I was looking for some good words with the preaching task at hand for the upcoming Sunday. Recently, one of our Region pastors had a young adult son die of cancer. As part of the care of the pastor, his family and congregation, I offered to preach on the next available Sunday, which happened to be the day after the same church sanctuary held the son's funeral, officiated by his father the pastor. Preaching for a colleague is part of the ministry work we do, though I imagine from my own experiences of being kin as well as the officiating clergy, it's good to have an opportunity to sit in the pews without the pressure to be in the pulpit immediately the next day.
I shared a passage from Romans 8:31-39 as my New Testament reading. Here's what I shared on last Sunday morning:
In 1972, Fred Pratt Green wrote the hymn entitled: “How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ.” In the last verse, Green ends with some words that I wish to use as this sermon’s beginning words:
In Christ, who tasted death for us,
We rise above our natural grief,
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief.
Over the last few days, I imagine you have been feeling, well,…. I suppose the options to finish this sentence to describe our feelings range from descriptors like: numbed, shaken, bereft, stunned, pained, and the list goes on, multiplied by the number of hearts deeply grieved by the death of Jake. When Death comes, grief follows, and we struggle to put words together to express what we feel. And, at the end of things, we find some respite in just being silent and still, pondering the past few days.
In sorting out our thoughts, we turn to the wisdom of sacred text, allowing the ancient cadence of Scripture to provide a rhythm to help us reclaim a measure of hope and grace. I find myself wading into the language of Pauline epistles, which may be an odd place to start. Sometimes, we forget that Paul wrote his various letters not so much for teaching for belief, but in the task of helping churches understand, often in the midst of deep conflict, how their faith called them to live a life together in Christ. In Paul’s letters, we are richly reminded that there is a great strength in the various people called “Church.”
We gather each week in this sacred house of worship, seeking a little respite from the rigors of our lives, yet during a week like this, with a great loss felt deeply within our fellowship, perhaps we sit in the pews feeling shaken as well. I find in the midst of such times to recall Paul’s words to the church at Rome. Despite anything and everything that could go wrong, God does not abandon us. “Nothing” separates us from the love we know in Christ Jesus.
Charles Spurgeon, the great British Baptist preacher of the 19th century, had a personal motto: "Teneo et tenor". For those of us (myself included) who did not grow up learning Latin (short of the variant known as "pig"), the phrase means "I hold, and I am held". The saying is depicted in a stained glass panel in the Baptist ministry training school bearing his name in London. It depicts one hand reaching up and another hand coming down to clasp it. "I hold and I am held". Indeed, “Nothing” separates us from Christ.
Many years ago, I attended Spurgeon's College for a semester, so my wife and I worshipped with various British Baptist churches. One common practice among these churches involved the benediction that was given each Sunday. The minister or worship leader would invite the congregation to say the benediction. The first couple of times, we were befuddled, as the churchgoers did not bow their heads. Instead, they looked around the room at one another, reciting together this verse of scripture: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”
This practice of saying this verse together is a remarkable reminder of what draws a congregation together. While we are different in many ways, we are drawn together by a common confession and desire to follow God, known to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Our congregation is shaped by grace, love, and fellowship given to us by God. We experience this especially at times when we face challenges and shoulder burdens alongside one another. Especially these days, Ed and Chris have endured much this week. Such is the nature of "church", where we share the pain of loss with them, and many of you have brought food, cards, words of care, and love along with you.
It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.
And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”
And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”
And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”
In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.” (Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)
Once I visited a family who also lost a son unexpectedly. As we drew the visit to a close, I said, “Please know that the church is concerned for you and will support you in this time.” The father said, “After the past few days, that is more than evident.”
Such is the nature of "church". Little by little, even in ways we do not quite realize are graceful moments when we feel nothing but fumbling for the right words or if it's alright to offer a hug, in our own way, we have lived out the grace, love, and fellowship of our faith. Thanks be to God.