12 Mar 2017
“‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’” (John 15:5)
In the name …
Today we gather in parishes across the country, from here in New England to California’s west coast, from Florida to Minnesota, in large Cathedrals and small town churches, in churches that are today worshipping in English, Polish and Spanish, and in all of these churches the purple of Lent gives way on this one special Sunday so that we can celebrate the founding of our church denomination on the second Sunday of March, 1897. A few hundred people sat in a church hall on that day in the section of Scranton called South Side. Above them work was in progress on erecting a church building, but on that March 14th evening 120 years ago, all that was completed was the first floor church hall. Families had come together to await the arrival of a priest they once knew as their Assistant Pastor, but who was now a full pastor about 30 miles away in Nanticoke.
They were nervous. They didn’t know what to expect. They were already in uncharted territory and the action they took this night could drive them even farther out. They were starting to build a church on their own and they had no permission from the bishop to do so. They felt ignored when they voiced their concerns and they felt powerless to do anything about it. That is until they decided to build their own church, and they would hold the deed to their property. This would be their leverage. In a church orientated from the top down, this would be their only vehicle to make sure that all the people in the pews mattered and that their voices would be a part of parish decisions.
We need to remember that 1897 Scranton was coal country, and pre-union coal country. Mining companies were encouraging immigrants to flood into the United States because they knew that this would provide them with a constant supply of workers, of men who would venture down into the mines, and who would not complain because if they did there were ten other men ready to take their jobs. These were men and women who only mattered for the work they could do. They didn’t really count as people. They were tools. If these tools got broken, they were thrown away and replaced. Today we buy cheap toasters, microwaves, televisions. We don’t fix them; we trash them. Think about those 1897 miners like they were cheap appliances more than people, and then think about how important it was for them to be respected and heard at least when they came into the house of God. These are the people who were sitting in that church hall on a Sunday evening 120 years ago awaiting the arrival of a priest who they planned to ask to become their pastor.
The families who started constructing their church on E. Locust Street could put up a building, but to keep the traditions of Mass and sacraments alive inside that building, for this they needed a priest. And not just any priest. Their pastor would have to sympathize with their position. He would have to work with these people and listen to them, and he would need to lead them by example and teaching, not by dictating to them. Their pastor could not be their boss. They had enough of bosses everyday outside of church who treated them terribly. They weren’t going to allow another boss to do the same thing in their church. And this is why this group of people had extended an invitation to Fr. Francis Hodur to come and meet with them. When he was their Assistant Pastor, he treated them as people. He organized groups to teach them about the arts, history and even science. He got in trouble for not collecting as much money from these people as was expected because he saw how desperate they were. And these people probably knew his story that he had run into conflicts with the local religious and political leaders back in Poland because he would not tolerate their abuse of power.
We don’t have good records of what happened that night, but we do know that Fr. Hodur accepted their invitation to become their pastor. When he did that, he set himself up in defiance of his bishop who had never sanctioned such a move, and because of this Fr. Hodur was officially excommunicated on September 29th of the next year. These people and this priest now looked toward the horizon rather than over their shoulders to the past. They began to work on what they thought the church could be. Their theological reforms clustered around the idea of a loving God rather than a fearful one, and a creation that was more defined by hope than by failure. Their liturgical reforms started the church moving toward a greater participation by all the members of the congregation so that they understood and were more involved in the Mass. And their governance embraced wholeheartedly the ideal of democracy. If all in the church were baptized Christians, if everyone shared in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then everyone would have a voice in this new church.
This is the story we celebrate today, and this is the story that we are still writing today, or in the imagery of this morning’s Gospel, we are a branch of the vine that is still growing. Jesus’ incarnation as one of us, as all of us, Jesus’ death as everyone’s outcast so that no one ever after is God’s outcast, means that God in Jesus is always going to be more than church because God in Jesus is the mystery that all of us are children beloved by God. Jesus is the life-giving vine, and churches are the branches that spread out in different and simultaneously entangled directions as part of that vine, but the branches are not the whole of that vine. Our privilege as church reaches beyond trying to explain God. Rather in worship and work we experience God. This we have now done for 120 years in our own unique way. May Jesus continue to guide us and be with us as we hope to serve Him always faithfully, in His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo