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Genesis 9.1-3; II Chronicles 2.5-7

Daniel 7.9-10; Acts 2.1-4

True Colors

(Dedication of Paraments)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I am quite certain that Larry is the only person I ever knew who joined the church out of pity.  Larry’s wife and children had been coming to church for a while, but Larry never came with them.  Then one day he decided to join them to see what it was like.  Now, Larry had grown up Roman Catholic, so he came that Sunday morning with certain presuppositions that were completely compatible with his religious upbringing.  But the church he walked into that Sunday morning was nothing like he had ever experienced.  It was typical New England Congregational, very much like our own, a modest, austere, white clapboard building with not much of note on the inside.  I’ll let Larry tell the next part of the story: 

“I walked into church, looked around, and immediately felt sorry for them.  I mean, they didn’t have anything, - no stained glass windows, no stations of the cross, no statues of the Virgin Mary – for that matter, no statues of anyone or anything at all! – no handsome altar, no relics like a splinter of the true cross or an apostle’s toe – nothing!  And I thought, If ever a church needed new members, this one is it!” 

And so Larry became a member himself, joined the Trustees and did some wonderful things for the congregation.  But no, we did not buy any statues or relics on Larry’s watch.

It wasn’t long after Larry told me his story that I participated in a wedding in an ornate and opulent Roman Catholic church in Cincinnati.  The center aisle was easily twice the length of our own, if not longer, it sported some beautifully burnished dark mahogany pews, and fixtures galore.  The windows were Tiffany glass, there were statues and mosaics and filigree and frills wherever the eye looked.  But as I was standing at the rear of the church waiting for the rehearsal to begin, someone who was in the wedding party said to me, “The thing I like about this church is how modest and understated it is.”

Of course, you and I recognize the difference between the appointments of the sanctuary in the Catholic church and a church like our own.  As we’ve said before, in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, nearly every symbol and representation were banished from the Protestant church, including the cross, because they smacked too much of the “Romish” or “Popeish” way of doing things.  In fact, not too long before I arrived in the church that Larry eventually joined, the congregation had a conflicted conversation about placing a modest wooden cross behind the pulpit – imagine, having a church fight over putting a cross in the sanctuary!  Now that is a Congregational church!  Still, as the years have passed, we Protestants, yes, even we Congregationalists, have begun to reclaim some of the richness of the church’s symbolism, because we recognize that God can and does speak to us in sign and symbol as well as in word and sacrament.

You’ve probably noticed something different in the front of the sanctuary this morning.  I’m going to teach you a new word this morning:  parament.  A parament is an ornamental ecclesiastical hanging or vestment.  It comes from the Latin word for “adorn,” and at the United Church, our paraments adorn our lectern and pulpit.  As you can see, I got out all our paraments which, to the best of our historical knowledge, came over on the Mayflower, or are at least of the same vintage, and our Deacons recently decided it was time to retire them with honor and dignity and replace them with a new set.  We’ll talk more about them in a minute.

But before we do, I want to lift up some of the other appointments of the sanctuary.  I wrote on Friday how, even though as a Congregational Church we don’t employ very many symbols, we do have a few, and I think it’s a good idea to remember them from time to time.  The most obvious of course, is the cross, which I hope our church never fights over.  But that doesn’t mean it is not contentious.  If you look closely at our cross, it bears three letters, IHS, and their meaning depends on which language you choose when you read them.  In Greek, the letters are actually iota, eta, sigma, the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.  Nothing contentious about that, I hope.  But others choose to read the letters in Latin, where IHS then stands for in hoc signo, or “in this sign,” an abbreviation of the phrase, “In this sign, conquer.”  It was a phrase used by Emperor Constantine when he went into battle against the Ottomans in the name of Christ.  It was later used during the Crusades, when European armies marched under the sign of the cross when they went to battle against Muslim peoples and nations.  As you might guess, I prefer the Greek version to the Latin for every possible reason.  But notice, too, what is not on our cross.  Except for the lettering, our cross is empty.  The story is told about the tourist who walked into a London jeweler and asked to purchase a necklace with a cross.  “Why of course,” came the reply, “would you like a plain cross, or one with a little man on it?”  The little man, of course, is Jesus, which would make the cross a crucifix, common among other expressions of Christianity, but not in the Reformed church, whose empty cross claims that Christ is raised and the cross no longer bears him.  I bet that’s more than you ever wanted to know about the sanctuary cross, right?

While the cross is the central symbol, it is not the only one.  The font here is also both useful and symbolic, it reminds us of our baptism into the family of faith, wherever that may have happened for each of us.  But we also have some symbols that are not necessarily liturgical but nevertheless say a lot about who we are as a church.  If you look over behind the piano, you’ll see not one, not two, but three music stands, one for each member of the Trinity I suppose.  To me those stands represent how much we value our music program.  I know one or two of you may come to church on Sunday mornings for the sermon, but if the rest of you are like me, you come for the music!  It is one of the real blessings of our morning worship.  In fact, let me share a passage I came across this week from an old book on worship I have in my office, which spoke to me in part because of Karli’s brief sermonette last Sunday on hormones.  Donald Macleod, one of my seminary professors, wrote, “Fortunate is the church whose minister and choir director hold each other in mutual respect and cooperate making the act of worship a worthy offering to God.”  I think if anything can symbolize that symbiosis, it is the fact that three music stands stand always at the ready at the United Church of Chester.

And our windows… while they are not stained glass, they are transparent.  Through these windows you and I can see the wider community our church serves, not to mention some of our community partners, the library and the Chester Hose Company.  But, even more to the point, these windows work the other way as well – they are transparent and permit our neighbors and friends to look at us and decide just how well we are fulfilling our mission to go out into the world and spread the good news of God’s love for every one of God’s children.  Our windows make for a powerful symbol, Tiffany or not.

So on to the paraments.  The ones we have had, likely since the United Church was established in 1949, are actually bookmarks, one on the pulpit and one on the lectern.  We will replace them with a bookmark for the lectern and a larger pulpit cloth for the pulpit.  As you can see, they come in four colors that represent the seasons of the church year.  Quiz time:  which color do we use most often?  Which do we use least often?   The one we see least often is the color red; red is used for one day only, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of red flame, and the church was created.  So if you happen to miss church on Pentecost, you’ll have to wait a whole year to see this one again.  The one we see next-to-least often is white, which we use for the seven weeks of Eastertide and the twelve days of Christmas.  White stands for  purity and blessing, and it is during the seasons of Christmas and Easter that we celebrate the grace and forgiveness we know in Jesus Christ.  Then comes purple, the color of both royalty and repentance.   The purple cloths come out during Advent, the four weeks that prepare us for Christmas, because we are celebrating the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and it is a royal Advent.  And then, during the penitential season of Lent purple makes its other appearance as we prepare ourselves in the weeks that lead to Easter.  And it is green – the color of creation, as we heard in Genesis, that we see most often, since it is used during Epiphany, that season after Christmastide when Jesus is made manifest to all the world.  And what gives green the endurance award is that we also use it during the long season of Sundays after Pentecost, or Ordinary time, when we consider the ways the events of Easter and Pentecost, of the resurrection and the birth and mission of the church, impact the world.  To sum it up, red gets one week, the week of Pentecost; white appears for the 12 days of Christmas and the seven weeks of Easter; purple appears the four weeks of Advent and the seven weeks of Lent; and green rules the roost for the roughly six weeks of Epiphany and anywhere from twenty-four to twenty-nine weeks of Ordinary time, d[ending on the date of Easter and the start of Advent.

And so we dedicate these paraments, the pulpit drapes and the bookmarks, and pray that they help to remind us of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and what it all means to a watching and hopeful world.

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