Sermon: Held in Trust

The Kansas landscape is populated by rural communities that consist of a single crossroads with a grain elevator, a gas station, a seed & feed store and a church. I recently read about one such community in western Kansas that had suffered a year-long draught. All the crops were dying. In desperation, Larry Gates, the pastor of the Presbyterian church, the only church in town, announced that the whole community would assemble at the edge of one of the fields and pray for rain. Most everyone in the small town gathered and Pastor Gates climbed up on a tractor to survey the flock. He shouted, “Brothers and sisters! We have come here to pray for rain!”

            “Amen!” responded his little congregation.

            “Well,” said the minister, “do you have sufficient faith?”

            “Amen! Amen!” shouted the crowd.

            “All right, all right, then,” said the minister, “but I have one question to ask you!”

            The crowd stood silent, puzzled, expectant.

            “Brothers and sisters!” shouted the minister, “Where are your umbrellas?”

            “Increase our faith!” That’s what Jesus’ disciples were asking him to do for them. It’s what we hope Jesus will do for us when we gather together in this place on Sunday morning.

            “Increase our faith, Lord!”

            But I have one question to ask: What do we really expect when we come to this place?

            When Angel Fernando, pastor of an upscale suburban church in Northern California, was asked the question, “Do your people come to church expecting something?” He replied, “Yes, they expect to be out by twelve.”

            And, in fact, I had a congregation in Wichita, Kansas whose faith was so strong in that same conviction that they programed the air conditioning to automatically shut off at noon.

            Scientists say that we humans only use about ten percent of our brain. And those who are somehow able to access additional brain power are considered geniuses. I have an adjacent theory regarding faith. I tend to believe that most of us access only a wee fraction of our faith. And I can’t help but wonder what could be accomplished if we used just ten percent, or even one percent for that matter—just a mustard seed sized portion—of our God-given capacity for faith.

            Albert Einstein, arguably one of the greatest minds ever born, often contemplated the concept of faith, “The problem involved,” he once said, “is too vast for our limited minds.” Born of irreligious Jewish parents Einstein particularly struggled, from an early age, with the idea of having faith in a personal God. “Enough for me,” Einstein said, “is the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of thereason that manifests itself in nature.”

            Maybe that’s the faith Albert Einstein was musing about when he wrote, “That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”      

            Einstein, with his mere mustard seed of faith, yet had a `deep emotional conviction’ about his place and purpose in the universe, along with a tireless work ethic that was world renowned. And that combination was, indeed, enough to begin unpacking the profound mysteries of God’s marvelous universe.

            Jesus’ disciples knew enough about themselves to recognize that what he required of them was going to take divine intervention – and ongoing holy assistance – to accomplish. So they ask – perhaps even demand – “Increase our faith.” And Jesus tell them: Listen, if you had even a modicum of faith, an inkling of faith, a mustard-seed sized amount of faith, you could change the world, defy nature, upend human nature and forgive seven times a day and then some.[i]

            In other words, Jesus was suggesting that faith is not a commodity that needs to increase in size. A mustard seeds worth of faith is more than sufficient, he says.

            “How many times do we plead with God for more: courage, peace, wisdom, discernment, strength, power, love, community unity . . . and faith? And Jesus says, You have more than you need and then some. Like Timothy, we have the gift of God within us. We have the power of God to rely upon. We know the standard of sound teaching passed on to us. We have the spirit of power and love and self-discipline. In other words, everything we need to answer God’s call, do God’s will and follow the commands of Jesus Christ. And when the fire dies down and we stumble and fall, sin and fall short, there is forgiveness.”[ii]

            Even the most humble modicum of faith is enough to do amazing things: move mountains, uproot mulberry trees with bare hands, indeed, perhaps even to unlock the secrets of the universe. The real power comes, not with the size of one’s faith, but with one’s conviction about that faith; and the willingness to act upon that faith.

            As we sit here on Sunday morning in this lovely sanctuary, it’s easy to sometimes forget that we do so only because some people long ago acted boldly in faith.

            In the spring of 1798, a small group of eight church members chartered a new congregation by signing the Covenant and Confession of Faith: they were Jedediah Turner, Jacob Dannals, John Tappan, Samuel Ruggles Coats, Mary Dannals, Eunice Coats, Anne Howd, and Aletha Root.

            That following October, a congregational meeting was called for the purpose of electing the first trustees of First Presbyterian Church of Cazenovia. Samuel Sidney Breese, the first clerk of Chenango County, was in charge of the election.

            The six trustees chosen were Samuel Forman (John Lincklaen’s chief assistant in the affairs of the Holland Land Company and in charge of the general store), Jedediah Turner and Samuel Coats, Asahel Jackson, Jeremiah Clark and Joseph Williams. The first task of these newly elected trustees was to come up with a financial plan for development of the proposed church. including engagement of this budding congregation’s first pastor: the Rev. Joshua Leonard, who was scarcely 30 years old at the time.

            A month later the six trustees reported the results of their first stewardship drive with a sum total of $293.00 (which apparently came mostly out of the trustees own pockets)—and this budding congregation’s first pastor, the Rev. Joshua Leonard (scarcely 30 years old at the time) was called to serve.[iii]

            Now, I think about what that small group of people – those first Cazenovia Presbyterians – with very little resources, and yet with great faith, was able to accomplish 220 years ago. And I have no doubt that those first congregants would be absolutely dumbfounded by the current assets held in trust by this congregation today.

            And I think about those vast resources entrusted to this church today, and what might be accomplished with just a little bit—just a mustard-seed-sized-measure—of faith.

            Why . . . you could change the world. You could move mountains. You could make countless peoples’ lives better. You could reduce so much suffering, lighten so many hearts, raise so many spirits—impart such a huge measure of God’s abundant grace and endless love to the world.

            You coulddo that.

            But, it is only possible if you are willing to believe that you can do it. It is only possible if you are willing to risk fully investing whatever measure of faith – along with the other resources – you happen to have, in the building up of the kingdom of God in this world.

            It is what we are called to do.

            It is the legacy of this faith with which we have been entrusted.

            The Rev. Joshua Leonard would admit those first congregants into the church by saying, “I, then, in Christ’s name, Declare you to be a member, in full communion of his visible church. And in the name of the Church promise that, being helped by the same Divine spirit, We will conduct towards you as a member of the same body with ourselves; watching over you for your good, and that with a spirit of meekness, love and tenderness; earnestly praying that God would delight to dwell amongst us; that his Divine blessing may be upon us, and his glorious Kingdom advanced by us. Amen.”

            It is important, I think, that we remind ourselves from time to time that we are part of a much bigger story than `just us,’ as we sit here today. This is the story of God’s imminent grace, which is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow and forevermore. It is the story of God’s holy communion with people of every time and place.

            And, as we sit here today, we have now been woven into that story through a common Spirit and a common purpose—woven together even with those faithful ancestors of yore.

            And so now, we have been entrusted to ensure that the story of God’s glorious kingdom work through First Presbyterian Church of Cazenovia continues on in this time and place.        

            You know, maybe when we start feeling put upon or overburdened; when we feel as though the struggle is just too much, or that our resources are too meager, or our faith too small; when we start thinking that we’ve come so far from that antiquated day that we can no longer relate to its provincial calling, or start thinking ourselves too sophisticated to buy into the providential reality of those archaic sentiments—we might do well to remember Rev. Joshua Leonard’s words today: to watch over one another’s essential welfare; to care for each other in a spirit of meekness, tenderness, and love; and to advance – with all that we are and all that we have – the glorious Kingdom of God.

            In Jesus Christ. Amen.

[i] Duffield, Jill, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday, 10/3/2019, The Presbyterian Outlook.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Knowlton, Daniel C., The Founding and Evolution of a Nineteenth Century Community Church 1798-1959, First Presbyterian Church, Cazenovia NY Pub.