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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The Lord hasn't finished yet

September 25, 2022

The Bigger Picture

September 24, 2022

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.

In the last sixteen days, vast numbers of people have felt that the world they knew has been turned upside down and stood on its head. Such a reaction has been plain to see in Great Britain, and has not been lacking elsewhere in the world. International news coverage has shown scenes of considerable grief in the other realms and territories in which the British monarch is the head of state, and also in the countries of the Commonwealth, of which the late Queen was head throughout her reign.

Even here, in the United States, the grief at her death has been palpable – something that is all the more remarkable when you consider that the foundational document of the US describes her eighth predecessor, King George III, as being a ‘tyrant’ who was ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people’.

Since the Queen’s seemingly rather sudden but peaceful death on September 8th, much has been said – indeed much has been preached – about this remarkable woman whose long life of devoted service set an example to the whole world. From the astonishing phenomenon of the vast queue of mourners snaking along the river Thames, to breathtaking pageantry of the funeral services last Monday, our screens have been full of images that acknowledge the impact that Elizabeth II’s life and reign had on the world.

I am not, therefore, in the few minutes available to me now, going to attempt to reiterate what many many others have said about her, or quote from the thousands of anecdotes about her grace, her wisdom, her sense of humor, or any other aspects of her personality. Like me, you’ve probably read, heard or watched those who had real knowledge of and insights into her life, and in this age of the internet, all of that will doubtless remain easily accessible for decades to come.

If there is one royal moment I want to share with you, it was one that took place in Sandringham in the winter of 2019, when Her Majesty attended – as she did every year – a meeting of her local Women’s Institute. And in some remarks which were only semi-public, spoke of the value of finding ‘common ground’, and the importance of ‘never losing sight of the bigger picture’, and of ‘respecting’ points of view with which one might disagree.

On the lips of anyone else, that might seem no more than a rather bland bit of quasi-parental advice about good behaviour. Commentators at the time were, I think, right to note that on the lips of someone dedicated to a life which had, of necessity, to rise above party politics, and set in the context of a country ever the more acrimoniously divided about the effects of Brexit and the seeming stalemate about the requisite legislation it required – the Queen’s comments were, perhaps, anything but bland, and, for those who had ears to hear, were a typically understated and politically neutral clarion call for the need to draw people, draw communities, draw society, maybe even draw nations together, and not delight in pulling them apart.

In an age of political extremism and fundamentalism that has seen the diminution of centrist politics and policies, and an ever more rancorous and aggressive sense of division not just between politicians but between families, communities, ethnicities, and even sovereign states (as witnessed most extremely and tragically in Ukraine), such words on the lips of a sovereign who acted as a kind of national and international glue to society possess considerable significance.

A significance that would not have been lost on St Paul, from whom we heard just now in that portion of his letter to the Romans read by His Majesty’s Consul-General. Paul is a woefully misunderstood and highly complicated character. Some snippets of texts attributed to him paint him as a misogynistic and conservative figure whose attitudes have nothing of relevance to offer modern-day society. It is my regret I don’t have time this morning to explain why I think such a view is utterly incorrect. But let me give you the background to this exert from Romans, which not only was a text deeply familiar to the late Queen, but which is also very relevant to her gentle words of advice from that visit to the Sandringham WI.

Romans is unique amongst Paul’s letters. The other ones were all to churches he had founded, and to people who knew him well, and were known by him. In this longest and greatest of his letters, he is writing to a complex group of Christians, to prepare them for a visit by him. These are not Christians who have met him, and if they know him, they know him only by reputation. And – most significantly – some of these Christians are Jews who have converted to Christ, and others are gentiles. That difference is a fault-line that demands much of Paul’s energy throughout his own extraordinary life – and it was a fault-line that created plenty of anger and division between those who thought that such things like dietary practices and circumcision were vital definitions of who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And these divisions were just as angry and raw as anything we have seen over Brexit, or, in this country, over issues like ‘the big lie’ and the events of January 6, 2021.

Romans 14 is part of an eloquent appeal that Paul’s readers acquire what Her Majesty called a ‘bigger picture’, and that they learned to respect the point of view of those with whom they disagreed. God, so Paul reminds them, is God of everyone – God, not just of all the living, but of all the dead. That’s why, in Paul’s view – a view shared by our late Queen – passing judgement on one’s brother or sister is not just inappropriate but deeply damaging.

Talk of judgement can feel alien in a liberal church context such as this. It does not feel or sound contemporary, and it is certainly not my intention to suggest we should behave well simply to avoid eternal damnation. I’m not that kind of Christian, and neither was Her Majesty.

But my belief – and I think this would be true of Queen Elizabeth as well – is that an authentic faith is lived out in such a way that the values of the ancient prophecy from the book of Isaiah that calls people to be ‘oaks of righteousness’ are values which should inform the lives not just of those who use the label Christian, but of anyone seeking the best interests of community and society.

Our reading from Romans ends with the blunt remark that ‘each one of us will be held accountable’ – and nobody could doubt that Queen Elizabeth lived her life in a deeply accountable fashion, that modeled a commitment to serve all peoples whose lives she could touch, in an example that constantly sought to build society and not divide it.

If we are serious in giving thanks today for her life and her reign, let me finish by reminding you of one of Jesus’ most famous parables – that of the Good Samaritan. You will remember, I’m sure, how in this story so powerfully illustrative of behavior well pleasing to God, a pair of religious leaders from the ‘establishment’ walk past a wounded man, leaving him to suffer. Then comes the Samaritan – ethnically, culturally and religiously a despised alien – and it is he who models the generosity of behavior that Jesus champions. And the parable simply ends with Jesus saying, “Go – and do thou likewise”.

In thanksgiving for a life supremely well lived, let us not rejoice in all that Her Late Majesty was to each one of us and to so many millions who admired her across the world – let’s make sure that in our own humble contexts, we also strive to go and do likewise. Amen.

Keep Moving

September 18, 2022