If you can imagine a travelling preacher walking into your beloved church, taking a look around and saying: “I see how extremely religious you are . . . . I went through your building and looked carefully at the objects of your worship . . . . In actual fact, he who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by human hands . . . . We ought not to think that the deity is like this gold, or silver, or these textiles you have here, images formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
This is Paul in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, giving one of his salty speeches. Paul was a “the church isn’t the building, it’s the people” kind of a guy. To each their own. Personally, I love a good church building and all of the gold and silver and fabric that comes with it. I wouldn’t be an Anglican priest if it weren’t so!
The church as the building is where some of the most important events in our lives take place. It’s where babies–wearing just the most adorable outfits—are baptised, held before a community and proclaimed beloved of God, because God in her infinite goodness delights in each and every human being.
Church buildings are where we exchange vows, bound to another person in sickness and in health; the building is the place we find our way back to when marriage or family life is hard or breaks down altogether and we need a place to hear words of forgiveness and reconciliation. Church buildings are also where we remember our loved ones who have died. There was once a mother who was at the church for her daughter’s funeral. She came to me and she said, “Where is she now?”
And I thought, okay, this is the question seminary prepared me for. And I started in, a gentle word about heaven and the afterlife—what we know or we think we know, where God welcomes our doubts and questions. And she cut me off and she said, “No, where is she right now?”
And I realized she meant, where were her daughter’s cremated remains being held? For that, no seminary education was needed, I just had to take her upstairs to the sanctuary where the urn had been placed beneath the paschal candle and point.
Church buildings are important. They symbolize a tangible place for us to belong. A place we can feel our grief and our joy, a place we can touch. Church buildings ought to be filled with beautiful things because beautiful events inspired by a beautiful God take place there.
Dr Heather Jessup, a newly appointed English professor at Dalhousie University, she once presented a forum at the Cathedral called ‘Unsettling art’. She challenged us to consider how our church buildings, yes, carry beautiful objects and art, but also portray the less beautiful, sometimes horriific parts of our history. There are often plaques in churches, some commemorating the lives of “colonial heroes of faith”, like the one in our own Cathedral which celebrates the birthday of James Cook, whose life carries it with it the legacy of colonization and assimilation of Indigenous peoples in this country. Heather talked about how some people would argue it’s important to keep these plaques as a reminder that we still have much unlearning to do. And then Heather asked us: what about putting up a plaque that lists the names of all of the children in residential schools who didn’t get to celebrate their birthdays? Shouldn’t this be something that our church buildings also have?
Church buildings hold our history—for better or for worse—and they’re the location for some of the most important events in our lives. And, our friend Paul, the travelling preacher is right: the church isn’t only the building, it’s also the people. This pandemic has proved that point in spades. One of our wardens works for a local Vancouver clothing company. And during the early weeks of COVID 19, they redirected all of their manufacturing to produce reusable masks for frontline workers in the downtown eastside.
Many of you are parents, and you transitioned to working from home, some of you the same day your kids’ daycare closed. And it’s been a bit of an uphill battle. Some of you have been caring for sick or eldery family members and you know the anxiety of waiting on the end of an Iphone to hear how your loved one is doing when what you really want is to be in the room with them.
And then there are those of you who are nurses, healthcare aids, doctors—you are in the thick of it. You’re working in totally new areas. You’re making decisions about people’s lives you never imagined you’d be entrusted with.
All of this is happening, all of you are working outside the walls of our beloved building because the church is you, the people. It’s in the resurrected Christ, active in the world, that you live and move and have your being.
I miss the Cathedral. I miss the building and I miss the people. Some days are filled with silver linings and some days are just really hard. There’s a Mary Oliver poem that’s been getting me through. It’s called, “The real prayers are not the words, but the attention that comes first.” It goes like this:
The little hawk leaned sideways and, tilted,
rode the wind. Its eye at this distance looked
like green glass; its feet were the color
of butter. Speed, obviously, was joy. But
then, so was the sudden, slow circle it carved
into the slightly silvery air, and the
squaring of its shoulders, and the pulling into
itself the sharp-edged wings, and the
falling into the grass where it tussled a moment,
like a bundle of brown leaves, and then, again,
lifted itself into the air, that butter-color
clenched in order to hold a small, still
body, and it flew off as my mind sang out oh
all that loose, blue rink of sky, where does
it go to, and why?
Just as the real prayers maybe aren’t only the words, but the attention that comes first, so also perhaps the church isn’t only the building, but the things the building calls its people to attend to: the joy, the grief, the emergencies and the celebrations; the heartache and the possibility, the things we know for sure and the uncertainty; “the little hawk leaned sideways” and the “loose, blue rink of sky, where does it go to, and why?”