Two weeks from today will be my last Sunday as Rector of St. James Westminster Church. With the parish picnic next Sunday, and Canada Day celebrated the following Sunday, I want to take the opportunity today to reflect about the nature of this great parish and how it has so deeply affected me these past six years.
A few weeks ago at Stuart Smith’s funeral reception, Archbishop Terry Finlay came up to me and asked what makes St. James such a strong church. He had heard about our parish and was impressed that we were doing relatively well at a time when so many Anglican churches across Canada are struggling to survive. So he wanted to know what St. James was doing that other clergy and churches might emulate.
I thought about the question for a moment, and then said, “Terry, what makes this church so strong is the people. The people here are loyal to their church, and I have been blessed to be their priest. Many have long ties with the church, some extending back three generations or more. They are determined that this church should succeed. Come what may, the people of St. James are a committed lot who will not allow their church to fail.”
Of course, there are many things I could have shared with Archbishop Finlay about St. James – our glorious worship, our magnificent music, our adult education programs, our service in the community, our church school and youth ministries, our pastoral care to the sick and home-bound, our commitment to be a community church that is open and welcoming to all people, but at the heart of St. James is the people.
When I am in the priest’s sacristy getting vested for a worship service, I always look at the imposing pictures of the previous rectors hanging on the wall. Every one of them was a fine priest who served this church faithfully. But rectors come and go. That’s why it is never accurate to write a history of the church based on the tenures of rectors. They don’t make a church, the people do.
Simple, ordinary people of faith – they are the ones who love Jesus, make sacrifices, give generously and do the work. Most times you never find their names in the parish history, but they are the important ones – the ones who teach Sunday school, lead the youth group, sing in the choir, serve meals, set the altar, visit the homebound, and give themselves in a thousand different ways because they love Jesus. It is a faith like theirs that keeps the church alive.
When I think back in my years as a priest and recall the persons who have blessed me most by their witness to Christ, there are some clergy and theologians on the list, but far more lay persons.
I remember Winnie Duncan, a church worker on the Gaspe Coast who took simple delight in serving the parish without complaint or remuneration. I think of Tennyson Johnson, a self-taught artist, whose faith had converted him so completely that his face shone with an inner light. I remember Robert LeRoy, a beautiful unlettered man who looked up from a hospital bed after he suffered a massive heart attack and had tears in his eyes for the goodness of God that had spared his life. I remember old Ida DeVouge, who lived for years as a cheerful widow, always praying for the day when she would be reunited with her husband.
I wish you could have known Brittany Stark. She was a delightful, beautiful 13-year-old, who collapsed on the athletic field of her school one day, was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discovered she needed a new heart. She waited patiently for that heart but none ever came. And yet, throughout her ordeal she had this buoyant, hopeful faith one rarely sees in an adult.
A few weeks before her death, Brittany, who was as faithful a young teen as any I have known, wrote this prayer from her hospital bed. I have kept it with me all these years and even say it occasionally. It goes like this: “Dear God, I love you very much and thank you for all the beautiful things and many people who have touched my life and made it more beautiful. Thank you, God for all this. You are a great God. I really love you. Lots of Love, Brittany Stark.”
Brittany knew she was going toward God, and that the Father’s arms would be there to receive her.
I’ve always liked G.K. Chesterton’s description of the early Christian martyrs: “They went forward toward death as if they smelled a field of flowers afar off.” Brittany went that way. So have many in this parish that I have ministered to and buried. They don’t want to leave their loved ones, but when the time comes they’re not afraid. They know they go to something far better, to a life of beauty and glory and riches this world only dreams of. It’s people like that who have strengthened my faith as a priest.
People expect clergy to have a lot of faith, and I suppose most of us do, at one time or another; or we wouldn’t be in the ministry at all. But our faith is often beaten down or wrung out from having to deal with so many problems, from always being exposed to the seamy side of life. And at such times it is the faith of the laity that does more than anything to restore us, to reinfuse in us a sense of hope and joy and expectation.
I have experienced all that here at St. James. People in this church have ministered to me as much as I have ministered to them. I don’t want to mention names to embarrass anyone, but the kindness and caring in this church has profoundly touched my heart in a way that is difficult for me to describe. Truth is: I have seen this faith in every parish where I have been rector.
I remember years ago in one parish, the men would meet on a Thursday morning at 7:00 a.m. for a prayer breakfast. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but around the table I would hear one good person after another baring his heart for this person who is ill or that one who is having a hard time or another who has received some bad news, and I would walk away at 8:00 o’clock ready to take on 15 devils. Yes, the ordinary people are the backbone of the church.
Look at yourselves, here at St. James. You take God at his word. That’s the key to being a faithful follower of Jesus. Faith, by definition, is to trust God and to take God at his word – and that’s what you do.
God says to Abraham, “Abraham, leave your home, go out into the wilderness, I would you to found a new dynasty, a new people that will be special,” and Abraham goes, just like that. God says, “Moses, go down to Pharaoh in Egypt and demand the release of my people.” Moses says, “God, I’m not very good at that sort of thing.” God says, “I know you’re not, but I’ll be with you.” And Moses goes. God says, “Paul, go over to Europe and help those people over there to become Christians.” Paul says, “Lord, they’re not even Jews.” God says, “You think I don’t know that? I want you to go and help those Gentiles to become Christians.” And Paul goes.
It’s like that all through history. God says, “Go there, do this,” and ordinary people say, “Yes, Lord, I will.” You take God at his word, you do what God asks. No equivocation, no beating around the bush, you just do it.
When I served a church in Pennsylvania, one of my parishioners who I will call Ed suffered a heart attack at work, and in response his company promptly terminated his job, leaving him unemployed and struggling to pay the medical bills. In the Episcopal Church most churches have an annual pledge campaign in the fall where parishioners mark down on a pledge card how much they plan to give the church for the following year. When I saw Ed’s pledge to the church, I couldn’t believe it – he was giving more than I thought he could afford. So I made a pastoral visit to him and said, “Ed, this is too much. God doesn’t want you to shortchange you and your wife for the sake of the church.” Ed replied, “That’s what God told me to give, and I have to do it. He’ll take care of us, I know he will.” Ed took God at his word.
Why was Ed so determined to support the church? I think for the same reason you are here in this church today. Through faith you have been called into this fellowship we call St. James. This is our place, a community that nurtures, supports and loves us through the search for the truth of God’s love: that loves us through moments of pain, transition and change. I have been so impressed by the family connections in this parish, generations worshiping and praying together, people loving, caring and supporting one another. There is a web of relationships in this church that will not be broken easily.
Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, petty and self-serving the “institutional” church can be at times. More than once, I think we all have asked ourselves, “Is the church worth it?” But then we ask another question, “What would I do without the church?” How could I celebrate Christmas without the church? How could I wake up in the dark of Easter morning without the church? Where else would I turn when my spirit is assaulted and my emotions are raw from loss if not to the church and the people who are the church? No wonder Ed loved the church – and so do you. The church is that place where love shines through to the world.
In the church we love God and love one another but we also share that love with others beyond our church walls. God invites us to participate with him in making the eighth day of creation. I believe the world is getting better, making progress, slowly and unevenly but surely becoming a more grace-filled world. Yes, there is much that is wrong in the world today: the horror of terrorism, the threat of Iran, the insanity of North Korea, the inanity of American politics, but the world is still a better place now than it was at the time of Jesus. History is on the side of inclusion, tolerance, human rights, respect for the individual and a reverence for the planet. Your struggle on behalf of the Gospel is not in vain. You are on the right side of history. So never be disheartened. Never get discouraged. Whatever the challenges that lay ahead, have the faith to believe that in the end it’s going to be okay for us and our loved ones.
In the last chapter of the last book of his monumental seven volumes, The History of the Christian Church, Kenneth Latourette summed up his work in this way: “Always the Church seems to be dying, yet lives.”
“Always the Church seems to be dying, yet lives.” Having completed his survey of twenty centuries of ebbing and flowing, of triumph followed by failures of faith, nerve, and will, this wise man went to the heart of the matter: the church lives because it remains the place where the deepest needs of human beings are heard, understood and acted upon. The church endures and thrives because we continue to have the concerns, the fears and the milestones to which the love of God alone is an adequate response.
We are here together because we need to be here; because we need the church and its fellowship; because we need to worship the God proclaimed here; because we need to hear over and over again about that Good Shepherd who loves us and claims us as his own, one life at a time.
Love this place for it stands for love. Support this place for it stands for supporting you. It cannot flourish without you, your time, your energy, your money. Hang around and you will be amazed at what joy and meaning you will find if you will take the time, devote the energy, and make the commitments required by any search that has integrity. You’ll catch on; and in catching on, your life and everything about it will be renewed and energized in a way that will take your breath away.
It has been my practice in every parish in which I have served to go to the worship space during the week and sit quietly in a chair or pew and pray for the members. I have done that here for you. And as I pray, I think of your hopes and dreams, your heartaches and disappointments, your struggles and anxieties. I think of the people caring for aging parents, or the parents that are dealing with a troubled child, or the woman whose husband is dying, or the man who just got notice that he is out of a job, or the person who has just been diagnosed with cancer. I think of all the good people in this church that I have loved and buried, but I also think of the many baptisms that I have performed and the marriages that I have celebrated that bring joy and delight to our hearts. I think of you, and pray for you, and it is then I realize how much I have loved you and still love you.
Yes, we have had our bumps on the road – no relationship is ever perfect. And yet, you are God’s people, God’s chosen, God’s beloved, every one of you, without exception. Together we are the church – that wonderful and sacred mystery transforming lives by the power of God’s unconditional love and amazing grace. What a privilege it has been for me to be your priest!
Conrad Aiken wrote: “Music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.”
The music we together make and the bread we together break is God’s own music, God’s own bread. Hang around in this church; you’ll catch on and you’ll see what I mean. Amen.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
June 12, 2016
Text – Gal. 2: 15-21
Proper 6 (11), C