A House of Prayer – and Witness – for All

The following is the sermon offered at the rededication of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Boston Common and the Seating of the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates.

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I am so blessed to be at St. Paul’s tonight. Thank you Alan, thank you Jep for the invitation. I’m here with gratitude for all we in Western and central Massachusetts have received from what we call the Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts. From the early days of financial aid to a century of inspiration in Gospel living. Thank you. And personally I offer prayers of thanksgiving for my sister and brother bishops – Gayle, Alan and Bud. They are a tremendous source of support for me. You do know that we claim Alan as one of our own for his eight years of exemplary leadership at Trinity, Ware. Where? Ware.

As a representative of the Mass Council of Churches, Gayle comes to our Diocesan Council every year, offering words of encouragement. She caught on very quickly that although I love the people of WMA, I don’t root for the same baseball team as most of them do. Now don’t start booing – remember you are the house of prayer for ALL God’s people. What Gayle does is lead the entire Convention in a full throttle rendition of Sweet Caroline.

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When I was seated as bishop of Christ Church Cathedral three years ago, they displayed a banner behind me as I preached. I asked the cathedral chapter if I could borrow that banner for tonight. (Banner saying RED SOX ARE PRAYED FOR HERE is unfurled.) My Cathedral is loaning this to you… but I say why don’t you just keep it? My gift to you on this most solemn occasion.

I’m always fascinated by church names. Those of you who have had the sacred gift of naming children, isn’t it amazing how they become their name? My wife Betsy is here tonight and we named our first child Caragh. Spelled the Gaelic way, C-a-r-a-g-h. She is such a Caragh. The night before our son was born we still were undecided on his name. It was going to be Liam or Geoffrey. Now Liam is a wonderful name but we chose Geoff and that was exactly right. He is not a Liam. He is a Geoff. And our youngest is Grace and she is so full of grace.

In WMA we have a lot of churches named St. Andrew. That is interesting because St. Andrew is the patron saint of the sea and we are a landlocked diocese. He is also the patron saint of golfers but I have not found more than a few golfers in those churches. St. Andrew is the saint that introduced people to Jesus. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that name gives those churches their mission, their reason for being.

St. Paul’s. Not Trinity. Not St. John the Divine. Not Christ Church. Why St. Paul’s? Could the name give a clue to your identity, your mission? For the next nine minutes and thirty-three seconds let’s explore that.

In the Acts of the Apostles written by St. Luke, we hear a lot about Paul but not until late in the 7th Chapter when he is watching coats while Stephen is killed. When Paul starts preaching we hear this in Acts 9:27 – Paul in Damascus “spoke boldly in the name of Jesus.” One verse later he is in Jerusalem “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.” Then he is with another preacher, Barnabas, and they “spoke out boldly.” You seeing a pattern here? I went through the Book of Acts line by line (we have time to do that in the slower pace of Western and Central Massachusetts) and found Paul’s preaching described 15 times as “bold,” including the very last line of the book when Paul was in Rome: he was “proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness.”

On the one hand we want to say “St. Luke, get a thesaurus!” But on the other hand maybe there is a message here for all Christians and especially St. Paul’s Cathedral on Boston Common.

Maybe you are supposed to proclaim the Gospel and live it out boldly in this place. And when you do you will be an ally of your bishop who was asked this question on September 13, 2014: “Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?” And in a loud voice, Alan responded “I will in the power of the Spirit.”

Living the Gospel boldly and stirring up our conscience will not be new to you in this new/old Cathedral. Consider these bold moves.

  • You started an innovative faith community in The Crossing.
  • You reimagined what a food ministry would look like with MANNA Ministry – Many Angels Needed Now and Always.
  • You developed a thriving Chinese congregation.
  • You opened your doors to Muslims for Friday prayer.

One hundred years ago, when Bishop Lawrence gave you the mission to make this a house of prayer for all people, he knew it would take bold decisions. He made the decision to take the doors off the pews so church attendance would not be restricted to paying customers – a bold move for his day. He wanted this Cathedral to be open and inviting to those passing by on the street. He thought that would happen as people heard the music of your services. Still a good idea but you did him one better creating this new entrance way and chapel.

Alan has said he does not want the mission of this place to be considered the “boutique ministries” of the cathedral congregation only, “but integral parts of diocesan identity and ministries engaged in on behalf of all of us.” I guess that means St. Paul’s is not only a House of Prayer for All Peoples, but is a House of Prayer and Witness for the Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts – I mean the Diocese of Massachusetts. Because your ministries here recall another question Alan was asked 14 months ago: “Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper?” Alan said “I will, for the sake of Christ.”

Boutique ministries? No, these ministries are what Alan and this diocese are all about.

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And to that mission I will add one more. From your new entrance – if you look right over there – you will see the State House. I don’t know this for sure, but you St. Paul’s might be the only Cathedral geographically so close to a place of political power. Now the elected representatives in that House have done some outstanding work through the years and we should pray in gratitude for them. And perhaps there are times when we need to boldly express Gospel values to them. Not long ago Alan and I had a little disagreement with them about casinos. And although Massachusetts has the strictest gun laws in the country, our political leaders tossed out a proposal that would have limited gun purchases to one gun per person per year. Now if you think 12 guns a year per person is adequate, I invite you to knock on your neighbor’s door and have a conversation about that. Go across the Common like Bud, the Green Bishop, and WMA’s own Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, did the other day to take part in a rally raising consciousness about climate change. We need your witness, St. Paul’s.Just as St. Paul was not afraid to speak to King Agrippa – Acts chapter 26 does not tell us he spoke boldly but he did speak “freely.”

St. Paul – the inspiration for this Cathedral. The bold preaching and action of Paul was based on a radical trust in God’s constant presence. God’s “no matter what” love. God’s “you can’t ever get away from me” love. God’s “I won’t ever stop loving you” love. That is so clear in the passage we have tonight from the 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans. What will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – absolutely nothing.

You have all heard this passage read many times at funerals. It is proclamation of resurrection and hope. But there is one line in the midst of the passage that does not seem to fit. “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” Ugh. Why say that to grieving people?

At my former parish church, Grace in Millbrook, New York, I took it upon myself to edit Paul. In the Bible we used for liturgy, I bracketed out the part about sheep being slaughtered and I would tell whatever friend or family member that was reading at the funeral to start with verse 31 “What then are we to say about these things?” and continue through verse 35. Skip the bracketed verse 36 about the killing and the slaughtering, and pick it up with “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors.”

That seemed to work well. Dozens of funerals were conducted with my edited version of Paul. Until one day when the reader, the grieving daughter of the deceased, got to church just before the service was to start and in a harried state. I explained to her how to do the reading and to leave out the bracketed sentence. She said ok and went to her pew with her family. Now comes the time for her reading. She comes to the lectern and reads just the bracketed verse 36 “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered. The Word of the Lord.” And sat down.

Perhaps we who are getting clues to our mission in this Cathedral from Paul need to pay attention to that verse which I have ignored. It comes from Psalm 44 – that is “where it is written.” That line is not out-of-place in Psalm 44. The whole psalm is one big complaint against God. Lots of being rejected and sold out and taunted.

Maybe the Psalmist and Paul are giving us another clue about what it means to be this Cathedral. There are many people outside these doors who feel rejected and sold out and taunted. They feel like they are being killed all day long. Where can they go? Bishop Lawrence thought they should come here. Alan and Jep and this dedicated staff and congregation think they should come here.

They can come here to their Cathedral as Bishop Lawrence proclaimed it. They can come into this renewed House of Prayer for all peoples, where the light now shines in. And together with you they can say the end of Psalm 44 after lots of complaining: “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”

Steadfast love – hesed – in Hebrew. God’s faithfulness. God’s “no matter what” kind of love. God’s love that freed the Hebrew people from slavery, that freed Jesus, and all of us, from the power of death. This Cathedral stands as a witness to that love, to that God-given freedom. Or as your Paul would say it: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

A classmate of mine in the House of Bishops, Rob Wright, the bishop of Atlanta puts it this way: “God causes freedom in people. Freedom to be authentic. Freedom from fear. Freedom for improvisation. Freedom to befriend the world. God is a freedom God and God’s people are in the freedom business.”

What a beautiful Cathedral this is. May it be a House of Prayer where all people experience the steadfast love of God. May it be a House of Prayer where God causes freedom. You have a message and a mission, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Proclaim it boldly for the sake of Christ and in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

+Doug