Sermon given at Sewanee School of Theology
Ephesians 3:4-12 | Luke 12:39-48
Recently, I traveled with Robert Childers, a priest in the Diocese of East Tennessee, to Coventry, England. We were there to attend a conference on reconciliation and peacemaking at the Cathedral.
If you do not know the history of Coventry Cathedral and its ministry of reconciliation, let me briefly tell you. In November, 1940, the city of Coventry was brutally bombed by the Germans. Hundreds of citizens of Coventry were killed and the Cathedral was in ruins.
Shortly after the bombing, the Provost of the Cathedral, Richard Howard, had the words FATHER FORGIVE inscribed in chalk behind the high altar, in the midst of the rubble. Even before the clean up began, Howard had committed Coventry Cathedral to reconciliation and forgiveness. It was not a popular gesture to speak of forgiveness in November 1940.
After the war, a new cathedral was constructed. It was decided to leave the remnant of the old cathedral, mostly the exterior walls and the bell tower, as a remembrance, a modern Gethsemane, to mark the death and loss suffered by the city. The new cathedral, not completed until 1962, stands alongside the old ruins, and serves to give witness to resurrection and new life and a spirit of reconciliation. These two cathedrals hold in tension the story of death and life, violence and forgiveness, deep fracture and radical reconciliation.
When you stand in the old ruins, you can see through the West Window screen of the new cathedral. The screen is clear glass, with etchings of saints and angels that run up and down the entirety of the piece. As you look into the new cathedral, standing in the old, you see through those saints and angels, seeing the enormous image of Christ in Glory behind the high altar in the modern space.
But when you look through the glass, you also see yourself reflected back to you, and you see the ruins in which you stand. It is a theology of the cross embodied in glass and stone and image and flesh.
During our stay in Coventry, Robert and I were quickly given to routine. Every morning, we walked to Starbucks. We ordered the same thing every day, breakfast sandwich, large black coffee. The same barista, a young man in a black hipster hat, spoke to us. The first morning he asked where we were from and we told him Tennessee. He asked us about Justin Timberlake and we agreed Justin was one cool cat.
This continued each morning of our visit–Starbucks, sandwich, coffee, Justin Timberlake.
However, on our last day, something changed, or rather, something was added. Along with the usual routine, our barista friend was joined by a young woman, a new apprentice barista. She asked us why we were visiting Coventry. We told her we were at the Cathedral for a conference.
“You know, we have two cathedrals,” the male barista said to her and gave a thumbnail sketch of their histories. Upon hearing the young man’s description, the young woman, without intending any harm or offense, said of the old ruins, “It’s just a pile of rocks.”
“It’s just a pile of rocks.”
Paul is writing to the Ephesians and telling them what time it is.
And according to Paul, it is a rich and right time. It is a time when the mystery of God is being revealed. The grace of God, the loving power of God, is not simply for a tribal people, but is for all. Paul celebrates that he has been given this mission to the Gentiles, to the outsiders.
While Paul understands himself to be least amongst the saints, he has been tasked with an awesome work. He has been called to let everyone see that God is expressing gracious good news through the boundless riches of the Resurrected Christ.
Paul, even in the midst of suffering, of imprisonment, is energized with the possibility of sharing this news, of proclaiming that the mystery of God has been revealed. Can’t you see, sister? Get on the gospel train for it is making a stop at every station.
You and I read Paul’s letter now, and we wonder what time it is. Is it a time of boldness and confidence or is it a time of losing heart? The story of the mystery of God’s grace, given to all through Christ Jesus, that story is still the story entrusted to us now. But does anyone out there trust us with it?
Do we move through our communities with a mystery for which a spiritual hunger remains or do we encounter more and more folk who see the good news as a mystifying word? It’s just a pile of rocks.
She’s right, you know? It is a pile of rocks. This Chapel of the Apostles, it is a pile of a rocks, with a fair amount of glass. All Saints, rocks. The parish church of your childhood, glass, wood, rocks.
But for you, for me, in the midst of those rocks, we have encountered the mystery of God and have found ourselves revealed and understood and made truly known to ourselves because of the Ruined and Resurrected Christ. It is a story that animates us. It is a story that you have now given your life to. And it is a pile of rocks.
This is the time of the semester when your professors are concerned that you all are becoming too excited about ministry and they have asked me to come here and tamp down your enthusiasm. No, not true. But, this is the time, like every age in the Church, to ask what time it is.
It is the time of Paul, of a hopeful letter to the Gentile world, to let them know that the church can be as big as the world. The grace of the Christ is for all, so no one building can be built to contain all that the Christ has come to redeem and save.
But this is also the time of this morning’s passage from St. Luke. For many of us, it would be reasonable to say that the owner of the house has not returned lately and appears to be slow in coming around anytime soon. Perhaps the house has been abandoned, perhaps the market has taken such a downturn that the owner no longer sees any value in the house and you and I are now caretakers to a ruined place.
This is a good time to recall that Ezekiel was shown a valley of dry bones. He was asked if the bones could live. If you recall, he deferred the answer to the Spirit of God. That was a smart choice. Ezekiel did not become puffed up and believe that the bones could live again because of his own determination and hard work and youthful energy. He asked the Spirit what was possible.
You and I have been entrusted with stewardship in the church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. It is the place we love, the place we serve, the place that confounds us, the place that consoles us, the place that feeds us. It is our pile of rocks.
When you stand in ruins, ruins made possible by war and violence and hatred, and you stand in the aftermath of all that, so many years removed, it is honest to say that nothing is there, nothing remains. So, the young woman is right.
When you stand in ruins, ruins made possible by war and violence and hatred, and you stand in the aftermath of all that, and you realize that there were a people who said FATHER FORGIVE even as the war continued to rage, it is believable to say that everything is there, everything remains, nothing has been lost that was given to the Christ. So, the apostle Paul is right to tell us what time it is. It remains the time when the mystery of God is being revealed to all.
Can these bones lives? Ask the Spirit. Can these rocks proclaim good and gracious news? Ask the Spirit.
We live in an age when many people still speak of the church with warm regard. But they do not speak about us. For them, Crossfit is church. Their coffee shop is church. Their political party is church. In an age when people long to belong, can the pile of rocks to which we are attached be church for people who need church?
At the conference at Coventry, we were a diverse gathering. We were from Germany, Austria, England, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Burundi, Canada, and the U.S. We had at least two things in common. We were all committed to the ministry of reconciliation. And we all expressed a belief that our respective contexts were becoming more polarized, more fearful. In those contexts, where our neighbors sought refuge from those fears, we were not sure if they saw the church as gathering places for grace and a unity given to us by the Ruined and Resurrected Christ.
Paul says for generations it was not known, but now it is revealed, the mystery of grace is for all. These ruined rocks can live, they can tell a story about real life, its brokenness and how it gets redeemed.
This is your challenge. This is my challenge. The young woman saw what was and described it honestly. Do you and I still believe that we also see what rests upon those rocks, what still moves through those rocks? Can we find words, both ancient and new, in order to reveal to all the mystery that is in us and in those rocks?
I believe you can. But first, you have to tell us what time it is.