Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sermon at October Evensong

Our regular "Third Sunday" Choral Evensong at St. Andrew's includes a sermon, and on Sunday afternoon, October 20, the preacher was my and our good friend, the Rev. Dr. David Gleason, Senior Pastor Emeritus of the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh.  

Propers of the service anticipated the observance of St. James of Jerusalem (October 23).

St. James of Jerusalem (the Just, Brother of Our Lord)
St. Andrew Episcopal Church
20 October 2013

                        At the outset, you need to know that my childhood home was only about a mile and a half from here.  It was close enough that on good weather days I could walk home from Peabody High School.  My best friend through secondary schooling lived only a few blocks from this church, on North St. Clair.  It was his wedding in the Lady chapel (just over there) and my role as his best man that first brought me to this church in 1968. 

                        My own childhood parish was also not far from here, just over in the Friendship area, near West Penn Hospital.  That is where my parents took me to worship with a gaggle of Swedish Lutherans who all looked in some fashion like I did.  There were blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians in super-abundance.

                        I mention all of that only in the interest of full disclosure.  Some years after I was ordained to the holy ministry of Christ’s Church, I returned to my home parish as a guest preacher.  No one paid much attention to what I had to say.  The faithful Swedes merely reflected upon the apparently great irony that the fellow occupying their pulpit was Margaret and Homer’s little boy, the one-time acolyte, holy terror of the Sunday School, and president of Luther League.  They knew my background.  They knew my family and knew my more responsible older brother.  It made little sense to those pious, Swedish Christians to listen to this ministerial upstart!
                        As Jesus himself plainly tells us, “A prophet (that is, a preacher) is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.”  So, if you choose to disregard everything I have to say, I will understand.  Our Lord, himself, gives you good precedent.

                        When the locals dismissed his preaching because of his less than sterling pedigree, they cited as proof what they knew about him.  They knew his father’s vocation as a common carpenter; they knew the names and identity of his Mother, Mary; his brothers, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas; and they knew the existence of some sisters.  It all sounded pretty ordinary and mundane.  Yet, today, holy Church would have us pause to remember and even honor one of those brothers, specifically, James.  

                        But before we get to him, we have to confess that this business of Jesus having brothers and sisters poses some problems for the Church.  That became evident as early as the second century.  Christians were just not sure how to understand what St. Matthew, and also St. Mark, were actually saying when they talked about Jesus having siblings.

                        Helvidius maintained that Jesus was Mary’s first child and that the brothers and sisters mentioned in the Gospels were children of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus.  Epiphanius challenged this position and suggested that the “brothers” were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage.  That means they were older than Jesus.  That might also explain why, when he was dying on the cross, Jesus commended his mother to the care of the beloved disciple.  If Mary had other children of her own, that would not have been necessary.   And, of course, there are a great many more theories intended to define the relationships. 

                        What matters most to us is that, according to our reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, James saw the risen Christ.  Although he was not one of the twelve, he came to be regarded as an apostle, and he clearly emerged as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.  He is, therefore, looked upon as the “bishop of bishops.”  Jewish Christianity in the early Church considered him more important than either Peter or Paul because he was the one who presided over the Church in the principal city of the Holy Land.  He also presided over its first ecumenical council.  He remained the most respected and authoritative leader in Jerusalem for most of the first Christian generation, undoubtedly due to his eyewitness testimony to the risen Christ.

                        According to secular accounts, James was put to death by priestly authorities.  Josephus says that he, along with certain others, was stoned to death in AD 62 at the instigation of Annas, the high priest.  Other traditions say that James the Just boldly declared Jesus to be the Son of Man and, for making that declaration, was thrown down from the Temple, stoned, and beaten to death.

                        However he may have met his fate, James was undeniably a martyr for the faith and, therein, lies his importance for us.  Even in these days of “casual and cozy Christianity,” of easy-going pop religiosity, of undisciplined piety, and of disconnected spirituality, there are some solid teachings and firm truths worth dying for.  There is still a tradition of courageous testimony to the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection: to their power to free and renew a lost creation, to their power to redeem a sinful humanity, to their power to resurrect a dying people, and to their power to bring a scattered and broken Church into one.

                        That is the power behind the preaching and testimony of James of Jerusalem, bother of our Lord.  That is the power that lies at the heart of all preaching and proclamation in the name of Jesus.  That is why we honor James the Just.  Those of us who bear the responsibility for such proclamation in this generation of believers must also find courage: the courage to be clear, bold, and undaunted in our proclamation; along with the wisdom to exercise caution whenever we are “in our own country and in our own house.”

David Paul Gleason, D.Min.

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