When I did my trial sermon 40 years ago at Trinity Lutheran Church in a southwestern Ohio village of about 3,000 called Versailles (yes, Versailles -- they think the French pronounce it wrong),
the quote on the front of the bulletin was from the gospel text: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Well, I was the one who was to come – fresh out of seminary, green behind the ears, and a whole lot to learn. This sermon is about a lesson I learned. I’m anxious to share it with you.
The first warning that Dr. Gillette was on the warpath was from the town druggist. The druggist told me that the good doctor had been in asking how many villagers were taking cold and flu medicine. The second warning came from the choir director who called to say that Dr. Gillette had paid her a personal visit to discuss what he said was “the assault on health and common sense which was about to be launched against the unsuspecting members of our congregation.” The third warning came from the doctor himself … in the parking lot of the IGA.
Dr. Gillette was the oldest physician in Darke County. Approaching 90, he would still dispense advice and – some said – prescriptions on the street. He had personally brought three generations of Trinity families into the world – many of the grandmothers having been delivered in their own homes. For most of his practice he had been the only doctor in Versailles. He and his wife had been doing gentry farming on a large spread just outside the village limits.
I had parked my car and was making my way toward the market. Dr. and Mrs. Gillette had just finished their shopping and had loaded their groceries in their Buick Electra, and were just about to back out of their space when he spied me. The electric window slid down as I passed by.
“Excuse me,” he said loudly. I stopped. “We would like to know if what we have heard about you is true.” As conversation starters go, that line ranks right at the top. I tried thinking of something scandalous I may have done. Maybe Larry the barber had told him I was driving a neon green Gremlin. That would stand out.
“It has come to our attention,” he fulminated, “that you and the youth of our congregation are planning to hold a common cup communion.”
So that was the issue which had lit his fire. At Trinity it was the custom to have the high school youth plan one service per year. They could pretty much plan whatever they wanted. At Trinity all communion was served in the individual one-ounce glasses. 40 years ago the use of the chalice was just being introduced (or RE-introduced to be more accurate) in the more trendy urban congregations. That’s why the youth wanted to do it. However, Versailles was neither urban nor trendy. Dr. and Mrs. Gillette most certainly weren’t.
Of course, the youth wanted to make the common cup optional – like we do here. People could choose. But Dr. Gillette decided that drinking out of the same cup was a sure-fire way to give everybody in the village the flue, herpes of the mouth, or worse. Besides, it represented change and was, therefore, reprehensible. I began to explain that they could sip out of the little glasses as they always had and that it was only one time. Cutting me off mid-sentence he barked, “You have one week to call this madness off!”
I began to explain that it was for the youth. “One week!” Then he pushed the pedal to the floor and laid a three-foot long patch of rubber, in reverse, right there in the IGA parking lot.
Well, there wasn’t anything about this which a bit of reasoning could’t cure, I decided in my first-year-in-the-ministry way of thinking. So I went back to my study and dug out three articles defending the practice of the common cup. One defended it theologically. Another defended it biblically. But the third defended it medically, pointing out that the alcohol content in the wine killed any bacteria which might find its way to the rim of the cup. Armed with these I got in the Gremlin and drove out to the Gillette farm to pay a call.
I parked in front of the barn at the end of the lane and made my way toward the back door of the large old brick house. On my way up the flagstone walk a sixth-sense told me I was on hostile ground. About half way up I could see the back door swing inward. “Ah,” I thought to myself. At least they are opening things up to me.” Then the screen door spring outward and two very large brindle boxers bounded down the steps toward me. Their barks didn’t sound much like, “Welcome to the Billette estate.” They sounded more like, “Get your butt back to the Gremlin, NOW!”
It took me five seconds to reverse course and jump into the Gremlin on the shotgun side and slide over to the driver’s seat. One dog braced itself on one side of the car and one dog on the other, like two big brown barking bookends. I could see two grey heads staring out from behind the screen door. I imagined they were laughing maniacally.
Well, Youth Sunday came and went without incident. No one reported an illness or a death. No plague descended on the village. The seasons of the church year came and went but the fifth pew from the rear on the east side of the church remained empty. Everyone knew the Gillettes were boycotting the pastor. Down at the VFW bets were being taken on which would happen first: the pastor leaving the church or the Gilletees leaving this life. I, myself, wouldn’t have known which way to place my bet. My first church skirmish, I assessed, was neither a victory nor a failure – only unfinished.
Church life went on. Babies were baptized. A catechism class was confirmed. Then another. I found myself in my fourth year of ministry. One evening we went out to eat in the village of Russia -- which the locals pronounce Rushee -- and found ourselves the only people in the restaurant except for guess who, who were seated at the very next table. It was a silent meal.
Another time I attempted to end the standoff. It was at the parlor of the local funeral home. The couple were seated on a couch where Mrs. Gillette was receiving condolences on the death of her sister. I decided to try a pastoral intervention. Screwing up my courage and holding my breath I waited in line, approached the sofa, and said, “It’s good to see you. I’m sorry about your sister, Mrs. Gillette.” It had been three years. Neither of them looked at me. Then, in the loudest voice Dr. Gillette could muster he said crisply and slowly, “Don’t. You. Press. Your. Luck!” There was a popular TV commercial that year where, when E.F. Hutton spoke, everybody got quiet and listened. Well, everybody in the parlor got quiet and listened. I slunk back out the back door, got in my Gremlin, and drove home.
I was to be pastor of Trinity for one more year. It appeared as if the boys at the VFW hall who bet I’d go first had won. One day, as I was banging out a sermon on my big black Underwood typewriter, a man appeared at my study door. It was Dr. Gillette’s son, Tom. I had met him at the funeral home. We had gotten along.
Tom said, “It’s Dad. He’s over at the Piqua Hospiatal. He’s had respiratory failure and they don’t think he’s going to make it.” I was genuinely sorry to hear the news and told Tom so. “Will you visit him?” Tom asked. I said, “Oh, I think that would make matters worse.” Tom said, “I think he’ll see you. He knows he doesn’t have much time.”
So I went. As I entered the hospital room I was shocked and saddened by what I saw. Dr. Gilette lay in the fetal position – gaunt, thin, and pale. He was gasping for air. I said, “Dr. Gillette, it’s Pastor carl.” He didn’t appear to hear me. I walked up to the side of the bed and repeated the words. Still, he didn’t respond. I bent over so that my mouth was about six inches from his ear and said, “It’s Pastor Carl.”
Suddenly he reached up and grabbed me by my neck. I had seen the movie where the “dead” buy rears up unexpectedly and strangles the good guy. I thought for a moment we were going there. But, something about his grip was not hostile. I didn’t pull away. He pulled my head down into his shoulders and began to sob uncontrollably. When he could manage words he said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He kept repeating that. My words were, “It’s alright.”
After he composed himself he asked me a question which caught me completely off guard. “Would you give me communion?” Communion. The very thing over which we had done battle.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
At the bedside I poured the wine into a small cup and set the wafer out. I went through the confession, the absolution, the scripture, the prayers, and the words of institution. When it came time to give Dr. Gillette the body and blood of his Lord I paused. Something was not complete. He knew what it was. He said, “Is there more of that in there?” he asked. I knew what he meant.
I filled another glass and set out another wafer. “The body of Christ, given for you,” I said. We ate. “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” We drank.
The good Dr. would not only recover and go home, but he would go on to live two more years. The next pastor had his funeral. But during my last year in my ministry he and she were to once again occupy the fifth pew from the rear on the east side of the church as active and contributing members of our congregation.
Stories don’t always have happy endings. This one did. This is one instance in which I can point directly to the power and movement of the Holy Spirit who calls, enlightens, and sanctifies. I didn’t make the reconciliation happen. The holy spirit did. And never underestimate the connection between faith and health. I don’t know what they were giving him at the Piqua hospital. But I know what I gave him – the body and blood of our Lord. And I know he got better.
I won’t spend any more time interpreting my story for you. I’ll let it speak for itself. Sometimes sermons are based on scripture passages. Sometimes they are based on life experience. I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you on the 40th anniversary of my ordination.