Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sermon from Sunday, January 15, 2017

Reading:  Isaiah 49:1-7 

One of the more destructive lies we sometimes tell ourselves as a church – or that we fall for when others tell it to us, is that we need to be successful, powerful and attractive in order to be able to do God’s work – or at least do it well, in the world.

One of the more liberating truths we discover – or get reminded of, is it’s not necessary to be any of these things, and that more often than not it is through the simple, the poor, the weak, the struggling and the broken servants that God's presence, power and grace are revealed to the world.

A few weeks ago Bob and Pat Disher emailed me a little story that they came across on the internet.  It stuck with me and a little research into its origin led to what may be its original telling by Rev. Howard Schade, pastor in the 1950’s of the First Reformed Church in Nyack, New York.

The story is about a poor, run-down church in Brooklyn, and a Christmas miracle that happened there.

The church was not always poor and run-down.  Once it had flourished.  Famous men had preached from its pulpit and prayed before its altar.  Rich and poor alike had worshipped there and built it beautifully.  But the good days had passed from the section of town where it stood, and the church was as poor and broken as the surrounding community.

The new pastor and his young wife believed in their run-down church, however.  With hammer, paint and faith they went to work.  They had arrived in early October, and their goal was to have things in shape for Christmas.

They worked hard repairing pews, plastering walls, fixing holes, painting, and on December 18 were just about finished.  Then on December 19 a severe storm whipped through the river valley and for two days the wind blew and the rain fell, and by the time it ended a huge chunk of rain-soaked plaster – about 15 feet by 8 feet, fell off of the inside wall of the sanctuary just behind the altar.

With great sadness the pastor and his wife swept away the mess but they couldn't hide the ragged hole.  The pastor looked at it and tried to remind himself, “Thy will be done!”  His wife just wept.  “Christmas is only two days away!” she said.

That afternoon the dispirited couple attended a benefit auction for a youth group.  The auctioneer opened a box and shook out of its folds a handsome gold and ivory lace tablecloth.  It was magnificent, nearly 15 feet long.  But it was so old and out-of-date.  Who, today, had any use for such a thing?

There were a few half-hearted bids.  Then the pastor was seized with a great idea.  He entered the bidding, and soon got the tablecloth for $6.50.  He carried it back to the church and tacked it up on the wall behind the altar.  It completely hid the hole!  And the extraordinary beauty of its shimmering handwork cast a fine, holiday glow over the chancel.  It was a great triumph.  Happily he went back to preparing his Christmas sermon.

Just before noon on Christmas Eve as the pastor was opening the church, he noticed a woman standing in the cold at the bus stop.  “The bus won't be here for 40 minutes!” he called, and invited her into the church to get warm.  She told him she had come from the city that morning to be interviewed for a job as governess to the children of one of the wealthy families in town but she had been turned down.  A war refugee, her English was imperfect.

The woman sat down in a pew to warm herself and rest.  She dropped her head and prayed.  She looked up as the pastor began to adjust the great gold and ivory cloth across the hole.  She rose suddenly and walked up the steps of the chancel.  She looked at the tablecloth.  

The pastor smiled and started to tell her about the storm damage but she didn't seem to listen.  She took up a fold of the cloth and rubbed it between her fingers. “It is mine!” she said. “My banquet cloth!”  She lifted up a corner and showed the pastor the initials monogrammed on it.  “My husband had the cloth made especially for me in Brussels!  There cannot be another like it.”

For the next few minutes the woman and the pastor talked.  She explained she was Viennese and that she and her husband had opposed the Nazis and decided to leave the country.  They were advised to go separately, so her husband put her on a train for Switzerland.  He would join her as soon as he could arrange to ship their household goods across the border, but she never saw him again.  Later she heard he had died in a concentration camp.   “I have always felt it was my fault — to leave without him,” she said.  “These years of wandering have been my punishment!”  

The pastor tried to comfort her and urged her to take the cloth with her.  She refused.  Then she went away.

As the church began to fill on Christmas Eve, the cloth was a great success.  It looked its best by candlelight. 

After the service, the pastor stood at the doorway.  Many people told him the church looked beautiful.  One gentle-faced middle-aged man — the local clock-and-watch repairman — looked puzzled.  “It is strange,” he said in his soft accent.   “Many years ago my wife — God rest her — and I owned such a cloth.  In our home in Vienna, my wife put it on the table” — and here he smiled — “only when the bishop came to dinner.”

The pastor excitedly told the jeweler about the woman who had been in church earlier that day.  The jeweler clutched the pastor's arm.  “Can it be? Does she live?”

Together the two got in touch with the family who had interviewed her.  Then they started for the city in the pastor's car.  As Christmas Day dawned, this man and his wife who had been separated through so many saddened Yule tides were reunited.

In the reading this morning, the people of Israel are struggling with a sense of failure and inadequacy as God’s servant people in the world.  They were a kingdom; now they are not.  They had a great temple and a royal city; now these are destroyed.  They used to be strong and other people wanted to be like them; now they are nothing – a laughingstock in the eyes of the world. 

They wonder: are we still God’s people?  Will God restore us, rebuild us, make us strong again, to be able to do God’s work?

To which the prophet says, why do we think we need to be strong, powerful or successful to be servants of God?  There will be rebuilding, the prophet says; there will be restoration and renewal for us.  But is that what it’s about?  Is that the promise, and what we are living for?  Is that even what we need, to be faithful and fruitful servants of God’s love and God’s good will in the world? 

Their time in exile was a rich but hard time for the people of Israel – a time when their faith and life and their understanding of themselves as servants of God were tested, deepened and enlarged beyond anything they had imagined before.

And is it that way for the church today?  Are we too in a time of great growth in our faith?  And our experience of faithfulness?  And our understanding of being servants of God?

Like the church in Brooklyn, does it matter, really, whether we are flourishing or seem to be floundering?  Like the pastor and his wife as they simply did what they could think of to be faithful, does it matter whether we’re in a high time or a low time of life’s cycles?  Like the people who found their way in to the church, does it matter whether we are successful or broken?  Does it matter if what we have to try cover over the big hole at the front is something old, used-up and unwanted?

What is it that makes any story, a story of redemption?  What makes the church a place of healing and reconciliation?  How do any of us – rich or poor, strong or broken, find a place in the story of God’s intended healing of all the Earth?

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