All parish church buildings are dear to their congregations. For a community gathering together week by week, the place where they pray becomes holy to them, especially when those prayers involve baptizing children, marrying spouses, and burying our dead. Yet many of our Episcpoal houses of worship are hidden and often relatively unknown in their larger communities. As a priest, it is always necessary to remind the people of God, "You are the Church, not your building." That is true for all congregations. The people of God are the Body of Christ, the Church. Relatively few congregations, however, have church buildings that are similarly valued by those outside the congregation in the larger community. St. Paul's, Key West, is among those few congregations.
St. Paul's Church, does not belong to us. Of course, it belongs to God. We are entrusted with it by God for the good of the Gospel. However, St. Paul's church building also does not belong just to our congregation. It has a treasured part in the history of Key West. It is one of the founding institutions of this island. It is part of the legacy of the founding families and first non-native settlers. Many people beyond our congregation cherish St. Paul's. Furthermore, a church belongs to those who pray in it. And because our doors are open everyday, people from all over the world pray here everyday--prayers of sorrow, joy, mourning, contemplation and wonder. If you sit in St. Paul's any day, you will see it. People will talk to you about it. Last week, when the Tibetan monks were in residence with us, they and the Key West Buddhist Sanga (congregation) all remarked on it. Despite being right on Duval with its own energy and character, St. Paul's is a place of peace and holiness.
T. S. Eliot in the last of his
writes of the eponymous Little Gidding, the home of the community and household of prayer founded by Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637) in Huntingdonshire, England, about 18 miles from Cambridge. Of this community he writes:
...You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
These words have echoed in my mind as I have reflected on the centennial of St. Paul's church building, and of the generations before who prayed here in the previous buildings on this site. Those prayers said by founders and slaves, by mariners and wreckers, by service men and women, by tourists and service workers, by Conchs, snowbirds and homeless persons in this place have made St. Paul's holy. Those prayers are "tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." We may not know that language but we feel its validity and presence:
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
St. Paul's is such a place, unlike most parish churches. And we are stewards of this sanctuary. By sanctuary, I do not mean just the area immediately around the altar. No, I mean the entire property. This is a place of peace and where we pray, where countless people find refuge, peace and a place to pour out the soul. As members, as leaders, as priest, we are stewards of it for the time we are here. God meets us here. As leaders, we open and close. We set out the linens, sing the hymns, pass the peace, clean the bathrooms, we break bread, pass the cup. We say our prayers. And we will all give way and pass this place along to the next stewards who come after us.
We will be talking about giving and our stewardship of this place in February. Yet, never lose sight of why we give here. God has entrusted this holy place to us for a little while. Our neighbors, whether they are members or not, they belong here too. We keep it open for all, so that God can meet us here now and tomorrow. We will celebrate the legacy of this building on Sunday, one hundred years of this house of prayer. Let us never forget the trust we have here: so that all who come here might hear or half hear this language tongued with fire.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
All quotations from "Little Gidding,"
The Four Quartets
by T. S. Eliot in
Collected Poems, 1909-1962,
Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.