The Shoemaker's Window

Your presence here in such numbers today is a wonderful indicator that this congregation is important to you and to people you love.

I want to reflect with you just a bit this morning on what it is about these unique communities called congregations that we choose to affirm in the first place, and why these little institutions continue to claim our loyalty over the years.

Because, let’s face it, you probably drove past three or four or five different houses of worship on your way here this morning. I’ve long felt that ministers ought to give that same announcement that flight attendants give when you land at the airport. You know, the one that says, “We realize that you had a choice of airlines in coming to Washington today, and we thank you for choosing United.” We ought to say, “We realize you had choice of congregations to attend this morning, and we thank you for choosing this Unitarian Universalist congregation as your place of worship today!”

It will probably not surprise to you to learn that, as a minister, I have a great personal fondness for churches and temples of all kinds. I mean, for houses of worship in general, the buildings where religious groups congregate for whatever form of worship they practice. I love churches and temples, mosques and monasteries, ashrams and chapels of all kinds. From the most grandiose and ornate, to the smallest and most humble, I find them all quite fascinating. I always have.

I have never met a professional clergy person yet — minister, priest, rabbi, or imam — who did not have a similar feeling for houses of worship. I imagine we’re a bit like surgeons who are fascinated by other people’s operating rooms. As my family can tell you, I cannot walk by a new church or a temple without trying the front door to see if I can get a peek inside.

And if perchance the door is open, and I have the opportunity to look around, I prowl all over the place. I’ll know everything about it in twenty minutes. I read all the plaques and dedication plates; I read the cornerstones; I sit in the pews, I kneel on the kneelers. If there are candles to be lit, I light a candle in memory of my grandmother, and I say a prayer that she once taught me.

You can tell a lot about a church or a temple just by sitting there quietly by yourself for a few minutes. You can tell a lot just by experiencing the light in the room, the acoustics, and the visual aesthetics, the balance and symmetry of the place. I always try to imagine what kind of people worship there, and what kind of God might be honored there.

I try to check out the view from the choir loft, if there is one. And if the place is empty and I can get to it, I always climb up and stand in the pulpit — oh, just for a minute, I don’t disturb anything, just to see what it’s like — a quick little “test drive” to see how it handles. (I often wonder what I would say if anybody ever caught me doing that in a strange church. Clergy, of course, understand this about each other, but church custodians tend to frown on people trespassing in their pulpits!) To this point in my life, I have been privileged to visit six or seven countries, and I have visited and explored some of the most famous and most beautiful places of worship in the world.

In America, I have visited the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and, of course, St. Patrick’s in New York City; and the white marble National Cathedral in Washington. In California, in a redwood forest, I worshipped in a Zen monastery building that was octagonal in shape, and made completely by hand of polished rosewood by a Zen Master, who also happened to be a master carpenter.

In Canada, I’ve been to Notre Dame Church in Montreal, with its ornate hand-carved wooden chancel — that beautiful church of perfect acoustics where Pavarotti’s Christmas Concert was taped. In Spain, I’ve stood in the Great Cathedral of Seville, where Christopher Columbus is buried. I visited the Great Mosque in Cordoba, with its one thousand pillars of marble, no two of them the same in design. And I have worshipped in Christopher Wren’s magnificent Cathedral of St. Paul’s, and in Westminster in London, where it seems as though every notable in British history is buried.

And of course, I have been to magnificent Notre Dame in Paris, and to St. Chappelle and Sacre Coeur, also in the City of Light. I’ve also been to San Marco’s in Venice, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Peter’s in Vatican City.

I love all these places, and I’ve had religious experiences literally in all of them. But to one who loves churches, holy places, history, and classical architecture, the most beautiful and impressive of them all, in my opinion, is the 800-year-old Cathedral of Chartres in France.

Nothing I had read or studied prepared me for the sheer beauty of Chartres. It sits in the midst of an agrarian countryside, fifty miles from Paris, with no city high-rise buildings around it or anywhere near it. As we approached it one spring day, driving from the south, it rose up ten miles away. We saw it as I imagine pilgrims in the twelfth century saw it, as they walked from all over Europe to visit Chartres.

It was an aesthetic experience in every way just to be inside that building. But above all, it was the light, the softness and texture of the light, as it filtered through gorgeous glass windows, stained red and blue and green and gold more than 800 years ago, all still vibrant with color. It was the light, above all, that I remember about Chartres, the light from 167 windows in that Cathedral, two stories of them — roses, oculi, lancets — each one of those windows a masterpiece of beauty and workmanship, transcending time, transcending space. Some of those windows had faded ever so slightly with the sunlight of eight centuries of summers. Imagine, eight centuries of sunrises and sunsets.

It was the light that I remember in Chartres, what those windows did to it, what they created with it. They wrapped you in color, and they turned the cold hardness of granite stone flooring into a kind of warm liquid carpet. Those windows were each impossibly beautiful and impossibly intricate, with hundreds of mosaics leaded together to illustrate epic stories from scripture, or stories from the lives of the saints, from the life of Christ, from the prophets, from the history of Christendom.

Each window of a medieval cathedral is a kind of storybook, an artistic rendering for worshippers and pilgrims of a far-off, preliterate culture in the time before printing presses, when faith was transferred through oral teaching, through stories and parables, through music and visual art.

Not far inside the cathedral I found myself standing at the foot of one soaring, magnificent window, with hundreds of pieces of mosaic glass of all colors. It seemed to recount the entire Old Testament; it was so elaborate and exquisite. At the very bottom of the window there was a small frame that showed a cobbler, a shoemaker huddled over his worktable.

Our guide saw me studying this image. “This is the Shoemaker’s Window,” he explained. “It was installed in 1201, and is considered one of the most beautiful of all. It was a gift from the shoemakers of every village in France, who each contributed whatever they could, even the smallest coins, to commission this work of art for God’s house.”

The royalty and the wealthiest nobles of France, he continued, gave some of these windows, but this window was a gift of the shoemakers. Another window was given by village water-carriers from all over France. Butchers gave another. Fishmongers gave one. Vine-growers and tanners gave windows in the same manner. As did masons, and furriers, and drapers, and weavers, coopers, and carpenters and cartwrights. The blacksmiths gave a window, and the milliners gave one, and the apothecaries gave one, too. “These windows, many of them,” said my guide, “were given one mosaic at a time, piece by piece, coin by coin, by people who wanted to contribute something beautiful to last the ages. “

How I wish I could transport every one of you to see those windows in Chartres Cathedral this morning, right now, to see what those working people from little villages all over France were able to give to their church, and hence to all the pilgrims of eight centuries, like me, who have visited there.

The irony is that these majestic windows, which are the very symbol of medieval greatness in art and architecture and which are beyond value today, the great irony is that these were mostly the gifts of common people, not the providence of the wealthy or the nobility, my guide told me.

As I pondered what I might say to you this morning to get across, in a concrete image, what your support for the church on this Affirmation Sunday means, and what your individual place in the life of this congregation means, it’s that Shoemaker’s Window that kept cropping up in my mind.

When we talk about supporting our churches, in this we are the same: any congregation, from the largest Cathedral to the smallest and plainest chapel, is always the gift of those common people who love it and who work for it and who support it as they are able. It is the love of its congregation that ultimately sanctifies a church or a temple or a meetinghouse and makes of it a sanctuary, a holy place, a community which transcends time.

In twenty-plus years as a minister, time and again, I have been truly humbled by the loving loyalty and the stunning generosity of spirit in which people hold their churches. Two stories, in particular, I’d like to share with you this morning. The first story I tell with the permission of one of my church members. She called me one day a couple of years ago and said she wanted to see me, that day. It sounded urgent. Little did I know.

Over a cup of coffee, my friend told me that her family had recently had the good fortune to inherit a large amount of money. They lived modestly, their grown children were all provided for, and she wanted to give the church a gift. “I suppose I could wait till I die to do this, but I’d rather see it do some good for the church.” And with that, she gave me a million dollars. “It’s an unrestricted capital gift to be used toward a new sanctuary,” she said.

She was crying as she announced this to me. When I asked her why she was crying, she said, “Because this feels even better than I thought it would!” To say I was stunned by this incredible gift of generosity is putting it mildly. The two of us sat there crying and laughing into our coffee cups. It was this gift which enabled our church to purchase some adjacent land this year, and to make plans for a new sanctuary in the next couple of years.

I want to tell you another story about generosity this morning, one that I shared with the canvass committee the other night. As you might guess from my name, I was not a born and raised Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and a lot of what I know about church community, I first learned by watching the folks who were part of the working-class Catholic parish where I grew up in New Jersey.

This particular story is about a man in our church named Bill. Bill was an immigrant laborer who worked as a longshoreman on the docks of New York. He lived across the street from the church with his wife and seven children, and he was a devout churchman.

One year (I was probably about ten years old at the time) Bill was laid off work in an extended strike, and he was unable to pay his financial pledge to the church. Now, this was a serious blow to Bill’s pride. He knew it was a poor parish that needed all the contributions it could get.

So, as my mother later told the story, Bill went to the pastor and volunteered to contribute his services as the unpaid evening custodian for the church school, until he could afford to resume his financial pledge. “It’s something the church needs,” he said. “And instead of paying for this service, the church can use the money to do good work.”

So each evening he worked several hours, for no pay, sweeping and mopping the church school classrooms and hallways and staircases. On snowy days, in those years before snow blowers, Bill got up early to shovel the church school sidewalks before the children arrived for classes. Unable to contribute financially to his church, he found a workingman’s way to contribute his fair share.

The dock strike ended some months later, and Bill was once again able to resume his full-time day job, and resume his financial pledge to the church. But he decided, in addition to his pledge, to continue working as the unpaid night custodian of the church — which he did — for the next thirty years. I know that this story is true, because Bill was my father.

Here is what I know about communities of faith: these are precious and rare, life-changing institutions, these little churches of ours. They touch people and they are meaningful in people’s lives in ways that most of us can only guess at — even those of us who have been active committed leaders ourselves for many years.

A church, finally, is nothing more than its people and what they bring to it: their faith, their vision, their collective hopes and dreams, their memories and their customs, their history, their prayers, their good works, and their values. And what community we are able to create here for ourselves is like that great stained glass window itself, pieced together always with painstaking love and unending patience, each one of us — shoemakers, cobblers, candlestick makers — bringing one more mosaic to the whole.

John Wolf, the Minister Emeritus of a church in Tulsa, once wrote:

“There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church and that is: to support it. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because this church points to what is noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to women and men of whatever race, creed, color, place of origin, or sexual orientation.

“You want to support a Unitarian Universalist church because it has a free pulpit. Because you can hear ideas expressed there which would cost any other minister his or her job. You want to support it because it is a place where children come without being saddled with guilt or terrified of some celestial Peeping Tom, where they can learn that religion is for joy, for comfort, for gratitude and love.

“You want to support it because it is a place where walls between people are torn down rather than built-up. Because it is a place for the religious displaced persons of our time, the refugees from mixed marriages, the unwanted free-thinkers and those who insist against orthodoxy that they must work out their own beliefs.

“You want to support a UU church because it is more concerned with human beings than with dogmas. Because it searches for the holy, rather than dwelling upon the depraved. Because it calls no one a sinner, yet knows how deep is the struggle in each person’s breast and how great is the hunger for what is good.

“You want to support a UU church because it can laugh. Because it stands for something in a day when religion is still more concerned with platitudes than with prejudice and war. You want to support it not because it buys you some insurance policy towards your funeral service, but because it insults neither your intelligence nor your conscience, and because it calls you to worship what is truly worthy of your sacrifice. There is only one reason for joining a Unitarian Universalist church: to support it!”

This Affirmation Sunday is about each one us looking inside for what it is that we most treasure and value about our church and making a personal commitment as we are each able to do so to empower those values in living community.

A story for you, in closing. It’s the story of the Church of Scotland minister, himself a teetotaler, who gave his small highland congregation a scathing, if ineffective, sermon on the evils of alcohol. The following week, he and all his neighbors were invited to a harvest feast at the manor of the area’s richest farmer, Lord MacGregor.

Now, Lord MacGregor’s farm was famed not only for the prized barley and oats which it produced, but also for the fine cherry brandy which old MacGregor himself bottled every year. At the end of the magnificent feast, each guest was served a glass of the cherry brandy. Not wishing to offend his host, the Parson did drink his serving and found it to be quite delicious. In fact, as he took his leave that evening, he discreetly asked Lord MacGregor if he might have a case of the brandy donated to the parsonage — strictly for medicinal purposes, of course.

MacGregor was happy to do so, on one condition. That the minister himself write a public thank you for the gift on the front page of the parish newsletter. The parson thought for a moment, and then agreed to do so.

The next morning not one but two cases of the cherry brandy were delivered as promised to the parsonage. And as promised, the minister wrote this public thank you in the next newsletter:

“The minister wishes to thank Lord MacGregor for his most generous gift of fruit to the parsonage this week. But even more importantly, we thank the Lord for the fine spirit in which it was offered!”

We thank you, too, for the fine spirit in which you support this congregation, as well!

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Wilmington, Delaware on February 19, 2003

About the Author

  • The Rev. Patrick O'Neill is minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, New York.

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