Ezekiel 34::11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Today we can say that the Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn, a.k.a. “Old First,” is 360 years old. Probably. The early history of our congregation is a mixture of facts and mysteries.
It is a fact that our church was established in October of 1654 by Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland. But we don’t know exactly when our congregation first met together. It’s reported that a few months later Dominee Polhemus had been preaching here, and that two years later a consistory was already organized, but the rest is cloaked in mystery.
So the parish of Old First is older than the congregation. What I mean by parish is the public church, established by the government, intended for every inhabitant in the village of Breukelen, and supported by taxation. No one was forced to attend, but no one was excused from the church tax either.
What I mean by congregation is the community of Jesus gathering for worship, the people drawn by the call of God to get up early and stoke the fire and feed the cow and walk through the woods to gather in a barn, to hear the Word of God preached and sing the Psalms and pray the prayers and celebrate Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. And where they put the animals we do not know.
There on the table is a fact, a solid fact, hammered out of silver 330 years ago. The inscription on that communion beaker says that it was given to our church by Maria Badia on October 3, 1684. Was it given to mark our church’s 30th anniversary? Another mystery. It’s one of a pair. For safety we keep them on display at the New-York Historical Society.
Last week one of you asked me if we could use that beaker again for Holy Communion. I answered, quite stiffly, “No, because our consultants have told us how extremely carefully we must handle it to preserve it. No contact with human skin.” Afterward I realized that the stiffness of my answer was a cover for my deep desire for that very thing, that we could all drink together from that common up again. That’s what it wants, right?
There it sits as a cold fact, but it’s like the string on the kite of a great mystery, the mystery of the Blood of Christ. How many generations of believers have tasted the mystery in that cup? We don’t know. Dutch farmers, French Huguenots, Africans both free and enslaved, Canarsie Indians, English soldiers, all drinking in turn from that cup of salvation. I would love it if our nine new members today, Anna, Jessica, Paul, Gordon, Suzy, Cynthia, Gabe, Danny, and Jabe, could drink from that same cup. That we can’t does not negate the mystery that these nine share in that same community of Jesus reaching back across 360 years, a sea of faces now lost to us but once reflected in the silver of this cup and still quite visible to God.
The beaker is a symbol of our church as a community of Jesus, a congregation, and our building is a symbol of our church as a public institution, a parish. We were instituted as a parish which had to generate a congregation. Today we are a congregation which maintains a parish, and the parish includes far more people than our congregation and many more activities than our communion.
Our congregants now number about 200, including confessing members, the baptized children of confessing members, and adherents. Our adherents are participants who have not taken legal membership but who are fully members of the community of Jesus. This community of Jesus is not static. Its boundaries are a mystery to us, it breathes in and it breathes out, it gathers in for communion and then goes out into the parish and the world.
And who knows how many people belong to our parish. I could read a long list, but let’s just take James, who sleeps on our stoop. He spends more hours per week at Old First than any of you do. I pray with him. He belongs to the parish of Old First.
Parish and congregation, building and beaker, mission and communion, expanding circles of community and circles moving in, some people quick and some people slow, some children excited just to be here, some people standing up for membership, some people just trying to hang on and believe.
I’m talking about our mission here, the mission of Old First to be a congregation which serves our parish, a community of Jesus which hosts a sacred space for all the folks around us. Today I am starting a sermon series I’m calling “The Mission.” As we try to discern what we should do about our sanctuary, we should try to discern what God would have us do, which means: What is the mission that God has given us. No church exists for itself, but for the mission God has given it. “The church is for mission as a fire is for burning.” (Brunner)
The mission begins with God. God is on a mission. Think of Advent and Christmas as God going on a mission trip. The Father sends the Son down as a missionary, but first he has to learn the language, from his mother Mary. His mission trip ends with his death and resurrection, and forty days later his Ascension back to heaven, not only as the Son of God but now as well the Son of Man, and as God and Man to take the throne of heaven. And what is he up to on the throne?
He gave his disciples a parable for this, his very last parable on his last day of teaching, a day or so before he was arrested. The parable show him doing two things in the world. He is gathering and he is judging. Gathering and judging. If we interpret the parable by the Epistle to the Ephesians, he does this not just at the end, as is often thought, but now, in history, in the course of human events.
He gathered you all here today. You heard his call somewhere inside your mind and his Holy Spirit within you moved you to answer it. You didn’t have to stoke the fire or feed the cow, but you gathered here from various places in the parish to become again today a congregation, and again today the worship service converts you into a community of Jesus who commune with him.
He gathers you to himself. You enter your inheritance. Already. You share in the Kingdom of God. You share in the light. You inherit what Ephesians calls the immeasurable greatness of his power for you who believe, although Our Lord is so contrary to the usual measures of power that he keeps expressing his greatness in such small things as visiting prisoners and caring for the sick and feeding hungry people.
Your grocery bags connect to something much larger. It’s like when I was a kid on Herkimer Street we used to see these wispy seeds that floated in the air. Like dandelion seeds, only finer. We called them “money-mans.” We didn’t know where they came from or what they would grow into — that was a mystery to us. Your grocery bags are the floating seeds, little hard facts, floating between your giving and someone whom you don’t know receiving. They carry in them the greater mystery of what the Lord Jesus is doing in the world. God is gathering every little act that you do into that great goal that he told us to pray for, “that his Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
He is also judging. Not just at the end; this parable is about what he’s up to right now. It’s not about who is going to heaven or hell, it’s about this king and what he looks for, and what kind of deeds you do to express the standards of his kingdom and his judgment. His standards are published very clearly in his Word, and as we respond to his Word we actually judge ourselves. The peoples and the nations judge themselves.
I will say more about this judgment in future sermons, but today I will say that the history of the world since Our Lord’s ascension is like one great trial, of which the verdict is still out, and in which all of you are witnesses. I don’t mean witnesses that stand up on a soapbox or hand out tracts. I mean witnesses by how you feed and clothe and care and visit, by how you talk about yourself and what you value and how you tell the story of your life in very ordinary ways. When you stand up and say, “Yeah, I guess I believe that too.” When you all stand up to repeat the Apostles Creed you witness to each other and you encourage each other to believe this strange and humanly impossible combination of facts and mysteries which is the Christian faith.
The witnessing? That’s what the parish is for. The gathering? That’s the congregation. These two aspects of the church are both important, and they overlap and together they express the fullness of the mission of Our Lord. The building and the beaker. Outside and inside. The facts and the mystery. It’s a mystery why Our Lord has allowed this church to survive for 360 years when others have not.
But the fact is here you are. And the fact and mystery is that nine of you who will stand up today and then kneel down, and that will encourage the rest of us and remind us of God’s love for us.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.