A homily given in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, October 6, 1985
I can never hear these words on this feast in this place without feeling a wonderful joy and a rich sense of gratitude. It was not so many years ago that I wandered around this temple, deeply in need of healing, crippled and blind in so many ways. I really didn't have much of anything left outside St. John's, and, if the truth's known, I was probably trying to get rid of you people, too.
But St. John's wouldn't get rid of me. There were people here who looked me in the eye and told me things I didn't want to hear, and stood me on my feet and got me started on my way. And it was, by and large, lay people who did this; they didn't wait around for some professional that they'd hired to do it for them. They knew you can't be a Christian by proxy.
I'm telling you this, not because I think I'm particularly interesting or special, but because I believe my experience to have been absolutely typical of hundreds and perhaps thousands of broken and hurting people who have come to him here in this temple and been healed.
I came to love every detail of this old white elephant of a building. When I was living at the Mission House during those first difficult months, I used to spend hours in here. Puttering around, trying to pray, but not having much success with it, sometimes just sitting there on the floor in front of the tabernacle.
This is sacred space for me -- holy and awesome, and yet also warm and welcoming. I know many of you feel the same way. Did you notice in our parish questionnaire that most of us would be quite happy to share this building with another congregation? Way down on our list of possibilities, however, was the notion of sharing any other building with anybody. Unrealistic, perhaps. This is expensive space and we're all going to have to bear the cost of keeping it up. But hard-nosed realism always underestimates what love can accomplish. I'm even going to pay up what's past due on my pledge!
Is it wrong to love a mere building so much? Idolatrous? It can be. It takes very little effort to transmute a white elephant into a golden calf.
But it doesn't need to be. Monika Hellwig tells an old rabbinic story to illustrate what our attitude might be. The rabbi is telling the story of the burning bush, and one of his pupils objects. Isn't the whole world holy? Why should God tell Moses to take off his shoes, showing reverence to some local shrine the way the gentiles do? The rabbi replies that the place which is holy is the whole world, because the whole world is the place of God. But one does not know this until one takes off one's shoes.
God, indeed, may be met and worshipped anywhere; but it is in buildings like this that real human beings meet and worship God somewhere.
So, on its most obvious level, today's liturgy gives thanks to God for this building, this holy place, this Beth-El where God so clearly dwells.
But, as so often in liturgy, as indeed in all of God's dealings with us, the most obvious experiences -- good, and real, and wonderful in their own right -- point beyond themselves to something else, also good, and real, and wonderful. Miracles of healing, for instance, point beyond the healing of individual persons; they are signs of the perfect healing of the Reign of God breaking into our human history, of the entry of the weak, the outcast, the lame, and the blind into the Kingdom of the Anointed. The lame and the blind came to him in the temple and he healed them. And the young people there knew what this meant and made the appropriate liturgical response: "Hosannah to the Son of David!"
Similarly, today's liturgy, in giving thanks for the building in which we worship, points beyond it to a deeper reality: it is we, ourselves, who are to be built up as living stones into a spirit-filled temple, becoming a holy priesthood -- the people of God.
The first letter of Peter, rich in baptismal themes, is a favorite of mine. But today I want to look at a couple of passages from another early Christian document that makes much use of the imagery of the church as a building constructed of living stones, one which is, perhaps, not so familiar to us. From the Shepherd of Hermes:
A great tower was being built in a square by six young men (angels, we're told) . . . but myriads of others were bringing stones, some from the deep, and some from the land, and were handing them to the six young men. They were taking them and building. All the stones that were dragged from the deep were set into the building just as they were, for they were prepared and fit with other stones at the joints. And they were joined so closely to each other that their joints did not show.The analogy gets a little complicated from then on; other stones are variously accepted, rejected, or set aside near the tower for further work. Some are flung far from the tower, and others -- those rich in the things of this world, according to the interpreter of the vision -- are just so round and smooth that they can't fit anywhere in the building at all.
Later in the same work there is another description of a tower, part of which reads:
Again the six young men gave orders for the multitude of people to bring from the mountains stones for the building of the tower. So they brought from all the mountains stones of various colors . . . and when the stones were put into the building, they became all alike.Now I know we're uncomfortable with that last part. And I think that's probably all to the good. We've experienced the heresies of racism at home and abroad, and the memory of the Holocaust should never be far from our consciousness. We're very uneasy when somebody wants to make us all alike (even when they think they're "moral" and even when they claim to be a "majority").
But I think what's being talked about here is something else. It is, on one level, a baptismal unity -- we have all put on Christ -- and on another, a sameness that we in some sense already possess, simply by being human beings made in the image of God. It's perhaps something like what a contemporary liturgist, Robert Hovda, means when he says:
This assembly, this corporate celebrant of the Sunday Mass, is the creation of the good news that all of our variety, our differences, our distinctions (sex, age, class, color, nationality, physical or mental condition, economic or political status, trade of profession, lifestyle, etc.) are reconciled in Christ and in God. At this moment we are nakedly daughters and sons of God, and only that. Our rock bottom human and baptismal unity is what makes church.And the stones fit so closely together that you can't tell where the joints are!
Is that true of us? Well, maybe not yet. I think most of, honestly, are a lot like me: stones who want to be part of the tower, and whom the architect means to use, but who just aren't the right shape yet. Maybe we're getting a little round. And it's to us that the shepherd of the tower makes a wonderful promise: "Do you see these stones?" he says. "I will hew out the greater part of these stones and put them in the building, and they will fit with the rest of the stones."
The liturgy, of course, lying at the very heart of what it means to be church, is one of the principal means by which we, if we let ourselves, can be "hewn out", cleaned up, shaped into the kind of stones that can fit together into a spirit-filled temple, a people claimed by God as God's own. And we don't always like it. Being hewn out is a lot harder that merely having a few rough edges smoothed off, which is all the world demands.
That's why, by the way, the kind of liturgy that merely "gives them what they want" isn't worth very much. The purpose of liturgy is not to provide one more vehicle through which we can "express ourselves", but rather to challenge us to change, hewing us out, building us up into the image and likeness of Christ, who himself is our living stone -- the stone rejected by human beings but choice and precious in the sight of God.
In a hundred and two years, our liturgical practice has never won a popularity contest in the Episcopal Church and in a hundred and two years we've never particularly cared. Today, there are signs of hope everywhere in the Church, but we still have a leadership role to play and that can be extra demanding.
Dorothy Sayers, in one of her murder mysteries, has a character remark, "You shouldn't read so much theology. It has a brutalizing effect."
Maybe it does. We need to heed St. Augustine's admonition not to despise the imperfect while striving to do better. We need, too, to keep listening to our Patron, St. John. One story about him is that as a very old man, too feeble to preach, he would be carried through the assembly, simply saying over and over again, "Little children, love one another. Little children, love one another."
There is a lot of love in this place already, and we need to keep on loving. And maybe what's harder, if you're at all like me, we need to learn how to be loved, to accept help, to have our feet washed when we need it. Human beings are created to need one another, to be interdependent, to lift one another up, to cling to each other so closely that you can't tell where the joints are.
Our secular culture doesn't understand that, and how much absolutely needless pain and human suffering is the result of it! Here we can begin to learn how to be human, to live together in the way God is creating us to live.
And all of this -- good, and real, and wonderful as it is -- is not for ourselves alone, but for the sake of the world. We are to be sign and symbol, a royal priesthood, lifting up the world to God, a healing and reconciling force for that justice and peace which is God's will for all humanity.
We will be misunderstood and opposed in this -- not only by the principalities and powers of this world, but by good people, good people within the church as well as good people outside the church. For our part, we can only repeat with Saint Ambrose:
The basis of justice . . . is faith. And the Lord says . . . behold I have set a stone in the foundations of Sion, that is, Christ, the foundation of the church. Christ, in fact, is the object of the faith of all, and the church is a kind of concretizing of justice. She is the common law of all, she prays in common, and it is in common that she is put to the test.Like it or not, we will be sign and symbol to the world around us. We will be sign and symbol either of Jesus Christ and Christ's reign, or we will be sign and symbol of apostasy and despair. There is no middle ground. Or rather, there is, but because it is lukewarm, God will spew it out.
We have made a good start in the last hundred and two years. We have foundations. Our predecessors built well and they themselves are the living stones upon which we are being built.
In a few weeks, Nathaniel Edward will be dragged up from the deep waters of the font and brought into this temple, to find his place among its stones. He will join a wild and a wonderful company.
Richard Meux Benson, walking the squalid streets of the 19th Century West End in a long white beard, wearing a shabby, patched cassock and no socks, talking of the love of God. And Charles Neil Field, beautifying the temple with one hand and taking on City Hall with the other, enriching the liturgy and enriching the lives of the poor, and doing it all so naturally -- himself a living embodiment of the coinherence of Catholic truth, holy beauty, and the common good.
And so many others -- poets, painters, musicians, Sisters of St. Margaret and Sisters of St. Anne, and entertainers from the burlesque houses of old Scolly Square, so inadequately replaced by Government Center. A lay brother many years ago whose job it was to count the collection, and he'd do it "Two for the church and one for me, two for the church and one for me." And then on Sunday afternoon he'd take his share and go out into the tenements and rooming houses that lined both sides of Bowdoin Street and give it all away. (Now before our financial people get too bent out of shape, let me add that today we can budget for that kind of thing and do it together!) Generations of quite ordinary people like you and me, and bright lights like Charles Henry Brent, priest of this parish and missionary, his name now in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. Of course, he left this place in a huff, along with some three hundred other people, but he's still ours. They're all still ours.
And bright lights in our own times. I think of David Clayton, exchanging stories with the alkies and the druggies and the crazies and all the street people whom Christ has gathered around the tables of his heavenly banquet hall. We continue to love one another in heaven.
And that, perhaps, is the final level of meaning of this feast, these walls as sign and symbol of the walls of that habitation of light, that blessed city whose gates are never shut by day or by night, that vision of peace and love, in the imagery of the seventh century office hymn for this day, moving toward earth as we, in Christ, move toward it, coming together the way a man and a woman come together in marriage.
You see, for Catholic Christians heaven is not so much a place where individual souls go after death as it represents, in Cyprian Vagaggini's words:
the triumph of a people, the eternal triumphal liturgy of a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, made up of myriads of angels and of the faithful of the Lamb who celebrate together the cosmic liturgy which will have no end; and they sing: You have redeemed us, O Lord our God, in your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us a kingdom to our God.
-- Ted Mellor