Those of you who have been around for a while know how I struggle with sermon titles—and often wonder why I bother at all. So I gave myself a breather for a couple of months, only changing one word in the sermon titles as I preached on virtues.
Sadly, all good things come to an end.
But I did have a small moment of satisfaction this past week when, a day after giving Nan the title for this sermon even though I didn’t really like it, I read the columnist David Ignatius, who said: “Ruminations about past and present are inescapable this week.”
Toss in the future and maybe I was onto something.
So I want to explore two things this morning. They are somewhat disparate, perhaps without obvious connections. I simply want to hold them up in their individuality at first and only after that see if there is any way they fit together.
One is an occasion of solemnly remembering the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
The other is an occasion of looking forward in hope as we consider how we will support this congregation in the year ahead.
Let us start with the past and with remembrance.
I’m old enough to have had a grandfather who served in WWI—the “Great War” they called it at the time, when a second and even greater one could not have been imagined. It was also called the war to end all war, but, of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Until her death in the late 1970s my grandmother always referred to November 11 as “Armistice Day.” Eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 was the beginning of an armistice—a temporary cessation of the fighting between the Allies and Germany. The Treaty of Versailles—which in many ways set in motion the events that led to the second war—wasn’t signed until the following year. But for my grandmother and her generation this would always be the day that marked the end of the First World War.
We marked this event by a minute of silence at 11:00 this morning as we remembered and gave thanks for those times when peace does break into our lives and our world.
In 1919 the Rev. Ira Houston, who was then the pastor here, wrote: “We have watched the final scene in the World War enacted during the past twelve months. We have been visited by the pestilence of war. We have been confused and bewildered.”
There was, I think, a note of realism contained in the observance of Armistice Day. The name tells us that we were not beating our swords into plowshares. We were not announcing that we would study war no more. We marked an armistice—what is defined as a temporary halt in hostilities. That was the best that we could do then—and after over fifteen years of ceaseless war and conflict in the Middle East, armistice seems to many the best we can hope for even now.
When Congress made Armistice Day a federal holiday in 1926, they invited “the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all people.” Those words sound quaint after all the years and all the wars that have followed; but we can still hear in them a dim note of hope that some kind of friendship between people and nations might yet be possible even in our time.
Several years ago now, a member of our congregation who is a Vietnam era veteran told me that he and some fellow veterans always take heart in thinking about the Armistice. It was then, he said, that peace, however tenuous, however temporary, broke out. And so that day speaks to him of the hope that what happened once can happen again, that what happened temporarily can become permanent.
When we remember the Armistice that hope calls us to create a future not of armistice but of peace. On this day of remembering we are invited to look forward, to consider again the kind of world that we are hoping to create.
Peace is fragile at best. Our careful attention is required if peace is to last.
And—even if it’s kind of a radical shift—this does bring us to the kind of support that we will give our congregation in the coming year. That is, we need to think about our stewardship.
I think you’ve heard me preach enough about stewardship over eleven years to know that stewardship is not about our financial giving—or at least that isn’t the first thing that stewardship is about.
Stewardship is about how we care for what we have received.
This year as we marked the 150th anniversary of our church building, we were reminded of what a gift this place is. The vision and hope and, yes, giving of other people built this place on this corner. People known and unknown passed it on to us so that we could care for it our time and so that we ourselves would pass it on to others. We’ve done a good job with our stewardship of this place—and the nearly finished elevator is one more way in which we work to open this to all people.
Of course, you know that this church is more than our building. It is the people—this congregation, which has also come to each one of us as a gift. None of us created this unique assembly of people—with our faith and our doubts, our hopes and fears, our strengths and weakness, with our prayers and actions and speech that in a myriad of ways exhibit to one another and to the world how we follow in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and unknown. All of this comes to us a gift, all free.
It’s easy to take a place like this for granted. But in recent years we know both how precious and how threatened such a congregation can be:
a place of honesty in a nation of lies;
a place of peace in a violent world;
a place of acceptance in a world of hate.
Sometimes a congregation—this congregation—can seem quaint, old-fashioned; but now we see that we are life-giving, counter-cultural, even vital to survival. A community such as this is essential for a good life. Here there are people who support, challenge, and know you. You need a place like this.
The value of this church—the place where you were married, where your children were baptized and nurtured in faith, the place where you found new friends, where the outsider is welcomed, where you have laughed and cried and worshipped the living God—the value of this church for you and for the world cannot be stated in simple financial terms.
So we care for it. We are stewards of this gift that we have received free of charge.
And yes, part of that care involves our financial support. So I invite you—again—to give generously and surprisingly—again—in the year ahead. I know that you will respond positively and enthusiastically to this invitation because in doing so we are—all of us together—building a future in hope.
Today we remember the past and look with hope to the future. Past and future don’t necessarily have anything in common. One hymn describes people of faith as “standing in the living present”—between memory and hope.
So it might be appropriate that we learned a new song today—and that particular song. When I first thought of including Siyahamba in our worship today I thought it would simply be a small way to mark the appearance of the Soweto Gospel Choir in our community this weekend. Then it started to seem as though that was just yet one more disparate item in what was already a jumble of a worship service. Perhaps, however, this song is what unites us in the present with the past as we look to the future.
This is a song of protest, of struggle, and of solidarity. Such songs grew out of the horrific oppression by the apartheid government of South Africa, including the Sharpeville Massacre and the violence after the Soweto Uprising. As we remember this, we in this congregation can also remember with some degree of pride that during the time of apartheid we supported the theological education of men and women of all races in South Africa through our Theological Education by Extension offering—and that support continues even now.
The English translation of Siyhamba is usually: “We are marching in the light of God.” The hymnologist, Michael Hawn says that those words contain layers of meaning. “We” may be seen as a word of community—the community of those living and the community of the living dead—what we call the “communion of the saints.” “Marching” is an action that unifies the community as they move physically and spiritually in the same direction. It is a bodily response to the leading of the Spirit rather than a passive acquiescence.
“The Light of God” is a symbol of creation and of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. It is also a common refrain in songs of healing throughout Southern and Central Africa. As we march, we can see our way ahead. Our path is clear. Where there is light, there is hope.[i]
So there you have it—maybe. We remember the past. We create the future. And here in the living present as we support this, our congregation, with all that we have and all that we are, the light continues to shine from this place. We can see our way ahead. And if we are true to our calling in this place we will help others see the way ahead as well.
Where there is light, there is hope.