…the ‘best of times’
November 4, 2018
Scripture: Mark 12:28-34
Today marks the coming together of a number of issues and topics of great concern to our Church and church family. This is the weekend which we chose to celebrate the 180th Anniversary of our Sanctuary Building, which brought us together for a marvelous musical event on Friday evening, an informative look back at the history of the church presented by local Historical Society President, Ron Taylor on Saturday, and lastly a gathering here today to lift up the long history of our church ministry to our community as well as celebrate together the Sacrament of our Lord’s Table.
It is also just two days until our nation turns out to vote in what many people feel may be one of the most consequential midterm elections in our nation’s history…an election held in a time of deep division and polarization within our society both politically and geographically. And finally, it is an opportunity to reflect on who we are, where we have been, and where we feel we are being led as we approach the end of the second year of a full-time pastoral call.
This weekend we celebrate that our current Sanctuary building has offered weekly services of worship and outreach to the Patterson community for almost two centuries. And although it is at least the third building in which our congregation has gathered for worship during our history, our church family and presence within the community itself is far older than that, dating back well before the time of the American Revolution and the founding of our country.
Our past history throughout that nearly 275 years of being faithful…our willingness to stay the course through all the good times as well as through times of great challenge both locally and nationally, gives us a foothold from which to step off into what is surely an uncertain future, as well as a sense that indeed we can do so because we have long had the steadfast and sure backing of the Lord in our journey.
And as I reflected both on this weekend, as well as on the events in our ministry over the past year I realized that we may have finally turned the corner on seeking only to survive and to keep the church open, over to a new sense of our call and purpose, deeply trusting that if we follow the call of the Holy Spirit then we will not only meet all of our needs but many of the needs of the community as well.
We have moved from a place of trying to keep the lights on, to making and affording major improvements to our buildings and infrastructure, all the while serving in increasingly important ways the needs and challenges facing many in our community. But…and it is a big ‘but’…we have also learned that growth such as this, and an increase in vitality in ministry such as we have experienced takes two very important things. First; a deliberate and willful listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and secondly, a lot of hard work. And not just hard work once in a while, but rather a consciousness that being a small church family, and being purposefully immersed within our community is always going to be hard work. It is not a ‘one and done’ but rather the new way we now have of being the church of our Lord in this place and time.
What have we learned over the past year and a half, having stepped out in faith to extend a full-time pastoral call in what are very uncertain times for the institutional church as a whole is that taking such a step for us was indeed an act of faith. And that is because until this year, we have long been steadily progressing towards a very uncertain financially future over the past ten or more years. In fact, this is the first year I can remember that the Council began the year with a budget proposal that was in the black and which had no reliance on our dwindling savings. And I am so blessed to be able to share that now, as of November 4th, we are right on target if not a bit ahead. Because we worked, and continue to work hard…together.
So…what have we learned? We have learned that hard work, living as, seeking after, and doing the sometimes-difficult work of being a ‘family’ are the new ‘normal’ for us. We have learned that compassionate engagement with all in need within our community as well as intentional partnership with others having hearts to serve, has given us solid growth financially as well as enhanced our ability to be a light of love and Christian witness within our immediate community.
We have learned that walking with our Lord under the guidance of the Holy Spirit includes not only hard work but a degree of personal sacrifice as well. We have learned that the true substance of our faith is a journey alongside of that Spirit, rather than a destination or financial benchmark to strive after which once reached, somehow releases us from the continued obligation to serve our friends and neighbors on need. We have learned that the Spirit does not just give us a single, one-time, ‘meant-for-our-church-instruction manual’, complete with all the information we may need, but that rather that our Lord seeks a living and constant ongoing relationship with us as a church, always providing entirely sufficient instruction for the next step in front of us but perhaps not for the step after that.
We have learned that we need to listen closely to the Spirit and to be willing to adapt and change as we are so led, in order to truly and accurately reflect the Lord’s desires towards all the children of God in these changing and turbulent times. We have learned that our call to love must be a call that reaches out towards, and includes every one of our brothers and sisters as we learn to let go of judging of one another…instead leaving all of that up to our Lord of love.
We have learned that the ‘new wine’ of which Jesus speaks indeed can only be safely contained within wholly new, flexible, and adaptive wine skins.
Now, if we are successful in taking all of this instruction to heart, if we are able to trust that the voice of the Spirit of God is truly sufficient to guide us through these times, then our emerging and growing witness of love without condition, and service without discrimination will remain and even grow to be more visible within our community, allowing this church to increase in vital importance as we shine ever brighter as a ‘light on the hill’ in what are most assuredly darkened times.
To quote Charles Dickens, these truly are the ‘best of times’ and the ‘worst of times’ when it comes to the challenges we face as a nation and the call we as a church have been given to live out our faith authentically. The opportunity to lead as a light of love has perhaps never been greater…however that is almost equally matched by a deep distrust of faith in general and a deep bitterness and despondency throughout our society. There is much we can do, but much that stands in the way of being successful. However, the Lord has promised to be faithful…as testified by our over 250 years of witness…truly something we can both rely on and take comfort in.
So…who are we? What does it mean to be a Christian in 2018 in Patterson, NY? In a time marked with great division, deep fear, homegrown terror and wild uncertainty what can we as individuals do to make a difference? How can we even consider imagining that a day of peace and sufficiency for all within a community is possible?
First, we can pledge our allegiance and devotion to each other and be willing to look past our occasional individual flaws with a deep forgiveness that knows no conditions. Second, we can show those around us what true Christlike love is both by how we treat one another as well as how we reach out in compassion and care for the community in which we live. And lastly, we can profess our belief that the call of Christ which we follow is capable of bringing about a new day right here in our midst if we are faithful in following it.
Our scripture reminds us that the greatest commandment is to love our God with our everything…to love with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it reminds us as well to do the same as regards each one of our neighbors including the strangers in our midst. We have no choice but to extend the love of our God to our every neighbor and fellow image-bearer of God.
And the passage also reminds us that loving this way is the first and primary call upon each one of us…something we are to do because that is who we are, that is who we are called to be…that is how we are to act as followers of our Lord and Christ. In fact a careful reading of the passage and an understanding of Jesus’ message overall reminds us that aside from loving as Christ taught us, all of the other externals of how we relate to one another, all of the other things that define, and sometimes get in the way of effectively relating to one another are just that – externals. Aside from extending love to one another, all the rest are things that are nowhere near as important as reaching out in genuine compassion and service to others.
So…we see that we have a long history of the Lord being persistent in preserving and watching over this particular witness of love and grace. We have learned that following after the Spirit is hard work, but that it is also work that makes a difference everyday in our community.
We have learned that in spite of the difficulty and divisiveness of the times, if we are truthful with one another, if we love each other as much as we love God, if we forgive one another as much as we each need to be forgiven…
…and if we take the time to be together…
…to worship, to sing, to laugh, to remember, to serve, to sacrifice ourselves in the service of our Lord…
…then this small little church in the Hudson Valley will not only survive, but it will continue to grow in importance to the community around us as we set an example leading others to search out just what it is that sets us apart…just what it is that makes us care for one another…just what it is that gives us the strength to keep on loving no matter the circumstances we may face.
Let us carry on…listening…responding…sharing the sacred call of our Lord in the breaking of the bread…for each time we remember and are faithful we will have happened upon a touchpoint for relationship and an opportunity to be reinvigorated to be able to love even more deeply. For, as we receive so we are able to give in return…
…remember, we have been greatly blessed in order that we might be a blessing for all others…