“Christian: The Path of Loyalty”

This is the second in a series of sermons entitled “Christians”.

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This is the second sermon in a series entitled, “Christians.” In each sermon, I discuss a Christian I have known personally. Each sermon is independent, so you don’t have to hear them all; they’ll be on our website in any case. The idea is that reflecting on the lives of other Christians helps us to live our own lives of faith.

John Holt was a member of this church for over 40 years; he died in 2001. John never held office in the larger Episcopal Church; his contribution to the building of God’s Kingdom was made in our own congregation.

John Holt’s contributions to Incarnation’s life were extraordinary. One of our parish secretaries would refer to him as “St. John,” and although she said these words with a smile, she wasn’t far off the mark.

To begin with the most obvious of his Christian qualities, John had an enormous capacity for work.

You might not have thought that if you just looked at him. He was very short and he wore large glasses to compensate for his poor eyesight. In later years, he was so afflicted with arthritis that his unusually large hands were twisted; by the end he could barely stand up straight. Yet despite these handicaps, John made numerous contributions to the physical environment of our church.

A commercial artist by profession, John was a natural candidate to be chairman of the Building Committee; he held this post for many years.

When John retired from his paid job, he became a full-time volunteer at Incarnation. In fact, more than the standard “full-time”: he was often here seven days a week!

John made himself a little workshop in the warrens of our church basement. There, he would reupholster furniture or make curtains. I imagine there are still some old chairs down there, waiting for John to fix them up. Those of you who attend the Annual Meeting today will be able to admire the light fixtures in the Assembly Hall that John designed and had built.

But beyond building matters, he was also skilled at offering Christian hospitality. Despite a natural shyness, John would go out of his way to welcome visitors He had a soft voice with a gentle Southern accent and the Southern courtesy to go with it.

John would love to tell his listeners stories of his service in the United States Army during World War II. Being in the army was one of the high points of his life; every year, he would travel to attend reunions of the unit he served in.

I suspect that his time in uniform was important to him because it was the one period of his adult life when he didn’t live alone. He found a kind of domestic life in the army that he never experienced again.

Happily, John discovered a surrogate family at Incarnation. And I want to highlight the devotion John had for our parish family.

John’s version of Christian love followed what we might call a “tribal” model. He would give anything to people who belonged to his personal tribe. The expression that some charitable person would give “the coat off his back” applied to John, especially if you attended Incarnation.

But while John was kind and generous, he wasn’t a pushover. If someone tried to boss him around, he was quite able to defend himself. In this respect, I think he embodied the sort of ministry that Jesus himself demonstrated: Defend with your last breath the members of your community. Do your best to serve. But don’t let yourself be patronized, and don’t put up with fools.

I suspect this model of principled loyalty to an institution explained the brief time in John’s life when he left Incarnation. This all happened before I arrived, so I only know about it second-hand. At the time, there were serious divisions in the parish, and John seems to have felt that bad choices were going to be made.

Given how much the church meant to him, that period of separation must have caused him immense pain. Thankfully, he finally decided to swallow his pride and return to the Incarnation fold.

John’s temporary break with the parish illustrates how loyalty can be a tough issue for Christians. By definition, congregations are made up of imperfect people – “sinners” in other words. Sometimes parish leaders make mistakes in judgment; sometimes they are inadvertently offensive.

As a result, the person in the pew may be tempted to find someplace else to worship. New York City, for historic reasons, has an abundance of Episcopal churches.

Principled loyalty may force a person to go elsewhere for the sake of her spiritual peace. But there is something to be said for sticking with your congregation if you possibly can.

As Woody Allen memorably observed, “90% of life is showing up.” Or as Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.” If John Holt could find a way to preserve his principles and still show up, he would. And so he came back.

John would also demonstrate his faithfulness to our parish on ordinary occasions. I remember one time when I organized what turned out to be some pretty abstract lectures on religion by a British philosopher. John faithfully came to listen. And although I imagine that he found himself beyond his usual comfort zone, he made himself at home and asked good questions that reflected his own Christian beliefs.

In general, though, John Holt rarely talked about religion. Rather, he expressed his beliefs through his actions. He was someone you could count on. And his enthusiasm was contagious. Few people could refuse him when he asked them for help in cleaning or fixing something around the church.

Now John Holt wasn’t unusual in the sense that every Christian congregation has its heroes. In this, churches are like small towns that function through the hard work of a few people.

Every congregation from the time of Jesus has been inspired and led by such heroes. The rest of us can thank God for what they do to preserve the church we love.

At Incarnation, we can be grateful, for example, for the people who serve year after year on our Altar Guild, preparing the vessels for the Sunday and weekday communions. I realize that they enjoy their work. But, still, the rest of us benefit when these few show up.

I also realize that loyalty is not a fashionable virtue these days. There’s little loyalty to employers. People go from job to job, knowing that however hard they work, they can be fired at a moment’s notice.

Indeed, John’s faithfulness wasn’t blind; he would never have said, “My church, right or wrong.” He could notice problems in his congregation, and he wasn’t afraid to point them out when he saw them.

But he knew that loyalty is reinforced by showing up. John was fortunate that he found his niche in the church—he found a spot where he could be useful, where he could enjoy being of service. He demonstrated to everyone who knew him the spiritual power of a little old man who knew his place in God’s world.


And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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