Sermons

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

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Most Recent Sermons

All Because of Love

June 28, 2020

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Take Up The Cross & Follow

June 21, 2020

Third Sunday After Pentecost

God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Just over a year ago, a Gallup poll was published that caused something of an intake of breath around the churches of this country. “US Church Membership Down Sharply in Past Two Decades” proclaimed the stark headline. Leading with news of a 20% decline in membership over twenty years, to many eyes, the figures made challenging, if not gloomy reading, and these statistics are backed up with the reported figures from many faith communities across the United States during this period. But to my eyes, the most extraordinary figure in the Gallup report was the fact that about 25% of adults across the nation are, and I quote, “religious but not members of a church, synagogue or mosque”.

It is not my place to speak about Judaism or Islam, but at least as far as Christianity is concerned, this shows a remarkable blindness - and I use the word advisedly - to what the proper nature of religion actually is. But, although the numbers that pertain to mainstream religious practice in the USA, and in much of the western world, show a very clear decline in church attendance that has happened during my adult lifetime, we should not forget that the call of the church is a complex one. Back as long as 1935, back in my mother country, a very distinguished American wrote: “I journeyed to London…There I was told: we have too many churches… Men do not need the Church in the place where they work, but where they spend their Sundays. In the city, we need no bells: Let them waken the suburbs. I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told: We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor [into the country]… If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers… The Church does not seem to be wanted in country or in suburb; and in the town only for important weddings.”

Eliot’s words come from a ‘pageant play’ called The Rock, which, perhaps ironically, he wrote to support a fund to build more churches in the London suburbs to minister to the ever-growing population between the world wars. But Eliot depicts well a blindness that he could see in those of his own era, and which the Gallup poll has shown is alive and well right now - a blindness about the nature of God’s call to be disciples who can, as we say in the diocese of Chicago, ‘Grow the church, form the faithful and change the world’. And maybe that is hardly surprising, when, in that extraordinary gospel reading, we hear Jesus saying that despite his blessing on the peacemakers only five chapters earlier, we learn that he has not ‘come to bring peace, but a sword’. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Those of you who have backgrounds in sales or marketing will realize that this is hardly a compelling sales pitch. Is it just that people have been coming to their senses in the 20th and 21st centuries? For Eliot continues: “Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of Life and Death and of all that they would forget… evil and sin and other unpleasant facts. They constantly try to escape…” Why, indeed, should men or even women love the church? Critics both of the Christian faith, and certainly of the Christian churches in their various forms and outlooks have asked questions of this kind repeatedly. Almost all societal sins you can name have been associated with the church in differing ages. Does the church deserve to be loved? And never mind the Church. There are passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament which seem to portray a god whose behavior and appearance makes it hard to accept that this is the God of love. Passages such as today’s gospel reading, in which we appear to be encouraged to break any kind of confidence or secret entrusted to us. Moreover, we are to forget our role as peacemakers and cause intra-family conflict, apparently in the service of a god who is utterly and completely jealous. And if we look back to the continuation of the ancient story of Abraham from the book Genesis, which is our Old Testament diet this month, we find what would appear to be a story shot through with an affirmation of both slavery and racism. Indeed, the huge fault line that exists today between the western world and at least some of the Islamic world might be said to be traced back to the story of Hagar and her young son Ishmael - condemned, apparently, to the thirsty and dusty death of the desert because of Abraham’s questionable marital behavior. With lections such as these it would be easy - very easy - to despair of any hope of Good News, and to sink into despair. It would be easy, indeed, just as Jesus predicts, to ‘call the master of the house Beelzebul’ - it would be easy to claim that what we have going on here is the work of the devil and not of a loving god. And - in so many ways - that sense of despair is all too prevalent at the moment. Protest marches about black lives mattering, inspired by the murder of George Floyd, have not yet stopped, but already we are reeling from the murder of Rayshard Brooks by a police officer in Atlanta. And appalling and pervasive though systemic racism is, it is far from the only cause of despair in our world.

Just two days ago, I received an email requiring me to undertake annual training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. A sad reminder of despair that comes from another sinful and despicable pattern of human behavior. And I preach this sermon to you remotely because of the pandemic through which we are currently living, and I do so in a week which has had all too serious speculation about the necessity of new lockdowns both in Beijing, and in parts of this country. Grounds for yet more despair, both medical and economic. Where - we might be forgiven for asking - exactly where are we to find a God of love, rather than the Beelzebul-like figure that the Pharisses have accused Jesus of being, and which we heard him warn his disciples will be a charge that will be leveled also at them. But this is blindness - all of it is blindness. Blindness built on the towering ruins of sinfulness that is utterly human, and which has created what the author of our opening hymn called ‘our strife-torn world’. A world in which a slave is cast out with a child, believing she will die of thirst in the wilderness, abandoned and outcast by her former lover, if not by God. But she is wrong. And God - who has not, in fact, deserted her, or written her off - God opens her eyes. God opens her eyes to a source of living water - living water that offers the possibility of new life to her and to her son, and to a nation yet to be born. For the heat and loneliness of the wilderness are no barrier to the presence of God, and Hagar’s problems do not relate to this desert, but to quite another desert indeed.

For in the same work from which I have quoted, Eliot remarks that “The desert is not remote in southern tropics…the desert is in the heart of your brother.” And it is this desert that is the desert of despair, the real desert of true thirst and of blindness. And it is the irony of our sinful human condition that this desert is both a terrible place in which to find ourselves - but, bizarrely, it is also a place that is alluring and seductive, and it lures us all, time and time again, fostering the idolatries that rise up inside us, taking us away from the proper knowledge of God, and inhibiting us from loving both God and neighbor. And that is why it is our job as the baptized children of God who make up the Church - it is our job to call out to and sometimes to call out against those who stand in the desert of idolatry and lure others to join them. And the tragedy is - as Jesus knew full well and warned his disciples about - the tragedy is that there will, indeed, be times when this will set man against father and daughter against mother.

But in a world of division and despair that creates so many deserts in the human heart, our call is to help people to open their eyes to the living water of God’s presence, the living water which sustained Hagar and Ishmael, and which offers sustenance to all God’s children - and most especially to those who are oppressed and outcast. Because too many of God’s children thirst in the desert. And it is down to us to allow our eyes to be opened so that, like Hagar, we may fill the skin and give those who are thirsty a drink of the real living water that, in Christ, will stop us thirsting again for the trivial and divisive conceits of this world. That is the call of the Body of Christ that we call the Church. And if we honor this call and make it the focus of our lives. If, to use Jesus’ words, we ‘take up the cross and follow’, if we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, not only will we find that God is alongside us in the desert of this world, offering us a deep well of living water, but we might, just perhaps, be able to share that vision with those around us. And that might just remind the world why it should, indeed, love the God who created it, redeemed it, and who sustains and loves it, and just perhaps we might even show women and men why they might love the church. Amen.

God's Pitch to Abraham

June 14, 2020

The Second Sunday After Pentecost

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