A Communion Meditation by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Legacy Campaign 1 March 26, 2017
These words from Deuteronomy are the stirring admonition of Moses spoken to the Hebrew people as they stood on the threshold of entry into the land of promise after forty years of wilderness wandering. Moses reminded the people that day that they were beneficiaries of the labors of others and of the providential grace of God.
When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you — a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant — and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
In the life of the people of Israel Moses’ reminder came at an important moment of passage and transition. It is a word I would claim for us again today at this juncture in our congregation’s life and history. Today we formally kick off what we are calling “the Legacy campaign.” We gather here this day to remember and celebrate the legacy of all those saints across the better part of two centuries who have planted this vineyard, who have helped build this house, who have, by their prayers and sacrifice, made it possible for us to enjoy the programs and ministries and opportunities this church affords. And we stand within a fortnight of important commitments that we will make to this church’s future health and stability.
So, I claim this word of Moses for us today because none of us have come to this important time free of indebtedness. We live as heirs of the lives and labors of others who have struggled during the past two centuries to make this church a beacon of truth and light, to keep it faithful to the Lord of life, to create here facilities of warmth and welcome, to foster here ministries of passion and compassion rooted in the Gospel. We all gather here today indebted to the faithful and courageous saints who have dreamed and planned, who have given sacrificially of themselves, who have built and challenged themselves and others across the years.
It is fitting then that we consider this text from Deuteronomy on this day when we think about this church’s “legacy,” this day when we seek to name and remember the saints who have formed and shaped us in faith, who have gone before us, digging wells and planting vineyards for the sake of their children and of generations that would come after them.
I like the way Southern writer Michael Malone defines such “saints.” His 2002 mystery First Lady is set here in North Carolina. The novel is full of political stars, rock stars, and social stars, but what I remember is not so much the stars as one minor character, an Episcopal priest named Paul Madison, and his definitions of what makes a person a “star” and what makes one a “saint.” As for what makes a “star,” Madison said, “Light, I think. They draw all the light to them.” Then he said, “It’s different with saints.”
“If stars are the light, then I’d say saints are people the light shines through. Not just the famous saints, because the famous ones are stars, too. But the everyday saints around us in the world. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light just goes right through them to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don’t get in the way because they’re looking, too.”
“The light just goes right through them to what they love….” What a wonderful way of thinking about saints! Those saints are the everyday folks who live and serve, the folks through whom the light simply shines. Across the last 26 years, I have had the privilege of watching them at work – selflessly, graciously, steadfastly investing themselves for the good of this church, or satisfying the hungers of many in our community, or nailing a secure roof to shelter those in need of a home, or helping to equip Haitian educators. I’ve watched “the light shine through them to what they love.”
In the life of this church and community, there are many saints to whom we owe our thanks. Some of them we know or knew by name. Some served this church and community before we were born. But the saints of Chapel Hill were at work long before that. As Bill McLendon notes in his wonderful brief history of University Church,
The devotion to education of the Scottish Presbyterians in North Carolina … played an influential role in the birth and nurture of the nation’s first state university during its first two centuries of service. When the North Carolina Constitutional Convention met in Halifax in 1776, a few months after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, it was this commitment to education that resulted in Article XLI that stated “all useful learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more universities.” Presbyterians were likewise involved as political leaders, as members of the Board of Trustees, and as faculty when the University of North Carolina was chartered by the Legislature in 1789; when the site for the University was chosen on a hill in Orange County where an Anglican chapel existed; …when the first student arrived in 1795; and when the first graduation exercises were held in July 1798. Many of the early professors at UNC were Presbyterians from Princeton University, and [for the first 73 years of its life] the first three presidents of the University were Presbyterian (two being ministers).
Those Presbyterians organized a congregation here in 1829, and in the mid-1840s purchased for $200 a one-acre lot here on East Franklin Street across from the University. The first building on this lot was completed and dedicated in September of 1849.
Across the ensuing 167 years, three sanctuaries have graced this plot. The first small church house served until 1919, when it was razed to build a new sanctuary that would seat close to 350. After a church fire destroyed the building on Ash Wednesday in 1958, the present sanctuary was built with the generous support of the saints of the Synod of North Carolina… a 650-seat sanctuary far larger than the membership of the church at that time, and thus built with vision and hope of what would be. It was an enormous stretch for the congregation of that time, but the saints of those days were undaunted. The light shone right through them to what they loved, and they pressed on toward a future they could only imagine.
Friends, we are here because of those people, who had such vision and who lived with such a profound sense of stewardship. We are here because of the legacy of generations of saints who invested so much of their time and energy and resources to provide a space and a ministry that has touched the lives of countless townspeople and students along the way. And now, I am bold to declare to you, it is our time to let the light shine through us.
This Legacy Campaign on which we embark today does not occur within an historical vacuum. It relies on the legacy we have received from the saints who have labored long and hard in this place, and it seeks to leave a legacy for those who will worship and study and learn and serve here long after you and I are gone.
Some of you here today have been a part of this church’s history of faith and faithfulness for many years. According to our records, two of you – Eleanor Morris and Helen Giduz – first joined this church in 1950 – 67 years ago. Mary Morrow and Margaret Adams became part of this church family a year later, and Bill Wood, Janet Anderson, Mildred Little, Anne Havens, and Nancy Vernon first came to us in 1953. There were hundreds who preceded them, and thousands have come since then. You joined the pilgrimage along the way. Either here or elsewhere you have probably learned what it means to work hard; you have done what you could to learn, to grow, to develop your capacities. Some of you have accomplished much in your lives, and others of you will in the years ahead. But no one among us is self-made; all of us drink from wells we didn’t dig; all of us live in communities we didn’t build; all of us thrive as the beneficiaries of a profound grace and as heirs of a history that lives within us.
Many of you know of my fondness for the poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry. Among his novels, one of my favorites is The Memory of Old Jack, the story of Old Jack Beechum, a retired farmer who one day revisits his whole life – the essence of the novel. At one point, he is remembering the annual ritual of spring planting and his joy every spring at the first day behind the plow:
The work satisfied something deeper in him than his own desire. It was as if he went to his fields in the spring, not just because he wanted to, but because his father and grandfather before him had gone because they wanted to – because, since the first seeds were planted by hand in the ground, his kinsmen had gone each spring to the fields. When he stepped into the first opening furrow of a new season he was not merely fulfilling an economic necessity; he was answering the summons of an immemorial kinship; he was shaping a passage by which an ancient vision might pass once again into the ground.
Friends, is that not what ties us to this place in these days – an immemorial kinship with those who have gone before us and with generations yet to come? Later in Old Jack’s reverie, he thinks of what it is that binds him so closely to the land. He loved that land, and he invested so much sweat and energy and his very soul in the land, Berry said, “not because it belonged to him so much as because, by the expenditure of history and work, he belonged to it….”
In recent days I have heard so many of you speak similar words about your ties to University Church. Your expressions of affection for this church and its people have gladdened my heart. I dare say, those expressions have earned the smiles of those saints who have gone before us, that “great cloud of witnesses” that encompasses us this day.
And now to the saints that are here among us, to those through whom the light shines on what you love, to those of you who have labored long and hard in this place, digging wells and planting vineyards in God’s name for the benefit of others, we give thanks to God for you. But it is yet early for many of the newer saints among us here today. It is yet early, and the time is now. And God knows, there is a lot of digging and planting yet to be done.
 Michael Malone, First Lady, Naperville, IL, Sourcebooks, 2002, 426. I am grateful to Samuel G. Candler, “Saint Carlton is Lowest,” Day 1 sermon, November 7, 2010, for pointing me to the Malone book.
 William W. McLendon, “University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: A Brief History,” published by the church in 1999.
 Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack, New York, Counterpoint Books, 1999, 30.
 Berry, 125. Italics mine.