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Heritage Sunday – A Heritage of Learning

October 27, 2013

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Heritage Sunday / Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013


Luke 18: 9-14          Joel 2: 23-29

Today we celebrate the great Heritage of Learning that has been part of our life in White Plains for the last 300 years. This is our final Heritage Day before our big birthday celebration next May. The 300th Anniversary Committee created these special Sundays in order to rehearse different aspects of our history so that we would know them well before the celebration begins. Learning this history has been an education in itself, no more so than for your pastor; and it has been tremendously fun. So, here we go …

Part I: A Commitment to the Education of Saints is a Reformed Heritage

We should all know, and be proud of the fact, that our Presbyterian and Reformed commitment to education goes back to the sixteenth century Reformation. While Martin Luther’s understanding of salvation emphasized the way we could be both saint and sinner at the same time, John Calvin’s understanding of the Holy Spirit emphasized the responsibility of saints to be citizens, makers and shapers of a democratic commonwealth that could approximate and be a provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth. And for this, an educated citizenry was essential.

Sure, the ancient world had its schools, the early medieval world had the monastery and the late medieval world the university, but it was Calvin’s Reformation in sixteenth century Geneva that can be credited with the creation of widespread public education. Not only literacy, scriptural and theological, was taught in Calvin’s schools, but the democratic arts of decision-making, the study of the natural world through arts and sciences, and practice of law. Anyone who thinks there is a conflict between science and theology has not read Calvin. His Sunday morning sermons and his Sunday evening lectures, not to mention his Wednesday night worship and daily bible studies, often referred to the latest scientific discoveries, especially those of astronomy. Calvin was contemporary with Columbus and Copernicus; the natural world around us, and the starry sky above us, filled him with awe. Not only scripture, but all the observations and questions evoked by the emerging sciences gave Calvin reason to give glory to God.

Do you realize that it is exactly 150 years from the death of Calvin in 1564 to the birth of this church in 1714. It is a series of short steps from John Calvin in Geneva to John Winthrop (founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) to Jonathan Edwards (the conscience of the Great Awakening). Our congregation comes straight from Massachusetts Bay descendants, by way of the “New School” in New Haven, and our first pastor John Smith, was a classmate and friend of Jonathan Edwards at Yale. Our congregation kept close ties to Yale, their trustees being instrumental in our acquiring a royal charter for a protestant church in Anglican New York. An example of participating in the best learning available, The Rev. John Smith was not only our pastor, but for half a century was also the medical doctor in White Plains, ministering both to the bodies and souls of our predecessors.

And true to Calvin’s idea of the saint as citizen, our earliest members were active in the cause of revolution, most obvious today, on the anniversary of the Battle of White Plains, through John and Abigail Purdy who twice lent their home to General George Washington to use as his headquarters. Abigail, by the way, was the daughter of Rev. Smith.

Part II: Church School in White Plains

What about schools or church school in White Plains? There are no records of Christian Education or communicant classes in the first hundred years of our congregation, though we clearly sent plenty of students for advanced studies in schools like Yale and Columbia, and one of our members served as Chancellor of the University of New York.

That there is little mention of Church School is not surprising, though. Sunday morning education is an outgrowth of the Sunday School movement which only began in England in 1783. These English schools were planned to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as the Scriptures, to children forced to work six days a week in factories in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. In contrast, while our children today are introduced to the narrative of scripture with wonder and curiosity in Church School, our adult education classes have studied and spoken out about the problems of forced child labor, child soldiering and violence against women and children. Education and mission go together.

Our first record of church school in White Plains goes back to the building of our second sanctuary in 1825. From 1825 to 1854, our earliest Church School classes met in the sanctuary. Twenty-five to thirty students sat on each side of the central pulpit, the boys being taught by Elder Purdy and the girls by Mrs. Bogart. When fire destroyed that sanctuary in 1854, the classes were moved to the manse (located where our playground is today) until a temporary “lecture room” could be built on the corner of Barker Ave. That structure was later replaced by the New Chapel in 1888 (which is currently the location of the Upper Room and the Thrift Shop). The construction of the Church House in 1922 joined the chapel to the Sanctuary and became the newest home for learning children, with classes meeting in cubicles between the wooden posts.  Members of our church today, including Chris Hughes and Betty Peene, can still remember those classes. A growing Church School program was one reason for the building expansion in 1963, when the present classrooms were designed.

That growth came, in part, from a decision of the Church Council in 1942 to hire an associate pastor to oversee the Church School. A year after that decision, the congregation still had not come up with enough money to do so, so they hired Arthur Trois, a student who they were supporting at Princeton Theological Seminary, to run the church school on the weekends. According to Elder Hughes, chair of the Christian Education Commission, this moved the congregation closer to their ultimate goal of hiring and paying for an associate pastor. We have had some combination of student, assistant, associate or staff persons relate to Christian education ever since, along with dedicated volunteers and teachers. The Rev. Lynn Dunn is only the last in a long line of Christian Educators who nurtured generations of faithful in this place. (how many served as teachers?)

Of course, our commitment to education has taken many forms. In the early 60s the congregation opened the White Plains Presbyterian Pre-School. The school primarily served the children of this congregation, back when we had almost 2000 members and our children could fill the entire school. Now it is principally a community school, serving our neighbors from every continent who come to make White Plains their home.

And education occurs in all kinds of places. Our children are outside right now, walking the boundaries of the original farms that were given so that families could worship together in White Plains. On Thursday I was given this box in which I found a leaf and a rock from our Presbyterian Camp in Holmes, NY. I was also given this bottle of water from Denton Lake where I have spent countless hours paddling around with youth groups, confirmation classes and summer campers. An astounding number of adult Christians first heard God’s call on their life at summer camp. Also in my box was this note from a camper: “I love Vespers (or evening prayer) because of the fellowship and the songs we sing.”

Part III: Learning the Meaning of our Baptism

So what is Christian Education? What is Christian education?

I believe that any education is Christian if it helps us understand what it means to be the baptized people of God.

Last Sunday, Ty Lundman, our Director of Music Ministry, led an adult education class on our new hymnal. Music has been one of the principle means of teaching, from Geneva to today. (Remember the camper who was moved by fellowship and song!) Ty took of through some of the theology embedded in the new arrangement of hymns, and we will continue that exploration today by reading and singing particular hymns. If you look in the front of the hymnal you will see liturgy, orders of worship for Lord’s Day, as well as order for baptism, renewal of baptism. These resources have been a part of every worship book published by the Presbyterian Church, with the exception of our previous blue hymnal. The return of resources for Daily Prayer (morning prayer, midday prayer and evening prayer) restores the connection between Sunday morning and Monday morning, the sanctuary and our homes that was always supposed to characterize Reformed and Presbyterian worship. As such, this new hymnal is one of our best resources for the education and nurture of a whole generation. How typically Presbyterian.

One of his observations Ty made was that there is an amazing amount of attention given to baptism. Apparently, he said, we are to be baptizing people left and right today.

To which I can only say, Yes! Yes! Yes!

Baptism is ou call to full time Christian service. The rest of life, the point of education, and the effect of worship, is to understand what that means in practice.

I want to finish this reflection on our heritage of learning by drawing your attention to our order of worship today. It was my intention to structure the service around the life cycle of a Christian, beginning at the font with Jesus’ great commission to baptize and teach, and with Paul’s words about our common calling. Baptism is the beginning of life as God’s called and chosen people. It is our initiation into discipleship and mission. It seals God’s claim upon us, we die and rise with Christ, and the Spirit empowers us with gifts with which to serve the world. Our confession was especially written in language our children could relate to, our scripture reading from Joel is the one we read each Pentecost when we confirm young people in the faith. In a few moments we will sing about the challenges and questions faced by disciples who struggle in prayer, and then Sarah will take that to the table where we offer everything to God. Our final hymn is a baptismal hymn, which speaks of the one who meets us when we are born and who awaits at the end of life “with just one more surprise.” Our final act together will be to sing an alleluia, which our funeral liturgy proclaims we can sing even at the grave.

The point of Christian Education, this great heritage of learning, is ever and always the making of disciples who live out their calling to be God’s people transforming the world into God’s kingdom.

As we live into God’s future in this place, what are you learning?  Where are you growing?  What questions stir you to discover God leading in new directions?




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