St. Paul’s Congregational Church
August 22, 2021: Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Be Care-full – Pent. 15B
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
It was the last week in April when I heard a message on the church voicemail from a man inquiring about the possibility of having a memorial service in August for his wife who had died the previous November. We remember during those days funerals and memorial services were often postponed due to the COVID pandemic – terribly difficult times for families already but made worse by delaying the ritual that surrounds a death in the family. It appeared back in April that restrictions on gatherings were starting to ease and the time was right to begin planning for these memorials. Hence, his phone call.
When I called him back that day, I learned that he and his late wife Karen met in Nutley - Karen grew up here – and they were married at St. Paul’s in 1988. There was the connection to St. Paul’s but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever refused to do a Memorial Service or a Funeral if asked. Because, friends, it’s at times like these when things get very real for people – you’ve heard me talk about planting seeds of faith in baptisms and with confirmands – it’s at times of great sadness like the death of a spouse that those seeds often burst into bloom. He and Karen clearly had a great experience here at St. Paul’s when they were married so this was the church where he reached out. It was an honor to talk with him and, of course I said yes, put it on the calendar, and said we’d reconnect in August to plan the details of the service. Even without a music director here at St. Paul’s I was sure we could find a way to provide gathering music, a prelude and a postlude – we have some real musical talent here, don’t we. In the meantime we shared email addresses and phone numbers with invitations to be in touch if needed any time.
Now it’s August – time to plan the service. One of Karen’s best friends was a large part of that process – scripture passages, favorite hymns, who would offer remembrances – the most important thing was to honor Karen’s life and to commit her to God’s eternal love from a place that had meant so much to both of them as well as their families.
Sometimes there are requests for certain musical pieces that don’t seem especially suited for funerals but I rarely refuse them. What was special to Karen and others in her circle of family and friends was Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven – could we work that in, along with some traditional hymns as musical meditations. Everyone was fine with no singing except through their masks (everyone wore one). Ray had agreed to play the organ for the service and he was agreeable as well. So, I built the Order of Worship using these musical pieces as meditations, prelude, and postlude – along with scripture, words of remembrance and a short meditation.
I think it was Friday when Ray got in touch with me though – Stairway to Heaven just didn’t sound right on the organ or the piano – he’d listened to it by Led Zepplin on UTube – could we use that. Angela helped him set up the ipad and use it we did. You should have seen the congregation – there were lots of tears, lots of moving to the beat of the music, and they loved it - it provided a powerful remembrance to them of Karen’s life – one well lived and well loved. After that we ended the service with the ancient, beautiful traditional prayers, the commendation and the benediction. The postlude was Blest Be the Tie That Binds - played on the organ…..it was a good day.
So, what does all this have to do with our lessons for today?
Another reference to the Bread of Life this week – and the letter to the Ephesians tells us, among other things, to be careful. And I’d add another spelling: be care-full. Ray put it so well yesterday when he said to me, “This order of worship puts it all together! The hymns, the prayers, the remembrances, even Stairway to Heaven – and it gets all wrapped up in the postlude, Blest Be the Tie That Binds.
Ephesians tells us to be careful. To be careful how we live. Not as unwise but wise. To pay attention. To make the most of every opportunity. Ephesians cuts to the chase – things are desperate. We need to focus. Focus and understand what time it is. Perhaps this is the essence of wisdom – to truly know what time it is, to understand the significance of the present moment.
I’ve been reflecting and thinking about St. Paul’s Church and its future a lot lately.
Today a woman – I suspect she was local, perhaps a childhood friend of Karen - came up to me as she was heading outside, and expressed her appreciation for the service and also said she had no idea we were open to the public. She said, “You know, you might just see me here!” I told her this was the first in-person worship we’ve had since March of 2020 but we were doing remote worship and she could see the videos on our Facebook page. And if she checked out our website she’d find the links to join us on Sunday morning. I hope she will. And you’ll probably remember when we hosted the Food Bank, how many people expressed that they didn’t know St. Paul’s was still open! How do we change that perception that still seems to exist in the community?
And, I’ve been reflecting all week about this family and their friends who haven’t been in St. Paul’s for 30 years – since that wedding ceremony. What did they feel, experience, then at St. Paul’s that made them think first of coming back here for Karen’s memorial? What touched them? As we look around us today, what do you think the chances are that this will be repeated? How are we being care-full into our future?
It’s true that we don’t have as large a pool of volunteers that we used to have – we’re certainly not alone in that as a church – but how does our ministry unfold? What do we do well? And how do we express, live out, the hospitality we’re called to share?
I’ve been thinking about the members of the choir staying late and cleaning the pews in the sanctuary after their rehearsal – if that isn’t hospitality, I don’t know what is. No, it’s not their job to clean, but on the other hand, it’s all of our jobs to practice hospitality in all its forms. You probably haven’t seen the paint job the Nursery School did in the entry hall downstairs in the Parish House just these past couple of weeks. It looked pretty sad for sure – since they will be using the classroom on the 2nd floor this year, they painted both that room and the stairwell. It looks wonderful – clean and bright! I’ve been thinking about the 2nd floor hall and the display of pictures put up for the 100th anniversary there – and the fact that the hallway is dark and dingy and a little sad after 25 years. What does that say about how we feel about ourselves as a church – we probably don’t see it any more but a new comer or a visitor might wonder. How welcoming is our campus? Feeling welcome is a huge part of hospitality!
And if we hesitate to let a group meet on our lawn, what does that have to say about our hospitality? Our yard is a tremendous and beautiful asset – maybe a way to let our light shine in new, creative ways?
We’re all in this together – friends, if we’re not, we will not survive. If we’re not all in this together, we are not being care-full as Jesus calls us to be.
Ephesians tells us we need to focus – to understand the significance of the present moment. How would we describe the present moment at St. Paul’s? Our music program has always been one of our strengths – not just the quality and variety of the music but the closeness of the choir members is a model of community. In this present moment we’ve figured out how to adjust our music program to fit remote worship and our choir is back to rehearsing in community. But what about other areas of our ministry? Outreach and mission? Educational programs? Worship concerns - the COVID delta variant continues to worry all of us – and certainly can and will affect our decision as to when we return to in-person worship.
All of these reflections from a memorial service yesterday morning – yes, I put aside the reflection I’d nearly completed for today. The experience of being in the sanctuary, of celebrating a life well lived and well loved, and the preparation of the sanctuary by the choir, Ray’s participation and our conversation before the service - well, it was so positive and a powerful illustration of our Ephesians passage. Yes, more questions than answers for sure but we are called to make choices, make decisions, and then take action, surrounded by the love of God always.
But there’s also hope in this passage – be filled with the Spirit! That’s a choice too, isn’t it. Be filled with the Spirit – be filled with that which will never, ever let you down. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord! Great music that is harmonious in its differences – great music made up of many parts but coming together to create an awesome whole. Great music that comes together like the Body of Christ – each part, each instrument critical to the whole. Alone each is beautiful, true. But together, there’s a majesty, a magnificence that’s breathtaking.
Yes, there were some tough times this week – a memorial service is never easy but those tough times will, if we let them, point to the mystery of our faith. That God is always with us. That God waits for us to come to our senses and then welcomes us with open arms to forgiveness, to strength, to transformation. And our response? Gratitude. Giving thanks to God for everything, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This little passage from Ephesians says it all, doesn’t it. It moves full circle from evil to hope – it moves from an exhortation to be careful to a directive to live in an attitude of gratitude. Something in this passage touches everyone for sure – and maybe that’s the gift of scripture. It’s a living, breathing, relevant resource for how we live our daily lives. It can move us from being stuck to a transformation that goes beyond words.
There’s a charge to each of us here, as individuals and as church – it tells us how we are to live our lives – with care, with wisdom that takes a lifetime to attain – if we ever even reach it then – and then to be open to the moving of the Spirit that has the power to transform. It pulls us away from our tendency to schedule or to stick with what we know. We’ve got to be open to the movement of the Spirit and be ready to be surprised by grace that is so abundantly available to us.
And there’s the directive that ends our Ephesians passage this morning: sing and make music. It’s no accident that music is an integral part of our worship – music touches the mystery of our faith in ways that no words can. And I promise, you don’t have to be a great singer to offer God praise through music.
Ralph Milton writes about experiencing the power of singing – how it can bring people together and give them strength, when as Ephesians says, it seems the days are evil.
He writes, “I remember the Sunday after Martin Luther King was shot. We were part of a church in Teaneck, New Jersey, a church in which whites were a minority. King’s assassination was a terrible blow to all of us who had struggled in the black liberation movement.
“Church that morning began in chaos. The planned service simply would not do, but nobody really knew what should happen.
“And then, one of the men from our choir moved quietly to the center of the chancel and began to sing, very quietly at first, the anthem of that time: We Shall Overcome. We joined in, all of us, and we held on to each other and we sang it over and over and over, until we had sung out our rage and fear. We sang that song until it changed from an anthem of anger into an anthem of hope. And we were healed back into a community, a community where all of us could be together as God’s people.”
Let us be healed into a community as well – where all of us can be together as God’s people, where we walk together on our journey, where we can love, nurture, and challenge each other to be careful. Let us make the most of time – and know that every hour, every moment, every second is a gift from God. Go and sing and make music in your heart to the Lord – always giving thanks to God the Father for everything. May your days be filled with the joy of knowing that God is with us always, through our tears and through our laughter: that’s the promise and that’s our hope. Amen