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A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at 
Clarence Presbyterian Church on October 15, 2017.


Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

On New Year’s Day 1817, Napoleon Bonaparte began his third year in exile on St. Helena. King George III, whose army had been defeated at Yorktown by the forces of Washington, still sat on the throne of Britain. In March, James Monroe succeeded James Madison as President of the United States. On July 4 in Rome New York construction began on the Erie Canal which promised to open up western expansion. Otis Hopkins was the Supervisor of the Town of Clarence which in those days consisted of most of northern Erie County. In October a group of Protestants gathered in Clarence Hollow to begin a new congregation.

Today we gather to celebrate 200 years of ministry to this community.  This is a time for us to reflect on our ministry and what it might mean for the future.  In our Old Testament Lesson for today we find Joshua preparing his people for a time of transition.  He has led the people of Israel into the Promised Land but he is nearing the end of his life.  So he calls the people together and in a long speech gives a final word of encouragement.  In this exhortation he follows our theme for the fall, Remember, Rejoice, Respond.  The first thing he did was remember.  Joshua helped them remember all the different ways God had been faithful to his people from Abraham through Moses.  He then rejoiced in God’s presence in the moment.  Then he pointed them to the future by asking them to respond to his call for faithfulness.

As we gather today we share many memories.  We recall all the ways that God has blessed this congregation down through the years.  He has been with us during times of armed conflict from the Mexican American War down to present day wars.  God has given comfort during all the various economic ups and downs of the last 200 years.  This congregation has been the location of countless transitional life events-baptisms, weddings, and funerals over the years.  God has blessed this Church through the years both at our former locations out Main Street and on Salt road and now here in this location.  This congregation has shared the highs and lows of life together. The Risen Christ is still present with us as we worship, work and play together. So we gather today to rejoice in our history and the congregation and people that have been shaped by God’s love.

I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit creates each individual congregation for a unique purpose.  Each individual congregation is not to be a carbon copy of one ideal model.  Each and every congregation is created with a unique identity and purpose.  The mission and goals of Clarence Presbyterian Church are not the same as Amherst or North Presbyterian.  God's intentions and purposes for our Church are not the same as for Clarence Methodist, St. Paul’s, Zion Lutheran, Nativity or St. Mary’s in Swormville.  We are called to be a blessing in a unique way.  Clarence Presbyterian has a distinctive calling and task which we are to bring to this community.

Now you might ask what might that be?  Let me share with you my experience of the unique combination of qualities that make up the unique identity of this congregation. 

One aspect of this congregation is its commitment to personal involvement in mission.  I am not merely talking about giving to the mission of the larger Church.  We do give to the larger church at a higher rate than most churches in our Presbytery, but what I mean is the personal commitment to help others.

Soon after I began to serve this congregation it became clear to me that the Food Pantry is at the heart of the mission.  Jim Owen gives countless hours to this caring ministry to some seventy families in our community.  But he is not the only member of our church who is active in this ministry.  Members help in sorting food, bringing food and others donate money and the angel gifts at Christmas time.

The food pantry reflects our commitment to the community.

About 15 years ago, one of our members, who is now part of the Church Triumphant, came to me for help with a project he had in mind.  This was just after the Taliban had been overthrown in Afghanistan.  He believed that we should be part of rebuilding the country.  He had a dream of helping to build a school that would educate both boys and girls.  We gathered a group from this congregation and the larger community.  I believe we raised close to $70,000.  Jim Simpson was able to be present in Afghanistan when the school was dedicated in 2005. This school provides a safe environment for 600 boys and girls.  This school has been made possible by work from many people in Clarence.  Many service clubs, schools groups and individuals have made donations from our community.  But the idea was conceived in this congregation by people who believed it was important to get involved in caring for the children of Afghanistan.

We have all kinds of members involved in mission projects, big and small. I think of our old friend Elsa Gehring gathering plastic silverware after functions, washing them and sending them to Nicaragua, or Julie Schmidt leading her Birthday Squad in providing parties for children whose birthdays would not be celebrated or all of our women who spend hours knitting for those in need or the group gathered to put together baskets for food pantry clients at Christmas and Easter. Hands-on-mission is central to our common life.

Another important aspect to our identity is our music program which we celebrated last night.  We are living in a time of radical change.  As we have often discussed, Christendom has come to an end.  The great western synthesis in which all the actors in society had a common culture has been shattered in the last fifty years.  

One of the great products of Christendom was wonderful music produced for the worship of God.  During the worship wars of the last thirty years many Christian churches have rejected this patrimony in favor of easy simpler musical forms.  We are one of the few Churches in Western New York that both want to and can worship God through this great musical heritage.  There are some churches that would like to use this music but do not have the human or financial resources and other churches that have resources but reject these musical forms.

Clarence Presbyterian has a long history of treasuring good music.  We are able to share with our youth and this community the value and purpose of the western musical tradition.  We may be entering a cultural dark age, where it is important for us to help preserve the best of our Christian past.

Another very important part of our identity is a commitment to keeping an open spirit and commitment to the mind.  We live in a time of extreme theological divisions.  There is a great deal of polarization in the larger Christian community today.  There is great tendency to categorize others using extreme theological labels such as close-minded fundamentalist or empty headed liberal.  There are many churches where the people pretend they have all the answers.  There are churches where no real questions can be asked, no doubts shared and where no real dialogue can take place.

  That is not true here at Clarence Presbyterian Church.  In my time here I have met people of every theological stripe.  There are men and women you could place all along the so-called theological spectrum.   But whether they are conservative or liberal or in between, they are not doctrinaire.  They are not so dogmatic that they will refuse to listen to the other points of view.  This reflects humility in our faith and a willingness to grow in our understanding.

This I believe stems from a commitment to using our minds.  We are living during a time when the truth of Christianity is often conceived of as being an emotional experience.  So much of Christianity in America is devoted to creating an emotional reaction.  Worship services are often designed to manipulate how people feel.    How you feel about Jesus is the fundamental question for many Christian groups.  Many of these same groups distrust the use of reason and education.  In my experience this congregation values intellectual integrity and education. 

It so encouraged me, when a little over a decade ago we discussed moving to the rotation model Sunday School, how Sue Zogrofos and her helpers transformed our curriculum and the rooms down stairs.  They created spaces such as the theatre and computer lab. This demonstrated a deep commitment to sharing the faith with our children.

I believe it is important to have at least one community of faith in a region in which men and women can explore their faith in a safe setting where they will be welcomed and supported in their journey.

A final core part of this congregation’s identity is a commitment to community.  This congregation has gone through a great transformation of its demographics during my life time.  Clarence has moved from being a rural farming community to a suburban bedroom community.  Sixty years ago Clarence was beyond civilization which stopped at Transit Road. Real estate is now booming in our town because we are the “hot” school district in the area.  Our demographics have changed as well.  There was a time when our congregation was a tight knit group of extended families such as the Gamins, Willyoungs, Bodines and Peronnes.  We no longer have a lot of extended or multi-generational families.  There are many people who are only in the community for a relatively short period of time.  

Yet our commitment to hospitality has made it possible for many, not all, but many people to find their place in this congregation and to be cared for by others.  So many people have moved in and then been transferred out, but they have brought their gifts to us and hopefully they were blessed by us.

Some of you may remember the singing group called the Statler Brothers.  They retired several years ago.  One of the members of the group Don Reid is a Presbyterian Elder in Virginia. In his book Sunday Morning Memories he wrote these words:

And I often think of those people who don’t know what a “church family” is. You and I both know people who have no church at all.  We know folks who say they don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. And you know what? They’re right. But I always figured if you were a Christian you’d want to go to church.  But some of these folks say they can stay home and watch any number of television preachers on Sunday morning and get all they need to save their souls. And again, they’re right.  And there’s no way you can tell them anything different.

But what they don’t know they’re missing is the church itself.  The building and the people.  The “church family” and a place to come to and meet and share in a mutual emotion that can be replaced by nothing else in this tired old world of ours.  People to pray with and talk to.  People to help and people to help you. People who care when you’re sick and worried. People who need you.  People who fill baskets at Thanksgiving and teach little kids Bible stories about David and Paul.  People who sing together and hold each other’s hands when only the touch or hug of another human being can say what words can’t.  People who visit the sick and wait at the hospital with the family when all hope is gone.

This is what Sunday mornings are all about.  And every one of them is a memory I can’t live without.

We can rejoice in the community of faith Christ has created here at Clarence Presbyterian.
But Joshua did not end with remembering and rejoicing.  After reminding the people of all that God and done, he called on them to recommit themselves to following God.  Joshua challenged them  Chose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

So we, at Clarence Presbyterian Church, continue our journey together.  We know God has blessed us in the past.  He has sustained this congregation through 200 years.  We are still blessed with God's love today. 
But that is not enough.  As we begin our third century together we face choppy waters.  Unlike most of the first 200 years of our history when the culture was supportive of people of faith and commitment to a church, we now live in a time when we face cultural headwinds. There are competing claims on our time and attention.  There are even forces hostile to faith.

Thus we are called to respond to the love God had shown us in Christ.  It means giving our prayers, our time, our talents and our material resources to help continue the work of this congregation into the next century.  Before you fill our your estimate of giving card I invite you to take some time to remember and rejoice and then respond as a sign of your commitment to continue building a community of faith committed to hands-on-mission, civil discourse, beautiful music and caring.

        Choose this day whom you will serve, As for me and my household we will serve the Lord.