In its earliest days, when Augustus and John Kirby Allen marketed their soupy, Yellow Fever-infested, sixty-six hundred acre real estate boondoggle as, “having an abundance of excellent spring water and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness…handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered,”[i] Houston, Texas attracted sophisticated people such as William Fairfax Gray, a blue-blooded Virginian who moved here with his family. But an influx of sophisticated people dis not render Houston cosmopolitan overnight. In 1838, Gray himself wrote a letter lamenting the brutality and heathen immorality of his new home. Gray wrote that, “Dissolute and vicious habits are too general here. Those who do not fall into [them]…mourn over the privileges and social blessings they have left [behind] and eagerly look for the time when they shall be received here.”[ii]
Why did Houston have such a difficult time in those early days adopting godly, civilized ways of being? William Fairfax Gray felt sure of the answer. He said, “We have had several Presbyterian preachers here—several Methodist—occasionally Baptists—and one Roman Catholic…but not once have I heard an Episcopalian preach, or the Episcopal service read since I [arrived]!”[iii]
The time had come, it seems, for the Episcopal Church to arrive in young Houston. From Houston, William Fairfax Gray wrote to the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States begging for resources and a missionary priest. And by March 16, 1839, he would wait no longer. Gray and twenty-seven other prominent men of Houston signed the charter establishing an Episcopal Church—at the time, the Episcopal Church—in Houston. And thus, Christ Church was born.
If this much of this history gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I first shared it with you four and a half years ago, when we celebrated Christ Church’s 175th anniversary. But there’s more: In 1845, Christ Church’s growing congregation purchased an abandoned wooden schoolhouse and moved it onto this city lot at Texas and Fannin, creating Christ Church’s first makeshift building. Two years later, the first proper church was completed, followed by a second church in 1859. In each instance, the congregation outgrew the worship space even before it was completed. Finally, in 1893—the same year the United States was hit with a major economic depression—Christ Church built this stately and beautiful sacred space in which we now worship, and which we are in the ongoing process of restoring for future generations. The first service in what is now the Cathedral was held on Christmas Eve 1893, one hundred twenty-five years ago this coming Christmas. What a dedication that must have been!
And here we are, newly back in the Cathedral after several months in Reynolds Hall. Without conscious planning on our part, but surely, I think, with God’s smiling providence, the day of our return to this space is the singular day in which the lectionary gives us the story of the dedication to end all dedications, that of Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem.
If we think Christ Church’s journey to the completion of this space was long and arduous, we need to read our bibles. For the Israelites, the long trek that culminates today with the dedication of the Temple included escape from Egypt, forty years of wandering in the desert, a long period of tribal warfare with neighbors and one another, the dysfunctional reign of King Saul, and finally the consolidation of power under the great King David, before David’s son Solomon finally builds what both he and God call a “home for God.”
After years of building, furnishing, decorating, and preparing, today the great Temple is ready to be dedicated. At one point in the august proceedings, Solomon’s confidence falters. He, Solomon the Wise, shows acute human doubt when he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” Solomon has built a house for God. It is grand, and beautiful, and crawling with priests. It surely looks the part. But will God show up? Almost three thousand years after King Solomon, as we reenter this beautiful and sacred space in the midst of a restoration, as we rededicate it by our use, we may wonder, too.
In this morning’s reading, King Solomon is not disappointed. God keeps God’s promises, and God has earlier promised that God will abide in the Temple. It is Solomon’s confidence that is shaky, not God’s commitment.[iv] When the Temple’s holy precincts are opened, we are told, “A cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”
I believe that is true here, too. I believe that, as our prayers and praises rise in this space, so does God’s Spirit. Can you sense it? Do you feel it? It expands and fills these holy nooks and crannies like the smoke of incense, seeping into and through the wood, seeping into and through us. The glory of the Lord fills this house. God dwells here.
Obviously, our restoration of this sacred place is not complete. There will be scaffolding and green fencing around God’s house for several months yet. Navigation around the campus is, admittedly, a bit tricky. But all this ongoing work on the Cathedral serves to remind us that our ongoing work in this world is incomplete. The reading from 1 Kings today ends with the image of one who barely knows Israel’s God nevertheless seeking God out in the Temple, dropping to his knees in his need, and praying to God for solace and help. Solomon says that God’s glory will be revealed most of all when God responds to that man, to the one who has not yet known God deeply.
That is our work left to do, each and every day. We live in an era of scandal and disillusionment, and the news of the past week from politics to the church only underscores that fact. In a world where people increasing live as if we are our own little gods, answerable to no one, and ignore the reality that the divine is present in our midst and in our lives, our fidelity to the God who lives here calls us to go out from here and meet those who do not know God, who are alienated and estranged, and extend a word, or a hand, or an act of surprising grace. When we leave this space and live that way, then God’s glory is revealed in stunning arrays, and God begins to fill the world around us. Lives are changed; the world is changed.
From this very house—this very base of operations—God moves out into this city, passing in glory over and into God’s creation and God’s people. We call this day Rally Day, and what better around which to rally than that! We, like the disciples today when Jesus asks them if they will walk away from his Gospel, say, “Where else could we go? For you give us the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” This is God’s home, and we are privileged and blessed to make it our home, too. And where God dwells, grace abounds.
[ii] A Happy Worldly Abode, 25.
[iv] 1 Kings 6:11-13