Traveling Hopefully

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

For daily reflections on the Gospel readings, our #SermonOfTheDay Series, follow St. James Cathedral's YouTube channel. Sunday Sermons are posted on this page the Monday following their premiere. 

Most Recent Sermons

October 11, 2020

Dedication Festival Eucharist

In 1881, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, most famous for his story of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the children’s tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”, Treasure Island, famously remarked, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” This morning, I think, we are called to work out whether God prefers to travel hopefully, or to arrive!

Because if you read through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures up to the point at which we find ourselves this morning, in the early chapters of the First Book of Kings, God has been on really quite a journey. Indeed, God remarks to Nathan the prophet, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving
about in a tent and a tabernacle.”

God was dwelling in the Ark, traveling hopefully, until David’s son, Solomon, finally builds the great Temple in Jerusalem, to be God’s permanent residence on earth - the White House or the Buckingham Palace of its day. The Ark will be placed in the spot known as ‘the holiest of holies’, accessed only one day a year by the Chief Priest, and God will have ‘arrived’ in Jerusalem for good.

Thus it is that this morning, our scriptural curtain raises on Solomon praying to the Lord ‘in the presence of all the assembly of Israel’ as he dedicates the Temple. We only have a brief excerpt of this magisterial prayer, which lasts a full thirty verses, but even its opening shows the vast sense of significance and occasion that is in the air at these proceedings. And when the prayer is over, to seal the deal, 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep are sacrificed to the Lord. The assembly is blessed, and, finally, after a week long party, and a 66-verse chapter, the people are sent away and return to their tents ‘joyful and in good spirits because of all the goodness that the Lord had shown…to his people’. But, for all this celebration and sanctity, for all the construction of a building the like of which nobody present that day would ever have seen before or after, for all the power of Solomon’s prayer, there remains what we would have to call a niggling doubt about it all. Even though God himself talked about ‘building a house’, the uber-wise Solomon is not quite convinced, and  prays aloud, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”

For Solomon realizes that the Temple is not, in fact, anything more than a focal point to help people pray to a God who dwells in heaven - and it is from there, so Solomon realizes, that God will have both to heed his people - and also, to forgive them.

All of which might be said to raise the question about whether God is traveling hopefully, rather than having arrived - or, perhaps, from Solomon’s point of view, whether God has even bothered to set out on a journey at all. But whether or not God travels hopefully, it is certainly in the nature of the people of God so to travel. And at some point around 2800 years after Solomon dedicated the First Temple, some people of God found themselves journeying to Fort Dearborn, and the settlement, town and eventually city which grew up around it.

Now, as Solomon knew, religion needs its focal points, and just as the children of Israel celebrated the building of the Temple, so the children of Chicago came to celebrate the building - and, indeed, re-building after the fire - of this church that is beloved of its members today. And it is the founding of that nascent community that was to become St James, and the eventual building of our beloved church-turned-cathedral that we celebrate this morning. However, I doubt that back in October 1834 the celebrations around the first Episcopal liturgy to be performed in Illinois were as dramatic as those when Solomon dedicated the Temple. And when this church was built a few decades later, I doubt that people will have partied for a whole week. But I do wonder if, on that fateful morning 186 years ago, people might have thought they had properly ‘arrived’ in Chicago now they were holding church services, or if, when this building was dedicated, consecrated and opened up for worship, they thought then that their traveling days were over.

Well I am no historian, but I can tell you there has been an awful lot of journeying over those 186 years, and - with the blessing of hindsight - I can tell you that at any point when people might have been foolish enough to think they had ‘arrived’, they hadn’t. And the journey continues right now, as I am sure you are well aware. Last month, I think it fair to say that everyone in the cathedral community was surprised by the announcement that St James Commons, our office building that physically adjoins this church building, is to be put up for sale early next year. One of the many complex parts of the journey this site has seen over those 186 years was the change in ownership of the plant from St James parish to the Bishop and Trustees of the Diocese of Chicago during the 1950s. And the point has come when the Bishop and Trustees feel that it is in the interest of the diocese as a whole that the office building and plaza be sold. The last four weeks have shown me that the announcement of this proposed sale has brought forth a wide range of emotion, both within our own community, amongst our neighbors here in downtown Chicago, and across the diocese, and even across the wider Episcopal church. I have heard many people express - and I have felt myself - feelings of shock, anger and grief at this unsettling news.

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? That was Solomon’s cry to the Lord, when he dedicated a building of greater theological, architectural and historical significance even than St James Cathedral, Chicago. A building which was no more an ‘arrival’ than this one. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians almost six hundred years before the birth of Christ. And the Second Temple, built with a vision even grander than Solomon’s - that, too, was laid to waste, this time by the Romans in 70CE, leaving only its westernmost retaining wall, at which Jews still flock to pray in great numbers. Solomon - whose wisdom was a divine gift and became the stuff of legend - Solomon was rightly wise to raise the question about whether or not God could, indeed, dwell on earth. And it was with good reason that his vast prayer of dedication is threaded through with the refrain, “O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”

And so it is likely that in a year or so - for deals of this kind are never quick to be finalized - we will learn again just how it is that ‘tower and temple fall to dust’, and the building we call St James Commons will probably be demolished - demolished just like not one but two iterations of the Temple in Jerusalem. And - whatever your feelings about this - we should join with Solomon in asking God to ‘heed
and forgive’, for having immersed myself in the issues around the ownership, operation and maintenance of these buildings, it is very clear that both St James Cathedral and the Diocese of Chicago have, at times, shown failures of leadership and vision as we have traveled to this point. And, like any honest prayer aimed at the God who dwells in heaven, our prayer should reflect a genuine need for forgiveness for those failures. Solomon attempted to ‘seal the deal’ of the Temple’s dedication with the sacrifice or slaughter of 142,000 animals. But the deal went unsealed, because God’s response to the dedication of the Temple and the sacrifices which followed were to give Solomon a very clear choice - a very clear reminder of how actions always have consequences.

“Walk before me with integrity of heart and uprightness - you and your children,” says the Lord, “then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever…” - But, “turn aside… and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight…” And I’m afraid you don’t have to read on through too many more chapters of the Old Testament to discover just how very quickly that ‘turning aside’ started to happen. So will God indeed dwell on the earth? Well, one day they had a shock in the Temple. On one of those stressful and busy days, when a major festival is just about to take place, one of those times when clergy and staff are feeling under particular pressure - who should walk in but a loud, opinionated troublemaker. Quoting the psalms and the prophets, and displaying a uniquely possessed sense of authority to which he did not appear to be entitled, he had a shouting match with the officials on duty, and totally
disrupted the day’s liturgies.

Because on that stressful and busy day, God in Christ travelled hopefully to the Temple, and his arrival was an event that sparked off all kinds of things, leading to the ultimate sacrifice the world has even seen. A proof that, despite Solomon’s best efforts, it is not the quantity of sacrifice which matters, but the quality. For God did come to dwell on earth. To dwell on earth, but without a real home and a real base, and to travel hopefully with the most unlikely handful of followers - travel from a humble birth in a cattle shed in Bethlehem, through the waters of John’s baptism in the Jordan and the arid heat of the desert, into the crowds of Palm Sunday, the inadequacies of the Temple, the desertion of the Garden. God traveled hopefully, traveled to remind the world of the deepest and most profound message of love and inclusion it had even heard.

But finally God arrived. Arrived, not at a glorious building that took people’s breath away, and cost thousands or millions to construct. The structure at which God in Christ arrived cost next to nothing, and required only two pieces of wood and a few nails. God arrived on a hill not inside a city wall, adorned with the greatest building ever known, but outside that wall. And that day there was only one sacrifice being offered.

God arrived, and God did so that we, God’s children, might continue to travel hopefully. And, for all we celebrate the dedication of our church building, our real celebration, today and every day, is the call to travel hopefully. The call to be the pilgrim children of God in Christ, called only ever into temporary stewardship of buildings - or money, or staff, or of any of the many other gifts that God gives. But called, also, to avoid the sinfulness of daring to think that any of these gifts should be to us anything more than the tools of our participation in the mission and ministry of God to God’s world.

In a few days time, you will be getting a special email from me. It’s about the fact that - for very obvious reasons - we will not be having a gala this fall. Not an in-person gala, or even a Zoom gala, as is the current fashion - for one can, I believe, have too much Zoom! Instead, I will simply be asking you to spend ten minutes watching one of the most beautiful videos I have watched in a long time. A video that both tells the story of our outreach ministries and reminds us why it is that we undertake them in the first place. And it is my hope - my strong and fervent hope - that your reaction to this video will ensure a level of gifts to these ministries larger and more generous than we have seen even from the most successful of galas. As you watch these ten beautiful minutes, you will hear Anna talking of the many people - people who turn up here probably as regularly as most of you, but yet are not officially ‘on our books’ - the many people who regard St James as ‘home’, as a place of ‘peace and refuge’. And as Anna talks about these ministries, she finally gives Solomon an answer to his question, for, as you will hear, she makes the profound and truthful claim that “God always shows up… and hopefully we will continue to show up for our neighbors in Chicago.”

Yes, Anna - God always shows up - traveling hopefully that God’s mission will always live on not, ultimately in buildings, but in the people who are known to God and to the world as the Body of Christ. For, as Teresa of Avila so famously taught, “Christ has no body now on earth but [ours],"

“Little do you know your own blessedness,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” God in Christ traveled hopefully and arrived to labour on the cross - and Christ’s Body labors on in his name. And as we remember the founding of this small part of the Body of Christ, as we celebrate the dedication of this church building, and even as we look with anticipation into an ever-complex future, let us remember that God did indeed come to dwell on the earth. God arrived, so that we might travel onwards ever hopefully, not to be the landlords and tenants of grand buildings, but to seek the true success of ensuring that our only labor is done in Christ’s name. Amen.