Een Goed Begin
Geliefde gemeente, dames en heren, mensen en kinderen. The exordium remotum was the preview of the sermon. My text is from Mark 13. Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.
Now hear it in the Statenvertaling that was heard by us till 1824. En wanneer gij zult horen van oorlogen, en geruchten van oorlogen, zo wordt niet verschrikt, want dit moet geschieden; maar nog is het einde niet. Want het ene volk zal tegen het andere volk opstaan, en het ene koninkrijk tegen het andere koninkrijk, en er zullen aardbevingnen zijn in verscheidene plaatsen, en er zullen hongersnoden wezen, en beroerten. Deze dingen zijn maar beginselen der smarten.
That word smarten is not accurate to the Greek. The better translation iweeën, "labor pains." The famines and troubles are the beginning of labor pains—the most painful of pains, yet not pains of death, but of new life. The doom in these words is not doom and gloom, but doom and dawn, doom and gladness.
The pain is the pain of conversion and repentance, what the Heidelberg Catechism calls "the dying-away of the old nature and the coming-to-life of the new nature." We are to see our lives as a daily breaking-down and daily new beginning. So my topic is Een Goed Begin. From the proverb, "Een goed begin is het halve werk," a good beginning is half the work. They began here began well, but their work is only half finished, and there is very much for us to do.
The rest of my exordium remotum is announcements. I welcome our visitors today. Thank you for coming. We are marking the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Hendrick Hudson which opened up the colony of New Netherland, the ground in which forty-five years later our church was planted. I invite you to our colonial dinner with its historic menu, and let me thank you in advance for your donations at the meal.
I thank our committee who prepared all this, especially Lois Wingerson, and our kitchen volunteers. I thank our voorlezer and voorzanger Hans Bilger. I thank Jennifer Nelson and our children for learning the psalms. The psalms are all we sang in church for 200 years, unaccompanied, but churches with organs were allowed to hear improvisations on the psalm tunes before and after the service, which Aleeza Meir has given us today.
Our psalms and our liturgy date from 1563, which we know our children to have memorized. In 1792 we added an English service, with this translation of the Liturgy, and the Dutch and English overlapped till 1824, which means that we prayed in Dutch for 205 years after Henry Hudson! The liturgy ends with "Gedacht de armen," "Mind the poor." We do. Please take a grocery bag and bring it back next Sunday with food for the poor. Now, let the congregation pray. Laat de gemeente bidden.
When the first Dutch settlers came to Brooklyn, half of them were ethnically something else than Dutch, but they were all becoming Dutch in language and culture and religion, and they would maintain that language and culture and religion for 200 years. For the first few decades they were outnumbered by the Native Americans, the Canarsees. The settlers called them the wilden, the wild ones, not wild and crazy but wild as in the state of nature, like the wildlife in a nature preserve. That they lived in a state of nature does not mean they left no imprint on the land. Their trails through the woods were easily followed, and the clearings they had cut in the forest for planting their crops, and then abandoned, were easily discernible in the various stages of regrowth. But when the Dutch cleared the trees they made it permanent.
That’s the difference. The aboriginal imprint on the landscape was as passing and organic as nature itself, like the passing of the seasons, the rising of spring and the falling of autumn, the wealth of summer and the dearth of winter, seasons of plenty and seasons of hunger. But the Dutch, although at first they lived more like the wilden than like their relatives in Europe, they had a different vision of the world.
They had a vision of a future, of a continuing orderly development, of well-ordered fields and stout barns and solid houses, a vision of human life abstracted from nature sufficiently to offer insulation from the cold and protection from hunger, a vision of life which the Canarsees considered curious and unnatural.
That vision extended to commerce and civics and religion. After Pieter Stuyvesant established our church in 1654, our very first services were in a barn, doubtless without windows, and it must have struck the Canarsees as crazy to pray to the God of Heaven from inside a barn (unless, of course, they had learned that the Lord had been born in one). But the congregation in that barn will have had a vision of a decent church of stone on stone, and in twelve years’ time they built it.
What that church looked like we do not know—the picture in your bulletin is only one historian’s guess. We do know that ten years after it was built one Dutch visitor described it as a "small and ugly little church standing in the middle of the road." Eight years after that our small and ugly little church became the home of that communion beaker, right there, our avondmaal beker from 1684. Four times a year that beaker was put out on the table in that ugly little building, and the people drank the holy wine from it. On that very cup, 300 years ago, there gleamed the reflected light of the interior of our first building. Wouldn’t we love to be able to still discern what was reflected there, but light has no memory; light is always of the present.
In 1766 that building was torn down, and its stones were included in the walls of the new and larger church, and that beaker reflected that new interior. Forty years later that building was taken down, and what happened to its stones we do not know. They built a new church of bluestone over on Joralemon Street, and that beaker reflected a third interior.
The membership grew so great that after only thirty years they took down that bluestone church and they built a great new edifice in the classical style. Our congregation swelled to more than a thousand and then it gradually dwindled, and that great edifice lasted only fifty years, and its stones too were taken down, and we built this great place here, for a thousand again, but we never had more than two hundred.
This building we have used the longest of any so far, by twenty years, but who’s to say how long before its stones too come down? What will be reflected in our beaker a century from now, and of what sort will be faces of the folks who drink the wine around the table?
Why are doing this today? Why does a church participate in these Five Dutch Days celebrations? For some of the same reasons that a school or a museum or a gallery or consulate may do this, but the driving motivation for a church has to be the motivation of love. The Love of God. For us to love as God loves and to love what God loves has to be under the surface of what we do.
Let me remind you of the love that’s just under the surface of our two scripture lessons. The Ten Commandments were summarized by our Lord Jesus as "Thou shalt love God and thou shalt love thy neighbor." And in the gospel lesson the love is hidden in the image of the pain of childbirth. Childbirth comes from love and goes towards love. It comes from the love of father and mother making love, and it goes toward those two lovers increasing their love by sharing their love with a third, their child. The pain of childbirth is the most painful of pains but it ends in the most joyful of joys, the beginning of a life, which depends on our love just in order to stay alive.
We have this joy at childbirth in spite of everything we know about the reality of life. This child will have her share of trials and troubles. She will do some things she should not do and she will not do some things she should do. We shall have to forgive her of something or other, and we will need her forgiveness back. She may reject what we teach her and rebel against what we hold dear, but we will love her. And if we love her we will not reckon her points against her but will be always ready to begin again. There is pain in the love, not just at childbirth, but all through love and even in the joy, for love remembers, but always begins again.
What we do today we do for love. We love our tradition and our history and our Dutch connection in all its reality both good and bad. We have to forgive it and be forgiven by it. We love what our ancestors in this church began, and what they built, even what they built was as passing as Canarsee clearing in the forest. The stones went up and came back down, but we judge it was a good beginning, and we continue to build the work, even if our own stones come down in the future that God has for us. We will feel the pain, but we should not be dismayed, for the pain is the signal of the birth of whatever new beginning that God has for us.
How impermanent our history has been. Three locations, five buildings, stones put up and down. And yet there is that cup of Jesus’ love. How many hands of the faithful have held that cup and put their mouths on it and drunk from it.
I don’t know the last time that wine has been inside that cup. It is such a priceless and fragile artifact that I would not dare to have us drink from it today. But its surface still contains the light. The light which we believe to be the robe God, and the sign of the splendor of God’s glory and God’s grace.
That light is ever present because, as Einstein taught us, light is the constant of the universe. Everything else is relative and passing, but light is constant. E=MC2, light is what reconciles energy and matter, the light of God’s grace is what reconciles all to which we put our energies and all we think that matters. And by that light upon the cup we can read the promise of the wine inside the cup, we can recognize the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice and the atonement for our sins, and we can discern the new wine of the wedding feast, the gift of always a new beginning, of reconciliation, of truth and reconciliation, of forgiveness, of healing and resurrection, of the conversion of our old nature into the new nature, of the conversion of our sin into righteousness and our weakness into strength and our pain into childbirth, of the conversion of our fear into hope.
By the constancy of that light, that light that shone upon the Canarsees in their ceaseless round of years, and then upon the Half Moon as it sailed up the river, and then upon the settlers as they cleared their fields and built their humble homes, that light which came in through the windows of five successive buildings, by the constancy of the light of the gospel of God, we can believe the promise that in the love of God there is an enduring significance to every passing thing that we have done and yet may do.
We can never know the whole significance of what we do, we cannot stand far enough away from it in time and space to read it in the light at the source of the universe, but we put our trust in the promise of the light and of the blood and of the wine. Our hope for the future is not empty, its solidity is God’s promises, which are more solid than stone and more constant than the earth. And when we believe these promises, this old church may ever new be born again.
Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.