~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 8th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~
“Thus Says the Lord . . . But who is listening?”
It is always an interesting worship service at Old First Church on the Common on a Sunday after Rev. Williams attends one of those Spiritual Revival in Leadership conferences. Especially if it is one sponsored by one of those big non-denominational churches! They do it up big! Bright lights, jumbo screens, big name speakers, you get the whole load! One year, somehow, Rev. Williams talked Melvin, Bea Stearns’ husband, into going along with him. Upon returning Melvin allowed, “It’s like attending one of those Amway conventions. You may not make a lot of money but they’ll get you wicked excited and all wound up!”
Well, he does, Rev. William returns from one of these and steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning all wound up and ready light a fire under these stolid New England Congregationalists. Trouble is, they sittin’ in the pews and huffing a puffing right back, snuffing out the flames of the Holy Spirit out as fast as a 5 year old blowing out the candles on her birthday cake! And the good Reverend is sure that some may have even brought along buckets of water!
And so, on Monday mornin’ he slumps into the chair in his church study all deflated and thinking, “Well, who am I anyway? I’ll never be invited to speak at any convention.”
He lets out a long breath, “Nobody listens to me anyway.”
And then he slides even deeper into despondency, “No, I’m no a great orator and we are certainly not spirit-inflamed people. We are but a small town gathering of the faithful, and some of the ‘not so sure about it all.’”
“Why would anyone listen to us? What do we have to offer?”
Yeah, he was feeling pretty blue that Monday and it carried on into Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday morning found him staring at the computer screen without a clue as to what he was going to preach on, when there was a soft knock on his door. Abby had left for the post office, so he got up and went to the door and standing there was Wendy Barstow.
Wendy had just graduated from the Rockhaven High School and was the only senior from First Church on the Common this year and in a way just another reminder for Rev. Williams the state of the congregation. She had an unusual request for the Rev. She wanted to know if she might speak to the congregation sometime this summer.
Well, the good pastor saw this as a way out of the spiritual desert he’d found himself in. So, sure she could speak to the congregation, “How about this Sunday?!” He would like that and sure the congregation would as well. (He just didn’t let on that it was probably be the whole sermon!)
So it was, this past Sunday, Wendy Barstow told her story.
The Barstow’s are one of those families that has had its share of generational hard luck. Her great-grandparents had a farm out on the tidal flats on Prescott Road of Ricker’s Bluff Road south of town. They had apple orchards, hay meadows, some good timber land on high ground. Then at the urging of the State Milk Board, old Chauncy Barstow decided to become a modern dairy operation. With the loan the bank provided, they bought the equipment, built a new barn and purchased a herd of Holsteins. That was the spring of . . . 1929!
By 1932 milk production was high and consumption low, prices even lower!
In the end they managed to keep 5 acres and build a small home and each successive generation has struggled to recover.
Now there are three little homes on the five acres (actually the one Wendy, her two younger brothers and parents live in is a 1985 14’ by 70’ mobile home.)
Wendy paused at this point in her story, but she couldn’t look up from her notes the feelings welling up. She gained her composure and went on to say, that a little over two years ago she made an extra effort to study and work really hard and she was able to get B’s and one A- on her grade report. For the first time in her life and her family’s she thought that maybe, just perhaps, college or some sort of technical school might be a possibility.
So one evening she spoke to her parents, who quickly pointed out that they had noticed that she had been missing some of her chores and doing homework instead. With both Mom and Dad working long hours to make ends meet, as the oldest, she carried extra responsibility at home. But with their hesitant blessing the next day she made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor.
She sat across the big wooden desk from Mr. Campbell, the counselor, and nervously shared her desire to further her education after high school. Could he help her explore her options and see if there just might be some financial assistance or even a scholarship or something?
Mr. Campbell smiled and looked at Wendy with all seriousness, “We’ll see Wendy, you know, you’ve only got these grades for one semester so far.”
And then those dream demolishing words . . . “Higher education isn’t for everyone, you know.” He might as well have said, “Especially those like you and your family, Wendy Barstow.”
A wave of murmurs swept through the congregation.
Wendy paused again, swallowed her tears back and went on.
It was about that time that Elsie Flanagan invited her to come along on an Old First Church youth outing to Bangor to see “The Hunger Games: Mockingbird II” which was all the rage among teens at the time. Wendy says she was hesitant at first. Their family had no extra money for movie ticket and dinner out even if it was just going to be Taco Bell. When Elsie assured her that the Church Youth Fund was covering everyone’s cost, Wendy said with some hesitancy still, she would go.
With her voice cracking, Wendy told how what she found that day and the two and a half years since was not just a group of high school friends but an extended family. She recalled when how Gerry (Geraldine) Walton volunteered to pick her up and bring her to church. All the questions she had for Gerry during those drives!
Why are there tablecloths on that big table up front?
Why were they green last week and purple now?
Whose “Gloria” And is Patri her last name?
Why does the pastor wear that black thing?
Looks like it made out of a drapery from Nichol’s funeral home!
And she recalled how when she got to church because Gerry taught Sunday school on occasion she would sit with Betsy and Carl Holgrum. She still remembers the day Betsy asked if Wendy would assist her with Coffee Hour the next Sunday.
The next Saturday afternoon she met Betsy in the kitchen of their bakery and she told the congregation how Betsy let her use that humongous Hobart mixer to make the batter for the cupcakes they baked for coffee hour. And how Mabel Bradley invited her over to “tea” one Sunday after church just this past winter and helped her navigate the confusing paths through scholarships, educational grants and college applications.
She paused here again. She looked at Mabel with deep appreciation. She turned to Betsy and had this sort of smile that said they shared some special knowledge.
Before she spoke again, she looked out into the entire congregation for the first time and sitting there with Gerry Walton and her husband Brad, were Wendy’s parents, Sharon and Clint Barstow. Their eyes beaming with pride and yet a bit misty as well (at least her Dad’s!)
Wendy drew in another breath. “I want to share with my parents and with the extended family I found in this place that I applied and have been accepted at the Eastern Maine Community College and this fall will be entering their Culinary Arts Program!”
And for the first time ever (other than the obligatory clapping for the children’s Christmas pageant) the congregation broke into applause with all manner of indecorum for us Congregationalists. Why I believe I even heard a hoot and whistle or two!
When it settled down Wendy drew upon all her inner strength and looked into the eyes of the congregation and said,
“When I first came here two and a half years ago and sat in that pew with Gerry Walton, I was asking myself, ‘I wonder, if even the church would care about a student like me from a family like mine?’”
The church fell silent. They had no idea.
Rev. Williams reflected back on his response to last Sunday and he thought:
Sometimes the church is called to be prophetic with its words and actions spirit-filled. And you know, other times it needs to hear the life-giving words of a prophet.
And sometimes that prophet isn’t someone with the grand gift of oratory or dressed in black funeral home drapes, but just happens to look and sound like a recent high school graduate from Prescott Road just off Rickers Bluff.
And so we learned last Sunday at Old First Church on the Common.
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