The Rev. Clarence E. Butler: State of the Parish, 2/9/2020

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Dark church color

5 Epiphany
9 February 2020 A
Annual Meeting, St. James Episcopal, Somerville, MA

You are salt to the world.  And if salt becomes tasteless, how is its saltness to be restored?  It is good for nothing but to be thrown away and trodden underfoot!  You are light for all the world.  A town that stands on a hill cannot be hidden.  When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lampstand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.  Like the lamp, you must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.
—Matt. 5. 13-16

Today’s homily will not be its usual 95 minutes in length because today we fulfill the law: the law of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the canonical law of the Episcopal Church of the United States and the Diocese of Massachusetts.  My presumption is that you are all, with great expectation, anxious to get on to our Annual Meeting.  There, we shall, after getting perhaps a cup of coffee or tea or juice and something to eat, gather in St. Francis Hall to conduct the business of the parish.  We shall reflect on the past and we shall imagine future, as the Book of Deuteronomy teaches.

I am aware that many parishes call what you may expect to hear from me over the next few minutes “The State of the Church Address.”  However, for me that phrase conjures up a report of the wider ecclesiastical body, of the Church Catholic, as experienced in the Episcopal Church.  That responsibility falls to the Most Reverend Michael Curry, our Primate.  I am keen on sharing with you some thoughts about our parish.  And because I have included statistics in my annual report, I will let you read them if you so desire at our meeting or at home, when you have a moment of leisure or find it difficult to fall asleep at night.

What undergirds our ministry on the corner of Broadway and Clarendon Avenue, in Teele Square, in the City of Somerville, and in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is outlined for us in the gospel according to Matthew just read.  I repeat the key phrase here, for it [is] against that admonition of Jesus that the state of our parish should be judged.  I ask, as we reflect on the state of our parish, one question.  Well, maybe two.  In the year of Our Lord 2019, what specific thing did you undertake individually in order to show to others within our parish and outside of the walls of our parish that the saltness of the Good News of Christ lives within and without our walls?  A variation of that question, and hence the possibility of two, is, Did you hold aloft the light of the Good News of Christ so that we, inside these walls, and those outside these walls, could benefit from your living out the Good News of Christ?  I ask not for a show of hands to answer the question, as if we were in a classroom.  Rather, these are questions designed to cause you and me to think.

The vocabulary or images, by which Jesus spoke to his followers about their intrinsic value—those images hold still today value and understanding for us.  I share a personal note about salt.  Today, there are many varieties of salt, for example the common table salt, iodized and non-iodized, sea salt, rock salt, each with its distinct function.  Too much salt can be disastrous, just as can be too little or none at all, particularly when one cooks.  Because we moderns are removed now from the agricultural world, we are less likely to recall how essential salt was, in the absence of refrigeration, for the preservation of meats that were not smoked.  However, I learned firsthand.

As a young boy, instead of being sent off to summer camp, which I hated and my parents could not afford, I was sent south to Tennessee, to relatives in the country.  My days were not regimented, as at camp, but I did have responsibilities, some not to be mentioned here for fear of frightening the squeamish among you.  Although I was back in the big city by the fall, the traditional time of slaughtering livestock, my uncles and aunts taught me in the summer, how they preserved meat, some of which from the previous year was still hanging in the smokehouse upon my arrival.  Also, their Mason jars were not decorative or “in,” as today some restaurant use them instead of glasses.  It was not that they were “in,” but what was preserved and stored _in_ them.  But I digress.  Without salt, salt that had preservative power, my aunts and uncles who lived on and off the land, as did many of their neighbors, would have had a sparse, meatless diet during long winter months.  For health reasons, modern medical science has taught us to monitor our intake of salt, or sodium, that it not overtake us, even as it is essential to our wellbeing.  My relatives should have been but, in view of their financial status, this was not an issue for them.  That did not distract from the value of salt.

I share a further personal note from my youth, about light.  In the decades of the century [during] which I visited my country relatives, unless one lived in town—as they would call where two country roads crossed and where their general store with its one pump for petrol and the post office and a few houses stood—electric service was still a luxury.  The ubiquitous electric pole had not yet reached the more rural areas.  Obviously, today’s ubiquitous smartphone was not even a figment of their imagination.  But, this situation, as quaint as it today may appear, produced in me moments of pride.


One task which I had been given, as I was not physically built for real farm labor, was to gather each morning all the kerosene lamps which they had used during the night in order to illuminate the house.  Why, you may ask, did I find pride of joy in cleaning the soot from blackened globes?  Well, my first response is that they trusted me to handle with care those glass globes, for they were terribly expensive to replace, and just to burn a wick for light did not give off as much illumination as when a globe was used.  My second response derives from my just-made observation.  A globe-less wick, if the lamp where to tip accidentally, could cause a fire, but equally important was my observation of just how much light, enough for me to read, was shed from a clean and clear globe.  The Bible, at least the KJV, speaks against hiding the light under a bushel.

My state of the parish question to you is then this: In what way or for whom did your wick shine clearly [in] 2019 for those whom you encountered, that they might discern the Good News of Christ, not in what you said but Soup1in what you did, for yourself and for others?  My conclusion is this.  From my vantage point in the year now closed, I observed how you worked that life might be preserved, even as offered, for example, our soups to the community, no matter how many or how few came to sample them.  You brought non-perishable food stuffs which we could distribute to those in greater need in Somerville.  I observed how literally the light of this place shined, when those seeking to contain their alcohol addiction found and continue to find refuge within our walls.  As a ministry of our parish we turn on the lights, at our expense, to the stranger among us in the larger community who struggles to learn the American version of the English Language.

And then, I am certain that there are those among us who have quietly extended a hand of welcome, literally and figuratively, without knowing that you have done so, or have done so without seeking compensation.  To be sure, there were things left undone, and there will be always more to do in sundry ways and in sundry places.  However, praise be to God that we have this place to which we can come weekly, in order to be reminded and nourished through the hearing of the Sacred Word and in the breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the Cup at the Altar of our unseen, yet ever present, God.