We Are All St. James the Less

Today we’re celebrating the feast of St. James the Less, our patron saint. It’s our Patronal Feast Day. St. James has been celebrated alongside St. Philip, another of the twelve apostles of Jesus, since the earliest centuries of the church.

Not many churches are named after James the Less. As far as I know, there are only two other active Episcopal churches in the U.S. with our same name, one in Illinois, and one in Virginia. I often get confused with the rector of the St. James the Less in Illinois b/c our email addresses are similar; in fact, during this capital campaign two people scanned and sent their quite generous pledge cards to her! She congratulates us on today’s big milestone, by the way.

It’s no longer in operation, but there was one other church of St. James the Less, in Philadelphia, founded about five years before ours, in 1846. The founders of our church knew of that one. It looks exactly like our church. We were both designed to look just like a St. James the Less parish in England. Unfortunately, the one in Philadelphia closed about 40 years ago, after it refused to accept the ordination of women. So they got up and left their building, and never returned.  I guess now they don’t have to worry about maintenance issues! 

The Feast of James and Philip is on May 1 and we always try to celebrate it the Sunday after. This year’s commemoration is especially important, because it’s also the day when we announce the amount we’ve raised in our capital campaign: 2.7 million! It’s amazing. $350,000 of that is grant money, and the rest is - US! 93 families. 9 families gave memorial-level gifts of $100,000 or more. That came to less than half of the total amount raised by the congregation. It was a group effort, made more successful by those larger gifts but, really and truly, we ALL did this, together. 

I want to thank our co-chairs, Bill Haffner and Ocean Mills. They’ve been at this for a year now. And also all our visitors: Barbara and John Palmer, Geoff and Margy Loftus, Ocean Mills and Tom Finlan, Bill and Tracy Haffner, Hadley Miller, Deidre Wynne, Marcus d’Silva, Francia Morhardt Smith, Tom Lacalamita, Pam Heldman. They’ve put a lot of time and love into this. 

And you all have been very patient. These past few months have been all about the campaign. I’m sure there’ve been times when you didn’t want to hear another word about it, but had to. It needed to be this way to get to where we are. I think we’ve all developed a greater appreciation for the sacrifices needed to keep a church going. I see all these plaques on the wall differently now. We’ve had to really think about what this place means to us. Putting your money into something, unless you have a lot of it (and most of us don’t), really requires reflection. 

Just one more word (for now) about this campaign. We said from the beginning that this effort wouldn’t be worth it if it didn’t also build up our community, and it has. I know many of you much better than I did before we started. I’ve seen you in your homes, with your pets, surrounded by your things. I’ve watched new friendships form between campaign visitors and those they were assigned to. New members have pledged and gotten more deeply involved. 

We have a solid beginning, not just because of the money we’ve raised, but because we’ve gotten to know each other better. We’re entering these years of construction and (frankly, some) inconvenience with a clear sense of what it’s ultimately all about: supporting each other, building community, and making sure what we have, all these friendships and all this love, will be available to others long after we’re all gone. 

Who was St. James the Less? No one really knows. He was one of the 12 disciples, we know that much. He was probably called “the Less” because there was another James among the 12, who’s mentioned in the Bible a lot more than ours. That James became known as James the Greater. 

Some traditions say that our James wrote the New Testament letter of James, which is historically doubtful but, were it true (and it could be), ours would be perhaps the best saint you could have. Because that letter is all about love, and doing good by others, and being a sincere person, whose faith isn’t just a matter of profession, but action. Whether or not our James wrote the letter, his thoughts in that letter describe our parish well.  

James the Less is perhaps best known for his obscurity. I like to think he represents the vast majority of Christians, whose lives we know very little about, and yet who did so much. 

Countless millions of nameless men and women can call St. James the Less their patron. Like the many who sat in these pews. Some, we’re lucky to have a memory of from the plaques on our walls, or because we see their names on the gravestones, or they have a room named after them--Isom, Spencer, Hyatt, Crane, Bleecker, of course Popham. We’re grateful to all of them for the outsized effort they made to make this church what it is. 

But there are so many more we’ll never know. There always are in churches. They read at this lectern, they set the altar on Sundays, they taught church school and sang in the choir, sat around vestry tables, planned and gave to capital campaigns. They kept our church running in their generations so that we could be here in ours. 

The vestry had a retreat yesterday and we reflected briefly on our name. We all liked the humility of being named after a lesser-known saint. But then someone said, these are the people who run churches, who keep them going. And he’s right. 

Today our names are published. We’ll keep doing that for a while. Some names will be on plaques, memorialized, if they agree to that. And I’m so grateful. We’re all grateful. But all of us, in time, will be part of a prior, faceless, mostly nameless generation. Even plaques fade into the background. And we’re fine with that. With James, we’re the Less. It’s in our name, it’s our identity. It’s one continuous reminder of our place in God’s scheme of things. 

Yet, James was one of the twelve. The “less” among the greatest. So there’s that. So maybe it’s OK today to celebrate how extraordinary this parish is. And to be proud of this amazing thing we’ve done, together.