Sermon archive

Sermon preached by the Reverend Allan B. Warren at The Church of the Advent,
Boston, on Sunday, October 3, 2004, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today we will think about our parish and its future, and because the word parish has a number of meanings, that's where I'd like to begin; thinking about the various meanings of this interesting word.

Because it is an anomaly, I am sure that most of you know, that the State of Louisiana is divided up not into counties or townships, like other parts of the country, but into parishes. The French started this, of course, and Louisiana never changed it. There, a parish is the political, administrative, and geographical unit of local government.

In England, for many centuries the custom of beating the bounds of a parish church was observed each year. It still is in some places I'm told, which, I am sure, is a great pleasure for tourists. Originally, however, it was simply a practical matter. On Rogation Day, in addition to blessing the fields and praying for the harvest, priests walked the boundaries of the land attached to their churches, striking the earth with a wooden rod to indicate where one parish began and another ended: beating the bounds. A ritual which was a map, really, to let one know where one belonged.

Here on Brimmer Street we talk about the Parish of the Advent, and that phrase brings to mind any number of things. We think about a group of people - an extended family, as they say - whom we see each week, with whom we worship, with whom we work, with whom we play. We think about the remarkable building which houses this family and makes our work and worship possible. We think about the unique and praiseworthy intentions of those who founded this church, and we recall its fascinating history.

Parish - as a division of government. Parish - as an area of land. Parish - as a group, a building, a history. All these are things that are very much of this world. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any things more mundane, more worldly than government, land, groups, building, and history. And so it may well come as a surprise for us to learn that the word parish has a derivation which, in fact completely contradicts all this worldliness. Paroikia, is the Greek. It is the combination of two words, para, contrary to, and oikia, home . . . contrary to home. And therefore, paroikia, as it was originally used, meant a period of time which one might spend in a foreign country, away from home. Paroikia meant alienation, being a stranger in a land and society to which one did not belong.

It may seem puzzling to us that the Church should have adopted this word to describe itself. And yet the choice of this particular word emphasized and made very clear a fundamental conviction of early Christianity: that heaven is the true country of Christians. Being with God is being at home. This life is a sojourn in a foreign land. This life is a pilgrimage, a journey towards something greater. Here we are strangers, we are aliens. Here we have “no continuing city, but we seek the one which is to come”. (Hebrews 13:14)

This was, to be sure, the experience of the early Church, a persecuted group on the outside of society. But, again, it was also a theological and spiritual conviction: that the world and human life are only a prelude and preparation for something better, that in this life we “see through a glass darkly” and yearn for that promised heavenly city where we shall see “face to face”. (I Corinthians 13:12)

And so, you see, there is a telling ambivalence to this word parish. It began as a word which described alienation, but it lost this earliest meaning as the Church became more an accepted and powerful institution within the life of the world. As it acquired land and built buildings; as its numbers grew and it found itself administering and even governing the affairs of people throughout the Roman Empire. It took on, then, a meaning which contradicted its beginning, for a parish was understood to be something settled in the world. A parish was an established and defined part of the civilization and the culture and the order which was being created by the Christian Church.

And yet, the earlier meaning, though perhaps forgotten by most, was always active as part of the Church's life, for even at the height of its temporal power, the Church never quite lost its status as an outsider. Its teaching and its proclamation has forever been at odds with the world and society. The life of the Church, often in spite of itself, has always been, and it must always be a sign of contradiction, something different, something transcendent which calls into question the here and now of the secular. The Church's best moments and proudest times have been those when it stood against worldly values and instincts and proclaimed the saving law of heaven: love not hatred, charity not greed, forgiveness not condemnation, sacrifice not selfishness, purity not corruption, beauty not ugliness, life not death, hope not despair.

My good people. My brothers, my sisters. I know of no church in any place more aptly described by this ambivalent word parish than The Church of the Advent. Here both meanings of the word are made incarnate. We are very much an institution in the world, occupying a plot of land in a well-known neighborhood. We've been around long enough to be a Boston fixture, that is to say, part of the city's history, though our founding quite deliberately contradicted Boston ways. We are a group with a shared faith and hope. We are a family who work and worship and play, and we inhabit a house. A family has to have a house. A family has to have a physical place to call home, and this remarkable building in which we find ourselves is our house. It is our home. The worldly sense of the word parish describes very accurately part of the life of the Church of the Advent, and there is nothing that makes this more real and more visible than our building. And we must save it.

It is our home, and it is also our home . . . away from home. There are few buildings in this country which refer to the transcendent as unambiguously as does the Church of the Advent. Most of us are used to it, though at times it takes even me by surprise. But some people are actually overcome when they step inside this church. Not because it's the most beautiful building around. It isn't. Rather, because what it is about is so clear and so forcefully expressed by the building and all that is in it. It is about that real world which is beyond this world. It is about that which transcends this world. It is about the depth of being which sustains this world. It is about the surprising action of grace which interrupts the way of this world and changes it. It is about God. It is about Jesus. It is about the Holy Spirit. In a society which has become secular through and through it is an articulate statement of opposition. This building was designed to be and, through years of prayer, it has become a holy place. It is also a home. It is a spiritual home which points us to our home with God. It is your and my home away from home, and we must save it.

Today we begin a capital campaign to raise the five million dollars which it will take to restore and repair this building which is our home as a parish and our home away from home in the turbulent world around us. We must raise this money, for we must save our building. Otherwise, we will betray the noble and godly intentions of those who founded this parish. Otherwise, we will turn our backs on the Advent's remarkable history of service, proclamation, and praise. Otherwise, a striking contradiction to the way of the world will be lost. Otherwise, the future and promise of this place will be ended.

It is a daunting task, and even more daunting to us all, I think, when I point out that this campaign is something in addition to our present stewardship. Programs and everyday expenses must still be funded by what you and I return to God as stewards. The rich and varied parish life which we enjoy here must not be diminished. It must continue and be, as always, offered to the glory of God and for the health of our souls. The commitment to the Campaign which we begin today is in addition to this. We must save our building, our house, our home. We must work, we must pray, and we must give.

A feasibility study which has been conducted over the past year has shown that, at least in its beginning, the major part of the funds must come from the parish family itself. We will, of course, look to sources outside the parish, but the campaign begins with you and me. If you have a thousand dollars, give it. If you have fifty thousand dollars, give it. If you have a million dollars, give it. We must save our building.

No one approaches this with more trepidation than I do. Five million dollars is a sum which, frankly, scares me to death. Happily, however, we have several people on the Campaign committee who have experience in fund raising and we have excellent and wise consultants who will advise us. They will hold my hand and gently, or perhaps not so gently, if need be, push me forward. But in this, I have no choice and you have no choice. We must save our building, and we must raise this money, and we will. We will.

In St. Matthew's version of the story we heard this morning from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to those around him, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20) Well, here is the mountain, good people, all five million dollars worth of it. A mountain, indeed. But let us remember the promise of Jesus, and together let us have faith. Let us take courage. Let us be determined, and let us go forward.

I end with St. Paul. “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.” (Ephesians 3:20,21)

AMEN.