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Telling Other Stories

June 11, 2014

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014. As part of our continued celebration of our 300th Anniversary, we worshiped outdoors under a large tent to honor our past and enjoy the created world. Our liturgy was similar to that which would have been used here 300 years ago. Many of us were wearing historic costumes of the colonial period, while others represented the contemporary church.

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Psalm 104: 24-34         Numbers 11: 24-30

For the last hundred years, this congregation has told a story. Four years ago when this congregation was searching for a new pastor, it told this story about itself in the church’s resume.  It’s a story that has appeared in published histories, proclamations, and sermons over the years. It goes like this.

In 1714 we set out to build a church. We had been given this land, along with the materials for construction, as a gift – but the title to the village was contested, and so time passed, the wood rotted, and eventually the money ran out. Finally, with a little help from our friends, at Yale, we built a church. A lovely church. A wooden church. It served to gather our people for worship for over 50 years.

But then it burned down.

It would another 50 before we could build again. Financial troubles, of course, but also changing times. These were hard years for the old Puritan beliefs, and many of our members joined the Methodists, even helping to build the Methodist church that now serves as the office for the White Plains Rural Cemetery. But eventually we found the funds and the pastor with which to build another church. A lovely church. A wooden church. It served to gather our people for worship for almost 25 years.

But then it too burned down.

In fire on a Sunday morning. The congregation escaped, bearing the church bible. And watched it burn. Times were good, however, and our people prosperous. It took only two years to put up a new sanctuary. A stone sanctuary. THIS sanctuary. A sanctuary that would never burn down.

And [look] it is still here. And so are we. Thanks be to God.

As a story, it doesn’t really satisfy, does it? I mean, it’s a story of endurance and determination.  It’s certainly, in the retelling these many years later, a bit of a humorous story.  But does it encompass who we are, really?  And yet it’s the story that everybody seems to know.

Three week ago I went to the Historical Society dinner.  As the chicken and vegetable bundles were passed, someone leaned over to me – not for the first time – and said, I hear your building burned down…twice.

What other stories would we want this member of the historical society to know about us as a church?  What are the stories of love, of care, of justice, of hope, of honesty, of welcome, of innovation, of answered prayer, of transformation, of partnership, of life bursting forth, even in the midst of despair and death?  What are the other stories that need telling?

Our three hundredth anniversary is an historical moment – it is about history. His-story.  Her-story.  Our stories.  It’s a time for becoming storytellers ourselves, for enlarging our repertoire to include the stories others have shared with the congregation, to think about whose story has been left out, to recover ancient stories, to dare to tell our own stories.  Our three hundredth year is a time to think about how we are shaped by the stories we remember and by the stories we tell.

sharon and lenton

The Hebrew people told a story about themselves that is recounted in the book of Numbers.  Now, Numbers is not a book we often turn to.  Perhaps because some of us fear math and numbers, well it just sounds a bit too much like we might be called to the board to solve an equation.  Or perhaps we just want to avoid the long lists of people and animals and things that characterize the book of Numbers – yeesh.  They seem long.  What’s their purpose?  Well, they are catalogues – historical archives if you will – of the people and their journey in faith.  They’re concrete, material testimonies.  But on Pentecost our lectionary invites us to take a closer look at Numbers and it lures us with this provocative story.

Moses has gathered the twelve tribes, who having escaped from bondage in Egypt, are now about the project of building a new life; building a new nation; becoming a new people. The Book of Numbers, in which it is found, is largely the story of how these tribes define themselves, often in terms of their relationships with their neighbors. And it is not always happy reading.

In the portion of text we have read this morning, God instructs Moses to gather the seventy elders into the tent of meeting so that a portion of God’s spirit, the spirit that rests upon Moses, might rest upon the elders. And it does. Powerfully. They begin to prophecy. Which means they begin to see their way into the future God has in store for them.

Yet we have this curious account of two elders who miss the meeting. Two elders named Eldad and Medad. Two elders who are outside the tent when the meeting takes place, out in the camp somewhere. Yet the spirit falls on them too. Powerfully. And they begin to prophecy. Which means they begin to see their way into the future God has in store for the people as well.

Uh oh.  Some stories occurred inside the tent, the legitimate place for such prophesy to emerge and the others, well, “What is God’s Spirit doing out there,” the people had to wonder? “It is supposed to be at work in here. Isn’t that why we created a place of worship in the first place? Called a solemn assembly? Said our prayers?”

Scripture doesn’t recount all of the upset, but we know the result.  The people went to Moses and said simply, “Forbid them to prophecy.”

And Moses responded, “Would that all Gods people were prophets, and that God’s Spirit would fall on all people, everywhere.” In other words, Pentecost.

Numbers recounts not just about what was happening inside the tent, but also how God’s spirit was moving outside the tent.  As we think about how the Spirit moves outside our tent, what are the stories we want to tell about our church’s witness in this city?  About the partnerships for the new CSA or with the youth bureau, or at the immigration reform rally or during the tree plantings we organized at the city’s elementary schools in honor of Wangari Maathai?  God’s Spirit falls within and outside the tent.

And of course our stories aren’t just easily divided as “inside the tent” and “outside the tent” stories.  Outside affects inside.  And inside affects outside.

What are the stories the Spirit is moving us to tell? 

Three hundred years ago, God’s Spirit moved John Frost to give some land – this land on which we worship today – to the Rev. Christopher Bridges of White Plains, and a Presbyterian church was erected here.  In this place new settlers found comfort, community, weathered the uncertainties of storms and droughts, came for prayers of healing, tenderly buried their dead; some but a few days old. This place is made holy because they sought after God in times of jubilation and despair; they believed and hoped and struggled to understand their purpose in a new land.  Here too they cried out the difficult questions – why did he have to die?  How will I know the right direction to go?  Why can’t I support my family though I am working so hard?  Questions that are part of the human condition. Questions that have little changed over the centuries.  Here they exalted God’s name during the joy of marriage, they sang songs of praise as children were baptized, they celebrated the harvest.  These people seem almost familiar, as if they could be worshipping right next to us.

colonial

And yet, these questions and exaltations are not as easy or similar as they might seem.  For it is different matter to wonder, “how will I know the right direction to go” when you are a propertied man, an indentured slave, an unmarried woman.  The human condition was tempered and constrained by the realities of what was thought possible or achievable and right.  And Christianity, particularly Presbyterianism, played a big role in establishing common social consensus on what was “right, good, and true” in colonial America. In fact, the Presbyterian form of government was the model upon which the new American government would be formed to be of the people and by the people.

But of course, by “the people” they did not mean everyone. Slaves, women, men without property, were excluded from our nation’s “experiment in democracy.”

And yet, at a time of inequality, the revivals that took place under tents like this one during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were places where both men and women could testify to what God was doing in their life. At a time of slavery, free, indentured, and slave alike could seek and be found by God, could speak and receive power from God. The Spirit had a way of pouring out over all people, of empowering and instigating many stories, stories that sowed the seeds for freedom that would upend the nation and create a more perfect union.

Pentecost is a time for telling stories.  It is a time for telling the old story of the church that burned down, twice.  But it is also a time for other stories.  For when the Spirit descended upon the gathered people in Acts 2, it didn’t descend upon a building, it descended upon a people.  People of God, what are your stories?  What is the Spirit urging to you share?  How has this church embodied God’s love in our city?  In our world?  In our lives?  What are the stories of justice?  Of healing?  Of mission?  Of comfort?  Of determination?  Of challenge?  Of joy? We are the church, and the church is comprised not simply of people, but of people who, united by finding their place in God’s story, are empowered to tell our own stories of God’s movement.  We are the storytellers.  And the stories are manifold, they are plural, they are many, they are like a rushing wind blowing us with its power toward God’s future!

What are the stories God is urging you to tell about this church?  Alice has offered to testify today and I invite her to come forward.  And as Alice speaks, I want you not only to hear what the Spirit is saying through her, but also be open to what the Spirit is urging you to share.

[At this point a member of the congregation came forward to tell her faith story]

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