Things Above

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost

Readings

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Last month, I went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury with other Episcopal students from my seminary.

But, why go to Canterbury? 

Canterbury Cathedral has actually been a pilgrimage site since the 12th century. Millions of Christians and seekers have traveled from across the world to pray at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, which is housed inside Canterbury Cathedral. 

In 1170, Archbishop Becket was brutally murdered inside the cathedral by the king’s knights, because he chose loyalty to the church over allegiance to the king. After his death, locals began reporting miraculous healings, almost immediately. News spread fast, and soon people started showing up from far away.

In the earliest times, these pilgrims made offerings to the cathedral, and asked God for healing and forgiveness. 

These days, many people show up to listen to daily evensong or attend morning prayer services.

Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion often go to Canterbury to learn about the origins of our tradition, and marvel at the magnificence of the cathedral. 

In fact, right now, three Diocese of Texas bishops are in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. They are there worshiping and discussing important topics of the church with other bishops from around the world.

And that’s well and good for everyone else. But, to be honest with you, I went to Canterbury, because it was a FREE trip to England. 

I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t reflect on the meaning of pilgrimage. I didn’t even do any research on the history of Canterbury! (Which is very unlike me.) I was content to let everything just wash over me, after three years of isolation and burnout.

But, I still learned an important lesson in Canterbury. I learned that even the most imperfect practice of pilgrimage is enough for Christ to work through his church.

But it took me awhile to get there. Because, the thing I can’t stress enough about Canterbury Cathedral is that, it is weird

For one, the medieval pilgrims were fond of drinking “Becket water,” which was said to be a mixture of Thomas Becket’s blood, brains, and water. These pilgrims claimed that the Becket water healed them of life-threatening diseases. And there are manuscripts to back up these stories.

For two, Canterbury Cathedral is the epicenter of the Church of England, which is a state church. That means that it’s closely tied to the political power structure of England. 

It didn’t help that we were there during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. I was, frankly, horrified by the number of prayers dedicated to the Queen. 

But, even without that, the political connection would be obvious. Because, when you’re inside the cathedral, kings and queens glare down at you from stained glass and mounted statues. 

It’s upsetting to think that Becket died because he went against the monarchy, and now the cathedral is practically a shrine to the monarchy.

For three, I couldn’t simply brush off the weirdness of Canterbury Cathedral. Because it’s a sacred site in OUR tradition!

These were my people, I was one of them. We shared a common belief system and a common history. And I couldn’t deny that. It forced me to stay curious about the way God works through an imperfect church and imperfect people.

I think that’s why I was so compelled by the story of the firewatchers…

During World War II, the German air force devised a plan to damage the morale of the British people. Using a tourist guide book, they targeted major cultural sites, including Canterbury. Their main target in Canterbury, of course, was the cathedral.

The people of Canterbury knew the Germans were coming. Early in the morning of June 1, 1942, several men from the city camped out on the roof of the cathedral. 

As incendiary bombs landed on the cathedral roof, they quickly tossed them off. More townspeople waited on the street, nearly 200 feet below, where they extinguished them one-by-one.

By the time the blitz ended, one-fifth of the city of Canterbury was in ruins. 1,800 buildings were either seriously damaged or totally destroyed, and 43 people had died. But these men, known as the “firewatchers,” are credited with saving the cathedral from total destruction.

What do you make of this story? 

It is undeniable that the firewatchers were brave. They risked their lives to protect their place of worship. But, at the same time, they made an uncomfortable choice.

Yes, the cathedral was saved, but so many people suffered. Houses were destroyed. Families were buried in rubble. The city as they knew it was gone. What motivates someone to save their church building, instead of their neighbors?

See, the self-righteous part of me is tempted to get on my soapbox right now. I want to add this to the list of the things I found WEIRD about Canterbury. It seems unjust to prioritize a building over people’s lives. And even more unjust when you realize that the cathedral costs millions of dollars to maintain.

But, while I can’t explain the Becket water or the obsession with kings, I think I can understand the firewatchers.

It seems to me that a person who decides to risk their life for a building isn’t really doing it for the building. They’re doing it for what the building represents. 

And Canterbury Cathedral represents quite a lot. Its cavernous sanctuary echoes with the memory of millions of pilgrims’ footsteps. With their urgent prayers, singing, and weeping. The cathedral has been a place of daily prayer for 1,400 years.

So in a way, the cathedral isn’t just a building. It recalls the Christian worshippers who paved the way for us. These people came from every place and every culture. They represented every possible identity and prayed for every possible problem.

And there in the cathedral, they found rest together. They found Christ there. Even in the weirdness of it all. Even though every generation of pilgrims, priests, and kings practiced their faith imperfectly.

The firewatchers understood that places hold memory and meaning for people. And, though a building is just a building in the end, it can be a gathering place that helps us dwell on “the things that are above,” (as Paul puts it in Colossians). 

We have our own sacred site. We are gathered here today in a building, representing Christ’s church. And what should that mean for us?

Grace Episcopal Church isn’t the building. But it is, at least partially, what happens in the building as we worship together. This is a place where we hold each other through uncertainty and hardship. It has been a literal refuge for people in times of disaster. And it helps us gather in order to care for one another through the pilgrimage of life.

This building also holds the marks of the great cloud of witnesses, those faithful people who prayed and worshiped here before us. The books under our seats are faded from the sun that has illuminated worship over many Sundays. The columbarium holds the ashes of our dearly departed. The plants outside continue to grow, even though planted by tender hands years ago.

It is good to let this place remind us that Christ has been present in the lives of Grace’s pilgrims over many generations. 

These people from the past and present are imperfect, and they haven’t always had pure motivations or the most orthodox beliefs. But, they keep showing up to pray. And because of that, God answers prayers, again and again.

If Canterbury Cathedral had been destroyed that morning in 1942, Christ’s kingdom would not have been diminished. The pilgrims would not cease to be pilgrims for lack of a clear destination. Their prayers would not go unanswered for lack of a sanctuary.

God doesn’t need a sanctuary in order to be present in the world. But the reason our church buildings and cathedrals matter is because they help us see Christ, “who is all and in all.” The firewatchers didn’t save the cathedral in an attempt to save God. They saved it because they earnestly believed it was a tool for Christian faith and global church unity.

It can feel impossible to be unified when Christians keep being weird: we know that the church is full of pettiness, disagreements, and sin. But the good news is that I don’t have to agree with every other Christian in order for Christ to transform the world.

As long as we still come together with a desire to love better, Christ will help us love better. As long as we remember that we’re not right about everything, Christ will teach us how to forgive. And, as long as we still come into this place expecting to receive Christ’s renewal, the church will serve its purpose.

As long as there are pilgrims, the true church can never be destroyed.

Amen.

Sources:

  1. Thomas Becket – Canterbury Cathedral (canterbury-cathedral.org) and in-person tours
  2. The Cathedral and World War II: The bombing of the Library – Canterbury Cathedral (canterbury-cathedral.org)
  3. 75-year anniversary of Baedeker Blitz on Canterbury when city was showered with bombs (kentonline.co.uk)

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