August 21, 2019
by Pastor Dan
When I was in seminary, I read a book by Margaret Bendroth, director of Boston’s Congregational Library. In it, she told a story of a visit she made to an old old New England church with a long history and its share of famous former ministers (sound familiar?). As a way of breaking the ice with her hosts, she shared with them some tales she had read about one of those historical reverends she was familiar with. Apparently he was a man with an intimidating presence. He would step out of his large carriage, all in black, and the congregation would go silent and part like the Red Sea as he marched up the aisle. A dramatic man with a dramatic air, he would approach the pulpit with a sense of gravity… holding his large black tri-cornered hat to his chest through the whole walk.
And wouldn’t you know it, Margaret Bendroth was surprised to find that one piece of this intimidating reverend’s legacy still endured. There, in a glass case in the narthex, was the ancient black tri-cornered hat, a silent sentinel watching over the parishioners.
Of course, with the passage of time, that was really the only thing the members of the church knew about that once famous minister. Nobody alive in that congregation had ever read one of his sermons or knew what his theology was or what he cared about or the lessons he had shared. They didn’t even know that he would have hated the fact that his hat had been given such pride of place. He was strongly against trappings and relics, and the fact that this hat was all he was remembered for? Idolatry, I say!
And I quote from the seminary paper I wrote in response to Bendroth’s book: “The members of this church did not really know the meaning of the hat’s pastor in the development of their church’s theology or polity, and did not engage his memory in shaping the spirituality of their present. His hat was simply a ghost—and a quiet one at that—at which passersby simply nodded.”
There’s a priest named Ezra in the Hebrew Bible who cuts a pretty imposing figure himself. He may not have a tri-cornered hat, but just picture him: standing before a multitude of witnesses in Jerusalem gathered for a holiday celebration. They could fit more people in that square than they could fit at the Temple itself, and Ezra mounted a raised platform large enough to hold fourteen people and led the crowd to bow their heads and hear him share the word of God. And when he opened the book, everybody stood. He commanded enough gravity to entrance a multitude, much like a certain Puritan reverend with a tri-cornered hat.
But Ezra wasn’t alone, and that isn’t all that happened that day.
“Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Nehemiah 8:7-8
It ain’t just Ezra. We, all of us, are called by God to come before those who would hear, to share the word, and to help us all explore and come to understand what God is speaking to us. The messages of God aren’t just something to be shared by one man with a fancy hat. God has given us all the gifts of insight and critical thinking, and we are all called to engage with others to seek wisdom and truth, and we don’t need a fancy hat to do it. Ezra was just one man, and no minister wants their legacy to just be a hat, or a painting, or a plaque. You are the legacy God’s teaching leaves behind. May it be a memorable one.
Pastor Dan’s Song of the Week: “Maximize,” by Amaranthe
Together, we can bring Christ's word and work to the world.