As many of you know, Carrie and I are just back from a really wonderful vacation to England and Wales. One of the great highlights of the trip for me was seeing Saint David’s Cathedral.
The Cathedral was built in the 1100s on the site where Saint David himself had established a monastery six hundred years before that. People have been worshipping in that spot, and commemorating our patron saint, for nearly fifteen centuries!
As you can see in the picture on the screen, Saint David’s Cathedral is impressive. You can also see me in the foreground wearing my spiffy Saint David’s tee-shirt.
If anything, the inside of the building is even more impressive than the outside. There’s a picture looking up the central aisle towards the main altar. Not too shabby! But this is just a small part of the building. What you can’t see are aisles on either side or the whole series of chapels behind the main altar.
Standing inside this beautiful, massive, ancient building, where people have been praying for more than eight hundred years, was both humbling and exalting at the same time. It reminded me that I am a very small part of very, very big religion.
But as I walked around the Cathedral, I saw something else. As you might guess, things happened over eight hundred years, a LOT of things.
One example. A century or so after the Cathedral was first built, a Bishop decided he wanted more light in the building. Electric lights were not an option in the Middle Ages, so he had the ceiling raised and new windows installed.
But he didn’t do a great job. Or at any rate, he left traces of his work. Here’s a picture of one of the windows. The lower semi-circle was the bottom of the original window. They didn’t bother to remove it, so you have this odd looking double-rim.
Age has taken a toll as well. I assume the new rim used to go all the way around, a complete circle, but part broke off. You can definitely see missing stones on the left of the picture. And at the top, you can see a bit of crumbling stone. From a different angle, the damaged stone up there is quite visible.
They need Bob Rendrick as their Junior Warden. Bob would get all that taken care of.
But in Bob’s absence, I love what they’ve done. They don’t hide the “flaws.” In signs along the outer wall giving information about the Cathedral, they emphasize the imperfect construction and the signs of wear and tear.
For them, things like the strange window and the damaged stone are layers of history that give the building its character. The mismatched, broken stones remind us that the building has been standing for a long time, and that people have been using it for that whole time. It would be weird if an ancient building didn’t have a few oddities or signs of age.
So, in my first few minutes in Saint David’s Cathedral, I had two impressions that may seem inconsistent. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the building. And I was struck by its flaws.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for the Church. which is also both beautiful and flawed.
The Church is impressive. It has been around for two thousand years. Indeed, according to our reading from Hebrews, it’s even older than that. It’s built on promises made to Old Testament heroes going all the way back to Abraham something like four thousand years ago. The Church literally spans the globe. It is easily the biggest and arguably the most ancient human institution there is.
And, when we look a little more closely, flaws in the Church are easy to see. Mistakes have been made. The Cathedral of Saint David’s was built during the age of the Crusades. They were a bad idea! In our own time, revelations of clergy sexual abuse have rightly humbled us. In our own denomination, we have engaged in some embarrassing squabbling. That wouldn’t surprise Jesus, who predicts divisions in our Gospel reading.
Some people delight in pointing out the all-too-real failures of the Church. They are right, of course. But they run the risk of missing the Church’s genuine beauty. The Church as a whole is like Saint David’s Cathedral. It is glorious. And it is flawed.
We can be more personal, too. We, whom Paul calls “the temple of the Holy Spirit within” (1 Corinthians 6:19), are also like the Cathedral of Saint David’s. The details are different for each of us, but we’re all in the same boat. We present our best face to the world. And, if you scratch the surface, we are fragile, flawed, wounded creatures in need of healing and love and grace.
Certainly that’s true of me. There are things in my life that I am proud of, but there is plenty of brokenness, too. Just this week, I woke up one morning, remembering my high school semi-girlfriend. I have no idea where that came from! I say “semi” because I didn’t know how to be a boyfriend, and I didn’t treat her well. That failure is one of my many wounds, some of which were quite painful at the time and all of which have shaped the person I am today—good in some ways; flawed and broken in others.
But I want to go back to beautiful, flawed, partially broken Saint David’s Cathedral one more time. My single favorite spot in the entire building was the 16th century altar in the Trinity Chapel. It’s my last picture. (I had to get this one out of a book because I didn’t think to take a picture of it when I was there.)
I didn’t notice the Trinity altar at first. But once again, an explanatory sign pointed me to it. If you look at the lower part of the altar, you can see that it is made out of what were already old stones, some of them centuries old, when the altar was constructed in the sixteenth century. Like so much in the Cathedral, the stones don’t exactly fit together. The carved images are fragmentary and don’t match.
The altar-builders didn’t have to do it that way. They could have carved new stones. They could have re-carved these stones. They could have turned the stones around so the mismatched images didn’t show. Instead, they used old stones with the different carvings facing out. And in the contemporary sign, they draw attention to the mismatched stones of the altar.
There is something beautiful and deeply faithful in this. The builders used old broken bits to construct something new and holy and beautiful in its way.
That’s what God does with us. That’s what the Church as a whole is. That is who we are. Beautiful in our way. Broken in places. And, thankfully, held together, and renewed, and reshaped, by the Holy Spirit into the very body of Christ.
Saint David’s Cathedral reminds us that we cannot escape our brokenness. The good news is, we don’t have to. God meets us where we are. God loves us as we are. And God uses us, in our brokenness, as vessels of God’s grace and love.
I enjoyed my time off. But it is good to be back with you, my beautiful, imperfect, holy brothers and sisters in Christ. I thank God for the many ways God works on and with us, creating holiness out of our brokenness. And I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan