Sermon for the 190th Anniversary of St. James, Church, Franktown, Ontario
in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa,
Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Chronicles 29:6-19
“Near Franktown first I saw the light,
And Franktown still is my delight…”
These words come from the pen of a distant relation of mine and a son of this parish, the Rev. John May, M.A. (1834-1913), and are taken from a poem loftily titled, “Franktown Past and Present: A Poetic Panorama of Rich and Exuberant Fancy.” Beyond these verses Mr. May goes on to lament the decline of the dear old place he loved so much, and yet, as I stand amongst you today, over a century after these words were penned, I see no cause for lamentation, but indeed, great cause for rejoicing! For as John May first saw the light here in this place, as he was nurtured on God’s most holy word and holy sacraments from this pulpit and from this altar, so too, have countless others first seen the light here, and have been nourished thus.
By my reckoning, for eight or more generations, our Lord has drawn folk from all walks of life, all sorts and conditions, young and old, rich and poor, into his loving embrace in this very place. For eight or more generations, Christians have first seen the light here. For eight or more generations, Christians have heard that old, old story told, and have had their lives transformed by the Good News of Gospel in this very place. St. James’ Church, Franktown, stands as a monument to the faith of our fathers and mothers who have now entered into glory and are at rest with the saints. And yet, this place is no cold, lifeless monument, but a living, breathing witness to God’s power to bring healing, hope, reconciliation, and salvation in Christ Jesus. While St. James’ Church may stand as a monument and a memorial to the work of God in the past, it continues to shine as a bright beacon of hope for those who come through its doors today, and for those who will one day catch a glimpse of that light and come to hear those wonderful words of life. It calls to mind a particular biblical metaphor (one that was a favourite of John May) from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are a city set upon a hill.” And indeed, although in Franktown one may search far and wide for a hill in geological terms, in theological terms, you are indeed “a city set upon a hill.”
Every church, like every person, has its ebbs and flows in life. There will be times when the way is hard, and the path uncertain. Every church, like every person, will face moments of existential angst and crisis: “Will we make it?” we might ask. And “where are we going?” And “how can we afford to do this.” And yet, the simple fact that for 190 years you have faced these challenges serves to remind us that such fears, as real and pressing as they are, are but fears and not the final word. That these challenges have not overcome us or destroyed us speaks to the plain and simple truth of the most central aspect of our faith: God is with us and is ever faithful. Is this not the most self-evident message of the Incarnation, a message of which we so often lose sight? In Jesus Christ, God is with us. God has made his home among mortals. But through the changes and chances of this fleeting life, we so often lose sight of this fact, we so often find ourselves drifting into fear, we so often find ourselves wondering if we can “do it.” Then, we pause, then we listen once again to the words of Jesus, “Fear not, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age,” and with his words stirring the very depths of our souls, we realize that it is not all about our striving, about whether we can do it, but about God bringing about his Kingdom in us, around us, and for us. It is about God choosing to dwell among us, to bear our burdens and transform our suffering, our fear, and our failures for his glory and for the building up of his kingdom. God has chosen to make his home in this very place, and as the words of life are read and the Sacraments administered, Jesus Christ dwells with you.
It has ever been thus. When we cast our minds back to the early days of this community, we may need to engage our historical imaginations, but the story is a familiar one. We cast our minds back to the early settlers and imagine what hardships they endured. We imagine the personal cost of building this church when they were also trying to clear land and meet their own legal settlement requirements, and more importantly, feed and shelter their families. Imagine the extraordinary personal cost of erecting the edifice of this fine place of worship, of furnishing it for God’s honour and glory. It was no small feat. It was no small feat, considering the journey that most had just taken. Once again, the Rev. John May helps us paint a picture of that life as he reflects on this journey, a journey from Ireland that his family took, which surely stirs within each of us an image of similar journeys taken by ancestors of the many others worshipping here today.
Slow fades loved Erin from his lingering view;
Slow glides the keel across the solemn sea;
As, sad at heart, his wife and children, too,
Gaze fondly back in silent misery.
Six weeks at sea! – the Gulf – and then Quebec –
The Durham boat – St. Lawrence – Montreal –
Old Bytown – then the “Bush” where’s not a speck
Nor sign of man! Unbroken forest all!”
(From “The Pioneers,” by the Rev. John May 1911)
A wandering people, seeking a new home in a new and unknown land, but they sought to erect more than a home for themselves and their families, but a building in which they could give thanks to God for all his goodness to them, even during their wandering and exile. It would cost them greatly. It would mean extraordinary personal sacrifice, and yet, they did it; they did it because they believed God was with them, through their good times and bad, through moments of joy and moments of loss. They believed God was with them on their journey. They built a house, not because God needed a house, for God dwells everywhere, but because they wanted to proclaim, in a tangible way, that God dwelled with them, ever and always, faithful to last.
Why should we be surprised at this? Did not the Hebrew people build a house for God, even though God had been with them through their escape from slavery? During their journey in the wilderness, through famine, in their living and in their dying, God was with them, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And yet, in the fullness of time, they needed to construct something more permanent as a sacrament of God’s permanence, of his never-failing presence.
However, we must never let the apparent permanence of any structure we construct distract us from the spiritual grace which is incarnated in the “sacrament” of this building. God forbid that though this building should ever be lost, we might ever be reminded of the fact that we shall never be lost, because we journey with the presence of God. Jesus does not say that a building is a city set upon a hill, or that a building is a light of the world, rather he says “you are a city set upon a hill; you are the light of the world.” Oh, to be sure, this building means much to us, and although I have lived all my life in another part of this province I feel such affinity for this place knowing that it was one of my ancestors who was amongst its architects. I can only imagine how deeply important the very fibre of this building is to each of you. It is an important and holy place because God has made his home here, but it is holy and sacred also because God has made his home in you.
And so we find ourselves here today. Many of you have made your home here for generations, and others amongst us have found that our own wandering, or the wandering of our ancestors, has taken us far and wide. On this earthly pilgrimage we, like the Hebrew people of old, are all aliens and transients, whether we stay put or whether we wander. This earthly life is fleeting. The ages pass us by and we wither like the grass. Who are we in the sight of an unchanging God? Who are we and of what value are the things we offer when we realize that our gifts, even offered with great personal cost, are so small? But thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus, small things are counted as great things. Thanks be to God, that when and where we are weak, he is ever strong. Thanks be to God that through this pilgrimage he sustains us all the day long of this earthly life until the day has ended and the night falls. Thanks be to God for the immeasurable riches we have known in Christ Jesus and for his abiding presence in our lives and in this place. Indeed, all things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
A light has shone in this community for one hundred and ninety years. A light than will not be extinguished under a bushel, for it is not a light made by earthly flint, but indeed is ignited by a heavenly spark. It is a light that has shone and cut through the darkness that has threatened to overcome many a faithful Christian, but the darkness has not, and never shall extinguish the light. It is a light that has shone in the hearts of the faithful of this parish, and a light that has been a lantern along the path of many a lost wayfarer on the spiritual journey. It is a light that continues to shine in your ongoing ministry and in the witness you offer to this wonderful village and the surrounding countryside. It is a light that shines because God has made his home here, in you, in this city set upon a hill.
In closing, may I bid your indulgence for one last bit of verse from the pen of my Reverend ancestor, John May? I shall let it be my prayer as we break bread together around this holy table, as did our ancestors in ages past, and so shall our descendants in years to come:
Come, Saviour, Come! And with us sup;
The night is drawing on apace.
Come, break the bread and pour the cup
That we may see and know Thy Face.
Come! Drink with us the sacred wine.
And feed us with the bread divine.
And when before the final gate
We stand, and shrink in mortal fear;
Then, as we halt, disconsolate,
Wilt Thou not, as of old, draw near;
Bide with us through that awful night,
And lead us safely to the Light.
(From “The Eyes were Holden that They Should not Know Him,”
by the Rev. John May, M.A. of Franktown, c.1913)
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves is a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, and is the first cousin four times removed of the Rev. John May (both are descended from William May, c. 1765-1855, the progenitor of the May family in Upper Canada). Fr. Graves is the Priest-in-Charge of Trinity Church in Bradford, the editor of Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2010), and in 2007 wrote his M.Div. theological, political, and educational thought of the Rev. John May, M.A.