Through the Red Sea for 150 Years
The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
All Saints’ Church
September 17, 2017
150th Anniversary of the Founding of All Saints’ Church
All Saints’ Church, our beloved parish home, is 150 years old. Thanks be to God!
On September 16, 1867, a group of men gathered to sign a document called the article of incorporation for this church. The first services were held at Park Slope Military Hall and were attended by twenty or so families. Okay, so when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so dramatic. But every story needs a beginning, and the story of our parish officially starts there.
What has happened since then could never be told in one sermon, one presentation, or even one book. What has happened since the day of our founding is a century and a half of people encountering God. It’s fair to say that tens of thousands of lives have been touched, molded, and transformed by this place. And we’re just getting started.
This church was founded to the glory of God with faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The people of All Saints’ are God’s people. We have been God’s people for 150 years. We are united to one another in bonds of love that transcend time and space, that unite us to our spiritual forebears in this place and to those who will come after us. The story of this parish is a blessed one—but not because it’s always been easy. This parish has found itself in bondage to strife or difficulty many times over the years. But at each turn, God has seen fit to deliver us out of the Egypt of our suffering and into a new land.
How fitting that this morning we hear the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt through the Red Sea. Friends, there have been many times when the people of All Saints’ have walked on the sea bed with Egypt behind them. One of the things about being as old as we are is that you can see clearly that God doesn’t deliver us into freedom just once—those sea waters are parted over and over again. There was the time in the first years of this church’s life when its rectors kept leaving because, among other things, they weren’t being paid (ahem.) There were lean years when it seemed this parish would never get out from under the debt it took on to build this building. There are been conflicts for no good reason, and even some stories of tragedy for staff and lay leaders. But every time this place has been in bondage to crisis, the sea has opened up and God has delivered this people to dry land on the other side. And if there’s a pattern one can pick up from all this, it’s that each time that happens, we get just a little bit closer to the New Jerusalem.
I’ve been reading and reflecting on the history of All Saints’ in preparation for our anniversary celebrations. And one thing I’ve learned is this: being God’s people is a messy business. In our time, it’s easy to think that there was some golden age when church was always wonderful, and maybe somehow better. This beautiful building that our ancestors gifted us reminds us of a time when churches like ours needed to be big enough to hold the crowds of people who would stream through these doors. Our traditions and the way we function point back to body that had more people and made more sense to the community around us.
But let me tell you—that doesn’t mean it was better back then. This place has had its fair share of ups and downs. The action of the Holy Spirit within these walls has often been met with unchristian acts by the people within them. But you see, that’s what happens over the course of 150 years. God called All Saints’ into being and formed us into a people. We have done much good, and some ill. Yet even the setbacks of our own making have created opportunities for us to remember, generation after generation, that our being and our salvation depend on the Almighty alone. And as we stand here with a century and a half of history behind us, we can know for certain that God is working in our time just as much as in previous ones. We may not have reached the Promised Land just yet, and it may take us another 150 years to get there. But that’s not the mission of this place. Our mission is to be God’s people, the Body of Christ, following where God leads us.
I believe there are parts of our original mission that are only now being fulfilled--that we have needed these 150 years to get to the place where God was calling us at our founding. When this church was founded in 1867, the great moral issue of the day was the role that people of African descent would have in American society during Reconstruction. Just two years after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, the country was deeply scarred, exhausted, and lacking vision for the future. On the one hand, that seems like a crazy time to start a church. But seen from a Gospel perspective, it’s the perfect time to start a church. What better time to boldly proclaim our faith in the Creator of all humankind and to found a Christian body where all would be welcome?
Of course, it was complicated back then. To be certain, all of the founders of this church were white. And as Episcopalians, they were part of a spiritual tradition in this country that had remained silent on the most important issue in American history. The Episcopal Church as a whole never took an official stand on slavery, and while there were many active black congregations and devoted white abolitionists among us, the official silence appeased slaveholders and embedded racism as a defiling stain that remained with us through Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement.
All Saints’ Church has existed just about as long as it could in an America free of slaves. I think that’s profound. And even though the first families to worship here were exclusively white, God called them to found a church that would eventually prove that in Christ there truly is no east or west, no rich or poor, no black or white. God’s time is not our time. It may have taken 150 years for this place to grow into the full stature of the mission it was founded to fulfill. Perhaps our Lord knew in 1867 that we and the rest of the country would need the witness of people from every race kneeling together in worship in a time of strife 150 years later. And in the meantime, these doors remain open, welcoming the stranger, shielding the joyous, binding up the broken-hearted, and witnessing to the power of the Gospel through its very existence.
This story that began 150 years and one day ago is far from over. We are being called to work on missions that will speak the challenges of God’s people generations from now. If God is willing and we respond to God’s call, there will be a celebration here on Founders Day in the year 2167. Our prayers, our actions, our presence will still be felt within these walls on that day, and the work that we do now will assist the people in that far-off time in ways we have no way of predicting. We know this is true because we ourselves are beneficiaries of the work done for us on the day of our founding.
What an awesome privilege. What a high calling. What a great God we have who has given us this place--and gives us the Spirit to keep moving us forward toward that Promised Land.
Thanks be to God for All Saints’ Church. Let God’s will be ours. Let our efforts in this place be pure and right and in the service of God alone. Let us follow Jesus’ example and be his body in the world. And let our mission be God’s mission—for the benefit of ourselves, our community, and future generations.
And my God bless All Saints’ Church—now and for the next 150 years. Amen.