A Note from the Rector – 11/15/2020

You might know the scene early in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, when the protagonist, Jean Valjean, just released from 19 years in prison, and is turned away from everyone because of his status as a convict.  He is finally welcomed into the home of a local bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu (which literally means welcome).  Rising early, Jean Valjean, steals the bishop’s silverware and slips away.  He is stopped on the road by gendarmes because he looked guilty.  He is searched, and ultimately brought back to the bishop’s house to face judgement for his crime.  When the bishop sees Jean Valjean returning in the custody of police, dejected and ashamed, he exclaims, “Here you are!  I gave you the candlesticks too, why didn’t you carry them away with your forks and spoons?”  Though Jean Valjean is obviously guilty, the bishop extends mercy to him, pretending as if he had given him the silver from the very beginning.  After Valjean is released the bishop insists he take the valuable silver candlesticks as well.  Here’s the end of the scene from the novel:

Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.  The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:

“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

The rest of Jean Valjean’s life, and indeed the rest of the novel, proceeds from this one foundational act of mercy that changes the course of a person’s life.  This work of fiction points us to a profound truth: when all is done and said and a final accounting is made for all the deeds that have ever been done, it will be seen that mercy, undeserved grace, and forgiveness have far more power over the destinies of humanity than the strongest weapon, and far more value than the most desired item or property. 

Our bishop reminded me of that story when I called him earlier this week distraught over something that happened at church.  Last Sunday, I was given 34 Giant gift cards which represented the generosity of many, many parishioners toward those in need who will be served by the Ardmore Food Pantry this Thanksgiving.  The cards were wrapped with a rubber band and slip of paper.  I put them in a filing cabinet in the church office, along with others that had been collected.  Four days later I returned for them to find that 20 out of the 34 were gone.  The remaining 14 were exactly where I put them, still wrapped with a rubber band and the slip of paper.  I looked frantically throughout the filing cabinet and the office, but they were gone.  Theft seems to be the only explanation.  I was upset at myself for not taking the time to lock them in the safe.  I was angry that someone would steal from the needy and the poor.  I thought about filing a police report.  I thought about casting accusations on possible suspects.  But then I called the bishop, instead.  He encouraged me to remember the story of Jean Valjean and to consider why anyone would steal gift cards from a church, or why they would only take some and not the others.  Most likely this person needed these gift cards for one reason or another.  As one member of the church reminded me, no property was damaged, no one was hurt.  The gift cards were destined to go to someone in need.

This doesn’t change the fact that stealing is morally wrong, not to mention illegal.  And yet, we serve a God whose property it is to always have mercy.  I am reminded that, just like Jean Valjean, we all need mercy.  We all need grace.  We all need a second or a third or a fourth chance. That is exactly the business that God is in, mercy for those who miss the mark.  Like a handful of dirt compared to the mighty sea, so is all of human sin compared to the ocean of God’s mercy. 

This tired, unforgiving world desperately needs reminders that mercy and grace are real, and available through faith, and are more powerful than revenge, or even than imperfect systems of human justice.  To be a bastion and beacon of mercy and love in a harsh world is the entire reason why this church exists.  So, I will not be filing a police report.  A couple of donors (including the bishop) will replace the stolen cards.  If the thief ever reads this, let them know they are forgiven and loved.  I’d love to talk to them, to offer them more financial support if they need it, to proclaim to them that they no longer belong to evil, but to good. 

None of this is meant to diminish or downplay the value or the effectiveness of your generosity to this or to other outreach initiatives.  To those who gave money for gift cards remember, your gift was in thanksgiving to God, first and foremost.  God knows your motivation and your heart, and God blesses those who are generous, even—especially—when generosity is shown to the seemingly undeserving.  For that is the form of generosity that most closely mirrors God’s own.

Nevertheless, I will ask the vestry to reevaluate our practices for handling and storing cash and gift cards, and in the future, I will be more careful with where I put things.  We are all stewards of the gifts that God has given us, after all.  In the final analysis, when the dust settles, love covers a multitude of sins.  God’s mercies are new every morning, and they are free and available to us all.  There is no better news than that.    

A Note from the Rector – 9/13/20

This week was week two of school for Haverford school district and the first week for Lower Merion.  It’s been quite a week for my family as we’re learning all over again how to do online school.  It won’t take long before my kids, members of a generation who are dubbed “digital natives,” know their way around Zoom and other applications far better than I do.  It’s an understatement and a cliché to mention that this is a difficult time for families trying to juggle jobs, school, childcare, and mountains of uncertainty.  And the difficulty of one demographic does not minimize or discount the hardship of others.  I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling in some way.

As a community of Jesus-followers, Holy Apostles has a lot to offer during this time of adversity.  One of the things it is able to offer is something in short supply these days, grace.  Grace is the freedom from shame, competition, and inauthenticity that can only come from knowing that you are truly loved no matter what.  It is related to the realization that your worth as a human being does not depend on your efficiency, your ability to achieve goals, your online teaching skills, your bank account, your house, your car, your children’s college admissions, or any other metric society uses to categorize and measure.  Grace cuts through all of that like butter.  

All grace originates in God and God’s invincible, unflappable love for us.  Through our connection to God–our worship, our prayer, our generosity, our fellowship–we have access to an unlimited supply here at Holy Apostles.  Grace means no matter who you are, or what you’ve been up to you are welcome to join us, either for online worship or in-person worship this weekend.  We have two services: our normal 10AM service (livestreamed), and a new, bi-monthly outdoor service geared toward families at 4:30PM (off-line but with ice cream).  

Grace also means that you are loved and valued even if you can’t make it to church this weekend.  Grace means God won’t give up you no matter what.  If you can’t make it to church (online or in person), my advice is, don’t stay away for too long.  Find some way that you can engage and stay connected with this grace-filled community. There are plenty of barriers at this time. It isn’t safe for everyone to gather like normal. It can be hard to engage online. But, please find some reminder of grace, even if it’s just a phone call with a church friend and a quick prayer. Know that Holy Apostles is here for you.  

The grace and love and peace that is found in worshipping God together is something I am convinced we all need.  Humans are made for worship.  If we’re not going to worship God, we will surely find something to worship.  It’s just that our other religions—careers, possessions, pleasures of all kinds—do not leave any room for grace at all.   

A Note from the Rector – 4/14/19

Holy Week is here; the culmination of Lent, the climax and concentration of the entire Christian story.  All the highs and lows of human experience are dramatically presented to us in the liturgies of Holy Week, from the glory, laud and honor of Palm Sunday, to the absolute dejection, isolation, and suffering of Christ hanging on the cross. 

Let us as faithfully as we can walk with Jesus on this final journey.  Our attitude is not one of grudging obligation, but one of true awe.  Nothing can hold a candle to the mysteries that we are invited to explore this week.  Our attitude is not one of shame, for as St. Augustine wrote in the 4th century, “The death of the Lord our God should not be a cause of shame for us; rather, it should be our greatest hope, our greatest glory. In taking upon himself the death that he found in us, he has most faithfully promised to give us life in him, such as we cannot have of ourselves.”  Augustine alludes to words of St. Paul in Scripture, words that are beautifully etched into our pulpit at Holy Apostles: “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Come and experience glory this week at the foot of the cross.  Come and receive grace that is only available because of Jesus.  Come and cast all your cares upon the One who cares for us more than we can fathom.

A Note from the Rector – 3/24/19

I love Lent.  I also love Spring.  I love watching early Spring flowers—crocuses, irises, tulips—as they begin to break through dirty snow, dark muddy soil, rotting leaves.  They are glimmers of hope cracking open the gloom of winter.  But, you can’t rush Spring.   It is easy for me to get impatient.  One beautiful Spring day may be followed by a week of storms and terrible weather.  It is hard for me to remember that all are part of the process of new life being birthed again in the world.  It is all part of an incredible miracle, but one that requires patience and attention in order to experience. 

Lent and Spring are both times of rebirth and growth, and this growth can be subtle.  You don’t always notice a crocus growing until one day your whole yard is full of beautiful purple flowers.  This is also true of spiritual growth.  God surprises us sometimes with our own spiritual growth, with the insights and joys, with uncomfortable realizations, and strange, unexpected consolations.  These all come to us, not from within ourselves or own intellect, but from God. They are arriving to us from God’s merciful excess.  So, this Spring and this Lent don’t forget to be surprised, to be taken aback by the wonder that God is bringing into this world, as gloomy, imperfect, or hopeless as it may seem.  God is in the business of surprises.  Let us keep our eyes open for wonder, even in this slog of early Spring and mid-Lent, lest the grace of God spring on us like a trap and catches us unprepared to give God thanks.   

In Christ,
James+