as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, July 18, 2021
“When our heart is in a holy place, we are blessed with love and amazing grace,” our hymn enjoins.
With those words, I want to invite you to consider a simple question. What is a holy place? Or, better, what makes someplace a holy place? The hymn, I suspect, intends to use the word place metaphorically. But these last months of pandemic, as I stood in this pulpit and offered what I could to a congregation that was absent in body but present in spirit, I found myself repeatedly contemplating the idea of a holy place quite literally.
Some weeks this place did not feel particularly holy. In order to produce our worship videos, we had to turn the sanctuary into a studio. The pulpit was flanked with light diffusers, large white rectangles that covered bulbs and softened the way we appeared on your screen. Decorative props found homes in the pews. Rather than addressing a gathered community–pausing for the occasional clap or cheer–I read from a teleprompter. Week-by-week there was no one other than the staff to bless this space with their presence, though bless it they did.
At such times, when my world was circumscribed to this pulpit, my office, my apartment, and the occasional foray to the grocery store, I found myself casting back to other holy places I have known. Come with me, recalling those holy places we might, together, find something of answer to our question: What is a holy place?
The Sufi poet Rumi offers guidance on our imagined journey. We opened our service with his invitation to join our spiritual caravan:
Ven, ven, cual eres, ven
Come, come, whoever you, come
Let us continue it with his invitation to a holy place, found in a beloved poem:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
Ideas, language… let me suggest, as we embark to holy places, that one of the challenges of our sojourn is that the holy–whatever it is–ultimately cannot be rendered into words. This question that we seek to answer, what is a holy place, is not one we can completely approach through constructs like sentences and paragraphs. It is, in the end, about felt experience. This place feels holy. That place does not. Beyond ideas…
And yet, I still invite you to come with me to visit three locations I longed for during these last difficult months. I dreamed them as I struggled to find connection and wondered when, again, I might feel like my heart was in a holy place.
Have you ever been to an abandoned church or temple? It feels entirely differently than the church of a living congregation. The first holy place I invite you to has been long vacated by the people who once worshipped there. We begin our travels at the Church of Saint Honoratus in the Provencal town of Arles, France. It sits at the end of Les Alyscamps. Known in English as the Avenue of the Monuments, Les Alyscamps is an extensive Roman necropolis past the old city’s edge. Even if you have never travelled to Arles, you might know of what I speak. Vincent Van Gough painted them four times, Paul Gaughin twice. Each artist’s depictions feature the millennium old stone sarcophagi that line the path to the church. Looted of their contents and almost any information about their inhabitants obscured, they remind me of an anonymous inscription found on a similar site:
I grew from the earth.
I flourished in my day.
I am earth again.
Walking along this avenue of the dead, under trees rendered in flame orange, smudged yellow, haunted white by Van Gough, we arrive at the church itself. I do not know when it was last sanctified. Certainly not in this century. Probably not in the last. Maybe not even in the one before that.
It stands at the end of a burial ground where all have since turned to dust. Mouldering itself, there is no furniture within it. Here the wall has fallen in. There, a gap in the roof. Along that side, where sunlight once broke against stained glass, a hand-hewn window frame where pigeons pass through. There has been no sermon, no word, no rite of passage–funeral or wedding–offered inside the building for generations.
Does such a description seem familiar? There are ruined religious sites a plenty throughout North America. We need not travel far to find them. Over in Fourth Ward we might visit the former building of the Bethel Church. Destroyed by arson–as so many of the ward’s churches have been–its shell remains a testament to the community that once gathered there.
Despite their desolation, such sites still bespeak holiness to me. When I enter them I get caught in contemplation, imagine all that took place within, the communion that was which blessed births, deaths, unions, all that is our lives.
Such holy places were establishes as places for ritual. Rituals are activities we undergo which are designed to change, or to acknowledge a change, in our relationships. In a religious community, we dedicate children to recognize that a new being, a new possibility for relationship, is among us. We celebrate weddings to honor the beginnings of families. We gather for memorial services to accept that death has occurred and someone has transitioned to be with their ancestors.
Ritual, let me suggest that a first answer to our question, what makes a place a holy place, is caught up in ritual. A holy place can be a place for ritual. It is place where we go–or where people once went–to conduct the rituals that change us. In such places our relationships with each other can be fundamentally altered.
Rituals connect us to something that is greater than ourselves. And here, maybe, just maybe, I should pause and invite you to offer up an Amen or a cheer. Not because I need one or deserve one but because… well because taking a moment for collective celebration is something that knits us together as a congregation. It is ritual that affirms our relationship to each other and to our common purpose. And a place remains holy because of the rituals that have taken place there—whether or not people continue to use it for ritual.
Relationship, a second thing that makes a place holy is its ability to foster relationships. Holy places are places for the community to gather for the holy act of friendship–which is the sharing of the self with the other–to unfold. It is where we see the face of the divine in another and stir a bit of the spark within.
Not all of our relationships, or even our friendships, are with other human beings. Here, I suppose, I could offer you a brief testimony about my relationship with my cat. The writer Ursula Le Guin once claimed, “the cat is the soul of the house,” and, of course, I think we all aspire to make our houses holy places. But in our consideration of holy places, I want us to push the boundaries of relationship beyond even those we might have with the four legged among us.
Let us visit a grove of trees I know. It lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where I served as the minister of a congregation more than a few years ago. These are ancient white oaks. I do not know how long they have stood. A hundred and fifty years? Two hundred years? Each is tall, tall, taller than the eye can easily follow when you look up into the foliage–taller than I can imagine climbing.
The canopy so far out of reach, we can wander among the meandering root structures. Erupting through, knitting together, the soil, the good earth, their bark is wrinkled and worried like the wisdom that the trees offer. Visit them in July and you will find an abundance of their good friends, yellow chanterelles, blooming among them. What damp, what heat, what time in summer, is to be found lingering among those trunks.
I used to visit them often. They live in a park not far from the house where I once lived. Almost weekly as July bled into August I went for mushrooms. In autumn to watch their leaves blush flame red. In winter to find them transformed by snow’s beauty. In spring to watch as green buds unfurled.
In that holy place, I felt myself fully connected to the land on which I lived. I was in relationship with the trees. I do not know if they knew me or were aware of me–brief living creature that I am, passing by as I did. But I visited them often. They helped teach me to see my relationship with the land, which is to say the very ground upon which we live, differently. I did not see it through the view of what indigenous people like the Potawatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer have named “the settler mind,” the perspective that sees land as not something we are in relationship with but “property, real estate, capital, or natural resources.” Instead experienced it as “sacred ground … a gift.”
Do you know of a similar place? Where you visit and connect to your relationship with what Kimmerer names “the meaning of land,” the deep truth that we are creatures of this earth, born from it, flourish on it, and return to it? Can you recall that place now? How it feels to be there? A holy place opens us up to the truth that we are creatures of this planet and dependent on it for our very existence.
This is one of the most urgent truths of the hour. This past week–as Europe flooded, and the Northwest burned–there was once again news of the urgency of the climate crisis. The New York Times ran a piece titled, “‘No One Is Safe’: Extreme Weather Batters the Wealthy World.” Writing of the twin horrors of flooding and burning, the paper quoted the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, whose country is existential threatened by the ocean’s rising, and warming, waters. Nasheed observed, “in the climate emergency, no one is safe.”
No one is safe because one of the holy truths that holy places like that grove in Cleveland can connects us to is that we are all bound up together. Not just you and me, not just the human community, but the trees, the plants, the mushrooms, the animals, all life, all connected, all in relationship with each other.
This week I found myself considering this urgent truth as I listened to the news of billionaires blasting off into space. I wondered, are they trying to escape this holy place? Are they attempting to forsake their relationship with this muddy blue ball of a planet? Certainly, the money spent on vanity space flight could be better spent on addressing the climate crisis or alleviating poverty. The wealth of the richest has the power to make a difference here.
Listening to wealthiest among us speak of space, I was not alone in remembering Gil Scott Heron’s words from a generation ago:
Was all the money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey on the moon)
With no slight against the scientific exploration of space–a dangerous subject in Space City for certain–let us return to Earth, and our consideration of holy places here.
The third aspect of holy places, the third invitation to visit with me, I offer is one I dreamed of as I spent months in what seemed like an increasingly claustrophobic apartment. This dream did not come from my past. It was what I hoped for in my future, a new place called home.
The poet Philip Levine writes of the hoped for holiness of home in his beautiful piece “Burned”:
Before long we
found a room and entered the darkness
together, holding each other
as long as we could in the hope
we would be home.
As Levine implies, home is where we share the stories that are our lives. It is a place where we live the stories of our lives. Alongside ritual and relationship, our stories are what make a holy place. And so, this spring, as my partner and I blended our families, I found myself seeking a better place for us to live and for us to make holy together.
In doing so, we switched neighborhoods. I left–and actually I should am leaving since we are in the midst of the difficult work of moving… I left, Montrose for is it Midtown? Or is it the Third Ward?
The different names for our new neighborhood signal the stories that people want to tell about them, the ways in which we might conceive of them as holy places, or not. Midtown–a realtors designation to suggest that the area is urban and urbane, replete with hipster bars and an offering an easy commute for the weary knowledge worker. The Third Ward–historic heart of Houston’s Black community, home to Emancipation Park, to the SHAPE Center, to institutions devoted to freedom and political power too numerous to name.
One of the most fraught questions about a holy place, or indeed any place, is whose stories are told there. This land we call Houston is Karankawa land by unceded ancestral right. So much of the conflict in the world is over which story about the land, which story about this holy place upon which we all live, is the story that shall be told there. This is true of the question between Midtown and the Third Ward. It is true of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The dispute is ultimately about which stories will dominate in that particular land–the stories of the nation state of Israel or the stories of Palestinians.
The stories of place are meant to tell us whose lives important and whose are not held to be. We live, as we do, under the rule of governments, state and federal, that tells us that the stories of this thing called the United States are more important than the stories of the indigenous nations that proceeded the arrival of Europeans to this continent.
Stories… the stories we tell about the land are perhaps the most charged aspect of what makes a place a holy place. But they, along with ritual and relationship, make a place holy. The sacred is not necessarily an undisputed good. Facing it honestly means facing our relationships honestly. And that is difficult work, work that uncovers not just the beautiful–the interlacing branches of those oaks–but the things we do to each other and to the land.
Story, relationship, and ritual, let me suggest that to truly be in a holy place a fourth element is necessary. I invite you to hear the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:
The Lord will bring this charge
Against the elders and officers of His people:
“It is you who have ravaged the vineyard;
That which was robbed from the poor is in your houses.
How dare you crush My people
And grind the faces of the poor.”
And hear the words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah:
He upheld the rights of the poor and needy–
Then all was well.
That is truly heeding Me
— declares the Lord.
Such words point to a truth hidden sometimes but often referred to in this sermon, a place is made holy by the pursuit of justice.
Throughout the United States, but particularly here in Texas, the need to make our place, this country, holy by the presence of justice is sorely need. The legislature is working to restrict voting. If voting is a sacred act, the secular sacrement of a representative democracy, then the laws are being pushed by the party in power here in Texas are meant to exclude many from the holy place where elections take place.
For Unitarian Universalists, the idea that the polling place can be a holy place is attested to in our long history of struggling against white supremacy and for voting rights for all. Three separate ministers of First Houston marched in Selma, Albama for voting rights. The Rev. Dr. Clarke Dewey Wells was with the martyred civil rights activist and Unitarian minister the Rev. James Reeb when Reeb died–beaten to death by white supremacists for trying to make access to the sacrament of voting available for all.
Rituals are empty and meaningless unless they are accompanied by right intent. The ritual of democracy, history has shown, is meaningless if not accompanied by right intention. I do not mean how you vote. I mean, whether voting is available to all. Democracy is only sacred if the demos, the people, have a say. Otherwise it is something else, something unholy.
When our heart is in a holy place, justice, story, relationship, ritual, let me close where I started, by speaking of this place, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. I spoke at the beginning of how I wondered during your long months of absence whether or not this was still a holy place.
Whether it was or not, it definitely is now. When the congregation gathers, our collective rituals, relationships, stories, and pursuit of justice make this building a holy place for me. As your minister, I want it to be a holy place for you as well. For long time members, I know it is. For visitors, I hope it will be. And so, gathered congregation, present in body and in spirit or joining us in spirit from home, I invite you to help me conclude this sermon with a prayer:
Spirit of Life,
that some of us name God,
and others know as our human
capacity to tell the stories
that make a place sacred,
be with us today
as we continue
in our process of regathering
so that we might continue to make
and all that it represents
a holy place:
a place for ritual,
a place for relationship,
a place for story,
a place for all that is our lives,
a place for justice.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.