There are many ways that we look at a church, many things we can consider it.
The most obvious, of course, is a place where we worship. No function is more central, and no use is more clear. We come to church as an act of devotion to God, to pray, to learn what we can from holy scripture, to be nourished at God’s holy table and by our fellowship with one another.
But we think of it in other ways, too. We think of it as a safe haven, a place of welcome and protection for all God’s children. In some cases we have literally taken the word “sanctuary,” which means a place of shelter from harm, and applied it to the space around us.
Yet we don’t really think of a church as a fortress, at least not so much in the Episcopal tradition. I grew up in a different Christian community, and was raised hearing hymns quite frequently with a militaristic tone to them. “Onward Christian Soldiers,” for one. And “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which we even sing here from time to time.
As I stand now, however, I tend to think in those terms infrequently when it comes to God and the mission of Christ. We are called to be peacemakers, and to seek reconciliation with all humanity. The gates of God’s kingdom are flung wide, and the angels do not stand on the walls shooting arrows at souls below. While you could argue that the language of battle and war is meant to be applied to the forces of evil, Satan and his minions and such, all too often I fear we apply them to our fellow human beings.
However, today we see in our lesson from Habakkuk a description of the very architecture that makes something a fortress. The prophet stands as on a rampart, a wall built to protect those within from attack. Probably the only time any of us here speak the word regularly is when we sing our national anthem, which is one man’s description of an actual battle.
So do I have it wrong? Is a church properly understood as a kind of fortress? When we hear that cry of “violence” are we to prepare to combat it?
Yes, I think. But not in the way that we may associate with those words.
I do not think we are called in this place to fortify ourselves to fight a literal war. I do not believe Jesus’ message is one of strife and conflict. But we absolutely do have enemies we must combat, and we must do so with a fever.
We are called, in the words of our collect, to offer true and laudable service. We believe that we have been given gifts by God to do so.
And so what does that service entail? And how shall we prepare this place for it?
There is much that is violent in this world around us, to be sure. The more things change, the more we see how they remain the same. By the day, by the hour, by the minute, we see how this life is wracked by pain and suffering, by the ways we wound each other. We see how very ready human beings are to draw lines around themselves, and to cry out that those on the other side of those lines are enemies to be vilified and condemned and fought. We hear the voices raised up in our society, recklessly eager to demonize anyone they may choose so long as it makes them seem more powerful.
It is here we are meant to gather to combat exactly that. It is, in fact, the rampart we erect against the ideologies of hatred and bigotry that allows this place to be a sanctuary, too.
Of course, when I refer to “this place,” I refer to two things at once. On the one hand, I mean the metaphorical “place” of the church. So even though the election this week of The Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the first black woman to be a diocesan bishop did not literally occur within these very walls, that triumph of justice and equality still happened within the Episcopal Church. While that victory belongs particularly to the good people of the diocese of Indianapolis, we can rejoice along with them as neighbors here in Maine.
But then there is this actual, physical place. These real walls. Those beams. The windows, the doors, the bathrooms. The wood and metal and glass. Heck, even the oven, here at St. George’s
The combat we undertake here is real, too. Here we fight hunger. We fight homelessness. We fight loneliness and fear and poverty.
We do it through our ministries, through the companionship our Stephen Ministers provide. We do it with through our community partnerships – Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, Habitat for Humanity, End68Hours of Hunger and York Community Service Association. We do it through the summer youth arts camp we co-founded with our neighbors at York Art Association. We do it through our support of Time of Wonder, the early learning center we founded just one year ago, providing support for working families whose ability to earn a living depends on the care we give.
There’s so much we do here in this space. And so much more we hope to do.
As you may know, we approach the ingathering of both our stewardship and capital campaigns next Sunday, the culmination of our efforts to support this church and its work in the present, and to build on that strong foundation toward an even more vibrant and joyful future. Today you have the opportunity to review the plans we have at the reception in the parish hall, to see how we hope to change this space to better meet the needs we see in the world around us. While you will not see literal ramparts in the plans, we absolutely strive to be a fortress against the forces that push people to the margins. We strive to be a beacon of hope and a place where God’s gifts can be distributed for the work we are called to do.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention the other blessing we enjoy today. My predecessor as rector, who herself has done so much to champion justice and equality, is visiting. I think I speak for everyone who knows and loves Paige when I say we are overjoyed to welcome you, your husband Dan, and your baby girl Josie, back to spend time with us. The work we continue to do is part of your legacy here, as well.
Just like Jesus, it is our mission to seek all who are lost. To bring them to a place where they can find protection from the hurts of the world, and where they can get help in the struggles of this life. This place is a part of that mission, a physical space, a building that accommodates everyone’s needs and has ample room for the work we joyfully pursue.
Let us give great thanks to God for the innumerable gifts that we have been given, that we may continue to use them to offer our true and laudable service. Amen.