The Story in our Windows, Part I
June 11, 2017, Revelation 21:1-6, Matthew 21:1-11
Maybe this is a coincidence, maybe it’s not. Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost each year, the church remembers that Christians conceive of God as having three distinct personalities [That’s one word to use; I’ve yet to find a word to adequately describe the three distinct entities in the Trinity.]. Each year on Trinity Sunday we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The lyrics are based on the call of Isaiah, who saw a winged creature flying in the temple calling to God “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It’s a natural hymn to sing on Trinity Sunday, because it says “Holy” three times.
Most Sundays the first thing I do when I arrive at church is pray the prayer for Sunday from “A Diary of Private Prayer” by John Baillie. It has a morning and evening prayer for all 31 days of the month, and two special prayers for Sunday. I confess I do not pray this prayer every Sunday, sometimes I am so focused on not forgetting something that I forget to pray. The prayer for Sunday begins, “Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.” Again, these words come from the call of Isaiah.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” was Marge Farrow’s favorite hymn. Marge was a member of this church for a long time. She died almost three years ago. I don’t remember everyone’s favorite hymn, but Marge’s stuck in my mind. And I used to call her a few days before we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And of course, every Sunday that I remember to give the Sunday prayer I think of Marge. So Marge was on my mind a few weeks ago when I pulled the bulletin together for today, the day I start a series of three sermons about the stained glass windows that beautify our sanctuary. Then just last week someone told me that it was Marge who did the research and wrote the brochure about the stained glass windows when they were dedicated after having been repaired in the early 1990s. It felt like more than a coincidence to me.
Marge was a wonderful woman. She and I would do home communion visits together. Many afternoons I would drop her off at her house out on County A and drive home. I found I was always smiling as I left her driveway. As I was reminiscing about Marge this week I realized how much I benefited and was fed by her faith in Jesus Christ.
I had never said this out loud before, but I realized that ministry is a two-way street. It’s obvious that I influence people’s faith—I’m the one who preaches here about 45 times a year—but you also shape my faith, and help me grow as a follower of Jesus Christ. We’re all in this together. Each and every one of us has been called to follow Jesus and we all have different experiences, perspectives and insights; we’re all growing and changing together, shaping each other. Using the Energy, Intelligence and Love the Lord has given us as we seek to be the Body of Christ right here, right now.
Next week I’ll talk about stained glass, its history and how it has been used for more than 1,000 year to decorate important buildings, especially Christian churches. We are very, very fortunate to have a beautiful building in which to worship. We are also very, very fortunate that through the years the leaders you have elected as ruling elders have understood how important this building is to the life of this church. The part of the building you’re sitting in now was built in 1893, more than 120 years ago. Most of our members, I believe, take the beauty of this building for granted. Wednesday I welcomed a new Samaritan Center counselor as she started her first day here. She said she’d lived in Oshkosh for a long time, but had never been inside before.
I want to be clear about terminology at this point. Most of us think the word “church” means this building that we’re in. That’s how we use that word. Really, church is the people who gather here, in this building. Sometimes people will tell me, “You have a beautiful church.” And I reply, “Yes, and we have a beautiful building too.”
Our stained glass windows add a lot to the beauty of the building we worship in. But it is easy to stop noticing them. There was undoubtedly a number of Presbyterians in the 1890s who served on a committee that selected the windows and they’ve been here ever since—except for some time in the early 1990s when they were removed and repaired before being reinstalled. In the Westminster Room there’s a photo album from 1994 that has a lot of information about the project to refurbish the windows.
Last month Brown Bag Bible Exploration took a field trip and came up to the sanctuary and just looked at the windows for a little while. One thing we noticed is that it’s the choir, the preacher and the lay reader who have the best view of them. So you might want to join the choir—and we’re always looking for lay readers—because the view is really, really different from up here. Another thing we noticed is that the windows have a variety of textures. Some panels are smooth, others wavy, and some feel almost jagged. Another thing that we noticed was that there are no people represented in the windows. This is unusual. It’s common for characters from the Bible to appear in windows. In Presbyterian churches one often finds John Calvin. Two years ago on the mission trip to Chicago the church we stayed at had The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King represented in its windows.
Our windows are all symbolic. Starting today I’m going to show and explain the symbols that we find in the windows. I took pictures and we’re projecting them so you don’t have to twist around in your seats to see them. This is the window on the east side of the sanctuary. This is the view from the outside. For some reason I find the windows more beautiful from the outside with the lights on in the sanctuary. I like to think that our light shines through them and shares this beauty with people on the outside.
There are two symbols.The one on the left is the Greek letters alpha and omega intertwined one to the other. This symbol is a direct reference to the very end of the Bible when the author is instructed to write, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” This is a description of the new Heaven and new earth promised by Christ. A strong and comforting concept, that God is the origin and end of all things. All of life, all of history.
The other image, the one on the right is the one that people are most unsure about. It’s hard to tell; are those feathers? And there’s a six-pointed star above whatever those two things are. Now I have to say that I am not certain that this is the best interpretation of the symbols in this window, so I hope you’ll look closely and form your own opinions.
I think the two symbols are not related to each other—or their relationship is very superficial, they both point to images in the Bible. I peered closely at this window and I believe those two green things are palm branches, which makes us think immediately of Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode up to the temple and the crowds started to sing “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s a day of hope-filled triumph for the followers of Jesus. The palms point to the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life, a week we observe each year as Lent gives way to Easter and we shout, “Christ is risen!” The palms are significant, but also point us to the fact that the story of Christ’s death and resurrection are hardly complete on Palm Sunday. There is a lot of the story to be told in the days that follow Palm Sunday.
The six-pointed star a symbol used by the modern nation of Israel, some call it “The Star of David,” other “The Shield of David.” This symbol, however was not widely used in the late 19th century when our windows were selected. And this star is slightly different from a Star of David, because there is a slight arc between its points.
I believe this six pointed star is a symbol of the six days of creation, as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis. The words are very familiar to us, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done.”
The six-pointed star is a symbol of the not-quite-completed Creation. Christians and Jews understand the rest which God observed on the seventh day is necessary for Creation to be complete.
So maybe these two symbols of incompletion, of not-quite-yet, do belong together. One from the Old Testament, the other from the New Testament. And maybe it is most appropriate for these two symbols to be right next to a symbol that represents God’s presence as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
And perhaps, I should have ended this series of sermons on this window, rather than starting with it. Amen.