WE HAVE A STORY, 2: OUR STORY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2015; 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 16; 1 John 1:1-7

“…if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light,
we have fellowship with one another…”
1 John 1:7a

A popular thing to do, at some significant date — like an organization’s centennial, or the construction of a new building — is to bury a time capsule. Usually it’s a metal box, filled with memorabilia: coins, stamps, photographs, an issue of a daily newspaper. The idea is that the box will be dug up at some time in the future, and those future people will take great interest in the stuff we decided to sock away.

I can remember burying a time capsule when I was a kid. It was my father’s idea. He was in the process of constructing a low, cinderblock wall topped with red bricks, to mark the edge of our driveway. My brother Jim and I watched with great interest as Dad lay the cinderblocks out in a neat row, slathered some mortar on the top, then carefully laid on a second row. That was as high as it went, because the red bricks were meant to top it off. But before he laid those bricks, Dad called us over and asked if we’d like to bury a time capsule inside one of the holes in a cinderblock.

We had no idea what that was, but he explained. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, so we settled for an empty Hellman’s Mayonnaise jar, with a piece of paper tucked inside it. On that paper, Jim and I had written our names and the date, and I’m not sure what else. Someday, we figured — probably long after our family had moved on — somebody would tear down that wall and discover our little message for the future.

Every once in a while, I drive by that old house and check to make sure Dad’s wall is still there. It is. More than half a century has passed, but the day of the revealing has not yet arrived.

Sometimes people lose track of time capsules. It happens more often than you think. I never knew this before, but there’s a group called the International Time Capsule Society that estimates more than 10,000 of the things are buried all around the United States and have been forgotten.

Historians know that, when President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793, he very likely placed some items inside it. Those historians would love to see what’s in there, but the problem is — with all the additions and improvements to the building over the years — nobody remembers where the cornerstone is located.

Just before the year 2000, city officials in Fillmore, California went looking for their millennium time capsule that had been buried back in the 1970s. Much to their chagrin, they couldn’t find it. They dug and dug in various logical places, but no luck. Who knows, maybe someone will run across the thing before the dawning of the next millennium.

*****

That’s the way it is, with history. The stories that are so important to us, here in our own time, have a way of being forgotten. If you look at the wall to your left, you’ll see a nearly forgotten piece of our congregational history — and it wasn’t that long ago.

The bronze plaque is dedicated to the memory of one Arthur Cleveland Mosier. Mr. Mosier’s daughter, Frances Forsyth, was still living and in her seventies at the time I came here as pastor, 25 years ago. She told me her father was for many, many years the teacher of the adult Sunday School class — which no longer exists. The plaque, though, was given by “the young people of the Presbyterian Church… for his outstanding work and devotion to our group.” The year was 1941. The war years. No doubt some of the teenage boys in that group would, a short while later, put on our country’s uniform and go off to fight in Europe or the Pacific. Kids grew up pretty fast in 1941. Nobody now remembers the nature of Mr. Mosier’s “outstanding work and devotion.” Maybe he helped some of those kids deal with their fears of what was to come.

Over here to my right is another, very prominent plaque. It’s in honor of this church’s second full-time pastor, William Luke Cunningham. The plaque says he was only pastor here for eight years (I’ve been here three times as long). But it also notes that he died here in Point Pleasant in 1897, at the age of fifty.

Maybe it was the fact of his untimely death that led the people of this church to take up a collection for such a magnificent memorial — but it also may have been something else. The plaque honors Mr. Cunningham for “his fervent piety, unsparing labor and large benevolence.” I never knew what that was about until I was reading through the church’s 75th anniversary booklet. It noted that Mr. Cunningham purchased, out of his own funds, this pulpit and the chancel furniture we’re still using, to this day. Evidently, he had some personal wealth, beyond the meager salary and the occasional basket of fish or clams that was his compensation. (Not a bad deal, for any church: a minister who buys his own pulpit. No wonder they put up a plaque in his memory!)

There’s another story about this church that I heard — maybe ten years or so after I came. I’d heard people talk of Ken Chittick, who served as pastor for 33 years before me. And I’d heard of his predecessor, John Townley, who served 33 years before that. There are still people around who remember both men. I’m quite sure there’s no one left who remembers the pastor who served before them. His name was William Yates Jones and he served for 25 years.

That was all I knew about him, until I was visiting one of our homebound older members one day, a woman then in her nineties. She was very clear mentally, and told me she remembered Mr. Jones from when she was a little girl of seven or eight. What she remembered about him was the morning she was sitting here in church, and saw Mr. Jones die while he was preaching. She couldn’t tell me what caused his death — heart attack, stroke, something else — and whether he died on the spot or a little bit later. But she certainly recalled the experience. It’s not the sort of thing anyone, of any age, was likely to forget.

I found it fascinating that nobody had ever told me such a horrible thing had happened — right here in this sanctuary. The incident never made its way into either of the historical sketches published at the time of the church’s 75th or 100th anniversaries. At the time I visited her, she was probably the only person still living who’d been there to witness it, back in the mid-1920s. I expect the experience was so traumatic for this congregation, nobody wanted to talk about it.

Some family stories are told and retold. Others, it seems, are all but forgotten: some intentionally so.

*****

The psalm we heard read today, Psalm 16, is one that always makes me think of this church: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.”

“Pleasant places.” Point Pleasant. They’re playing our psalm! And yes, we do have a goodly heritage here — both the stories we remember, and the stories we’d rather forget.

The Bible talks about the church as “the body of Christ.” It’s an organic image, the church as living organism. The church of Jesus Christ lives on, from generation to generation — long after those who can relate the tales and anecdotes firsthand have gone to their reward. It’s a heritage we hand on from one generation to the next: the many stories that together form our story, as a congregation.

That other lesson we heard today, from the first letter of John, likewise speaks of our interconnectedness as church members. “If we walk in the light, as [Christ] is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another.”

That word, fellowship is the word koinonia — one of the great words of the Greek New Testament. Of that word, William Barclay writes: “Koinonia is the spirit of generous sharing as contrasted with the spirit of selfish getting.” [New Testament Words, p. 173.]

It’s a word with commercial associations. It’s often used, in other Greek literature of the day, to refer to a business partnership. Two people in business together share fellowship with one another, as they hold their financial and material resources in common. Because most businesses in the ancient world were “mom and pop” operations, koinonia often refers to family relationships as well.

It’s a rather extraordinary thing that John expands the meaning of the word to refer to life in the church. The church is, of course, much bigger and more complex than any business partnership or any human family. Yet the relationships we share here are meant to mirror those close working partnerships.

I believe the world today has a tremendous hunger for that kind of human relationship. It used to be, when communities were more settled, and people didn’t move around so often as they do today, that there was a strong web of neighborly relationships that supplemented those connections between family members. You’d heard the saying, I’m sure, that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Well, villages were not such an unusual thing for our ancestors, even two or three generations ago. But they are a rare thing for us today.

Some of us who spend time on the internet have dozens, even hundreds of Facebook “friends” with whom we share a superficial online relationship. I had a birthday this past week, and I got literally hundreds of birthday greetings on Facebook. It doesn’t take much effort at all to wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook. The system tells you each day which of your friends are having birthdays, and all you have to do is click on something, then key in the words “Happy Birthday,” and you’re done. But those online “friendships” hardly feed the soul. There’s a sort of nodding acquaintance to many of those social-media folks, but there’s little real fellowship. It’s a whole new meaning of the word “friend.”

There’s a lot of loneliness out there, a lot of disconnection, a lot of people going it more or less on their own. People are hungering for a place where they can connect with others in real and meaningful ways. When you and I support the church financially, we’re helping to make sure that such a place continues to exist.

I believe the church — this church — at its best is one of those increasingly rare places of true fellowship. Now, there are certain things we do together that are called mission, that touch the lives of people outside these walls — and those things are vitally important — but there’s also value in simply being together, enjoying the fellowship we share with others who are striving, as are we, to “walk in the light as he is in the light.” Being here together — just showing up, week after week — is of value to us as individuals, but did it ever occur to you that your presence here in worship is important to others as well? That, if you’re not here, you will be missed? When you decide, bright and early on a Sunday morning, to get up from your home and come here, you’re not just doing something nice for yourself. The very sight of you — or a handshake, or a few friendly words — helps other people to know there is such a person as Jesus, who was raised from the dead and still lives today.

Together, we are the body of Christ. For some, the closest they ever come to knowing Jesus Christ is through this koinonia of ours: the relationships we share. Just being here, just participating in this odd and ancient activity known as worship, is a positive witness to others.

That’s because together we have a story. It’s not a story of plaques on the wall, but known as good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Embedded within that story there is another story, a story that goes like this:
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and having given thanks to God he broke it and gave it to them, saying “This is my body, broken for you.” Do this, remembering me.

And the same also, with the cup.

Unlike the many human stories that flourish for a time, but barely outlive the people they’re about — and unlike the time capsules we bury in the ground, then so often forget — this is a story that’s been repeated, time and again down through the centuries, unchanged from generation to generation. When you and I break bread together and share the cup, we are placing ourselves within that same story. It becomes, then, not just the story of people in the Bible long ago. It becomes our story too.

It’s worth preserving. It’s worth passing on to others. Your financial generosity to this church — and even your regular presence here, as God’s people in worship — makes that happen.

*****

So now, let us rise and say together the words of the Apostles’ Creed — for what is that but another expression of the story we all share?

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.