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For Whom the Bell Tolls


Passage: John 3:1-16

Speaker: Rev. Michael M. Massar

In the early part of the seventeenth century, in a pandemic, that was sending waves of the Bubonic Plague over England, John Donne lay in a hospital bed where he heard the church bells next door toll in recognition of the death of someone. Listening to those solitary chimes gave Donne pause to consider how intertwined our lives are resulting in the immortal words: “No man is an island unto himself.” After the past year or so we can identify with Donne. What happens in Wuhan, China, affects us living here in Texas. . . What’s more, events of such epic proportion make us pause to consider things, to become introspective about life in general and our own lives in particular.

During my reading during this past year I came across a book of essays by Miller Williams. Williams, who taught poetry at LSU and the University of Arkansas, delivered one of his poems at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. I found the book of essays, The Making of a Poem,[1] to be delightfully insightful.  One in particular caught my attention. The title alone is worth thinking about – “Nobody Plays the Piano, but We Like to Have It in the House.” In the essay Williams notes items and customs we have around but no longer use. For instance, he notes that the buttons on a man’s coat sleeve once held his lace cuff out of his soup (we still have those, but as far as I can tell, for ornamental reason only!); or our tradition of the touching of two glasses in a toast came from those times when royals would mix a bit of their drinks together to assure each other that no poisoning was going on; or the shaking of hands, which once was a way of showing a person we met that we carried no weapon. Williams goes on to point out things in our homes which get no use but still are idols to lost ambitions – the copy of War & Peace on the bookshelf, the French cookbook on display in the kitchen, or the baby grand in the living room that has been there for three generations and for at least two generations no one in the family has played it.[i] Williams’ litany became existential in calling attention to relics of the past that are unanchored in our present . . . the family Bible that gathers more dust than use . . . records that are boxed in storage that haven’t been played in years . . . books that fit well with the interior design but still have pages that stick together . . . clothes that aren’t current any more and stored in hopes that their style might someday return. . . Williams’ essay becomes uncomfortably personal when we pause to consider the things that surround us that are vestiges that are now not just obsolete but reveal once-held dreams that have vanished. And to make my discomfort even more pronounced Williams got me to thinking about the church, an institution to which I have given the better part of my life. What are the things and ideas of the church that have gone not just out of style but out of relevance, certainly symptoms of an impending epidemic? Those outside the church have certainly noticed– Sociologists are telling us that somewhere between 20 and 50% of the people who were involved in the church won’t return after the pandemic. Can that be true? Those same sociologists note that even before the pandemic there was a sharp decline in numbers in the church. Did you realize that less than 15% of the people in Britain claim to be members of the Anglican church? But lest we act smug, there are now more people in our own country who are not affiliated not just with a church but a synagogue, mosque or temple than those who are. Further sociological studies point to the loss of confidence in the church because of the improprieties and inconsistencies with clergy and laity alike. These same secular critics note that so much of our religious policies are governed more by power struggles than efforts for justice. They go on to note sermons punctuated by a narcissistic certainty that in itself causes doubt and uncertainty. The litany of these criticisms are gaining such momentum that the church could very well become the piano in the room that no one plays anymore!

With those ponderings troubling me I began thinking in terms of Jesus’ “new wineskins” or “being born again.” What needs to be re-imagined or re-invented to make the church relevant for the future? What kind of church invests itself, for better or worse, in matters that are ultimate?

This morning, I will seek to answer those questions by my own understandings in hopes that they might serve as catalysts for your own calling.

First of all, coming out of the pandemic I want to be a part of a church that lets its theology direct its politics rather than vice versa. I want to be in a place that practices listening to one another more than practicing to be red or blue. I want to be in a place that practices loving one another rather than worrying about whether or not they agree with each other on everything. Why? Because God so loves the world . . .

Coming out of the pandemic, I want to be part of a church that is welcoming and affirming in regard to race, sexual persuasion and culture. I want an inclusive church rather than exclusive, one that is open to all of God’s people. I think very few of us understand all there is to know about race or gender or culture or so much more; but that is why I need to live and learn from those whose perspectives are different than mine. I love the sign at Saint Martin’s church in Canterbury, England, perhaps the oldest church in the English speaking world that gives rise to the hope of new birth. It reads:

We do not have all the answers.
We are on a spiritual journey.
We look to Scripture, reason and tradition
to help us on our way.
Whoever you are,
we offer you a space
to draw nearer to God
and walk with us.”[ii]

I want that sign to be out front of the church I’m part of . . . Why? Because God so loves the world . . .

Coming out of this pandemic I want to be part of a church that reveres the mystery of God, where worship is seen in experiential terms rather than performance . . . a place where songs and prayers are not cliches but invitations into the heart, a place where music, which I deem to be the purest form of prayer is shared in a contemplative form where congregation, choir and soloists share in the language of the Spirit, singing our parts but together. Why? Because God so loves the world.

Coming out of this pandemic I want to be part of a church that marvels in the magnificence of God’s creation, to be dazzled by the fact that there are millions of galaxies in space and millions of microbes in our bodies, so that whether we look with a telescope or a microscope we are in wonder of the grandeur of God’s creation; and I want to be a church that takes responsibility for the stewardship of this creation, to be environmentally committed to being caretakers of God’s garden . . . that we can reinterpret the old negro spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in His hands . . . ”, and transpose it so that we might sing with humble responsibility, “We’ve got the whole world in our hands . . .” Why? Because God so loves the cosmos . . .

Coming out of this pandemic I want to be part of a church that takes seriously the spiritual nurture of children, a church that voices its vows in a baby dedication, then takes those vows to heart by being intentional Godparents for them . . . to not parrot the cliched teachings of the past that children have to unlearn as adults; but to invite them and their curiosities to see the mystery and wonder of all of God’s creation. Why? Because God so loves the world . . .

Coming out of this pandemic I want to part of a church that takes its calling seriously . . . a church whose success is not gauged by the number of people in attendance drawn by a temptation to practice a gospel of certainty rather than truth, nor a church adored simply for the splendor of its campus because a church is not an edifice to be worshipped but is a place to worship . . .

In short, I want to be a part of a church that loves like Jesus. Amy Jill-Levine reminds us that later in John’s Gospel that Jesus commands us to love one another but to love one another like He does . . . This kind of love is revealed in a church that is: one that feeds the hungry with the food we bring and gardens we grow; one that quenches the thirst by the wells we dig and the water we bring; one that welcomes the immigrants in the policies we make and the care we share; one that clothes the naked with clothes of dignity and grace; one that ministers to the sick with courageous compassion; and one who not only visits prisons but makes incarceration places redemptive change rather than demoralizing punishment. Why? Because Jesus said so,because God so loves the world . . .

But being a part of such a church is not easy. So much of what the church currently says and does is about risk aversion. Being the church is a risky business; it is art that gambles on grace. Too much of the time we avoid controversies or we deal with issues that are passe or provincial. I love what may be an apocryphal story about the great Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney. Back in the 1950s, that period of time that I may remind you saw the emergence of the civil rights public struggle, the Baptists in North Carolina were arguing over whether to dance or not to dance . . . The story goes that at the state convention debate went on for an extended period of time when Carlyle Marney finally made his way to a microphone. When he was recognized to speak he took an extraordinary long period of time just looking over the folks gathered in the hall making all uneasy. After what seemed to be an interminable, uncomfortable period, Marney, in his God-like voice said, “Damn,” and walked away.

In an unvarnished way, I want to be part of a church that gives a damn . . . to be part of a church that believes in the redemptive love, the risky love of God, that calls for new birth.

There once was a woman who taught brain-injured children, and she was quite remarkable in the new and somewhat radical methods by which she taught; but by which she had amazing results.

For instance, one particular time she had her class stage a production of My Fair Lady. This teacher gave the lead role of Eliza Doolittle to a young woman in a wheelchair. And when this young woman wheeled herself on stage and sang, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. This teacher had a daughter who grew up to become a world class physician. She was instrumental in the early days of dealing with the AIDS epidemic. In fact, in those days which were fraught with panic and anxiety, this daughter, Dr. Joyce Wallace, worked in New York City with a courageous compassion to combat the dreaded disease. Dr. Wallace was a Christian who allowed herself to be blown by the Spirit in new ways and directions. She felt called to not only treat patients who came to her with AIDS, but she bought a van and cruised the West Side of Manhattan paying prostitutes $20 to be tested on the spot for AIDS. Even though she experienced the cynicism of so many people, including her medical colleagues, Dr. Wallace refused to be dissuaded from her mission or confined by the conventional definitions of what was possible. Her inspiration, she once shared, was her mother, who wasn’t afraid to try new ways of doing things for the cause of love.”[iii] I want to be part of a church that is not afraid to do new things in new ways for the cause of love. I want to be part of a church with people who imagine the world not as it is but as it might be Why? Because God so loves the world . . .

Will Willimon, former Methodist bishop, Duke professor and preacher extraordinaire tells about an inner-city church that had been in decline for twenty years. He described the church like this: “Dark hallways where children once hurried to their classes, now dark, dusty, vacant. Its empty pews staring back at the pulpit even on Easter. Grass growing in the corners of the church parking lot. The frantic search for some agency to rent unused space for a church now preoccupied with keeping a roof over its head.” Into this church a bishop sent a recent seminary graduate. It was her first assignment, and the bishop’s advice was “This used to be a good church, but it’s aged. There’s really nobody left but a group of old people who are just holding on. You keep them comfortable, and we won’t forget about you out there.” Ecclesial euthanasia?

Whatever, during her first week this minister met with the church’s administrative board and sure enough, it was a sea of white hair. The chairperson of the board said, “Well, dear, tell us a little about yourself—your call into the ministry, how you see yourself as a minister.” In the process of her response she said, “I’ve always enjoyed working with children. I’ve always felt as if I had particular gifts in that area.” There was nervous laughter in the board meeting. The chairperson said, “My goodness. You can look at us and see we’re long past those years here. Gladys, when did we last have a children’s Sunday school class here?” Gladys said, “What was the name of the bald-headed guy—during the Eisenhower administration I think it was. Or was it Lyndon Johnson? It was a long time ago.” But the young minister, while dismayed, faithfully carried out her duties in a gracious manner. One afternoon, about 3:00, she happened to notice children marching past the church. She was curious, so the next afternoon she looked and there they were again. She began paying attention and every afternoon children made their way home from school to empty apartments around the neighborhood. The minister’s prayer, “Show me the way” soon was answered. One day she was visiting a church member who lived in a small apartment. The woman was showing her an old scrapbook of yellowed newspaper clippings. She said, “You know, I knew Count Basie, and I played with the Dorsey brothers on one occasion. I played clubs up and down the East Coast.” The pastor said it was as if a light came on, as if a dove descended. She said, “Do you still play the piano?” The woman said, “Given enough time, enough Ben-Gay, I can. Yeah, I can play the piano. But I can’t have a piano here in the apartment. It’s too small.” “Meet me down at the church, 2:30pm Wednesday.”  Then she called up a couple of other people. “Come to the church at 2:00. I need you to spread sandwiches.” They responded to her request and came and spread the sandwiches. They opened up those creaking doors of the fellowship hall that led out onto the street—doors that had not been opened in years. They pushed the old upright piano out on the stoop overlooking the sidewalk. The old pianist sat down and began to play hits from the 30’s, then some ragtime. By 3:30 a crowd of children had gathered. The pastor passed out the sandwiches. The pianist moved from “In the Mood” to “Jesus Loves Me.” The pastor told them a story about a man named Jesus. The children clamored for more. Years later, nearly a hundred children crowd into that church every Wednesday afternoon. On Sunday, classes are full, taught by a group of women who thought that they were too old to have anything to do with children. Those children brought parents. [iv] You might say, the church has been born again, from above.

An old piano sitting unused in a fellowship hall became more than a monument to the past. All it took was someone to play . . .

John Donne was right, the bell is tolling and some day it will toll for us. But that recognition doesn’t need to be gloomy, doomy and foreboding. It can be the chronicle for new beginnings for being born again.

I want to be part of a church that is serious about taking this wild and precious time that Mary Oliver talks about, the precious moments given to us, and live with the gusto of grace. [v] Because you are here today I can’t help but think you do, too.

The bell is tolling for us this morning. Now, the question is: “Is the tolling the sound of ‘taps’ or the call of ‘reveille’?” Personally, I think it is an alarm telling us to get up and get going. What do you think


i           Williams; Miller; “Nobody Plays the Piano,” Making a Poem; pp.3-4.

[ii]               Egan, Timothy; A Pilgrimage to Eternity; pp. 19-20

[iii]              Thomas G. Long; “Boxes and Breezes”; Pulpit Resource; Vol, 27, No. 1; pp. 37-38.

[iv]          William H. Willimon; The Intrusive Word

[v]               Oliver, Mary; “The Summer Day”