This church of ours has seen a city grow and change. Our parish has been here since 1860 with this church structure our home for worship since 1905. The church has been it fair share of the change. The street out front once had hitching posts; now there are parking spaces. The Hillsborough Hotel and its grandeur marked the property across Florida Ave.; now it is a parking lot. Next door we are watching the federal courthouse become Le Meridien, an exclusive hotel. All the while our church has stood like a silent sentinel and a place of prayer.
The people have gathered here at the outbreak of war, to mourn the loss of our sons and daughter, to celebrate peace, and the homecoming of our children. No one had to schedule a prayer vigil on September 11, 2002. The people gathered.
Our church has been a haven for the downtown business person seeking a moment of quiet, a respite for prayer – a time to breath. This church has heard the cheers of the first kiss as a married couple – as a couple married 72 years quietly watches. These walls have echoed the soft sobbing of fear at the diagnosis of stage four cancer. The Word of God has been faithfully proclaimed here for more than a century. Sins have been spoken and confessed in hushed tones. The words of forgiveness, reconciliation and God’s love have replied. Again and again, the holy words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” have joined heaven and earth.
Within these walls are the memories and stories of many families. Did you know that in one family, six generations of women have been married in this parish. The generations of family place their own stones, each in its place, in the stories of wedding, funerals, baptisms, first communions, and Confirmations; Christmases and Easters when the far flung family gathered; celebrations of sons and daughters leaving home for college, service to their country, jobs in another city; celebrations of their returns.
Living in the friary attached to the church I am never far away. There are moments in the quiet of the night when I have sat here and imagined I could hear the memories ebbing and flowing through the church; the stories writ large and small that swirl in and around these walls. Even in my few years among you, I have been privileged to be witness to the memories of families and a parish of believing people. Those memories, your presence and faith now, are the living stones that make this parish what it is. And so we celebrate the memories and live the present in order to shape the future – to continue to build this spiritual house. But with what will we build? Just our memories?
A couple of years ago I visited the recently built Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, in Los Angeles. Whatever one thinks of the overall architecture, one cannot help but be captivated by the twenty-five huge woven tapestries that hang on the north and south walls of the nave. Each tapestry is massive. On the tapestries are depicted 135 saints from the history of the Church – St Francis and St Ignatius of Loyola are there. All the figures in the tapestries are in profile, facing in the same direction as the congregation, towards the altar. But there among the 135 people the Church formally calls Saints, are twelve people, ordinary and unnamed figures on the tapestries. The twelve are the new saints of our time who are this “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of [God’s] own, .. announcing his praises…” turned to the altarfor worship. Holy people from every time and place, surrounding us, today’s faithful; showing the Church in one act of worship. There is LA, when you look to the walls, you truly see living stones, ….built into a spiritual house. The walls of the LA cathedral are reminder to me the we build with memories and worship. But is there more? Are we building for the future?
St. Francis recognized that his brothers were prone to celebrating the memories and stories of the saints, of other people – and then not build anew. Instead of living stones we friars too often became inanimate stones. St Francis told us that up to now we have done nothing, so let us begin again – because it is as Jesus promises: whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.
The Early church faced it too…. in the glow of Resurrection … when they looked at the widows among them were being neglected – no doubt lonely, hungry, and forgotten. And the church adapted appointed deacons – expanding prayer and ministry. I am sure they were tempted to stay secure – and let Jesus return to them as he promised – keep things just they way they are. But they understood the on-going challenge to let themselves be built into a spiritual house – the same challenge we face. To grow in a way that the beauty of ministries and worship are one more memorable, one more enduring than the beauty and stone that surrounds us. Ministry and worship becomes the building blocks, become the stories, become the memories.
So that in the wonderful light of Christ we see far more than the lovely tapestries of the LA cathedral or our stained glass windows. We see who we are: who we are called to become – living stones building the kingdom of God of memory, ministry and worship. A royal and holy people called into the world, beyond these walls, beyond our memories, beyond ourselves – as it says on the arch over the altar: Ad majoram Dei gloriam. “For the greater glory of God.”