Feast of the Dedication
The Rev’d Charles Everson
July 10, 2022
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Throughout the week, I often find myself accompanying someone into this building who has never been here before. Sometimes it’s a vendor, sometimes it’s a visiting organist, sometimes it’s a Episcopalian from another parish coming to the noon Mass. Usually, we walk in through the parish hall and come in right over here, but I’ve learned to make it a point to pay attention to the person’s face.
No matter their religious beliefs or socio-economic status, there is a look of awe and wonder on their face. No matter what their duties may be that day, they always take a few moments to take in the beauty of what they see. And sometimes, the person’s facial expression begins to look almost uncomfortable as if the building is too ornate, or too extravagant.
Why do so many Christians around the world decide to spend the money and resources on such structures rather than worshipping in plain, inexpensive spaces? In order to answer that question, we must look to the One that St. Peter called “a living stone” in our second lesson, and specifically to the doctrine that the Church calls the “incarnation.”
There are many controversies and disagreements amongst Christians, but belief in the incarnation isn’t usually one of them at this point in history. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took flesh from his human mother and that the historical person of Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human. This means that God didn’t temporarily appear in human form, but asserts an abiding union in the Person of Christ of Godhead and manhood without the integrity or permanence of either being impaired. It also assigns the beginnings of this union to a definitive date in human history. Using back-of-the-napkin math, I calculate that 97.48% of Christians worldwide belong to a church that affirms the traditional understanding of the incarnation. It is the doctrine of the incarnation that lays the theological groundwork for the sacraments of the Church.
From about age 11 to age 22, I was Southern Baptist, and was taught that normal way to commune intimately with God by having what they called “a quiet time,” meaning time by yourself in a room with a Bible, praying and studying the Word. Yes, they believe that God inhabits the praises of his people and is present by the Spirit in public worship, but the quiet time was the most important thing to grow deeper in the faith and get closer to God. I was taught that God’s grace invisibly washes away your sin when you ask Jesus to come into your heart. My freshman year in college, much to my Baptist religion professors’ chagrin, I began reading the Church Fathers – the earliest Christian theologians whose writings we still have – and I became aware that practically all Christians in the 1500 years leading up to the Protestant Reformation believed that the grace of God is primarily communicated to humanity via the Sacraments of the Church, most importantly in Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. And I subsequently learned that the vast majority of Christians alive today believe that too! Yes, private prayer is important, but the incarnation of God did not stop or disappear when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus didn’t die to save our souls, he died to save all of creation, our bodies included. And thanks be to God, Jesus he kept his promise to be with us always, even unto the end of the ages, when he sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day who continues to breathe life into the Church by the Word of God preached and Sacraments duly and rightly administered.
And this brings us to today’s feast. We are celebrating the dedication and consecration of this building. The earliest church buildings were not formally set apart with any particular liturgical rite, but rather, the consecration of the building seems to have consisted of the first celebration of the Eucharist within the building (a consecration by use, if you will). As with most of the liturgies of the Church, special and impressive rites developed in both the East and the West over time, and while the celebration of the Eucharist always remained the central and essential element of the rites, there were elaborate processions, the asperging of the church with holy water, and the anointing of the altar with chrism oil. As early as the fourth century, the dedication of the church began to be commemorated annually in many places.
Our building was dedicated by Bishop Atwill on June 17, 1888, but it wasn’t formally consecrated until June 19, 1938 – 50 years later. And this is because the building was completed during a strange time between 1868 and 1979 when The Episcopal Church had broken from Tradition and required that all church property be mortgage-free before it is consecrated. Milder dedication rites were developed for use when the building was complete, but since 1979, we’ve been back to a single dedication and consecration service when the building begins to be used regardless of any debt.
Here's the story about the debt. This building was completed in 1887, and when the congregation first moved in, it was known by all that the church was built on the bank of a buried creek. But it wasn’t discovered until the tower was erected that it had been constructed too close to the underground spring which fed the old creek. The water from the spring began to undermine the tower’s foundation, causing it to lean dangerously. Rather than sue the architect, a fellow Episcopalian, the Vestry decided to borrow $12,000, rebuild the tower, and finish the building. $12,000 sounds like no big deal today, but it took the congregation 50 years to pay it off, which is when the building was finally consecrated by Bishop Spencer on June 19, 1938.
For over 134 years, the Holy Eucharist has been celebrated in this building most days of the year. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ that began with Mary’s Annunciation continues to this day on the altars handed down to us by our forebears. We continue to come down this aisle (and the one in St. George’s Chapel) to receive the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation and continue to encounter the One that St. Peter called “a living stone” in this place day after day, week after week.
Yes, God can be found in the beauty of nature. We can pray from anywhere in the known universe and commune with God. But we firmly believe in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that Jesus keeps his promise to be with us, even to the end of the age. We believe this so deeply, so strongly, that we build buildings that reflect the heights and the riches and the beauty of that faith. The beauty and wonder that we see and hear in this place is physical, and it should find its spiritual counterpart in our hearts. We see here the finished product of stone, wood, brick, wrought iron, and marble; so too our lives should reveal the extravagance of God’s grace that we’ve received here time and time again.
This point was brought home in my heart on April 19, 2019, a day you might remember – a day I’ve talked about a few times in sermons. On that day, the world watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. I was confirmed at Notre Dame, and it represents the heart of Christianity in France, so it was a rather emotional moment for me. During the fire, Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, risked his life to go into the burning cathedral to rescue the relic believed to be the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, but more importantly, to rescue the Blessed Sacrament – the consecrated bread reserved in the tabernacle above the altar.
In the subsequent days, some were surprised – even shocked – that so many people showed such deep emotion for a building made by human hands when so many people are suffering in the world. Some have decried the amount of money needed to rebuild it. And some, I’m sure, have thought that it’s ridiculous for a man to risk his life to save a piece of bread.
The Archbishop of Paris said put it this way in a sermon shortly after the fire:
"We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? Because they could have done something functional. It's far more than functional. And why? Because what is honored there is absolutely splendid, that's what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It's not for the Crown of Thorns. It's for a piece of bread. It's astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy it."
Dear friends, we are all stewards of this glorious building. It is not worthy of our worship, and our faith would not be in vain if a tornado were to destroy it. We are stewards of this work of human hands that serves as a jewel box for the One who is the living stone – the One who came not only to save our souls, but also our bodies – the One who loved us so much that he died to set us free – the One who stoops to this altar day after day and feeds us with his very self.
The beauty and wonder that we see and hear in this place is physical, and may it find its spiritual counterpart in our hearts. We see here the finished product of stone, wood, brick, wrought iron, and marble; may our lives reveal the extravagance of God’s grace that we’ve received in this place time and time again. In the words of Joshua our forbear, “How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven.”
 F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 872., altered slightly by me.
 Marion Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Seabury Press, New York: 1980, 540-543.
 Origen, Homily 9 on Joshua the Son of Nun 1-2: SC 71 244-246 as quoted in J. Robert Wright’s “Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church”, Church Pension Fund, New York: 1991, slightly altered by me.
 Paraphrase of Genesis 28:17, NRSV.
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To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.