"UNFINISHED" - Psalm 150, Matthew 10:5-15

God is so powerfully at work here!

This is what people of faith celebrate. God is always doing new things. God is present and active in the midst of life. Our lives are always lived in the context of God’s love, toward God’s purposes, and trusting in God’s steadfast faithfulness and care. We belong to God. Our lives strive to serve God always.

            We get a glimpse of this wonderful life with God in our first Scripture lesson – Psalm 150: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary. Praise God for his mighty deeds. Praise God for his surpassing greatness. . . . Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

            That kind of praise and posture depicts faithful life.

            The year was 1845. Europe was in a time of peace – between the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. James K. Polk was President of the United States. Florida and Texas – two states that have dominated the news because of hurricanes – had just been admitted that year as states to the Union. Also in 1845, tensions were building with Mexico with increasing talk of war.

Richmond, in 1845, was still a small town. The western boundary of the city had not even reached Monroe Park. The area around this location – on Fifth and Main – was totally residential. Large homes – like the one across Fifth St – the Hancock-Caskie house (built in 1809) – dominated this section of the city. And it was on the crest of this hill coming up Main St, in the middle of this block on Fifth St., that Presbyterians from First Church, then in Church Hill, decided to start another church, Second Church, as the city grew toward the west.

After this Sanctuary was completed in 1848, one of the Richmond newspapers reported this: “Among the numerous structures that have been recently erected in our city there is none on which the eye reposes with such pleasure as the beautiful Gothic temple on 5th St. . . . the brick and stone,  . . .  a tower that rises to the height of 100 feet, . . .the exceeding harmony and flowing grace of the space. . . . After having seen the purest Gothic churches in America we can say that we have met with no specimen of this style of architecture at all superior to it in design or execution” (see Blanton, Making of A Downtown Church, p. 77).

The work in this sacred sanctuary in the last four months has – as you know – sought to preserve and enhance the beauty and grace that people have loved about this Sanctuary since 1848. Since Presbyterians accent preaching, this pulpit and this expansive reredos carry the eye and the heart of worshippers up to the massive hammer beams, and the vaulted ceiling. All of this has been carefully cleaned and delicately painted in such a way to highlight the original character and beauty.

Workers in recent months spent hours scrubbing and cleaning decades of dust and grunge from all the woodwork. The pile of dirty rags from their efforts filled a small room.

Every surface that you can see in this Sanctuary has received cleaning, attention, refreshment, and care.

Now that we are back into this wonderful space for worship, it is no surprise that many of you are back in your familiar spots in the pews. We are creatures of habit. J Perhaps you are aware that the cost for construction of the original church was funded largely by the sale of pews. The first day after the church was dedicated, the newspaper announced that on Monday evening, at 8 o’clock, members of the church and the public generally were invited to come, to look, to select a pew. Throughout the history of the church, a great deal is made about the price of pews, the income generated from the sale of pews, who owned which pew, how and whether the pew could be transferred to family members, and more. It was not until 1919 – some 75 years after dedication – that the congregation moved to an Every Member Canvas – a stewardship campaign – instead of raising income from pew sales and pew rents.

Speaking of the pews, the hymnbook racks were added to the pews in 1902. In the recent months, all of these racks were taken off, re-furbished, and returned too. There is one hymnbook rack that deserves particular notice. It is made of cast iron with the design copied from Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This unique rack is in the first pew under the north gallery. The rack was made special for Mr. Isaac Davenport, who rented that first pew; and when he died he passed his pew and that special rack to a man who sat behind him, Mr. Francis Glasgow, and it was passed down to another person after that (See Blanton, p. 86)

The racks for the individual communion cups – also re-furbished - were first installed in 1914. That was the time when the Session adopted the more modern method of serving Communion – with little cups instead of the common cup. I know a personal and true story about those little cup holders when a certain man – during the communion prayer – got his fingers stuck in the cup holder. Instead of the embarrassment of asking for help, he took out his pen knife, unscrewed the cup holder from the pew, put his hand in his coat jacket, went home to get some soapy liquid to help get his fingers out, then snuck back into the church to re-attach the cup-holder. That is a true story.

The cushions and the carpet, and the upholstery on the backs of the pews, which have heard so many prayers – of thanksgiving and joy, or heartache and grief - have been replaced.

The walls have been re-painted. This is no small task. Looking at the walls, you might assume that it is made of large blocks of stone. In reality, and since the beginning, the blocks are marked out on plaster, in imitation of large stone blocks. So this demands an approach to painting where the apparent blocks are painted slightly different colors.

And if these walls could speak, what would they say? They would undoubtedly echo 170+ years of faithful hymns, special music, passionate sermons, sincere prayers, and heartfelt silence of devoted people seeking to grow in the ways of God.

God’s Spirit has long been powerfully at work here. So many faithful people have worshipped here. So many lives celebrated, marriage vows taken, baptisms, funerals, tears, laughs, laments, and words of thanksgiving.

As you might guess, this church was originally lighted by gas. In fact, it was the first church in Richmond so lighted. This large chandelier was originally given to this church as a gift of Emma Stuart Gilliam, in memory of her husband Marshall M. Gilliam. It was first installed at the time of the electrification of the church – in the late 1800’s. This chandelier hung for about 60 years before it was taken down and put into storage, then sold to the University of Richmond, which hung it in Jepson Hall. With the help and guidance of Steve Allred and his connections at UR, we were able this summer to get this historical piece back, and adding history, beauty, and lighting as we seek to “Shine the Light of God’s Grace.”

The other lighting improvements in this sanctuary emerged from a detailed study. All the lights and fixtures in this sacred space have been changed and replaced, modernized and upgraded. While we will continue to adjust to the new lighting, we have safety and great versatility for lighting this wonderful worship space.

Other less visible improvements have been made as well – all the sprinkler heads had to be replaced, and that has been done. Upgrades have been made in the attic, to the ceiling, in the crawl space, to various stained glass windows that needed repair, and more.

One of the finest and most positive improvements to note today is the balcony railing, especially the choir loft railing. This new rail is not only secure, it brings so much to our re-furbished space for worship.            

So with all of these wonderful improvements, and seeking to be good stewards and servants in this Sanctuary that has served God so well for so many decades, we can say with the psalmist: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary. . . . Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

            But even as we rejoice and praise God – for faithful generosity that provides this re-dedication, for devoted workers, and caring members bringing it to fruition - our word for the day is . . . . “UNFINISHED.”

            We have finished a fantastic upgrade for this sacred space, but there is much UNFINISHED.

            All through the Scriptures, beautiful and sacred space for worship is very important. But worship in the sanctuary always intends to lead God’s people – us included - to devoted service in the world in Christ’s name. In various seasons and in various ways, the Scriptures always warn us that if our faith life begins and ends in the sanctuary, we are falling far short of what God intends. Worship in the Sanctuary, praising God for God’s greatness is essential to faithful life, but so is living for God, spreading love and kindness, working for justice and joy for all God’s people, serving God in the world. To be the church is to gather for worship in sacred space, to connect to God (vertically) in beautiful and historic places like this one. But the church’s work is always outward (horizontal); and that work remains UNFINISHED until the reign of God comes fully to cover the earth.

            Worship in the sanctuary reminds us that we are created in God’s image, that we belong to God. So we sing praises; we affirm God’s abiding love and faithfulness to us; we celebrate God’s goodness.

            Then from worship in the sanctuary, we are called to do God’s work of helping and healing, loving and spreading light in the world. That is the UNFINISHED work.

            Listen to the gospel word today:

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

            This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The sanctuary is finished – and this is a day to rejoice. Yet our work as God’s people is UNFINISHED because we still have so much to do – DO the work of God in the world:  proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. The Sanctuary is spectacular and we give great thanks! But there is so much loving God and loving neighbor that is needed in this community, across this city, and around the world.

The people came to Jesus asking what to do to find life – eternal life. His answer was simple and memorable – love God and love your neighbor. He said, “Follow me.” And he loved people, helped the hurting, healed the sick, picked up children, and spread peace. He always emphasized relationships – caring, sharing, working for reconciliation. He treated people with kindness and grace. This is the kingdom of God come near. And he asks us to be about the in-breaking of that kingdom. That work is UNFINISHED.

We are called to feed the hungry . . . and also to work to eliminate poverty.

We are called to give a drink to the thirsty, . . . and address climate emergencies that are happening this weekend.

We are to cure the sick and cover the naked . . . . and work for healthcare for everyone.

We are called to welcome the stranger, realizing we were all strangers once, . . . which means our immigration laws need sincere and faithful attention.

These and others remain pressing issues for our day. The work of the Kingdom and its in-breaking remain UNFINISHED.

God is powerfully at work. This sacred sanctuary is so wonderful. Yet our work is always to spread light, to promote justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God.

God is powerfully at work. This sanctuary connects us to God. Yet our work is UNFINISHED.

Will our children and grandchildren have faith?

Will we help people find peace and foundation amidst the swirling fears of these days?

Will we indeed go from this place, today and everyday, as ministers of God’s love, reaching out, welcoming others, loving God and all God’s children?

Jesus keeps sending out disciples. That would be us. Our work is always UNFINISHED.

Eberhard Arnold was a Christian German philosopher and theologian. Listen to this quote from Arnold:

Humanity must turn around. What good are all its religious practices, what good are all its church services, what point is there in all its devout singing if God’s will is not done? . . . What does people’s faith mean if injustice is done to the poor as casually as one drinks a glass of water? What good is it to profess the divine if not even a little finger is lifted when countless children and poor people die? (“Plough,” Daily Dig email from August 13, 2014)

We celebrate and re-dedicate this FINISHED sacred space. We also know our work is UNFINISHED. We are called to be witnesses – as our mission statement reminds us – to the new reality that God has made available to all people. We are to continue to work – with our daily commitments, our church’s devotion – to the in-breaking of God’s promised reign of love, peace, joy, and justice across the earth.

May it be so. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We praise you, O God. We praise you in this wonderful sanctuary. Keep calling us; keep walking with us, as we seek to serve you, follow Jesus in the world. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship, September 10, 2017 – the day of the Re-Dedication of the Sanctuary. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansAlex Evans