Rector's Ramblings January 31, 2018
This week I am sharing the sermon from this past Sunday. It was a sermon about legacy that apparently touched many of you. Since it served as my “state of the parish” sermon, geared towards the heart of the parish as we gathered for our Annual Meeting, I’ll share it here for those who couldn’t be with us.
Some of you have noticed that I have been experimenting with preaching with no notes. That means that although I wrote the sermon out in its entirety beforehand, what was actually preached doesn’t match the manuscript exactly. I am including both the original manuscript and I am including a link to the audio of the sermon, which would be the preferred way to review the sermon. You can do that here.
Christ Church, Frederica
January 28, 2018
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Tom Purdy, Rector
I’ve been thinking about legacies lately. Perhaps it has been the work we’ve been doing with the next steps of our master plan. I’ll be sharing an update about some of that at this evening’s Annual Meeting. But one example of what I’m talking about is how I’ve had to think of Christ Church when we talk about the reality of cutting down trees in order to create parking or build something, if and when the time comes. As we all know, the trees around here, especially the Live Oaks, are prized and revered. I don’t know a person who doesn’t grieve watching one come down. Pine trees don’t seem to be loved, but even so, we tend not to like it when a lot gets cleared.
As we consider how we will meet the needs of a growing congregation, we realize that we will have to remove some trees, and that is likely to be a discussion point as we continue our conversation. The Master Plan survey asked about tree canopy, specifically, and most of the respondents said preserving tree canopy is important, with quite a few giving it the highest rating of importance. So when someone criticizes the loss of trees in order move Frederica Road, for example, a piece of the plan we’ve been working on, it has led me to a response that is unique in some ways, for people and institutions on this Island.
While it’s true, a large tree cannot be replaced by replanting, it is only true in the short term. But Christ Church doesn’t; can’t think in the short term. Whether you want to start with Charles Wesley preaching under the oaks, or start with the founding of our parish nearly 200 years ago, we realize that Christ Church has been here a long time. Many of the trees around us that we love were here before the church, and will certainly be here long after we’re dead. We care for our trees. In the years I’ve been here, we have spent tens of thousands of dollars to maintain, prune, and care for our trees. Because of that, I can look at someone and with total sincerity explain the long-term response about trees.
Yes, this parish may cut down a few trees in order to move a road or make room for our ministry, yet we are committed to replanting as we go, letting a new, full canopy grow up. And no, it may not be as green and shaded initially as it is now. None of us in this room may live to see it as green and shaded in some places as it is today. But I guarantee that it will come, that canopy will fill in, and our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren will come to this place to pray and walk under majestic oaks that were planted by people they cannot even name. That is what it means to look ahead and make provision for where we think God is calling us. We think God is calling us to stay right here and keep doing gospel work, and so we’re going to plant trees to keep us cool and tend them until they grow and tower above us.
We’re not building a house that will be knocked down and replaced several times; we’re not a business that might last for a generation, maybe two. We have been here longer than anyone. The only thing older is the Fort, and while it’s physically older, the purpose and meaning of the Fort faded long ago. But not us. Not the band of Anglicans who worshipped at Frederica, who endured and persisted a host of challenges and threats. Here we sit, here we worship, and here we will remain. That is what a legacy is.
I recently stumbled on another part of our legacy. It involves Anson Dodge. I don’t remember how I found it, but I found an entry about Anson Dodge’s great-grandfather, Anson Green Phelps, the wealthy businessman whose daughter married a Dodge, creating the Phelps-Dodge dynasty. What I found was a reference to a portion of his will, and this is what it said:
"I give and bequeath to each of my grand-children, living at my decease, the sum of $5,000, to be paid them as they severally attain the age of 21 years. This latter bequest I direct to be accompanied by my executors with this injunction: That each of my said grand-children shall consider the said bequest as a sacred deposit, committed to their trust, to be invested by each grand-child, and the income derived therefrom to be devoted to spread the gospel, and to promote the Redeemer's kingdom on earth, hoping and trusting that the God of Heaven will give to each of that wisdom which is from above, and incline them to be faithful stewards, and transmit the same to their descendants, to be sacredly devoted to the same object.
I know this bequest is absolute and places the amount so given beyond my control; but my earnest hope is that my wish may be regarded as I leave it, an obligation binding simply on their integrity and honor.''[i] (underlining mine)
That blew me away. Talk about a legacy; a sacred deposit, devoted to the spread of the gospel, to promote the kingdom; a call to be faithful stewards and ask descendants to do the same thing. It was Anson Green Phelps Dodge Jr.’s father who received that gift. I have to imagine that he heard the story about that bequest, because from what we know of his life, Anson Dodge, the Anson Dodge who built this church and many others. He took his philanthropy and spending on the kingdom VERY seriously. I thought how wonderful it would be if someone left me such a bequest. And then it hit me. They have. We are not Phelps-Dodge’s, and yet, the legacy has been passed on to us, nonetheless, by virtue of our continued community in this space, having benefited from that initial sacred deposit.
I have said before that we have done a much better job preserving Anson Dodge’s physical legacy, that of his churches, than we have his missionary legacy. I don’t mean to say we’re not spreading the gospel, but I have not heard the zeal and fervor around our missionary ministry the way I have heard passionate and firm resolve around preserving our buildings. And I understand it; preserving a building is the easier path. Nonetheless, the two are connected.
As some people question the need for us to discuss expansion, I realize that they have lost touch with the legacy that has been left to us, a legacy that is not just passed on through the Phelps-Dodge line, but from our Lord himself. “Go ye therefore into the world and make disciples,” “care for the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked.” Jesus made a sacred deposit as well, asking his followers, his descendants by faith, to spread the gospel, promote the kingdom, and be faithful descendants. The two strands of legacy are not unrelated and isolated though. Our buildings and grounds are simply a means, a tool, to achieve the rest of it.
The Anson Dodge legacy in southeast Georgia is remarkable. I can’t remember how many churches he built or rebuilt, but there were at least four on this Island alone. Where there were communities of people, he built churches, and sometimes funded priests from his own resources, to be sure that they could hold services. What he wanted was for people to have a place to go, a place to gather for word and sacrament, and he made sure that was possible. That is exactly the impetus for our master planning. We have known for a long time that Christ Church’s ministry is bigger than its facilities. It is easier, and cheaper to ignore that reality, however, and so we have squeezed and turned away would-be followers, whether we care to admit it or not.
At the heart of these legacies, the legacy of our trees, the legacy passed from the Phelps, to the Dodges, to us – these legacies are not really about us, or what we want. It’s about the calling on us, the heart of our faith itself and how we will respond. Don’t get me wrong – our chief calling is not to build something or expand something. Our chief calling is to do what we’re doing now. It’s to keep feeding the hungry kids through backpack buddies. It’s to find ways to address generational poverty in Brunswick like the efforts we’re engaged in at Burroughs Molette Elementary School. It’s to invite people to meet God and hear the story of God’s love for them. This new layer over the last year to think about bricks and mortar is nothing more than a means to those ends, but is a means to those ends. We are going to be talking about this and discerning how and what addressing some of these challenges will look like in the year to come.
I hope that you’ll come to the meeting tonight as we celebrate our shared life here at Christ Church and look to the future together. I hope that we will hear our calling couched in the same sentiment that Anson Phelps envisioned for his heirs, for we are all his heirs in spirit if not in blood:
That each of us shall consider what has been passed to us as a sacred deposit, committed to our trust, to be invested by us, and devoted to spreading the gospel, and to promoting the Redeemer's kingdom on earth, hoping and trusting that the God of Heaven will give to each of us that wisdom which is from above, and incline us to be faithful stewards, and transmit the same to those who come after us, to be sacredly devoted to the same object.
That is a powerful legacy, but it’s one I think we can rise to. We are the planters, who sow seeds for tomorrow despite the fact that we may never see them in their full maturity. We go to the effort today, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those we will never know on this side of heaven. This is the work of a faithful disciple, this is the work of a follower, this is our work. This is our legacy.