On Sunday, June 8, 2014, Christians around the world celebrated Pentecost, the day of the Spirit coming to breathe life into the newly formed Church. Early Christians experienced this day as a day when the Christian message began to accelerate, fueled by the Spirit and Christ's call to go to the ends of the earth.
On this particular Pentecost, the small town of Cambridge, NY, near the Vermont border, found Christians gathered for a bittersweet Pentecost celebration. The First Baptist Church of Cambridge, NY, voted to close its doors on Pentecost Sunday. While a difficult decision, the church was gladdened greatly by the support of their community. Two sister congregations (United Presbyterian and the Coila Community Church) opted to join with them in the final worship service, and the other two churches provided the hospitality and some of the food to allow the seven remaining active members of First Baptist (and all those who returned for the last Sunday celebration) to focus on the day's festivities. Out of such kindness and community effort came a beautiful day of reflection, grief, laughter, music and thanksgiving. It was my privilege to share the sermon that morning. Here are my remarks, referencing the Acts 2:1-8 passage as well as some wise words about dying and rising in Christ from the writings of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:53-58):
In rural England, you encounter a variety of old churches, built many years ago and part of the charm tourists find on vacations where they leave the hustle and bustle of London and the other great cities for the open fields and beauty of the English countryside. In the small village of East Coker in the southern part of Somerset, the village church is the final resting place of a noteworthy poet.
The ashes of T.S. Eliot, the celebrated 20th century poet, are interred there with a plaque that reads: “In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.”
As I read these words, I became quite curious. Many gravestones and memorial plaques simply list a person’s name, dates of death and birth, and perhaps another brief note (i.e. the name of a spouse, the deceased’s affiliation with military rank and service or perhaps a fraternal symbol such as the Masonic Lodge or a symbol of faith such as a cross, a dove, or a Bible).
The words chosen by Eliot (or perhaps one of his family members) create a different sort of memorial, reminding the beholder to remember that a place of burial is a sacred site, not merely for the noting of the last resting place of a famous (or just ordinary) person. A sign saying “Here on this spot is buried” is a bit too unseemly for my liking, something for a tourist coming to gawk rather than a guide to the pilgrim, reminding us in a graceful way to recall a beloved child of God, buried with the most humble of notices that here is his resting place.
Part of the plaque’s text is drawn from Eliot’s own poetry. We hear two lines:
“In my beginning is my end.”
“In my end is my beginning.”
The first line “In my beginning is my end” would be the most logical sounding of the two. We understand that life begins and it ends. Despite our best medical treatments and procedures, we cannot get out of death alive. Our beginning must have an ending, enough said.
And today, we find ourselves dealing with the complex grief of saying good-bye to a church.
Established in 1843, the First Baptist Church of Cambridge, NY, came together when Baptists around the locality decided it was time to have a place they could gather to worship together (and have countless potluck dinners!). The church knew adversity like any other church: pastors arrived and later departed (hopefully never in the middle of the night, destination unknown). Children were entered onto cradle rolls by beaming parents, learned the gospel’s stories and followed Christ obediently into the waters of baptism (the cold water of local streams and ponds likely reinforced their sense of joy when brought back up out of them!). People were born, baptized and married in the midst of the fellowship, first in the original building down the street and in later decades here in this place. And in the end, those who were faithful to Christ were buried, interred in other places, yet mourned most keenly by their “other” family: their brothers and sisters in Christ.
An abundance of ministry happened in the 9000 Sundays (and the days in between) for the gathered people called “First Baptist, Cambridge”.
Yet, we acknowledge humbly with the poet, “In my beginning is my end”.
We know that no one congregation keeps going forever and ever. Every church has a life span, a finite amount of time.
When I served in Vermont, I read the History of Baptists in Vermont, published in 1913 on the “centennial” of Baptist churches forming in our neighboring state. Even then in 1913, the historian noted a number of churches that formed and were no longer worshipping within the span of 100 years (a short time considering some churches can number their years in centuries, let alone decades). Nonetheless, the truth remains: no one congregation is infinite.
Like the humans worshipping within its four walls, even churches come to an end.
Yet as we mourn the closing of First Baptist, Cambridge, we also realize that there’s no “final word” on this day’s events until God has given it. For even as the doors will close, the building will cease to be the gathering place of a congregation that will disperse, a good number of things will come to pass well beyond this moment.
Christians realize that Eliot spoke the truth twice over. “In my beginning is my end” we must say with due awareness of the limits of life. Yet with our faithful witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can join Eliot in saying (perhaps even shouting aloud), “In my end is my beginning”.
If preaching is about speaking the truth in love, so must this day not end with mourning. Grief is certainly part of the subtext of a church’s final act of public worship, yet the text of church worship is not “death” but affirming the promised end that not only surpasses death, it destroys it fully. In our hope of the Resurrection, we see that the closing of one congregation’s doors is a time to remember with thanksgiving, tears and tremendous joy the 171 years of worship, witness and welcome that the generations of this church has provided here in this community. We realize that today is a day to cry yet it is also a day to celebrate, for we worship the Lord who turns our mourning into dancing.
“In my end is my beginning”, boldly states the poet’s epitaph. So the church members will disband yet join up with other area congregations.
“In the end is my beginning”, so shall the church building and grounds become something new and hopefully continuing in its service to the community.
“In the end is my beginning”, so shall the church’s physical and financial assets live on in service through the congregation’s legacy building investments in the future of this community and the Gospel.
As this day neared, I would mention to colleagues that I was preaching a church’s “last sermon” on Pentecost Sunday. In addition to the sadness the news brought to them, there were also some confessional moments of befuddlement. How can you close a church on Pentecost? After all, it’s the day of celebrating the beginnings of the church, when the Spirit of God moved in the midst of the disciples, igniting the gifts of the many for the glory of God and the sending forth of a movement that would fulfill its mandate to go to the ends of the earth. On such a day of high celebration and birth, why would we bring up the sorrowful note of sorrow and closure?
We celebrate this day that Pentecost is not a day’s events from long ago. We celebrate the tremendous winds of the Spirit of God always moving in the midst of the people of God. The places of worship may ebb and flow, open and close, yet the worship of God never ceases. The membership may rise and fall with one parish roll, yet the Body of Christ is always growing with abundance.
May we remember this day fondly and prayerfully and honor the tears as they flow. May we walk from this place, knowing that the band of believers goes onward to join up with others around town and in the nearby communities. May we remember that this day celebrates as all the other days before it and yet to come, that the story of First Baptist, Cambridge, is not finished, for it is part of the greatest story still unfolding: the gospel made known through the witness of Christ and his saints.
May we remember as pilgrims each time we think of this church’s ministry in the community, of its 171 years of faithful witness, just as those who pass another country parish church elsewhere in the world and behold the good word of a beloved poet, whose words we gladly revise this day to read:
In my beginning is my end.
Of your kindness, pray for the legacy of witness of the First Baptist Church
of Cambridge, NY.
In my end is my beginning.