My congregation is celebrating an anniversary week-end: the Methodists have been here for 180 years, the Presbyterians for 175, and and we've been together as a merged church for 80 years. We are an aging congregation, and I am working to maintain our orientation outward at a time when the temptation is to close ranks and take care of ourselves.
Happy Anniversary, Everyone!
As we began to prepare for this week-end, NY revealed herself to be our researcher extraordinaire. She delved into the cupboards and drawers in which our historical documents are contained -- themselves a testament to MF, our faithful chronicler -- and surfaced periodically with new finds and new information. Among her findings were news articles describing our 25th anniversary celebration in 1957, at which the Rev. Dr. Alfred Swan, who had preached at our dedication service in 1932, returned to preach a sermon entitled “Far Voices Calling.”
Hmmmm, I thought; we could do that again. “Far Voices Calling”: That’s a great, evocative title for an anniversary sermon. We didn’t find the sermon itself, or even the bulletin, which might have identified the scriptural text from which Dr. Swan preached, but maybe that’s good. No temptation to repeat the past when we don’t know what it was! But a good starting point for our present.
I did find out a bit about Dr. Swan. His parents lived here; his father was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church from 1916 – 1921. Dr. Swan himself was to become the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He was invited to return home to preach the dedication sermon, and then he was invited back twenty-five years later to preach for the anniversary. I’m thinking that in another 20 years, I can come back and preach from this title again for our 100th!
Our text this morning is an example of how profoundly the lectionary passages, set years ago by a committee, sometimes reach out to us in our present circumstances. It’s from the Epistle to the Ephesians, a letter ascribed to the apostle Paul and ostensibly directed toward the community of Ephesus in ancient Greece. Interestingly, today’s passage is written in the form of a prayer, the prayer of an evangelist and pastor for a church for which he cares deeply. Let’s listen to the words of Ephesians 3, verses 14 – 21:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Now there’s a far voice calling! A voice from 2,000 years ago, a voice passionately concerned about the church, a voice that speaks to other far voices. Who might those others be, and what does Paul say to them? To us?
I think that some of today’s “far voices calling” might be those of eighty years ago, those voices of the women and men who merged two churches to form the one that we know today. And those “far voices calling” might be those of the future, those of eighty years hence, to whom we leave our legacy of faith and commitment. And, perhaps most importantly of all, those “far voices calling” might be some of those that are not so far away, geographically or chronologically, but are perhaps far away in experience – those with whom we are called to share God’s abundance and to whom we are called to proclaim God’s love.
“May God grant that you be strengthened,” Paul prays, “strengthened through God’s Spirit.” Let’s ponder for a moment those Presbyterians and Methodists of eighty years ago. Talk about being strengthened through the power of the Spirit! It was the Depression. There was no money. BM told me that his family moved every year or so – every time his parents could find a house where the rent was a dollar less. And while some of us have talked about how the Depression was a little easier on folks in the country who could produce their own food than on those in the city who had neither the land nor the know-how of what to do with it, not all families out here owned land and farmed. And money was scarce even when food was available.
And yet, those people, our ancestors in faith, embarked upon a phenomenal project. A project that required a lot of labor and cost a lot of money. Men and boys raising and moving the Presbyterian church from across 302 to connect it to the Methodist sanctuary here. Women cooking up an endless stream of chicken dinners and oyster suppers to raise funds. Families sacrificing to pledge to the building fund. We should honor the sense of community that built this church, but we should also remember that the work was God’s, and that the motivation behind it came from the Holy Spirit. It was through the Spirit that the people were inspired and strengthened to build community and unity, and to address their challenges by working together. They set an example to which we all might pay attention today.
Those people of the Depression era, those far voices call out to others. They ring out with today’s words from Paul. Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts as we are being rooted and grounded in love. Intriguing words for pilgrims, for people on a journey, as we have called ourselves all year. Images of dwelling, of being rooted and grounded – like trees which grow in one place for hundreds of years. What can these words mean to us?
It’s tempting to hear these words and to look backward, to rest in a kind of sentimental remembrance of those voices calling from eighty years ago. “That Christ may dwell in us” – we can stay right here, in this exquisite and beautifully cared for building. “That we be rooted and grounded in love” – like trees, we don’t have to move. We can grow upward and outward right where we are, right as we were planted by those brave and determined church members of eighty years ago. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
But remember, “far voices” are not just those of the past. They are also the voices of the distant future, and the voices of the present. And to what do they call us, we pilgrims on the Christian journey?
“Dwelling” is a beautiful image for Christ’s presence in our lives. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he and his Father will dwell, will make their home, with anyone who loves him. They will come and settle in, curl up before the fireplace, and rest in peace in those who love Jesus. But what else does Jesus say? That “the Son of man has to no place in which to rest his head.” That we are to “go forth and make disciples of all nations.” If Christ dwells in us, then we are called to dwell in the world.
And what about being “rooted and grounded?” Does Paul, that great traveler in the Mediterranean world, mean that in love we are rooted and grounded in one geographical location? Does he mean that we dig in our heels right here and wait for the world to show up at our door?
I don’t think so.
I don’t know, and neither do any of us, who those far voices of eighty years hence might be. But I know that we are called to branch and leaf out in ways that prepare the way for Jesus to dwell in those people of the future. And we do that not by standing still like trees, but by following the example of the indwelling Christ who roots us in love, and by taking him out into the world beyond these four walls.
If Christ is dwelling in us, if he has made himself at home, set up a kitchen and plumped up the pillows of his bed in our lives, then we are called to carry him as a flame of love into the world. If we have been given the great grace of roots in the Christian faith and a foundation in Christ in this church, in this wonderfully sacred building, then we are called to fling its doors wide and travel outward.
Where do we go? Who are the far voices of today?
Some of them really are far away, geographically speaking. They are the voices of the orphans in Rwanda, about whom D came to speak this spring, and whom we generously support as they become trained in the skills needed for the adult world. They are the voices of schoolchildren in Liberia, to whose educations we are contributing through the purchase of a truck and the building of classrooms so that their hopes can be realized.
And some of them are close, geographically, but far in experience.
Think about the mission speakers who joined us last May, and what they told us about far voices. Let’s start with the Food Bank. Most of us are doing just fine where food is concerned. In fact, if the trunk of my car when I leave the Bs’ house is any indication, we are more than fine. Zucchini, anyone? But there are hungry people in this county. People whose voices have not been nourished by newly ripened apples and just-harvested potatoes. If we are rooted and grounded in love, then we are also called to share what comes out of the ground, literally as well as spiritually.
What about ACCESS? We all live in comfortable homes, homes that are warm in the winter – and perhaps too warm this summer! Even those of us who live in nursing care or assisted living sleep in comfortable beds, have the use of private bathrooms, and are able to store our belongings where they are immediately accessible to us. But we have neighbors who share in none of those benefits. People who live close by in miles, but far away in experience. The Beatitudes tell us that they may be more blessed than we are. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Luke. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says in Matthew. Well, we may not be poor in the literal, U.S. Census definition of the word. But if Jesus dwells in us, we are called to be poor in spirit, which means we are to understand that his indwelling in our lives means that we are called to do some out-dwelling ourselves.
And finally, what about Hospice? A lot of us don’t like to talk about hospice; it means death and dying; it means decisions and events we don’t care to contemplate. And yet, Jesus tells us, also in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Hospice, as we learned during our May mission month, is a place of respite and care for both the dying and for those who mourn their loss. Jesus, who dwells in us, invites us to journey with those at the end of life and those dear to them. More far voices calling us. Voices not so far geographically – hospice is about a ten minute drive from here. But for many of us, voices far from where we prefer to be. Voices to whom we are asked to carry the love in which we are so firmly rooted and grounded.
Paul’s words, Paul’s prayer for the church of Ephesus, and his prayer for us today, concludes with a phrase he uses frequently: that we may know the love of Christ so that we may be filled with the fullness of God. Filled with the fullness of God. Fullness that comes from the love of Christ.
When Christ comes to dwell with us, he does not come to cramp our style, to take up the spare bedroom, to clean out the refrigerator. When he invites us into the church, into his mission in the world, he is not seeking to sap our energy or to deplete our resources. Not at all! His love calls us to be filled, to be filled with the fullness of God. To be rooted and grounded in a love that gives us the firmest of foundations from which to move outward and to share God’s abundance.
That fullness, that love of the indwelling Christ, is responsible for the building in which we worship this morning. Those voices calling to us from the past say to us: Look at the work of the Lord! And let’s do – let’s look around for a minute. Look at the beauty of the windows, the sheen of the woodwork, the glow of the cross. Look at the archway that marks the physical merger of two congregations, two groups of people who chose unity over division. Look at the building that has housed eighty years of worship, of Sunday school, of fellowship, of joys and of sorrows, all shared as a people of God. Look at what God has given us, through the power of God’s Spirit and the hard work of our church ancestors.
And then listen to the far voices calling from the future and from the present: from Africa and from our own county. The voices of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the dying. The voices that might see this beautiful building as a beacon of hope, as the place from which we are called forth in order to share God’s great love, in both words and action.
This building was not intended by those long ago voices as a monument to something long past. It is not intended by God to be a museum for those in the present, or as a historical site for those calling from the future. This building is a springboard from which we are called to carry the indwelling Christ into the future and into the world. This is a building whose voices, past present, and future, voices wrapped in the loving power of the Holy Spirit, call forth
Unity, not divisiveness
Hope, not despair
Optimism, not pessimism
They call forth: joy in the presence of God.
And so: Let’s enjoy our anniversary today! Let’s celebrate the far voices it represents, voices from the long ago past who shaped our present, and voices from our community, our world, and the distant future with whom we are called to share the fullness of God. And let us pray together, as Paul did so long ago, that God use what God has built here to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. Amen.