Purify our conscience, Almighty God, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. Amen.
Earlier this week, I sat down with John Westmoreland to learn about the history of this sacred spot of land where we are now gathered. He explained that several major histories converge at this very site: the history of the Miwok, the legacy of the McNear family, the story of the Episcopal Church, as well as the rich history of prayer Labyrinths. Each history, in its own way, helped give birth to this church, this community, this gathering, indeed this very moment.
In the early 20th century, Erskine Baker McNear (or “EB” McNear), son of John Augustus McNear, decided to make his home in Marin, after the 1906 earthquake destroyed his previous house in San Francisco. So he purchased the brickyard (which is now the longest operating brickyard in the US) and then started construction on his mansion on top of this hill behind us, using his own bricks. He whacked the top off of the mound and, in the process, exposed many clam shells and skeletons. Scholars soon recognized that this hill was actually a burial mound and midden for the Marin Digger Indians, who later came to be known as the Miwok. And Miwok scholar Betty Goerke considers this to be the most sacred Miwok site; and the land we are on now was likely a campground, where redwood kotchas were constructed, sweat lodges were made, and religious rituals were performed, perhaps at the very same site as our altar.
After EB McNear completed his mansion, which included his very own creamery in the basement, the mansion became known to the many children, relatives and friends of the McNears not as the McNear Mansion but rather as “Papa’s House.” After EB and his wife died, however, the property was sold to Stegge Development who tried to make sure the mansion was preserved by selling it, in turn, to Bishop Karl Morgan Block of the Episcopal Diocese of California. In 1957, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer was born and began meeting in the McNear Mansion or “Papa’s House.” The mansion was big enough to provide a regular meeting space for Sunday worship, a vicarage for the priest, office space for Ohlhoff Recovery Programs, a daycare center, and much more. I don’t think the basement creamery was still in function, but that would have been pretty fun to have an Episcopal Church milk, butter and ice cream business as part of our history.
I do love the fact that a mansion is part of this church’s history. I love that not because of the wealth and status associated with mansions, but because of the spaciousness and openness and magnanimousness associated with mansions. The Collect and the readings this morning make me especially appreciative of this part of Redeemer’s history. In our Collect, we pray that Christ may find in us “a mansion prepared for himself.” And the reading from Isaiah describes a woman who offers her own body as a mansion for the One who will be called “Immanuel” – God with us. And the Gospel is about a man who is initially inclined to dismiss his disgraced fiancée, but then comes to welcome and embrace her as a bearer of the divine. The Gospel is an invitation for us to extend our welcome to those whom we might initially want to dismiss and to see them as bearers of the divine. The Gospel invites us to make room for others in the mansions of our hearts for it is by doing so that we are making mansions in our hearts for Christ.
Whenever I’m asked what initially attracted me to the Episcopal Church, I can usually the answer the question with one word, and that is “openness.” The Episcopal Church is deeply rooted in Christ and traditional understandings of Christ but also remains passionately open to other faith traditions and understandings that other Christian denominations would dismiss. The Episcopal Church remains open to seeing God in the other, in those outside of our tradition and traditional understandings. Many compare the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in general to a big tent that can hold many different peoples, perspectives and practices. I would also compare the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to a mansion with many rooms. Jesus himself uses that imagery in the Gospel of John when he describes his Father’s house (“Papa’s House”) as a mansion with many rooms. The Anglican mansion has many rooms indeed: some rooms for Evangelical Anglicans, some for Anglo-Catholics, some for Pentecostal Anglicans (or Anglocostals), some for Anglo-Baptists, some for Episcobujews (like myself), and some for other outliers.
When Carol Ann and I travelled to Standing Rock ND, we met a wonderful variety of clergy, representing Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hare Krishna and much more. The largest religious communion represented, however, was the Anglican Communion, made up primarily of Episcopalians. But also under the umbrella of the Anglican Communion were members of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of North America as well as Celtic Druids and even one woman who identified as a Dove Oracle Priestess (who also happened to be an Episcopalian from Fargo.). Only in the Episcopal Church! It is in our Anglican DNA to remain open to the other, to embrace those whom we might initially be inclined to dismiss and see them as radical bearers of the divine just as Joseph came to see Mary, whom he initially wanted to dismiss. And it is in the DNA of this church (which used to meet in a many-roomed mansion) to make room for others in the mansion of our hearts, to welcome people wherever they are on their spiritual journey because we believe that God is at work in them, giving birth to something profoundly beautiful.
So may we continue to remain open, especially when it is hard, and make room for those whom we might want to dismiss, trusting that God is teaching us and revealing himself to us through them. As we prepare our parish profile together, may we make room for God’s teachings and self-revelation in the histories of the Miwok, the McNears, the Labyrinths and more. By doing this, we follow Joseph who made room in the mansion of his heart for Mary and we allow ourselves to be surprised and transformed by the Christ who continues to come among us, in many different ways, seeking to abide forever in the mansions of our hearts. Amen.