Free to All: St. Mark’s 150th

This past weekend we gathered to celebrate 150 years of worshipping in the same spot at St. Mark’s in Southborough.   We had a truly wonderful weekend together celebrating!  This is my sermon from the Gala on Saturday evening.

St. Mark’s Church 150th Anniversary—September 22, 2012 

            On August 15, 1862, at 3:30 in the afternoon, a band of people gathered on the parcel of land that had once been home to a Mr. Heman Este so they could lay the cornerstone for St. Mark’s Church.  The Rev. Albert C. Patterson, new priest of St. Mark’s, and the Rev. Eleazer Mather Porter Wells from St. Stephen’s in Boston presided, while Joseph Burnett—Sr. Warden and significant patron—looked proudly on.  This Episcopal congregation had been one of his dreams for Southborough.  He wanted a parish to worship in the Anglican tradition, but just as importantly, St. Mark’s was to be a free church.  He had only one stipulation in deeding the property to be used by the congregation, it was to be “free to all, with no distinctions as to wealth, color, race or station.”

In the throes of the Civil War, Joseph Burnett saw that all were welcome in the kingdom of God.  That the worship of the living God couldn’t be limited to just the wealthy, or the ones with education or those who held positions; it was to be for all people.  All people.  With no distinctions.

If we were to write this today, it might look something like what Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona has for their church.  Let me read the words printed on their welcome bulletin each week.

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

“We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or, like our pastor, can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but have not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up much too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

“If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and she wanted to go to church.

“We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!”

We might want to call this thinking “forward” or “diverse” or “pluralistic;” those are the buzzwords of our day and age.  But I would simply call them from God.  It was God who, through the prophet Isaiah, said, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,  ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;…  Thus says the Lord… ‘the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,  and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,  and hold fast my covenant— I will … make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The supposed “Angry God of the Old Testament” said this.  God looked down at the Gentiles, the non-Jews, longing to worship and said that God’s holy temple would be a house of prayer for all people.  Joseph Burnett understood this completely 150 years ago, when he bought the Este house and tore it down with the intention of building a church on this site while war was waged in the country over slavery.  He got it.

The purpose of this or any house dedicated to God is simply to worship, to be a place of comfort and solace when we are distressed, a place to shout our thanksgivings, a place where we can be reconciled to God and seek forgiveness, a place to pray.  Is it surprising then that Jesus, when he saw the extortion and unfair money-exchange taking place in the Jerusalem temple called it a den of thieves?  He reminded those money-changers of the Isaiah text, that God’s house was a house of prayer.  Not a place to make only the wealthy feel welcome.  God longed for the prayers of everyone.

I can only begin to imagine the prayers said in this place since 1862.  Those who prayed for loved ones who were ill.  The ones giving God great thanks for bringing their sons and daughters home safely.  The prayers for forgiveness and a desire to make amends.  Prayers for rain, and for seasonable weather.  The ones praying for snow—if you were a child hoping for a day off from school—and those praying for no snow—if you were an adult with a commute.  Prayers of great joy at the beauty of Christmas and Easter, prayers of sorrow at gatherings on Good Friday.  Prayers for babies being baptized and for those who died much too soon.  Thanksgivings for couples being married.  Prayers of grief for those who departed this life.  How many thousands of prayers have been lifted up to the Almighty from within these walls? How many lives have been touched by the Holy One in these pews or at these altar rails as a result of Joseph Burnett and his colleagues joining together to build St. Mark’s Church?

Fifty years ago, in the Spring of 1963, then Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr., wrote a letter published in the St. Mark’s Marksman for our 100th anniversary. “The history of a parish never ends.  Life touches life and goes on.  It must be a challenge to us to make our contribution to the common life so that this parish can go on touching lives ever more fully and in wider circles.  May God guide you into this second century.  The world will not be easier—it will be harder.  A conventional complacent Christianity will not suffice for the days that lie ahead.  Christianity must be a movement of people who find in Christ guidance and courage for the perplexities of a new day.  These will be exciting times.  Even if they are hard times they are the kind of times in which Christianity can grow in deep ways.”

As we celebrate our sesquicentennial, as we look forward to the next 150 years, I want to echo those words from the good Bishop Stokes.  Life touches life and goes on.  We are called to let our lives as the people who worship Jesus Christ in this place touch others in wider and fuller circles.  Because we are all connected with one another.  We are connected with those saints who have gone before—the Burnetts and Fays and Choates—and we are connected to each other here and now, and we will be connected with those who come after, whoever they may be.  The days before us will not be easier; if that was true 50 years ago, it is even more true now.  We continue to be fragmented, to look tentatively at those who are not like us, to feel that our differences are too great to overcome.  We live in a time and place where Christianity has lost its luster and influence.  Yet this house is a house of prayer for all people, and we are called not to complacent Christianity, but to a deep and abiding faith in the one, holy, true and undivided Trinity.

We are here to make a difference in this community in the name of Jesus Christ.

We are called to live as his disciples, and to share his message of love, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation with the world.  We are not to be complacent in spreading that good news.  “Christianity must be a movement of people who find in Christ guidance and courage for the perplexities of a new day.”

As we gather here on this evening, and give thanks, and renew our baptismal covenant and share stories and celebrate, I hope we do not lose sight of that which is most important.  150 years ago a group of people came together to lay a cornerstone so that we would have a place to come and follow Jesus Christ.  By coming here and praying and having our faith deepened, we can in turn go out into the world to share by word and deed the good news of God in Christ.

I learned recently that the mission statement of Canterbury Cathedral in the UK — what many consider to be the Mother Church in the Anglican Communion— is simply this: To Show People Jesus.  I would argue that that’s our mission too.  May we share that wonderful news with everyone we meet: whether they are like us or not.  May we know that God welcomes each and every one of us into a deeper relationship with Christ.  And may the good work begun 150 years ago continue for 150 more, as we show people Jesus.  Amen.


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Linda Shaffer

Bravo Fr. Phil! I forwarded this link on to a few friends, who like myself went on sabbatical for one reason or another from St. Mark’s. With any luck after reading your sermon, they’ll give St. Mark’s – religion and whatever they have left for faith another chance.