300 Year Anniversary of St. Andrew Episcopal Church, Staten Island

November 30, 2008

It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you for this celebration of 300 years of faithful witness on this island. As I travel around this Church I am continually amazed and delighted to discover the ways in which we are all connected. Last night I found some more of those connections. Your warmth and welcome tied us together in new ways. We are all truly part of one and the same Body of Christ.

I’d like to explore some of those connections, starting with Andrew. I was confirmed at St. Andrew’s, across Arthur Kill in the Diocese of New Jersey. Quite a few years later, I was ordained priest on the feast of Andrew. The bishop of Oregon, Robert Ladehoff, who ordained me (three times), was himself consecrated on this feast 200 years after Samuel Seabury. He’s also the 800th bishop after Seabury, the first bishop on this continent, who served here during and after the Revolutionary War. Seabury probably would have called it the colonial rebellion.

This congregation traces its origins to missionaries sent here from England just after 1700 – prompted by the Governor of New York and the rector of Trinity Wall Street. The Rev. Aeneas Mackenzie came and settled on Staten Island in 1704. He wrote back to London, urging the mission agency to send money for teachers, because there were no schools. The three teachers who were eventually hired taught white children in the daytime and slave children at night. Yes, there were large numbers of slaves here, and when a large estate was given to this parish in 1718, nearly half its value was counted in slaves. New York did not legally free all the slaves until 1827.

Aeneas Mackenzie and leading citizens laid plans for building a church and buying farm and timberland to support the work. Queen Anne lent her support as well, sending a silver communion set and confirming the land transfers. The first church building was finished in 1711. The congregation included English speaking colonists, but also French Huguenots and some Dutch speakers, apparently convinced to join by the minister’s care for them and the fact that he had managed to acquire books of common prayer translated into Dutch. Mr. Mackenzie was fishing mightily on this island, and even in New Jersey – some of his congregants came from Elizabethtown when the weather was good enough. He did his fishing not just in his own language or racial or economic group, but among all the people of this extended community. That kind of fishing still marks this congregation.

When Andrew first encounters Jesus, he is told to leave his fishnet and go fish for people. He may have walked off and left his net and boat, but he didn’t lose the ability to draw in what he was looking for. Fishing for people has a lot to do with luring and making connections – not in a manipulative sense, but in offering the bait of loving kindness or reaching out a hand to someone in need. The kind of fishing that Aeneas Mackenzie did here answered the needs and desires of his fellow inhabitants – for education, for solace in the face of disease and death, for companionship and solidarity, and for hope in a hard land. The good news he shared brought comfort – strength is how it would have been understood then – and assurance that God cares for every single one. From all I read and hear, you are still doing that kind of fishing here today – sheltering the homeless, sharing solace with those who have lost companions – both human and animal, and sharing the hospitality of this house with all sorts and conditions of people. That kind of fishing knits us into the great net of Christ, building connections with each other in the love of God.

Samuel Seabury had a challenge on his hands when he first came here at the beginning of the Revolution. He was known to the residents as a crown loyalist, and he couldn’t actually move here and hope to sleep peacefully in his bed. He kept living in Manhattan and plying his trade as a physician, but coming out here to preach and preside at services. At one point he ran off to Long Island to seek shelter with the British troops, and in response the colonists turned this place into a hospital and burned the pews. The community that follows Jesus never has been a shelter from conflict, a reality which Andrew also knew. I imagine you’ve had your share as well.

But this congregation persisted. St. Andrew’s was the only church on the island that continued to hold services all through the war. Seabury ministered both to British soldiers and to American revolutionaries, and to those caught in the middle, and he continued to fish here after the Revolution was accomplished. As things began to settle down, his fellow Anglicans elected him to go to England and seek consecration as a bishop. The difference of opinion settled on these shores between revolutionaries and the British marked the beginning of a new nation, but it also represents the start of the Anglican Communion. Seabury was refused ordination in England and went to Scotland instead – where Andrew is patron saint. We continue as Episcopalians here because the Scots took pity on us, for they already knew something of what it means to be an occupied country.

I was in London for several days this past week, for a meeting of the Joint Standing Committee, a group that’s related to the primates’ meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. We were there to talk about Anglican Communion issues, and we met at the Anglican Communion offices, in St. Andrew’s House. Every year, on or near the feast of Andrew, the office there holds a celebration for friends and supporters. Tuesday night we celebrated the feast of Andrew with a eucharist and dinner. I was asked to say grace before dinner, and I gave thanks for our gathering, and the food, and for Andrew. As dinner began, a Ugandan woman who is on the JSC came up me and thanked me for praying for Andrew. She went on to say that her son who died last year was named Andrew. The prayer let her give thanks, even in the midst of her continuing grief. The warp and weft of this fish net in which we are all caught binds us together in ways beyond our imagining.

You and I are caught in a net that includes Episcopalians all over the United States, spiritual descendants of those early Church of England clergy and missionaries who first came to these shores 400 years ago. We are caught in a net that includes Episcopalians in places like Taiwan and Micronesia, where others have spread the gospel much more recently. We are caught up with Episcopalians in Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands, whose communities are a bit younger than yours, but just as faithful. And we are caught up with Episcopalians in six countries in Europe, whose congregations are mostly less than 100 years old. But we are also caught up with Anglicans in Brazil, Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, and Liberia, whose churches trace their roots to missionaries from The Episcopal Church. The Church in the Philippines began when the Brotherhood of St. Andrew sent missionaries there in 1892, and that saint still names their seminary.

We are linked with Anglicans in all parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe through their connections with England. The net that Andrew first began to knit, and Aeneas Mackenzie added to in this place reaches around the world, and it’s still catching people, here and far, far away. All of us are linked by those slender strands in the Body of Christ. When one strand in that net is stretched or broken, the rest of us feel it if we’re paying attention. We notice – and grieve – when Christians in India are persecuted or killed for their faith, as we rejoice when peace comes in Ireland or South Africa.

Keep fishing, keep throwing out the net, keep reaching for the line called Jesus that knits us all into God’s net. And give thanks for Andrew, first of the fishers of men – and women.