Advent I – Re-dedication of Saint Mary’s Church, Oneonta, New York
2017 – Readings from the Dedication of Churches
Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 3:9-13, 16-17; Matthew 5:23-24
A couple of months ago I walked into the Parish Center on Saturday evening and there was Kevin, big and looming with his broad smile. “Welcome to Saint Mary’s!” he said to people as they came down the stairs to enter the gym for Mass. “Welcome to Saint Mary’s!” How right he was, I thought. But did Kevin understand the significance of what he was saying? Did any of us?
“Welcome to Saint Mary’s!” Saint Mary’s? …an old school, for some saturated with grade school memories; for others just a worn out building I expect. The narrow passage of stairs not so easy to manage for seniors and the infirm. Visitors and college students often went to the church building across the street. And why not? Only to find the doors locked and signs directing them back across the street. Another sign: “Mass in the gym” with its arrow pointing to the school. The gym. A pretty rough looking place to celebrate Mass with its walls covered in large blue pads. Padded like a cell? A boxing ring? Some of the gymnasium lights didn’t work anymore. And rows of chairs: red and grey, tan and blue, metal and plastic facing each other in two opposing sections like teams ready to vie for the win. The altar, well a table – at center court. All under the watchful gaze of a byzantine Christ staring forward like an unbiased referee with his book of rules in hand.
“Welcome to Saint Mary’s!” But Saint Mary’s what? Saint Mary’s Church across the street was locked up. What was Kevin welcoming people to? …this pretty ugly, old school gym?
Yet consider what an old school gym and a church building can have in common. A vessel of water as you enter. An altar – table “at center court”. And a lectern from which to read. Is a room with furniture arranged in a similar pattern what Kevin was welcoming people to enter?
One of the – no! – THE most life – giving and necessary action that Christians undertake is to gather. And the places that Christians have gathered is not as nearly significant. We Christians have gathered in people’s homes and cemeteries, in fields and hidden within war time concentration camps, in great cathedrals of architectural human ingenuity and technology with Gothic spired arms reaching to the heavens to small adobe California mission churches that remain comfortably content to crown the surrounding desert landscape. We have gathered in hospital rooms and prisons, in schools and on battle fields.
We may not even have had a vessel of water, an altar or a lectern. But we could always make due as long as we were gathered together in Jesus – a thimble full of wine and a crust of bread; gathered in prayer, gathered in Spirit and in truth, gathered in our sinfulness and in the glory of knowing we are redeemed in Jesus Christ. At times we have huddled from persecutors or sprawled out in the millions watching over large video screens as at World Youth Day; each week shuffling into our parish churches or excitedly hastening so as not to be late for a wedding or First Communion.
We Christians gather.
We gather around water to remind us we have died and continue to die in and with Jesus Christ. We gather around water to remind us we are victorious with Jesus Christ over sin and death.
We gather around a reading desk to listen to stories. Stories that, like the people of Israel listening to Ezra the priest – scribe, cut us to the heart challenging us to change our lives in tune with the will of God. Stories that, like the disciples returning to Emmaus, make our hearts so burn within us that we need to tell other people of our experience and friendship with Jesus Christ.
We gather around an altar – table to sit in communion with the Eternal and Living God of Israel whom Jesus has taught us to call, “Abba”, “Daddy”. We gather around an altar – table to be reminded that the sacred act of offering forgiveness to another person takes precedence over the sacredness of the meal. We gather around an altar – table to eat and drink of eternal life.
There is much an old dusky gym and now a church that has undergone a metamorphosis have in common.
This is what Kevin was welcoming people to enter into…the mysteries of death and life, of conversion and relationship, of a growing and deepening communion with God and with each other.
This is why the words of Paul jump and shout off the page: “You are God’s building!”
This is why we sing:
“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live…
“Let us build a house where hands will reach…to heal and strengthen…
“Let us build a house where all are named…and loved and treasured…
“Welcome to THIS Saint Mary’s!”