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The Church for the World

May 21, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Ascension Sunday / Founding Day, May 21, 2017. The recorded history of the White Plains Presbyterian Church begins on May 27, 1714. On that day The Rev. Christopher Bridges received a donation of land from Mr. John Frost of Rye on which to begin construction of their planned first sanctuary. We celebrated our 300th Anniversary in 2014 and now mark the Sunday leading up to this anniversary each year as Founding Day.

Luke 24:44-53         Acts 1:1-11

On the first Sunday after Easter, the risen Christ made his first appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus Road. He opened the scriptures to them and broke bread with them, and then vanished from their sight. This is the shape of the Easter story in Luke’s gospel. Jesus appears, the church is formed, and the message goes out to transform the world.

Our text from the Acts of the Apostles continues this story by telling us that for forty days Jesus spoke with his disciples about the Kingdom. What message did the risen Jesus give the early church? It was the same message he had embodied in his life and ministry. The God who creates us, loves us, and calls us to love one another. Into the political, social, and economic mess of first century Palestine, into the alienation of neighbor from neighbor, and the despair of any kind of hopeful change, God has come, will come, will come again. The Kingdom is in our midst. The poor will be lifted up, the rich brought low, the humble inherit the earth and the peacemakers, the pursuers of justice, and the lovers of enemy will be blessed. For this, Christ died. When the going got tough, the people, including the disciples – though not the women, fled, denied, and those who had eagerly embraced him yet fell away.

But God so loved the world. . .; God sent the son to embrace life, and though he died, yet he lives. For nothing can stop God’s love. Alive again, the message of the risen Christ is that not even flight, denial or failure; not even death can stop God’s love. God is faithful, period, to all of creation and to us. God embraces us and will yet accomplish through us God’s good purpose.

Which is why I find the story we have today to be so sad. Picture it: the risen Christ has been appearing to the disciple for forty days, bearing witness to God’s amazing faithfulness, gathering together and creating his church. And then he ascends, like a cloud – subtly shifting and changing till it is gone and you cannot quite say when it was no longer there. He has left his disciples with a church and a promise: I am sending you a Spirit who will help you bear witness even unto the ends of the earth. But the disciples, all those gathered on the hill, are still gazing at the sky. The church is happening right here, taking shape, forming, but his disciples are staring up in to the clouds. When the two angels appear and ask them “So, what are you looking at?”, am I the only one who hears hear the voice of another angel saying, “He is not here. He is risen. Go and tell the others.”?

Walter Brueggemann is right to say that the stories of the Acts of the Apostles have a decidedly “churchly tilt”. Which means they are about us. With Jesus ascended, the church is now Christ’s body here on earth. This story marks the Bible’s shift from the gospel stories about the life of Jesus, to the letters, revelations and stories that directly address the life of the church.

And to such are promised an advocate, a comforter, the spark of creation, divine breath, the Holy Spirit. To such will come the gift of Pentecost.

The Easter season embodies this rhythm. The forty days from Resurrection to Ascension see the church being gathered together. The ten days from Ascensions to Pentecost see the church expectant and waiting – praying – actively praying for God’s future vision to come alive, be ignited, be inspired. And then comes Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks. This, finally, is about the church on fire with, blown away by, inspirited with and inspired by the Spirit of God, ready to bear and follow God’s word into a world of need and unto the ends of the earth.

You see, Jesus gathered and empowered his disciples for a purpose: that we might embody the justice, generosity, and joy of God for the good of the world. As we say,  ‘gathering is for the church, but the church is for the world.’ And so we have been, for 303 years!

The White Plains Presbyterian Church was founded by a group of farming families who came over to White Plains from Town of Rye in 1683. In that year, the Old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam had been surrendered to the British and was renamed New York. The first governor of the British colony, however, desired uniformity and loyalty from the churches in his territory and had sent a Church of England priest to the Town of Rye, and the priest confiscated the church building where the Presbyterians had been worshipping. This was too much for our founders, men and women who valued religious liberty and freedom of conscience above all else, so they picked up and moved here to build a new church. Conscience was indeed the watchword: They didn’t think it right for one religious tradition to impose itself on another. And they were vehemently opposed to government demanding fidelity to a particular religion. Only God could command the heart. The importance of what we now know as the separation of church and state, has been part of our church’s theological DNA from the very beginning. And it is a gift worth preserving.

No one is more identified with the founding period than the Reverend John Smith, whose gravestone can be found in the hallway here just outside the sanctuary. Rev. Smith was not only Pastor for more than 30 years, but he was also the physician for the village of White Plains and for those who lived around it. This in the era when modern medicine was just beginning. Faith and science are still recognized as siblings by those of us here. I look out and I see medical professionals, nurses and physicians, from the front to the back of the sanctuary.

Some of you may be looking around and thinking, but this sanctuary doesn’t look like it was built in the 1600s! And you’d be right. For our church’s first sanctuary was burned down during the Battle of White Plains in 1776.

But interestingly, our ancestors in faith did not build another sanctuary until 1825 – 49 years later! Instead, they worked with and worshipped with our neighbors.  Presbyterian Ann Miller welcomed the first Methodist minister in town by erecting a pulpit in her living room so that he could preach from a proper pulpit, as befits the Word of God. The members of this church twice help raise funds for the building of the Methodist Church, recognizing the Methodists, through their campaigns to abolish slavery and their insistence and seeing evidence of a redeemed life, kindred theological spirits. And it was, after all, a child of this congregation, Daniel D. Tompkins, who, when he became governor in 1807, who abolished slavery in New York. This generation of faith ancestors realized the truth that the church is not a building – it is a people. And it is not a people gathered for themselves, but for the world.

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needlepoint image of the second sanctuary (1825-1854)

On the eve of the Civil War, the congregation discovered that their pastor, Rev. Teese, took the side of slaveholders and agreed with their claims of states’ rights, as were some in the congregation with strong business ties to the south. Finding it difficult to remove him, most of the families in the church left. Permanently. Dealing with political issues as congregations has never been easy, but it is part of what our scripture today means by preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. We are called to challenge systems of oppression, proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind and good news to the poor. In this case Rev. Teese was on the wrong side of history, and he did not last long after the conclusion of the war. I think this story is worth remembering, though, as we seek to find the path of faithfulness in the midst of the issues of our own day.

We can find episodes in every period of our history that connect with much that we do now – our commitment to strong Christian education reminds me of those who built first the upper room chapel and lecture hall, and then the church house, and finally this building behind me, primarily for adult and church school education; our advocacy on behalf immigrants in the early years of this century reminds me of the work of this congregation to support Italian immigrants who were stone masons building the Kensico Dam the beginning of the 20th century, and with a member of this congregation that served in the denomination special task force and immigration in the 60s and who went on to found a school for children on the US-Mexico border. Our interest in fair food and justice for farmworkers reminds me of the member of this church who became a missionary in India and worked with small farmers on issues of food sovereignty. The list goes on and on. And in our own day we are paving a new path by working to bring an end to the age of fossil fuels by having divesting our church portfolio, and through solar panels and other measures to build a future upon renewable energy sources and working to convince our denomination to do likewise.

I think my favorite story of all, though, is the church council’s first act of civil disobedience. When the town of White Plains was incorporated as a city in 1916, all the cemeteries within the city bounds were closed to future burials. However, there was a gentleman buried in the cemetery who was survived by his wife. She lived until a couple years after this new law passed.  Unable to officially bury her, the church council held a “called meeting” at midnight with instructions that each member should “bring his own shovel.” And there, under cover of darkness in the middle of the night, they buried her themselves, laying her beside her husband. May our church councils always be so compassionate and creative.

‘Gathering is for the church, but the church is for the world.’ This is the story of the Acts of the Apostles, and the message for Ascension Day. May this place be, may we be, may the White Plains Presbyterian Church always be, a spirit-filled, living prayer for the City of White Plains and for the world.

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