Sermon by the Rev. James D. Von Dreele, Preacher,
All Saints' Sunday, November 7, 2004
at Saint David's Episcopal Church, Delaware

Fifty years ago some 100 people stood expectantly awaiting the Bishop's knock on the front door to begin the consecration service for the new church. The people gathered together that day probably could not understand the full implications of what they had done but they were indeed excited never the less.

Bishop McKinstry had plucked twelve families from the comfort of their downtown parishes to start a new mission - something they had never done before. He appointed a green recruit to the ministry, Seymour Flinn, to lead this new mission. For many months they met in homes as they dreamed of what it would take to build a viable congregation in this largely farming but soon to be developed area. So this consecration service was an exciting day for these founding families.

Except for one young boy who sat at the back of the church. This was his 8th birthday and he was not going to have a birthday party because of the church's consecration. He was not a happy person that day. I was that boy. It is a privilege to stand before you as the preacher this day. I am simply amazed that by the grace of God I am here to preach about the wonderful ministry and mission of St. David's over these last fifty years. Perhaps, a young girl or boy sitting here today will be blessed to stand as the preacher for the 100th anniversary when most of us will be long gone.

Two years ago our rector, Gary asked me "What are you doing on the 20th of November 2004?" That's my birthday. And then after a moment he said, "How would like you preach for the 50th anniversary of St. David's?" Talk about putting pressure on a preacher. So I have had a lot time to think of what I should say this morning.

It is wonderful that we are celebrating St. David's 50th Anniversary on All Saints' Sunday - an incredibly appropriate day to recognize the people who have made the ministry of this parish possible. Today we lift up those who are not famous people. Rather, we remember these saints for the quality of their lives and works, people who were not seeking to be famous but to be followers of Christ. And we remember them not to celebrate what they did in the past, but to recognize in their examples challenges to live lives that show forth the glory of God.

These saints were very ordinary people who did extraordinary things through the power of the Holy Spirit. So today we are encircled with a great cloud of witnesses - parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, and dear friends all - who have gone before us in faith.

This is what the writer of Ecclesiasticus had in mind when he wrote this wonderful passage "In praise of famous men." All around are remembrances of famous men and women: the Dupont's, Ben Franklin, Commodore Barry, Caesar Rodney to name just a few. They certainly made names for themselves.

But there were others who were not famous as the writer points out, but no less important:

But of others there is no memory;
They have perished as though they had never existed;
They have become as though they had never been born,
They and their children after them.
But these were godly men,
Whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their offspring will continue forever,
And their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
But their name lives on generation after generation.

(Ecclesiasticus 44:13-14)

This certainly has been the case with the saints who formed this community of faith 50 years ago. We are the inheritors of their witness to the hope of God in their lives.

Coming back after nearly 35 years away in other parts of the country, I was delighted to experience much of what I remembered of St. David's when I was a child. Our legacy of being an embracing, welcoming community lives on, especially for our children. Children are cared for, shaped in the faith and accepted for who they are - inheritors of the kingdom of God. I remember vividly my first Sunday back at St. David's eight years ago. Frieda Cunningham, my Sunday School teacher, gave me a big hug and simply said, "It's so good to see you, Jimmy." I was hooked. Those early days of this parish fundamentally helped to shape my call to the priesthood because I saw a vision of what it meant to be the Church. This spirit lives on.

Another mark of this community has been its willingness to live through the struggles life brings. So much of our culture and even religion is about escaping the reality of life. The strength of this community is its willingness to help each other through the struggles of life so that we can see the power of God to redeem our lives. Jesus never protected his disciples from struggle and pain. Simply look at the experience of the crucifixion and their guilt about abandoning him on the cross. What transformed this dispirited band of believers was the infusion of the Holy Spirit.

In the fantastic vision of John this morning, we see the picture of the great multitude praising God in heaven. One of the elders said to John,

"Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Rev. 7:14-15)

As we participate in the death of Christ we will experience the redeeming power of his resurrection. That is a mark of the saints and of this community.

The final marks of the saints from our scripture texts this morning can be seen in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (5:1-12). Notice how counter-cultural they are: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemakers and willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake. The saints who have gone before us embodied these qualities of life and have given them to us, their inheritors.

What the about the future? Where do we go from here? St. David's started as a mission. It was an incredible experience for those founding families to step out in faith to start this congregation. They had never done anything like it before in their lives. But God's creative activity was all about the place. He raised up and formed leaders to share the power of the Gospel with a growing community in Brandywine Hundred. We now share in that legacy and our celebration today is one of great joy.

The thing we must not forget is that we are still a mission congregation, existing not for our own sake but for the sake of others who need the power of God in their lives. In this sense we must take seriously the notion that this is a place for hospitality for the stranger, in the radically biblical sense.

The Old Testament prophets often reminded the people that they should treat the sojourners in their land with great hospitality, for they were once strangers and sojourners in a foreign land. Besides, the stranger may even be God himself. One day three strangers approached Abraham's tent asking for hospitality. In the course of the conversation he realized he was in the presence of God. For the stranger announced the coming birth of a son, Isaac to fulfill God's covenant promise to provide Abraham with an everlasting lineage. Abraham was 99 and Sarah 90! With God, all things are possible.

In the stranger we can also find Christ himself. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats clearly spells this out. Jesus said: "When I was stranger, you welcomed me." His disciples said quite incredulously, "When, Lord, did we welcome you as a stranger?" He said, "When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me." God in Christ reveals himself most directly in the strangers about us.

We have a connection with the stranger if we recognize the strangerness in ourselves. A Finnish maritime chaplain has written a book about the concept of our strangerhood and its importance to our mission. Just as we have brotherhood and sisterhood, we also have strangerhood because we are all strangers in a foreign land.

If we are taken out of our safe environment we become acutely aware of this. Traveling overseas, I am peculiarly sensitive to how just vulnerable I have become as the stranger. I am still the same person but now know my strangerhood in a deeply authentic way. It is very essential for us to acknowledge our own strangerness and vulnerability, for they become the connecting links with the strangers about us. This is where God does his redeeming work.

Several years ago I shared with you an image of the church as the cathedral in the local community. I was reminded of this image two weeks ago when I was in London for a conference. One day we visited the cathedral in the city of St. Albans. The classic medieval cathedrals were built on the highest point of the town and soared into the sky. With beautiful gothic arches, mammoth flying buttresses and enormous steeples, the architects and builders of these beautiful monuments sought to have us always bring our eyes in a heavenly direction so that we are reminded that our hope rests in the power of God.

St. David's certainly has an imposing presence on Grubb Road. You cannot miss it. What if we began to live into what it means to be a cathedral in this community, where would this lead us in ministry and mission? We have inherited a tremendous gift from the faithful who have gone before us. They have entrusted to us a ministry of reconciliation - to reach out into the community so that people will see this church as a sign of hope in their lives.

In the vestibule and corridors, in the driveway and parking lot, and into the street, a great cloud of witnesses is standing there cheering us on with their prayers of joy and blessing. We are not alone in this journey, after all.

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.


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