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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For centuries, the sound of bells ringing has shaped the daily patterns of life and marked special occasions from the sad and somber to the celebratory and joyous. The sound of bells has inspired music from LeRoy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride to Benjamin Britten’s tone poem Peter Grimes. Poets, too, have been inspired by bells from Edgar Allen Poe, The Bells to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s I heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Perhaps the most famous of poems depicting the significance of bells was written by the English author and Anglican priest John Donne in his Meditation XVII. Although Donne was describing the tolling bell of death, he was really stating how all of life is woven together.
No man is an island, Entire of itself. Everyone is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,.
Any man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, never send to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.
That is one of the reasons that churches give such high regard to the blessing and dedication of bells. Their sound ties us to the past, the present and the future. Their ringing sanctifies time and place and proclaims God’s promises and presence. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the blessing of the bells is a lengthy ritual involving washing the bells with holy water, marking with the inside with oil, and incensing the bell. In the process a name may also be given. You may be surprised, but Big Ben, is not the name of London’ famous tower. It is the name of it’s largest and most famous bell.
Of course, bell don’t always have names, but almost always, they do bear an inscription. Six years ago, when the first bronze bell was forged in France for our bell tower, the inscription was quite simple. On one side was embossed the logo of the church and on the reverse side, the Latin phrase. “Soli Deo Gloria.” To God Alone be the Glory. It was the inscription that the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach placed at the end of his compositions. This morning as we dedicate these three bells, we are reminded again that bells and their inscriptions help tell a story and preserve a moment of humanity for future generations.
The Old Testament prophet Zechariah actually prescribed inscriptions on bells. 14: 20. He wrote, who “ln that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses: Holy to the Lord.” Typically inscriptions are to achieve one of three aims: to memorialize and remember the dead, to honor an even or work of the living, and to show thankfulness and gratitude. These inscriptions can be curious and whimsical, beautiful and quaint, or downright clerical– such as inscriptions attesting to the date of manufacture or listing the names of the donors.
One of the most famous inscriptions is on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, which features a quote from the Old Testament book of Leviticus 25:10. It reads, “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF. “ It was the inscription, and not it’s ringing, that led it to be known as the Liberty Bell.
Of course, there are some tongue in cheek inscriptions, such as this verse from Bathe, England.
ALL YOU OF BATHE THAT HEARE ME SOUND
THANK LADY HOPTON’S HUNDRED POUND.
Or another from Cambridgeshire:
OF ALL THE BELLS IN BENET, I AM THE BEST
AND YET FOR MY CASTING THE PARISH PAID THE LEAST
One of my favorite inscriptions is found on the bell of little Danish immigrant church just outside of Luck, Wisconsin. It reads in Danish, “Til Badet og Bordet, Til Bønnen og Ordet, Jeg Kalder Hver Søgende Sjæl.” To Font and Table, To Prayer and Word, I Call Every Seeking Soul. It is a reminder that God is present everywhere in life, especially in the actions of the church, and bells have a particular role to play in that work. The inscriptions on our bells, tell us something about that work of the church, and that is what I would like to share with you today.
The first inscription reads, “In Memory of Bruce and Gayle Hoyt by Their Family 2021.” This is one of the most traditional purposes of the bells. They are meant to carry the souls of the beloved dead unto their place of eternal rest with God. In the little country cemetery where Janna and I will be buried outside of Northfield, it was the custom of the old Norwegian farmers to toll the bell the number of the age of the person who had passed on. That may sound like a sobering task, but the church bells ring to help us both in our mourning and in our remembering, and to guide our loved ones on their journey to eternal life with God.
In the old hymn by the Danish writer Nicolai Gruntvig, “Built on a Rock the Church doth Stand,” we hear the words, “Even when steeples are falling, Bells still are chiming and calling: Calling the young and old to rest, Calling the souls of those distressed, longing for life everlasting.” We thank Steve Hoyt and his family for this memorial gift in honor of their parents.
The inscription on the second bell is a bit longer, “May God continue to bless this church, its congregation and the community. Bestowed by Dr. Remi and Debby Pizarro.” It’s an interesting combination of c’s. Church, congregation and community. Church bells, like every part of the church building, should convey the reason that the building exists. God may not need the church, but we do. We are, after all, only human, and we need tangible, visual and aural reminders of things unseen. It’s why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. It’s why we baptize with water. It’s why the Word was made flesh. It’s why we need the communion of fellow believers. The bells summon us with their sound. They claim our attention and invite us to enter this building where we can hear the Gospel proclaimed, that our sins forgiven, and that in Christ there is the possibility of new life. The inscription on this second bell reminds us that the message is not just for ourselves. It is God’s Good News for the neighborhood and community around us as well.
All church structures will eventually crumble and fall, that’s why we need God’s continued blessing, but in the end, the bells call us to not to the building here on earth, but the bells call us to Christ. We thank Remi and Debby, far away in Arizona, for their gift and their reminder that our Christian calling as a church is ultimately to share the good news with those around us.
Finally, we turn to the third bell which you have all generously sponsored and supported. The inscription reads, “Now Thank We All Our God for His Faithfulness throughout the Covid- 19 Pandemic 2020-2021.” The first portion of the inscription is drawn from Martin Rinkart. It was written in the time of plague and war when much of his ministry was spent burying the dead. But in every loss, he still found the confidence and faith to give thanks to God.
I imagine every one of us has a story to tell of God’s faithfulness over the past 19 months. God was their supporting and comforting you at the death of a spouse. He was there offering you peace in the chaos of your home, as you were working out new roles in quarantines and lockdowns. We discovered many things about our ourselves and our needs during this time.
As a church, we discovered that God doesn’t need worshipers to enter the doors of a church building for his to do his work. Countless people followed our worship services virtually. They may have felt separated from one another by the pandemic, but they were touched by the Holy Spirit and never felt isolated, alone or abandoned by God. Yes, even if all the churches doors of the city were shuttered, the Gospel could still be proclaimed, and go forth. God was faithful.
Church bells have always called people to worship, to be sure, but interestingly their earliest task was also to call people to prayer. For the first centuries of the church, bells were rung three times a day to call the faithful to pray wherever they were. The ringing of the bells was an invitation to stop, and pause, and pray the Lord’s Prayer. For the past six year, our sole bell has faithfully tolled the hours in the morning at 9:00 and midday at 12:00 and in the evening at 6:00. In two weeks, these three new bells will unite in calls to prayer.
My friends, when you hear the bells ring, remember the dead and the promise the bell offers in eternal life. When you hear the bells ring, remember the gospel of Jesus Chris and the responsibility we have been called to share. When you hear the bells ring, meditate on God’s faithfulness and your thankfulness. And when you hear the bells ring, give glory to God. “Soli deo gloria.”
Nicolai Gruntvig closed his beloved hymn with a reminder of the power and purpose of bells.
Grant, then, O God, Your will be done, That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know My own; My own know Me. You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.