This week, our congregation is celebrating the 100th birthday of the dedication of our sanctuary. It should be a festive day with a few fun extras planned, but since it’s the anniversary of a building, and not of the congregation itself, we are limiting the festivities to just Sunday. A task force has been at work planning this, and we had the opportunity to watch some stonemasons dig around behind the building cornerstone to unearth the time capsule (actually, a lead box) that the congregation had set in one hundred years ago. We weren’t sure what we would find.
In it were papers, photographs, and a Bible – a little damp and moldy but all still very much readable. They included the roll of the church,various rolls of Sunday School departments, a list of those who were on the planning committee, a list of the founding members of the church, the history of the Women’s Missionary Society, the Oregonian from the day they placed the time capsule, and photographs of the previous locations of the church. What was not in their time capsule was interesting: no program from the service of dedication of the sanctuary or laying of the cornerstone (we have those elsewhere) and no remarks by any pastor.
So our task force has been thinking about what we will put in the new time capsule that will be set in behind the cornerstone, hopefully to be opened in the year 2114. A membership directory, which is about as close as we can get to the official church roll. The bulletin from the 100th anniversary worship service. A book about our needlepoint pew cushions. A copy of tomorrow’s Oregonian. And a copy of my sermon.
I’ve wondered all week what the people of Westminster in 2114 (if there is a Westminster in one hundred years) will think of my sermon. Will it be one for the ages?
Probably not. I can count on one hand the sermons I’ve read that are for the ages, at least for me: John of Chrysostrom’s Easter sermon. Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” C. S. Lewis: “The Weight of Glory.” James Forbes “The Battle of Bethlehem.” Frederick Buechner’s “The End Is Life.” Yes, it distresses me that there is not one sermon by a clergywoman there and I promise to work on that.
For the most part, I think sermons, or at least my sermons, are for the moment. They might have impact in the hour that they are delivered, or maybe for the day or even the week, but after that, their “use by” date passes and it’s best to let them go like old mayonnaise. I’m fine with that – truly – because God is always doing a new thing, so why should last year’s sermon matter in the context of a new day?
But I think too about language and images and metaphors I use today, and how they will be received in one hundred years. I quote two people: John O’Donohue and Winston Churchill. I refer to two anthems the choir will sing. I make a joke about bikram yoga. Will anyone still be doing bikram yoga in 2114? Will everyone be doing it? Will they think the sermon is awfully long or inadequately short?
It’s one thing to write a sermon and picture various people you know responding to it; it’s another thing altogether to imagine people who aren’t born yet, who live in an unknown future, responding to it.
In the end, I suppose the audience that most matters is God, whether yesterday, today, or tomorrow. I wish that caused more fear and trembling in me than it does. Fortunately, God has better preachers – many of whom never use words – to get the message across. That will be true a hundred years from now, so Amen and Amen.