Last week we began tracking through our history, recent, not so recent and fairly distant. Our goal is September 15 when we gather to tell the stories of how/why we found our way to St. Andrew’s and why those journeys still matter, these years later. A critical piece of the transitional process is to help us remember what we have forgotten, celebrate what we may have failed to celebrate for one reason or another, and to make intentional choices about whether we will finally give up the old scripts of our history that no longer serve us well. The stories we will remember today and, in the weeks ahead are not to be remembered just to reminisce. Not in the least. Instead, our work is so that we will have opportunity to remember who we have been and from where we have come so that we may more clearly align ourselves with where we are headed. So today, again, we visit, The Kirk that Faith Built (and we are not just referring to that iconic book spearheaded by Ian Baird and committee in preparation for the Centennial celebration of St. Andrew’s in 1990 (nearing 30 years ago). The Kirk that faith built today comes in the form of 2 stories tightly woven together.
Robert was not born in Canada but in Scotland. At the tender age of 7, within a short while, his mother, father, grandmother and 2 of his 3 sisters died of a cholera outbreak. 3 years later, Robert’s grandfather died as well. Imagine the difficulties growing up as an orphan. School became his life, until he met Joan and married at the age of 22. It was not long before Robert, Joan and their two daughters were invited to join Joan’s uncle on a grand adventure by starting a coal company in British Columbia. The young family settled in Nanaimo and for the next 32 years they raised their 10 living children while Robert became the wealthiest man in British Columbia. The moved to Victoria in 1883 and he was elected to the Legislature twice. During that time Robert began to consider his unmarried daughters and having a stable place for them to begin their adult lives so at the age of 62, Robert initiated construction of the most magnificent house in Victoria – a castle it would be. But two years later, Robert died at the age of 64, with castle not yet completed, daughters not yet married and his family unable for another year to move into the palatial estate that he was preparing for them. What does all this have to do with St. Andrew’s? They were members – between 1883 and 1889 when Robert died. They were listed on the first communion roll, and Robert served a brief stint as a Trustee and as a Church manager.
While this building was completed and dedicated the year after Robert’s death, the church was growing enough to need a larger building. Most meetings of the Vestry (as the Session was called then) were dedicated to listing the many new persons who were joining regularly. But all was not well as there were on-going financial struggles. The budget was difficult to raise and loans from one source or another were frequent. So just perhaps Robert and Joan and their 10 children were a bit wary of the undue pressure that such a union would have upon a family who had worked all their lives when the most important thing to them was protecting their family.
But it was the gift of all gifts, that came after Robert died, after the new church was dedicated in January following Robert’s death in April. What more significant kind of gift could they give in honor/memory of their husband, father and grandfather than a magnificent set of windows – stained glass windows that would be illuminated on Douglas Street by the electric lights that were made possible by an elder during that time who brought telegraph, telephone and electric lights to the island. The fact that the windows could be lit from inside was significant because St. Andrew’s was only one of the 2nd churches in Canada with electric lighting. So, in Robert’s honor, Joan commissioned the windows by A. Linnman of Frankfurt, all depicting the Nativity. Arriving by ship 5 months after the dedication of this Kirk and a year following the death of Robert, the Dunsmuir windows, as they came to be referred to, were installed. Magnificent in their beauty, in the center is St. Andrew, surrounded by 8 angels, 4 with trumpets and 4 with harps. The remainder celebrate the Nativity. In the larger frames are the shepherds who are with another portraying the angel as she greets them. Next are Mary and Jesus, and finally the Magi and their gifts. Why did the Dunsmuir’s choose the Nativity? We can only conjecture as Session minutes from 1889-1890 give us no clue. Perhaps the answer to that question is older than the Dunsmuir’s, older than St. Andrew’s and tells an even more ancient story than either of those. On this August morning, we have been reminded of that story normally reserved for Advent. We have broken open the carols that sing of a birth that is too often obscured by the rush and hype of seasonal expectations. It is right that this story fronts the visual message of who St. Andrew’s is to all who pass by the story illuminated for all who view it. But what is this timeless story that must go beyond the medium of stained glass and again be imbedded into our hearts and lives?
A young woman is told what would have been initially unbelievable but devastating news that her life was not to be as she expected. Her life was to take an unbelievable turn that to this day is tossed around with questions of “Was she what has been said of her?” All of us, however, can identify with a life that takes those unexpected turns unimaginable to us before they happen and then when they do, we wonder how in the world will we make it? We don’t need to wonder about the fright, the fear and the panic because we have all felt the fright, the fear and the panic within our own lives. Front and center is not a stained-glass representation but a mission statement that this congregation seeks to understand and side with those whose lives are suddenly veering off in a path never expected as evidenced by our patron saint of a life out of control – Mary, mother of Jesus. Of course, the same is true for her engaged partner whose life is just as chaotic when you expect an engagement to be about preparing for a mutual future that you had shared dreams and conversations about, but suddenly, that engagement begins to feel more like a prison sentence than a chosen path. Mary and Joseph, are as always, front and center in our Advent scenes and celebration. Likewise, are the shepherds and the Magi who appear as prominently in our stained-glass representation as they do in the Nativity scenes, the carols and Christmas pageants and our decorations. But digging deeper, perhaps we can see something not often heard or understood.
Throughout the Nativity narrative are the central characters – Mary, Joseph and Jesus, Zachariah and Elizabeth and Herod. We know them well and they figure prominently in our narratives, but too often overlooked are the “bit players.” Are you familiar with a “bit player?” This describes one who may or may not have a speaking part and if they do, it is insignificant. We often do not know their names and there is no plot that surrounds their appearance. Consider, if you will, the number of “bit players” who figure prominently in the Nativity. Certainly, the shepherds would never make anyone’s cast of essential players. Their prominence is that they were informed in the first place of this spectacular birth. Doing what they normally do, tending sheep, they had never made anyone’s list of first invited to a significant event. We don’t even know their names. All we know is that as they are tending sheep, a routine job in a less than noteworthy location, they are informed of the most miraculous birth that ever occurred. Do you ever feel that your life is relegated to routines that are certainly not worth noting? Who in their re-telling of the significant factors of their day would ever write in a diary, “Dear diary, today I washed 6 loads of clothes, cleaned all 2.5 bathrooms, cooked my 275th meal of the month, of which again no one commented that it was good, decent, delicious or even edible.” How often does it feel that we are but “bit players” in this drama of life in which the sameness of our lives seem barely worth commenting upon? So, it would have been for the shepherds, nameless and faceless individuals who are suddenly elevated to the unlikely realization that their lives do count and matter to someone, to anyone. Someone cares and could it be that frame in the Nativity drama underscores and illustrates that for anyone caught in a web of dull sameness in their lives, “bit players” indeed matter because just as they counted enough in God’s estimation, they must count in our own. Surprisingly the other “bit players” in the Nativity are the Magi. The 3 Kings of Orient Are. But they were not kings. They followed the religion of Zoroastrianism with its keen awareness of the stars and planets, which is why they would have noticed the unusual star drawing them to look for it’s meaning. Certainly, they figure more prominently than the shepherds. At least they make the cut of those appearing in most Nativity sets. Their visit to Herod inquiring directions for the boy king who was supposed to replace him at some point was perhaps not the most wise move they could have made. Legend has given them names but there seems to be no guarantee of the accuracy of those names. Still they must be considered as “bit players” who figure prominently in the Nativity. While their gifts are certainly elegant and well thought out, they would not figure prominently in “best gifts to give a two-year-old this year”. “Bit players” whose search for this king of the Jews means that they would not be deterred by distance or bad directions. Their story asks how diligent we are in our own search for the things that matter most? Where are we willing to search? Do we still believe that the church has a message that can change lives or do we do what we do merely because it is what we have always done? Are we willing to keep searching when we make bad turns and when we face hurdles that are large and looming?
I certainly don’t know this to be the case, but I could surmise that the gift of those windows were commissioned to be made and delivered from Germany so that they could adorn a building the Dunsmuir’s wanted to matter in this community for generations to come. I could imagine that the loss of mother, father, sisters and grandparents would cause one to live life a bit gun shy afraid of when further tragedy might befall them. It certainly seems likely that a hard-working family blessed with good fortune and 10 living children who were admittedly but, “bit players” in the life of a congregation trying to make their way in difficult financial times, but who wanted to provide a gift they could have never imagined on their own.
What does it mean to be a “bit player” in a congregation that seems to revolve around those who take the prominent roles – the ones who sing and pray and preach? Are “bit players” like the shepherds, the Magi and the Dunsmuir’s a metaphor for those who are called to do what they can, who are challenged never to give up regardless of their obstacles? I want to make a plea for those who continue to search, for those who do the menial tasks, never seem to make the headlines. We are looking for those who model the images found in the Nativity of those willing to continue to play a part in this unlikely story that has nothing to do with December but has everything to do with making a difference in the lives of those who struggle. Today we sing the carols, we re-visit the stories that assure us that God continues to reside with/among us and we hear again the reminders that “bit players” are essential that the story continues in this place and beyond. What does that mean for you? No audition necessary. When the shepherds and the Magi had the story clear in their minds and hearts, they got up and moved. Will we?