Sunday, November 15, 2015

November 15, Proper 28, 361st Anniversary: The End Is Still to Come

Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

The first Dutch Reformed Church in America was founded in Manhattan in 1628. After that the colonists began to settle this end of Long Island, and they established villages in Flatbush, Flatlands, and Brooklyn. Eventually these three villages jointly sent petitions to Governor Pieter Stuyvesant for churches of their own, but he kept denying them because he had no domine available to assign to them. Their petitions always included the village of Brooklyn by name.

Then in 1654, a ship landed at Manhattan with Domine Polhemus on board; he was on his way to Holland from Brazil. Governor Stuyvesant prevailed upon him to stay here, and assigned him to Long Island, and so in October of 1654 he issued the declaration which established the Dutch Reformed churches in Long Island. Only, this one time, the document fails specifically to mention Brooklyn. Was that just an oversight?

We don’t know exactly when our first service was. We don’t know when our first consistory was elected. We do know that by 1656 our consistory was meeting and that it had been holding services. We know that in all subsequent documents Brooklyn was always included again with Flatbush and Flatlands, and no separate act of establishment was ever issued for our Brooklyn church, as if the act of 1654 included us without mentioning us. So we don’t really know when the exact date of our anniversary should be. Our birth was in the shadows. Our church began in mysteries we cannot solve.

Our subsequent history is the building up and then tearing down of one church building after another. Five times the stones went up and four times the stones came down. Our fourth building was on Joralemon Street, downtown, a great big edifice for a huge congregation, a Greek Temple, modeled on the Parthenon, but after only fifty years, and we don’t know why, that congregation dwindled drastically, so those temple stones came down, and the remnant relocated here to try and revive the old congregation, and in faith and hope they built this great gothic temple.

Hindsight tells us that they built too large, because although our congregation did revive, it never surpassed a third of the sanctuary’s capacity. Forty years ago our congregation almost closed, but once again the remnant has revived. Now our temple needs total renovation, to which we recently committed. Tomorrow evening the Consistory will affirm the roster of a steering committee for the renovation. We have labor pains ahead of us. We do this labor because the epistle calls us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

It’s in faith and hope that we labor precisely because there is so much we cannot know. Who knows what the future holds? How long will our work endure? We make our plans but we cannot count on them. Every morning on the news we hear the predictions of Jesus always coming true. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. Nations rise against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms, and earthquakes in various places, and famines on the increase with the warming of the globe. Yet Jesus tells us not to be alarmed.

How not be alarmed? How can we be safe? Not just from terrorists, but if our current carbon-consuming lifestyle is unsustainable on this planet, then what kind of cold, poor, hungry lives await us in the future?

He says this is the beginning of the birth pangs. He means that all this mess and uproar are the labor pains for something new, some new creation. But he said that 2000 years ago. Is that still true? Did he mean that only for his own generation, or did he see a horizon that was limitless, and still beyond us even now? He said that the end is still to come, and we can feel that God’s great work is incomplete. We feel the incompletion of the communion of saints, the unfinished forgiveness of sins, the not-yet resurrection of the body, and that the life of the world to come is still to come.

The epistle says that we can see the Day approaching. How far off is that approach? Is it like looking at the stars at night? What’s in your eyes is a light here present that was born of a light far distant, and you are seeing light that has traveled for thousands of thousands of years to approach your eyes. You can see the Day approaching across a vast horizon. So how many more years will this labor take? We do not know. Does God know? Or does God see it differently?

We celebrate our anniversaries because we are stitched into the fabric of time. God is not. God is free of time. God enters into it, as with Jesus, and time is one of God’s good gifts to us, so we make the most of it and count on it, but time is only relative. Our bodies experience time as regular and steady but actually it’s flowing and fluid. Einstein rediscovered that, but the prophets and apostles had already seen it. The prophets and apostles call us to seek our constancies behind the relativities, the constancies that regulate the relativities, and correct them and cleanse them and nourish them.

There on the table is the communion beaker from 1684. Most of the time we keep it securely with its twin in the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West. That beaker has been a constant through all our building up and tearing down. I remarked on this six years ago. We don’t know what our previous sanctuaries looked like on the inside, but they all were reflected on the silver surface of that beaker in their turn. As were the faces of the communicants who raised it to their mouths to drink the blood of Christ. The beaker’s engravings have been worn thin over the years by the thousands of hands that held it and passed it — Dutch, French, Africans both slave and free, Canarsee Indians, British soldiers, and New England transplants. Members and relatives and strangers.

Six years ago one of you told me how that beaker spoke to you. You told me how liberated you felt when you realized that no matter what happened to our building, we would still have that beaker and our congregation would survive.

Of course it’s not so much the beaker itself as the mystery that we do around that cup. We do time travel, we do space travel, and the beaker is the portal, the gate of heaven. The beaker makes a space, it makes a place, it makes a temple just by being there. Locus iste, a deo factus est. “This is the place made by God as an inestimable sacrament, beyond reproach.” (Our Gradual anthem today.)

This is the place, this is the moment, the timeless now behind the changes and relocations, the constancy behind the relativities. This is what our epistle calls the single offering perfected for all time. This is the place where you can believe the completion of the promises, when you glimpse the full communion of the saints, and you touch the forgiveness of all sins, and you can taste the resurrection of the body.

In just a few moments the choir will sing about “the light born of light, Jesu, redeemer of the world.” You could translate the Latin as “Jesu, redeemer of the age.” This present age which seems to be getting worse as much as better. The world that is too much with us late and soon. Our business is constant but incomplete. So we gather every week to pray. We are supplicants, and we dare to hope that our prayers and praises will be heard.

We come in faith and hope that they are heard, but we do not know what God will do with them. We are used to that, that even makes sense to us, we’d actually rather it not be up to us what will be done with them. That’s why we give them up to God. We are stuck in all the relativities, and we would rather leave things with the Constancy.

But we don’t come here just to lose ourselves in mystery and wonder. As the epistle says, we keep on “meeting together to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds.” That’s not bad. That gets real. Especially when our fear of terror and insecurity tempts us to abandon love as unrealistic and short-sighted. Do you know of any other organization in society which meets together every week in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds? Congregations do.

We come in and we go back out. We enter the timeless Constancy in order then to engage the passing relativities. You enter the light to serve in the shadows. You drink from the cup to pour yourself back out with good deeds and love. Love breathes in and love breathes out. There is a pulsing life within the universe, a great and constant life, whom we call God, the source of life, and the breathing of this God is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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