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All Saints’ Sunday, November 3, 2019 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Gifts from the Saints
Part of the sermon series:
“Remembering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–14, 32–34; 12:1–3
“O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
From the hymn “For All the Saints” by William Walsham How
About once a year, when I am at my parents’ home, I will take the time to pull out some of our family photo albums. Many of the pages have not weathered the years very well—the glue is turning yellow and some pictures are loose—but you can still see the faces. That is why I do it: I pull them out to look at the faces of both my present and my past. I look at pictures of me with my father’s grandmother we called Nanny, a woman whose glasses were thicker than any I have ever seen, who taught me how to play the card game Crazy Eights, who rode on the back of a covered wagon as a child, and who loved me fiercely.
Then I’ll pause to look at a few pictures of my mother’s grandfather, an old-fashioned Baptist minister, standing somberly in his black suit, looking very holy and very stern. I then flip to see pictures of people about whom I know little, farmers in southern Iowa who never left the family homestead, who gave me my name, a good deal of my stubbornness, and my blue eyes. Page after page of faces. Faces from both my present and from a past I did not experience.
I go through this exercise because I’ve noticed that afterwards I always feel a bit more centered, a bit more prepared to keep moving forward in my own life, to keep running the segment of the race I have been given to run. I think that happens because the pictures remind me where I have come from. They remind me of all the stories of my family’s past—both the good ones and the hard ones. They help me remember I have a history. I have a story that reaches beyond myself and my own little life. A story that will continue when perhaps someday my own great-grandchildren look at my old weathered, yellowing pictures in an album.
These are probably some of the same reasons why the preacher of Hebrews pulled out the family photo album for his own congregation in chapter 11. If we were to read the whole sermon, beginning with chapter 1, we would learn he felt his congregation was in danger of forgetting where they, as a community, had come from. They were in danger of forgetting they did not just emerge on their own accord. They, too, had a story that reached beyond them and that moment in time. And even more than that, if we heard the whole sermon, we would discover they, as a church, were also just plain worn out.
As Tom Long writes, the congregation called Hebrews was tired—
tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education,… tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus…The threat to [that] congregation [was] not that they [were] charging off in the wrong direction; they [did] not have enough energy to charge off anywhere. The threat [for them was] that…tired of walking the walk, many of them [were] considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith. (Thomas Long, Hebrews, p. 3).
So in the face of that challenge, the preacher dusts off the church family photo album and slowly opens its weathered pages. One by one he takes the pictures out of the album for the church family to see. He skips around a bit but also slows down and lingers at a few.
We see a picture of Abraham and Sarah, when they were somewhere in their ninth decade of life. Wrinkled Sarah reminds me a bit of my old Nanny, but then again, her pregnant belly offers a sharp disconnect. In the picture she is laughing, and he looks stunned. Their packed bags sit in the background. They are getting ready for the journey. Ready to search for their homeland to which God is calling them.
Then the preacher pulls out a baby picture of Moses—looking all sweet and round-cheeked. His dark skin shines with the river water that had seeped into his basket, though he’s tightly wrapped. We see his baby face and realize he had no idea what he would experience in his life, no idea that he would be called upon to be the liberator of God’s people, to lead them through wilderness and despair, through moments of deep disobedience and deep faithfulness. So much was yet to unfold for baby Moses, thought it would all be under the providential care of God.
The preacher keeps doing this, pulling out one photograph after another, reminding the congregation of all the complicated, often messy stories behind each one and how God was at work in them all. And as the congregation pays attention to these pictures and stories from their past, the preacher notices they are beginning to remember. They are beginning to remember they are part of a history much larger than any of their own individual lives, much larger even than the life of their own congregation. They remember they are part of a story that reaches back to before the beginning of creation, a story brought into being by the very God who claimed Abraham and Sarah and Moses, by the very God who claimed all of them—claimed them and was present for them in those times of their lives when they responded faithfully as well as in those moments when they completely missed the mark.
They look at those pictures, hear the stories, and remember that if they can just continue to breathe in that God-given Spirit, that they, like their ancestors, will find renewed energy to keep moving forward into their own future; they’ll discover a newly inspired drive to take up the baton and run their own small part of the marathon race towards justice and all-encompassing goodness that God was asking them to run, for they were gifted by God to be a part of this larger, ongoing story.
Inevitably one day their own pictures would be held up and examined by the generations who would follow them as those later generations also experienced fatigue and occasionally wondered if what they did as church mattered. Through their own pictures taken from their moments of “yes” to God, that small Hebrews congregation would be able to impart courage, faithfulness, and purpose to those they might never know but who would know of them one day.
Here at Fourth Church, over these past six weeks we too, have been pulling out some pictures from our own church’s family photo album, and the pictures we have viewed were ones taken at particular moments that we believe continue to shape who we are. We’ve done this because we trust that the act of remembering those stories would give us additional energy and purpose, that they would serve as transmitters of courage and faithfulness as we look to keep running our own segment of the race God has given for us to run as church in our day and time.
We have looked at the picture of this sanctuary in 1914 as it was being built. And as we stared at it we heard the words expressed at the dedication service by Thomas Jones, the chair of the Building Committee, who proclaimed in faith that the justification for the expenditure would be “proven by the service and spirit that would enter into the life of the community.” He then went on to say he hoped these structures might have a silent ministration of their own and that members and passersby might find an awakened sense of reverence of the presence and power of the unseen. Looking back, we know his words spoken in faith have, by God’s grace, become reality for untold numbers of people.
We’ve looked at the picture of the Japanese American congregation who gathered safely within these walls for worship during World War II, at a time when hostility against their personhood was high and suspicion gathered all around. Sitting side by side, we saw the snapshot of the minutes from the Session meeting in May 1953 that stated outright that our call from God was to speak up and to speak out. Those two pictures reminded us of our ongoing vocation to come into this space unafraid of standing at the complicated intersection of politics and pulpit, the news and the gospel.
We’ve seen more recent photos too. The one taken when Chicago Sinai fills this sanctuary for High Holy Days worship, as well as the picture from when our Muslim siblings invite us to break fast with them in Anderson Hall during their holy season of Ramadan. Those photos remind us of our challenge to make sure we remember God is God and that God’s arms might just indeed be long enough to embrace the whole world, calling on us to mirror a similar embrace of all people.
We’ve looked at more complicated pictures as well. We have seen a picture when former pastor Elam Davies threw open the doors of this congregation, literally, to all those who were poor or left out or shut out, regardless of the threats he received from neighbors about letting “those people” come here. And we’ve looked at the painful snapshots of the findings from our first three anti-racism task forces over these last thirty years, pictures that remind us we still have miles to go on our own journey into beloved community, yet we must keep on moving.
Just last Sunday we saw pictures taken in our Academy of Faith and Life classes, Center for Life and Learning, the Bible studies, and the myriad of forums and events throughout the years—pictures that remind us God has called us to nurture both our minds and our hearts, to use all the capabilities with which we have been graced, to not be afraid of the questions but to embrace them as a way of being open to the reforming power of God.
Today we have arrived at our final photo, at least for now. It is a little different, because it is one taken of a $25,000 check with the year 1914 written up on the date line. Down in the memo you can make out the words “from Rush property. For endowment.” And we realize this picture was taken by the Board of Trustees, right around the time when this building was built. The amount was the remainder of the proceeds that the church received when we sold our last location before this one. Some of the monies from the sale went towards finishing the interior of this space. But the rest of the money went into establishing the endowment.
Back in 1914 our leaders determined they did not want to saddle future generations with having to pay out of the operations budget for the immense upkeep of these awe-inspiring buildings, thereby inhibiting funds for additional ministry and mission. The hope, even back then, was that over time more people would make legacy gifts and that the endowment would grow in order to ensure continuing and expanding ministries yet to be imagined. As John Timothy Stone preached at the fiftieth anniversary of this church, our leaders knew this church was going to keep becoming more and more of a downtown church, with members moving in and out, to and away, as the city shifted and changed and grew. So they wanted to make sure it could always remain healthy and vital.
Dr. Stone and, later, Harrison Ray Anderson both remarked they hoped the endowment would grow to where it could support half of the operations budget, thereby freeing up all kinds of money and energy to be invested back into the work of God through this church for the transformation of lives, of our city, of God’s world. That check is how our endowment started. But their ability to imagine us is why.
Those who came before us thought about us. It is as if they took the church family photo album and turned forward to the very back, where all of the empty pages could be found. And they tried to envision the new photos that would be taken of life-changing ministry and mission 50 years in the future, 100 years in the future, 200 years in the future, for they knew they were a part of a much bigger story, a story that began way before they were even figments of God’s imagination and a story they prayed would continue long after they were gone.
They were generous with what they had for the work of the church, because they trusted God’s vision of what could be, both back then in their day and far into the future in ours. They wanted to do whatever they could to invest in that vision, not just for themselves or for the good of their families but for the future generations, for people like us, who could one day draw upon the pictures of their generosity and be inspired by them.
Today is Commitment Sunday. It is the day on which we receive your promises of what you will commit to the work of this congregation and Chicago Lights for 2020. The endowment continues to support about 20 percent of the budget, not quite to that dream of half, leaving 80 percent to us. And so I am asking you to give of your resources for the year 2020, for all of the ministry and mission God calls on us to make happen, for it won’t without your participation. But I am also asking you to think of your commitment as an investment in this church’s future ministry and mission, for by participating you are helping to keep moving this ministry into the future.
As Henri Nouwen has written, “If we raise funds for the creation of a community of love [which is what this is and aspires to become more of], we are helping God build the kingdom” far beyond our chronological time (Henri Nouwen, A Spirituality of Fundraising). We are making investments in future ministry yet imagined, trusting many more pictures have yet to be taken.
Frankly, I find it impossible not to be inspired by all of these pictures from both the Hebrews congregation, as well as our own. And then to know that all of those faithful ones from our past are now cheering us on as together we discover our renewed energy to keep moving forward into our future, our newly inspired drive to take up our batons in order to run our own small part of the marathon race towards God’s justice and all-encompassing goodness.
For we, like all of them, have also been gifted by God to be a part of this larger, ongoing story. May we add our own pictures to the book, be an active part of that story, contributing not only for what is but even more for what might be. Trusting, knowing, we now have the chance to be an inspiration for those future generations we will never know but who will one day come to know us. Amen.