The Sound of Good News
1870 Tower Bell, FPCE Sermon preached at the Bicentennial of the congregation, March 17, 2019 Exodus 28:1-4, 31-35; Romans 1:1-7Our ears are capable of hearing many unique sounds, and particular sounds can mean different things to different people. For example, the loud sounds of rambunctious children at play may feel disruptive to those at worship. When I was young, the church-behavior model lifted up for me was one that emphasized silence, except when called upon to read the Bible, or pray, or sing. Later, during my first pastorate, I served an urban church that had few children on Sundays, except as occasional guests. Some weeks, the building was so quiet that I could hardly stand it. Ever since, the sound of children at play on Sundays has been music to my ears, the sound of the future, the sound of life! Our reactions to sounds are conditioned by our experiences; sounds that are bad news to one, may be good news to another.To appreciate the sound of good news in today’s Hebrew Testament reading, you have to dig a little deeper into the experiences of the Hebrew people. As we enter the scene that this text describes, the Israelites already have escaped slavery in Egypt, and received the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from his mountaintop meeting with God. As they wander through the wilderness, they worship regularly in a “tabernacle,” a tent-like temporary structure than can be packed up and moved. The Ark of the Covenant is housed in the tabernacle, and the priests serve by leading rituals and presenting offerings to God. The people God is awesome and powerful, and deserves their reverence. And so there are elaborate instructions for the maintenance of the tabernacle, how the offerings are to take place, and the manner in which the priests are to go about their work. Holy fear is reflected even in the way in which the priest is clothed.As the first scripture was read, did you notice the description of the bells? It’s the only mention of bells in the entire Bible. The bells are small and golden, and attached to the lower hem of the high priest’s richly colorful robe. The bells serve a practical function. Clint Archer explains, “The holy of holies was so special and so off-limits to sinners that if the high priest didn’t follow protocol perfectly (a ritual bath, a consecrating sacrifice, and a pure heart) God would strike him dead for profaning the holy place. But what if that happened? Now you have a dead priest behind a curtain in a place with no one qualified to recover the corpse. The solution appears to be that the high priest would tie a rope around his waist so his lifeless body could be dragged out. This raises one more logistical question: how would the rope holders know if the man was dead or alive? If they pulled too early they may cause of a clumsy mess of the work being done. And the priest wasn’t supposed to interrupt his ritual with an occasional (call) ‘Still breathing!’”“This is where the bells come in. The sound of the little bells ringing while the priest moved around was the sound of him being alive, being accepted by God. If the ringing stopped, it meant God had rejected him and he was dead. So, for the people of God ringing bells meant good news, especially for the high priest!”For more than 3,000 years, then, God’s people have learned to associate the sound of bells with the good news of God’s grace and mercy.The joyfully exuberant sound of God’s good news and human response to it is captured in today’s special song, “Ring, Beautiful Bells.” It is the first song I remember singing in church, as a member of the children’s choir in my home church, somewhere in the range of fifty years ago. I believe we wore little robes with little stoles, and were directed by Mrs. Frances E., and rang our bells in the handbell choir of that place and era. I appreciate the leadership of Annis H. and Lynn R. in preparing us to use this song today.The appearance of the 1870 Tower Bell is another rich symbol of God’s grace and mercy displayed toward and through this congregation. It called Christians to worship in the congregation’s first, second, and third buildings. Today, in the fourth building, and for the first time, it has called God’s people to worship once again. The sight and sound of the bell are reminders of God’s faithfulness to this congregation, and this congregation’s faithful service, across 200 years of mission and ministry.As the bicentennial committee was preparing for this occasion, Elder Judy B. told me about her conversation with the company that still possesses the records from 1870 about our bell, crafted by the Buckeye Foundry in Ohio (I’m sure Don D. smiles when he hears that name, especially as he imagines how difficult it must be for a Michigan Wolverine like me to say the word “Buckeye” without scowling). We are told that the bell was cast from bronze, and weighs approximately 1,100 pounds, and was made in such a way that the primary note it sounds is the A below middle C.That information put me in mind of an old preacher’s story told by Lloyd Douglas, who passed more than 70 years ago, who served both at the University of Illinois, and at the Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He told of a memorable encounter during his college days, during which he lived on the third floor of an old rooming house. On the first floor lived a retired music teacher, most of the time confined to his wheelchair. Every day, when Douglas passed his apartment and saw the music teacher, he would say hello, and ask, “What’s the good news today?”Frequently, the old man would pick up a tuning fork, and strike it on the arm of his wheel chair, and say something like, “That’s middle C! It was middle C yesterday. It’s middle C today. And it will be middle C for a thousand years. The tenor upstairs sings flat, and the piano in the parlor is out of tune. But that, my friend, is middle C!”Like the teacher’s tuning fork, our bell was made to consistently sound a note, and it is possible to think of such a consistent note as good news. I’d like to suggest that we might think of its A below middle C as an acronym standing for “Apostle of Christ.” “Apostle,” as you may remember, literally means “one who is sent.” An apostle, says Bible scholar George Buchanan, “was an agent or an ambassador, who within the limits of his assignment, had the same authority as the one who sent him. He was legally identical to his master. He had the power of attorney.” The tower bell, when it rang from 1870 to 1970, called people to pay attention, to worship and serve God, in a way that was powerful and consistent, Edwardsville’s Presbyterian apostle of God’s good news of grace and mercy.Whether through a physical bell, or some other contemporary reminder, the people of First Presbyterian Church persist in a quest to discern God’s true calling from among many sounds competing for attention.
- Sunday morning dawns, and voices shout, “Spend your time at my shopping venue, my coffee shop, my golf course, my boat dock, my athletic event.” In the back of our minds, may a bell ring, as if to say, “Enter God’s temple with thanksgiving, and into God’s courts with praise.” “Worship the Lord God, and serve only Him.”
- The voices shout, “If it feels good, do it. Indulge yourself.”Then comes the bell ringing, “Bear fruit in keeping with your repentance.”
- The voices shout, “Don’t sacrifice financially for the church and community.” Then comes the ringing bell, “Do not offer to the Lord that which costs you nothing.”
- Voices shout, “Look out for #1.” Then rings the bell, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
- The voices shout, “Charity begins at home.” Then rings the bell, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Whether it’s a tangible, physical bell, or just a bell in the back of our minds, such a bell is God’s apostle. Ring, beautiful bell! Summon to the house of God, all whose feet may roam abroad. Ring, beautiful bell! As you have rung in ages past, continue to ring, announcing God’s good news of grace and peace!NOTES Clint Archer, “The One Time Bells Are Mentioned in the Bible,” 19 Dec. 2017, accessed 13 March 2019, https://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/christmas-and-advent/the-time-bells-are-mentioned-in-the-bible.htm John E. Harnish, “Bugles in the Afternoon,” a sermon preached at First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI, 9 July 2000. George Wesley Buchanan, “To the Hebrews,” vol. 36 in The Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972, p. 55.