17 October 2013
Preachers, they say, sing for their supper; and tonight I’m more than happy to sing for mine, and do so with the awareness that I’m not the first preacher to sing in this hall, not even, by a long shot, the first Episcopalian. I’m at the end of a long ago and storied line of preachers, and tonight I can almost feel their voices stirring in mine. The Celts, history tells us, were fond of what they called Thin Places: places and moments in time where the past can be felt in the present, and where the future, too, seems to pull up a chair up next to us whispering, You won’t believe the way our story turns out.
By the terms of Christian hope, the world is always shot through with thin places, where the life we live and the work we do rest on the life and labor of those who came before us in the wider hope of heaven. Thin places are paradoxically heavy places, ripe with time. The Celts called them thin because in them the usual barrier between past and present becomes transparent. This hall is a thin place in our history, and so a good place to lift up the work of stewardship.
Stewardship is about being faithful to the needs of our own place in time. We mill great gifts handed down to us that we might pass those same gifts, marked by our hands, on to the people who come after us. It’s sacred work. Whatever gifts we have don’t begin with us. Like the gift of life itself, the gift of the Church (the gift of St. John’s) is given to us in trust that we might pass it on in faith. It’s a moving story – both emotionally and literally, it has wheels. Here, in this place tonight, we eat in the memorial presence of the men, women, and children who celebrated here before us. It’s a thin place. We should take a moment of silence to feel the fullness of this place, imagining the people who lived here.
Here, the earliest Episcopalians of Old Claiborne paid the local Masons $50 a year to have church in this auditorium, to practice the due celebration of Holy Communion by use of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of you have ancestors who knew those people, others have ancestors who were those people, and all of us feast tonight and always on the generosity of those first Episcopalians in Monroe County. It’s something we should remember. They worshipped here in this place from 1858 to 1872.
So, I light this first candle tonight, one of two -- a fire in the heart from their sacristy to ours -- remembering the people of St. James Episcopal Church of Claiborne, Alabama. They were a people faithful in time: devoted to a given place in time, to local life, limiting their care and fidelity to a given place and people.
By the 1870s, Claiborne was a going gone world, and so the people of Claiborne and St. James migrated here to Perdue Hill. They took this hall with them, and only occasionally over the next twenty years held services in its relocation. Mostly, they filled the pews of the local Methodist Church, but eventually an old dream gnawed at them like an old ache, a pain in the heart, especially on the Sundays when former words from the prayer book came back to them like a whisper from another room, or when it seemed the Methodist preacher had carried on in the pulpit a little too long for their liking. Seized by a former dream, they replanted St. James Episcopal Church at Perdue Hill, and eventually built a small country gothic church no longer here.
So, I light this second candle -- a fire in the heart from their sacristy to ours -- to remember the people of St. James Episcopal Church of Perdue Hill, Alabama. It’s from their Altar we celebrate our own services of Holy Communion at St. John’s today: an Altar of beautiful carved oak, given in memory of Mrs. J.D. Ratliffe’s grandmother Ann Savage. Mrs. Ratliffe was one of the sacred seven — the ladies who held on to the dream of an Episcopal Church in Monroe County. When Perdue Hill also lost its people to migration and St. James became inactive, these fabled women carried the dream forward to Monroeville. For a time, as our parish records indicate, they attended services in both places, but eventually viable favor fell to Monroeville and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Joining Mrs. Ratliffe in work done on our behalf were Mrs. Charles Richard Crook, Mrs. Nora Hybart (whose name marks our baptismal font), Mrs. R. H Schneider, Mrs. Sam Forwood Crook, Mrs. Ed Clapp, and Mrs. John Hope Moore, Jr..
I say their names out loud to bring them into this place tonight, to evoke the thin place we always inhabit, where we might imagine those who came before watching after us now, and where everything we do, whether we know it or not, is also communally done for those who come after us. Stewardship, as the weeks ahead will show us, moves us in the direction of All Souls and All Saints – a harvest forever tending toward the glorious company of heaven, of those who love God in every generation.
To be a good steward, then, we’re called to be faithful in time, right now. That’s the work we’re given: this day. Not yesterday or tomorrow, but this day. So while we put our hands to holy things others prepared for us to use, we also give our hands – our life, labor, and treasure – to the place we inhabit, a place that needs painting, with pews that need filling and, you guessed it, a staff that needs paying. These may seem limited goals, but they are the actual goals of our place in time, and they are fundamentally similar to the original goals of why all churches begin, why St. John’s came to be, why people primarily come to church: worthy goals, marking our place in time with the abiding presence of Christ through prayer, song, and sacrament. And since it costs a lot more than $50 a year to keep our doors open, I encourage us all to be generous in the support we pledge to St. John’s this year.
And, finally, as there are only two candles here from an old sacristy to ours, I ask you to lift your glass in honor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Monroeville, Alabama. May she be to us – to those who came before us, to us in our own time, and to those who come after us -- a blessing and a promise on all our days.
With roots formed in the soil of Monroe Couny, and often pulled up in order to find the surest chance of flourishing through seasons of hardship and change, the story of how St. John's came to be where it is today is a moving story, both in its witness to the devotion of her most faithful members and in the various turns and stops she made on the way to her present location on Whetstone Street.
We're working at present to update the record of how history carried us from the rootstock of old Claiborne to present-day Monroeville.
The Rev. Beth Hoffmann
Priest in Charge