Archive for Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue)

“Serious, Thoughtful, and Scriptural”

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , on September 24, 2015 by montgomerybrandt

Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year

By Andrew C. Mead

Foreword by Jon Meachem

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Pp. 152. $13.50

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, called by the Right Reverend Richard Grein one of the truly great parishes of the Diocese of New York, is a parish whose high liturgical sensibilities have become the epitome of the Psalmist’s imperative call: “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, let the whole earth stand in awe of him.[1] In a volume written in commemoration of its 175th anniversary, J. Robert Wright wrote that “the history of Saint Thomas…is the story of the worship that has been offered and of the service that has been rendered, as the vision of the ‘spiritual house’ that is recorded in I Peter 2.4-5 has gradually…become a reality on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street.” Wright further noted, “In a way that is rather peculiar to Saint Thomas, and endorsed by its parishioners over time and today as well, the history of this parish, the ‘symphony of Saint Thomas,’ is best orchestrated and told around the rectorships of the priests who have led it…It is largely the way the parishioners today still understand themselves and the way they want to read their history.”[2]

At the time of the publication of Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year, its author, Andrew Craig Mead, was a short time away from his retirement as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church and from 43 total years of active parish ministry. His 18-year rectorship from 1996-2014, to quote the parish’s Vestry, “transformed Saint Thomas Church by creating a real sense of parish where there is a deep warmth and inclusion that makes visitors and strangers feel welcome…” and in which he gave “all who worship at Saint Thomas a keen knowledge of how to live every aspect of their lives with Christ as their guide, as evidenced by his preaching, teaching, and life example.” Throughout the course of his tenure, Mead’s reputation as a “builder of parishes” manifested itself. His heart for sacramental ministry, grounded in the traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, and love for his people helped make Saint Thomas even stronger than it was previously, emboldening its members to live into its mission “to worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” Andrew Mead’s rectorship can be summarized by these words from Saint Paul: “…Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.[3]

Thomas Long says, “…Being a ‘preacher’ is one of the most striking and public of all ministerial roles, and, in the popular mind, anyone who would respond to a call to the ministry must surely be the sort of person who is ready and willing to preach and who earnestly covets this ‘preacher’ role” (The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition, p. 19). Jon Meachem, a former Saint Thomas Vestryman, in his Foreword, describes Andrew Mead as such a ready and willing preacher, who, from the time of his 1971 priestly ordination, displays a higher-than-average eagerness for the work of the Gospel ministry, always ready to “hop to it.”[4] But although Mead does covet his role as a preacher, as those that have heard him preach and the collected sermons attest, never has he approached the preaching task with inflated ego or want of praise. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[5] For Mead, the purpose is clear—it is all about Jesus!

Mead’s sermons are reflective of what has become, over the years, the Saint Thomas ethos: serious, thoughtful, and scriptural. They are serious by way of his unabashed commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, proclaiming nothing more than the Gospel and the historic doctrines of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Just like Saint Peter, Andrew Mead replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[6] For Mead, it is THE ultimate truth. It is what fuels his commitment as a Word and Sacrament preacher—preaching and teaching nothing else but Christ, proclaiming Christ crucified, died, and risen, while pointing to the altar, where the Gospel’s truth is strengthened by the living Christ in the Eucharistic sacrament. Andrew Mead is not ashamed of the Gospel. Time and time again, he has made clear that it is not himself that he preaches, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Mead’s humility has made credible the seriousness with which he has approached the preaching task.

They are thoughtful in approach. They are brief (each between the range of 900-1200 words), carefully worded, and composed with the concern of the listener (or, in this case, reader) in mind. To put it another way, they are short, sweet, and to the point. Hearing these sermons would typically take up an average span of 8-10 minutes, which was extremely helpful in keeping the hearers’ mind attuned to the Gospel’s explication, guarding against the risk of major distraction. For Mead, the time set aside in the liturgy for the preaching of the Gospel is too important and the collected sermons demonstrate well his commitment of making every moment of this time count.

Finally and most importantly, they are scriptural, the focus being not on secular politics or even the Church’s current theological battles, but on the message of the cross, on Jesus Christ Himself, died, risen, and coming again—nothing more; nothing less. Within Catechesis are sermons (37 out of hundreds) of a humble priest whose love for Jesus shines bright and comes out strong, so devoted in his vocation “to instruct the people committed to [his] charge; and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which [he] shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture.”[7] They are the representation of a distinguished priestly career fixed on the truth that the one foundation of the Church is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

In today’s world, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is just as important now—perhaps more so—than it has ever been. The importance of the preacher’s commitment to this task is best conveyed through this story, told by Andrew Mead himself, from the closing page of Catechesis: “A few years ago an old friend, a distinguished priest educator, came to town to take me out to lunch. He has experienced much of the world, its glories and its sorrows. He is clear, direct, firm, and brave. I was waiting for him at our front desk. It was February. In he came, saying, ‘Hello, Andy, I have good news for you.’ He had recently retired, having completed an extraordinary career. ‘What’s the good news?’ I asked eagerly. ‘The good news,’ he said, ‘is that it is all true.’”[8]

[1] Psalm 96.9

[2] J. Robert Wright. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (New York, New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), pp. XIII—XIV

[3] Colossians 3.17

[4] Andrew C. Mead. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), p. vii.

[5] I Corinthians 2.2

[6] Matthew 16.15-16 (cf. Mark 8.29)

[7] “The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (Greenwich, Connecticut: The Seabury Press, 1928), p. 542.

[8] Mead, Catechesis, p. 152.

“Father Mead and John the Baptist–Pointers to Jesus” (December 7, 2014: The Second Sunday of Advent–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , on December 7, 2014 by montgomerybrandt

“And [John] preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I…’”—Mark 1.7[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, was the second anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. It was a day filled with great gratitude—to God for His call, to the Church for affirming God’s call and granting me the privilege to serve His people in this office, and for all the specific people who were the giants upon whose shoulders I stood throughout the process. One of those specific people who made a huge impression and had a significant impact upon my vocational formation was Andrew Mead, the now Rector Emeritus of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue) in New York City.[2] Father Mead was a parish priest who was committed to Biblical preaching within a Catholic liturgical framework, coupled with an evangelical concern for the hearer, doctrinal orthodoxy in his teaching, the liturgical heritage of Catholic Anglicanism, within the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer, and possessed a deep love “for the care of souls.”[3] It was as a senior at The General Theological Seminary in which Father Mead invited me to serve as the seminarian at Saint Thomas Church, an experience that I will forever be grateful for having had. I remember Father Mead saying these words to me after the first weekday Mass that I served with him: “Brandt, I am glad that you are here with us this year. Throughout this year, I’m going to be saying a lot of things to you. Some of them will be good things; some of them will be things that will probably hurt your feelings. But know that everything that I say to you I do so because I want you to do well.”

Father Mead kept true to those words. During the course of 10 months, Father Mead observed me with a care like that of a father for his son. He applauded and encouraged me for the good things that I did, as well as firmly, yet lovingly pointed out things that I could have been done better and offered suggestions on how improvements could be achieved, all done so with the goal of forming me to be the best Priest he believed I could be. In turn, in my observances of Father Mead, I found him to be a man who really “walked the talk,” in which I saw all that he taught me about what it means to be a Priest being reflected in his own practice. Although Father Mead did disagree with some of the Episcopal Church’s more recent actions, never once did I hear him say a disparaging word against the Church or its leaders, with him once saying to me, “Brandt, you don’t get anywhere by being an angry Pharisee. It doesn’t accomplish anything.” Using words of former Saint Thomas parishioner and former Newsweek editor Jon Meachem, hearing Father Mead’s sermons live from the pulpit, I found them to be “brief…clear and to the point,” focused on nothing else but “the great truths of the faith, struggling mightily to keep the theological and ecclesiastical battles of the day at bay,” and aimed at “focusing our attention not on ourselves but on the crisis at Calvary.”[4] And at the beginning of my time at Saint Thomas, as one who was bound and determined to live out his sacramental life within the lecture hall, it was Father Mead who, while walking to the Saint Thomas rectory for a chili dinner, reinforced to me the importance of parish ministry, cautioning me not to forget about the “front lines,” to which by the end of my time at Saint Thomas, my appreciation for the work of parish ministry was renewed. I remember saying to Father Mead during a parish function, “Father, I hope that I will be as great a Priest as you are.” In response, Father Mead said, “On the contrary, I hope that you will be better!” I credit much of who I am as a Priest to the humble and Godly influence of Andrew Mead and am thankful for the place that he had in my formation.

I mention Father Mead as an example of how much of where we are and come to be, both individually and collectively, is due to others who preceded us and prepared the way. All of us are Christians because of the Gospel witness of someone that came before us. The person who first witnessed to you about the Good News first heard it from someone before them, with them having first heard it from someone before them, going further and further back in time. All of these people, through whom the Good News was passed down through the centuries to all of us in this time, were forerunners to us for Jesus. They were the ones in our lives from whom we first heard the call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [5] Their witness came from a deep belief in the Gospel, a deep belief in Jesus, being touched by Him in the most affective way. These forerunners in our lives were our first pointers to Jesus and through their witness, the path for Him to come into our hearts was prepared and made straight.

In today’s Gospel from Mark 1, we meet John the Baptist, THE forerunner of forerunners, THE forerunner of Christ Himself. It is said of him in the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” [6] Today’s Gospel puts forth John as the fulfillment of what had been foretold by the prophets: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,’” [7] and “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…” [8] In Luke 1, when the Virgin Mary, after being told that she would be the bearer of our Lord into the world, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John, it is said that when she first greeted Elizabeth, the forthcoming John leaped for joy in her womb.[9] Even Jesus Himself gave recognition to John’s role as His forerunner, saying of him: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” [10]

So how appropriate it is that on today, the Second Sunday of Advent, after getting a glimpse of the last things to come on the First Sunday of Advent, we come to the beginning of the Christian story, seeing the prophecies of old being fulfilled. Whereas in last Sunday’s Gospel, where we hear Jesus saying that the Son of man will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” [11] today, we hear of “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem” being called by John to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Today’s Gospel presents John as the voice and messenger in the wilderness making way for the Lord’s coming as prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi. The evidence is adding up. Mark is making it abundantly clear: the time of salvation is now! Whereas it will be through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which the child Jesus will make His way to us into this world, it is through the preaching of John the Baptist in which the adult Jesus will first come to us in our belief. John the Baptist is the sign—Jesus, our long awaited Messiah, is coming!

In the ministry of John the Baptist can be seen the Advent themes of waiting and preparation. John’s calling for repentance and baptism highlights what preparing oneself for the Lord’s coming literally means. In calling the people to repentance and baptism, John is conveying the point that preparation for the Lord’s coming requires from us a change—to turn away from those things that are not in line with the ways of God, giving up, in essence, the prevailing of our will in favor of God’s will. What John is asking of us can be a pretty tall order, because, by bending to God’s will, we admit that we don’t have what it takes to make it on our own. John’s preaching forces us to be real with ourselves: “Do I really got this?” “Am I strong enough to handle things on my own and save myself?” If we are truly honest with ourselves, we accept that the answer is “no.” Therefore, John is a preacher whose words we need to heed, for in calling us to repentance, he is putting us in the right focus for our future, pointing us in the direction of the One who will come and be able to save us from the wages of sin and death.

With John’s preaching ministry as successful as it was, how tempting it could have been for him to take all of the credit for himself. John could have been swept away by the attention given to him by those who thought that he was the Christ, or the prophet Elijah, or another of the great prophets come back to Israel. But John doesn’t yield to such temptation. He is quite clear in the fact that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In his ministry of preaching and baptizing, John draws the attention away from himself to the One who truly is coming and will bring to pass God’s plan for humanity’s redemption. John knows that he is not the One and accepts it. He is pointing to Jesus, who is the One. John gives the credit where the credit is due, and he rightfully gives it to Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, we see John the Baptist as a leader who recognizes that he is first and foremost a servant of God. He was humble, looking with those who heeded his call for the coming of Jesus, the One who will ransom, heal, restore, and forgive them and us. Through John, we will first meet the adult Jesus, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” who “will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[12] On this day, from John the Baptist we are hearing of a new beginning, of God coming into our time in a most radical way. Alleluia! Jesus is coming!

To us who wait for Jesus’ coming in this current time, John the Baptist asks these questions: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Hopefully, our answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”[13] If so, then may our focus not be on ourselves but on the coming Jesus, pointing others to Him as our life, our stay, and our end. Amen.

[1] All Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Andrew C. Mead served as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church in the City and County of New York from 1996-2014.

[3] Wright, J. Robert. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (New York, New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2001), 231-232.

[4] Mead, Andrew C. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), viii-ix.

[5] Matthew 3.2

[6] John 1.7-8

[7] Isaiah 40.3

[8] Malachi 3.1

[9] Luke 1.44

[10] John 5.35

[11] Matthew 13.27

[12] Luke 1.32-33

[13] From the Baptismal Covenant in the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 304-305.

“Something Has Changed, Yet Remains the Same” (June 8, 2014: The Day of Pentecost–Whitsunday; Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by montgomerybrandt

“…We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”—Acts 2.11[1]

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!

I did not grow up with the 1928 Prayer Book, but was radically exposed to it during my senior year at General Seminary while serving as the Seminarian at Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue), which utilized it in the recitation of the Daily Office and for the chanting of the Coverdale Psalter[2] at Sunday morning Masses. For those of you familiar with the liturgical customs of Saint Thomas Church (or who have had to bear through my endless ravings about the place), you will know that it holds a highly unique position within the greater life and witness of the Episcopal Church, having as its mission, “To worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” As you can probably imagine, the traditional language of the 1928 Prayer Book, combined with the liturgical customary of Saint Thomas Church, steeped in the great traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, and the glorious, heavenly sounds of its Choir of Men and Boys all emotionally clutched onto me and provided many Wesleyan Aldersgate-type moments. For me, all of these moments were Holy Spirit moments. They each brought me into the presence of the Holy in ways that were both profound and transformative.

But even though I came to have a deep appreciation and love for the language of the 1928 Prayer Book, my exposure to it also made me have a renewed appreciation for the 1979 Prayer Book and what it did for the liturgical life of our Church. It made me realize that even though traditional Elizabethan English lies deep within the history of the Anglican Christian tradition, language changes and the 1979 Prayer Book was the result of conscious efforts by the Church to communicate the faith of Christ in the language of the current times. Also, the rubrics of the 1979 Prayer Book gave way to greater participation of the laity in the liturgy and for a greater variety of expressions of worship in Christian community. The 1979 Prayer Book was the result of the Church being intentional in listening for what the Holy Spirit was saying to it in its time. In an ironic use of words, the 1979 Prayer Book was “meet and right so to do.”

19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” What we hear today from Acts 2, in a more positive context from that of Karr’s original meaning, is of an event that ushers in a change, but one that manages to keep that which its changing the same. Today is the Day of Pentecost, in which our Lord fulfilled His promise to His disciples given immediately before His ascension into Heaven: “…For John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”[3] Pentecost is also the fulfillment of another promise from our Lord in Matthew 28.20b: “…I am with you always, to the close of the age.” With Jesus making good on His promises to us, we see the descent of the Holy Spirit, the gift of Christ for His people, upon a variety of people from a variety of lands, speaking in a variety of tongues. By intentionally listing the various peoples upon which the Holy Spirit fell on that Pentecost day, Saint Luke the Evangelist, the author of Acts, foreshadows an important change that will take place throughout the course of his book—a change from the view that “…unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved,”[4]to that of “…whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[5]The most important point that comes from our Acts lesson—the point that has always remained the same—is that God shows no distinction between anybody: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6]So today, in a more positive way, we see something that changes, yet also remains the same. We see that the grace of Jesus Christ, realized through our belief in Him through the power of the Holy Spirit, is something offered not just to one specific group of people in one specific way, but offered to all people in a variety of ways. On this day, the Holy Spirit has come, filled the hearts of the faithful, and has renewed the face of the entire earth.

From the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[7] Although Jesus, Himself, and the message He brings us—“I came that you may have life and have it abundantly”[8]—has never changed, time has and as time has changed, so has the use of language. That is what we see in the Day of Pentecost—the telling of the same message, but in a radically different way. Through Pentecost, Christ begins the conversion of hearts and minds to the reality that His salvation is being brought to the people of every land with every different style of language. Not only has His resurrection forever opened the gates of Heaven to all who believe, but the descent of His Holy Spirit has expanded the reach of the Gospel message, so that every person on Earth who hears it may come to the same confession of faith like that of Saint Peter: “…You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[9]

What I am specifically being reminded of this Pentecost is that while I may have a strong preference for Anglo-Catholic worship, not everybody does and while I may feel the Holy Spirit’s presence through it, it may make others feel that God is far away from them. As Episcopalians, that is why I think that the 1979 Prayer Book is such a valuable instrument for us. Its rubrics allow for flexibility for various sorts of liturgical expressions—Low Church, Broad Church, and High Church/Anglo-Catholic. This flexibility allows for a community to treasure the particular traditions that make them who they are, so that they may continue to hear what the Spirit is saying to them as God’s people. For me, over time, this has come with the realization for the need to embrace styles of worship that are different from that which I prefer. By doing so, I have seen and felt the Holy Spirit do some marvelous things.

The Good News is still the Good News: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[10] The Good News will NEVER change. Because of His offering Himself as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on a cross, Jesus paid a price for our sins that in no way could we have paid and freed us from the dominion of sin and death. Because of His resurrection, the way to eternal life has been opened to us. Because of Jesus, the human form of God, “…we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”[11]From Eucharistic Prayer B, we have been brought “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life,” all because of Jesus.[12]

Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion states: “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God…to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit has come and revealed that all the peoples of the earth are His people. Because all people are His people, God has expanded the way in which His Word can be heard, understood, and received by everyone who hears it throughout every place on Earth and throughout all time. For some people, in our own time, Anglo-Catholicism is how that happens; for others, it may be through Low Church Evangelicalism; for others, charismatic Pentecostalism; for others, contemporary Christian worship. But though there may be differing styles of worship and languages spoken through which the message of salvation is preached and received, the message, itself, is and forever will be the same: “…The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[13]

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the world; O come, let us adore Him. Amen!

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952, New Testament Section, Copyright 1946 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Myles Coverdale, who served as the Bishop of Exeter from 1551-1553, was a Biblical scholar and translator credited with the production of the first complete English translation of the Bible, first published in 1535. Amongst Anglicans worldwide, Coverdale’s translation of the Psalter is the most familiar and treasured and was included in every prayer book of the American Episcopal Church until the ratification of the 1979 edition.

[3] Acts 1.5

[4] Acts 15.1b

[5] Acts 2.21; cf. Joel 2.32

[6] Galatians 3.28

[7] Hebrews 13.8

[8] John 10.10

[9] John 16.16

[10] John 3.16

[11] Ephesians 1.7-8

[12] Eucharistic Prayer B from The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 368.

[13] Romans 6.23b