300th Anniversary ~ St. Paul's, Rock Creek
Human beings have always had a great yearning to connect with holy places. It is the fundamental reason for pilgrimage, and the reason why we bury people in the church yard. The psalmist claims that even the birds want to nest by God’s altar. And the psalmist also reminds us that even when we’ve lit out into the world, the holy goes along with us – through desolate valleys and even that valley of the shadow of death. In a very real sense, every place is holy, and seems more so when we know that God is with us.
Your burial ground out there is one of those holy places. The ministry it facilitates is really significant, yet not without controversy. I understand that years ago the vestry gave over quite a few acres of it for a street. Pieces of holy ground like this are at the heart of all sorts of struggles. In Florence, Alabama, recently, Wal-Mart bought some land from a family that’s farmed a big parcel since the 1830s. Many of their family members are buried in a lovely cemetery, right next to where Wal-Mart wants to build. The problem is that no one is quite certain where the graves of 80 or more other members of that extended family are – because the slave graves have no markers.
There are similar issues all across this country. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed more than 20 years ago because of equivalent concerns about the sacred burials of indigenous peoples. Some of the more difficult aspects of recent property disputes in this Church have had to do with ash burials and columbaria, and who is going to care for them in perpetuity. Human beings are terribly loath to disturb burial sites because of our innate respect for the dead, but also because some still have an instinctive fear of the dead. Those tombstones out there have some of their origin in old beliefs about ensuring that the dead stayed dead and in the ground. Even Jesus’ tomb had a stone rolled across it.
Yet there is a deeper and holier understanding that graveyards are also signs of life and resurrection. Early Christians celebrated communion on the graves of their saints, and most of us have seen an altar that looks like a stone sarcophagus. That cemetery out there was planned to function both as burying ground and as a park, a green space and sign of life – in a most Christian understanding. It is in some real sense the foundation of this community – an enduring symbol of life emerging from death.
A celebration of three centuries of life in this place has to attend to that reality. Life and death are intertwined; we are part of the communion of saints who have lived and prayed and loved and died in this place. St. Paul’s is the forerunner of all the other religious communities in this District of Columbia. You have helped to give birth to many, many other churches and religious bodies – well beyond the 17 or 18 Episcopal churches you helped birth. Some of those congregations have sought to emulate your example and I imagine that some wanted to be as different as possible! That is the nature of children.
Paul is talking about the variety of offspring he has baptized or nurtured in Corinth. He’s fed them milk because they weren’t ready for more adult food, not even toddler snacks. They’re still fighting like kids in a sandbox, saying, “mine, mine,” and “no, it’s mine!” That seems to be an eternal difficulty, for we are all children of God, hoping to be sisters and brothers of Jesus, trying to grow up into sufficient maturity to take our place in that communion of saints.
Jesus is confronting a similar case of arrested development in the gospel we heard – he isn’t complaining so much about the commerce taking place in the temple precincts, but that it has become the reason for being there. It’s sort of like the assumption that the church bazaar or the Tuesday bingo game is the most central reason for the church’s existence. You sell burial sites, don’t you? But they aren’t the primary reason for this holy place.
Somebody said once that sin amounts to misusing a gift, or using it to excess. The kind of rancor that often keeps us at odds with each other, and separated from our neighbors, usually has to do with losing the focus on the gift we’ve received. Are we nesting next to the altar so that we can be comfortable in our padded pew for eternity? Or do we recognize this place as a way-station on the pilgrimage that is life?
St. Paul’s seems to be launching out on a new chapter of pilgrimage. You’ve dipped your toe in the water by funding scholarships for students in this neighborhood – and more of them than you planned. Who’s going to walk through the valley with those students? Will they have somebody like Minnie Green checking up on them week by week and month by month? Have you met their families and learned something about their joys and laments, or built a friendship? That’s some of what it means to set out on the pilgrim’s way.
How are you going to be God’s temple for another 300 years? Some of the answer undoubtedly lies in continuing to steward this holy place, as a source of resurrection life – for people who wander through the quiet of the graveyard and for those who worship with you here, whether it’s here on Sunday morning or at some other time or place. But the more interesting and challenging question is how this St. Paul’s community is going to be a moveable temple, a holy presence wandering through the world offering healing and sanctuary to all you meet. How will you be the temple of the Holy Spirit in DC, in Maryland and Virginia, at the gas station or on the Metro, at work and at play, in the bar and at Starbucks?
Find your center here in this holy place – as Isaiah says, “in returning and rest we shall be saved” – come and eat and drink your fill of the presence of God and then take your confidence into the world, expecting to find God already there, gone on ahead of you.
There’s a recent political cartoon that resonates with this conversation about holy ground. It shows somebody reading a newspaper outside a cemetery. The newspaper headline says “Stand Your Ground Law” and the sign over the gate to the cemetery says, “The Other Guy’s Ground”. Can we help to build a world where the ground we all stand on becomes holy, where everyone we meet bears the image of God? Can we build a world where there is no need to stand our ground, because we have recognized that ultimately it does not belong to us?
This holy ground is meant to be a gift for the world, and it’s meant to make us holy – and wholly able to bring a sense of belonging wherever we are. Then perhaps all the birds of the air and the children of the streets and the fearful and the sick and the lonely will build their nests in the shadow of the Holy One. Happy indeed are those who dwell in the house of the Holy One – and carry that holy house wherever they go.
Blessings on your journey!
 Christian Century, 18 April 2012 p 8. Ran earlier in The Washington Post