By most calculations this sanctuary isn’t actually good for much. We, who come and go through its doors don’t produce any sort of marketable merchandise. We don’t provide services reckoned to be commercially viable.
Instead, we preside over this great expanse because it is here that we come to encounter the living God.
We gather here, week in and week out, in the hopes that, like the prophet Isaiah, we too, might glimpse the hem of God’s robe … or hear the woof, woof, woof of Seraph’s wings … or feel the thunderous presence of the mysterium tremendum … the awful and terrible mystery that beats at the heart of our shared being.
We come to this house and home of the Prince of Peace to study peace. In the context of a nation that glorifies warfare and a world that thrills to violence—violence that sells, that is marketable and profitable—we come here to study and to learn peace.
It is here, that we sit at the knee of Rabbi Jesus, who trains and coaches us to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile.
We gathered here, in this holy and hushed house, to be tutored in the ways of kindness.
It is here that, in defiance of a culture of acquisitiveness, we learn and practice the arts of generosity.
It is here that we steep ourselves in the songs of David, in the fierce and fiery words of the prophets … It is here that we acquaint ourselves with the living, breathing likes of Abraham and Sarah … and learn from the sharp-edged contours, passions, eccentricities and excesses of the Isaacs, Rahabs, Magdalenes and Thomases …
It is to such a place as this that we come when one among us passes from this world to the next … it is here that we tenderly lift to God the life of our beloved Ron Smith … and send him home … free of pain, beyond death … to gather on a farther shore and in a greater light with the saints who have gone before us …
Some years ago, therefore, when the MBTA informed us they were under a federal mandate to make the Copley T Station accessible, we rejoiced! We rejoiced for such work is consonant with Isaiah’s God … the God who makes the rough places level, the crooked places straight.
Three years ago, when the damage occurred—when our East Façade sustained a through-and-through crack … a crack that started at the foundation and rose up, right up to the roof—we faced a tricky and complicated problem. How do we approach this?
We came here and studied our sacred text. We found these words… Rabbi Jesus’ words to his disciples when he sent them out into the world … and he warned and admonished them, coached and instructed them as sheep among wolves: Be wise and cunning as snakes, he said, but gentle as doves. (Matthew 10.16)
For the next three years that was our motto, our watchword and polestar. Truth in advertizing: we never achieved either such cunning or such gentleness … but such was the plumb-line by which we measured ourselves.
Remember the story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a stranger?
A stranger wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn.
When the stranger saw that he had not prevailed against him,
he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket,
so that the socket of his hip was strained, leaving Jacob with a limp.
Then the stranger said, “Let me go, for the sun has risen.”
But Jacob answered “I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32: 22-31)
Those of us engaged in this work spent long nights and longs days together… wrestling, fighting for our lives, seeking the blessing of restoration. Sometimes we brought to this arduous wrestling our better angels … sometimes not.
Sometimes we relaxed and paused long enough to refresh ourselves with laughter … as when, right after the damage, a news reporter called. He was following up on information that the MBTA guys working at the Old South Church were doing crack…. Did I have a comment on that?
Or we paused from our wrestling long enough to wonder and give thanks … as when our conservator, Amy Apfelbaum, gave birth to her first born son, Jake …
And, again, the time I was privileged to attend the wedding of the daughter of our attorney, Steve Comen. We all wrestled together so long that, not only did his daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Comen get married while we were wrestling … she also gave birth … providing Steve and Miriam with their first grandchild.
Between the weddings and the births, the vacations and the promotions, the illnesses and the rest of life … we wrestled, day and night we wrestled, in meetings and by email and phone … We produced documents, signed letters, filed reports and wrote lots of checks.
If you are to ask: what was it we were wrestling over? The answer is pretty straightforward: money, expense. That, after all, was what was at stake. That was the bottom line for the insurance companies, for the contractors, for the MBTA, and for the church.
And, as I have mentioned, this grand expanse really isn’t good for much … at least not in the way of making a profit. This building that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of paying for its own way in the world … And so we wrestled … and wouldn’t let go.
The truth is that this was labor of love for a great many people. Even as we wrestled through the night, and much was at stake, we came to know each other and care for each other … we heard about each other’s families … and lives. We shared religious holidays … and engaged in interfaith conversations about our respective traditions: Jewish and Christian, Catholic and Protestant.
I’d like to ask all of you who worked on this project over the course of the past three years or more—both Old Southers and our experts—to stand please …
Our mason, Bob Livitre, assured us he would take care of this building as it if were his own church. Thank you, Bob.
Matthew Consigli, of Consigli Construction, assured me he would take good care of us and treat us fairly. He was all and more than good to his word.
Jonathan Ambrosino and Joe Sloane lovingly restored our organs. Jonathan and Joe … you are amazing.
Art Femenella, thank you for overseeing the restoration of our stained glass windows. They are dazzling.
Gary and Amy, our geo-technical engineers, you were fabulous.
WJE, Ann Coleman and David Schnerch, we couldn’t have asked for better architects and engineers.
The MBTA … Dan Grabauskas, Charlie O’Reilly, Frank DePaola, Ed, Tom, Dino, Dan, Joe … you were princes … Thank you for bringing on Tom Reilly as your outside council … he was a prince and a gentleman.
Cathy Green is here today, the President and CEO of the UCC’s Insurance Board.
Representing Old South Church: Rusty Aertsen made us cunning. Tom Bulkeley did yeoman’s work the first year after the damage. Dwight and Phil, chairs of the Board of Trustees … you bore the weight of this building on your back. Lois Corman, our Project Coordinator and Roger Burke our Owner’s Rep … this church owes you immeasurably.
To the Old South congregation: for your patience in us, and the faith with which you entrusted your leaders … thank you.
Last, but by no means least, I want to single out for appreciation our attorney in The Matter of the Crack. Steve Comen with Goodwin Procter. Steve and Miriam are here today.
Steve was our “silent partner” in this work. He worked behind the scenes … coaching and advising. Steve was our wisdom and cunning, helping us to understand and manage a process that was foreign to us. This church owes Steve profound gratitude.
By most calculations this sanctuary isn’t actually good for much … except for this: the opportunity to encounter the living God … to learn kindness and generosity, to be tutored in forgiveness … to practice peace in a manifestly violent world.
That, in the end, is what was at a stake. Nothing less.