September 20

After Thirty Years

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

In July Jan and I attended a wedding in Ithaca, NY. It happened that accommodations were provided at a motel, near Cornell, and a mile from the church we had gone to serve in 1979.

Where were you—ten, twenty, thirty years ago?

We walked one afternoon back into the hamlet of Forest Home, founded in 1794, the community in which our church was located. We walked that afternoon back into our younger life there, not so long ago.

Forest Home is an old mill town, long since demilled, no disrespect to Cecil B, and long since its founding surrounded by ‘Godless Cornell’, New York State’s land grand school, established by Ezra Cornell in 1865. The hamlet contains houses from the early 1800’s, so marked. Through the community flows a river, ‘Fall Creek’, which runs its way downhill and into Cayuga Lake. You cross a one lane bridge which spans the river gorge about 30 feet above the water. At what amounts to the only intersection in Forest Home—the meeting point of two roads, one river bank, and walkway—there was built in 195 a little Methodist church. Forest Home is an oddly and gracefully New England incursion into the Empire State, this our first appointment following seminary.

We passed by the Cornell Veterinary School barns, with some livestock therein alive. To the right the Cornell plantations and wild flower gardens appeared largely unchanged. The little walkway along the road led us downhill to the creek, and to our former home. We passed by each house, then as now inhabited by Cornell faculty, and let the mist and rain of memory descend.

We remembered a family of four whose father at fifty died of cancer, leaving a developmentally delayed daughter. We remembered a prominent scholar who came once our home, and whose name we mispronounced. We remembered a young biologist, and his beautiful family of blonde daughters and spouse, who expected tenure and, in a sudden cruelty, was disappointed. We remembered an aged couple, he dapper, she dour, and her proverb, ‘time flies, ah no, time stays, we go’. The saying in memory fit the memory of the saying. An insurance agent whose office we passed had given us gifts at the births of our two older children. From his wheel chair he had lamented our move in 1981: “It seems like the Bishop should give you a year or tow to consolidate the gains”.

At the bridge there rose up an old house, circa 1815, in which the church’s matriarch had cared for her aged father for many years. Every Friday afternoon, his law partner would come by, open the bedroom window, fish out two long cigars, and sit for an hour in smoke and silence, then leave, without speech, without speech needed. ‘How I hated that smoke’, she once said, ‘and yet what I wouldn’t give to smell it again’.

Down the road we remembered a young man with children and a business, an alcoholic who came under the influence to church and meetings. We remembered a doctor with two delightful toddlers, one of whom was later to die, at 20, rafting on white water. We remembered a poor young couple, housed above her father’s garage, whose earthly hope they had invested in Amway. We remembered a retired colonel, a Vietnam veteran, whose daughters chafed at and rebelled against his authority. We remembered a saintly professor who was later to take his own life. We remembered a sea of students emerging into adult sunlight, struggling to get a foothold, mumbling to find their voice.

After an hour we turned back, and walked out of the daydream, the remembrance we had entered.

Where were you—September 20, 1999, 1989, 1979?

On return, repassing all hurts, all the many and deep cuts and hurts we had recalled on entry, other memories step up along side us. I would not want to try to assess which were the more real, the four feet carrying us, or the four winds of memory guiding us.

The struggling students had the presence of one another in common fellowship, we remembered. Some fell in love, remembered. Some married, too. The saintly suicide had six children and a deeply loving Quaker wife, all surrounding him in life, in death, and in life beyond death. The marine corps daughter got married and settled down, quarreling instead with her mate. Of Dad, she said, ‘I grew up and he got older; somehow, we worked it out’. The poor couple clung to Amway, but also volunteered in church and led a community day of celebration, those having the least somehow managing to give the most. The Veterinarian and wife, in bitterest child-loss, a grief like no other, had the friendship of a later minister, and his presence, and the sincerest of loving prayers, lifted at night from house to house, in the twilight by the creek. The hard drinking dad climbed on the wagon and stayed seated, in the presence of Bill and others friends, and has yet to fall off. The matriarch died, surrounded by admirers and friends, and waves of students who studied her life and learned to live. The forgotten insurance agent, long dead himself, stands up from his life-long wheel chair and greets us in memory at every sighting of the china plate gifts. The aged couple, dapper and dour, squabbled happily enough, ‘til death do us part’. The tenure robbed academic took his beautiful daughters to a similar school in California, to soak up the ever present sun, and a permanent job, in a happier college. The disabled teenager acquired a piano teacher, a minister’s wife, who deeply loved her, decades beyond her dad’s death.

In July, Jan and I took a walk.

We remembered hurt. We remembered help. We realized how ferociously fast thirty years passed. Three good lessons on a summer weekend. Three words of wisdom on a fall Sunday.

For those entering the ministry, three lessons:

1. Even the smallest of churches is teeming, laden with nearly bottomless hurt.
2. Every hurt we have seen has had the friendship of help, some help, not always adequate help, but yet some help still.
3. It doesn’t take very long to go from being a young turk to becoming an old turkey.

In the Bible we read, ‘where sin abounds, grace over abounds’.

Where hurt abounds, help lingers. Nothing good is very wasted, or ever lost, in the economy of care. A formerly young ministerial couple, burdened with many remembered hurts, who thirty years ago had no idea how they would raise a family on $8,000 a year, themselves, back then, themselves since then, themselves now and then, all in a lifetime, saw help, got help, gave help, had help.

You will too.

~ The Reverend Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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