“How often have I longed to draw you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . .”
I’m still shaken, still shaking when I think about it – which is often. For me, it began Thursday morning, 5.30. I hadn’t slept well, so I finally gave up and turned to my iPhone to see if I had any messages. Sure enough, there was one from my cousin Betty Jane in Duluth, Minnesota. I read it – only a few words, “Gloria Dei on fire.” No. Not right – maybe this just a metaphor about how alive Gloria Dei Church is – the church where five generations of my family have worshipped, where five generations of my family have marked all the great passages of life, from baptisms through to the grave. Yes, that community that had nurtured my faith, that community that was a safe place when I was growing up and trying to come to grips with who I am, that community that paid for my entire seminary education, that community among whom I first presided at mass, that community where I preached just a month ago – that community has always been on fire, alive with the Holy Spirit. “Gloria Dei on fire.” Yes. But Cousin Betty Jane is not someone given to such metaphors. This must be literal. No, no, no! I fumbled with my phone. Whom could I call? My sister, the congregation’s treasurer, was away on a mini-vacation to Chicago, couldn’t call her. Who else? When in doubt, you call mom. I touched the autodial to my mom’s number. She answered, “Hello.” There was that tone in her voice. She knew. “What’s happening?” I hollered. “Yes,” she said, “it’s true. It’s on the TV right now. It looks bad. They’ve had to smash out the big Mary window to get at the fire.” “No, no.” I pictured that gentle face of Mary the Theotokos, of Mary the God-bearer, in the image of that window holding her child Jesus, Mary’s gentle and serene face that had more than a few times consoled me. “Smoke is coming from everywhere,” Mom continued. “It looks bad,” she repeated. “You can see flames in the broken windows at the front of the church.” This wasn’t happening, I groaned. This can’t be.
Then my mind immediately thought of Gloria Dei’s pastor, David Carlson, son of Bonnie and David Carlson of this St. Paul Community, Pastor David Carlson, son of this congregation. My heart went out to David – every pastor’s worst nightmare – the destruction of a holy place – places such as churches are holy, you know – they are places where God comes to meet us. Then I thought of David’s parents, of our own Bonnie and David. It was still early, but I had to call them, and so I did. They hadn’t yet heard from their son. I told David what was happening. “Oh . . . no,” was all that he could say. Over and over. “Oh . . . no.” Indeed. Oh . . . no.
As the morning went on, more and more news coverage became available. The scene was one of smoke and flames and fire trucks and hoses and ladders – unholy chaos. And after the flames were doused, the remains – they looked like those of a bombed-out building. Most of the 15 stained-glass windows were completely broken out, only their skeletal tracings remaining, and you could see through from one side of the burned shell all the way outside through the other. A line from Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet kept through my head – “Bare, ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I spent the day shaking, crying, at times just numb, wanting to be there among my Gloria Dei family.
This wasn’t my first acquaintance with fire. When I was a kid, I had a particular phobia about fire, and I had prayed to God every night to protect our home from it – to protect the homes of everyone I loved from fire. But then, one day, it happened. There was a gas explosion in our house. My mom had to run past a wall of flames to escape – miraculously with only first and second-degree burns – but bad enough at that. My worst nightmare had come true – and I was angry – angry at God. “What the hell?!?!” I wanted to know. “God, I did my part. Why didn’t you do yours? I pray to you to spare us from fire, and this is how you answer my prayer.” Our pastor was marvelous when I told him how I had sworn at God for not upholding God’s part of the bargain. “Bad things happen to good people,” Pastor said. “We don’t know why. I would even say this wasn’t God’s will. But what is God’s will is that good things come from bad. From death comes resurrection. Christ the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” I would learn in the days and weeks and years to come that this was most certainly true. While the fire may not have been God’s will – God’s will was to redeem the bad with good. And I would come to call the aftermath of that fire in our home one of God’s finer hours. Our family and friends were drawn together in a whole new way. My sister, brother, and I moved in with my mom’s folks. We could have had separate rooms, but somehow, without discussing it at all, we just moved all our stuff into one bedroom. We needed to be together. Like a mother hen drawing her chicks to herself, it was, if I may say so, God drawing us together. God, the mothering hen, drawing us together as family and with friends and neighbors and church members in a whole new way. It was, you may safely say, another miracle.
Sharing in one Baptism, sharing in the One Body, drinking from the One Cup, we are already one dearly beloved community, dwelling securely through good or ill in Christ. Whether we like it or not – we are already God’s equal children, equally beloved, equally redeemed, and equally bound for death and resurrection.
I’ve been in close contact with family and friends from Gloria Dei these past few days. I’ve watched the footage from TV stations in Duluth and Minneapolis/St. Paul – saw my niece Erin being interviewed. “It’s not just a building,” she wept. “It’s more than that – it’s a place where you’ve spent your whole life.” True that, Erin. True that. But – a miracle shall bloom forth. God, the mother hen, will draw you under her sheltering wings and will comfort you, will create from the remnants a new community under God’s wings. I think of that hymn I first heard in Swedish in that very church, “Bred dina vida vingar, O Jesus, över mig,” and later in English – one of my grandma’s favorite hymns. “Thy holy wings, O Savior, spread gently over me, and let me rest securely through good or ill in thee.” I know that surely this will come to pass for the pastor and people of Gloria Dei church in Duluth.
And it already is coming to pass. At 7 PM on the night of the destruction of Gloria Dei’s 110 year-old sanctuary, the people of Gloria Dei along with people from throughout Duluth came together in vigil at the neighboring First Lutheran Church. People, lay and clergy alike, got up to testify to God’s saving grace. My brother-in-law spoke of how his late father, one of Gloria Dei’s former pastors, had once-upon-a-time been about to turn down a call to a congregation where he had interviewed – but as he was about to do so, he heard that the congregation that was wanting to call him was at that very hour losing their building to a fire. No, he decided, he would have to take the call to that congregation. He was being drawn together with the people there to form new community. “And,” my brother-in-law testified, “good did come out of bad.” Yes. God, the mother hen, is even now in Duluth drawing her chicks together under her sheltering wings, drawing her chicks together into a community of love and belonging – one that extends here to this community through the close ties of kinship – a son of St. Paul serving Gloria Dei, a son of Gloria Dei serving St. Paul.
But more than all that – and please do hear this – we need not experience a catastrophe to know that we have been gathered together here at St. Paul as a community of love and belonging, beneath God’s sheltering wings. We have already been gathered together here through Word and Sacrament – drawn together in this place to hear proclaimed and to receive into our very bodies, the God who does shelter us under Her heavenly wings – to hear that because God draws us under Her wings, we are already one flock of God’s dear baby chicks. Sharing in one Baptism, sharing in the One Body, drinking from the One Cup, we are already one dearly beloved community, dwelling securely through good or ill in Christ. Whether we like it or not – we are already God’s equal children, equally beloved, equally redeemed, and equally bound for death and resurrection. We are equally bound for death and resurrection even as the people of Gloria Dei – our own brothers and sisters in the faith – even as the people of Gloria Dei are experiencing the death of place and are already in the here and now experiencing resurrection.
No, we do not wait to experience death and resurrection through some sort of catastrophe – we experience the death of our own egos and our separations, in the here and now. God has declared that our separated, turned-in-on-self selves are already destroyed and dead. And we truly are now already risen from the dead and drawn together, not by our own reason, strength or merits, already drawn together into a solid community of love and belonging, a community of resurrection, a community of the new creation. God has declared that that is who we truly and already are. And on fire, Betty Jane, but in a good way. One flock gathered under one Mother, God in Jesus Christ. Amen.