Friday, October 23, 2020

Senior Sermon: St. James of Jerusalem

 Well, this is my one and only time that I will be in the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, and it is to preach my senior sermon to a camera, and the seven or eight people on hand functioning as lector, cantor, organist, deacon, presider and sacristans. This is NOT what I had imagined for this big moment in my seminary career. But then, I also didn't imagine we'd be hampered and hemmed in so much by a viral pandemic. 

Hopefully, the link will post here. I am picking this up at my sermon. The Gospel lesson from Matthew 13 is short and details Jesus' rejection at Nazareth:

"He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief."

Here's the link to my sermon.  

The text follows:


“Who is Jesus Christ?!”

That was the question posed to me by a bishop of the Episcopal Church.

My rector and I had travelled two and half hours to have this meeting. It had come after a long time of me doing everything I could think of to avoid following a call to the priesthood.

But my study of Scripture…my experiences of being in leadership roles both inside and outside the church…working with massage clients…and being told by my atheist friends that I was the one Christian they could stand left me with no choice.

I had to trust God…and go before a bishop.

His question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” was not so much a question. The way he posed it was quite demanding. And so I smiled and told him the truth, my truth:

Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever.

I know this because I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection signals to us…to me… that there are no powers and principalities or bullies and tyrants in this world who can destroy the greater power of a love that knows our sitting down and rising up (Ps.139). It is a love that knows pain and suffering…stays  hangs with us through difficulty. (note: I made this word substitution on the fly as I was preaching and as it turned out, it was a powerful and spirit-filled choice). 

Simply put: Jesus and his work on the cross prove that death doesn’t get the last word, and that Love really does win.

Unfortunately, my earnest and heartfelt statement went unheard. What I had said did not conform to the catechism.

All this bishop could see was my gender non-conforming dress, my broad shoulders, my buzz haircut.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that moment in my journey when I read this Gospel story.

Jesus is going before his hometown folk in Nazareth. He has been teaching and healing in other towns, and he has sent his disciples out to do good works. He’s warned them that they will face opposition so “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So here he is in his childhood Temple, sharing his wisdom, speaking his truth and raising up the names of the prophets and calling on the assembled gathering to get back to right relationship with God. And while they might have been curious at first…all they could say is: Aren’t you Mary’s son? And your daddy, he’s a carpenter, right? And then these men and women are your siblings?

They could not…or maybe they did not want to hear him.

It’s as if their minds were already made up about who he was and what he was about what they already thought they knew.

Jesus’ own hometown rejected him.  

 Now one of those siblings who we hear was present is named James, the ancestor we are honoring today. James is referred to as “the brother of Jesus”. This can lead to many sidebar discussions about what exactly is meant by “brother.”

Is he Jesus’ full brother?  A younger Half brother? An older Step brother? Do we go with what St. Jerome said and call him a “Cousin” of Jesus?

For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that James had a brotherly kinship with Jesus…and became a loud and proud confessor of Jesus as Messiah.

James was given to constant prayer and was considered by many to be virtuous…. thus earning him the name “James the Just.”  

As we heard in today’s readings, James as the bishop of Jerusalem, played a major role in settling the dispute over whether the Gentiles entering this emerging faith around Jesus needed to convert to Judaism…meaning they needed to be circumcised.

Upon listening to the testimony particularly of Paul and Barnabas, James declared that the Gentiles did not need to convert…and it had always been God’s plan to include the Gentiles. But…in perhaps a finding a delicate balance in this disagreement…he did encourage these new members to avoid such practices as eating food offered to pagan idols  as that could lead to idolatry…and hence away from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Many became believers in Jesus because of James. That did not sit well with one particular high priest. According to the Christian writer Hegesippus…James’ religious opponents begged him,

“Please persuade the people not to go astray by believing in Jesus as the Messiah.”

They took James to the pinnacle of the temple and demanded that he preach a sermon denouncing Jesus. Instead…he told his truth…maybe even described Jesus as the greatest liberator from oppression ever, freeing the captive from whatever real or imagined prison was holding them back…maybe he spoke words of hope to those who had felt rejected.

For being that bold in his profession of his faith…his opponents threw James from the pinnacle and when that didn’t kill him, they cudgeled him to death. So this bishop seen as virtuous and devout spoke his truth about Jesus…and it was violently rejected.

But even in this case…love wins. The death of James so offended the Jews in Jerusalem that the incoming Roman Governor removed that high priest who had killed their beloved James.

There is always going to be opposition to love.

As Jesus shows us this work of bringing Love into the world will not happen easily or overnight or even with one election.

To bring about Love takes persistence.

To bring about Love takes courage.

To bring about Love means speaking your truth.

And it takes constantly returning to the source of our strength and remembering why we are who we are and whose we are. 

Because for every one person who refuses to see us or hear us, there are so many more still seeking and desiring to know that there is such a love that is--as our presiding bishop says--liberating and life-giving.

Don’t be silent. Don’t let anybody turn you back. Keep going in the name of Love.