Sunday, October 05, 2008

"We Have Heard the Joyful Sound!"

This morning I had the fun of supplying the pulpit of a little church over the border in the wilds of West Virginia. Their regular pastor was away, they needed a Real Ordained Minister to preside at the Lord's table on World Communion Sunday, so they brought me in from miles away, under hill, over dale, to be there.

I arrived in good time, met up with Ralph*, my elder contact, and began get settled.

The organist is an elderly and honorable lady who knows not a great many hymns and is no longer capable of learning many more, so the selection is always left up to her. The hymn numbers were on the board at the front, but not in the bulletin. Hmm . . . what do we have? First one was an unmemorable but innocuous devotional number . . . second was "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," a good one, though in my experience it's generally used in Lent . . . . But the third and last . . . oh boy, here's my jolly old hymnodic bĂȘte noire, "In the Garden." On World Communion Sunday, we're going to sing, "And the love we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known"? I do not think so.

I said to Ralph* (who also happens to be the son of the organist), "Do you think your mom might be willing to substitute a mission hymn for "In the Garden"? It's World Communion Sunday, and that hymn's a little inward-looking . . . I'd like to send us out with something a bit more mission focussed . . . "

He thought that could be done, but as we moved towards the sanctuary doors to get a hymnal, we were greeted by the members of the adult Sunday School class, just dismissed, including a very ancient old gentleman leaning on a cane.

"So you're to be our preacher today!" he exclaimed, grabbing my hand with his free one. "I'm a retired Church of God minister, but I've worshipped in this congregation for over twenty years! You know, the Church of God has a mission in Kenya, and there the Church of God and the Presbyterian Church are like twins in Egypt! They get along so well! Just like twins in Egypt!"

As he spoke I spared a piece of my brain to rummage around for the source of the "twins in Egypt" analogy. No luck; maybe he'd give me a clue himself? Nope, and I couldn't wait for the happy event-- we still had the hymn issue and other arrangements to deal with. So as I excused and extricated myself, Ralph* handed me a hymnal and steered me to his mother, Ilene*-- though not before I was once again waylaid by old Rev. Goodheart*.

Ilene* and I looked through the "Mission" section of their hymnal: Neither she nor the congregation knew any of them. (Oh, dear!). "Let's try 'Evangelism'," she said. Not much more success there. But she knew "We have heard the joyful sound! Jesus saves! Jesus saves!" though she doubted all of the congregation did. I told her I knew it-- mostly-- and it was a good, rousing, outward-looking hymn to finish up with, so let's do it. I'm thinking, "Anything to escape C. Austin Miles' rank and unweeded 'Garden'!"

With one thing and the other, we didn't get everyone in and seated till twenty minutes past time, but nobody seemed to care. Ralph* began with announcements, and as he spoke, it hit me, "My sermon's too conceptual as I've got it written. These people are going to need some specific, bright-colored application, or I'll fly right over their heads. Holy Spirit, help me have the right words when the time comes!"

I didn't have to come up with the right words for the children's sermon-- it was taken in hand by a woman of the congregation. Bearing a globe, she called the large band of kids to shifting and tenuous order at the edge of the platform. Two or three erratic toddlers found the platform more interesting than the talk, so I came and joined them to lend a steadying presence, sort of.

Teacher asked if anyone could find the United States on the globe. One girl about nine or ten tried and tried and tried . . . Good grief, don't they teach Geography in the public schools anymore? Teacher finally put her out of her misery and showed her where America was.

Our own nation fixed and established, the teacher asked, "Can any of you name any other countries?"

"WalMart!" volunteered one tyke, and of course the congregation just howled. As the teacher tried to recover from that one, the discountenanced little boy turned his back on the assembly, trying to draw a couple of his little friends away with him.

Ilene* the organist and I tried to get him to turn around and pay attention.

"No!" he said, "I'm not going to! They're all mean!"

Oh, dear, again. The child probably thought the teacher had asked if the children knew the names of any companies, he'd given a perfectly good answer, and he got laughed at! That was mean! I can just see it, years from now: "I gave up on religion when I was four years old and the congregation laughed at me during the children's sermon!"

(Well, I've heard equally silly excuses for turning one's back on Christ and His salvation!)

The children's talk proceeded, and was wound up with the announcement that the Peacemaking Offering they'd been contributing to for the past few weeks would go to help poor and needy people around the world. So now would they bring their offering boxes to a certain table below the platform, the one where the flowers are?

The boxes were already there on the front pew, and the children picked them up and took them . . . back to their seats . . . to the edge of the platform . . . around and around the sanctuary . . . and finally, to the designated table. And may the denomination be half so effective and organized in getting the money to the people who need it!

My sermon began with lines like, "It's all up to us to bring peace to the world, right? God's sitting back in heaven waiting for us to do it. So we'd better get busy!" And from the congregation I'm hearing, "Amen!" "Yes!" O noes! That was meant to be satirical. Good grief, we human beings fight over the best way to bring peace, and that includes us in the church! No, people, not Amen, not Yes! That is a great big NO! Only Jesus Christ the Son of God can bring true peace, not us, not even our human version of His peace. Christ alone!

Lord, help me turn this ship around before we end up on the rocks! Whew! by the end-- with the help of the added applications-- they were Amening the sound doctrine, not dodgy cultural misconceptions. Though it's not because I cut any impressive figure in the pulpit. Hey, I had to make things more interesting by having assembled my sermon text booklet with some of the pages in backwards and in the wrong order! That long awkward pause? I meant to do that!

At this church the Communion table is very small, and their set of Communion ware is very large. There was simply no place to put my Book of Common Worship, as I had noticed when I arrived. So for (I think) the first time since I was ordained eleven years ago, I said the Eucharist impromptu, from memory: Great Thanksgiving, Sanctus, Words of Institution/Consecration (always do that from memory), Epiclesis, Acclamation, Attribution, and all. Who knows, I may do it from memory the next time and the next. Saves me fighting with the small print in the worship book!

Some of the same peripetetic toddlers roamed the sanctuary during the administration of the Lord's Supper. I being a stranger, they wouldn't come to me. Sob!

The time came to sing the substituted final hymn, and Ilene* was right-- Maybe half the congregation knew it. It doesn't help that the tune features some very wide and acrobatic intervals that not even I was nailing. But we muddled through with little or no damage to the ship, and I dismissed the people to a fine fellowship hour featuring a large repast of leftover pastries contributed by a local bakery. Enough and to spare to take a few home.

And back in the little narthex-hall, I was again accosted, taken by the hand by my old friend Rev. Goodheart*. He'd loved my sermon. He was so glad I had come to be with them. The Church of God and the Presbytery Church are like twins in Egypt! The Church of God has a wonderful mission in Kenya! He was so happy to hear my sermon! Twins in Egypt! Etc., etc.

I listened to him patiently. There is honor due his years and calling, and when-- if!-- I ever reach my ninth decade, I hope people in the church will listen patiently to me, too.

But then he looked at me and said, "God gave us the night time for a blessing."


"God wants us to use it to rest."

Uh, yes?

"You should take the blessing God gives you. The darkness is for rest."

Uh, what? Sir, I perceive you are a prophet! How did you know I was up all night Friday night-Saturday morning working on my sermon! And up till 2:00 last night making Welsh cakes?

Very strange! Sermon preached; will it now be applied?

Another member of the congregation invited me home to lunch with his family, but I couldn't take him up on it and still make a previous commitment I had for this afternoon. The invitation is open for the next time I come, however.

Which may be a long time, since I live so far away and it costs the church a lot in mileage to bring me. Still, it was a fine thing to get back down there to the little church way down at the bottom of the Presbytery Over the Border*. And if I got them thinking a little ways past their hilltop in West Virginia, past the once-a-year Peacemaking Offering, that would be a fine and worthy thing.

We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land, climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! 'tis our Lord's command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

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