Saturday, October 17, 2015

Surrounded By So Great A Cloud Of Witnesses

Funerals are great times to think about your cloud of witnesses and today's funeral at my Garland church for one of their saints, reminded me that a couple of people had asked me for a copy of the sermon I preached two weeks ago in Winnsboro.  I also got comments on my children's story that Sunday and I'll try to get a photo of my "Holy Ghost" and post it here.  There will be no words needed once you see it.  Here's the sermon:
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Today, I would like for us to think about the task we have ahead of us: we are embarking on a period in our church life where we will be asked by God to provide a ministry in Winnsboro while we are without an installed pastor.  This is going to be hard.  Some over achievers might even be tempted to say “Well, let’s just go ahead and get tired before we even start.”

I am not one to be intimidated by not having a pastor.  I've gone through about five or six transitions and they were always educational and I mean that seriously-- no joke or sarcasm intended.   In fact, I think the times between having a professionally trained clergy can be a great reminder that pastors come and go; it’s the congregation who stay.  It is Jesus who stays.  It is Jesus who is ultimately in charge.  Not having a pastor can be a refreshing reminder of exactly who is in charge of our church.

But I understand how it can be unsettling and a little scary. So I like to go to the Hebrews 11 and 12 scripture to make me feel better.  Having a Great Cloud of Witnesses cheering me on always makes me feel better.

(Reading Hebrews 11-12:1-3 follows…with a dramatic recitation of all the trials a tribulations faced)                 


So…..We’re probably not going to run up against anything as hard as they did. We aren’t likely to be stoned or flogged or sawn in half or anything else nearly as bad as that.  But we also don’t have the benefit of Jesus having lived as recently as 60 years ago like the writer of Hebrews….Jesus was so much more of a contemporary to those people.  He dressed like them, lived like them.  Our lives today are so much more different than when Jesus lived.  We fight an uphill battle to compare our lives with the “great cloud of witnesses” that Paul writes about.
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We have our more current witnesses:  We’ve had them right here in our congregation. And they lived in hard times.  This church was organized in 1871, barely after the Civil War ended.  When Johnny came marching home again one of the first thing he wanted to do was go to church. 

Our congregation started out with 11 members. The original sanctuary was across town on Church St. where the cemetery is now.   I’m guessing that we are the church that the street was named for.  Then in 1907 we moved out here to this location on Myrtle and Chestnut….We bought a school building that was located elsewhere in town and moved it to this site on log rollers pulled by mules. We’re sitting in that building.  An old school house.  Our pews,…. while refurbished in 2000 when the sanctuary was remodeled,…. Our pews date back to 1907.  You are sitting in 100 year-old pews.  Inside a 100-year old building. 

You are rubbing elbows with people who were influenced by people who chartered this congregation….the Templeton family are ancestors of Ann Moore.  Louise Reid and Whitson Reid, brother and sister who never married and left their entire estates to this church and continue to bless our church with their love.  We were blessed with men like Hoodrow Melton, whose hat still hangs in the Narthex. (check it out)  When the church appeared to be dying and had dropped down to 12 members, Hoodrow called the Presbytery and asked for help.  The Presbytery sent help.  They sent money and a full-time pastor.  And together they built the church back up to 85 members, which is about where we stand today.  There were saints like Myles and Dorothy Evans, Paul and Dorothy Bourek, Billie and Roy Bennett, the Agnews---there was a whole group who moved from the First church in Garland and retired out here.  Those of us from the Garland church still refer to this congregation as FPCG-East.  

From 12 members when you thought you might have to shut it down to 85.  You haven’t stopped.  

The day John Pflug was installed you had one youth:  Garnett Russell.  Today you have 25. 
  
You are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses whose names you remember and who relatives and descendants you know, who still sit in this room with you. 

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There is yet another Great Cloud of Witnesses.  And you are surrounded by them. 

Remember that witnesses, by definition, really don’t do much on their own.  Even Moses didn’t part the Red Sea on his own.  He only held up the staff God gave him.  God did the heavy lifting, so to speak.  Moses merely witnessed the Mighty Acts of God.

A witness in a court room only tells what they saw.

We are surrounded by witnesses today who can’t talk but who have seen it all.  Heard it all.  Every prayer.  Every Hallelujah.  Every sob.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have attended every Sunday worship service since 1907, who have never missed a Christmas Eve service or an Easter Morning, nor a wedding nor a funeral.  Who have felt every tear shed and every giggle suppressed. And you are surrounded by them. 

These witnesses are the pews you are sitting in.

The pew surrounds you, supports you.  From beneath. From behind. Barbara-Brown Taylor calls these old ones, these veterans-- by a term I fell in love with immediately:  She calls them prayer-soaked pews.

I am a great lover of these old style pews.  I don’t trust these new individual theatre type metal things with cushions….I half-expect to find cup holders.  No—I like the kind where you have one long plank and share it with a neighbor.  I grew up sitting in them at Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas, then raised my family in them for 30 years until they built a new sanctuary that included new more modern maple pews.  When we moved here I realized how much I missed those old oak pews.  By the time we built the new sanctuary the wood in the old pews had shrunk in the joints and sometimes the joints would fail and the pews might fall apart if you weren’t careful.  It became our habit to inspect the pew every Sunday and re-adjust it if we needed to before embarrassing ourselves in worship. Our family and the family on the other side of the pew would have to lift each side and jam the joints back into place.  It’s these little things that make a church family, I always say.

These things remind me of the pews at St Paul’s Chapel in New York City.  That church stands one block from the World Trade Center.  They say that only a miracle saved that church on 9/11.  A sycamore tree stood between the church and the twin towers as they fell that day.  The tree absorbed the blasts and when the day was over the only thing left of the tree was the roots. But not a window of the church was broken.

For the next eight months, St Paul Chapel served as a place of respite for the first responders.  If Barbara Brown Taylor wants to see some Prayer Soaked Pews, if she wants to see tear-soaked pews, she can go to St Paul’s Chapel.  That is where the first responders slept in between their shifts. This is where they could go to pray.  This is where they could go to sleep.

Then, eight months later St Paul’s Chapel was back in business as before, as a regular church. Which is what it is doing today, just as it was doing back in 1775 when it began doing just what our sanctuary does. 

Those pews were witnesses.  Those are prayer-soaked pews. They had their own job to do.
Our pews have their job.  They have done it for over 100 years.  Let them do their job.
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I invite you to close your eyes. Sit back and relax your body.  Let your back rest against the pew.  Take a deep breath and relax.  Feel the pew support your back.  Feel the seat beneath you.  Let the pew hold you.  Let it absorb your prayers.  Let it soak them in just as it has soaked in so many before this.

God, we thank you for the past of this church and for your faithfulness to us.  Sometimes we worry about the future even when we know you hold it in your hands. We pray that we may let the present be enough for us today.  Let us be fully present in this moment and in your comforting love.

In Christ’s love we pray.

Amen.

and here is the photo I promised of my rendition of the Holy Ghost. I've long wondered what kids must think. I finally got a handle on it when John Pflug explained that the German word "geist" meant meant both spirit and ghost and folks just got confused sometimes. And, if you think about it, they have a lot in common.  Sometimes I like to call it "Casper Supreme"--my own little nickname.  



Boo!


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