Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9, 19-20
Given on 11/17/13 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
If I close my eyes and let my mind slip back a few decades I can still feel the feeling of having a quarter pressed into my palm each Sunday by my grandmother. You see, in addition to being the chief supplier of breath mints and Werther’s Originals, she was also convinced that all her grandchildren should have something to put in the collection plate as it passed by us each week. This event, with the Werther’s and the quarter would replay itself over and over again until the Sunday before she passed away. And as minuscule an amount of money as that quarter was and as much noise as it made each Sunday plinking against the side of the plate as I dropped it in, there was something both beautiful and important about that action. On the one hand, it harkened back to the story of the older woman passing through the temple to give her only two copper coins that someone with less than her might benefit. I can imagine the plinking of those two coins must have made a similar sound to the coin that I was dropping in. But more importantly, with the sound of the quarter hitting the plate, I declared, in a manner of speaking, that I was taking my part alongside all the other folks in the sanctuary who were giving what they had in service to the church and in service to God. That I, as a ten year old boy didn’t have much, but what I had could go to God. And in that commitment to God, was also a commitment to the church. A commitment to take responsibility for my presence there and my actions when away from there. To take ownership in the mission and ministry of the church. To give of myself through singing my heart out, and bowing my head to pray, and listening to the sermons each week. That coin was my declaration of faith. Now, this is all spoken of through almost three decades of consideration and contemplation and certainly, as a ten year old boy, the taste of the Werther’s was probably more impactful than holding the coin in my hand for the first three quarters of the service, but now, it is that feel of metal against skin, the warmth that passed from my grandmother’s hand into mine through that coin that reminds me that in all things, because we had love, we had life and had it in abundance.
That past resides in the foundations of my memory, calling me back like a siren song in the midst of the everyday hustle and bustle of the faithful life today. Calling me back to the pew where I heard about God and God’s love for the world, ultimately shown through the giving of a child that the world might know of the depths of God’s love and God’s suffering for the world. Calling me back to relive those memories and to give me strength for the living of this day because I can remember a time when things were perfect.
And yet, at the same time, I am a servant to my future hopes and dreams. I am forever trying to cast visions that will one day become reality. As a father, I can close my eyes and I think about a time in the future for my children and what they might do with the gifts that God has given them. I wonder if Jameson will be a doctor or professor. If Seamus will be a musician or an artist. So many hopes and dreams wrapped up in them that I can scarcely see the present, the time that I have with them now, in all its beauty. And as a pastor, I am forever plagued by the desire to see change within the world. To see us create more peace amongst the nations. To see us do a better job of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and making all the language about a future in Christ become a reality in the here and now. And that hope is important. For many of us, it is the hope that we hold in humanity and in the future being a brighter, more just, more loving time than it is today that helps us when we see the devastation wrought on creation by hurricanes and typhoons, by abject poverty and debilitating hunger. We dwell in our present and seek a time in which we will once again have life and have it in abundance.
Some 1600 years ago, the greater writer of the church, Augustine of Hippo, noted that the chief struggle of the human experience was this search for a meaningful peace. This push and pull of future and past. A struggle that for him befalls all people in all places. In his conception, the world was a large spinning chaos in which we were always seeking to find someway to gain a measure of stability in a forever changing world and in his own frustration, in his own exhaustion having spent his whole life searching for that peace, he finally throws his hands up to God and says, “You arose in us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and have drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”
And perhaps this is the struggle that we all have. I know I do. A struggle to return to a time that is forever locked away in the past. A time which in my mind was simpler, easier. When church meant nestling into my grandparents. But also the struggle to try and locate ourselves in a time in the future in which things will be better than they are now. A constant pull to the former and a constant push to the latter. A drawing back to a past that can never be again and probably never was in the first place. A pushing forward to a moment when all God’s children will dwell on the mountaintop of God and no one is excluded from the community because of the things that create barriers between us on this day. And perhaps that is the challenge offered us by the prophet Isaiah to both move away from the things of the past and to see in our midst a new kingdom of God springing forth. To see the movement of the spirit in the present beginning the work of a new heaven and a new earth. To be glad and rejoice in the things that God is about right now. To the early twinkling of peace in which the wolf will eat with the lamb and the lion eat straw like the ox. To see and believe that in the not too distant future we will all be on God’s holy mountain where no one will be hurt or killed anymore. We struggle and try to reach back for, and to stretch forward to, and to ultimately find rest in God.
“Rejoice in the savior always. I say it again: rejoice!,” says the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi. I am always struck by Paul’s persistent faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Paul’s ability to return to the sure hand of God again and again and again. Paul, following his conversion on the road to Damascus may have found Jesus and been touched by the light but that made his road no less difficult. Throughout his letters Paul writes of being imprisoned, beaten, and thrown out of cities in his efforts to bring Jesus to the gentiles. And yet, here he is, writing to the church in Philippi and exhorting them to “rejoice” in all they do. Furthermore he calls on them to be gentle in spirit and not anxious about anything, suggesting instead that they lift all their concerns, all their needs and desires up to God in prayer believing that once you do that, the peace of God will envelop your whole life and watch over your heart and your mind. In short, find God in the now. Find beauty in the now. Find hope, and peace, and love, and faith in the now and rejoice in the savior in the now. Don’t be anxious about the present. It is the only time that we know we have. Let go of all that troubles you and believe that in God we might offer all these things up in prayer and supplication. And have faith.
Something happened over the time in between Paul’s writings and our contemporary situation. It seems we have become much more reliant on our own abilities, our own knowledge, our own selves. With the age of the Renaissance and the age of modernity great thinkers told us that the potential we have as humans is near limitless. We can paint wondrous works of art and design cathedrals that touch the sky and solve all the riddles of creation. Never needing to return to the God of Jacob and Rachel. In our own time, we have surrounded ourselves with all the things in life that make the living of life somewhat easier. We have put our faith in the stuff of this world believing that when that stuff runs out that we can go and get some more and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes. But we each, eventually, come to the knowledge that all things do fade away, all that we believe will protect us from the constant fear of meaninglessness. Cars break down, houses fall into disrepair, clothes gain holes, and stains and we find ourselves trapped in a never ending cycle of attainment and loss, birth and death, have and have-not. And we know and believe that the mass of men do live lives of quiet desperation. And yet, from some 2,000 years ago, the words of Paul come screaming into our lives on this day, “Give it up to God! All your fears, all your concerns, all you struggles to find meaning and hope, give them up to God! Believe that simply by speaking them into existence that God will hear them and God will guard over your heart and mind.”
And I wonder if the church is not somehow still struggling to let go of all the fret in our collective hearts. For some time we have known that the church is not what it used to be. For better or worse we have moved away from the center of the town square the way we could once claim that we were. Our buildings are not as full as they once were. Our coffers are not as full as they once were and many openly wonder how long we can exist in this interstitial space. Simultaneously, many of us wonder what the church of tomorrow will look like. With one period ending and another beginning, many anxieties dwell in both the pew and the pulpit as to what will the next generation of church and churchgoers look like. And like many of you, I struggle to let go of the church of my youth in favor of what comes next. I fell in love with the church there, a love affair that continues to this day. I fell in love with Jesus there, a love affair that continues to this day. I came to know God and the Spirit and believe that in God all things were possible and I struggle to release the ties that bind us to that form of church. But trying to return to the past while simultaneously trying to arrive at the future has left the church in a strange time of push and pull and no one fully knows the outcome. And yet, God is, “about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” God is “about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
We are about to enter into a period of stewardship. A time to rededicate our lives to the call of God as enacted through the church. A time to rededicate ourselves to walking with Jesus alongside the community of the faithful located in this place. A time to rededicate ourselves to courageously moving with the spirit wherever she blows knowing that the path we choose, we will choose together. And we must rededicate ourselves to one another believing that in that rededication God will bless us each with life and bless it in abundance. Each Sunday growing up, as I released that coin into the offering plate, I declared my faith in God to use that coin wherever it was most needed and I declared my faith in the church to figure out where that place was. We knew and gave out of abundance, not of wealth, but of joy, and hope, and love.
The story of United Presbyterian Church is the story of resilience in the face of overwhelming difficulties. When I tell our story to other pastor friends most of them cannot believe that we were even able to have doors again, much less open them. Our story is one of having a profound impact on the town and people of Amsterdam. Of calling all of God’s children to come to worship in this place. To be spiritually fed with the bread of life and the cup of new salvation. An invitation to see the face of Christ in one another and in community. An invitation to courageously move with the spirit wherever she blows knowing that tomorrow will bring unbelievable opportunity to do ministry in the city of Amsterdam. And so like those times past we boldly move into the future convinced that the guiding hand of God will watch over our hearts and minds, will gently nudge us to the place that we are called, and surround all those who enter into this place with warmth and love as can only be experienced in the walls of the church. Though unwritten the future is ablaze with the chance to touch the face of Christ in each other and throughout the city. We are going to walk together down wondrous paths of service and devotion both to one another but also to each person that we meet. Close your eyes and see it happening and then lets go there together, united in the spirit of the risen Christ. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, Alleluia, Amen.