Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Giving Chapel

Children’s Sermon:
Do you know the children’s story, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein? I’ve always had a hard time with this book, even as a child. I don’t like it when the tree says to the boy, “I’m sorry,” when it can no longer offer the boy anything. I’ve always thought that the boy should tell the tree he was sorry for taking all of his things! But the end does give a nice picture—the tree still has everything the boy needs—just a place to sit.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this book and the Church. Not just our church at Haven, but all the churches, all over the world. I’ve been wondering if we’ve been like the boy and if the Church has been our tree.
In the Bible, we read that God strengthens us and takes care of us and is faithful to us, just like that tree. But have we done our part—we take and we take, but do we give? Are we leaving anything behind for other people?
I am confident that God will remain faithful to us and I am confident that God will have a seat for us if we need it—just like the tree, but I am also pretty sure that we have an active role in our relationship with God and with the Church. So today, I’m asking these questions of everyone: What can we do to help the church? How are we following Jesus?

The Giving Chapel
A Sermon Given to Haven Fellowship Church

The Chapel
The small chapel sat far back from the town’s well-worn main road, Main Street, or depending on your last name and how long your family had been around, Highway 7. In a field where apple, pine, and sweetgum trees sat here and there, and deer and other creatures helped themselves to the fruit and moss and other underbrush, the chapel was like an old woman in a rocking chair—content—happy with both her company and her view.
A creek meandered along beside the road and if it were emanating just a little bit of fog, the chapel would go unnoticed by most of the passers-by, covered over by the rising mist.
No one really knew who had built the chapel. Some older citizens speculated that one of the town’s founders, Old Man Peter, a builder, might have first constructed it with some of his leftover wood and materials. Others believed that the chapel was built over a good stretch of time by many different people.
The town itself was often seen as the only “living” section on the stretch of road between two bigger cities. It sat close to the top of a small mountain, and if a traveler took advantage of a hot lunch plate at Sally’s, he or she could stand in the diner’s parking lot, look south, and see the valley below. A quick 180-degree swivel north, and the view changed to an evident slant upward—the mountain top was near.
On the other side of the street from the chapel was the small home of Jack Swann and his aging father, Timothy. Jack could not hear well and sometimes when it rained, he would run through his front yard, pause at the road for cars to pass by, and run into the chapel’s field. Crossing the creek might have been an issue for Jack were it not for a tree that had fallen flawlessly over the water, connecting the pieces of earth together. Careful steps were still warranted on this natural bridge, but Jack’s quick feet had memorized the pattern needed in order to avoid a tumble and subsequent splash.
The chapel wore a tin roof, and any preachers of the past who were looking to make a point, loved hearing their own voices reverberate around the rafters as though the Holy Spirit itself were tossing truths around for emphasis.
For Jack, the roof was not needed to echo speech, but rather, to augment the sounds of the falling raindrops. A weary apple would occasionally hit the roof along with the raindrops, and for most people, it would make such a loud noise that their hearts might jump a little. But for Jack, the apple only provided slight percussion to the ongoing symphony.
About a quarter-mile behind the chapel was the grand home of Jane Cornelius and her family. Legally blind since birth, Jane’s glasses were a source of embarrassment for her and so she wore her coffee-colored hair long and willingly let it fall in front of her face.
When she was home from school, and the sun were shining brightly with zeal, she would make her way to the chapel and sit right in front of the altar and her gaze would drift upwards towards the back of the room. A single stained-glass window sat high in the eave, and it welcomed the dominating rays from the sun to illuminate its color. Jane could not make out the picture of the stained glass, but she could see the light and feel the light even without her glasses. And that was her first action when she sat down—taking off that burden—and they sat beside her as a quiet companion.
At least five days a week, William Lawrance travelled between the two cities on opposite sides of the town. He was a hard worker and rarely complained about the hour-long commute up, over, and down the mountain. He loved living in the big city and in the small condo that he shared with his wife and two children. The kids were happy in their schools and they all enjoyed their neighborhood.
And the commute itself wasn’t terrible—there was rarely any traffic, just the occasional deer to watch out for—and when he had an extra few minutes, he would pull off the side of the road and walk into the chapel’s field to one of the apple trees.
Nothing was better to William than an apple picked right off the tree. The word “fresh” didn’t begin to describe its flavor or its crunch. William would stand and eat, just for a moment, and he would glance out, over the creek and through the trees, and see the chapel. The serenity that those few moments granted him gave William pause to be grateful for all the wonderful things in his life.

The Trials
One day, a day like we all have sometimes, William and his wife started the morning with an argument. His commute to work was a half-hour longer than usual because of a rainstorm. Later on, he received a call from his eldest son’s school that his son was sick…and then, inevitably, a call came from the preschool of his second son who was presenting with many of the same symptoms as his brother.
Work was not going well that day anyhow, he’d had to fire two of his colleagues due to budget constraints, so William packed up and departed for home. With thoughts of job insecurity, he drove back over the mountain with some determination, ready to check on his boys and even more ready to settle into the recliner that used to be his father’s best seat.
Running over a piece of metal was not part of his travel plans; neither was the flat tire that ensued. William realized that while he had not planned this stop, he could at least pull over into his place on the road, near his apple tree.
He walked over to the tree, picked an apple and took a bite. He opened the liftgate of his SUV, resolved to change the tire, and saw that the back was full of his wife’s gardening supplies, all piled on top of the spare tire and tool compartment. With energy leftover from their morning argument, he gritted his teeth and declared:
Lord, why does she always do this? How many times have I asked her not to leave stuff in my truck!
He couldn’t wait to share his “See what happens,” and “I told you sos” with her when he got home. He grabbed a couple of the bags of garden soil and backed himself out from underneath the liftgate, only to discover with his head, that the liftgate had not properly lifted up the whole way. Bang!
With a new-found distaste for his current situation, he threw the bags on the ground, letting a flurry of choice words fly, and he slammed his fist on the underside of the liftgate. Of course, his wedding ring hit the metal part of the lock, adding even more emphasis to his questions for the universe.
William marched over to the tree and started filling his coat pockets with all the apples he could reach. He felt like someone was looking at him and he stopped, looked around, and saw the chapel staring back at him.
So? So what? This day is awful. This life is awful. My wife never listens to me and my kids are always sick. I work hard and we barely have enough to cover our bills with my paycheck. These apples are mine and I deserve them!
In an effort to teach that nosy chapel a lesson, he began climbing the tree, even shaking the branches, determined to knock off as many apples as he could. When his raincoat pockets and arms were full of apples enough to feed a multitude, he walked in a huff back to his car. He slipped and fell in a leftover rain puddle and apples scattered everywhere. William was soaking wet and apple-less.
“Hey Jane, catch this!”
It was her least-favorite game, but a group of kids at Jane’s school thought it was the best. Any number of items would suddenly be tossed her way, from pencils to books to paper balls, and the verbal indication of the game beginning never came quite soon enough. What always came quickly and viciously was the laughter from the players after Jane either fearfully ducked or wildly threw up her hands in a desperate attempt to block the flying item from her face. And the loudest laughs came when the “heads up” was given only at the moment the item hit her.
            “Butterfinger! What’s the matter, can’t you see? Can’t you catch?”
Jane’s only solace was in knowing that the taunts were as ignorant as their givers.
When she got home, she dropped her backpack on the front porch and ran to the chapel. Raindrops began to fall and Jane spotted the chapel’s door with a longing eye.
She sat in her spot and looked up, but today, no rays met her. No light met her. The clouds had stolen the sun for themselves that afternoon, on the very day when she needed to feel the light’s comforting warmth for herself. Nature had chosen its teammates and she had not been picked.
Her head sunk back down and she replaced the glasses on her face. She turned to leave, the pouring rain no longer a concern for her, but she slipped on a fallen apple as she walked out of the door and hit the floor.
She felt around on the floor for her adversary, found it, and picked it up. It felt good in her fist and her fingers gathered tightly around it as she drew back her arm. With certain audacity, she hurled the apple towards the stained glass window.
            “Catch this!,” she cried out to the window as its glass broke.
She didn’t stop running until she was beside her backpack on her front porch, her hair and clothes soaked from the rain.
After Jack’s shift at the local drugstore, he arrived back at his house, ready for a late afternoon lunch. He didn’t see his father’s truck and Jack supposed that he was out running errands or playing bingo at the local VFW post.
Jack settled into his peanut butter sandwich and TV station and fell asleep halfway through the sandwich and before the local forecast.
He woke up to a loud siren and saw the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car outside the front windows. He opened the front door and a policeman began walking towards him.
“Excuse me, is this your father?”  
The policeman pointed to a man on a stretcher, which was coming around the side of Jack’s house.
“Yes, it is! Dad! What happened?”
Jack walked hastily towards the stretcher and glanced around the side of the house. He could now see the corner of his backyard where his father’s truck sat parked, the bed of the truck open and loaded with tree limbs.
            “Jack! I called for you. I’m sorry that you could not hear me.”
“No, Dad, I didn’t hear you. I didn’t know you were here—I couldn’t see your truck out back. What happened?”
“It’s okay, son. I’m okay. I was trying to gather some of those tree limbs out back and I guess I stepped in a hole or something. My chest is a little tight, but I’m going to be just fine.”
A storm had moved through the town a few weeks before, and one of the trees in their backyard, an old, dying tree, could not hold itself together amid the wind gusts. Lots of limbs were scattered around their backyard. Jack knew that they were there, but he hadn’t gotten around to picking them up yet.
The paramedics pulled Jack aside:
“We think that along with a sprained knee, your father may be having a cardiac event.”
“A what?” Jack replied. “Is he going to be okay? I didn’t hear him calling. I don’t understand, how did you find him?”
“A neighbor saw him lying down in the backyard and called us. We’ll get him to the hospital—you can follow along.”
Once Jack arrived at the hospital, the nurses told him that his father had suffered a mild heart attack and a knee sprain, but luckily, would only need to stay in the hospital a couple of days.
Jack started home after he was assured by the medical staff that his father was comfortable for the night. When he arrived, however, he didn’t go inside his house. Instead, he turned towards the chapel’s field and started the walk over in the late dusk of the day.
His pace was deliberate but unhurried; he needed the fresh air and the comfort of the familiar field. The wind began to pick up, but Jack didn’t seem to notice the shift in the weather.
The wind’s pace quickened even more and the time between gusts shortened as though the sky would give birth to something soon. Jack began to feel a rush of emotions and just like that old tree in his backyard, he could not hold himself together any longer.
Tears ran down his face, his muscles trembled, and his brain fogged over with thoughts. He was scared. Yes…and no. He felt guilty. Yes…and no. He was grieving. Yes…and no.
He was mad. How could he ever care for his father if he couldn’t hear? How could he ever care for anyone? He was mad. He was mad.
He fell to the earth’s floor among the pine needles and pine cones and twigs, feeling the real and raw pains of each emotion. A large limb lay before him, a sturdy, thick one, but Jack, strengthened by his anger, picked it up with both hands, and lumbered it onto his shoulder like a baseball bat. He walked to the door of the chapel and started a series of methodical, purposeful swings.
With each strike and impact, he cried out:
            “It’s not fair!...It’s not fair!...It’s not fair.”
The battered door began to loosen at the hinges.
“Who am I? Why can I not hear?”
“How could I not hear my own father’s voice?”
“It’s not fair!”
            “Who am I…that you should love me?”
Jack’s revelation awakened him to more than grace, for he now realized that the weather outside was directing everyone to go inside.
He dropped his bat and quickly ran towards home. His weary feet, extra burdened by a weary spirit, were not sure, and his first steps on the fallen tree bridge were misplaced, challenging his balance. Gravity won, and Jack fell into the creek.
Shaken and saturated, Jack rose to his feet and rushed back to his house. Just as he went through the front door, a flash of light crashed to the earth and a boom of thunder quickly followed.
Jack jumped, turned around, and looked out across the highway, beyond the creek, and through the trees, and saw fire and smoke growing from the back corner of the chapel.

The Restoration
The smell of smoke and burnt timber lingered for days. The field and its few surviving trees were heavily damaged. No one approached the chapel’s leftover shell because no one knew whose responsibility it was to clean up, demolish, or rebuild the property.
Only the animals kept their routine. The deer and squirrels passed through the field as they always did, believing that something under and among the charred remnants would nourish them. Birds flew around the remaining trees, gathering sticks and other materials, obediently rebuilding their nests.
A couple of weeks went by.
Then one morning, William kissed his sons and wife goodbye as he headed out to work. He walked towards his car in the driveway and felt a few raindrops on his head so he ran back inside to grab his raincoat. He threw it on and felt something in his pocket. He fished out an apple, the only one he managed to come home with after his flat tire fiasco.
William immediately thought of his tree and his face turned to grief as he pictured the whole field and chapel, burned and bruised and abandoned. But as he held the apple in his hand, he a smile came to his face and called out to his sons:
            “Hey guys, come here! Come and see!”
Confused by the tone of his voice—it was glee-filled—the boys came quickly, followed by his wife.
            “Look! Come and see everyone!”
They all looked at the apple in his hand and became even more confused.
            “An apple? What’s so special about an apple?”
William, ignoring their apathy, took out his pocket knife and cut into the apple.
            “Seeds. Look at the seeds. Get in the car, everyone.”
Still unimpressed, the boys and William’s wife got into the car and William told them about his apple tree and the chapel and the fire.
            “We can go plant these seeds…we’ve got to go plant these seeds!”
They rode up the mountain and William parked the car. They all got out and walked through field and found a spot in which to plant their seeds. William ran back to their car to retrieve a shovel and garden soil and the family worked together to clear their spot of debris and decay.
From her bedroom window, Jane saw William and his family and went downstairs to her parents.
            “Come and see. Mom and Dad, come and see!”
Moved by the activity, Jane, her mom and dad, as well as Jane’s two brothers, walked into the field and started removing the charred remains—burned wood and broken glass—of the chapel.
Jack’s father, cane in hand, stepped out of the front door to get some fresh air and noticed William’s car on the side of the road. He looked to the field and saw the two families working.
            “Hey, Jack. Come...come and see.”
Jack heard his father’s voice and walked out onto the porch. Seeing, Jack smiled and walked over to the field, clutching a rake, and greeted them.
Other people from the town stopped by too. Together, they raised the tin roof off the chapel’s foundation and looked for any salvageable materials that might lie underneath.
Over the next few weeks, William and his family, Jane and her family, Jack, and many other people continued the rebuilding process. Seedlings began to spring up from seeds that lay underneath the scorched earth.
Stones and bricks, wood and windows, and other materials were given and they obediently fell into place. The tin roof was cleaned and repaired and then set back on top. The chapel began to take a new, and yet all-the-while familiar, shape. Bob, a local woodworker, built a new altar. Another passer-by donated a stained-glass window that once hung in his great-grandmother’s home.
A new door was attached to the chapel’s frame and etched into it were the words, “Look, here is the Lamb of God. Come and see.”
The chapel sat in the field peacefully, rebuilt, and renewed. The people sang “Come, Just as You Are,” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Amazing Grace.” And a sparrow sat in her nest, ready for Spring.