Memorial Sermon (Exodus Bay Shore Reunion)

**On April 20-22nd over sixty members of the Exodus Bay Shore missionary team that established the West Islip Church of Christ in 1963 met at the Hilton Homewood Suites on the outskirts of the Dallas Forth Worth Airport for a blessed reunion.  As part of the reunion the group lit candles for those members of Exodus Bay Shore that are no longer living.  Before the candle lighting I delivered this memorial sermon in memory of the deceased.**

Sometimes you participate in the beginning of something that you are unable to see the end of.

Two days ago I returned to the states from a week long surgical mission at Clinic Ezell in Montellano, Guatemala.  During the week over 80 patients received surgeries they otherwise would not have received if Health Talents International did not have a presence in the remote Mayan communities of this impoverished country.  My only regret is that I cannot stay to see the healed returned to their families and witness the fruits of this good labor.  Sometimes you participate in the beginning of something that you are unable to see the end of.

For the past six years I, along with others from West Islip, have given a week each year to staff the sterilization room at Clinic Ezell.  JoLee Thayer has traveled to Clinic Ezell over twenty times.  In addition to our annual trips the West Islip Church of Christ supports the work of HTI out of our benevolence budget.  When we felt that was not enough we began fund raising in West Islip to increase our offering.  We held car washes, staffed craft booths, hosted a Mexican dinner and a pancake breakfast, and even offered dance lessons(West Islip Church of Christ = living on the edge [somethings never change]).  Our local fund raising efforts to date have raised over ten thousand additional dollars beyond our budgeted commitments.

Katie Hays and Lance Pape, former ministers in West Islip, introduced the church to the good work of HTI.  I inherited the blessing of involvement with Clinic Ezell from their ministry in West Islip.  It was passed down to me.  I did not start this meaningful aspect of our congregation’s outreach, but I am blessed to be a part of its present form.   I wonder if Katie and Lance knew how our participation in this work of the kingdom would grow over time?  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of. 

It reminds me of the great emancipator Moses who delivered a nation out of bondage, led them across the wilderness, mediated for this nation a covenant relationship with YHWH, and died on a mountain top staring at a land of promise that he would never set foot in.  It reminds me of the prophet writing in the tradition of Isaiah, sometimes referred to as Second Isaiah, and of Jeremiah and Ezekiel who prophesied an end to the Babylonian captivity, a new covenant written on the hearts of God’s people, and a repopulated Jerusalem that would be a light to all nations inviting them to come and worship YHWH on his Holy Mountain, who died exiles from their homeland, long before the first stone of the second temple was laid on mount Zion.  It reminds me of Jesus, the great apocalyptic prophet, who championed a new kingdom of equality and servant leadership, who shocked the world with his radical sermon on the mount, who welcomed the blind, the poor, the lame, the female and male alike, and the children, and who was crucified by the powers of sin before his Spirit which works to create an alternative egalitarian community could be poured out on all believers.  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.

I suspect that each of us wants to participate in something transcendent–something that reaches beyond us, something that stubbornly refuses to be contained in the chronology of a single life.  Each of us wants to a put a rock on a stone wall in a calm and beautiful wood that will one day, after we are gone, be moss covered and ancient, but still standing, serving a purpose, and strong.

We have lit candles which are for us a symbolic presence of many Exodus/Bay Shore participants who were involved with something transcendent.  Each of them participated in the beginning of something they were unable to see the end of.

I want to say a few things about these people I never knew.  This is not new for me.  Each week I talk about people that I have never met: Moses, Deborah, Isaiah, Jesus, Pricilla, Paul.  The difference is that the people I am talking to each week have never met any of those people either.  Today it is different.  Of all the unqualified people–here I am.

Some of you have attempted to help.  You wrote down your memories for a memory book that the West Islip Church of Christ is compiling before all the brave men and women and children who traveled to a foreign place (New York!) to begin what would become the West Islip Church of Christ are no longer with us.  I have read every one of those memories.  I have read Dwain Evans memoir, Lamar Baker’s memoir, and I have read the biographical bits written about Don Haymes pertaining to the Exodus.

I did all of this long before I was asked to be here with you this morning in this capacity.  The truth is I find the story of the exodus intriguing–a broad and diverse collection of people, leaving extended families and established vocations, and traveling to a growing bedroom community of the greater New York City area to plant a church overnight, determined to bring a unique expression of the Christian faith that is the “Churches of Christ” to a place where that expression was not widespread.  The south came in force to the north, not only in abstract ideas but in the concrete lives of those gathered here, and those who proceed us in death, and who are shedding flickering light on today’s worship to God.  They and you made friends, your kids attended school, you traveled Montauk Highway and pulled to the curb to let a speeding ambulance drive past you toward Good Sam hospital, you tried to merge onto Southern State Parkway during rush hour.  Should we call it ‘radical’ Christianity? If we put the call in today for such an adventure would anyone answer?  Does it even make sense in our present world?

I was not entirely new to the idea of the south coming north when I came to West Islip.  I grew up in northern Maine as a member of the Churches of Christ.  My home church in Caribou, Maine was started by E.R. Davies, a man from Texas, who traveled north with his family and ministry partners to plant churches.  The second location for my ministry was Montpelier, Vermont, a congregation started by two ministry families from Texas who moved to Vermont when no other congregation of the “churches of Christ” existed.  I came to know Christ within the congregations of the Churches of Christ because of similar missionary activity.  You were the ones who came.  I was one of the ones you came for.  You know that right?  When June joined the exodus and later married Ken they had a child named Darren.  Darren was my church counselor in the micmac cabin at Ganderbrook Christian Camp.  It was during his week of counseling me that I was baptized into Christ.  You came for me.  I did not know that connection when I answered the call to West Islip.  That was a serendipitous find.

So, yes, I am interested in your story.

In West Islip we have started a memorial garden, I am sure you have heard about it.  Paula Link is the community organizer that got it going.  Walt Gale and Bill Madsen installed the brick walk way, and Carolyn Gauntlett makes sure the flowers and blossoming trees receive the care they need.  The conditions for getting into that memorial garden are straight forward: you have to no longer be present with us in body, you have to have been a member of the West Islip Church of Christ, and you have to be sponsored by someone still living who chooses to have a brick engraved with your name on it.  In fifty years this whole blessed reunion, minus a few of us who are now young and who will be gifted with long life, will be a flickering flame, or a pinkish colored brick in an east facing walkway through a small church garden.  You will have passed on your inheritance, that which you have received from God.

When I think about it I sometimes wonder what 600 Montauk Highway in West Islip would be if it were not for all of you.  Would it be a subdivided house lot—or a brown brick medical building?  Radiology perhaps, or an orthopedic!  A Shell station?  A 7-11?  Maybe, but no, it is a sanctuary—with a large brown cross towering at the front, looking down over our sprawling hamlet, wanting to gather the people of West Islip together like a mother hen gathers her chicks.

James Hance built the church building at 600 Montauk Highway.  He had sky blue eyes and deep voice—and he could hold his ground.  Like in the early days of construction when a few rough and rugged union workers showed up at this construction site to give James trouble.  All that volunteer labor to build a church was unacceptable to these union men.  James didn’t flinch in the face of their broad shouldered pressure.

I never met James, but he built the office I go to work in every day.  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.  I never met James but he has a brick in the memorial garden—and a life story to remember–a holy one who is far above the kings of this world, who has an inheritance, who is given the kingdom above all kingdoms, forever—forever and ever.

I wonder what it was like, a congregation300 strong, many of which were displaced unmarried young professionals who grew up southern but were now living northern.  Vibrant, exciting, talented, beautiful, but without the stability that deep roots provide.  Thank goodness for people like Roscoe Grant—a soft spoken, wise, generous, selfless man who led this congregation as en elder in its early years.  Roscoe worked to support his family as a business teacher in West Babylon High School.  During his time here he advised, educated and encouraged those young people who were learning to deal with the business part of being adults.  This was incredibly valuable instruction and mentoring—especially for those who were far away from their families that nurtured them.  And who did he instruct and mentor?  People like Donna Wright—who would later marry a guy from Arizona and only have to change her name slightly to Donna White.  I wish you all could see Donna and John with their grandson Denver.  Roscoe isn’t around to see.  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.

The table is turned now, of course.  Donna is not the mentoree, but the mentor to the young families of our church as she serves as our capable shepherd, along with Methel and Hu who are also with us–it is their inheritance, given them by those that came before.  And so we see that Roscoe who was one of our first servant leaders had a hand in fashioning our current servant leaders.  I never met Roscoe, but I’ve met him in Donna, and in others, and he has a brick in our memorial garden–and a life story to remember–a holy one who is far above the kings of this world, who has an inheritance, who is given the kingdom above all kingdoms, forever–forever and ever.

We have all obtained this inheritance says the Pauline tradition to the Ephesians.  Paul meant a lot when he said inheritance.  He didn’t just mean this history, the sanctuary at 600 Montauk Highway, the ministry to our community for fifty years.  He meant our inheritance as co-heirs with Christ.  He meant the inheritance of the kingdom.  But he still meant this history—he meant ours too.  For he speaks of those who were “first to set their hope on Christ” and then he speaks of “you also, when you had heard the word of truth.”

Herman Van Dyke was blind, and a person of immense interest—surrounded by droves of children he played checkers by memorizing where every peace was on the board—he taught Methel how to know if the moon was waxing or waning– that if the crescent moon can be made into a “d” by drawing a straight line past the edges, then the moon was waning.  If you can make a “p” by drawing a straight line across the edges of the crescent moon, then it is waxing.  I have never met Herman Van Dyke, but I have met him in John White who brings my son Manny interesting rocks and minerals, and other things he finds, opening up for him the love of science—the study of this great creation.  Manny never met Herman, and Herman never met Manny.  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.  Manny never met Herman but he has a brick in our memorial garden–and a life story to remember–a holy one who is far above the kings of this world, who has an inheritance, who is given the kingdom above all kingdoms, forever–forever and ever.

I wish I could say something about everyone.  I can’t.  But I can promise you that every year we have committed to remember.  And the memory book will be used to tell the stories, as we did this past year in telling Lamar Baker’s story–a story of a strong faith and a brilliant mind wrapped in an earthen jar with frail bones.  There are others that need to be told, and will be in time.  Barbara Gibbons comes to mind.  With Barbara it is different.  She’s not just a pinkish brick to me.  I did know Barbara.  We went to the Long Island Symphony together.  But the new family, the Basinis, with their smiling faces and their three children, never knew Barbara, so someone needs to tell them.  And we will.

We are celebrating fifty years since Exodus/Bay Shore.  When, at some future time, Lord willing, a group gathers to celebrate the centennial of this missionary endeavor there will be no originals of the Exodus left.  Sometimes you, even you, participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.  Sometimes you get to be part of something transcendent.  When you do you pass along the inheritance.

I inherited the blessing that is West Islip.  It was passed down to me by everyone of these flickering flames.  I did not start it but I am blessed to be a part of its present form.   I wonder if they and you knew how the kingdom of God in West Islip would grow over time?  Sometimes you participate in the beginnings of something that you are unable to see the end of.  And when you do you take your place in the kingdom above all kingdoms as a dancing flame of light, forever–forever and ever. Amen.

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One Response to Memorial Sermon (Exodus Bay Shore Reunion)

  1. Teresa Russell Nystrom says:

    When I was 7 years old, my family packed up and moved to Long Island to plant a church. We were the first family to arrive with the Exodus Bay Shore. I knew the people you mentioned. James Hance and his wife had 8 children. Roscoe Grant’s daughter, Susan, and I were in Bible class together. I knew Herman. My mom sewed the wedding dress for Lamar Baker’s wife. It was an exciting time. The church did not match what my parents thought it would be and we left in 1966. I still remember quite a bit about the time. It was exciting to read your article.

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