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Sesquicentennial Sermon

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon for the 150th anniversary of 
Calvary Episcopal Church in Americus, Georgia on October 25, 2014

Provoke One Another to Love
A Sermon for the 150th Anniversary of Calvary, Americus
Genesis 28:10-17, Psalm 46, and Hebrews 10:19-25

Perhaps I should be daunted to preach on so august an occasion as Calvary Church’s sesquicentennial, but I take some solace from this parish’s history to calm my nerves. While I stand in the pulpit crafted for The Esteemed Rev. Dr. Jimmy Lawrence (pictured here during World War I), now remembered as a Saint of Georgia and commemorated by a fresh historical marker, the saintly Lawrence was never known for his preaching. One parishioner remembered his reading the scripture and the liturgy from the prayer book so beautifully, but his sermons were dull and she said, “He was something less than a spellbinder….Many people thought him a fool when they thought of him at all.”[1]

If that were not damning enough, writing in his 1912 history of Calvary, Dr. Lawrence himself recalled the time a young woman who attended Calvary accompanied him to his preaching mission in Dawson, where the woman had relatives. On the trip to Dawson he writes that he expressed his embarrassment that he always preached the same sermon there that he gave the previous Sunday in Americus and he hated her to have to hear it a second time. He said she was a true daughter of Barnabas, himself the son of consolation, for she replied, “Don’t mind that, sir. It does not make any difference. I never do remember the sermons anyhow.”[2]

And consider that all I really need to do tonight is slightly better than The Rev. Benjamin T. Hall, the church’s shortest tenured rector. Hall was duly elected Rector of Calvary by its vestry in 1899. He only ever officiated on one single Sunday. I don’t know how that sermon went, but I do know that the rector was on the road before the echo faded, never to return.

Yet even lacking an eloquent preacher in its longest serving priest and boasting what must be the shortest rector’s tenure in church history, Calvary has nonetheless accomplished much that is of eternal significance in its century and a half of proclaiming the Gospel in Sumter County. Imagine Americus without this witness to the reformed catholic faith and you imagine a town without the generations of Christ followers nurtured by Word and Sacrament in this place who went out to make a difference in their community. For in this parish—meeting first in homes, and then at the Chapel of the Female College, in other churches, in its own wood frame church and finally in this most perfect of church buildings—the Gospel has been preached and the Sacraments duly administered so to build up the Body of Christ for its day to day work in the world.

So we turn to the Letter to the Hebrew which exhorts us this evening,

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Consider how this text might have been heard at the founding of this church, as “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” would have seemed no easy task. In that fall of 1864, the crushing news of the Fall of Atlanta to the massive assault of General Sherman’s Federal troops was just three weeks old; Sherman’s devastating March to the Sea was underway. This is most starkly revealed in the change of name for the church in Americus. In the 1850s, Bishop Stephen Elliott (pictured here) sought to found St. John’s Episcopal Church with nine communicants here in Americus. That church failed and when the same bishop named the church in Americus six years later, he selected Calvary, for this new church was built in the midst of untold suffering.

We get a glimpse at what this point in history felt like for those who lived it in Bishop Elliott’s Diocesan Convention Address given just eleven months after he founded Calvary which he began saying:

“Brethren of the Clergy and Laity: Another eventful period has passed away—“a period of darkness and of gloominess, of clouds and thick darkness”—during which our Lord has moved among us in awful mystery and in seeming wrath. The tumultuous tide of events has rolled very contrary to our wishes and our anticipations; has been freighted with a heavy burden of sorrow, and suffering, and death, and has brought us together this day with trouble all around us, with cruel anxieties pressing upon us, with grave perplexities entangling us, with very little joy or hope save such as may spring from a divine source.”[3]

The Bishop echoes the sentiment of our reading from Hebrews, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” In these bleak times with deep darkness gathering so close on the horizon, this new church held fast to the confession of its hope without wavering. And as was apt, the Episcopal Church in Americus was no longer named for Jesus’ beloved disciple John, but for Jesus serving as a propitiation for our sins on Calvary. As Christians, we have no stronger image to summon in times of darkness. For though Jesus could cry out from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We know by the light of Easter that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus.

In the midst of the suffering and loss which was the Civil War at its darkest hour for Episcopalians in Georgia, Bishop Elliott selected Calvary as the name for the new church. The congregation’s twenty-one communicates were very involved in the Confederate Hospital here in town and the most terrible of Prisoner of War camps just thirteen miles away. The well-crafted, long prayed words of the Anglican liturgy would have offered a solace for this congregation’s first baptisms, confirmations and Eucharists. And in the 7,800-weeks that have passed in a century and a half of worship, the people of Sumter County have continued to find both comfort and challenge in encountering Jesus here in Word and Sacrament.

Yet, I want to push past this congregation’s inspiring founding to return to the paradox that is Brother Jimmy Lawrence and in so doing will draw more out of our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Handsome, well-bred and scholarly, Lawrence was the self proclaimed Bishop of Buckwheat for his love of pancakes. This priest living on the buckle of the Bible belt was known for his simplicity and asceticism and yet also remembered for his love of “good food, good drink, good tobacco, good music, good clothes.” He is said to have read Homer and Virgil in their original Greek and Latin and to study laboriously to craft sermons “expressed in such beautiful language” that were nonetheless “rarely were stimulating.”[4]

No one in Sumter County had encountered a minister like him—“He smoked, he drank, he liked good stories and pretty women.” He attended country club dances and made headlines for preaching a sermon in favor of golf on Sunday. And on all that I quote Gertrude Davenport who knew him well. She also recalls how though he was often ignored, laughed at and publicly made fun of, Dr. Lawrence persevered. He tirelessly worked to both preach and live out the Gospel. He carried the sick to hospitals, helped rehabilitate drunken bums, assisted boys and girls to get an education while teaching others himself. Little by little this county seat town observed the odd man with his collar on backwards helping people “high and low, rich and poor, young and old good and bad, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant.” He may have been well versed in Greek, Latin and French, but it was always noted that he was never heard talking down to anyone. Too old to fight in World War I, he went into the YMCA and served near the front just the same. He returned from the war to take back up his steadfast example of trying to follow Christ.

When he died, he was laid to rest beside the beautiful log church of St. James. The mile-long funeral procession followed his casket, many on foot the 13 miles from church to church. Yes, he left behind in Calvary and St. James at Trinity in Blakely and other places scattered around this part of Georgia, some of the most beautiful country and village churches ever built, but that was not his legacy. He had not gained hard-earned respect with noble building efforts any more than through eloquent preaching. The people in this corner of the Kingdom loved Brother Jimmy Lawrence enough to forget his sermons while recalling his example of “kindness, selflessness and utter goodness.”

The story of the founding and of Brother Jimmy Lawrence demonstrate how this church has held fast to hope and sought “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another.” And in provoking one another to love we certainly have other good examples from the history of Calvary from the Rev. H.K. Rees, Rector of Christ Church in Macon who first held services in Americus to Father Reg. Gunn and Father Rick Buechner who are present with us this night, both good and faithful servants of our Lord.

Yet, telling the story of the Bishops and priests recounts only one side of a congregation’s history and greatly limits any picture of the church’s impact on its community, as a church is much more than its ordained leadership. This congregation’s history is full of examples of people who made a difference in this community because of the difference this church made in their lives.

Consider Mrs. Thomas Harrold who opened a Sunday School in her home in 1862, for three or four scholars. From that small beginning grew a worshipping community—the 21 communicants who started this church two years later. When Dr. Lawrence wrote the church’s history in 1912, he could note that the Sunday School program had continued practically without interruption each week since 1862 thanks to the effort started by Mrs. Harrold.

And we can add Captain John Cobb who enlisted in the Macon Volunteers and served through the Civil War, returning to run seven plantations, becoming the first man in Georgia to make over one thousand bales of cotton in one year. In the early 1900s served on the city council, the county commission, the Board of Education, the Carnegie Library Committee, the Georgia House of Representatives and was for many years Senior Warden of this church.

And we could go on to list the many dear people of God who have been Calvary Episcopal Church in the 150 years since its founding, doing the real work of the church in their day to day lives. For the work of the church is not found merely in its sermons and liturgies, but through living lives transformed by Word and Sacrament.

From the Civil War through the Depression and the Civil Rights Movement up until more recent troubles, the people of Calvary have sought to do just that, holding fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. And as we look to the future, the task remains to provoke one another to love following the example of the many who have gone before you in this congregation, never neglecting to meet together here in worship, but gathering to encourage one another. And in doing this you add day by day to this congregation’s legacy of “kindness, selflessness and utter goodness” as you continue to be an open, loving church, committed to Jesus Christ and his unconditional love for all people.

Amen.



[1] Gertrude Davenport in “Calvary Episcopal Church: A Ralph Adams Cram Church in Americus, Georgia, p. 13

[2] A History of Calvary Church Americus, Georgia 1858-1912 by James B. Lawrence, M.A., B.D., p. 151

[3] Journal of the Third Annual Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Georgia held in St. Paul’s Church, Albany, commencing May 11, 1865, and Emmanuel Church, Athens, commencing August 10, 1865, p. 13.

[4] This and all other quotations are from Gertrude Davenport work cited above, unless otherwise noted.

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