November 21 , 2021
(I served this congregation as their pastor from 1982-2004. I am Pastor Emeritus there. The congregation voted recently to put the 1853 meeting house up for sale. The upkeep on this splendid Victorian Gothic Revival building was requiring a large share of the congregation’s resources, and limiting other mission and ministry options. We met today to remember and celebrate our years in this lovely building. I was invited as the longest tenured living pastor to give a charge to the congregation at the close of the service. Here it is:)
In the 11th Chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
He then goes on to list some of the great figures of the Bible who lived by faith: Abel, Enoch and Noah; Abraham, Moses, Rahab.
Then he continues by saying, “And what more should I say?” (Always beware when a preacher says that!) “For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and obtained promises . . .”
Finally, he says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I have always loved the image and idea that in the church we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The great Alllen Window facing Park Square (designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany) depicts the cloud of witnesses singing the music of the spheres.
The 4th verse of the great hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” refers to this cloud of witnesses like this:
“Yet we on earth have union
with God, the Three in One,
and mystic, sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
Oh, happy ones and holy!
God, give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly,
may live eternally”
In my many years ministering in this sacred space I sometimes experienced this “mystic sweet communion” with the saints of this church across the years, the great cloud of witnesses that lived by faith.
I could name them, like the author of Hebrews did, but time does not permit, and I would leave someone out.
So, I invite you to imagine some of them with me, those you knew and loved here, who loved God and loved this church and lived in faith, hope and love.
This sacred space evokes their presence, but the good news is that they are not bound by this space. The great cloud of witnesses transcends any place or space.
The Old Testament was divided over whether the temple built by Solomon was a good idea or not. For some it was the focus of their faith. Others believed Solomon had put God in a box, that the transcendent God should never be too identified with a particular building.
And I have always found it fascinating that, though the temple dominated the Old Jerusalem, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, just the Lamb and the Light.
The church itself is not a building. Our Puritan ancestors never referred to the building as “the church”; it was always the “meeting house.” “The church” was the congregation. The word we translate as church from the Bible means “assembly” or “congregation.”
Do you remember the Avery/Marsh song we once taught our children here? It was called “We are the church.”
(I was thinking of singing it for you, but that might be a bridge too far!)
The refrain: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!”
The first verse went like this: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” (I did sing it, and the congregation sang it with me!)
So, the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield is not this beloved meeting house, it is the congregation. It is you. You are the church together.
The first part of my charge to you is to remember that.
And the second part of my charge to you is to be pilgrims on a journey.
Kara (the interim minister) reminded me of your love for the hymn “Won’t you let me be your servant” which we learned and brought back from a Stephens Ministry training conference years ago. One of the verses says.
“We are pilgrims on a journey,
we are trav’lers on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.“
Pastor and Scholar Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, says this about pilgrims:
“To be a pilgrim tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” and set out for the “Father’s house.” Abraham, who “went out,” is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” gives us directions: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (Jn.14:5-6) ([From Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p. 15-16.
So, my charge to you is first to remember that the church is not a building, the church is a people.
And secondly, as you move forward from this day and from this place be faithful pilgrims on a journey with and to God.
True, it is an unknown future, as all futures must be. But that’s alright.
I leave you with this quote I love from Corrie Ten Boom: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” God bless you. Amen.
(Photos: First Church, R.L. Floyd, 2004. Allen Window, Terry Yasuko Ogawa, 2021, Pulpit shot. Terry Yasuko Ogawa, 2021)