Shelter Island Presbyterian Church
Shelter Island Presbyterian Church
July 28, 2002
On the way home from the worship service Barbara (I am her husband) and I checked in, as is our wont, to see what the other thought of the preceding hour. Barbara perceived a likeness between the preacher and comedian Robin Williams, mostly in physique and carriage, not, certainly, in the content of the message. I thought, maybe more John Belushi. Either comparison seems apt the more I think about what we had witnessed… and what is often the case in Protestant worship: the preacher is like a stand-up comedian, having to hold the congregation’s attention with colorful words, arresting images, and an occasional shocking turn of thought. The necessity of such histrionics was greater on this Sunday for the preacher, William R. Grimbol, because there was little else to distract and entertain: no children’s message, no choir anthem, no baptism… just a preacher, his Bible, his wit, and the Holy Spirit.
And he carried it off with intelligence, passion, and faithful logic.
It took two ferries and a couple of hundred dollars for us to get to that sanctuary, but I would recommend the Sunday worship to anyone on the East End of Long Island on a weekend looking for the Gospel truth and inspiration. It would be time far better spent than at the Whaling Museum, sunning on the beach, or sitting on the front porch of the Chiquit Inn for cocktails.
Here are the categories according to which I would measure the effectiveness of the worship.
Building: another meetinghouse, not particularly imposing, but comfortable and intimate. Decorative tapestries hung on either side of the recess for the organ console, one by Monet, very tasteful and seasonal. A silver pitcher and a plate rested on the table below the pulpit, a clear reminder that the table is for holy communion. The Reformed tradition is honored, insisting on the parity of the Word and Sacrament, the pulpit and the table.
Music: a summer Sunday, the choir is on vacation, no “walking music,” but there was accompaniment to the hymns from the, as yet, culturally unpurified Presbyterian Hymnal. An alto in front of me, hearing me sing the bass part on a hymn with two high a range, invited me to sing with the choir whenever I was in town. I allowed as how I was a retired preacher. She shrugged and almost said, “Don’t worry, we won’t hold that against you.”
Bible: the New Revised Standard Version is used, in pulpit and pew rack. Although it appeared the preacher was following a lectionary, we were not subjected to three or four seemingly unrelated texts as seems currently to be the fashion in many mainline churches.
Sermon: as suggested earlier, this half hour (longer by thirteen minutes than any I would preach) was the main event this summer Sunday. The theme, heaven, who is going there and why, casts a wide net of interest, from those theologically informed to those just worried about their eternity. The texts were the parables of the mustard seed, leaven, and fishing net. Preacher Grimbol’s slant was novel and astute. He reads these metaphors of the kingdom of heaven as with a twinkle in Jesus’ eye. The Lord employs irony, a thought anathema to Biblical literalists, but a thought that goes a long way to understanding many of Jesus’ difficult sayings (e. g., “the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light.”) Mustard seed and leaven, very ordinary and unsublime items, would sound to Jesus’ hearers a big letdown from their expectations of a heaven of ivory palaces and golden streets. But Jesus confounds our expectations about a lot of things (nowhere more evident than on Palm Sunday), and with these parables tells those hungering for heaven that it won’t be what most of us expect and the list of inhabitants very surprising. Mostly, Jesus tells us to leave such matters to God. Trust God and love one another, and let heaven take care of itself. Something like that.
The preacher used the full set of homiletic tools. He did a few riffs, Robin Williams-like, on the foolishness of certain television evangelists. He drew upon his own experience with the loss of his wife, a preacher herself, in Sag Harbor. He engaged my mind and heart as it has not been engaged in a long time. There was depth and authenticity, aided and abetted by oratorical skills.
Children: they were invited to leave early in the service, to go to an adjacent room for games and, maybe, a lesson from the Bible. Some children remained for the service, one of them, a toddler, screaming in mid-sermon, occasioning an ad lib from the preacher that set the congregation to laughing. Most other, non-summer Sundays, the children would be treated to a story or an object lesson.
Welcome: we were cordially received before and after the service, but then Barbara’s family is known, her mother a frequent worshiper in years past, and her father, the unofficial associate pastor and official tenor in the choir for several years prior to his death. That is, we weren’t really strangers.
Rating: four and a half haloes, mostly on the power and faithfulness of the preaching. Here is wonderful evidence that one can have more with less.