On Friday afternoon, about 4 p.m., Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary burned down. Within minutes, the entire chapel was on fire. Within an hour, it was gone. By nightfall, the walls were all that remained standing – although the fire department warned that they could yet collapse.
Most of the windows, many given by graduating classes, are gone, from the great stained glass depiction behind the altar with the inscription Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel, which inspired thousands of worshippers and had its Robert E. Lee-look alike St. Peter, to the great Tiffany window of St. Paul testifying in chains. Some windows melted, some exploded. All that is left are jagged openings from which many of us watched water pour as the firefighters fought the two-alarm blaze. On Saturday, we learned that apparently, the six-toed Jesus at the back did survive after all.
The altar rail that was sent from Liberia in the late 1800s is gone, as is the altar table and the organ, which seemed to burn for hours.
Everything in the sacristy was destroyed, from the patens and chalices and old, time-worn prayerbooks to “Anna Baptist,” the baby doll that thousands of us used to learn how to baptize children.
Gone, too, is the pulpit, from which were spoken great soaring sermons meant to inspire us and not-so-great sermons given by preachers who were literally quaking in their boots, and which many of us thought would collapse a few years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina pounded and swayed and called us yet again to realize the dream not of Dr. King but of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Immanuel Chapel, the home in three-year cycles for thousands of seminarians for the past 129 years, the place that nurtured us and then sent us into the world to preach the Gospel, is no more.
This is a time for great mourning among the Seminary community. It is a time of great sadness.
But already, the community is giving thanks.
Thanks that no one was in the chapel at the time and thus no lives were lost. Thanks that none of the dozens of firefighters were injured. Thanks that none of the surrounding buildings were damaged. And yes, thanks that the great cross still towers above the ruins.
And already, it is a time for the community to dream.
To dream of the new chapel that will rise from those ashes. To dream of better access and better bathrooms. To dream of the unknown possibilities that make up those dreams, and that inspire us to new heights, not just of how to glorify God through our worship, but how to glorify God with our lives.
It is as though the prophet Joel were writing this morning just for those of us who loved that Chapel.
“Then afterward,” Joel wrote – meaning after the great calamity which in his day was famine brought on by an invasion, either of real locusts or of the locusts known as Babylonias – “afterward,” the Lord says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”
In other words, God says to us through the prophet Joel, despite the calamity of your life, do not lose hope.
In other words, God says, do not let the tragedy overcome you. Overcome the tragedy instead, because I the Lord am pouring out my Spirit upon you, because your young are prophesying and seeing visions, and your old are dreaming dreams.
Even in the midst of despair – over an economy that will not get its feet back under itself, over wars that are claiming thousands of lives, over injustice and oppression in Sudan and Congo and Zimbabwe, over enduring desperation and a sudden, deadly outbreak of cholera in Haïti, over hatred in the Middle East and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, over stubborn unemployment and devastating housing foreclosures – even in the midst of all that can send us plummeting into the pit of despair, we are not to give up. We do not lose hope.
Because God’s spirit is pouring over us, and because we are prophesying and dreaming and seeing visions, and therefore, we shall overcome. We shall have new life. That is where God’s Spirit, which is being poured out abundantly over us, leads us: to new life.
But only if we live into those prophecies, those dreams, those visions.
My friends, let’s be plain here: This is our calling in life. To take the gifts God gives us in the Spirit – the prophecies, the dreams, the visions – and to make them happen.
We – who are the beloved children of God – we – who are created in God’s image of love and community – we – who are created to live in love and in community – we are the ones who are especially called to make God’s dreams for us come true.
This is not someone else’s call … it is not up to someone else to work on God’s behalf.
It is our call.
It is our mission.
It is, in fact, why we were created.
• • •
I need you to know that I am a missionary. For the last five years, I have served as your missionary in both Sudan and Haïti. I have been an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church, which means I represented you and the entire Episcopal Church wherever I went, whomever I served.
And because I am a missionary, mission is important to me. But I tend to define “mission” a bit differently than most people, because for me, mission is not simply about going into the world, it is not merely about doing things.
For me, “mission” is a way of being.
It is how we live our lives as beloved children of God.
“Mission” encompasses every aspect of our lives, every action we take, every word we speak, even the thoughts we think.
Our mission in life is the result of God creating us in God’s image, and declaring us the beloved.
You see, when God created the heavens and the earth and the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea and the animals of the land, God brought forth man and woman in God’s very own image. God did so not because God needed us, but because God wanted us. Remember, we are not necessary to God – and we know that, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we can’t possibly be necessary to God. Which means that God loved us into being. So the image of God is that of love. And because we are Trinitarians, believing in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always together, never apart, God’s image is that of community.
So we are created in love and community to live in love and community.
All of which means that each of us is and all of us are God’s beloved children. I’m a beloved child of God. You are a beloved child of God. And you. And you. And you. And you. You are the beloved. We are the beloved.
Our mission, therefore, is to love. Not just the people and the things we like. Not just the people and the things we know. But all of God’s creation. As fully, as wildly, as radically, as inexplicably, as eternally as God loves us.
We want to make those prophecies and dreams and visions, the ones that come from God and are God’s gift to us … we want all those things to come true?
We have to start with love. And we have to always act as God’s beloved. And we have to always remember that everyone else also is God’s beloved.
If this is how we live our lives, if we always begin and end in love (no matter how hard that is), when tragedy and calamity hit, we will be fine. Not because we are immune – for we are not. But because we know how to move forward. We know that God loves us, and because God loves us, God gives us the prophecies, the dreams, the visions we need to continue bringing God’s love to the world.
God who loved us into being is pouring out God’s Spirit upon us. As the beloved, we have the prophecies, we are dreaming the dreams, we are seeing the visions.
Our job, our mission, is to bring those prophecies and dreams and visions to life. To make them happen. God doesn’t give us everything we need so that we can ignore it. God gives us everything we need so that God’s dream for us can come true.
That seminary chapel that burned down on Friday? The one where I was formed as a priest, where I learned to baptize (with dear Anna Baptist, that unregenerate baby doll), to celebrate and marry and bury people? It is gone now. But the love that built that place, the love that made it a holy place of God? That love remains. And because the love remains, the community will move forward.
We are God’s beloved.
Don’t ever forget that.
A sermon preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 24 October 2010, Year C, at Grace Episcopal Church, Goochland, Va.