I Believe in Churches – Br. James Koester

Ezekiel 34: 11-16; Psalm 87; 2 Timothy 4: 1-8; John 21: 15-19

A friend of mine once proclaimed quite forcefully and with real passion that he believed in churches. What an odd thing to believe in I thought when I heard him. I believe in lots of things, but I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to say that I believe in churches. I certainly believe in God, and in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he continues to manifest his presence among us today in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the gift of the Holy Spirit. I certainly believe in THE Church, that “wonderful and sacred mystery”1 which is “the blessed company of all faithful people”2 as various Prayer Books have described her. But do I believe in churches? That’s a different matter.

When I first heard my friend talk about believing in churches, I wasn’t prepared to go there. Churches after all, were just buildings and having served in a couple of parishes that had some quite wonderful buildings, I know how easy it is to slip from the worship of God, to the worship of buildings. And yet….

For over a decade now, we in the community have been dreaming, and thinking, and praying, and talking about these buildings. It all began one August during community chapter and discussions when we talked about how there must be an easier way to get in and out of the monastery. From there the conversation developed into wouldn’t it be nice if we had…? And what about…? We even talked about the unspeakable: have these buildings outlived their usefulness? Would we be better off selling and moving somewhere else?

Over and over again the conversations ended up here, in this chapel, talking about this place and what it means to us as a community and what it means to so many of you. For many of us, this place is much more than a building; it is a sacrament of God.

One of the things which I love about this church, and which it has been my privilege to care for these last few years, is the tabernacle on the St. John’s altar. I don’t know if you have ever looked at it, but when vested it is designed to look like a tent. A tent you say, so what!

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…..And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”3

We usually read that God “dwelt among us”, but what John is reminding us of in his Prologue is the story of the Exodus when God pitched his tent and lived among the people of Israel as they journeyed from captivity in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The very God who made the heavens and the earth was present to them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night and dwelt among them in a tent at the edge of the camp. “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

Yes, this chapel is just a building, but it is much more. Yes, this chapel is an architectural masterpiece, but it is much more. Yes, this chapel is a delightful blend of stone and light, but it is much more. This chapel is a sign and symbol and sacrament of God’s presence among us. This chapel is a constant reminder that God is present and lives among us.

In many ways, like a sacrament, this chapel is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace,”4 for it is here that not only do we know God’s presence with us as we come to seek God in this place, but it is also here that we are refreshed, and fed, and strengthened in order that we can be sent out to serve in Christ’s name.

In the story of Exodus, God took canvas and poles and rope and tent pegs to show the people of Israel that he was with them. In the incarnation of Jesus God again pitched his tent among us, but this time using flesh and bone and blood. In the mystery of the Eucharist God makes the divine presence known to us in bread broken and wine shared, in the Word proclaimed and the word preached, in the gathered community and the embrace of peace. In the building of this chapel God once again pitched a sacred tent of presence, this time in stone and light, in slate and glass and metal. “And the Word was made stone and light, and dwelt among us.”

Every time the community talked about the pros and cons of renovating these monastery buildings, every time we talked about selling and moving, or staying put, we ended up talking about this chapel and what it means to us and to so many, not only you here, but to countless people around the world. This chapel is a place of encounter with the sacred for so many because this chapel is a place where God’s presence is not just an idea, but a reality. This chapel is a place of feeding because so many who are hungry leave here strengthened and nourished for the next leg of the journey. This chapel is a place of healing because so many have found a sense of peace and wholeness here. This chapel is a sacrament and sign of God’s love, not just for the brothers who live here, or for you who join us in worship but for the countless people I see day by day sitting quietly in the back, when no one else is around.

For nearly 80 years these building have stood in Harvard Square and quietly and silently they have fed so many. Like Peter these buildings have fed and tended the sheep of God, many of whom we will never know, and never speak with. Like Paul these buildings have proclaimed the word of God with patience and persistence. And that is what we want them to do for another 80 years. We want these buildings to continue reminding people that God is not a distant concept, but an immediate reality which can be seen, and known and touched and handled5. We want these buildings to continue proclaiming to all people that God lives among us, as he did in the wilderness of Exodus and by the Lake of Galilee. We want these building to continue to be a sacrament and sign of God’s love for the world.

Over the last 10 years there has been a lot of talk in the community about renovating these buildings and how much these 80 year old building need those repairs and renovations, but the renovations are not about new wiring for the guesthouse, they are about proclaiming God’s love to the tired to come for a time of rest and retreat. The renovations are not about repairing leaks in the walls and roof of the chapel, they are about proclaiming God’s presence to the world, and especially to those who may never enter those doors. The renovations are not about new energy saving windows in the refectory they are about feeding God’s hungry people with real food. The renovations are not about a new heating system for the monastery, they are about inviting people to be consumed by the fire of God’s love.

Do I believe in churches? Yes! Passionately! I believe in churches because whether grand or simple, beautiful or plain, historic or modern churches proclaim God’s love to the world. I believe in churches because in their own way they remind us that God is present with us, and if present here in this place, then God is present in all places wherever we find ourselves. I believe in churches because in their own way churches can be places of God’s healing and nurture, God’s forgiveness and mercy and if that is true here, it can be true wherever the church gathers. I believe in churches because churches are places where we are fed and taught and cared for by the Good Shepherd, and if that is true here then we can be fed by God wherever the food of God can be found.

Today we close the doors of this chapel, not forever, but for a season so that when the doors are opened again in the months and years to come all who enter these doors or pass by these walls may know that the Word was made stone and light and lives among us.

Do I believe in churches? You bet, because I believe in a God who is present, and who cares and feeds and heals and forgives us. Do I believe in churches? You bet!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word was made stone and light and dwelt among us.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul    June 29

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by
their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Proper 8    The Sunday closest to June 29

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

To share with the Brothers in praying a Litany of Thanksgiving for the Monastery, click here.

1 BCP 1979 page 515

2 BCP 1952 page

3 John 1: 1, 14

4 BCP 1979 page 857

5 1 John 1: 1-3

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate

Leave a Comment