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Founding the Church, Founding our Future

May 19, 2014

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A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church celebrating Founding Day, our 300th Anniversary, on May 18, 2014

Psalm 1         Revelation 22: 1-2

I have to say that it was really fun to have an article in the Journal News this week lifting up our recent discovery that George Washington’s head of intelligence gathering, Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, was the grandson of our first settled pastor, the Rev. John Smith. It was timely not only because of our 300th anniversary but also because the story of agents, double agents and triple agents, of espionage, codes and code breaking during the War of Independence has many of us tuning in on Sunday night to watch AMC’s television drama TURN. In fact, last week’s episode took place almost entirely in White Plains. My son, August, loves to play spy with his friends. There’s something intriguing about secrecy and knowing something that someone else doesn’t know. But while it’s fun for a seven year old to play, we adults have become increasingly familiar with the dangers of spying in the modern world, particularly when our own government, arguably the most powerful in the world, is spying not only on foreign nations but on its own people, gathering huge amounts of data under what are dubious legal authorizations.

As if that weren’t enough, did you read this past week in the New York Times that “A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable?” While we don’t know all that this implies, it means sea-levels will rise to unprecedented levels. “Research published in 2012 found that a rise of less than four feet would inundate land on which some 3.7 million Americans live today. Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston are all highly vulnerable.” Couple this with the terrifying report last month from the United Nations that noted “heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.” This is the apocalyptic context in which our lives in the next 30 and 300 years will take place. While it is possible that “the impact of global warming [could be] be moderated by factors like economic or technological change … the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound.”

Given this, I thought perhaps I should switch the scripture reading to Revelation 6, where we examine the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Which, by the way, was not about the anti-Christ, but about the real political and social challenges of the day. Who are the four horsemen who roam the earth: Conquest, Slaughter of Peace, a tricky one – the horseman with scales representing the defrauding of the poor by the rich resulting in famine, and Death. From climate devastation to the food crisis, from wars and surveillance to national and corporate conquest of natural and human resources for profit, our own time can feel overwhelming, exhausting, terrifying. We get anxious thinking about all the awful things that not one of us alone can stop.

Isn’t it a relief to pause and remember simpler times? Perhaps, nobler times? Times when right and wrong were clear? Times when there were the red coats and the blue coats. Where our earth stretched in unfettered beauty, fertility and potential?

On May 27, 1714 Mr. John Frost of Rye gave a gift of good land to the Rev. Christopher Bridges of White Plains. And on this property a Presbyterian church was erected. The first families who settled in White Plains such as Purdy, Hyatt, Hatfield, Budd, and Hart were among the founding congregants. Within the church’s cemetery you will find the gravestones of Jacob and Abigail Purdy, who lent their home to George Washington to use as his White Plains headquarters during the Revolutionary War as well as the graves of many soldiers, like Elijah Miller and his sons, who fought and died for democratic self-rule and a constitution that established rights that have guided our nation ever since.

This congregation was also where Daniel D. Tompkins, the sixth Vice President of the United States grew up and where his family is buried. Mr. Tompkins served under President James Monroe and prior to that was the Governor of New York. While he was governor, Tompkins set the date by which all slaves in New York State should be freed: July 4, 1827.

Over the course of three hundred years, influential individuals and families, bankers and newspapermen, politicians and attorneys, ministers and spies, people who shaped the course of White Plains and the nation worshipped as part of this congregation. This church has an illustrious past and its ancestors deserve our gratitude for establishing this community of faith that helped birth this city.

And I think it would be tempting for us to rest upon tales of our church’s and city’s storied past, to temper our contemporary nervousness with nostalgia, to imagine, somehow, that 300 years ago life was simpler, choices were more straightforward, and people had the power to create and innovate the systems they needed to ensure the well-being that we seem to lack on so many fronts.

But we dare not. On this Founding Day and in this three hundredth year, if we are to honor our ancestors, we must learn from our past – not simply remember it. We must take the opportunity to look closely at their confusion as well as their clarity; their failure as well as their foresight. Over this three hundredth year, let us pledge to pursue history, not nostalgia; let us seek insight, not comfort.

John Frost only had property to give because the Native tribes who sometimes lived along the stream that ran down through what is now Tibbits Park agreed to sell it to the “men of Rye” in 1683. These same tribes, however, simultaneously sold it to others, which suggests that there were at least two different understandings about how human beings relate to and live upon the land: the Native American traditions of living lightly on the earth, and that of the English with their notions of possession and use.

The English thought of the land before them as property meant to be subdued, to be plumbed to its depth for every resource, and they further thought this ‘promised land’ offered unlimited horizons for expansion and production. After all, they believed what it said in the King James Bible, which had been published for the first time a mere 103 years earlier.   Religious freedom, a principle driving force for their abandonment of England for Holland and eventually to these shores. So when they read in what would still have been considered the newest and most accurate translation, “And God said, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” they believed it. And they passed this notion of divine authorization to subdue the earth on to future generations.

But today, that translation of Genesis is not simply problematic in terms of the Hebrew – it’s downright dangerous to life on this planet if we continue to perpetuate it. Dramatic climate change, soil erosion, removed mountains and polluted water and ground; all of these are a result of our continued belief that the earth is an unlimited resource, here for us to subdue and use.

And so as we remember the giving of the land for this church which we cherish and celebrate, we remember as well that Mr. Frost and Rev. Bridges would have held an understanding of land that we dare not keep perpetuating.

I rejoice that Daniel Tompkins, a child of this church, set the date for the release of slaves in New York; Daniel had written a high school essay on the evils of slavery and wanted to see it gone, and as governor he had to break through twenty years of legislative gridlock to do so. But what he proposed was not immediate emancipation but a date ten years further down the road. And he argued the case of ten years until emancipation not for the benefit of the would be former slaves as a way to ensure their employment, housing or well-being, but out of consideration for the business interests of wealthy New Yorkers. He ensured slave owners would retain every economically useful year of their slaves’ lives before emancipation, which they exploited to the nth degree, as we can see in the story of Isabella Baumfree, who we know as Sojourner Truth.

Why were our Quaker friends over in Harrison, and not the Presbyterians, the ones who not only immediately emancipated their slaves but also gave them the financial resources to establish the first free black community in New York just about a mile from here? Why did no such urgency weigh on this church? Even on the eve of the civil war, the pastor and many members of this congregation sided with the South (as did, to be fair, the majority of voters in New York). By that time though, a large enough portion of this congregation did favor immediate abolition, enough to remove their pastor from the pulpit until after the war, and in reparation they donated a schoolhouse to the black community down the street at Sliver Lake.

This snapshot illustrates that history is complex – and it is not always what we might wish it were. But if we are to learn from our ancestors, rather than simply revere them, this we should ask ourselves: whose rights are being put off today, and for whose benefit?

I think of our nation’s broken immigration system, the exploitation of farm laborers in our food system, and the institutional racism of our criminal justice system. I think of churches that still refuse to recognize marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, including our own denomination. Last fall our congregation’s council voted to support an overture to our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to support marriage equality. And it will be debated and decided upon next month at the General Assembly.

This is simply to say perhaps something quite obvious: to every age comes the opportunity to decide how they will face the challenges before them. In every time people have had to determine what they will resist, and what they will permit, and what they will create.

So on this 300th anniversary we do not only celebrate the founding of the church, but the founding of the future – our future. And when I say our future, I don’t simply mean the future of the members of this congregation. I mean OUR future – as people of White Plains and as citizens upon this fragile planet.

Into our hands has been given an immense task, a worthy task, an urgent task. We are the ones who have been summoned to respond to the challenges before us – as a church, city, a nation and a world.

Friends, we cannot face these challenges alone, we can only face them together. For it will take all of us, all of us, bringing our best thoughts, our diverse experiences, our unswerving determination and our forbearance of one another to build a more just and equitable human community and to renew a flourishing planet.

And as I look across this sanctuary today and see gathered here good people of good will from all corners of our city, I can sense the strength and the experience and the power that are in this place. And I feel a sense of hope looking out at all of your faces. I want you to take a moment and look at one another, look around this sanctuary. We have what we need in this place to take the next steps forward together.

You know over and over in scripture, God’s people are referred to as a tree. In the Psalm this morning, the tree stands beside the water – reminding us like that old freedom song “we shall not we shall not be moved;” that when we seek the dignity and wholeness of every person we shall be planted firmly, bearing fruit in season, our leaves “unwithered.”

And in Revelation 22 the writer who has been imprisoned by the Roman Empire, writes a strong political tract from jail about a tree of life spanning both sides of a river, a tree with 12 diverse kinds of fruit flourishing non-stop, regardless of season. And that tree is set in the center of the New Jerusalem – that time and that place where God’s shalom, God’s just-peace has been realized. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The healing of the nations.

God has planted and nurtured within all of us the capacity to love, and trust, and build, and bear, and plant, and grow, and dare and resist, and strive until by our very life together nations are healed. That’s an immense vision, an immense promise. A promise that echoes from a Roman prison through the cries of our ancestors who helped to build a more perfect union, down to us – we the people.

The poet Maya Angelo crystalized the breadth of our human capacity to hurt and heal in a remarkable poem entitled, “A Brave and Startling Truth.” She envisions our coming to a day of peacemaking – that day when the leaves of the tree heal the nations – writing,

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear…
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

What will we make possible in our own time, together? What will people three hundred years ahead, say when they look back upon our lives in this city? May they say we loved with abandon, that we stretched arms toward one another, we sought the common good with a ferocity and joy that was unquenchable, that we tilled the land with our own hands – neighbor with neighbor, that we fostered relationships of dignity and equality with one another, within our city, our nation, our world.

Today we celebrate the founding of the future, our future. May we rise to its summons.

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