Shrine – Br. James Koester

Genesis 28: 10 – 22
Psalm 63: 1 – 8
John 1: 43 – 51

Several years ago I had the privilege of spending some days on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. It was my first, but I hope not my last visit there. I was there to lead the clergy retreat for the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island during the week and then to preach on the Sunday in Summerside, on the south shore of the Island. Between the retreat and the preaching engagement I had a couple of days to see a little bit of the Island.  It was an odd experience for someone who had grown up on the wide open expanses of the Saskatchewan prairie and then lived for a number of years in Ontario where it takes several days to drive from one end of Ontario to the other, to be able to drive from one end the province to the other and still be back at my hotel in time for an early supper, my book and bed.

If you know anything about Prince Edward Island, you’ll know that it is famous for three things: the redness of its soil, potatoes and Anne of Green Gables.

I had originally resisted going to Green Gables, but decided that if I didn’t go, at least on that visit, I might end up regretting it, so off I went. Green Gables, as you may know, is the locale for the story by Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne (with an ‘e’) Shirley, who as an orphan is sent off the live the two elderly siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert to help out on their farm. There is some mix up at the orphanage as the Cuthbert’s had been expecting a boy and instead this young freckle faced girl with flaming red hair is waiting for them at the train station.  It is clear from the beginning that they don’t want her, however, slowly but surely she talks them into taking her home, first for the night and then for good, and it all begins with Matthew. Quiet, painfully shy Matthew falls in love with Anne (with an ‘e’) Shirley.

I first read Anne of Green Gables when I was 7 or 8 and I was entranced by the story, so much so that in the closing pages of the book, when Matthew dies of a heart attack I’ll admit, I cried. Like Anne I had come to love Matthew and even crusty old Marilla. So there I was, 35 some years later, standing in the upstairs hallway of Green Gables, with the house all to myself, looking into Matthew’s bedroom, and I wept again.  All I could think of to say was a whispered “Oh, Matthew!”

Now part of me is quite willing to admit that all that was crazy. Anne of Green Gables is, as you know, a work of fiction; Matthew did not exist! But there I was weeping for his death. There was something about the place, about the person, about the event, about the experience that touched me deeply and I knew it to be true.

Last week we began our ‘Tent of Meeting” sermon series and Geoffrey reminded us that the wilderness, where the Children of Israel  found themselves after the exodus from Egypt, teaches us that the basic necessities of our faith are not bricks and mortar, vestments and pews but rather bread, wine, story and one another. All we truly need to be the people of God in any time or place is bread, wine, word and community. In a sense you all proved that, not only by showing up under this tent but also by the silent, reverent way in which we worshipped.

This week, we move from the wilderness to the shrine and discover, not so much the importance of place but the reality of experience and memory. A shrine is a shrine is a shrine, not because of the place, but because of what we remember there.

I have stood in countless historic homes and castles where real or imagined events took place, and I have wept in none of them, except Green Gables where I remembered the power of love between one old man and one little girl. I stood there and wept, because I too have known, and needed, given and received that same love: the love of a grandparent for a grandson; the love of a grandson for a grandparent. I stood there outside Matthew’s bedroom and wept not so much for Anne and Matthew as for James and Mavis and Charlie and Jessie and Wes and Florence. I stood there and wept because in that place I could feel again the reality of their love for me and mine for them. A shrine is a shrine is a shrine, not because of the place, but because of what we remember there. I stood there and wept because in that place I remembered something true: that I had loved and known love in return.

Since time immemorial women and men have established shrines as ways of remembering something true about themselves, about their relationships with others, about their relationship with the universe, about their relationship with God. We have set up pillars and altars, planted trees and built buildings because we have wanted to remind ourselves and those who come after that something true had happened.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this
place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How
awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and
this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning and
he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a
pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel. [1]

[Which means House of God.]

Jacob’s Bethel was not so much a building as a statement, a reminder that here in this place he had had an encounter with God; here in this place he had seen through a window into heaven; just as for me Green Gables became, not a building, but a reminder of an experience of love.

All over the world Christians and non Christians alike have set up shrines to remind themselves and those who come after that love and healing and forgiveness are possible; that we can know God and that it is even possible to catch glimpses of heaven. Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham remind us that healing happens, even unexpectedly and miraculously. Santiago and Canterbury and Marondera, Zimbabwe remind us that sanctity and conversion are possible, even for the least likely. Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem remind us that is to possible to touch, and hold and see God, even in this life, in the guise of helpless infants, worried parents, broken bodies and empty tombs.

So what has brought you here today? What do you need to be reminded of today?

Perhaps you need to be reminded how much you are loved, as I was that day at Green Gables. Perhaps you need to be reminded how much you are loved by your children or grandchildren, by your spouse or partner, by the person sitting next to you, or by someone thousands of miles away or in another time and another place. Perhaps you need to be reminded how much God loves you, right here and right now. Perhaps you need to be reminded that healing and reconciliation are possible, in this life and certainly in the next. Perhaps you need to be reminded that you, yes you can indeed hold and touch and see God face to face, as one sees a friend,[2] just as did Moses and God. Perhaps like Jacob you need to be reminded that you too can catch glimpses of heaven even now, even today.

A shrine, is a shrine, is a shrine, not because of a place, but because of what we remember there. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem would simply be dots on a map if it weren’t for what we remember there. Lourdes, Fatima and Walsingham would be insignificant villages if it weren’t for what we remember there. Without James the Apostle or Thomas a Becket or Bernard Mizeki Santiago, Canterbury and Marondera would be insignificant villages, crossroads to nowhere. With them they are places of memory where we are reminded that we too can become saints of God.

As important as these places are however, in the religious life of countless millions throughout the ages,  the primary shrine for the Christian, is not a pillar or tree or building which reminds us of something, but the person of Jesus Christ. For in Him we find not only the memory of love and healing and holiness but the reality of it as well. In Jesus we are loved, and healed and made holy. In Jesus we can see and touch and hold and taste the goodness of the Lord.[3] In him we know God face to face and by him we see heaven opened and not only angels but we ourselves ascending to take our place at the right hand of God.[4]

A shrine is a shrine is a shrine not because of a place, but for us as Christians, because of a memory, and a person, and a promise.

For many, and perhaps for you, this place, in whose shadow we worship today is such a shrine, not because it is a beautiful building but because it evokes for you a memory, and a person, and a promise. This place is a shrine because here we remember that we are loved, by our families, by our friends and by God. This place is a shrine because here we remember that we too can taste and touch and hold and see God in the person of Jesus Christ through bread broken and wine poured, water splashed and hands clasped. This place is a shrine because here we can meet God face to face as one meets a friend. This place is a shrine because here we remember that the promise of heaven is not some fantasy but a lived reality as we catch glimpses of God’s reign of peace and justice even now, just as we catch glimpses of the sun rising through the trees in those first moments of dawn.

So for you and for me, and for countless others, this place is a shrine because it is here we find a memory, and a person and a promise and it is here that we come

Not … to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.[5]

[1] Genesis 28: 16 – 18

[2] Exodus 33:11 “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”

[3] Psalm 34: 8 “O taste and see that the Lord is good”

[4] John 1: 51

[5] T. S. Eliot: The Four Quartets: Little Gidding; stanza 1

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  1. marta engdahl on September 16, 2018 at 21:33

    Awesome depth, and possibility for change in vistas and views of the past and the future. Thank you.

  2. fred adams on September 13, 2018 at 11:55

    Oh Brother James, even though you wrote this some 18 years ago, you brought it to me today, and I can identify so many important shrines in my life. The life the SSJE brought me, the “awakenings” you and your brothers put in front of me, the renewed realization that I want to visit the monastery one day, and more important, the realization that my classroom, filled with charges sent by God to love, is a shrine as well. Thank you all so much.

  3. Barbara Frazer Lowe on July 16, 2014 at 22:18

    Thakyou Br. Koester – The happiness I feel after “bread, wine, story and one another” you have explained as more, even aspect of our faith, indeed more than bricks and mortar! Blessings of our friends, thankfulness . Thankyou.

  4. Ruth West on July 16, 2014 at 17:22

    Thank you, Br. James, for this experience of recalling the shrines in my life. Until I read this,
    I was rather condemning of so many formal shrines,
    unable to see the current life in them. But I remember so many places which come to life which
    inspired and heightened my joy; the memories do
    the same.

  5. Br. Ron Jyleen on February 19, 2014 at 10:07

    Thank you Brother for reawakening the memories of my loved ones and the shrines throughout the world that I have visited. We often get so involved in our daily routines that we forget the journey of love that brought us to where we are today.

  6. Christopher Rivers on February 19, 2014 at 08:51

    So moving, so wise, so true, so comforting. Deepest thanks for this sermon.

  7. Bob on February 19, 2014 at 08:45

    Beautiful just beautiful Br. James O guardian of Emery Farm. Thank you. Margo

  8. DLa Rue on August 2, 2013 at 09:09

    When faced with much opposition, and sometimes when faced, more distressingly with the appearance of apathy or nonchalance in those one has cared for, it’s easy to become disaffected as well, and to want to give up on caring.

    Sometimes it’s necessary to give up on some of that caring, if it’s really not going to be answered or resolved. But when one finds oneself fighting to remain warm, and concerned, and responsive to people in general, it’s helpful to be reminded of scenes like this, whether fictional or otherwise, in which warm connection and positive concern prevailed.

  9. Clarice Boyd on July 28, 2013 at 09:44

    In recent years our church endured a schism over the remodel and expansion of our 100 year old church. Emotions ran high, because generations of memories were challenged by the proposed changes, and because the people forgot the very thing that is the point of this sermon. It is not “building which reminds us of something, but the person of Jesus Christ.” It was a hard lesson, but our congregation is recovering and growing in the spirit of Christ. We pray daily for the strength and guidance of our Lord that we may grow in His love and bring new souls to His Good News. This sermon resonates loudly with us. We praise God that we have not lost “the person of Jesus” among us.

    • DLa Rue on August 2, 2013 at 09:23

      This need for a more aerobic ventilation of a small, tightly knit group reminds me of a scene a student brought to class as a “warm up” exercise when I was teaching on “The Place of the Arts in the Life of Faith,” a while back. Each student took a turn preparing a 10-minute opening presentation using some art form to introduce the day’s themes and start us relating to each other that day.

      The scene was the dinner in “Babette’s Feast,” in which reconciliation was effected among members of a tiny, austere sect in a Danish village, who were now aging and starting to lose individuals they had once cared about.

      The reconciling power of kindness and generosity, and the way the senses inform the soul, were the student’s much-welcomed contribution to our preparation in addressing that day’s work.

      Also: (trailer) and
      (Pt 1:
      (Pt 2:

  10. Rev. Mike Beynon on July 28, 2013 at 08:23

    You might have missed water in what is necessary?

  11. John on July 28, 2013 at 07:43

    Yes, “story and one another” – they go together, don’t they.

  12. George Hanford on October 22, 2010 at 12:21

    The Chapel is a shrine for me for it is where I said godbye to one wife and hello to another. Now, with
    both of them gone, remembering it helps me remember them both

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