JUST IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES!
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
October 4, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 44:2–8; Matthew 19:16–26
The weather was probably much like today. They had not been born here but had come from Rhode Island where they had lived for a few years after emigrating from England. After farming here and worshiping in ad hoc ways, they decided to formally establish a Baptist congregation with a minister; that was in 1688, of course, and we are their spiritual heirs. Within a short thirteen years, there were more than 45 distinct congregations dotted throughout the area that became New Jersey. The independent and tolerant nature of the people here would be reflected in the charter of 1702 that guaranteed religious freedom to all.
New Jersey’s early residents who were ethnically European––there were Dutch in Bergen County and Swedes and Finns in Gloucester County hunting, fishing, and trapping––also welcomed those who did not necessarily look or think like them. Cherokees who migrated to New Jersey from the South because they were considered “colored” and denied their basic civil liberties also found a welcome here among the Lenape. New Jersey, even before the Revolution, was a diverse state.
A gateway to America, New Jersey has grown into the most diverse state in the Union, both ethnically and religiously. Although the Census does not collect information about religious affiliations other kinds of surveys show that our state has more different kinds of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other kinds of houses of worship than any other state; this is somewhat amazing because we are only a bit more than eight million. This is our heritage and what we will give to our posterity.
The early churches, being made up of small groups of farmers, merchants, and craftspeople, often worshiped in barns and houses, as did the early church in the time of the Roman Empire. There were very few buildings we think of as churches. The earliest church building still standing is St. Mary’s Episcopal in Burlington, built in 1702. Many church buildings were destroyed by fire as was our second church building; we sit here in the third building constructed in 1832 on the foundations of the previous eighteenth-century building which was destroyed by fire in 1828.
But as this morning’s Gospel points out, a building does not a church make. It is not the physical building or the possessions within, valuable as they may be, that are the most important qualities of a worshiping community. It is, rather, the spirit with which we worship, our life together as a community, and the witness we give to the world concerning God’s infinite love and care. Too often, like the young man who sought Jesus’ instruction, we are tied to our possessions. Just last month the people of the Florida Panhandle went through a hurricane; they realized that their possessions were of little value if they were not here to enjoy them. As one person said on a newscast, you can always rebuild a house; you can’t bring back the people you love.
The post-exilic Isaiah knew this truth as well. The people who were to return to the land from which they were taken into captivity were promised that God would care for them as long as they kept their covenant, as long as they remembered that the Lord is the rock of salvation. They returned to a land that had been ravaged and proceeded to rebuild––just as refugees from war do so today.
What are the possibilities that we have as we enter into the future? We have so many to consider! Just look around you at the broader landscape we now inhabit. The little Middletown Village and all the other small communities that constitute Middletown sit in a county that is one of the wealthiest in the United States. We are ethnically and religiously diverse; we have new opportunities to witness to the inclusivity of the Gospel; the future awaits us.
There is so much, small as our congregation is, that we can do, even in this terrible time of the coronavirus pandemic. We just need to draw on our creative juices and use our imaginations. One way is to move beyond our traditional thinking of church and to look at ourselves as a witnessing community. If we are faithful to the Gospel, we will be provided with opportunities to witness in new and distinct ways. This three hundred and thirty-second year of our community will serve as a test for us. Let us pray that we will meet the test.
It is important to remember is that we are not alone. We have the heritage of our past which gives us a promise for the future. We also have a community of believers throughout the world, people who, like us, are celebrating the Lord’s Supper today in World Wide Communion Sunday in ways so diverse that it boggles the imagination.
The church universal is not a building but a spirit that unites us all in the faith that God is indeed our rock and our salvation and that no matter what, God’s love embraces and surpasses all. If we believe that, really believe that, then just imagine the possibilities!
Let us pray: Eternal God, who has been with us from the very beginning, bring us into a deeper understanding of your call to us to serve you in the world today and help us to have the faith that surpasses all our doubts in ourselves, for you are our rock and our salvation, a present help and our future hope. In the name of the One who opens all the doors, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.