Building Cathedrals

Delivered May 16, 2021 at Community Congregational Church

In our contemporary reading this morning, the Rev Forrest church describes something that has become, for me, central to my theology.  He describes what he calls the cathedral of the world, where the light of all the world’s religious traditions stream through its windows. God is the universal light outside, shining through each religious tradition, unique and beautiful on its own. And when contemplated alongside one another, these windows are an eternal testament to the highest values humanity has created. 

Our window, of course, is window where Christ’s love is revealed. There may be a few broken panes on our window from when historical Christianity has strayed into  judgement, hypocrisy, even violence.  But dusty and broken as it may be, it’s our window, where the love of Christ shines through. 

I’ve been pondering, lately, what drew me to this congregation, and the United Church of Christ. As many of you know, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and I thought for a moment about calling this sermon “A Unitarian Universalist Yankee in Queen Renie’s court.” But just for a moment.  I’m here because from the time I was young, the window that spoke the most to me, in my imaginary Cathedral of the World, was the image of Jesus, the good shepherd, the one who has taught us to love each other fully and unconditionally. 

And I needed, at this moment of my life, to really get my Jesus on.  

There’s more to why I’m here, but to set up that answer, I want first to take you on a walk around the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

I spent many years in Hyde Park, first as a editor working for a University of Chicago publication, then as a seminary student in the university’s theological school cluster.  A favorite lunchtime walk for me was what I called my chapel walk.  Will you walk with me.  

The first stop we visit Hull Chapel, where my seminary would hold mid-week vespers. It’s a warm, familiar space where I sat in a metal folding chair through many services listening to guest preachers, faculty, and students delivering worship. I led services there, sang, played guitar and trombone — and its walls are infused with the spirit of generations of ministers learning and practicing their craft. 

Attached to Hull Chapel is the First Unitarian Society’s magnificent French Gothic inspired sanctuary as tall as it is long, its recesses dark and shadowed. Take note of the empty niche above the chancel. It’s there so that people can imagine their own symbols of faith—whatever moves them spiritually. Remember this image—the empty niche—we’ll return to it. 

Next we walk to Chicago Theological Schools’ (UCC) prayer chapel down the street, an intimate space not much larger than a modest living room, and dark as a closet. Cast iron lights hang from the ceiling, and except for the dark hewed beams and chairs, the entire place feels carved out of stone. It is a space to be alone with your thoughts.

Now we head across campus to Rockefeller Chapel, a “modest” little chapel donated by John D. Rockefeller as a gift to his humble Baptist university, the University of Chicago, he founded in 1890. Of course, nothing Rockefeller did was either modest or humble. The Byzantine-Romanesque Gothic cathedral is 265 feet long and more than 200 feet high, constructed of 32,000 tons of Indiana limestone and seats 1,700. Rockefeller Chapel always leaves me with a sense of awe over the grandeur of sacred architecture, and chilled by its stark space.

I save my favorite chapel for last, Bond Chapel, attached to the Divinity School. Perhaps its initial appeal was the fact that underneath the Divinity School is The Divinity School Coffee Shop. It’s logo was: “Where God Drinks Coffee.” Yes, I have the t-shirt. For years I would climb down the stone steps to the Div School basement, indented by the footsteps of generations of ministers, academics, and rabbis in training, follow the long hallway to its end, pass through the heavy wood door with the “repent now” sign over it, and grab a cup of free trade coffee before heading up to Bond Chapel. 

This chapel is neither large nor small, neither grand nor humble. It’s breathtaking, and not in Rockefeller’s biggest-chapel-on-the-block way. Bond chapel’s walls are blue and violet stained glass stretching from standing height up to the 50-foot ceilings where life-sized carved wood angels look down from above. But the most remarkable thing about Bond is the scriptural selections incorporated into every aspect of the architecture. Beatitudes are carved into the walls, Psalms are pieced into the stained glass, Gospel passages are engraved on the wood paneling. The passages aren’t only on one part of a wall or window, but stretched out in continuous streams from wall to wall to wall. You are literally encircled in words believed sacred by its builders and judged inclusive enough for a campus chapel utilized by people of many faiths — sometimes you can see the Muslim prayer rugs leaning in the corner or meditation cushions up front. 

It is a holy place for me. I believe the space moves me for the boldness of its designers. How could they have known that after stuffing all that ornamentation into that small space that it would have any aesthetic worth at all?  It is in that boldness that I find myself, while not agreeing theologically with all the representations, moved intellectually and spiritually.

I contrast Bond Chapel with the empty niche over at First Unitarian. 

Now I get intellectually the symbolism of the empty niche, but to me an empty niche is a missed opportunity. I admire it when people carve their beliefs into stone, or place a symbol of their faith prominently for the world and those who follow to see.

I grew up with such boldness in the church of my childhood, where a simple saying was embossed into the front wall of our sanctuary: “Divine Love has met and always will meet every human need.” A simplified version of this phrase was painted in gold on the wall of our one-room Sunday School: “God is Love.” Not God is about Love, or God loves you. Just God is Love. It was bold and prophetic and to this day defines how I relate to that motive force of the universe that I find worthy of the term Divine. The simple transformational power of Love. It was this kind of bold statement that moved me so in Bond Chapel. Unflinching boldness to cast into stone, plaster, glass, and wood the most powerful tools humanity has been given: words. 

With what words do we build our cathedral of the world, to return to Forrest Church’s image that we shared earlier? Of course, we have our congregation’s mission statement: 

“Community Congregational Church’s mission is to follow the example of Jesus by being a welcoming community who cares for and honors each other and the world. We welcome everyone, young and old, gay and straight, singles and families, exuberant children and inquiring adults. We celebrate our diversity in vibrant music, sacred worship and

lively fellowship. As a congregation governed by our members,

we are a justice-making, radically inclusive community.

We seek to live fully, love wastefully and lead courageously.

I’m proud of that statement every time I see it. When is the last time you read it?  It’s Prophetic. Challenging. Evocative. I think that is a difference between a church that functions primarily as sanctuary from the world and a cathedral church that exists for the world. A cathedral church sees itself as a beacon for people to find in a mad world. As Pilgrim John Winthrop wrote in 1630: Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely . . . we shall be made a story and a byword through the world . . .

Therefore let us choose life, he concludes, that we, and our Seed, may live. 

So that we and our children may live. 

A cathedral is not a structure built quickly over months, or even a few years. I am reminded in this way of the cathedral of Chartres, which took 60 years to build over three generations. The people who began building the cathedral of Chartres did not live to see its completion, and the grandchildren who finished it were not born when its construction began. It was a labor of love that transcended the scope of human lifetime for the larger good of humanity. 

It is also important to remember that a cathedral is not just an architectural term, or a theological one, but a technical term in the world of church growth, for a cathedral church is a community organization that looks outside its walls to share its message with those who need it. It is to be high and visible, as we are here on Second Ave–that congregation on the hill. To be a cathedral congregation is to intentionally make our message of inclusiveness, diversity, and personal revelation easy to find. To be a cathedral congregation is for us to work toward a level of congregational health and vitality that can be seen as that beacon we want to be for Benecia, Vallejo, and the world beyond. 

I used to think building a cathedral meant church growth and large budgets… lots of monetary resources to launch bit initiatives.  I’ve come to see building a cathedral, from what I’ve seen at this church, as more akin to the original Pilgrim churches who envisioned a congregation as a “beacon on the hill,” as a light for people to come to know God.  

I mean, passages like this morning’s mean so much to me in times of struggle. Jesus give us one commandment in this passage. Just one: Love one another as I’ve love you. How much did he love us? Enough to give his life so that the lives of others would be better. Jesus tells this to his disciples, I chose you, and all you have to do to be in “the club” is love unconditionally.  I rankle at Christians who think this also includes judging others, or deciding who is chosen and who is not. Love one another as I’ve loved you. That’s in. You’re in. And that Love will meet, as it’s always met when people live into love fully, that Love will meet every human need. 

That’s why I’ve been with you these past few years, because I’ve wanted to walk with people unafraid to put Jesus in their niche.  You walk into our church and the biggest thing in sight is that cathedral sized stained glass window of Jesus the Shepherd. And in the sanctuary your windows look out over this community of Benecia you serve, and the larger Solano County area. It’s hungry, it’s homeless, those who hunger to be healed from the ravages of judgement and injustice. 

You’re not afraid to put Jesus in the niche. I pray, you never are. 

And that answers the question of why I came to worship here. I am a Unitarian minister, and my ministry has been a call to help people stare into the empty niche in a way there hear how God speaks to them. But this Unitarian minister has needed some healing work these past few years, and it’s been your call to follow Jesus that has offered me the healing I’ve needed. I thank you, and especially Pastor Renie and our musicians, who offered me that cool cup, in Christ’s name, of the healing I needed. 

This cathedral you build together has not been built overnight. That’s the other truth about cathedrals: You never stop building. The cathedral we build together began with the generations before and will continue being built after we are gone. The cathedral we build together is not built of wood, steel and glass, but of our shared aspirations, our desire to share with others this thrilling challenge of liberal religion, and our hope for the future of our own children and youth that they will have better lives because of the work we have done. 

It’s like a story I once heard about three workers building an ancient cathedral, and with which I’ll close: 

“What are you doing?” a traveler asked the first worker she saw. 

“I’m a stonecutter, what do you think I’m doing,” he replied. “Cutting stone.” 

The woman continued down the road where she comes across another stonecutter: 

“What are you doing on this fine day?”

“I’m earning a living, same as always,” the woman replied, but when pressed her face brightened. She said: “The money I earn from cutting stone provides for my family so my children will have a better life.” 

And then the third stonecutter, who is, perhaps, a prophet in disguise.

“What are you doing,” the traveler asks?

“Well,” the person said, their face glowing with pride “I’m building a cathedral where people will worship and praise, couples will be married, and whose beauty will remain longer than I am alive to remind people of the glory of  Creation.”

One worker sees only the immediate task. The second acknowledges that her labor provides for those she loves. 

The third worker knows that their work is about more than themself, or the immediate benefits of their labor. They realizes that their work transcends even one lifetime and will benefit people they will never know. They build a church whose gaze and grasp extends beyond its own walls. This is you. This is a robust church active in social justice and always looking for the stranger to welcome into fellowship. It is a church that operates for good because the goodness in the human heart demands we stand against injustice; because its moral center demands generosity, vision, and  mission; and because our values will still be needed in the better society we leave to others.

We hope and pray all these things, 

in the name of the one who taught us to love

we hope and pray these things 

in the name of Jesus. 


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