Note: In view of the 175th anniversary festivities, the readings for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church were used, rather than those of Proper 10. The Episcopal Parish of Alton includes both St Paul's Church and Trinity Chapel. Today there was a single combined liturgy at St Paul's.
It is a high honor and a joyful privilege for me to be standing here before you this morning on such an important milestone in the history of the Episcopal Parish of Alton. This date has been on my calendar since the days immediately following my election as Bishop of Springfield last September, nearly ten months ago! Of course, during the “walkabout” event in August, held right over here in the parish hall, while one of the other candidates was being interrogated, I snuck out of the holding cell and looked around the church. I stood right where I’m standing now, in this pulpit, and imagined the possibility that I might stand here again, and … here I am! And one of the really precious moments of the election process took place right at this altar. The morning after that final walkabout event, Father Boase celebrated the Eucharist for the three final candidates and our wives just before we went our separate ways, a wonderfully generous act of hospitality and pastoral care on his part, for which all six of us, I’m sure, will always remain grateful.
The scripture readings that we have just heard are those appointed for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church—the very occasion, more or less, that we are celebrating this weekend. They are rich and powerful readings, and in the few minutes that we have together here, I would not be able to do justice to the task of unpacking them in very much detail, as much as I would like to. So let me just skim off some of the cream from each one, and stir it all together in a sauce pan, and apply some heat to it, and see what we can make of the homiletical custard that results!
The selection from I Kings is part of King Solomon’s prayer on the occasion of the dedication of the temple that he had built in Jerusalem. This was the first time that the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s presence among his chosen people of Israel, had ever had a permanent home. For hundreds of years it had lived in tents and temporary shrines. By any standard, Solomon’s temple was magnificent, glorious to a degree that the Psalmist, perhaps Solomon’s father David, could only have imagined when he wrote in Psalm 26, “Lord, I love your house, and the place where your glory abides.”
The gospel reading from Matthew 21 takes place on the same piece of Jerusalem real estate, and also in the temple, but not Solomon’s temple, which had been destroyed several hundred years before Christ. The incident that has become known as the “cleansing of the temple” took place in the outer courts of a structure built fairly recently by King Herod, one wall of which, the famous “wailing wall”—still stands. I’ve been there; perhaps some of you have as well. Bottom line, what’s going on here is that Jesus is taking “ownership” of the temple. He is, in fact, saying to the temple, “Nice job, most of the time. But now you’re fired. I’ll take it from here.”
The passage from St Peter’s first epistle picks up on the same theme of “building,” but spiritualizes it. He calls the new Christians to whom he is writing “living stones, and then shifts into poetic overdrive with language like “chosen race”, “royal priesthood”, and “God’s own people.”
Now, when we take these pieces of holy scripture and set them next to each other—or, to use my earlier image, stir them together into a custard—what do they tell us about the attitudes we might appropriately bring to the celebration of 175 years of the Episcopal Church in Alton?
The image I want to play with here is that of sign. A sign, of course, points to something else; it has a meaning beyond itself. If you’re driving your car, and you see a red octagon, your first thought is probably not, “My, what a lovely shade of red. I wonder what the color is called.” And it’s probably not, “Wow, I just love octagons; what an attractive sign!” No, without thinking, your foot hits the brake pedal, and you come to something resembling a stop. You’ve encountered a sign, and the sign has pointed beyond itself to another level of meaning.
Churches, whether we’re speaking of church buildings or the communities that worship in them, are signs. St Paul’s Church is a sign. Trinity Chapel is a sign. They are certainly potent signs to most or all of you. If you have worshiped within these walls for years and years, as many of you have, then this church is a sign of a complex web of relationships and experiences and memories. That web is powered up and activated every time you walk through the door. You may not always be consciously aware that this is going on, but it is. God our Father, ministering through Jesus his Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit has been and continues to be present in that web. This is a heavily prayed-in place, a holy place! For this reason, church buildings are not matters of indifference. Their sign value is enormous, and this is a large part of what we are marking and celebrating.
But our church buildings are not only signs to those who worship in them; they are also signs to those who don’t worship in them. In any given week, hundreds of people drive or walk by this church. Very few of them will ever come through the door. Many of them probably take in this pile of stones subliminally, and couldn’t even tell you the name of the church, let alone anything about it. Have you ever thought about this? What sort of sign is St Paul’s to them? Perhaps they are members of another church in the area, and are glad that there is a community of fellow Christians here. Perhaps they are members of another church of the sort that would easily find one of the many available reasons to be suspicious of and skeptical about the Episcopal Church! Perhaps they have formed a negative opinion of Christianity as a result of an unfortunate experience they have had with a church or even just a particular Christian, and they automatically lump St Paul’s in with their negative stereotype. Or perhaps they have no opinion at all, because they have no particular knowledge of either St Paul’s or the Episcopal Church or Christianity in general. Isn’t Jesus the guy who comes out of his cave on Easter morning and if he sees his shadow there’ll be six more weeks of winter? To them, St Paul’s is a blank slate. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to write on that slate?
More easily said than done, to be sure. And this is where we make the move from considering a building to considering the community that worships in the building—the “living stones” who meet God in this “house of prayer.” As we give thanks for God’s faithfulness to this community over the last 175 years, we do well to get a fresh grip on our vocation, our calling, for the next 175 years. I’m going to be bold enough to presume to tell you what that vocation is: It’s to be a sign. The calling of the Episcopal Parish of Alton is to be a sign to all of Alton—and, I would dare say, all of Madison County—a sign of what life in the Kingdom of God looks like. The world around us values self-centeredness and greed, but the Episcopal Parish of Alton values generosity and service. That’s a potent sign. People in the world around us define themselves by race and ethnicity, culture and class, consumption and status, but people in the Episcopal Parish of Alton define themselves by their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, knowing that they are part of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. That’s a potent sign. The world around us is in the habit of assigning blame and fixing judgment, but the Episcopal Parish of Alton is in the habit of extending forgiveness and grace. That’s a potent sign. The world around us is overcome by depression and fear, but the Episcopal Parish of Alton is energized by joy and hope. That’s a potent sign.
I see that you have a sign in front of your building. That’s wonderful. I wouldn’t object if you wanted to have a neon sign! But what I want for you more than anything is for St Paul’s—both the building and the congregation—not simply to have a sign, but to be a sign. That is your calling. That is your vocation on this joyous anniversary. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.