Excerpt from The Shoemaker’s Window Sermon
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 Stewardship 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.
FOR THE GIFTS WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN
By Thomas Rhodes
Each week we take up an offering for the support of this congregation,
and often, for the support of others who are working for a better world.
To be honest, we need your support—especially in today’s economy,
when pledges are down and the future appears uncertain.
But there is another truth here as well.
Another truth that says: some of us need to make an offering.
Some of us need to make an offering
not only because the congregation needs our support,
but because we need to remind ourselves of our own generosity.
Because the act of giving something away
is a tangible way of acknowledging the gifts we have been given.
If we don’t have enough for ourselves, we may be poor in material wealth.
But when we don’t have enough to share, then we are truly poor in spirit.
And none of us should leave this place
feeling poor in spirit.