This is the sermon that I preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve. As we move into the season of Epiphany, may we all seek to build dwelling places for God in our world.
On Christmas Eve, we celebrate Mary as the God-bearer: the one who nourished and nurtured him for nine months, who allowed her body to be used as a dwelling place for God … a God who then went out and changed the world.
A dwelling place for God … who then went out and changed the world.
I believe that is the role of this great Cathedral: to be a dwelling place for God, who then uses us to go out and change the world.
- Just look around you. Surely God is present in this glorious worship space, in the art, the architecture, the decorative details, the stained glass. We build great cathedrals to honor God, to use our gifts to God’s glory, to inspire us to raise our eyes to heaven.
- This is a place of great history, where the events of the outside world intersected with those of the holy. From this very pulpit, the legendary Charles Henry Brent, fourth bishop of this diocese, preached the sermons that articulated the importance of unity in faith and common life in Christ.
All around us are the fragments he brought back from World War I, when he was the senior chaplain to the American Expeditionary Force in Europe and saw first-hand the carnage of combat. From this cathedral Bishop Brent would go on to found the World Council of Churches, the premiere international ecumenical organization whose work continues to this day, changing the world.
Just outside is the Garden of Warmth, where members of this cathedral congregation hang coats and caps and gloves and scarves so those who are cold can find warm clothes to wear. Of course that is a dwelling place for God, a place where God’s love and concern for the poor and marginalized become real, in the form of a warm jacket or a pair of boots.
Now walk outside with me to a couple of smaller churches and see some other dwelling places where God lives.
Let’s go to Dunkirk, just south of here in Chautauqua County, and turn the clock back to the 1930’s. A police officer found a young boy in tears under a street lamp one evening and asked him, “What’s the matter, son? How can I help you?”
The boy explained: His uncle had died, and he had been sent out to find a priest to do his funeral. The family were Syrian Orthodox; there was no Orthodox church nearby. He had been to the Roman Catholic Church, and the priest there had said no, he couldn’t do the funeral. The boy was in tears: “I can’t go home until I can find someone to do the funeral.”
The police officer said, “Let’s go over to the Episcopal church. I’ll bet Canon Chard can help us out.” So they went to the rectory, where Canon Chard agreed to perform the funeral service.
The following Sunday, the entire extended family appeared in the pews at St. John John the Baptist, Dunkirk and continued to come, Sunday after Sunday, and to become involved in the life of that little church.
Now, you need to realize that these were people of color. They were dark-skinned Syrians. They came forward to the altar rail and took the bread and drank from the cup, just like everyone else.
Finally the senior warden had had enough. He took Canon Chard aside and told him, “You get these people out of here” — but he didn’t call them people, he used a terrible racial epithet — “get them out of here or I’m leaving and taking my pledge with me.”
Canon Chard responded: “I will take that as your letter of transfer from this congregation.” The senior warden left, the Syrian family stayed … and became mainstays of the Episcopal Church in this diocese. Two members of that family became Episcopal priests: Father Abuid Sam, who has served at least six parishes of our diocese; and Mother Helen Sam, who now the priest in Dunkirk along with Mother Yvonne Fancher.
Clearly St. John’s in Dunkirk was a dwelling place for God.
Now let me tell you a story that took place in the early 1940,s, when our nation struggled under the Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks and whites. A young African-American couple had just started dating, and the young woman invited the young man to attend her Episcopal church with her. They were the only people of color in the congregation.
When it was time for communion, the young woman went forward. The young man, who was Baptist, stayed in the pew and watched. He saw his girlfriend receive the bread, just like the white people on either side of her at the altar rail. He watched to see what would happen when the cup came around — remember, this was a time when blacks and whites had to drink out of separate water fountains. The white person to her right drank from the cup. Then the young woman drank from the cup. And then the white person to her left drank from the same cup — and so on, around the rail.
The young man said later, “Any church where black and white drink from the same cup has discovered something I want to be a part of … and that the world needs to learn about.”
That young couple became the parents of our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Bishop Curry’s father went on to become an Episcopal priest, and to serve at St. Philip’s here in Buffalo … and it was there that God first began to whisper into young Michael’s ear that he was called to a life in the church. St. Philip’s is a dwelling place for God that raised up a presiding bishop.
Both of these stories make me proud to be an Episcopalian. We are a church where all are welcome. As Bishop Curry says: “When we say all, we mean ALL y’all.”
Now come back here into the cathedral with me. You know that I had a first career as a professor of church history at a small college in Minnesota. My wife Carmela’s family lived here in Buffalo, so every Christmas we’d pile our daughters in the car and drive back here to spend Christmas with them. On Christmas Eve we would worship here at the Cathedral. In those days David Bowman was the bishop, and he’d stand at the door at the end of the service to greet people. He always remembered my name, year after year, and asked what I was doing and how it was going. Even though I was not a member of this cathedral congregation or a member of this diocese, you could say that I was a nobody, he treated me like somebody.
Looking back now, I have to believe that David saw something in me that would ultimately lead to my becoming a priest … and now your bishop. And David has been so important to me as a model of what a bishop should be. That spot back there by the door, for me, is a dwelling place for God.
There’s another dwelling place for God right over here. This is the spot where Michael Curry was ordained a deacon on June 30, 1978. I was with Bishop Curry recently and he was recalling his ordination here at St. Paul’s and he told me, “St. Paul’s Cathedral was so grand, so beautiful, so glorious — it was like the Vatican to us!” Well I hope it is not really like the Vatican.
We are a cathedral and a diocese that can raise up a Presiding Bishop. Michael Curry may be the first to come out of this diocese, but it is my hope and prayer that he is not the last.
I look around this great city of Buffalo and see plenty of places that are already dwelling places for God — or places where God might dwell, if we will invite him in. The economic prosperity that is lifting up Buffalo has to extend to the whole city. Those who live on the East Side, in South Buffalo, in Riverside need to be raised up also. Just a few weeks ago I signed the HIRE Buffalo plan that gives the people in the city’s poorest neighborhoods — who are usually passed by — first crack at the thousands of jobs coming to Buffalo as a result of the state’s “Buffalo Billion” investment.
In 2017 the Cathedral will celebrate its 200th anniversary. Two hundred years … from a dwelling place for God in a raw pioneer outpost recently battered by war … to the rich dwelling place for God that we see all around us … in its ministries, its music, its role as the venue for diocesan-wide worship, its history, its witness to the city.
How perfect that it is situated among the law firms and the banks and the government buildings and the courts, with the sculpture of the Homeless Jesus on a park bench outside. That is the role of a spiritual community such as St. Paul’s: to say to the rest of the world that God not only dwells in the church, but moves out into the community to remind them of what we can be … and to bring the needs of the city and the world inside.
Tonight, we adore the child in the manger along with his Blessed Mother — the original dwelling place for God — and rejoice in the birth of that God who went out and changed the world. Tonight I invite each of you …
- to be a dwelling place for God. To open your heart and your mind and your soul and let in the God who eagerly — impatiently — desperately wants to be with you.
- to be a dwelling place for God who takes that God out into the world. Carry him with you. Look around and find the places where you can find a new dwelling place for him in our city, our neighborhoods, all of Western New York.
Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation — of God become human, manifested in flesh, just like us. Being a dwelling place for God means making God incarnate in what we do, in how we treat others, in how we spend our energy and time, in how we create spaces where God can find a dwelling place.
In a dark time, when our nation is beset by fear and terror and hate, may this be a glorious night of love, joy and brightness, where the dwelling place of God opens its doors to everyone, where all are welcome, where there are no strangers. Where there is room at the inn for everyone.
Where for one night we all believe it is possible to live in a world without war or suffering, without injustice and bigotry, without violence and hatred, where there is plenty for all. A world ruled by love. A world where God dwells.