Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
A Sermon Preached on the Feast of St. James the Fisherman
Jeremiah 45.1-5 • Matthew 20.20-28
Thus says the Lord: “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted.” (Jer 45.4) And, thus says Jesus: “Whosoever would become great among you shall be your slave; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant.” (Mt 20.26-27) These texts might seem somewhat depressing for the celebration of our annual feast day. However, I think they both offer hopeful wisdom for this summer chapel on our 68th anniversary.
Jeremiah spoke to an exiled Jewish community some 2500 years ago. It was a time of displacement and despair. Those of former position and power had lost their privilege and certitude. The familiar was no longer, and security was a faint memory. With words of imagination, the prophet Jeremiah, described how God brought to an end what had been most valued and gave new hope that was beyond expectation and explanation.
Toward the completion of his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke directly to his closest disciples. Even though they had been told repeatedly that their leader was going to suffer and die, and despite the fact that they were now in Jerusalem and Jesus’ words were coming to fruition, James and John, the Sons of Thunder, saw only glory ahead. And they wanted in on it. They (and their mother) wanted the best seats in the house of the Lord. Jesus put them in their place. You want to lead; you want to be first; get ready to serve and to follow.
Why do we need to hear these words at the Chapel today, and what wisdom and guidance do they offer to us and this place that we love?
For the past few summers, I’ve been reading literature, poetry and history of the Outer Cape. My reading list has included some classics, such as, Thoreau’s Cape Cod and Henry Beston’s The Outermost House. I have read current fiction by local authors, including this summer’s New York Times bestseller The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. I’ve read volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry (who I think might be considered the psalmist of Cape Cod) and re-visited old favorites like Marge Piercy’s Summer People, Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, as well as essays by Edmund Wilson and Robert Finch. This summer, I’ve read some interesting memoirs set in Wellfleet as well as a few histories of Provincetown.
In all of my summer reading, I’ve concluded that nearly everybody who has lived out here – from its earliest days to the present – has staked claims of identity, entitlement and ownership of this place. For a strip of land so narrow; for a landscape that is primarily swamp, sand, grasses, scrub, and standing water infested by mosquitoes, flies, and ticks; and despite weather that is unpredictable, roads that are often impassable, and housing that is becoming inaccessible and unaffordable to most of us, there is something magical and seductive about the Outer Cape. Is it the tides, the light, the breeze, the humidity, the flora, the fish, the insects, or the sand itself that makes the Lower Cape an extraordinary place people want to claim, own, and protect from outsiders.
Is it the rebellious history of the Outer Cape that has helped establish its unique personality? From colonial times, this liminal place, where the land meets the sea, has been home to rugged and yet refined, individualistic and yet tribal, profound and yet profane, rebellious and yet ritualized individuals and communities in search of beauty, pleasure, creativity, and freedom.
The Outer Cape, accessible only by air, sea and one highway has also been a place of both escape and refuge. As Thoreau once observed: “One may stand here and put all of America behind him.”
As early as the 1630’s, Provincetown was a “haven for the lawless.” In his exposé entitled PTown, Peter Manso writes: “The inhospitable terrain and distance from the mother colony [of Plymouth] made it a locus of transgression, where outlaws, deviants, and Indians could mingle freely in pursuit of those vices the Puritans proscribed.” 1
At the beginning of the last century, the Outer Cape became home to artists, actors and writers who needed space to create. During the 30’s and 40’s, it became a place of welcome and refuge for those escaping facist Europe. In my own lifetime, the Outer Cape, especially Provincetown, has been a place of safety and acceptance for LGBTQ folk from all over the world.
The churches out here, including this summer chapel, have been central to the life of the Lower Cape. When the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman was established in the late 1950’s, it was because a group of clergy and laity decided they wanted to have Episcopal worship in Wellfleet during the summer months. A few years later, they built a structure that would reflect the Christian ideal of participatory worship in the round – where clergy and choristers would sit among the congregation to lead in prayer and song. It was intended to be a sanctuary with God’s holy table at the center. The exposed timbers and unfinished walls, small windows reminiscent of the hull of a ship subliminally invite us to recall life on the sea. Last week’s preacher Callie Walpole from the Deep South suggested that, if we allow ourselves, this sacred architecture might remind us of the arduous and awful “Middle Passage,” which brought many enslaved Africans to this continent.
Over the past sixty years, the walls of our hillside chapel have witnessed a lot of life and death – both on land and sea. However, this generation of St. James members have been the most secure and prosperous in American history.
1 Peter Manso, Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape, p. 13
Over the past few years, all of that has changed and continues to do so. The stress of housing, food, health and environmental insecurity has come to Wellfleet and the rest of the Outer Cape, and with it a new wave of entitlement and self-protection – some might even call it NIMBY, short for “not in my backyard.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about – think bike paths, hiking trails, beach access, parking, cell towers, erosion protection, mosquito control, and affordable housing. These issues are reflected in yard signs and bumper stickers around town that read: “Sustainable communities need year- round housing;” “Free the Swap Shop;” “Protect the Herring River,” and “Black Lives Matter – even here.”
In the books about Wellfleet and the Outer Cape that I’ve been reading, I’ve found an uncomfortable tension that is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard where the first employed resent the last hired. It’s the age-old tension between us and them: resident vs. non-resident; fishing and hunting vs. wildlife protection; oversand vehicles vs. piping plovers; surfers vs. sharks; national seashore vs. private property owners; year-rounders vs. summer people vs. tourists vs. daytrippers. It’s the ownership expressed by the residents of the Woods for “my pond,” residents of the Bay for “my beach,” or residents on the ocean for “my shoreline.” It’s the one-up-man-ship of who got here first and thus, who really belongs here, who establishes the rules, and who defines the customary. In short, it’s about who is the greatest among us?
During this COVID pandemic, these tensions have become more acute. I actually heard a friend suggest that the time is coming when the Outer Cape might no longer be able to welcome tourists and accommodate vacation home owners. As Brent Harold, author of Wellfleet and the World wrote: “This is the kind of place where place, and threats to place, are a big story.”
Even we who worship at the Chapel get caught in the trap of us-and them, an expression of privilege, entitlement and scarcity in the midst of abundant grace. Over the years, I’ve had several people tell me that they don’t feel welcome at the Chapel because we’re too busy catching up with each other to really greet the stranger in our midst. Others have admonished me about the way things have always been done at the Chapel, resisting change in a church that was actually intended by its founders to be innovative and even radical. While I think we’re getting better at welcome and hospitality toward strangers, sojourners and seekers, it’s an ongoing challenge. Jesus taught and lived a very different message, and our patron James learned it the hard way.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann has written that, “We are watching the termination of the world we have loved too long and lost, a world of Western, white, male, heterosexual domination, privilege and certitude. It has evaporated before our very eyes. Its loss creates acres of rage and anxiety.” We are lacking what he calls “the script for truth-telling about the abyss, the loss and the possibility.”
According to Bruggemann, those entrusted with the scrolls of the prophets and the Gospel of Jesus are commissioned with truth-telling. At the center of the truth to be told is that God expects and delights in justice, love, and righteousness. Without a telling and re-telling of this truth in word and action, we may have to settle for power, wealth and entitlement.
The truth of it is that none of us can claim true ownership of the Outer Cape. All of us are merely guests and stewards of this place. This vulnerable spit of land really belongs to the mosquitoes, flies and ticks; the bluefish, tuna and striped bass; the lobster, clams and oysters; the seals, sharks and whales; the turkeys, crows and osprey; the tidal, salt and kettle ponds; the marshes, bays, and yes, the ocean itself. Ironically, as this fragile ecosystem faces a constant threat from humanity, nature is reclaiming it – one dune at a time.
Moreover, none of us can claim true ownership of the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman. This simple building on this vulnerable hillside belongs to God, and the Eucharist, our weekly meal together, belongs to Christ. We are merely guests, stewards and servants. And, everything we do must reflect this truth.
So what do Jeremiah and Jesus have to teach us in a summer chapel named for James the Fisherman? They teach us to mend the broken nets of our world, fish for God’s lost and despairing, care for the vulnerable, stand up for the oppressed, transform well- meaning naivete into faithful hope. They also teach us to move from dismissive arrogance to self-denying service, and from entitled ownership to genuine hospitality. If we heed their wisdom, Jesus and Jeremiah can help us do hard but necessary work of being gracious guests, faithful stewards and humble servants of this place we love.