[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, June 23, 2019]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I smile whenever I hear this reading, particularly when Jesus reminds the 70 disciples to accept the hospitality that is offered to them, because, as the King James version puts it, “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”
That’s because a lawyer I once knew used to quote that line in explaining that he would pay, would absolutely pay, the young law student working for him one summer, and would do it as soon as the next check from a client came. Because the laborer, as he assured the student, was worthy—-oh so worthy, so very, very worthy-—of his hire.
I don’t think I ever got it all, to be honest, but he did pay me some of what we’d agreed. And I wrote briefs, met clients accused of all kinds of crimes, and got to see my boss joust with prosecutors state and federal.
I think I grew up that summer.
If I ever did at all.
And that summer changed me. The first of many such changes. Learning comes at a cost. Childhood fades a little each day, as you see how the world wags, and what wags it. Only a very few years later, I was the one in court, arguing to judges, jousting with prosecutors, and striving to free my clients.
We change, leaving our past selves behind, like a butterfly leaves its chrysalis.
Not just us, though.
We’re here in New York City, the town that Luc Sante describes as having no truck with its past, that led him to say that “self-reinvention is an essential trope of the American project.”
So perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that our church, this church, in which we gather tonight has constantly been reinvented too. The plain, simple church built in 1835, all the way downtown between Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place, was replaced in the 1870s by a much grander building at 44th Street and Madison Avenue.
Some of that second building has stayed with us in this, the third St. Bartholomew’s Church. The portals and the great bronze doors outside—they come from that second St. Barts.
The dome was added to Bertram Goodhue’s majestic basilica design, St Barts Mark 3, and the dome was restored—really refashioned, would be a more accurate word—in 2017. I was in the first party that was led up the scaffolding to see, just this once, before the scaffolding was removed, the dome close to.
To be honest, I didn't have a choice/ Despite my fear of heights, Lynn Sanders made me go up, and not miss a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Even through my palpable terror, it was worth it: We were allowed to walk around the entire new dome, to see the fresh, smooth tiles making up the dome, firm, and strong, and bright and new.
In all of its incarnations, St. Barts has relied on its parishioners, its neighbors, the people who come to it to worship, to find a still, quiet place away from the noise outside those old portals, or to savor the beauty of the sacred.
Of course, not all of St. Barts’s members have supported it with equal zest. Clarence Day, whose stories about his parents were the basis of the play, the film, and the television show Life With Father tells us that his father, also named Clarence Day, was a member of our church—St. Barts Mark 2, that is-–and particularly enjoyed when the Rector preached pugnacious sermons that were “like a strong editorial in a conservative newspaper.” He particularly enjoyed sermons in which the rector, "instead of nagging at him, gave all wrong-thinking persons a sound trouncing, just the way he would like to."
But then, when the Rector began calling for what he consistently called “a new Edifice”—and you could hear the capital letter “E” in that title—Clarence Sr began to fear the worst.
That he was going to be asked to contribute.
Beyond his usual pledge, he would have to stump up more cash.
At first, he thought it would be a tolerable $50, or even a hundred, which was still enough to depress him. But when he found out that he was expected to give a thousand—well, he did it but was never the same man.
He did receive a reward, though. Possibly from his son, although I can’t prove it. Clarence Sr hated to be told that he should be humble, or should follow the lives of the saints instead of good sound business principles. He rebelled mightily against the notion that the "meek"--creeping little nobodies that they were--would inherit Secaucus, let alone the Earth. His son was a little bit like him here, and admits that he also found “blessed are the meek” to be uncomfortable--too reminiscent of Uriah Heep, of weakness. Neither Day liked that suggestion. But with her usual ability to defuse these conflicts, Lavinia Day, wife to one Clarence and mother of the other, blithely corrected the translation for them: “Blessed are the debonair,” Lavinia translated the verse, based on her French Bible.
And that’s how our window, fourth from the back, on the left side if you’re facing the congregation, and toward the entrance of the chapel, reads at the very bottom. Blessed are the debonnaire. It's attributed--patently falsely, unless it's Lavinia Day's translation of her French Bible that is meant--to the "French Bible," even though every word other than "debonairre" is English.
Clarence Day Sr’s grudging support of the New Edifice makes for amusing reading, and the incorporation of Lavinia’s more palatable version of the beatitude into our stained glass windows is wonderfully ironic. But Clarence Sr’s vision was blinkered. A rich man, he saw only the cost to his wallet in the rector’s request for support, and not the opportunity to participate in and to sustain a community.
If you look around the chapel, the sanctuary, the corridors to the community house, you will see the names of some of those who have given of themselves to St. Barts—members of the vestry, wardens, clergy, and others. Some names are emblazoned on our walls for the financial support they have provided, others for work they have done in keeping the church running, some for the ministries they supported by volunteering their time. Many are listed in our bulletins, on the chairs in the sanctuary. And even more are known by the kindnesses they have shared with our guests in our overnight shelter, our soup kitchen, our food pantry.
And some are wholly anonymous, whether in giving funds, or in their volunteer work. They just show up and get on with it.
St. Barts isn’t just a building. It’s a community—a big sprawling family of people who may not agree on every doctrine in the Prayer Book, but who have chosen to be a part of a family that believes in an ethos of service. But not service of the haves to the have nots; our long time deacon, my mentor and friend J.D. Clarke, taught me early what our ethos was on my first night in the shelter.
He said, “You take our guests—never clients, always guests—by the hand. You look them in the eye. You share a meal together.”
Every night I served in that shelter, I ate with our guests, we listened to each other, told our stories, and became more than just strangers, we became brothers and sisters, if only for an evening.
The Laborer is worthy of her hire.
That can sound like a good deal for the disciple. And it is, though not in the normal sense. After all, they wander, dusty, tired, from street to street, town to town. Maybe they are received. Maybe not. If not, the wandering continues, until they find some welcome, however poor.
The hire—the reward—is in the labor. In giving, we receive. In knowing each other, we find ourselves known.
I would not presume to tell you how you can yourself find that hire. I would not presume to tell you how much you should give, in terms of financial support, volunteering time and effort, or what it is that you feel called to do.
I would only refer you to the words of Frederick Buechner, who famously wrote that “[t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Many of us have found that place here, at St. Barts.
In so doing, we have found friends, a shared sense of purpose, and a renewed commitment to reach out our hands to all of God’s children. We have found family, not biological, but, to steal a great phrase from Armistead Maupin, a logical family, bound together by the inspiration of the God who calls us into relationship with each other and with God, through the life of service modeled for us by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who draws us together.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.