The End Is Where We Start From

Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2015
All Saints’ Day
Preached at the Parish of the Messiah, Auburndale

There is something about buildings that were formerly churches that always catches me. In Iceland, for example, there is a monastery so ruined that, in the nearly 500 years since it closed, all save the largest stones had been removed and repurposed by the local farmers, and yet – the site still feels to me like holy ground. In the Loire Valley, the magnificent Fontevraud Abbey has been beautifully restored and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yet as sterile and museum-like as the French authorities have made it, when I walk into its soaring Gothic chapel, I can still feel the nearly 700 years worth of prayers that were offered there. And here in Newton, whenever I go past the old Methodist Episcopal Church at the base of Centre St. – just south of the light at Church St. – I wonder if those who live in its condos can sense what once went on there. I wonder if the residents ever think about, for example, how their kitchen occupies the place of the pew where several generations of a family worshiped, or that their dining room marks the exact spot where couples once stood and exchanged marriage vows, or that the walls of their living room once echoed with hymns. For me, walking into a former church is never “business as usual.” When I walk into a place where once prayer has been offered, there is something that – as T.S. Eliot puts it – causes my “soul’s gap to quiver.” There is something about those places – to continue to borrow from Eliot – that “when I come this way” makes me want to “kneel” because they are places “where prayer has been valid.”

Today is All Saints’ Day. Often when we think of All Saints, we think of the persons who are saints. And yet – because our God is a god who delights to manifest Himself in concrete ways to specific persons living in a particular time and place – it is hard to talk about the Saints without also talking about the place in which they became saints. Indeed, our saints’ calendar is filled with saints such as Julian of Norwich, Cyril of Alexandria or Elizabeth of Hungary. The places appended to saints’ names are not merely to help us distinguish, say, Ignatius of Antioch from Ignatius of Loyola. The places appended to the saints’ names remind us that our God is a god who delights to manifests Himself in concrete ways to specific persons living in a particular time and place.

The saints whom we celebrate today weren’t holy in a general and abstract kind of way (if there is such a way of being holy). The saints were holy because of how they lived in their time, among their people, in their place.

And so, because God delights to manifest Himself in concrete ways through particular people in specific places, we rightly speak of Julian of Norwich, or Elizabeth of Hungary. Or the so-called “Martyrs of Memphis,” who lost their lives ministering to victims of yellow fever in Memphis in 1878. We rightly speak of Augustine of Hippo, the brilliant, 5th century preacher and theologian in Hippo in North Africa. We speak of Theresa of Calcutta, who ministered to the poor in Calcutta. The list could go on: Hillary of Poitiers, Hildegaard of Bingen, the Martyrs of New Guinea. All these were holy, not because they loved God in a general kind of way, as they might have done anytime, anywhere. These men and women were holy because they “bloomed where planted;” they glorified God in their place.

When men and women live holy lives offered to God, the place where they lived becomes a special place, a place “where prayer has been valid,” a place that always holds the prayer, the worship, the service to others that was offered there.

Parish of the Messiah for press release copyAs we are well aware, today is the last All Saints’ Day being celebrated here at 1900 Commonwealth Avenue in Auburndale. Today I say we give ourselves permission to remember, not only the saints of the Church Universal who have gone before, but also to remember the saints of The Parish of the Messiah, Auburndale who have gone before. Those who in this place have sat in the family pew, stood to exchange marriage vows, received Eucharist, sang hymns, prayed prayers, cared for each other, served our neighbors, have wept and rejoiced, have grieved and celebrated. Many have “bloomed where planted” in this place. They did not love God generally; they did not live “saintly” lives in a vague kind of way. These were men and women who were holy because of who they were and what they did here, in Auburndale, connected to 1900 Commonwealth Avenue.

Because of what these men and women did, this place is forever changed. Even after this building is no longer a church and its altar deconsecrated, I know that some – maybe not many – but certainly some who come this way will be aware of the witness that these men and women have borne in this place. Because of the prayers and the worship and the service that has been offered here, their “soul’s gap will quiver,” and they will sense that this is a place “where prayer has been valid.” Thus the ministry of all the saints who have ever been in this place will continue.

I am going to close with two passages from Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” from which I have been quoting. The first is for those who will come this way in the future who sense that there is something about this place… The second is for our two parishes as we are about to merge.

For those who will come this way in the future and sense that there is something about this place:

St John’s Church, Little Gidding, as rebuilt in 1714

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

This is a place “where prayer has been valid;” the prayers offered here will never be lost! And for our two parishes as we prepare to merge:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

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