Welcome or welcome back (or welcome forward?). It is meet, right, and a lot of fun to be gathered in worship with you as we begin this new semester. I am so looking forward to this new year as your chaplain. The ministry of St Francis House belongs to you students, and God at work in you - in this Body - is a blessing, gift, and joy for me to engage with you. I pray you also will know this Body as a blessing, gift, and joy. I pray that the work of this house strengthens, challenges, and supports you in your calling as student. Also, I hope it gives you occasions to laugh. Welcome back.
“As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs."
Kind of catchy, huh?
It was the unofficial advertising jingle of the Roman Catholic Church - as represented by church official Johann Tetzel - circa 1517. Pope Leo X had a basilica to rebuild, and the decision was made to grant indulgences - remission of the temporal punishment of sin - to all those who gave financially to the project. While money did not buy forgiveness in the technical sense for the living - and certainly not apart from the good work of repentance and confession - money alone was deemed sufficient to secure indulgences for the dead. Thus the jingle: “As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs." A young and fiery friar Martin Luther heard the slogan and had a thought (or ninety-five) about it.
So my wife is reading and enjoying this book about Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel. The book is ostensibly about art and Michelangelo’s incredible ceiling, but of necessity the book ends up wandering onto other subjects: Renaissance culture, political structures, religious institutions and orders, the history of popes. It was the last part that got her, mostly the affairs, and the indulgences, when one night she broke from her book to vent her disgust. My wife is from good Protestant stock; she was rightfully appalled.
Among Christians, including our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church - who, to be clear, took seriously Luther’s objections and have officially revised the practice - indulgences have become an occasion to shake our collective head at the backward Church of yesteryear. Who does something like that? What an embarrassment... So glad to have matured as a Church, spiritually, as people...
So once upon a time I am at this Vestry meeting and the agenda has long since disappeared under a heap of what are being officially labeled “pastoral concerns,” the foremost of which is that one dear old lady likes to say “amen” loudly and in places not printed in the prayer book and another dear old lady doesn’t say anything loudly, except what she doesn’t like about this other dear lady, and she is sad to say (though she’s been saying it a lot lately) that she just might have to leave the church. “Sad,” someone says. “What should we do?” says another. “I was at a Christmas party,” says a third, “when the amen lady told me she doesn’t pledge, doesn’t count herself an Episcopalian, either.” “Well, we are an Episcopal church; it’s who we are,” said another. “The other dear lady is a generous giver of record,” offered someone else, casually.
Yes, so glad we’re all beyond all the backward mess of yesterday’s unenlightened Church.
“My brothers and sisters,” asks James, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
The sin of the sale of indulgences was, among other things, the sin of partiality. Partiality: the idea that maybe God affords greater grace to the ones who can, well, afford, it. Of course, nobody preaches this outright; it tends to be something that gets preached accidentally, by our practice.
In James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about caring for the widow and orphan and other things that to some ears sound like old-fashioned moralism; that is, they’re good things to do, but what do they have to do with the living Jesus? And if we can only hang on to that question, we will be surprised to learn that James gives us an answer. He hints that he has one when he juxtaposes partiality and belief in Jesus: “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord?” There is a strong link, it seems, between our care for one another and our embodying belief in Jesus risen from the dead.
When Jesus summarizes the law as love of God and love of neighbor, James sees a complexity of expression: that winning with God means winning with my neighbor and God. That regardless of cash in hand, political persuasion, GPA, future prospects, or moral failings, in Jesus, God has made prepared holy space for each one around the table. And we profess belief in the God who sets this generous table by insisting for a place for each one in our own lives, by our life as the gathered Body of Christ.
“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” In these words, James reminds us of God’s generous table and the invitation to the feast of those who love him.
Now, the rest of life would tell you to be suspicious of James - to watch his words carefully and not be fooled. The rest of life will tell you, for example, that your winning means - must mean - your neighbor’s losing because life is a zero-sum game. The rest of life would tell you to grab what you can and save the rest for “just in case”, that my success means someone’s failure; better to burn the bridge behind you, lest the others follow you the path of your triumphs and enjoy what you enjoy; the rest of the world lives by constructions and structures of power over weakness and vulnerability for fear of losing those things one believes are secure.
Over against this narrative of scarcity, James persists in his challenge: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?...Can your faith save you?”
The cynic steeped in the old rules might answer, “It’s plenty good, James - you asked if faith could save me. Why are we talking about them?” But James appears to suggest that my salvation is bound up with the other and her need. Not that doing right by the man or woman in need scores me salvation points or something; but that our salvation is one because of the One who would save us. That we are richer, more ourselves, when we live in the orbit of the table that calls us together. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” we say in the Prayer Book liturgy. Partiality forgets this.
Christians profess belief in the God who sets the generous table by insisting on a place for each one in our own lives and in the future that belongs to God. The desert fathers and mothers used to say “Our life and death is with our neighbor.” Our life and death is with our neighbor. And here on this campus, who is my neighbor? Salvation with our neighbor.
Not partiality, but the conviction that we are richer, more who God has made us to be, when we live in the orbit of the table that gathers us.
Just now, as we set out on the adventure of a new year together, I want to name the gentle orbit of the table that gathers us. Life and death with our neighbor, beginning with the neighbors here, means to receive the gift of salvation in tangible ways; tangible, visible ways by which we experience and show forth the blessing of God - a unique and challenging gift. What the wrapped gift of this salvation requires is the commitment of its opening.
For over ninety years now, believers and nonbelievers have found in the gathering of saints at St Francis House the space to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, and with neighbors. Our life and death is with our neighbor; the Body of Christ as God’s gift to you for your flourishing, making possible things like holy friendships, disagreements, laughter, truth-telling, confession, forgiveness, and praise. For over ninety-years here, a people have gathered to commit themselves to practices that bind them together, so that together, they may discern Christ present to them as they eat from the table he sets. “Where two or more are gathered in my Name,” Jesus tells his friends, “I am there in the midst of them.” And so with us: never alone, now entrusted with the Spirit, given the holy task of upholding one another in this life in Christ: listening well to one another, speaking-truth to each other, sharing difficulties, yes, and certainly celebrating joys. Opening our own lives so to be upheld. Professing belief in the God who sets this generous table by insisting for a place for each one in our own lives, by our life as the gathered Body of Christ.
After the Creed, we made our way to the baptismal font. In light of James' strong connection between faith in God and love of neighbor, I invited the students - as an extension of our profession of faith - to dip each one's thumb in the holy water and, making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person next to them, say, "My life and death is with my neighbor." We stayed circled around the font for our prayers, the confession, and the peace.