Stanwick Group of Churches

Bishop Helen Ann's sermon on St James

James the Apostle

Matthew 20.20-28

If we were to think of some potential suitable headlines for today’s Gospel we might begin with:

“Ambitious mother says ‘my sons are the best’”


“Ambitious mother?  We get behind the story to reveal the truth”


“Mum, how embarrassing was that?”  James and John speak out”


“Exclusive: what does Zebedee think about his wife and sons?”

Perhaps however, given today’s focus, and your patronal festival, we might use the headline provided by a commentator on this Gospel reading:

“(James): first to follow, first to die”.

If you take a look at the Collect for today, it summarises James’ life very well indeed: he left his father, turned his back on everything he possessed, was obedient to Jesus’ call, and became the first apostle to die for his faith.  In a sense, that’s all we need to understand his significance.  It’s easy perhaps to point the finger at James’ mother, but we do know from elsewhere in the Gospel that she was present at the crucifixion, and probably at the anointing of Jesus’ body.  She, like her family remained committed to following Jesus (and let’s not forget that her husband Zebedee would have been impacted by the loss of his sons in the fishing labour-force [unless you follow the view that argues that the disciples in fact kept their manual labour up alongside their life of preaching and following Jesus around]).  Whatever the outcome of our thoughts, we do get a picture of a family committed to their work of engaging in God’s mission.  We know that Jesus gave James and his brother John the nicknames ‘Boanerges’, or ‘sons of thunder’, and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to wonder why?  I reckon they would certainly make an impact in a PCC meeting though I suspect in time either myself or more likely the Archdeacon might receive an email seeking advice on how to manage their occasional outbursts?!  But let’s also not forget that we know James went with Peter and John to the bedside of Jairus’ dead daughter; we can imagine their compassion for Jairus but also their willingness to be with Jesus, to be his close friends at times of great need.  Indeed, James, Peter and John were also Jesus’ companions on the mountainside at the transfiguration, and on Jesus’ last night at Gethsemane.  Perhaps you can think of a time when you have experienced great challenges; who did you have by your side; or even, when have you sat with a friend supporting them in their distress?

It is ironic then, that in fact James did become the first, but the first apostle to die.  Maybe it was because of his fiery presence, he attracted the attention of King Herod who had him put to death?

Our collect not only narrates James’ story in conciseness, it is directed at us because we are challenged to be ready at all times to answer God’s call.  If we really take that prayer seriously, that is a great challenge indeed.

But it needn’t overwhelm us, that’s the important thing, and here are two reasons why:

Firstly, this very church building dedicated to St James dates to 1153, and it was completed by the 13th century.  Think about that for a moment because that’s quite a span of time, and generations whose lives were bound up in its construction.  Various restoration projects over the centuries followed (not all of which it must be said were triumphs of taste!).  But before all this, we know that there was a church on this site before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and a resident priest is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.  That means not far under 1000 years of Christian presence and witness: of faithfulness and commitment, of bearing the Christ-light in times of feast and times of famine.  Today, we are part of that, as we celebrate your patronal festival.

Secondly, shortly I will be blessing your new facilities, and these in a sense form part of that continuum of welcome and hospitality.  Through the dedication of so many people, the ‘flush fund’ has brought forth opportunity for refreshment and relief (I had to think quite carefully about how I was going to phrase that so as to maintain appropriateness and dignity!).  From your June Rectory letter, Ian Black says this:

Happy June! Welcome to new freedoms! Is this, and freedom from Covid,  the answer to prayer? It feels like it! The big excitement in Melsonby church is the planning for the visit of Bishop Helen-Ann in July, on the feast of St James, to formally open our new meeting room, kitchen, and the much discussed Loo after 800 years patiently waiting…

All I can say is, that’s a long wait!

I dare say that along the way, there will have been times when you have needed to channel your inner ‘James’ – sometimes you just have to speak up and get people’s attention to help them see why what you are proposing to do really matters! 

Ian goes on to say this:

we began to see how prayer works. Prayer isn’t just asking for things, it is getting close to God’s ideas for us.  However, if you ask God for A, you might get B, or nothing at all.   If you ask for C, you might have all your B taken away from you: and be given a ton of D to change your direction.  God works out His route which may be opposite to, or only slightly related to our own feeble ideas.

I rather like Ian’s concluding sentence: Don’t ever be tempted to give up!  If ever there is an example of channelling your inner-James there it is!  Thank you, Ian.

So as we move now to bless the facilities, let us give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses that surround us as we gather this day.  The generations of people who have served God’s mission here, sometimes quietly and unnoticed, sometimes with more passion and enthusiasm than we might feel helpful.  God works his purposes out with us, and occasionally in spite of us, but always the foundation of all we seek to be and do.

So let us then move to our blessing…


July 25th, 2021.




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