Sermon for the Feast of St James the Great 

This week the Church keeps the feast of St James the Great. He is an important saint in many ways. He gets the title “Great” however, not as a mark of stature, but to distinguish him from the other James, James the Less, also a disciple… And while the Gospel reading is very specific to James the Great, the name does not appear. Instead, we hear about the sons of Zebedee, also known as the sons of thunder, also known as James and John… 

Over the long haul of Christian Tradition, it is generally assumed that Sons of Thunder describes the feisty temperament of the brothers and of their father. But this reading from Mathew may be telling us that it is their mother, not their father, that gives these brothers their feisty reputation. 

It is mom, after all, that has this little request of Jesus: Put my sons in charge of everything… one at your left hand and the other at your right… This would make Mother Zebedee an early example of the Stage Mother archetype.  

But Jesus, as he often seems to do, responds in patience. “You don’t know what you are asking” is his first response. “You will get what you have asked for, but you may not like it” seems to be the second response. And finally, “let me adjust your notion of what it means to be ‘in charge.’” Jesus uses two words to describe leadership. One means waiter and the other slave… James and John may want to have a private word with their mother… She seems to be signing them up to be waiters at the heavenly banquet. 

Jesus has just told us in very broad terms what the life of the Apostle James the Great will be like. It will be a lot like the life of Jesus. He will, as Jesus says, drink from the cup from which Jesus drinks. It’s tempting to hear the “cup” as a Eucharistic reference, but it’s not likely that this is how the Disciples would have heard it. The institution of the Eucharist is still to come, but throughout Hebrew tradition, cup is understood to refer to Cup of Sorrow…  

James the Great is to be the first disciple martyred. The reading from Acts tells us how Herod has him killed by the sword – but just to add to the potential confusion, this is a different Herod than the one who had Jesus crucified… That was Herod Antipas. This is Herrod Agripa… A younger generation… but still a paranoid and treacherous ruler. 

Like Jesus, James the Great’s life was brief. His impact after death may be far greater than his impact in life.  

In fact, a short time ago our Brother Daniel, along with countless others, went to pay a visit to the grave of St James the Great – which happens to be in Compostela, Spain. For centuries, millions of pilgrims have made their way each year to this grave as a form of pilgrimage.  

Santiago, or Saint Iago, is the Spanish version of St James. Tradition has it that after his martyrdom, James’ body was taken to Spain because, according to legend, he had been made Apostle to the Diaspora Jews. And it is in Compostela where hundreds of years later his body was discovered, or as the Latin would have it: “invented.” 

The discovery of St James in Spain could not have come at a more convenient time. Muslims were growing in power in Spain, which alarmed the Christian community in other parts of Europe. The Mozarabic Christians in that region had a good relationship with the Muslims, cooperating in art, education, and such. This, naturally, bothered other Christians who were all about crusades and fighting the Mohammadan and kicking them out of the Holy Land. The Mozarabic Christians were considered too accommodating of their Muslim brothers and sisters. A strong spiritual presence was needed in Spain to rouse folks up… James the Great turned up as if on cue. 

Given his status as the first martyred disciple, Compostela became a destination for pilgrims. But the pilgrim business really took off a bit later in the Middle Ages when the Church determined that two pilgrimages to Compostela added up to one pilgrimage to Jerusalem in terms of getting out of Purgatory. Compostela was sunny, warm, and relatively safe – so you can see the appeal over Jerusalem. 

However we might feel about the apparent cynicism of the Church in its regard to the highly profitable business of pilgrimages and indulgences, what is remarkable is the dedication and faith of those who were making pilgrimages. The pilgrim urge was motivated by a deep faith and love of God. That remains true today for those who engage in pilgrimage – even those who do not identify as being part of any tradition of faith. 

Now I’m no particular expert on the spiritual practice of Pilgrimage. But I find the thoughts of the Reverend Dr Sarah Rowland Jones, Dean of St David’s Cathedral in Wales, quite moving.  

Her name may be familiar here because she served for some time in the Diocese of Cape Town, when it was one big diocese. She was married to Bishop Justice Marcus, area bishop of Saldanha Bay until his death.  

Dean Jones returned to Wales some years ago when she was called to a parish in Cardiff, and then as Dean of St David’s Cathedral. Her life seems to indicate that she knows a thing or two about pilgrimage… 

She notes that the imagery for St James the Great is often robed in symbols of pilgrimage. The saint is often depicted with a wide-brimmed hat that was generally worn by pilgrims to keep sun and rain at bay. He is often depicted with the passbook that pilgrims carried to show that they were on pilgrimage, not just drifting from place to place.  

That tells us about what folks projected on James. Dean Jones points out that all we know of the life of James tells us about his willingness to be a pilgrim. 

James and John are among the first disciples Jesus calls. They are going about their ordinary lives as fishermen. As far as they know, this is what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. Your life, in the time of Jesus, was mostly a manifestation of your family. We no longer assume that our birth determines our destiny, although perhaps it’s a better assumption than we’d like to think.  

James and John appear to have been born into a secure, working-class life and that is where they could expect to stay. But Jesus comes along and says two words: “follow me.” And immediately, with no assurance of anything, they drop their comfortable identities and follow. It’s not like they were joining a big and growing community – they were the third and fourth disciples. They were willing to risk all. They were willing to listen to Jesus. 

The destination in a pilgrimage is not unimportant. Folks who set out on a pilgrimage need to have some idea where they are going. But pilgrimage is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Jesus’ call to James specifies no destination – just a vague “follow me.” Follow me where? You’ll find out… 

This is Jesus’ call to each of us – follow me. Will the journey be easy – yes… and no. Will it be joyful – yes. Will it be sorrowful – yes. Will it be filled with companionship – yes; and yes, it will be extremely lonely. The journey of faith, the pilgrimage, is a journey of wholeness – which includes sickness and health, richness and poverty, pleasure and pain.  

The call from Jesus is to start that journey. It’s not a reasonable thing to do. It’s not a smart thing to do. It is a faithful thing to do. Our Christian Faith, our Christian Journey, our Pilgrimage is about transformation, specifically transformation within a faithful community. St Benedict was clear that the community is the means of transformation – which is why Benedictine Monks and Nuns live in community. I think this resonates with Archbishop Tutu’s concept of Ubuntu. 

The best analogy I’ve ever heard is that life in community is like being a rock in a rock polisher. The polisher tumbles the rocks together and, as they bump into each other, they get polished. They go from something ordinary to something remarkable. If they never bump into each other, they never get polished. If they bump too much, the outcome is dust. But in a well-functioning community, we go in rocks and come out gems.  

That is not just Benedict’s vision for monastic communities like St Benedict’s Priory. I think it is a vision for all communities; all families; all parishes… Volmoed has long envisioned itself as a place for healing and wholeness – which indeed it is. It is a rock polisher – and here we are… some of the rocks… 

Dean Jones says that the Church called folks in the Middle Ages to consider the message of St James, of Santiago de Compostela: that message was “be a pilgrim.” She says it is the same message today – be a pilgrim. Some of our pilgrim journeys may be to moving and exotic places. But part of that journey will be journey of rocks into the polisher.  

And Jesus still calls us to that journey: Follow Me. 

1 thought on “Sermon for the Feast of St James the Great ”

  1. Thank you, Scott, for giving me a much clearer understanding of what pilgrimage is really all about – what we are called into, and what the end intent is for us – to become a polished rock – living in community where loving and caring for one another is not an easy life but is one that can make us gem like as we witness to the calling of Jesus.

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