I had never stood in a pulpit before. I am neither Dutch nor Reformed. To be honest, I had only been at a real church service of any denomination a handful of times in my life; where I usually worship we sit in a circle in a plain room. We read from the scriptures, we sing, anyone who feels moved can talk, and someone prays. Now I was responsible for a whole church service at a small Dutch Reformed church: asking for prayer requests, leading hymns, blessing the offerings in the baskets, giving the benediction. The only exception was the communion, which would be served by one of the elders.
I had been “hired” in desperation. The former minister of the church had retired a few months earlier and the elders were trying to find at least a temporary replacement. A friend challenged me that if I love Jesus, I should be eager to talk about him and tell his story. He reminded me of the words of the old spiritual: “You may not preach like Peter, you may not pray like Paul, but you can tell the story of one who died for all.”
So that’s how I ended up just north of Kingston, New York, in a beautiful little stone church built in 1732, the same year George Washington was born. The land was leased from the trustees of the Kingston Commons for annual payment of three peppercorns (if demanded). You can see initials of the builders carved into the stone on the back wall. There is a wonderful pipe organ, recently restored, that was built in 1820. When I preached some weeks ago, there was an excellent turnout: all of thirteen people, as gray-haired and beautiful as the church itself. I’m forty-nine, but I would have been the youth in this crowd, except that someone had brought her nine-year-old grandson and his friend of the same age.The Tuesday before I was to preach I had gone through the whole routine with the elders: stand up here, sit down again there, this prayer you make up, that prayer you read. But I didn’t really know what it would be like until I arrived on Sunday morning and began greeting the congregants. These were very pious people who had been going to church every Sunday for the last fifty-five, sixty-five, even seventy-five years. They loved the beauty of the service. They loved the repetition of the holy words. They loved how it made them feel to be in that setting and participate in that ritual.
So how does this relate to discipleship of Jesus, the revolutionary Jesus who says he came to bring fire on earth and wishes it were already kindled? What is the place of programmed religious experiences? Doesn’t true discipleship turn old ways upside down?
I didn’t get the whole program quite right. After I finished reading the text (from Luke 2, the story of Simeon and Anna), I was supposed to say, “This is the word of the Lord.” The congregation was supposed to respond with “Thanks be to God!” but they never got their cue. Luckily this church, like many, has some ladies who always know what’s supposed to happen, and who make sure it does. I heard a chirp from the second pew: “Thanks be to God!” which was joined by a rumble of voices.
It was time for communion and the elder stepped forward. Nick must be over seventy. He should be retired, but still runs his auto repair shop just down the block from the church. He’s the one who thought I might do okay as a preacher. Now I could see that he was more nervous than I was; he stumbled a bit on the reading but was entirely focused on doing the ceremony correctly. “Jesus took bread,” he read, “and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’”
Suddenly I realized something. It didn’t matter that I was in a tiny church with thirteen old people. It wouldn’t matter whether I was in a clearing in the woods or in St. Peter’s in Rome; these words were so huge that the world couldn’t hold them. There is something – somebody, actually – in those words too serious, too joyous, too great and wild and alive to fit in any building or conform to any spiritual tradition, and those words brim over with his personal, self-sacrificing love.
I thought of the text again, of Simeon and Anna. Joseph and Mary had come to a very ancient building to perform a very ancient ritual, and were met by two very ancient and very pious people. But they were two people who were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” and “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:25, 38). The temple must have been full of worshipers, but only those two recognized the Savior. Because they were alert and watching, they could proclaim his presence.
We are all so small in our little denominations, practicing our little spirituality, and having our little religious experiences. And yet he meets us. He loves us where we are, but always calls us to the great work and activity of his kingdom. There are probably some Simeons and Annas out there on the pews, I thought. You can find these “waiting” people, these “looking forward” people, everywhere. They are the people that are hungry for his presence, and I want to be one of them.
Something was happening there in the second pew again. Nick had gone on to the part about the wine, but everyone was still awkwardly holding their wafer, and the helpful lady was anxiously trying to get Nick’s attention, pointing to her mouth. Nick looked confused for a second, but then caught on. “Let us eat,” he said quickly.
Jesus is alive everywhere. I know. I met him in a little stone church just north of Kingston.
Tim Keiderling lives at the Woodcrest Bruderhof with his wife Annemarie. They have six children.Comments
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