Bell Lap

•August 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

e578776e-7f50-4ca9-8464-04e49da3a997

Some of you say that you like it when I share stories about my personal life. If you feel that way, then today you’re in luck. Others among you may wish that I’d keep my personal life to myself, and preach only what’s in the Bible. If you feel that way, then I ask for your patience while I get to the Bible today.

Thinking back on 55 years of life, it’s clear that on my best days, I was only an average athlete. At one stage or another, I’ve been involved in organized team sports like baseball, basketball, and football. I was in a golf league for three years, a bowling league for one year, involved in a couple bike trips around Michigan, participated in camp activities like archery, target and skeet shooting, and canoeing, rowing, boating, and fishing. Of all the sports I’ve ever tried, I believe that running was the most satisfying, because I could compete on a regular basis against myself, as well as others.

I ran the one-mile race just long enough to appreciate the unique psychology of that event.   The starter’s gun means adrenaline flowing into fresh legs, so the challenge in the first quarter-mile lap is to rein in the impulse to go too fast. In the second lap, the pre-race tension is gone, you’re flowing smoothly, and the goal becomes maintaining pace, keeping within a reasonable striking distance of the leader. By the third lap, muscle fatigue and labored breathing make the start seem like a distant memory. No matter how hard I tried to keep an even pace, the third lap was almost always the slowest one for me. As the bell rings indicating the fourth and final lap, new thoughts emerge. If you’ve made it this far, then certainly you can persevere to the end. If you have any energy left, now is the time to use it. You focus more on your stride, rhythm, and form, because you want to have a good finish.

Have you seen the film “Chariots of Fire”? It’s the story of several British track stars who competed in the 1924 Olympics. The film came out during the time in life when I charted my running miles, lap times, and heart rate like I recorded in journals my Bible reading, prayers, and scripture memory work. Today’s first scripture reading (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) was among my favorites. It was the time when I was encouraged to listen for God’s call and pursue a career in full-time Christian ministry, a calling that the Apostle Paul encouraged me to think of as a running race.

Now that you know something about my young-adult psychology, and the connections I made between spirituality and physical activity, you may be in a better position to understand why I’ve felt especially introspective this summer. You see, on August 9, 1987, I heard the starter’s gun when, as the “young” 25-year-old pastor with newly minted M.Div. degree, I preached my first sermon to the Eastwood Church of Kalamazoo.

I knew then that in a typical career, if one is blessed with good health and opportunity, a pastor might expect to retire at age 65 (as social security would have it for those of us born in 1962, it’s now age 67). So this month, while nations rage, and crowds riot, and leaders tweet, I’ve been hearing a more subtle sound. At first, I thought it was just the growing tinnitus I hear in my ears. But now, as I stride past a milestone on my vocational journey, I believe that what I’ve been hearing is a sound marking the final circle around the track, my personal “bell lap.”

On the whole, I think my pensive mood has been healthy. I’ve reflected on the best wishes I’m received this year in many warm and friendly forms. Friends say things like, “Happy 33rd wedding anniversary! May you have 33 more!” or “Happy 55th Birthday! Here’s to 55 more!” But I’ve been engaged in pastoral ministry long enough to see that it rarely works out that way. Fiftieth and 60th anniversaries often are spent mourning the loss of one of the partners. The onset of a terminal disease short-circuit plans for a milestone birthday. Life is limited; careers are limited. I think we should live them in light of the fact that each day brings us 24 hours closer to their end (or at least their transformation!).

As you may recall from classes or sermons, the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is drawn, is unusual among New Testament documents in the respect that its author is unidentified and forgotten relatively early in the Church’s existence. We do know that the author presumed an audience well acquainted with Jewish scripture and temple worship. They were likely Jews living in Jerusalem, probably not personal witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but perhaps among those who gathered in the city during the months and years after these events.[1] As time passed, the Christians began to experience greater pressure to conform to the expectations of the Roman Empire, which valued religion only to the extent that it supported social order and political allegiance to Rome. Such pressure contributed to the widening gap between Jews who viewed Jesus as Messiah, and Jews who felt Jesus was a vexing fraud and troublemaker. The growing sense of isolation raised questions like, “If we really are doing God’s will, then why are we faced with these difficulties?” “If we really are following God’s call through Jesus Christ his son, then why does it seem like we’re on the edge of death and destruction?”

Responding to such concerns, the author of the letter to the Hebrews invites his audience to adopt a long-term perspective. If God’s promises were always so close that we could see them, then no faith would be required. Rather, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In support of this thesis, the author introduces members of faith’s “hall of fame,” Abraham, Sarah, and others, each of whom encountered difficulty and faced challenge. Each looked forward to a home where they would no longer be treated as unwelcome strangers and persecuted exiles, and to a time when God’s promises of abundant life would be fully realized.

As I re-read the 12th chapter of Hebrews, I felt like it was written for me. After thirty years, I, too, am accumulating a personal “great cloud of witnesses”: mentors, Christian friends, the 300 saints whose funeral and memorial services I’ve officiated. In the author of this letter, I feel a kindred soul who reminds me that life’s journey isn’t just about where we are in any given moment, like when my office is thundering and shaking while, next door, foundations are shattered and scooped into a truck. Life isn’t just about the challenges I encounter when, in a busy week of ministry, there are also contacts about insurance changes, lien waivers, easement agreements, or affidavits to be notarized. The good news of this scripture text is that life’s journey is also about where I am going in the future, the finish line that lies ahead around the bends in the track, and the One who is with me along the way.

I believe there’s much more to say:

  • about God’s call to you and me,
  • about the amazing journey this congregation is on from one campus to another,
  • about the unique opportunities that will be ours for mission and ministry in the larger community,
  • about the role that Presbyterian Christians can play in providing a safe place for understanding and addressing the complex issues that face our society.

But, after three times around the mile-long track of serving as a pastor, I know something about pace: I can’t say it all, you can’t hear it all, in any one sermon, class, or meeting; we have to go at it regularly and consistently. So come with me, and “let us run with perseverance the race that set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith …. so that you may not grow weary or lose heart …. Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet.”

Finally, hear the preacher pray for himself: “God, make me an instrument of your grace, and a channel of your peace, in what may remain of my personal ‘bell lap.’ Grant to me a good finish, that the race I am running may honor you, and serve your people. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

NOTE

[1] Among those who argue the plausibility of early dating is George Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews, second edition, vol. 36 in The Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1976, p. 256 ff.

 

The Table

•August 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Communion Opena brief reflection on furnishing worship space …

“To the rest I say—I and not the Lord ….” -1 Corinthians 7:12a

Like the font, the Lord’s Table has a tendency to become a display stand rather than function as the everpresent reminder of being nourished by the Lord. There’s also the historical contrast in theology/practice between the Protestant and other traditions.  So, to try to keep it simple, the Lord’s table should always look like a DINNER TABLE at which you could gather the disciples for a meal.

Some tables are closed at the base, appearing more like “altars” on which something is sacrificed, or “stands” for holding objects, rather than “tables” at which disciples eat together.  Other tables are more “open” at the base, like those in the composite photo above. Such tables give much more visual support to the notion that you could actually pull up a chair to that table, as some congregations actually do in special services from time to time.  I imagine a practical reason why some tables are more “closed” at the base is that it gives structural support to what may be a heavy furnishing, but often at the cost of an important aspect of the symbolism that the Lord’s Table should convey.

Another matter perhaps worthy of consideration is the inscription on the Lord’s (Communion) Table.  In confirmation class, or somewhere along the way, many Presbyterians learn about different theological perspectives on the Lord’s Supper.  One common perspective is summarized with the label “Memorialist,” in which it is believed that the bread and wine are symbolic (merely symbolic?) of the body and blood of Christ.  Another perspective is summarized with the label “Reformed,” and associated with John Calvin, who said something like the spiritual benefits of the risen, ascended Christ are present in the experience of the Lord’s Supper through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Many communion tables reflect/reinforce a Memorialist perspective by using the inscription “(Do this) in remembrance of me” (Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11). In contrast, a verse that would better reflect and reinforce Calvin’s theology would be:  “(When he was a table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.) Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him ….”  (Luke 24:30-31) Such an inscription would be a more unique and powerful reminder that in worship we do not simply “remember” Jesus from long ago, but are nourished by the risen Christ who is present in worship through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who opens our eyes to see.

The Font

•August 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Font Composite

a brief reflection on furnishing worship space … 

“To the rest I say—I and not the Lord ….” -1 Corinthians 7:12a

Of the three major pieces associated with the ministry of Word and sacrament, I start with the font, mainly because it is the most neglected in our tradition. Let me try to draw a contrast by saying that instead of conveying associations between fresh water and spiritual renewal, too many fonts look like a flowerstand.  As you probably have observed, many fonts sometimes ARE used in that way. This experience is one reason I like fonts in which the bowl section is dramatically enlarged and/or raised, like those in the composite photo above. The most dramatic bowl I remember was so large you could easily give the baby a bath in it.  There are many possible materials and dimensions that might be pleasing, but am I most interested in certain proportions.  I prefer a bowl that is at least as wide as the base in which it rests, so that it’s not easy to try to place a vase on the rim, and avoids “creeping flower-stand tendencies.” Overall, the ideal font should be so inviting that it makes worshippers smile at the prospect of gathering around it to celebrate the baptism of the newest member of their family and faith community.

Games People Play

•May 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide2Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, Acts of the Apostles 17:22-31 ….

Some of you know that I was in Springfield on Friday. I offered the invocation for the day’s session of the Illinois House of Representatives. I was the guest of my state representative, the Honorable Katie S., who just happens to be the daughter-in-law of Bob and Sandy S.

Given our system of government, a representative of the Church offering a prayer in the context of a State assembly naturally prompts questions about proper content. So in the formal invitation letter, the clerk of the House provides some guidance.

 As you might expect, there is advice about prayers being respectful to other traditions, not demeaning another faith, not proselytizing. But there is also this sentence: “Further, prayers should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion, or make any other denominational appeal.”

Some of you saw my Facebook post about this letter. I’d rather hear a rabbi, imam, or other religious leader pray authentically than listen to a generic prayer that “should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion.” We would learn so much more about one another!

The letter reminded me of Yale law professor Steven Carter’s book  “The Culture of Disbelief,” in which he argues that contemporary law and politics tends to trivialize religious devotion. Often it is assumed that religious particularity, like praying to Jesus, is unimportant and easily discarded, a facet of human personality with which public-minded citizens would not bother.

Slide4

As I prepared for the prayer, I saw three choices. I could disregard the instructions (but I’d rather build good relationships). I could try humor (which probably doesn’t work well in this context). Or, I could try to be creative and faithfulat the same time. I ended up framing a prayer to the God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, the “Great Resister Of All Labels.”

Slide5

The prayer went something like this:

God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, you are the Great Resistor Of All Labels. The breadth and depth of your being are beyond the comprehension of any one individual. Limited is our understanding of your design and purposes.

Great Resistor Of All Labels, to call for your aid in a room like this always is a risky undertaking. A prayer for freedom and change may be heard as a call to anarchy; A prayer for order and stability may be heard a call to oppression. Demands for resources may seem unlimited, and the supply of resources scarce. But since the challenges we face seem overwhelming, and remembering that you have a reputation for solutions, we dare to ask for your help.  

May your Spirit inspire the members of this house so that in today’s work they may prove themselves faithful servants of Illinois and its people. During moments of discouragement, remind them of the power in simply showing up, and working with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. As Desmond Tutu once observed, the forces that want to frustrate the ends toward which you are drawing history already have lost. Therefore, in the roles we all play for the public good, may we accept daily your invitation to join the winning side. So let it be. Amen.

For better or worse, there was a kind of gamesmanship in this prayer. In this context, to pray in both a faithful and relevant way required some attention to the perspective of those who framed the instructions, and attention to what needed to be said in that context. Conversation about God in a seat of government can feel a little like a game of hide-and-seek.

In the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we get of glimpse of the Apostle Paul in a public place every bit as impressive and diverse as the Illinois House of Representatives. When Paul arrives in the city of Athens, he encounters a great and complex culture in which it is possible for people to hide from spiritual truth behind the competing claims of hundreds of small gods and teachers of philosophy. Referring to a statue dedicated to an unknown deity, he finds a way of explaining the way in which God has been hidden from the eyes of the Athenians, but now can be found in Jesus Christ.

Slide6

In the context of this sermon, Paul is not reluctant to say that the God of the universe, the great Resistor Of All Labels, has been revealed in the particular person of Jesus. But many Athenians remain skeptical. Granted, they didn’t have much time to warm up to Paul’s preaching. But over time, many probably continued on in the belief that God has been hidden, and always will remain hidden. In some sense, they act like the people my college philosophy professor described, by saying, “Always interested in talking about the truth, but never interested in actually finding it.”

From my perspective as a pastor, there are occasional conversational threads like that. People approach the church with requests for help of one kind or another – financial, emotional, relational, or spiritual. We listen to the need. We try to match the need to the best available resource. But sometimes a seeker of help is stuck in a very unhealthy cycle. He or she ignores or rejects advice. Some time passes by, and a request comes for additional advice. The advice is ignored or rejected a second time. Some time passes, and again the person phones or appears at the office.

After two or three cycles, I begin to feel like I’m a player in another person’s game of hide-and-seek. Sometimes, we are so confused that we think God never will be found. Or we’re so hurt, we can’t believe that we are worthy of being found. Sometimes, we’re more interested in talking about solutions than actually experiencing them, more interested in hiding than in actually being found.

In these moments, I sometimes remember another game, a game my children liked to play when they were very young. I remember a night long ago when I arrived home after a meeting. As I walked into the house, I found only a kitchen light on. Everything had an air of quietness that rarely existed in a house with preschoolers.

It suddenly dawned on me that no one seemed to be at home. I walked from room to room looking for a clue as to the whereabouts of my family. I wondered if an evening trip had been taken to visit the grocery store or to see the doctor at the urgent care clinic.

When I walked by one of the bedrooms, I saw a strange lump under the bedcovers. As I turned on the light, and reached for the covers, a huge laugh erupted. It took just a split second to move from surprise to a smile. Under the covers were my wife and kids, who had patiently outwaited me to unleash a joke.

 

Slide7

You might remember that there’s a game like this called “sardines.”[1] One person hides, and each time another person finds him or her, they all hide together.  Like me, sometimes we may not even know we are playing it. We may not even have considered the possibility  that when this life ends, we will find the hidden God, the One we thought would never be found, in a game of sardines. Along with Robert Fulghum, the author who gave me this idea, I like to think He will be waiting there with all those we love, welcoming us home with joy and laughter.

[1] Robert Fulghum uses the game of “sardines” as an analogy for heaven in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Villard Books, 1988, p. 58.

 

Groundbreaking Remarks

•May 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

GroundbreakingAt the groundbreaking, representatives of the larger Church and community: pictured with me are the Rev. Craig Howard, Presbytery Leader, Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy; and the Honorable Hal Patton, Mayor of Edwardsville …. Gospel of Mark 4:30-32; Hebrews 11:8-10, Joshua 1:2, 9 ….

During the past few months, FPCE made a special effort to remember our heritage and honor our spiritual ancestors. As we prepared to leave a campus after 133 years, we remembered the story that God has been telling through Presbyterian Christians up to the present day. It’s a story of courageous sacrifice and compassionate generosity demonstrated by our mothers and fathers, (many of whom we remember, not with us today physically, but with us in spirit) to preach the good news of Christ, to further freedom for peoples long oppressed, to seek God in worship, and proclaim God’s amazing grace, to educate children and youth, to create not one but four homes for the advancement of Christian mission and ministry, always building: programs, services, staff, and facilities through additional renovations and expansions, all the way to the edge of breaking ground for a new building in this year of 2017.

In the story God is telling through us, an important chapter begins today; It’s a chapter that circles back to pick up a thread of the church’s story from the year 1998, when a Facilities Task Force recommended the purchase of new land, and continued in 1999 when a Land Search Committee recommended purchase of 30 acres here at Ridgeview Rd. At that stage, the dream of a new home for mission and ministry was something like the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke, very small, but once sown, grew and grew. The thread continued through staff changes, a 2004 study of mission, program, staff, and facility, a 2005 Ministry Plan and Feasibility Study, years of patient perseverance for many members of the long-range planning task force, and construction readiness committee. For nearly 20 years, some of you have trudged on through the work with the faith of Abraham, convinced of God’s call, but not always knowing where you were going, or whether you would see the promise.

Today, the pages of the story turn to a new prospect. Like the ancient Hebrews who were in the wilderness a long time, we have to be encouraged that what we see here isn’t an optical illusion. The Lord says that it’s time to cross over into the new land: “Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

 

Faith and Doubt

•April 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

St. Thomas Church, cradle of Christianity in India, embedded courtesy of Getty Images….

We gather today in a new temporary worship space, but I imagine many of us are still reliving memories from last Sunday. It was a unique day in my ministry, and probably a unique day for most of us. Never again will we leave a church home so well known and loved in quite so dramatic a way.

Many have commented on the way in which they were emotionally moved when the cross came down, and was lifted by crucifers, and carried out, followed by other symbols of faith and relics inherited from our spiritual ancestors. How do you top that? The answer is that you don’t. It’s an especially heightened experience of what usually happens after Easter.

Eleven years I served as an associate pastor, and many of those years I preached the sermon this day, the second Sunday of Easter. All the work neglected during Lent called for urgent attention. When Sunday came, the crowd was thinner, and the feeling of sure faith experienced one week earlier harder to feel. The Sunday after Easter doesn’t present the same sort of trials that Peter was writing about in his first letter that Janet read, but there is at little bit of that feeling that the genuineness of our faith will be tested with occasional doses of doubt.

In the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, we find a post-resurrection narrative that directly addresses doubt. John tells us that the risen Christ comes into the locked upper room where Jesus’ inner circle has been hiding. It’s evening and dark outside. Inside, I imagine that a single lamp is burning. The disciples are gathered around the table, speaking in whispers, when one of them looks up and sees someone standing beside the door. Moving forward into the circle of light, he says, “Shalom,” holds up a wounded hand, and waits for the truth to sink in.

At the time of this incredible reunion, Thomas is out on an errand. He misses the whole thing. The others tell him that they have seen the Lord. But Thomas seems to suspect delusions born of grief and hysteria. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will NOT believe.”

Most of us know how the story ends. We know that Jesus appears again, and that this time Thomas is there. We remember that Thomas sees and touches Jesus, then makes one of the most dramatic confessions of faith in the New Testament.

Yet, no matter how many times we hear the story, some of us empathize most with Thomas’ first reaction. He responds like those people (and I’m one of them!) who lead more with their heads than our hearts. We members of this group see nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, if it keeps us honest, if it keeps us open to data that we can verify through our senses. Skepticism is reinforced by our college and university training, where we discover that critical analysis and thinking is what wins us good grades and well-paying jobs.

But those of us with overdeveloped heads and underdeveloped hearts must be especially careful about the limits of rational thought. As the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once put it: “The claim of faith does not summon the rational man to suspend his intellectual habit of control and examination of facts; all that it claims is that he must not try to exercise it in a sphere where it has no function.”[1] Today’s intellectually brilliant atheists and agnostics tend not to see that extreme skepticism is a manifestation of our sinful nature, a form of blinding pride that supplants a humble openness to new data. Doubt that begins as intellectual honesty may end as ideological arrogance.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas perhaps had as much intellectual brilliance as any Christian who ever lived. Yet even he realized that reason could take an individual only so far on life’s spiritual journey. Reason is a starting point, but something else brings you to the finish.

Perhaps, the way that you get to the finish can be described in terms of a story told by my former preaching professor, Tom Long, who was in a very candid conversation with a man in his 70s. The man, let’s call him “Frank,” was telling Tom about a son, in his 30s, confined to a nursing home following a car accident, and in more-or-less permanent comatose state.

Frank startled Tom by saying, “We had stopped loving our son. We visited very week, it was our duty as parents, but we had stopped loving him. Love is … giving and receiving. Our son could not receive, our son could not give. We went to see him, but we had stopped loving him. Until one day, we went to visit our son and were surprised by the visitor in his room, whom we didn’t know. It turned out he was a Lutheran minister who had a regular role at the home. We just waited at the door while this visitor engaged in a conversation toward our son, while I thought to myself, ‘As if my son could appreciate a conversation.’ Then he took a Bible out, and read my son a psalm. As if my son could appreciate a psalm. And then he prayed a prayer, as if my son could appreciate a prayer. Then it dawned on me. He does not see my son simply through clinical eyes, but through the eyes of faith” — through the eyes of love — “and he treats my son as a child of God.”[2] Frank’s story, and the witness of the Lutheran chaplain, remind us that there is a power stronger than intellect, and spiritual truth we will never understand until we feel it.

When I was a young Christian and new pastor, I spent a lot of energy in sermons summarizing great thinkers and arguments, trying to convince listeners to put aside their intellectual doubts, and believe. Somewhere along the way, I learned that was not a particularly efficient or effective use of my limited energy. Frederick Buechner says, “In my head there is almost nothing I can’t doubt when the fit is upon me – the divinity of Christ, the efficacy of the sacraments, the significance of the church, the existence of God ….(But) when our faith is strongest, we believe with our hearts as well as our heads.”[3]

In order to live abundantly in light of Christ’s resurrection, we must not merely learn to think profoundly; we must also learn to love deeply. In this season of Easter, may it be so among us.

NOTES

[1] Emil Brunner, Reason and Revelation, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961, p. 208.

[2] Pulpit Resource Vol. 27, No. 2, 18 April 1999, p. 17.

[3] Frederick Buechner, “Doubt,” Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p.86.

The Roundabout Way

•April 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

image by Walter Zerla, embedded courtesy of Getty Images ….

final sermon in a series of six entitled “The Story God is Telling Through Us”

I. Some may say today doesn’t feel like Easter, but I say otherwise. As I read the 16th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, I sense that they feel like we feel. Some disciples buy spices and go to prepare that which they love with the same care that our Presbyterian Women anointed kitchen appliances with cleansing agents, and carefully wrapped the dishes on which we have eaten thousands of family meals. Other disciples secluded themselves to deal privately with grief, like Presbyterians who could not be present to watch the team take apart the Steinway piano, wrap its lid in cloth, and carry it away to the dark interior of a moving van. To watch the piano being carried away, to worry that it might be dropped on the front steps, would have been more than fragile emotions could bear.

The fear felt at the first Easter is highlighted when we learn about the textual history of this gospel from the manuscript evidence that scholars can see and examine. One old copy brings Mark to a close with the so-called “shorter ending” between verses eight and nine. Many copies include verses 9-20, which constitute the “longer ending” of Mark. But the most ancient copies close the book at the end of verse eight, just as I have read it for you today.[1] Three disciples find the stone rolled away from the tomb, a young man in a white robe instructs them to go and tell, but the women flee in terror and amazement. Mark says the women who were told to go and tell the news did not because they were afraid. The final word, then, in the earliest version of this earliest gospel is a word of fear.

We can appreciate their fear, though it’s not a very satisfying ending to the story we call “good news.” Many emotionally powerful events have filled relatively few days. Their bodies are tired, their emotions are frayed. In the long history of this congregation, the feelings we are experiencing right now may be among the most Easter-like we ever will experience.

II. Today, we are gathered as members and friends of First Presbyterian Church Edwardsville for a unique occasion: to decommission this building from use after conducting mission in it for 93 years, and to say goodbye to this campus at the conclusion of almost 133 years of ministry at this location. We’ve been planning for this occasion a long time. During the past few months, we’ve made a special effort to remember our heritage and honor our spiritual ancestors. We’ve remembered the story that God has been telling through Presbyterian Christians, from the Colonial period, through the nineteenth century, through the early 20th century, to the late 20th century. Along the way, we have held commemorative events around the dedication stones of this congregation’s building projects of 1870, 1884, 1923, and 1960. Today’s worship concludes with a recessional of sacred symbols and relics, a gathering outside the building, final song and Lord’s Prayer.

III. Some might believe that we are losing our heritage, but I believe that we are reclaiming our heritage. I see it in simple things, like conversations around the dedication stones and tower bell. Before this journey, many Presbyterians were only dimly aware that this congregation might have had former buildings. Younger generations had never rung the tower bell, perhaps didn’t even know there was a bell in the tower above a drop ceiling and through an access panel in the original ceiling. I believe we’re reclaiming our heritage by remembering the story God has been telling through our spiritual fathers and mothers, in their courageous sacrifice and compassionate generosity to preach the good news of Christ, to further freedom for peoples long oppressed, to seek God in worship, and proclaim God’s amazing grace, to educate children and youth, to create not one but four homes for the advancement of Christian mission and ministry, always building programs, services, staff, and facilities through additional renovations and expansions, all the way to the edge of breaking ground for a new building in this year of 2017.

IV. In the story God is telling through us, an important chapter concludes today; it’s important to acknowledge the discomfort we feel as it ends. We’re on the threshold between one status and another status, no longer fully at this location, not yet fully at another, no longer what we were, not yet what we will be. At this point in the story, it is completely natural to feel disoriented, anxious, even afraid. What do we do at a moment like this one?

Today’s first scripture reading from the 13th chapter of Exodus records an event that provides some guidance. Most of you recall the basic outline of the climactic events of the first Passover, and the subsequent exodus from Egypt. The Lord’s “Moses Committee” of one said “Eat the Passover meal with haste, with ‘loins girded’ (gather up your tunic and tighten your belt), sandals on your feet, staff in your hand, ready for departure.” Like my father’s family leaving Germany, like your ancestors, you can’t take everything in the barn, house, or church. If you do that, then you won’t move quickly enough to survive. It will weigh you down, and you will die. You have to trust that out there in that unknown wilderness, God will provide manna. It may be a roundabout journey with twists, turns, and delays, but God will give his children what they need to survive.

Most of us don’t recall a significant detail from this story. At the same time the Moses told the Hebrews to lighten their load and prepare for departure on a grueling journey, he also remembered to bring along a relic some might have thought better left behind. The text says, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”  At the same moment that Moses was envisioning the future, he was remembering the past, honoring and preserving the heritage and memory of his ancestors, as we are doing. The Hebrews couldn’t take everything, but they would take something, as we will do symbolically in our recessional today, and practically in the weeks and months to come.

V. More than once I have said to you that there is continuity in our history as Edwardsville Presbyterians. If we look closely, then we will see the repetition of themes and patterns. The “roundabout way” that God first led the Hebrews is part of it. Periods of disorientation, anxiety, and fear are part of journey. Yet, we must trust that God who calls us to this journey, travels with us, and leads us to a new home.

We have just entered a period of carefully choreographed moving and storage, organ dismantling and transport, asbestos remediation, window removal, building element salvage, and, finally, deconstruction. Tomorrow, this building will begin to resemble a construction zone. So I hope you’ll take the opportunity today, following the singing of “Blest Be the Ties that Bind” and the praying of the “Lord’s Prayer” to take a final walk through the corridors and rooms, and say “thank you” and “goodbye.”

When you walk away, may it be with more than simply a sense of loss or fear. Look forward with hope! The Lord is risen, and his Church is not just a building, but a body, built upon the foundations of prophets and apostles, reformers and our spiritual fathers and mothers, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone. At 2nd St., at Kansas St., at Goshen School, at Ridgeview Rd., may God’s children hear the Word proclaimed, be washed in the cleansing waters, and fed at the table of grace. Living Christ, be the chief cornerstone of our body, today and always, Amen.

NOTES

[1] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 3rd Edition, New York: United Bible Societies, 1975, pp. 122-126.