Sermon Preached at St. James, Kingston September 20, 2015
Text: 1 Peter 2:1-10
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six months since I arrived at St. James. It’s been a whirlwind of activity and for me and a rush of memories from the first 25 years of my life that I spent here. There is a danger in having such a long history here in that I might want to go back and recreate the St. James of my youth or hold the past up as our goal for the future. The flip side is that we ignore our past completely and just focus on the future. That has a negative side as well, because it uproots us from the cloud of witnesses that faithfully served at St. James we can become like loose balloons rather than tethered ones.
N.T. Wright is a Church of England Bishop and prolific New Testament scholar. Wright once talked about Christianity as an Epic drama of creation and redemption in five acts. Act one is Creation; Act 2, the Fall; Act 3 Israel; Act 4 Jesus, Act 5 is the church and the part still being written. He said that we are all actors in this story improvising based on what had gone before us.
I’ve talked with actors about improvising and they say it is one of the hardest kinds of acting to do because you always have to be mindful of what came before you and you must make sure what you do, connects with what went before or the original story will get lost and it will make no sense at all.
When I think of 170 years of God’s faithfulness to St. James, I think of all of the faithful people who went before us and now have handed the baton on to each of us to take the wonderful story of St. James forward for the next 170 years.
My journey at St. James began with Desmund Hunt as the Rector in the 1960’s. I was just a toddler when he left St. James, but I learned through many stories about him and talking to him later in life about his passion for student ministry, a passion that has carried on to this day. My childhood years were with Gordon Hendra as the Rector, many of my memories are of Miss Preston, Cathy Hendra, Kathy Wright and the many fine people who taught me in Sunday School. Through them, I learned all of the major Bible stories and related songs of the era, but I also learned acceptance and love.
St. James was very much my church and I had an important role to play no matter how young I was.
In my twenty years of ordained ministry, I’ve discovered in every church that there are certain leaders in the church who’s influence seems to go on years after they have left the parish. In Bath, it was John Neal and Bev Lindsey, in Merrickville in was Dan Fleming. At St. James, I think it would be Bob and Molly Brow. Bob Brow’s ministry has shaped my own views of ministry. Bob had this amazing way of including people and encouraging people without having to micro-manage the ministry. It was never an anything-goes-inclusiveness, but rather an inclusiveness that said all are welcome in God’s house, we are all here to learn and grow.
Bob taught me to see potential in all people; he could have profound faith conversations with people and often helping them to discover a faith they didn’t know they had. Molly was a woman of prayer and compassion. She taught me so much about the power of prayer to heal relationships, to change lives and to change the world. Her smile and her kindness were contagious.
The St. James of Bob and Molly Brow was a place of diversity and inclusiveness that brought together people from all walks of life from a wide spectrum of Christian expression. We came together to worship, to learn and to serve. It was a complicated place because St. James couldn’t be pigeon holed into one type of church, one theological perspective. St. James has changed since those days, but that overall ethos, that
we belong together around the same table no matter our background, no matter our perspective, is still very much a part of St. James and the legacy of two of my favourite saints of our church.
In 2004 Lisa and I celebrated the 175th Anniversary of Holy Trinity in Merrickville. It was a great year of celebrations. One of the things that we had planned to do on Trinity Sunday was to open the time capsule that had been put in the cornerstone of the stone church that was built in 1908. We had heard all sorts of things about what might be in there, and we were devising ways to get at this time capsule. We had it all scheduled and had notified the local media when the local stone mason called me and said, Andy, “I don’t think you want to do that.” I said, “What could possibly be wrong with taking out one stone?” He then explained to me that a cornerstone was important since all other stones are set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. Removing it could cause serious structural damage. We decided to heed his advice and left the opening of the time capsule to a future generation.
The New Testament passage from Peter’s first letter appointed for today, talks a great deal about stones and corner stones and I suppose that is why the reading is recommended for parish anniversaries. Peter’s careful use of stone imagery speaks powerfully to what I believe is most special about St. James and the fact that this Church is so alive and active 170 years after it was founded.
It is because St. James is about living stones – not dead ones. More importantly, having our lives built on the cornerstone, Jesus, has always been at the heart of who we are as the people of God at St. James.
St. Peter reminds us that Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. He is a living stone that was rejected by people but precious to God and that he has been chosen as the cornerstone. In other words Jesus is central to the church. Like that cornerstone in Merrickville, it was laid first and it is primary to the rest of the structure. And so Jesus is primary to the church. All of the rest of the building, its walls and structures refer back to him for their placement.
What is a living stone, though? When you think about it, it is a strange phrase. Stones are something that brings to mind something solid and very much inanimate. Yet it is a wonderful phrase to describe what the church should be – solid and attached to the cornerstone, Jesus – yet alive and filled with the joy and wonder of the Holy Spirit. The first thing that came to my mind when I thought of “living stones” is the phrase, “if these walls could talk – what stories they would tell.”
In one sense, the living stones of St. James are the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. I can think of dozens of people whose faith and life inspired me to take seriously the call to believe and follow Jesus. Think of the people here or in another church who inspired you, who encouraged you, loved you. These are the people who have passed the torch on to us to take our place in the great drama of God’s creation here in this place. We are improvising based on their faithfulness in telling and living God’s great story.
I believe “living stones” is a good description of St. James. In Peter’s second letter, he wrote of the time when he was on the mountain top with Jesus at the transfiguration when he heard the voice of God and saw the prophets of old standing with him. Peter reflects back on that spiritually charged moment and says, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
We live in an age of doubt and apathy. People come here to find hope and light in a world that seems to be becoming a darker place. Our church continues to this day to be a lamp shining in dark place.
I am really proud of how St. James approaches the upkeep and repairs of our buildings. The property committee under the able leadership of Steve Tripp works away at the long list of pressing issues. It’s always done with the greater mission of the church as its foundation. Those clouds of witnesses, living stones from the past 170 years have left us this church on a solid foundation for generations to come in the best location in Kingston. Not all building projects are accomplished with such commitment and foresight. I know of a church in our diocese that laid off its youth worker to repair its tower and had the work all completed in two years and not a single young person left in the church to show for it.
Because of the dedication and determination of so many people in our church, St. James will not only continue to be a visible beacon of hope in the community, but also can continue the faithful ministry that never stopped because St. James never forgot, that while stones are important, being living stones is most important.
I thank God that St. James has been a place where thousands have heard this message for 170 years. I pray that the living stones of St. James will continue to be bright lights shining in dark places, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to a world that so desperately needs to hear good news. AMEN.