Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 18, 2010
HANDING ON WHAT WE’VE BEEN GIVEN
Texts: I Corinthians 15:3-8
The Apostle Paul is “handing on” what he has “received”: that is, the Easter gospel, the account of Jesus’ death and of all the times and ways the Risen Christ has appeared to his followers. He uses the same words in I Corinthians 11 as he passes on the Lord’s Supper tradition:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered, handed on, to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread and giving thanks broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is for you.”
Paul was exercising a sacred trust: handing on what he had received.
This is what we do in religious community, parent to child, generation to generation: hand on what we’ve been given. And it involves all we have received: “scripture, belief, ritual,” as our church covenant phrases it, ways of worship, ways of believing, ways of living the faith and following Jesus handed down over two thousand-plus years.
It involves this extraordinary tract of land given to us by the Efird family at our founding, one of the most beautiful sites for a church I know. Elizabeth Raby, the Efird’s daughter, is the last member of that family still part of us, and she is here today.
This sacred trusteeship involves this sanctuary built without counting the cost, with meticulous theological, architectural and aesthetic planning and completely paid for on the day of its dedication, February 17, 1952. It is one of the most beautiful houses of worship I know.
It applies to the Aeolian-Skinner organ built in 1952 by the premier organ building company in the United States in that era, working at the height of its powers, the gold standard, the Stradivarius of organ builders. There will be no more like ours.
It applies to the continuation of the living Baptist tradition we’ve inherited with its unique combination of faithfulness and freedom and to the ecumenical flavor with which we’ve carried on that tradition from our beginnings, and ever evolving. Our first hymnal in 1943 was the Presbyterian hymnal, which signified that we wished to worship in the broader richness of the worship tradition of the larger Church.
The larger Church and this local church have not always gotten the Jesus tradition right, but we’ve gotten it right enough to be a living faith two thousand years later.
Paul did not get the Easter tradition completely right. What he had received and what he handed on did not include the first people to whom the Risen Christ appeared – women, principally Mary Magdalene. But he was doing his best to hand on what he had received.
Sometimes we out of prideful conceits and present enthusiasms monkey with the tradition. And, in God’s mercy, those who come after us will correct our mistakes. Inevitably our human mud spatters the truth of the gospel. As Paul wrote, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels,” crackable clay vessels – and all the better, he added, since the cracks allow the transcendent light of God to shine through. Leonard Cohen expressed a similar truth in his famous song:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And out! And this sacred trust applies to the spiritual gifts and natural talents we each have been given. God is calling us to exercise these gifts and abilities in the ministry of Christ. We hand on what we’ve been given. Today we exercise this holy passing on of what we’ve been given through our Every Member In Ministry Dedication. As you bring forward your tithes and offering and loose-plate offerings, we invite you to bring your Every Member In Ministry cards expressing where you give yourself or wish to give yourself to the ministry of Christ here. I hope a child will write: “I sing in the choir” or a youth, “I helped pack 26,000 meals in March.” Or, “I’m an acolyte.” I hope an adult will say, “I teach” or “I want to teach” or “I want to usher” or “I want to make calls for our Congregational Care Ministry.” Or, “I want to serve on this committee.” As you will see today, committee work can be holy work.
All this is a holy thing: handing on what we’ve been given, handing it on the best we can.
This is at the heart of what began three years ago as our 65th Anniversary Campaign, and what is now before us as A New Initiative. It began with a wonderful committee led by Jay Rivers: Bob Thomason, Dick Cornwell, George Currin, John Bean, Nancy Claire Morgan, Skip Gribble and Tillie Tice. And the visionary and energetic support of five co-chairs of that original campaign: Don Bryant, Cliff Cameron, Stuart Dickson, Christa Overcash, and Allen Tate. Then in the new phase Cliff and Amy Jarrett came on to be co-chairs with Jay in A New Initiative.
It began with the desire of taking care of our buildings by raising money for present needs and moving forward toward doubling our 50th Anniversary Building Endowment. I, we, cannot thank deeply enough Jay Rivers for his leadership these three years! He has given hundreds of hours and his best heart, mind and spirit to this effort. We met with key leaders one on one, then with the deacons. Together they pledged $1.4 million dollars toward a goal of 3.4 million! In addition, the Spangler Foundation gave an additional million dollars to begin a Cornwell Center Building Endowment so that the care of that building never encumbers the care of these buildings. We were well on our way, and about to launch the congregation-wide campaign when The Great Economic Unhappiness of 2008 hit. The campaign was put on Pause (capital P).
During the Pause some important things happened. The first gift to the campaign was by Allen Tate, Jr. in memory of Barbara Tate. It was the gift of a new organ console. A committee was formed and, with the help of one of the finest organ builders and consultants in the nation, they analyzed all the present and future needs of the organ and its uses for worship and designed the organ console we dedicate today.
How happy and grateful we are. You may have noticed the dying gasps of the old console in recent months. One Sunday recently we finished the service, Doxology to Postlude, on the piano. This was not planned creativity but emergency innovation.
The Pause also helped us identify and focus on present needs. Our Board of Administration and Building and Grounds Committee set to work. We did not know then that our historic and magnificent steeple was in dangerous shape. One chunk had fallen off and, thankfully, lodged behind one of the decorative vases in the structure. Getting killed by a steeple is not the way you want to die for Jesus. A committee was formed to inspect its condition and plan its repair and restoration. And a family has given a gift to cover its cost as part of our 65th Anniversary Campaign and New Initiative. You may have seen coming to worship that work has commenced.
The Pause also helped us reflect more deeply on “green” initiatives and how our church can be a leader congregation in energy conservation. An energy committee was formed. Their findings and proposals are folded into the New Initiative. We will save energy and budget dollars going to energy, freeing up dollars for mission and ministry.
And our Mission Board has been reflecting on how to spend the Missions Tithe portion of the campaign. They have a proposal on its way to you which will focus on Homelessness, helping people on the whole continuum of need from the most vulnerable to those one step, one helping hand away from getting into a home, or falling into homelessness.
So the Pause has helped us focus more comprehensively on Buildings, Green and Missions.
I’ve been the pastor of five congregations and each has had a “building program.” The first was a rural church outside Cynthiana, Kentucky, in a farming community. Richland Baptist Church! The building was a nineteenth-century wood frame, one-room-schoolhouse-type structure with two outhouses, male and female, in the back. The steeple had been removed a generation or so back and was replaced with a cupola-shaped roof. The steeple leaked, and they didn’t have the money to restore it properly.
When I was there another emergency arose. Over the years honey bees had built their hives in the space between the inner and outer walls, and in the summertime honey dripped down the sides of the interior walls. It sounds like a dream, honey dripping down sanctuary walls.
But the plaster was deteriorating and something had to be done. A building committee was formed. They decided to remove the plaster walls above the beaded wood wainscoating and replace it with paneling. They chose paneling with a plasticized veneer in a French toile design, decorative French Village scenes. Then they took the leftover paneling and repaneled the outhouses. We had the fanciest outhouses in Kentucky. But I was always a little worried that someone visiting the church would visit the outhouses first – and think that we’d taken extra outhouse paneling and put it in the church. We raised the money and got it done.
In my second church, Beverly Hills Baptist in Asheville, North Carolina, we needed a new and larger sanctuary. We had a great campaign, raised the necessary funds to begin construction, but the recession of 1979 hit and interest rates went to 18% and we went into Pause mode. I soon thereafter left, and the sanctuary was built in my successor’s time.
My third church was Crescent Hill Baptist in Louisville, Kentucky, the sanctuary built in 1927 in a Roman Revival style. It had extensive cast-concrete work on the exterior design, from the pillars to decorative frieze work. The frieze work had angels or cherubim, or “putti,” as the Italians would say. When originally finished the angels’ private parts were showing, which was O.K. for the Romans, but a little much for our Baptist sensibilities. And so the angels were sandblasted below the waist into undisturbing sexlessness.
During my time there the cast concrete began to crumble like the Sphinx in Egypt. We had to do something. A building committee was formed, and they discovered a process to stabilize the cast concrete, invented, by the way, by engineers to help stabilize the Sphinx. We took the opportunity to look at all our building needs, launched a campaign and a lot of great work was done to hand on what had been given to us.
Then I went to Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, where they had been working on a grand organ project for five years. The old one was on its last legs. During my time we built the finest French organ in the world – the tonal architect took care of the organs at Notre Dame in Paris. It has 10,615 pipes and 191 ranks. We renovated the Gothic sanctuary and redesigned the chancel area to accompany the organ. (That’s where the pulpit on the hydraulic lift came in, of which I spoke recently.)
The project cost about three million, and the church has one of the premier church and concert organs in the world.
Then I came to Myers Park Baptist, one of the most beautiful churches in America, with an organ console with a death rattle and a steeple about to fall into chunks upon unsuspecting followers of Jesus. Other issues were pressing upon us, like 58-year-old wiring in the sanctuary and yes, bees in the front walls. (All creatures of our God and King! Remove them from our walls and let us sing! Alleluia!)
So we set about to address these needs in our 65th Anniversary Campaign, now evolved into what we’ve named A New Initiative.
We began with an urgent and poignant recognition: that we here today are the last generation to know the first generation, our founding generation. Now would be our last opportunity for us to join hands across all our generations to do something significant for our church and its future.
What I have described for you today is a magnificent stewardship which has stretched across these 67 years, and today we get to join the great parade.
The great Catholic Theologian, Friedrich von Huegel, says that all living religion involves the unity of three elements: the institutional, the intellectual and the mystical. We need all three, and I love all three. There are moments each takes the lead. As today when the institutional comes to the fore. To use the words of David Brooks, in the institutional dimension we are defined not by what we ask of life but what life asks of us. In “taking delivery” of a tradition we see ourselves as “debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”1
On Easter Sunday morning I was sitting beside Todd Geer, our resident opera singer who grew up in this church. He showed me the yellowed, slightly tattered piece of sheet music he was about to sing. He pointed to the upper right corner where Jim Berry had inscribed his name, James A. Berry. Jim Berry, our minister of music for 29 years, had taught Todd to sing, had taught him the power and meaning of sacred music, had taught Todd this very piece and had himself sung this song in worship here. He had given the music to Todd; Todd was now handing it on to us.
It is what we do all the time, parents telling the story of Jesus, passing along the faith they have received, experienced leaders mentoring young leaders, teachers helping children imagine God, helping youth live God, congregations passing on buildings in as good a shape as when they were given to them.
Well, the sermon is finished, and I’ll step down. Kurt Vonnegut says that people come to church not for preachments but to daydream about God. Let’s keep our daydreaming going.
1 David Brooks, “What Life Asks of Us,” New York Times, January 26, 2009.