Where do we go from here?

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Harry abernathy

Sunday, october 8th, 2017

Fr. Harry Abernathy at the 175th Anniversary service, wearing a stole made for him by St. Stephen's Sunday School in the 1990s

Fr. Harry Abernathy at the 175th Anniversary service, wearing a stole made for him by St. Stephen's Sunday School in the 1990s

First of all, I am very grateful to be here today to help conclude St. Stephen’s 175th anniversary celebrations -- grateful for the invitation and grateful just to BE here … 25 years after the last big anniversary. Penny sends her good wishes and love, along with regrets for having to work today -- yes, college professors sometimes do have to work, and even on a Sunday. 

Thanks, Nils, for the invitation, and thanks St. Stephen’s for the memories that go along with it.  

One Hundred seventy-five years!   Congratulations!

Gene Curry with Fr. John McDonald in 1987

Gene Curry with Fr. John McDonald in 1987

I know a little something about anniversaries here -- beyond having learned how to spell “Sesquicentennial.”  I was the new guy on the block 27 years ago when St. Stephen’s began planning for its 150th anniversary.  I was happy to get to know Meg Gregg’s father, Gene Curry, who joined the church in its 100th anniversary year of 1942, and remarkably was an active participant in both the planning and the events of the 150th.  It’s quite something that this link to St. Stephen’s past has continued with Meg’s stewardship of the 175th.  

Can you imagine the vision it took to get this place off the ground in 1842? How much $2,000 -- that was what it cost -- how much it was to our founders?  Much of the vision—and the work—came from the founding rector, Robert William Harris of Grace Church in White Plains; he persuaded Elisha Sutton to donate the land where the church now stands, and raised $645 from other area churches.  The builder worked at cost -- without taking any profit.

And now, 175 years later that structure stands tall and is in truly beautiful shape.  

But St. Stephen’s -- any church -- is really not the  building, beautiful as it may be -- but the people -- the Body of Christ -- all of us:  those who came before us, and those who will come after us.

For generations, this has been a place where some of the most important decisions in people’s lives have been made.  Many have been married here, including some of you.  Many of you have had your children baptized here.  Some of you have attended a memorial service for a loved one or friend.  Others have knelt at the chancel steps before one of our Bishops to be confirmed.  A few have knelt there to be ordained.  Many more have come here to worship, to give thanks, and to pray -- seeking guidance, comfort, and that ‘peace that passes understanding’ 

St. Stephen's as it looked in the 1930s

St. Stephen's as it looked in the 1930s

Some of you are new here, while others have had a long relationship with St. Stephen’s.  You all call it home, for this is a sacred place, holy ground, an oasis of warmth and welcome.  

It would be wrong to think moments such as these-- anniversary celebrations -- are about “having arrived,” with the celebration focused almost entirely on the past.  Certainly we ought to rejoice on this occasion, enjoy it, and long remember it.   But the question for us today must point to the future:  “Where do we go from here?”  

The Scriptures talk of an imaginative vision (beating swords into plowshares) and a command to go into the world and make disciples. Memorable points, but you have heard them before.  What is different this time; what word or words in those passages will speak to you today? 

In 2014 Navy Admiral William McRaven, in a commencement speech that went viral, urged graduates at the University of Texas to “Make Your Bed.”  The thing about that, is that all of us have heard those same words from our parents a thousand times growing up, but McRaven might well have been the first to tell us WHY making your bed is so important:  Make your bed, he said, and you will have accomplished the first task of the day, and you’ll be encouraged to do another…and another…and another.  And making your bed also reinforces the fact, he continued, that the little things in life really do matter. 

It’s just that focus on little things that opens the imagination to see-- and do -- the big things... like recruiting disciples for the peaceable kingdom.  

One more piece of commencement wisdom -- this time imparted by actor Alan Alda in 1980 at Connecticut College, where his daughter Eve was one of the graduates. He began by saying that the best things said come last, slipping out unheralded, almost an afterthought, standing at the door and preceded by “Oh, by the way.”  The rest of his address is framed as advice to his daughter -- don’t be scared, love your work, it’s better to be wise than smart, and so on -- but then, at the end, his last words:  “Oh, by the way, I love you.”  

The best things said come last!  Listen all the way to the end -- speeches, sermons, conversations... and Scripture!  

The operative word in answering our question -- Where do we go from here? -- has to be the word “GO” from today’s Gospel (also known as The Great Commission): “Go, therefore, and make disciples…”   “GO” is the key, I believe.   There’s a time for study, evaluation, planning, and reflection.  Then there’s a time when you just have to “get up and GO.” 

That’s what Abraham did:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you...”  (Gen. 12:1)

So did Moses:  “[Go and] I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”    (Ex. 3:10).

Isaiah heard the Word in the temple:  “Go and tell this people…”   (Is. 6:9)

And the disciples heard that same word from the Risen Christ -   “Go ...and make disciples.”

And they all went.  

This call to build Christian community… is not a one-time command, or a single memorable point for an anniversary sermon.  It is a hard, not-so-glamorous task, an ongoing commitment that requires great patience, humility... often courage … and  perhaps most of all… time.   

175 Years…  and counting!  

Over these years, there have been great joys and satisfaction with things done... and equally there has been frustration and regret with “things undone.”  We wish we had done that …  or said this.  But life goes on; the work goes on.  We face the future, envisioning a world that we can not yet see -- for that is where God always meets us.  

One of my favorite passages from the Bible is from the 43rd Chapter of Isaiah, where God says:

Forget the former things.  Do not dwell on the past.  Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Those words were directed at the exiled community of ancient Israel, as they were contemplating a new future.  Some people were nostalgic and thought they could go back to “the good old days.”  This text says “NO” -- God is doing something new —and it’s happening right before your eyes.  Can’t you see it? 

Sometimes the answer is “No.”  But take another look! 

The years since 1842 have been marked by building and rebuilding.  It’s a story, in part of course, about bricks and mortar -- adding, improving, restoring, maintaining - but mostly it’s a story about people -- those who have seen what needed to be done, and done it; supporting and encouraging one another along the way, and trusting in the vision God has put before them. 
The story of St. Stephen’s IS a remarkable story -- and it’s your story.  May you continue, with imagination and fervor,  to carry this story forward,  seeing God’s newness springing forth wherever you go. 

And Oh, by the way, Jesus says, “I am with you always.” 

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