A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, November 18, 2012
God is here.
Last month, John Kilgore and I hosted six different lunchtime tours and creative conversations here at Christ Church Cathedral for downtown and civic leaders. And each time, we started out by taking people up into the bell tower to that first level where the ropes are and giving them a chance to ring the bells.
We started with the bells because it was fun but also because a Cathedral's bells are one of its most distinctive features. For as long as there have been these beautiful Gothic buildings, the bells have rung out. Often they were the sound that carried the furthest of any other sound, reaching people for miles around.
When members of this congregation climb those steps and ring those bells, we are continuing a tradition that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is a tradition of announcing to the world a presence. Of announcing that in the middle of all the activity, in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. In the middle of the tragedy and triumph. In the middle of silent suffering and wild jubilation. In the middle of labor and leisure, loving and fighting. In the middle of all these things and so much more ... that God is here.
God is here.
Not removed somewhere in the heavens watching us from a safe distance but right here, right here with us. God is here, with us, in the flesh. Immanuel.
The idea that God is present in the midst of the community didn't start with Jesus. In fact, in this morning's Gospel reading, the disciples are talking about it. They're looking at the great temple in Jerusalem. And really what the temple is is the building where they believe God lives. In the center of it, in the Holy of Holies is literally where God's presence in the Ark of the Covenant resides. The story our Jewish ancestors told is that Temple, that Ark was the presence of God, so much so that when the Temple was destroyed and the Ark was carried off they believed that God had actually departed from them.
And when you believe that, when you believe that God can be taken away, that God has been taken away before, it's hard not to live in fear that it might happen again.
So Jesus' words to his disciples ... when he said "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." that must have been terrifing. After all, they loved that temple. As much as we love and treasure this Cathedral building, they loved that Temple as much and even more. But more than that, if the Temple was gone, that meant God was gone, too.
But Jesus wasn't saying it to scare them. He was saying it to reassure them. This Immanuel, this God-made-flesh in Jesus, is living, walking, talking, eating, breathing proof that things aren't going to be the way they were. That things are going to be different. And different can be scary, but it's going to be great. It's going to be new.
And God will be present.
For their whole existence, the disciples and their ancestors had thought of God being tied to a place. And that made God’s presence with them conditional. Because places come and go.Anything that can be built by human hands can be torn down by the same, and at some point usually is.
But if God is not in the temple, then where is God? Where is God present.
Look at the person next to you. I mean it, look them in the eyes. Now look at another person around you. In front or in back of you. Look them in the eyes. Now look all around you in this room. Look at all the different shapes and colors and ages and genders and orientations and theologies and political views and heights and weights and smells and facial expressions that are in this room.
That's where God is.
In Jesus, God is telling us something new. God is telling us to be very, very careful in investing in the monuments we build or the structures that can pass away – because where stones are put on stone they will be cast down. But instead God is inviting us to give ourselves to the presence of the living God that lives in this community. And a God who lives in community can never go away as long as we are committed to staying together and growing together as a community. As long as we are committed to being the Body of Christ.
Be what you see, receive who you are.
God’s dream isn’t for us to “go to church” ... to come to some grand monument where God resides. No, God’s dream is for us to come together in wonderful places like this to be the church, to feel God's presence in this place and to be God's presence in this place and out of this place … together.
We've been listening deeply as we’ve had our conversations about our shared, core values and as we’ve done stewardship differently this year. And as we’ve listened, some common themes have emerged in these conversations. And it is all about this being the church. It is all about us as a community.
So if this community is where God is present, what do we notice about this community? Well, we're noticing a whole bunch of different things over the past couple years.
We notice that some people have left, including some people who had been here a long time.
We notice that some new people have come, especially some tiny new people who make a lot of wonderfully unpredictable squeaks and squeals!
We notice that some people who had gone for a while have come back.
We notice that some people left, came back, and left again.
We notice that some people, well, we don’t know where they are! And some of us don’t know whether we’re coming or going!
But it’s more than that.
We notice that there are people who have been here for years, even decades who do not really know one another.
We notice that people new to this community experience us as incredibly welcoming in a way that is beautifully genuine and simply cannot be faked. But we also notice that often the newer among us find it hard to build relationships and really get connected and feel part of the community. Not surprising if some have been here for 10 years and still don’t know each other.
Now, none of this is cause for anxiety. Frankly, all of this means is that we’re the church in very human ways. We struggle with community. And that's a big club. In fact, we’ve got a kind of an approach-avoidance thing going on with community. On one level we crave it, but at the same time the vulnerability of true community frightens us. I cannot tell you how many times the same people who have lamented to me about not feeling a part of the family here also don’t want their names put on the prayer list when something is going on. Those two things are related!
Again, it’s not a unique challenge. It’s the challenge of being Christian community in a
But the good news is that we can continue to become something different. And the only way we get there is together. The good news is it is in our DNA. Here’s what I mean.
Before Jesus, the people of Israel were people of a place. They were people of the Temple. People of Jerusalem. After Jesus, his followers weren’t called Christians. His first followers were called “People of the Way.” That’s a great name. As followers of Jesus, we aren’t people of a place, we are people of a shared journey … and like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, we find that as we travel together, Jesus is right here with us.
So what does it mean to be people of the way. Well, we know from John’s Gospel that “the Way” is Jesus. He is a person and a path. He is “the way, the truth and the life.” Another way to say that is Jesus is the real deal of keeping it real.
We also know that the way of Jesus is also the way of the cross. And what the cross is is ultimate vulnerability. So being people of the way means being real with one another in ways that make us vulnerable. In ways that invite us into each other’s lives not as the images we tend to project to the world but as the people we really are inside.
But the way of Jesus doesn’t stop at the cross. It goes through the cross to resurrection. So it’s about being real with each other, about being vulnerable with each other, but it’s also about love and grace and new life springing from those relationships of trust and vulnerability. It’s about discovering that we can truly be ourselves and also be loved … and in the process become even more fully alive and deeply human together than we ever could be alone.
As beautiful as this place is, we are not people of this place. We are people of the way who gather at Christ Church Cathedral. And we come together to share our lives with each other, and to know that God is here.
This isn’t rocket science, it’s Christian community. But we have to do it. If we want Christian community here, we have to make it happen. And that means reaching out and getting to know one another. Inviting someone out to coffee. Sharing your life with them and caring about their life. It’s about taking that holy risk of bring people of the way together … meeting in a place of truth and even a little vulnerability so that something new can be created. It can happen in small ways and big ways. It can start with a smile and it can end up with conversations late into the night. It’s about the joy of being known overcoming the fear of being known.
And as we continue to grow into this, Christ Church Cathedral becomes not just this building, not just a beautiful historic landmark in downtown St. Louis. As we continue to grow into this, we become the people of God that is Christ Church Cathedral. Christ Church Cathedral becomes not just a place we attend but who we are. The address of Christ Church Cathedral becomes not just 1210 Locust Street but each of our addresses – because the Cathedral lives in each and all of us.
We’re going to get just a tiny, tiny taste of this for a minute or two. A little exercise to get us started and whet our palates and have a little fun. Here’s what we’re going to do. Each of us … pick one person you don’t know really well. Do that right now. Ideally someone you don’t know much at all, but definitely not someone you know well. If you find yourself floating looking for someone or see someone floating, it’s OK to make a group of three. You might need to move around a little but nobody should be by themselves. OK. Do it. Everybody find someone.
Now, I just want you to introduce yourself to each other by name. Go ahead. Now, I invite you to share three things with each other. There are no right or wrong answers. You can share with as much or as little vulnerability as you’d like.
Three questions to answer for each other.
First, where do you call home?
Second, what is something you absolutely love?
Third, what musician or artist or movie or writer or whatever other blank you might want to fill in makes your heart sing or smile or dance?
People were given 2-3 minutes to share.
I asked those questions because they are about truth, about vulnerability, but also because they point to life. They point to where God has implanted the gift of passion in our hearts. And that gift of passion, when we share it, is the most powerful force in the universe.
Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, we have just been the church. And all I have to say is let’s keep it up. Let’s keep looking for opportunities to do it. Seek out parts of this body you don’t know well and learn about one another. Because that’s where God is. Seek out parts of this body you know well and let yourself be known a little deeper by them. Because that’s where God is.
We are the human stones with which God is building the new Christ Church Cathedral … but if we’re scattered unconnected on the ground, we’ll never be the force for Jesus we can be. But the bells are ringing. They’re calling us together and announcing that God is here, right here. And if we’re connected together, there is no limit to the beauty and depth of Christ’s presence that can happen through us. There is no limit to the ways that God can be here. AMEN.