The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany ~ January 27/28, 2018
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
We come to the weekend that we knew could not be avoided. Ever since I wrote to you in November I have had my eye on the calendar. I have continued to shuffle back and forth on Route 422, regularly visiting the campus for meetings and worship services, visiting the sick and burying the dead, and encouraging people to join the Chapel. But all the time I have been aware that the clock is ticking and that … January 27-28 would come and it could not be postponed.
Today we mark my final services in what has been a wonderful pastoral ministry that began in the fall of 2009. Someone once said that … life is what happens while you are waiting for something significant to begin. I came to the Chapel for what I thought would be a brief interim ministry. Well, God had something different in mind and so I have been with you for over eight years … four Episcopal bishops … a time marked by strategic decisions, an influx of new members, and many brilliant accomplishments, not least of all launching the Campaign for the Restoration of the Chapel.
As I anticipated this final sermon, I pondered the perfect text with which to focus our thoughts.
I considered Jesus’s wonderful words from his Farewell Discourse that we have been studying in the Rector’s Forum: A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me again. [John 16: 16]
When I first chose that topic for my final Rector’s Forum series, Shannon told me not to get myself confused with Jesus … This is not your “Farewell Discourse!” I know I dare not draw a parallel between the end of my Chapel ministry and our Lord’s Passion and Death! That text was rejected.
I then thought of the experience of Moses, who led the children of Israel to the very edge of the Promised Land but was told by God that he could go no farther. The Lord took Moses to the top of Mt. Nebo and spoke these words … Although you may view the land from a distance, you shall not enter it — the land that I am giving to the Israelites. [Deuteronomy 32: 52]. I decided that text was too grandiose … I am not Moses and, hopefully, I am not about to die!
I looked at our Gospel lesson for today and discovered one of those challenging exorcism stories you generally have your associate address in a sermon while you take a vacation! Throughout my ministry I have found few Biblical accounts more challenging to preach on than these stories of Jesus casting out demons. In a scientific age miracles are hard enough, but demon-possession pushes us beyond our comfort zone.
Still, the heart of our Gospel lesson is a concept that has been central to my life and ministry here at Washington Memorial Chapel. In this passage Jesus drove away those forces that were holding a man in bondage. In all that Our Lord said and did, He was determined to oppose whatever kept the children of God from the abundant life God intends for all of us. I can think of nothing that has been more central to my understanding of the Gospel than the challenge to help people find life with abundance and joy. [John 10:10]
At the heart of our Gospel lesson are those words from Mark which tell us that … Jesus spoke with authority. When I look back at these year of shared ministry here at Valley Forge, I think that is what I have tried to do … to speak with authority … not my personal authority, but the authority that comes when my words are rooted in the Word of God.
When I came to Washington Memorial Chapel there was much sadness and confusion in this congregation. People were in conflict with each other. Many had fallen away from the worship life or had left the church completely … the Chapel’s financial reserves were depleted … there was no choir … with the exception of hosting A.A. groups and collecting food for the Phoenixville food pantry, the Chapel was doing little for others.
I can remember, as if it were yesterday, that warm summer evening in 2009 when I met with the Search Committee, chaired by Neal Basile. The leadership was looking for a part-time priest and the Diocese recommended me. When they heard I was a Lutheran, some wondered if the Chapel was being punished!
As we talked together, this small core of dedicated members … Neal, Andrew Tobias, Lynne Scammahorn, David Leslie-Hughes, Laura Pearson, and David Rhone … convinced me of their love for the Chapel and their determination to see it prosper. I told them that if they wanted a hospice chaplain to hold their hand until the Chapel closed, I was not their man. They said they wanted the Chapel to grow and become strong. I told them that such an effort would intrigue me, but that it would not be easy.
I agreed to come for twenty hours a week. Slowly the Chapel began to change. I played a role, I am sure, but the members responded positively and the Holy Spirit inspired our efforts.
A volunteer choir was formed under the leadership of David Deery
The Rite Two format for worship was adopted for the 10:00 service … along with the passing of the peace at all services.
The Rector’s Forum, an adult faith formation opportunity, was established
A number of members joined me in the creation of a Task Force on Welcome and Hospitality, and slowly the climate changed and the ice melted off the walls.
New members began to join us and we received them with celebration … a Sunday School was formed … we created our first Outreach Committee and began to care for others.
The Washington Memorial Heritage was strengthened and embraced some significant challenges.
It did not happen overnight but it began to happen. A new spirit of optimism and hospitality took root. People began to experience the Chapel as a place for a new start by people who had felt burned out or pushed out of their church of origin. We attracted many people who had never been active in the life of any Christian congregation. Everyone seems to find something special here.
We had a disappointment when the candidate who was chosen to be our next Rector in 2014 turned us down, but that led to inviting Father Karl Krueger to come and share the ministry with me. And, of course, we launched in 2016 the Campaign for the Restoration of the Chapel, an endeavor that has been warmly embraced by our congregation and our many good friends. After forty years we are finally acting to preserve this glorious building, now added to the Registry of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
St. Paul once said to the Christians in Corinth (the First Letter, 3: 6-7):
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Together we have accomplished so much. Can the Chapel do more? Absolutely. But new leadership must be acquired to continue this great work. I leave, now, with a profound sense of joy and satisfaction in that so many of the things I hoped we might have accomplished … we have achieved. I end this ministry with a deep and abiding love for all of you, for this glorious sacred pace. Shannon and I have been uniquely blessed to have shared in this adventure with the people of Washington Memorial Chapel.
And now I close with this little homage to Bob Hope … if you do not know who he is, ask someone with grey hair!
Thanks for the memory
Of church on Sabbath eve
And folks who now don’t leave
Where once they ran away
When the organ ceased to play …
How lovely it is.
Thanks for the memory
Of prayers for all the States
And endless wedding dates
For hot dogs in the Cabin Shop
And countless eggs to roll
How lovely it is
We could keep this going
For many years to come
Your kindness and commitment,
Has made this trip great fun for me.
We love you for it all …
So thanks for the memory
Of lots of Luther quotes
Of bells and Tartan cloths
Of Lenten Vespers, D.A.R., and
French Alliance too
I thank you so much.
May God bless you all and may God bless the Washington Memorial Chapel … now and always. AMEN.