Our former pastor, The Reverend Bruce Davidson visited St. Paul Church on Sunday, 11/1/2020 for our 95th anniversary celebration. He preached the below sermon, and con - celebrated the Holy Eucharist with Pastor Patt. We were honored by his visit and excellent preaching!
95th Anniversary – St Paul Teaneck 11/1/2020
I’m honored to have this chance to join you in celebrating the 95th anniversary of St. Paul’s: Just shy of a century. I hope to be around to be part of the 100th, but of course at my age, people say we shouldn’t even buy green bananas, so this may be my best chance to speak to you and this congregation that I admire and love.
I really like to travel, and I’ve been able to do quite a bit of it. Sometimes, especially when I’ve been in Europe, I do what people have called an “ABC tour.” An ABC tour is when every day means visiting “Another Bloody Cathedral.” I confess, I love wandering around great old churches, taking in all the history, art and engineering that has gone into them. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard.
And if I had to pick a favorite among the ABC group, it would probably be The Cathedral in Salisbury England. It’s almost 800 years old, and it’s spectacular, inside and out: Filled with light and color and I think unmatched gothic architecture.
Among other things it has the tallest church spire in England: a massive stone tower about 400 feet high. You can actually climb up inside of it, which I can tell you is an absolutely terrifying experience: Scrambling under and between wooden beams from the middle ages, and up scary spiral staircases I fully expected to meet Count Dracula around every turn. But really, the view across the landscape when you get to the top is worth all the praying you might have done to get there.
Anyway, the official name of the Salisbury Cathedral is “The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary:” So paintings, statues, frescoes, woodcarvings of Mary are all over the place, most of them hundreds of years old. A friend of ours who had lived near Salisbury for a while told us that we had to see one particular sculpture called “The Walking Madonna.”
So we went looking for it: Turns out that “The Walking Madonna” is a modern addition to the cathedral, only about 40 years old: And it’s outside the church, not inside.
There’s a paved path that leads out of the cathedral and into the town of Salisbury: The Walking Madonna stands about halfway along that walkway, It’s a solitary figure off to the side, just slightly bigger than life-size. The artist portrays Mary as an old woman, which is somewhat unusual: Her face is not calm and beautiful: it’s lined and haggard. But the figure is alive with motion: Mary seems to be walking briskly, and with great determination. Something intense seems to drive her forward with great urgency.
And she is walking away from the cathedral not toward it. One of her arms is lifted slightly: and her fingers point forward, beckoning others to move with her out of the church and into the community.
The message is pretty obvious, I think: If what you find in worship and being part of a community of believers touches you and enriches your faith and life: Let that move you out into the world: Let it move you with determination and energy: Because what you have is deeply needed outside wherever you may gather: A gothic cathedral or a parking lot.
“The building is closed, the church is open.” I see that message every week as soon as I open the weekly email from St Paul’s. It’s good. I like that. The building is closed, the church is open…
It’s an anniversary today: So it’s OK to look back a bit and remember… May even to remember that there’s a lot of history in the closed building here: On the plus side, it has been a welcoming place for a whole lot of people, including many who were never members of this congregation. Over the years the doors of this place have been wide open in welcome, especially for people who have not found welcome in the world.
When I was pastor here, and the HIV/AIDS crisis was just about at it’s scariest moment, this congregation chose to provide a home for people living with this disease and their caregivers through New Jersey Buddies. When Narcotics Anonymous first began to gather people seeking recovery from addiction to drugs, St. Paul’s became the second place in New Jersey to offer space. When Transgender people needed a safe space to gather and be themselves, this congregation made room: And when the overwhelming violence committed against Transgender people began to be noticed, St Paul’s became a site for an annual day of remembrance and mobilization. Those are just a few things I can pull up in my ancient brain: But for me these kinds of actions, loving and courageous, have been the plus side of this building, and they are every bit as inspiring and impressive as an 800 year old cathedral.
There is, of course, another side to this building… like the time and energy and volunteer hours and money spent trying to make this structure secure and safe. Just in the 11 years I was pastor, there were three major attempts to stop the roof from soaking people inside whenever it rained. Paint peeled from the steeple. The smell of mildew was constant. Surprise visits from the Fire Marshall prompted spontaneous prayer in the church office. And for a while, a family of raccoons lived overhead, occasionally peeking their heads out through separated ceiling tiles. It was an adventure.
But in both the caring for and the sharing of this building, the structure never became the primary focus of our life together or our mission. This congregation has a long history of witness and service. You have trusted the Spirit to lead you: Sometimes you have gotten into what John Lewis called “good trouble.” You have cared for one another, been friends to one another, rejoiced and grieved together: and sometimes worried together.
I know the past few years have been challenging and difficult at times for this congregation. It’s been a journey: wandering from place to place. There have been ups and downs. And you’ve survived: You have more than survived: You’ve supported one another, found ways to worship and serve together. You have lost some and gained others. You lovingly won over an amazing pastor who has agreed to walk with you on this journey, thanks be to God!
You may not know exactly what will happen in the days ahead. You may not know exactly where this congregation will wind up gathering, or what your church “home” will look like: But God has brought you this far and God doesn’t quite seem ready to let you just fade away. The building is closed: The church is open.
I think of the old face and frame of the walking Madonna. She has come to know a God who rolls back stones and brings life out of death: A God who looks with favor on the lowly: who calls the poor, the meek, the peacemakers blessed, even though in this world they are usually not treated that way. Spry even in old age, she along with the saints before us, hurries forward to let others in on this life-giving truth.
I don’t know if the artist meant us to imagine this walking Madonna to be 95 years old like this congregation, but I lift her up for you today as a kind of a mascot to cheer you on. Now matter where the journey leads, take the good news of God into the community, into the world.
And may the Spirit of God fill you with the kind of determined energy that will continue to drive you to love, to welcome, to serve where the need is great, the hunger is deep and the promises of God can indeed bring life.
Pastor Bruce Davidson, retired
Served as pastor of St. Paul’s 1981 - 1992