Building and Being God’s House

Groundbreaking for "All Souls Forward"

Groundbreaking for “All Souls Forward”


A homily offered on Sunday, September 8, 2013 as All Souls celebrated the groundbreaking of a new wing.  The scripture readings were those appointed for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church, 1 Kings 8:22-30, Psalm 84, 1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10, and Matthew 21:12-16.

The idea that “God has a house” runs throughout our worship today.  The Collect of the Day speaks of the dedication of this “house of prayer,” of God’s house of prayer on this particular spot, as we recall the previous dedications in 1911, 1914, 1924, 1951, and today.  Our Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings brings up the image as Solomon gives thanks for being able to build the Temple in Jerusalem.  “Who’d have thought,” he asks. “Who’d have thought that God would even want to dwell on earth with people and if heaven and the highest heaven can’t contain God, certainly God could not be contained in this house.”  The psalm speaks of God’s house complete with altars, and swallows nesting nearby. The Epistle, the Letter from Peter to the early Christians chances the image a little, suggesting that the bodies that we carry around with us are “built” by God in a sense, and are made to be a “spiritual house,” to be a holy place for God’s Spirit to dwell.  And finally, our Gospel is the passage we associate with the week before Jesus’s crucifixion.  It’s the story of his going to the temple, the place he called “his father’s house,” and finding in it corruption and corrosion such that was blocking access to God, so Jesus began to “clean house.”   As Jesus begins shouting in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” he’s quoting from Isaiah and referencing Jeremiah, just two of the prophets who heard God in God’s house.

But all of this raises a question, if we think about it.  “Why would God want a house?”  Why would God, the creator of all that is, the maker of humanity, want a house, a place to hang out in, a place to call God’s home?  If God chose to be in physical form, God could use the Atlantic as a wading pool, and Mt. Everest as a back scratcher, so what good would be a house—any house, for that matter?  A temple, a cathedral, a shrine, … why would God want such a space.  Or, a place like this… why would God care to call this a house of God?

The answer goes way back to those first people God called to come closer, to be like children, to know God as a parent.  As the people of Israel went through the desert wilderness, God camped with them.  The term used in scripture is that God “tabernacle” with the people, God set up camp and called them in for the night to share stores and eat and drink and huddle close against the night.

It is the history of our faith that God has over and over again made the initiative to get close to us, the greatest move being the Incarnation, coming to our home as one of us.  St. John writes that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” but in Greek, John is saying the Word became flesh and tabernacle with us, set up a booth with us, came under the tent with us. God has come into the world to meet us, and that’s why God likes a house—because it’s a good place to meet us.

Of course we can meet God in the woods, or at the beach, or in the car, or in another person. And maybe that works for some people.  Maybe that works for you.  But at some point, I find, it doesn’t match meeting God in God’s house.

In God’s house there’s peace and quiet, but it’s a full peace.
In God’s house there are reminders of others who have gone before.
In God’s house there is proof that people have struggled and continued.
In God’s house there are other walking “houses” to share and learn from.

All Souls began in as a group of fifteen people, who met with their rector for prayer at 2628 Garfield Street.  Later that year, they ordered a portable chapel and constructed it on this spot and began worshiping here on October 15, 1911.  In 1914, they had replaced the portable chapel with the little “memorial church” that might seat 250 (they were smaller then.)  In 1924, they completed this larger space, and in 1951, the education was finished.  And today, we break ground.  Sometime next year we will, God willing, have competed our new project.  We will have another day of festive worship, of giving thanks, and of remembering those who have gone before us.

The Church does not begin or end with a building.  We know that.  But we also know, from our history and from our own experience, that the building can shape us as God builds us into a spiritual house, a holy people offering the spiritual sacrifice of our lives.

The second rector of All Souls, Henry Hatch Dent Sterrett, reflected on the founding of All Souls, on the vision of his father and the vision he sought to carry out.  Three principles marked the founding of this parish:  and the younger Sterrett summarized them as liberality, simplicity, and fellowship.  Liberality, for them, meant living within the broad modernist understanding of Christianity, of welcoming all, from every background and perspective.  Simplicity meant that the worship and life of All Souls would be neither too much of this, nor too much of that.  (When the second rector introduced a vested choir, his father raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.)  And the third aspect was fellowship—fellowship with Jesus Christ in the sacraments and the life of the church, fellowship with the living and the death (especially as the beloved dead are kept in special memory in this memorial church), and a “fellowship of silence.” (The founding rector and others would meet weekly for a period of silent prayer, and it was said that this spirit of silence and calm pervaded all of the worship at the parish.)

And so we ask the blessing of our spiritual ancestors and we ask the blessing of God as we seek to live into that vision of being (in the words of the founding rector)

neither a broad church nor a narrow church,
neither a high church nor a low church,
but a church of All Souls.

May God bless us and keep us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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