Sermon for the Celebration of the St. Stephen’s Bicentennial (May 26, 2024)

I have been felicitously thinking in what way my life, redeemed from the grave, may be of most service to my dear people. And I would collect all the feeble remains of my strength into one vigorous effort this day to promote this benevolent end. If I knew what subject has the most direct tendency to save your souls, that is the subject to which my heart would cling with peculiar endearment, and which I would make the matter of the present discourse.[1]

Those are the opening words of a sermon from the Rev. Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister and fourth president of what’s today known as Princeton University. In the 1740s Davies – a non-Anglican – was sent here to Virginia to preach to Anglican dissenters. No less a figure than Patrick Henry heard his sermons and later gave him credit for inspiring his own famous oratorical skills. Tragically he died in 1761 at the age of just 37, but his fame and the power of his words were still resonating when this sermon – and others – were published in a collection in 1794.

I pulled this volume off the shelf at home to dwell a bit in the preaching style of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. It’s the style of sermon the lone congregant at the first service conducted by Nicholas Hamner Cobbs in 1824 may have heard. This sermon, like other sermons of the time, was also lengthy. In a 1987 article Dr. Harry Stout, Yale University scholar and expert on colonial preaching, discussed the power (and length) of the sermons at that time. He said, for instance that the average New England resident would have listened to 7,000 sermons over the course of their lifetime, “about 15,000 hours of concentrated listening.”[2]

That’s roughly two-and-a-quarter hours per sermon. Now as much as I want you to experience a 19th century service, I’ll resist the temptation to deliver a 19th century-length sermon. Instead, I’ll reflect for a few minutes on one line from the Davies excerpt: “the subject to which my heart would cling with peculiar endearment.” The subject that line points to is twofold: Trinity Sunday, and the bicentennial of this sacred place.

You’ve heard me in past years preach on the one word I use and hold close in pondering and discussing the concept of the Trinity: life. Never mind theological wrestling with the intricacies of the Trinity; never mind trying to explain the Trinity in a way that isn’t viewed as flawed (or, in the label used by many in centuries past, heretical). Simply think of it once again in the context of that one word: life.

God the Father bringing new life and structure out of chaos in the early moments of creation. God the Father promising the preservation of life after the destruction of the flood. God the Father promising new life as a child to be born to an elderly patriarch and his barren wife. God the Father protecting the life of that child as the patriarch was about to bring down the blade in a sacrificial act of obedience.

God the Son changing life through miracles of healing. God the Son bringing a return to life as he called his dead friend out of the tomb. God the Son nourishing life with five loaves and two fish. God the Son promising eternal life to a thief even as they were dying, hanging side by side. God the Son defeating death and opening the way to life everlasting.

God the Holy Spirit giving life to a new Church that took root in the Pentecost moment. God the Holy Spirit changing the life of each apostle with a loud rushing wind and tongues of flame, empowering them to follow the command to go and make disciples of all nations. God the Holy Spirit as the breath of life in each of us. God the Holy Spirit moving through and around us, accompanying us through life.

The Trinity – the life and being and movement of the Trinity – has filled, inspired, and led the Church (big C) for almost 2,000 years, and certainly it’s been at the very core of this church for 200 years. But I firmly believe there’s a separate Trinity that’s been at work here throughout that time, one supporting the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s the Trinity of worship, fellowship, and outreach.

Worship, fellowship, and outreach. The three-in-one and one-in-three of the past 200 years at this place. These three things have been the driver of our communal life, being, and movement from the very beginning.

Worship draws us here. Even during the 30 years when the church was closed and services were only occasionally held, worship has without fail for two centuries drawn people into this space. The words of liturgy and song; the voices of congregation and choir: those were and are the voice of God calling to those out there to come to the center in here.

Fellowship keeps us here. Words of welcome and invitation; signs of friendship and love; supporting one another through all life brings to us – sorrows and joys: those were and are the voice of the Son calling to us to stay and share moments and lives, for a season or a lifetime.

Outreach sends us back into the world. Sharing the good news to those feeling discouraged; offering hope to those feeling hopeless; bringing love to those feeling unloved; being the face and hands of God for those for whom God feels absent: these were and are the Spirit working through us to bring the love and welcome and support of this place here at the center to those living on the margins – to eliminate the margins.

Worship; fellowship; outreach. Each is important; each is unique; each is part of the whole; none has meaning without the other.

In a sermon delivered in 1861 after the death of (by then) Bishop Nicholas Hamner Cobbs, The Rev. George Cushman – in writing of the early years of Cobbs’ Bedford County ministry – said, “No Parish, no Church edifice, awaited his coming, no comfortable stipend, was provided for his support, no little band of communicants was there to cheer his hopes… One fact was thus made clear, he could not relax his daily toil. He must live, if he would work for Christ; he could only live, as did St. Paul, by the labor of his hands. He felt no less, that a woe was upon him, if he preached not the Gospel.”[3]

Now, 163 years later, I think that Rev. Cushman wasn’t just talking about our first rector. He couldn’t have known this, but I think that he was being led to offer an early description of the story of St. Stephen’s and the people who built the foundation on which we now stand. From reading old Vestry minutes and letters over the past several years, and in drawing on my own memories of growing up in this church, I’m certain of this: the generations of individuals and families who worshipped here and called this place home also didn’t relax their daily toil. They too lived to do the work of Christ, here and in the community. They too lived by the labor of their hands – building and caring for people and place.

Bringing life. Giving life. Sharing life. They are the work of the Trinity, and they are the work of all who have come before us and those gathered here now. As we continue to celebrate this bicentennial, remembering 200 years of St. Stephen’s as a home, a refuge, and a gathering place in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, may we honor the legacy we have inherited. May we remember with joy all who have contributed to our own Trinity of worship, fellowship, and outreach. And may we pass that legacy on – with confidence and hope – to those generations yet to come.

Amen.


[1] The Rev. Samuel Davies, “Sermon II: The Method of Salvation through Jesus Christ.” Sermons on Important Subjects by the Late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies, A.M., Volume I,” (1794), p. 81.

[2] Robert Marquand, “Colonial sermons laid groundwork for the revolution.” The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1987. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/1987/0703/askip.html.

[3] The Rev. George F. Cushman. The Israelite without Guile: A Memorial Sermon of the Right Reverend Nicholas Hamner Cobbs, D.D., Preached Before the Convention of the Diocese of Alabama, May 4, 1861, p. 12. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/2t73s4vw.