It is Monday afternoon. The Gordon Chapel is all set up. The chairs are lined up in straight rows with neat aisles. Small, travel-sized packets of Kleenex are distrusted among the chairs. The lights are up. The candles lit. In the Chancel are two large, identical floral arrangements. Between them, on a pedestal, there sits a tiny urn. A baby’s body is such a small thing.
The guests begin to arrive. They are wearing somber colors. Their faces are sober, downcast. Family and dear, dear friends greet each other. For the most part, they greet each other in silence: hugs, the squeezing of a hand, a gentle pat or touch. These are wordless greetings, for there are no words equal to the death of a baby.
The young parents were married four years ago in this same Chapel by our wedding minister, Cal Genzel. Two years ago, here in the sanctuary, I baptized their firstborn.
This time they are here to commend into God’s love and care their second child, an infant.
Our voices husky, we pray together on behalf of the small, young soul:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Remember those who are in prison as though you are in prison with them.
Remember those who are being tortured as though you are being tortured, too.
Remember those who grieve as if you yourself are grieving.
But this is such a tall order. Too tall. I am not capable of remembering those who are tortured as if I am being tortured … I cannot, and will not pretend to know the torturous grief of a parent who has lost a child.
But here’s the thing. The author of this letter isn’t writing to me, or to you, or to any individual. He is writing to the Church. The Church—the whole Church, the Church Triumphant, the Church Visible and Invisible the Church Universal … the whole Church …the quick and the dead.
We are greater than the sum of our parts.
The family whose baby we commended to God last Monday afternoon was ministered to by the whole Church … by the beauty and solemnity of the Gothic chapel, by the ancient rite of funeral and burial, by the organist’s tender rendition of “Jesus Loves Me, this I Know.” By the way the children of the Old South Preschool, back from a walk outside, tiptoed past the Chapel on their way to the elevator out of respect for a grieving family. They were ministered to by the ancient psalms we recited, the venerable prayers we prayed … prayers worn smooth and beautiful by the passing streams of time. They were ministered to by the institution of ordination by which some among us are authorized to handle the mysteries of life and death. They were ministered by your staff who held their grief so tenderly as we made the arrangements. They were ministered to by the Church’s greatest treasure: the story of resurrection.
Remember those who grieve…as if you yourself are grieving.
That is a tall order. Too tall for any one of us … not too tall for the Church, which is greater than the sum of our parts.
This is why it isn’t good enough to worship God alone on a mountain. Oh, it may be good enough for the lone worshipper, but it does nothing for the world’s pain.
Sometimes I think there is no greater purpose for buildings such as this one, than to feel and to absorb the world’s pain.
Over fifty thousand people enter this sanctuary every year. That doesn’t count all those who come for worship services, weddings, funerals, concerts, graduations, lectures or meetings … not counting the Old South Preschoolers and their parents, or the Snowden High School students who come here five days a week. Fifty thousand. Not counting those who come for AA meetings, rehearsals, productions, music lessons, fund-raisers, yoga, retreats, overnights … not counting Old South staff or volunteers, florists, plumbers, electricians, inspectors, caterers, mail carriers, organ conservator, piano tuner, delivery people. Fifty thousand is the number of those who walk in off the street each year to enter the sanctuary to pray, admire, wonder, take photos, take a nap, to get out of the cold or the rain.
Some of them write out their prayers, and leave them in our keeping. Occasionally there are prayers of thanksgiving and praise. But the truth is that mostly they are not such prayers. Mostly they are desperate prayers, pleading for help, begging for miracles. This past week, some of their prayers sounded like this:
I pray for five-year-old Damon,
O, God, help him regain his hearing
For my friend, Abigail,
who is accidentally pregnant
and doesn’t know what to do.
My mum is very ill ….
Has a brain cancer …
she will leave us soon …
give her a prayer …
just to comfort her.
Help me to be a good father.
Watch over my son and daughter.
Keep them safe.
Please remember our daughter, Kinta,
who has endured a grave illness
and is struggling to recover,
not so much in body anymore,
but very much in spirit.
May she find hope and comfort and
It is Monday evening now. The family and friends who came to commend to God an infant are long gone. Peace cranes hang from the pulpit. These were made by the Old South Church School children to give witness to their solidarity with the people of Japan. The church office, assisted by volunteers, Lois and Shelly, produced and folded a thousand bulletins for the City-Wide Candlelight Vigil for Japan.
Some 18 members of Old South are stationed as volunteer greeters, ushers … they have come to keep vigil with those who keep vigil … to minister to those weep with and for Japan … to suffer with those who suffer.
Our guests begin to arrive slowly in twos and threes: couples, families, friends, co-workers … many of them Asian, Japanese. As they enter, each is handed a candle and a bulletin.
We are gathered to lament what has occurred in Japan … earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster. A tri-fold calamity of apocalyptic proportions.
The Vigil lasts two hours. Two hours of tears, stories, first-hand accounts. A Buddhist monk chants an ancient prayer that is wrung from the heart of the universe. The president of the Japan Society of Boston reads desperate emails from Japan … emails blurting their terrible truth in real time. As he reads, you can feel the water rising, the homes dislodging from their foundations, the panic setting in.
We are here huddled against a catastrophe around which we cannot wrap our minds. And so, we weep, sing, pray and light candles. We try to warm our cold souls with candlelight … we ache for the light from our small flames to reach and warm the people of Japan.
Remember those who grieve…as if you yourself are grieving.
Remember those who suffer calamity…as though you yourselves are suffering calamity.
That is a tall order. Too tall.
How can we possibly understand the suffering of the Japanese father whose wife, children and mother were carried out to sea in a moment’s time?
Here’s the thing: the author of the letter to the Hebrews wasn’t writing to an individual. He isn’t expecting you or me to suffer or grieve in this way. He is writing to the church, the body of Christ stretching across time and around the world, the quick and the dead … We are larger than the sum of our parts.
Over fifty thousand people enter this sanctuary every year. Some of them write out their prayers, and leave them in our keeping. Occasionally there are prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Mostly not. Mostly they are urgent, desperate prayers, asking for help, hope and miracles. This past week, some of their prayers sounded like this:
I pray for the tsunami victims in Japan.
For all who were swept away by that terrible, terrible wave.
Please pray for all Japanese people
and the Japanese country in this difficult time.
I am praying for our friend Francis
and all victims of the Pike River Mine
and the people of Christ Church, New Zealand.
Please pray for Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran,
Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
Oh, God, I pray for peace on this earth!
Our soldiers. Give them courage.
Keep them from harm.
God, please help us stop being racist.
Hospitality is not optional … not for us. The hospitality of grieving with those who grieve, of suffering with those who suffer is a biblical mandate. Such hospitality is an ecclesiastical exigency. A churchly charge.
Every Monday morning Old South Sexton, Robert Blenman, arrives early at around 7 am. He picks up the trash outside … all the trash the wind carried into our gardens and portico. He sweeps the sidewalks around the church. He vacuums the Tower entryway and the Narthex. He walks through the sanctuary, straightening, picking up, turning on lights.
At 7:50 am our Receptionist, Corey Spence, arrives. Corey takes off his coat and unwinds the scarf from his neck. He settles himself at the Front Desk and checks the messages on the church’s answering machine. Just before 8 am he signals Robert who opens the great outside doors. Robert sets out the outdoor signboards: “Sanctuary in the City”, declares one; “Open for Prayer”, invites another; “You are Welcome Here”, says a third.
And the world—fulsome, urgent, funny, desperate, joyful, intoxicated, ashamed, weary and grief-stricken—tumbles into this house of God … this place that is big enough—because it is so much bigger than the sum of its parts—to absorb all the world will bring to it.
Good morning, Mum.
Good morning, Dad.
I am 58 years-old today.
Can you believe it?
I miss you so much.
Thank you for everything.
Your son, Walter.
Pray for the homeless.
Keep them warm.
Keep them safe.
Dear God: I am from Detroit
(you probably know that)
and am trying to get settled in Boston
(you probably know that, too).
Could you help me find a job, please?
I really, really, really need one.
Thank you in advance,