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Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Boston, Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Church of the Advent began with a short walk on Bowdoin Street. A short walk, but a rather purposeful one.  On a late autumn evening of 1843, Richard Salter, a physician, walked from his office at No. 4, Bowdoin Street, to the office, No. 2, of a friend and colleague, William Coale.  Having been received there, he, as he himself put it, “rather abruptly” proposed, “Doctor, what should you think of forming a new Episcopal Church?”  This was an odd thing for him to do, for Dr. Salter was not an Episcopalian.  In fact, he was a Congregationalist, but here he was proposing to Dr. Coale, a man who was an Episcopalian,  that together they should form an Episcopal Church.  But even odder still was the kind of Church the two men agreed to found at their meeting that evening.  It was to be a Church, to quote them, “formed in the spirit and according to the principles of the Book of Common Prayer,” and it was to be a Church open to all, with free seats, supported by the voluntary, free-will offerings of those who worshipped there.  It was, in short, to be an Episcopal Church like no other in the City of Boston.

You may find these two intentions for the new church surprising. Surprising because today they are the norm: Episcopal Churches today may use the Prayer Book in a perplexing variety of ways, but they do use it, and today Episcopal Churches are supported by the free will offerings, that is to say the stewardship, of those who are members.  But it was not so in Boston in the 1840’s. Boston was a Puritan city and even the Anglican/Episcopalian clergy were imbued with the prejudices of that grim sixteenth-century movement.  One of these was a suspicion of the Prayer Book itself, over which many battles had been fought and heads, in fact, had rolled.  However, it was more than just a suspicion of the Prayer Book; it was a dislike of any set form at all for the Church’s worship.  Dr. Salter, the Congregationalist, had become dissatisfied with his own denomination, which was Puritan through and through, and began visiting Episcopal Churches seeking for something different.  But what he found was the same as what he had left: cold, disorganized, lifeless services.  Worship in name only, no part of which touched, or inspired, or affected the worshipper.  And the Book of Common Prayer, with its sacraments and its discipline of prayer, was largely ignored.  And so he proposed a new kind of Episcopal Church: one that actually used its Prayer Book !

And this new Church was to be open to all.  But how, one might ask, can a church be closed? That question is easily answered by a look at the system universally used in those days to support the operation of a Church: set fees for the use of a pew – pew rents – which in effect made a church a kind of semi-private club or religious theatre.  Individuals, families, rented their pews from year to year.  The best seats commanded the highest prices, of course, and the sums were not inconsequential.  One of our neighboring parishes, Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, recently made a study of pew rents there in the 1860’s.  And what they found was that the choicest seats – in the front, of course – were rented yearly for what would be in today’s currency about $19,000.  $19,000 for a pew in church!

And so, if you sat in the balcony of one of these churches on a Sunday and surveyed the crowd below you, what you would see was an image of the hierarchy of Boston society: the rich in the front, the not-so-rich and the middle class in the middle, the poor in the back, and those without means standing at the rear or sitting beside you up in the balcony.  All those things which separate people in the world – rank, privilege, fortune – were there in microcosm every Sunday in a church.  Dr. Salter and Dr. Coale agreed that in the new church it would not be so.  There would be no distinctions between people, because the attendance would be free.

This would be a risky business, for such a system of voluntary contributions had never been tried.  A risky business, indeed.  Could such a thing possibly succeed?  Those who founded the Church of the Advent ventured to give it a try and find out.

Other meetings followed Dr. Salter and Dr. Coale’s first abrupt evening together, and other people joined them.  And finally, a little over a year later, on September 24, 1844, the Parish was formally organized and a constitution was adopted.  Its first article stated – most of you have heard this before but it’s worth hearing again – that the intention of those forming the new Church of the Advent was “to secure to a portion of the city of Boston the ministrations of the Holy Catholic Church; and more especially to secure the same to the poor and needy in a manner free from unnecessary expense and all ungracious circumstances.”  We have lived by that intention ever since.  It is as close to the heart of the Church of the Advent now in 2007 as it was then in 1844.

And so you see, good people, from the very beginning the Church of the Advent was conceived of as a gift.  It was a gift to the city of Boston of a church with devout and affecting worship – something which was unknown, but ardently desired.  It was the gift of a Church where the godly order of the Kingdom of Christ, not the privileged order of the world, would be a principle of its life.

The Church of the Advent is a gift. Originally a gift to the city of Boston; now a gift to you and me and all who come here to worship.  The Church of the Advent is a gift and it is a community of giving.  A community of giving which spans the one hundred and seventy-one years of its existence.

Everything around you in this wonderful building was given. The Great Rood which reigns, as it should, over the interior of the Church, was given in 1924 by a Mr. William Richardson. The seven hanging lamps which burn before the Altar were given in 1864 by a Mrs. Charles Cobb.  The reredos which towers over the Altar was given in 1890 by Isabella Stewart Gardner. The font in which so many have been baptized was given by a Miss Perkins in 1850.

And the giving still goes on.  Some of you may remember when, several years ago, one half and then the other half of the nave were roped off and netting was installed above.  The building was deteriorating and stones were falling inside, which made it quite literally dangerous to sit in certain places.  We undertook a Capital Campaign to repair and restore the church.  People gave, many quite generously, and the church is now in excellent shape.  And so, this building was a gift at the beginning, and it is a renewed gift to all of us right now.

And there are more gifts.  For many years now, a member of the Parish has provided instruments for an orchestral setting of the Mass once or twice a year.  A beautiful and deeply spiritual gift to all those who worship here.

Recently, a parishioner had the inscriptions as you enter the Lady Chapel cleaned and re-gilded.  You couldn’t really see them before and few people knew that they were even there.  Now you can see them.  A real gift to us all.

Several years ago a parishioner saw to it that the large paintings in the Sanctuary were cleaned and restored.  Dirty and dull before, now they are resplendent.  Another gift to us all.  Everything around you – the wonderful stained glass, this pulpit, the vestments, the sacred vessels, the organ – everything was given by someone at some time and those gifts continue to give to you and me today and they will continue to give to those who will come after us.

Come by the Church on a Saturday morning and you will see any number of people giving their precious time and their talent to make possible what will take place on Sunday. And on Sunday the Choirs, the servers, the teachers in the Church School, the ushers, those who prepare Coffee Hour, all giving of themselves to this community. On Tuesday evening for over thirty years a hot meal and an opportunity for companionship has been provided to the poor and the lonely.

A meal given by the people of this parish.  Throughout the week space here is available for classes, for meetings, for AA.  Given.  This Church began as a gift and it continues to be a gift – to those who worship here and, as at the beginning, a gift to the city itself.

And so, good people, I suspect you know where this is going.  Here is the punch line.  This gift, the Church of the Advent, depends upon your giving, depends upon your stewardship of God’s bounty, depends upon your returning to God a part of what God has so lavishly given to you through a pledge to the Church of the Advent.  Think about this.  Pray about this and make a pledge.  Think about this a second time.  Pray about it again and make a larger pledge.

* * * * *

There is a story in the Gospel of Luke about giving and its reward.  It is the story of Zacchaeus.  (Luke 19:1 – 10)  Zacchaeus was a tax collector in the city of Jericho, and he was rich.  Jesus was passing through the city and so Zacchaeus, curious, went out to the road to get a glimpse of the rabbi from the country who was making such a stir.  Zacchaeus was a short man, so he climbed a tree to see over the crowd.  And he must have been very surprised, indeed, when Jesus stopped, stared at him, and invited himself to dinner.  Surprised, but joyful too, for most people despised tax collectors and shunned them.  At dinner Zacchaeus stood and said to Jesus: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus answered, “Today salvation has come to this house .  .  .  for the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

One of the things that St. Luke’s Gospel is showing us in this story is that receiving Jesus, having fellowship with Jesus results in repentance and restitution – “if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” – and results as well in generosity, in giving – “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.”  That is what receiving Jesus does to us – it issues in repentance and it issues in giving – and, it seems, this – repentance and giving –  is part of what it is to be saved, for Jesus responds to Zacchaeus’ promise by announcing to all around, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

My sisters and my brothers, our salvation, our new life in Jesus involves giving.  It involves giving, for Jesus is God’s gift to us, and that gift within our hearts both causes and allows us to give.  Our Lord Jesus opens us up.  He frees us within.  His love and his presence are our security and this allows us to let go of false security, to let go of an inordinate and selfish attachment to the things of this world.  That makes us alive, really alive. There are few things more poisonous to the soul than stinginess, and that there are few things more life-enhancing and liberating than giving and generosity.

Just this past week, we began our Stewardship Campaign for the year 2016.  I want you to think about and pray about your pledge.  Think about and pray about your obligation as a steward of what God has so generously given you.  Upon your response depends the health of this remarkable and holy parish church.  And, if I may be so bold as to say it and, after all, it’s my job, upon your response depends the health of your soul.

Amen.

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