Courts of the Lord

Second Sunday after Christmas
January 2, 2022
Psalm 84

Last year, in 2021, I read all sorts of books. You know that I read all manner of things. I read my seminary professor’s text on systematic theology. I read a history of the English Civil War. I read not one, not two, but three different books on golf. I finally got around to reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and like most everybody, I started but didn’t finish Ulysses. Short books, long books, I even read an illustrated version of Greek mythology. But the longest book I read, the absolute biggest, was the official history of Trinity Episcopal Church. Look at this thing. Over 800 pages. And that only goes from 1841 to 1953. You know, some day someone is going to have to write the next volume to this behemoth. 

Reading through this was an incredibly humbling experience. It was humbling because it made me consider our place, and my place, in this long story. One day, when one of you writes volume two, I will be but a chapter. Probably longer than some and shorter than others. 

But one thing really stands out to me as I read through the history of our parish. And it is this space, our sacred space for worship. Our altar, our candlesticks, our windows, our organs. There are whole chapters of our parish history dedicated to who gave what, when, and why. Since 1857, the people of Galveston have gathered here, in this very room, to worship, to mourn, and to celebrate. In the history I read that the bells were rung all day on D-Day, 1944. The Great War victory parade went right through where the school playground is now. One day during a church service, the bell tower was struck by lightning as the choir was singing about “having courage in the Lord.” 

The psalm for today says it best: “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!” This appears to be one of the pilgrimage psalms, something the ancient Jews would sing as they made their way to Jerusalem, to the Temple. “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.” “My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” 

And yet, you know that’s one of my favorite phrases, and yet, it’s not as if this building is a time capsule, something that shows us 1857 and nothing else. Over the years, this space has changed dramatically. Go back and read the history of the church, at first those columns were not part of the design. But once the parishioners got a sense of how cavernous the church would be, they got spooked and told the priest they wouldn’t come to church if they didn’t add some columns. How about that for some bargaining? And what’s wild is that those columns were bronze. And look around at all the stained glass windows. Even the big Sealy window at the front. They weren’t original. They were added decades after the building was finished. This is not the only organ our church has ever had, it is but the most recent one. Even this pulpit is not the one in which our first priest, Mr. Eaton, so memorably collapsed in. This pulpit was given in the 1900s. Yes, this church is full of tradition and history, but it is also full of change. And here we have something to learn from the building itself – things change.

Indeed, some things should change. That’s why we make resolutions. And those are good things, it shows that we recognize that where we are is not necessarily where we ought to be. Whether the history book of your life is very old or very new, this year is an opportunity to write a new chapter. Take this year to allow the Spirit of the Living God, that dwells in this place and in your hearts, to make something new. 

And yes, things, as a parish church, should change. As they have always been changing. As even our building has always been changing. Think of it, think of how we used to keep cool in this building. We opened the windows, then we installed fans, now we have air conditioning. It’s a good thing things change. Or consider how we used to raise money – you know that if you wanted a place to sit on Sundays you would have to rent your own pew. And if you didn’t rent a pew, you could maybe get a seat but only after the service started and the ushers would let you sit down wherever it was unoccupied. I didn’t make this up, it’s all in the book.

This is a symbol, a sign for us as we all begin this new year. If we get to January 2, 2023 and we are doing the same things in the same way with the same people, then something has gone wrong. That will show a lack of courage, a lack of respect for our own history that is constantly changing. I’m not saying that we’re going to toss out the Prayer Book, or stop making pledges, or do something really crazy like all become Methodists – but what I am saying is that the best way we can honor the history of this place is to allow the Spirit of the Living God to write a new chapter for us. 

Some might say, though, that we have to keep alive our traditions. Yes, I agree. But there is a difference between honoring our traditions and becoming burdened with them. As many have said before, “tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

As light and fluffy as this sermon may seem, it is also a difficult one. For the world is changing. We will either manage that change, or the change will manage us. This year we will have to figure out again how to untangle ourselves from the pandemic, as our forebears had to struggle with yellow fever. We will have to be resilient yet again in the face of hurricane season, as Trinity Church has survived so many before. We will look to expand our ministry with new people and programs, we will look to improve the Galveston community with what we have and what we can offer, as our congregation has always looked to serve. Will some of those things look different than they have in the past? I sure hope so, because things change. Do I know what that will look like, do I know what Trinity Church will be like 365 days from now, do I know what the state of the pandemic and global health will be in twelve months? Of course not. I’m a priest, not a wizard. But because I am a priest I have faith in the Lord God who has sustained this place for one hundred and eighty years – through pandemics, fires, floods, and upheavals of the past. I have confidence in you, the people of God, who return to the courts of the Lord, week by week, to commit yourself to this ministry. 

This year we will write a new chapter of our history. We will be faithful to the past, but unafraid of the future. We will rejoice in the courts of the Lord, but we will also follow Jesus Christ into whatever new things we are called to do. The realities of this year will demand everything from us – so as the people of this parish have always done, we will rise to the occasion. Thanks be to God, things change. That is both the history, and the future, of Trinity Church. 

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