January 2019​
St. James​, Somerville

State of the Parish

Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body….God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body as he chose.
–I Cor. 12. 12f.

And Jesus said to them, “Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”
–Mk 16.15

Sometimes a preacher gets lucky and Today is such a day for me, because I want to share some thoughts with you that concern us as a parish, and to back me up, I have St. Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth and from the Gospel according to Mark, not Luke which is that appointed for the third Sunday in Epiphany.

Today would have been the day of our Annual Meeting, had a snowstorm not caused us to delay that gathering by a week. And again, I am fortunate, because I am able to share with you thoughts which may, so I pray, give us a framework for our business meeting next week. Whatever I may next say, can be summarized with the following: I am, by my ordination, a clergyman and I am privileged to serve you here at St. James. You are the ministers.
As your priest, I am moved to share with you, the ministers at St. James, my sense of “State of the Parish,” which I confess to be slightly longer than my usual 93 minutes-long homily.

The words of the Great Commission given by Jesus are ultimately the essence of why we do, what we do. Paul provides you and me with a pragmatic commonsensible means of understanding our respective roles in carrying out Christ’s Commission. Our responsibility, mine as an ordained person and you as ministers of God’s word, as based on the vow we took at our baptism, is not solely, or even primarily, for our own selves and comfort, but to further the message of Christ. The difficulty in fulfilling that Great Commission lies not, as may often be thought, in our readiness or ability to undertake the task of spreading the gospel. Rather, it is our misunderstanding of what it means to preach, that has intimidated us, such that we stand back and wait for the professionals, individuals like myself, to preach.

As I look again at that Great Commission, this is what I see. Jesus sent his followers out by twos, to proclaim that the kingdom of God was near, and they were to make other disciples, who also would go out and tell, i.e. preach to others about the kingdom of God. If you have a moment later, when you get home, you may wish to do a bit of research on your own.Should you look up the word “preach,” you may be surprised by what you find.

What you will discover is that the word “preach” is rooted in the Latin word “praedicare,” “prae + dicare,” which means simply to proclaim publicly. Over the centuries, as with many terms which we have come to use, we have allowed a change, and I believe in this case a corruption in meaning, such that now only specific individuals or classes of individuals may “praedicare.” However, if we return to the source, i.e. to Jesus and his Great Commission, we will be reminded that he did not establish a priestly class, a class of professionals. Rather, it is the responsibility of every follower of Christ to praedicare, to proclaim publicly. So, that is misunderstanding number one.

I suggest to you that misunderstanding number two is about what we should preach. Since the day of the Ascension, we Christians have disputed with each other regarding the content of the message about the kingdom of God. We have fought wars with each other, as well as against non-Christians, and although the religious wars that followed the tacking of the theses of Martin Luther onto the doors of a parish church stand out most in our minds, let us not forget the real physical, bloody and often deadly confrontations that took place, as the Nicene Creed and other historical church documents and doctrines were being sorted out. We Christians, guided by our limited human experience, have always sought to establish orthodoxy, to set the right way, to declare the sole way of telling folks what Christ was and is all about.

Yet, Christ defies simplification and regimentation, defies being boxed in. And that has always been so. On the one side, we hear from a Christ who says “seek you first the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is near you.” On the other side, we hear from a Christ who says “if you do not treat your neighbor as self and do not care for the less fortunate and the creation, you will have no place in the kingdom of God.” And for me, these words of Jesus are not a binary choice, an either – or.

By going back to the Church Registry which I, as your priest, am required by Canon Law of the National Church and our diocese to keep, you might be interested in knowing the number Eucharistic Celebrations I led and recited those awesome words, “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” at this altar behind me. Those statistics tell the number of times you have come forward to receive the Body of Christ. That number tells us, you and me, that you, as individuals in this congregation, have been faithful in keeping that commandment of Christ, “do this for the remembrance of me.”

Our parish commended to God’s eternal care the souls of four of our members, parishioners or relatives of parishioners. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercies of God, rest in peace. I mention this ministry, for it is a form of preaching, of praedicare. However sad we were to have to take leave of these dear friends, their passing gave us an opportunity to declare once again the significance of life and that an earthly death is a part of living, and to reaffirm our hope in the resurrection in the eternal kingdom of God.
I refrain from repeating here the specifics of those statistics, for they are given in my annual report which you will get in printed form next week. However, as important as it may be to keep them, they are only a sign of the vitality which abounds in this parish. Those statistics are like photographs which we take. They serve to remind. What those data do not tell us, are the number of woman and man hours all of you have volunteered in this place and in our community, in order to declare publicly the love we believe God has for us in this place.

The receptions that followed our services of Christian Burial, the number of hours we open up this buildings to non-member for ESL or AA or deanery functions, in the preparation of the altar for Eucharist, the hours spent cleaning and securing our space in case of emergencies, the hours of simply smiling upon meeting someone on the street—this, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is to preach, praedicare. You preach the gospel of Christ, you tell of the kingdom of God, probably best when you do not have to prepare a script or open a Bible or The Book of Common Prayer. You preach when you least likely are conscious of preaching.

The data which you can read in the Annual Meeting reports point to the past, in that we recall what we have done, or left undone, in the name of Christ. However, those same data point in a rather curious way to the future. As we look at and reflect on them, we are bound to ask ourselves, because we are a congregation with an inquiring mind, what we can do more of and better. Therefore, looking ahead is as much a part of the State of the Parish Address. And it is to future preaching that I, as priest, and you as ministers now turn.

Our parish is a historical parish. Of this we should be proud. However, we may not, and cannot, allow historical fact alone to define us, or to limit us. I believe, more than I can ever tell you, without belting it out or dissolving into a pool of un-Anglican-like emotions—I believe that we were placed here, in this location, in order to make a difference. The founders of this parish and those who supported it in so many ways over the early decades and now centuries, did not do so thinking, “aha! Just getting this edifice built is our sole aim.” That you and I worship in this holy space on the corner of Broadway and Clarendon is concrete and living proof that their aspiration reached beyond a building, beyond their own life time.

Like previous generations, we, too, cannot sit on our laurels, we cannot stand still. We must be on the move. And above all, we should not be discouraged because of our small numbers. I believe, we are poised to move from a passive guardianship to one of greater active involvement. We are poised to declare publicly, i.e. to praedicare. One of my first pastoral visits since my arrival among you, now quite a year ago, brought me into contact with a parishioner who said to me, as she sat in her room in a rehabilitation center, ‘yes, we are right now small in number, but I can recall even slimmer days.’ Those words gave me such encouragement, that I, with both feet still on the ground when I left her, was floating on clouds.

I dream often about St. James Church, not about St. James the buildings, but of you the ministers, the people of God who have privileged me with the responsibility of being your priest. Your dedication, your tenacity, your honesty, your hopefulness is infectious. You know that I come out of an academic background, where everything was more or less secured through healthy endowments and an annual influx of new students. Now I dare you to dream with me. Dare to imagine the possibilities, and not be cowed by numbers that, when compared to what you and I may have experienced 20 years ago, would lead some to believe that God has withdrawn God’s mantel and taken it elsewhere.

Size is relative, and we should never forget that the first Jesus Movement began with a small group. Origins are about small. In the world of finance and commerce, almost every large entity in the Fortune 500 grouping, began small, often in a basement or garage or in a peanut field. I believe that God has called us to reconsider our origins. There is a reason that we are here and not somewhere else, and we must discern what that reason is for us here and now.

We are not defined by maintenance. We are not passive guardians of an obvious and elegant legacy. We are here to listen to God, to make it possible to bring people to a place where they, too, can listen. We are here to extend ourselves to others, not to sit on what we’ve got.
So, you say, Butler, those are highfalutin words. What do you have in mind and how do we actualize the dream? Let me respond by saying, for me that is not a rhetorical question, but a real challenge, a good challenge. And you are going to join hands with me in realizing our mutual dream, for I am not St. James Church. I am a mere servant. We are in this preaching business together or not at all. I suggest to you, for starters, two possibilities, and also for starters, know that I am not delusional. I know that to fulfill them may not be easy. But we have to start somewhere and sometime.

It was one of you who suggested recently very quietly a ministry which rings true to every community. Why not begin small, she said, with serving soup once a month to anyone who comes, but especially to senior citizens in our neighborhood who might jump, well may not jump, but be open to coming over into our space for fellowship. That is to begin small.
I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks that I believe there is widespread confusion about who should preach and what he or she should preach about. We have allowed ourselves to be intimidated by the remnant medieval fear of hellfire and brimstone, as preached unfortunately still today by well-meaning clerics and by many self-serving clerics, so much so that when we hear the word “preach,” i.e. “praedicare,” our minds go immediately into a “save his soul” mode. I do not have time here to discuss the flaws of this approach to theology, and so I ask that you take out your Bibles when you get home and read the Letter of James. It’s an easy read, for it is somewhat repetitive. Suffice it to say that God, in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah, is the sole saver of souls, not we.
However, even if we are to save souls from hellfire and damnation, we must first have souls to save. But before souls can be saved, according both to Jesus and James, a prior step must be undertaken. We have to get people’s attention. We have to reach out to them. How might we at St. James accomplish this form of “praedicare?”
Even before you were daring enough to call me to this position, I had spent the bulk of my life in academe, at the college and university level. My parents, assisted by others who loved and cared for me, drummed into me the efficacy and value of education. I feel lost, if I do not have several books open in various stages of being read
Think about it. In what language are the textbooks in our country published? Students cannot perform math or understand the Preamble to the Constitution or our Bill of Rights, if they cannot apprehend the language in which those books are written. If people cannot read, they cannot claim their full citizenship in this kingdom, about which they are more apt to be concerned than the kingdom in the hereafter. Resignation and despair set in, on the one hand. On the other, frustration is incubated and hatches, and out of that frustration and sense of hopelessness comes anger. I am convinced that we have more young people in Somerville, children really, who need basic tutoring and mentoring, than all the programs combined can accommodate. As an educator, I see English language acquisition as key to the addressing a critical need.

We at St. James possess invaluable assets. I believe that God gave us an intellect which we are required, by God, to use. What if we could open our building to an after school tutoring program, in which we spend several hours per week helping children who need support in reading and similar skills? Yes, that requires meeting with school officials and getting additional volunteers, but should we not dream?
We have at St. James space. We have access to funds that by the rules of disbursement can be used only for outreach. We have a nationally ranked university as neighbor whose students are engaged in public and community service. Dare to dream with me. Dare to share your own dreams with me and with others in and outside our congregation. Dare to praedicare, to proclaim publicly with me, and let us start by enhancing the lives of people in our community.

And Jesus said to them, “Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” –Mk 16.15 I am the clergyman. You are the ministers. If we can hold onto this complementary relationship and if we dare to dream for the greater good of God’s kingdom on earth, I declare that, despite our size, the parish, St. James Church, is in good standing.
AMEN