This was preached by Tod Dimmick, our Church Moderator this past Sunday as we dedicated our steeple. After much work and money, the Eliot Church completed a rather massive repair/renovation to the front of the church. Naturally, we had a party. In addition to Sunday's service we gave tours of the steeple and bell tower and in the afternoon celebrated our new piano with a recital in honor and memory of Joan Brack, a former pillar of our congregation and of the MetroWest Community. Our own Dr. Stephen James was the featured performer.
Incidentally, the term "Many Backgrounds...One Community" that Tod mentions, is the name of our current Eliot Church "marketing" campaign.
In a way, today’s topic is easy. It is, after all, the first thing you see as you enter South Natick. It towers over us as we sit here. It has loomed (some might say “leaned”) over our thoughts, not to mention our budget, for several years. It is a source of expense, and of income, of pride and of concern. It’s a complicated thing, this simple spire.
A cynic might argue that a steeple is an impractical thing. If our church were a suit of clothes, such a person might say, the sanctuary might be this jacket, and the steeple… this necktie. No practical purpose indeed.
But carry this analogy a bit further, and the contrast is stark. For many of us of the male persuasion in this room have a tie, and few of them are the same. Each reflects our personality, each shows that we are different, and each one, when we tire of it, goes to decorate a Halloween scarecrow, or into the trash. It’s a casual thing, a frivolous thing, and if it serves any purpose at all, it makes a lighthearted personal statement.
Not so for our perhaps impractical, but slightly larger steeple.
What is in a symbol? One could structure an entire university course around the role of symbolism in our lives, so here let’s limit ourselves to a few snapshots of our spire from different, but related perspectives.
Time takes on new meaning under this spire
Our steeple offers us at least one trait in common with great monuments of the world. It inspires us to think beyond narrow self-interest, indeed outside of this place in time. You have heard our leaders on the Steeple Committee, Bob, Fred, Michael, and Dave, talk about “The 100 year solution”. What, exactly does that mean?
Let us engage some friendly magic, and transform this sanctuary into a time machine to travel a century into the future. The year is 2105. It is a cool, rainy Sunday morning in October, and the congregation gathers. Families are here, widows, retirees, a young couple planning to be married. A baby cries, and is gently lofted in to the Buckingham Room. (Times change, but some things stay the same.) The people are different. The paint may be different, even the sanctuary may look different. But the steeple is there.
And wonder of wonders, the great granddaughter of one of us in this room is on Building & Grounds! Carrying on Bill Brodnitzki’s legacy as manager of the church building, she is responsible for maintenance of this space. After the service (the title of the sermon, by the way is “From Eliot to Eliot, Sermons of the first 350 years of the Eliot Church”) She climbs with a friend up into the steeple. They carefully look over everything, and say to each other “wow, those old timers, back in 2005, they did it right. They really cared about us”. And note, please, that she did not say that they cared about this church. She felt that we, in 2005, cared about them.
Through our efforts today, we send a message across time that, with a bit of luck, our great, great grandchildren will hear. The message is that we, the people of this generation, have faith in our community, and faith in the people who will stand in this place when we are no longer here.
So we return to good old 2005. But our journey is not quite complete, for time is a continuum, and what we have today is built not just for our great grandchildren, but built on a foundation laid by our predecessors. And so we must look back in time as well. Imagine a few of the citizens of this place. A man named Leonard Perry was elected clerk where you sit in February, 1828, 177 years before our current clerk, Victoria Pache. Horatio Alger stood where I am in 1870, the year the clockworks in the Ladies parlor was originally placed in the steeple. Or perhaps one of the women who, for the first time, were allowed to become members in 1883 after congregational vote. Perhaps they might smile to know that we are taking good care of their church.
We cannot reach for immortality, for that will never be in our grasp. But a legacy, and a tradition of stewardship that will stand through time, that we can strive for. We can do that. We have been given a great opportunity and a great challenge. As Tolkien wrote, “all that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”.
The Steeple reflects, and inspires, Courage and Faith
Two years ago our congregation decided to invest simultaneously in a full time minister, and this steeple project. Each separately a big step, together an unquestionable risk for our small church community.
Once the decision was made to engage in the steeple project, we could have done it halfway, cut rate. Did we do that? No! Our Steeple Committee, with our support, decided instead on a 100-year solution, to reach for the sky. Ask anyone involved and you know that there was never really any question of doing it right. You see, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror, and answer to the future occupants for our actions.
What gave us the strength to do this? It is perhaps a bit glib to claim the ethic of “doing it right”, but that instinctive answer goes in the direction of something deeper. Doing it right implies belief in what is right, and that it matters. That begins to sound suspiciously like Faith. Faith in ourselves, and faith in the future. Faith is what gives us the determination to take risks.
And so if we stand for anything as a church community it is faith, and hope, and belief that we ask questions, and look at the world, in a way that has value and meaning and grace. What better way to show this than through our physical works as well as our spirits, to reach towards heaven?
One Steeple represents unity, or as the message of our new ad in the papers puts it, “Many Backgrounds… One Church Community”
Our steeple is a symbol, one that makes me think of other such symbols, such as the New England favorite, the lighthouse. The image of a lighthouse, a proud tower fixed to solid rock amidst the stormy seas, connotes strength and safety. A steeple stands for a different kind of security, but there are common elements. Behind our rushing to work, to school, on errands, to our services here, above our celebrations, and as silent witness to our grief, it is here. To paraphrase Adam’s recent words, it just is, and we are comforted.
It’s a funny word, community. This is a big country, and an even bigger world. In the old days, people who lived near this church didn’t travel very far from it. The word community in that time possessed simultaneously a physical and spiritual meaning we know only in a distant sense. Conventional wisdom is that that notion of community is, if not extinct, at least an endangered species. That in our hectic multi career, move coast to coast, drive-through lives we don’t even have time for community around the family dinner table, much less a cluster of homes around a meetinghouse church. I agree with a lot of that perspective. It is all to easy for me to mistake being busy with being fulfilled, and it is a rare occasion, often here in this space, when I allow things to slow down enough in my life to soak in what, and who, is around me.
But in another sense the notion of community is changing. The sense I speak of here is troublesome. Whether we hear the news of Iraq, or Israel, or Washington, people too often define themselves by what separates them. Limitless communication fosters chat rooms, online games, and so-called communities oriented around all kinds of obsessions, some healthy, some less so, but increasingly strident. These fractious groups give a member a feeling of belonging, even if he or she never knows other members. A religion of the necktie, gone horribly wrong. I’m different from you, therefore I won’t associate with you. Or worse.
Our steeple stands in contrast, as a symbol of a community we all might aspire to: inclusive, rather than excluding. That a person here comes from a different religious background is not suspicious, it is an opportunity. (We no longer, of course, seek to convert people with different beliefs, as was once the mission of this church.) That one of my friends is passionate about helping the poor of our town, while another finds inspiration in teaching our children, while another in caring for members in need, and yet another finds fulfillment in study of Asian religions, all together make our community a joyous, meaningful learning experiment in life. To me, our steeple transmits that message. It stands at a bustling intersection of diverse lives. We come different, but we celebrate that which is the same. And we have much to celebrate. We believe in the value each of us brings into this place. We believe that there is good in this world, and that the role we play is a part of that good. And we recognize that in coming together we share dreams and hopes. This steeple reaches towards the sky for all of us, to show that that which we have in common brings us together and makes us stronger.
“Many Backgrounds… One Church Community”. That message took many revisions, but when we arrived at that line, suddenly we all nodded our heads. Out of the many, one. One spire. One church, Bringing diverse life views together as one. Isn’t that what we are all about? It’s just a symbol, of course. But symbols take strength from real meaning behind them. And the meaning… that’s our job.
And so our steeple challenges us
If a lighthouse is a beacon for ships tossed on the waves, a steeple such as ours shines over our community, a lighthouse of the soul, shining a message of friendship and hope. Our steeple is our lighthouse. Thousands of people pass by every day who never even cross our threshold, but I like to think that we nevertheless share some of that message. This is a role much needed in the stormy seas of today’s world.
Our steeple is a prominent symbol, and, it must be said, how well we care for it speaks volumes about who we are. To go through the time, and expense, and sacrifice for something like this begs the obvious question: what does it stand for. And by proxy, what do WE stand for? That’s an uncomfortable question. That is the sort of probing that delves not only into the role of this church, but also the meaning in our own lives. That’s a heavy load; well deserving of a new steel I beam, if such a thing exists for one’s beliefs.
We have one Spire. Not two. Not one for each of us. One. Our church is about a group of people together, with one mission.
With this effort, we have set the bar high - a standard against which we now might measure ourselves in other endeavors. As we care for our members and friends in this sanctuary, do we similarly set an example? As a church community, do we stand as a symbol? In our own busy, creative, whirlwind lives, do we inspire? Will that person, in 2105, say to her friend “and that Annual Report from 2006 shows that once this project was completed, the entire church was energized. They went on from there to grow as a community that journeyed through life with a sense of wonder, and thanks, and energy. Boy, it must have been great to live in a time like that. Those must have been great people to know.”
And could I speak to those heirs of ours a century hence, I would agree with them. These people are, indeed, great people to know. The sky is the limit.
I submit to you this is one message we can be proud to send into the future.
Years from now this place will be here, and our new steeple will preside. And if we are true to all that this spire represents, a bit of us will be here too. With this we show that we have something to say, that we, calling across the years, have dreams and love to share.
I took my hands off the railing. I dared to look far out to sea where a vast fog bank was billowing up the coast. I turned again and watched the lights coming on in the hillside town of Stockton Springs on the other side of the Penobscot River.
Then I chanced to look straight up. As I had at the open window of my boyhood bedroom, I reached my hand to the emerging stars and waited for God’s touch.
Maybe the reaching was that touch.