A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Union Presbyterian Church's 200th Anniversary

Scripture (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) can be found here

It all began in a log church in the northeast corner of what we now call our Riverside Cemetery. In 1791, the same year the Town of Union was established by an act of the New York State legislature, a small group of Christians out of the Dutch Reformed tradition launched a new religious enterprise, with the Rev. John Manley as their pastor. They purchased the plot of land for their log church from one James Wilson, Esq., a Founding Father of the United States, signatory of the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, and one of the first six original Supreme Court Justices of the United States. Our church was planted on land that had belonged to Wilson and his wife Hannah.

And for that first log church, we give thanks.

Back then Union covered about 700 square miles, and the census of 1800 placed the population at about 135 souls. Eventually that original congregation died out—a victim, in large part, of malaria. Our cemetery tells that story, with tombstone after tombstone; people of every age were struck down.

But in 1819, the population of Union had doubled, with about 275 souls. A new generation of faithful, hopeful people decided to begin again. On March 10, 1819, they set their hands to a new document incorporating the First Presbyterian Society in the Town of Union.

And for this, on our two-hundredth anniversary, we give thanks.

Here are some other things that happened in 1819:

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia.

The S. S. Savannah left port in Savannah, Georgia, on its way to becoming the first steamship to cross the ocean.

The explorer William Parry led two ships through iceberg-filled waters in the first successful expedition to find a Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

Alabama became our 22nd state.

Here are some people who were born in 1819:

John Ruskin, writer and artist; James Russell Lowell, poet and essayist; Victoria, Queen of the British Empire; Julia Ward Howe, American abolitionist and poet, known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic;” Walt Whitman, American poet; Jacques Offenbach, German-born French composer; Elias Howe Jr., inventor of the modern lock-stitch sewing machine; Clara Schumann, German composer; Mary Ann Williams, whose pen name was George Eliot, writer of “Middlemarch,” which some have called the greatest novel in the English language.

Three years later, in 1822, a commission from the Presbytery of Cayuga came to constitute the church, at which time the fourteen Charter Members were named:

Orange J. Stoddard, a Revolutionary War general; Jadish and Abihai Truesdell; James Brewster; Richard Christopher; Ezekiel and Nancy Taylor; Cyrenius McNeil; Phoebe Seymour; Barbara Mercereau (wife to John Mercereau, who, along with his brother Joshua, is also counted among the founders of Central Intelligence Agency); Ann Garrison; Sally Newell; Rebecca Polhemus; and Dolly Seymour LaGrange; Dolly, at the age of 23, was the youngest of the charter members.

And for these eight women and six men, we give thanks.

Names and dates and property and elections. Presbytery functions and ceremonies of dedicating and naming, and, yes, building… a new church was also constructed in 1822 This Colonial church was better equipped to welcome the growing population of Union than the log church with its mud-insulated walls and rough-hewn benches.

And for all of it, we give thanks.

This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy marks a momentous occurrence in the life of another faith community; in this case, it was the imminent entrance of God’s covenant people—who had journeyed for forty years in the wilderness along with Moses—into the land of promise. In fact, the original Israelites who had escaped from Egypt had died out. It was a new generation coming into the land of promise. All of Deuteronomy is a sermon, really—a farewell sermon by Moses, to the people who will, finally, after all those years, enter into that land without him, their founding pastor. They will begin their new life, greet their future, with new leadership.

But before that, they will remember their past. That’s the main purpose, it seems, of the whole book of Deuteronomy, this sermon that goes for thirty-four chapters. The people must not forget their God-drenched history, which included:

Their own founding fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah; their travel as refugees to a new land, driven there by drought and famine; their lives as slaves in Egypt, generation upon generation of slavery; God hearing their cries of misery, and raising up Moses as a prophet and a leader, to confront the brutal Pharaoh and ultimately win their freedom; God’s mighty hand parting the very sea so that they could travel through it with “unmoistened foot.”

They must remember the years in the wilderness; their hunger, which God answered with manna from heaven; their thirst, which God answered with water from a rock; their utter dependence upon the God who led them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; their awe as God provided the law on Mount Sinai; their shame at their wayward actions of creating a golden idol while they waited.

They must remember all of it: their travel, their prayer, their faithfulness, and their unfaithfulness; the people lost and buried in the wilderness, including Moses’ sister, the prophet Miriam; the babies born on the road; their quarrels and infighting. Through it all, the presence of God, faithful fire; looming cloud, holy of holies in the tabernacle they carried.

They are to give thanks. Here is how Moses tells them to do it:

They are to bring the first fruits of the land—crops that will spring up because God grants it—and carry them in a basket to the high priest. When the priest takes the basket from their hands, they will recite a creed. Listen, again, to the creed they recite, a different translation now:

“My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the LORD, our ancestors’ God. The LORD heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. [The LORD] brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, LORD, have given me.” ~ Deuteronomy 26:5b-11a

This creed begins with a starving ancestor and travels toward a land flowing with milk and honey. It is hard to think of a more compelling image of bounty and beauty. At its simplest, it tells us the land filled with all good things: God’s blessing in a place teeming with life, extraordinarily rich and fertile. But taken together, “milk” and “honey” suggest the full range of provision for humans. Milk is the first food every one of us is fed, whether from a bottle or from our mother’s breast. It is the basic necessity without which none of us could survive our birth for more than a few days. Honey, on the other hand, seems to ancient people to arise naturally from the land, thought it is transported by bees. You can literally see the honey flowing. And, of course, any land such as this has all the water you need, all the fertile soil that could be desired.

In other words, everything. Everything. God has blessed God’s people with everything, from the most basic food for babies to the most delicious nectar, a delicacy. A delight.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything that is in it. That is the deep truth Moses wants to impart to his congregation. That is the key to what will keep them in relationship with God, to whom we owe all glory, laud, and honor. So that they will not get off on the wrong foot, so that they will not labor under the illusion that they are self-made people with accomplishments achieved entirely on their own steam, Moses reminds them, powerfully, that they are God’s, and the earth is God’s, and the fruits of the earth are God’s, and all we give is actually returning to God what was God’s all along.

Beginning today Union Presbyterian Church enters a kind of new land: our third century of ministry here in the Union district of Endicott. And as we enter this new time, this passage suggests that we should celebrate by both recalling our history, and by offering back to God some portion of the gifts we have been given. That first part is something UPC is particularly skilled at: after all, we have this museum…! But we are not just a church that has managed to hang onto interesting artifacts. The lives, hearts, intentions, and determination of those founders is a part of our DNA as a congregation. We are a church of people with a pioneer spirit. We are a church that meets people where they are: when the intersection of what’s now Nanticoke and East Main became the hub of town life, this church decided to move to the center of town, and in 1872, built our third building, the Victorian church. We are a church with an unwillingness to be stopped in our tracks by one of the worst things that can happen to a congregation, the loss of our home when lightning struck and the Victorian sanctuary burned to the ground. (Side note: Jeff Kellam tells me that, back in the day, the word was that our Baptist neighbors surmised the church had been struck by lightning because we had a pool table in the basement. I guess no one told the Baptists that John Calvin liked to bowl on the Sabbath.)

In a feat organized and pushed forward by the session together with Pastor Charles L. Luther, the church in which you are now sitting was built with astonishing speed, and this sanctuary was dedicated just ten months after that horrible fire.

And for amazing act of faith and determination we do indeed give thanks!

While a church history can seem like a record of names and dates and property and elections, and formal ceremonies of dedications and, yes, building… let it be known that the real history of this congregation is in the lives, hearts, and intentions of its people, responding to God’s call and abundant, overwhelming generosity.

A pioneering people.

A worshiping people.

A determined people.

A celebrating people.

And a giving people. Moses reminds his congregation and ours that all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. He also reminds us all that a grateful heart is a giving heart. And the grateful heart looks to the future in anticipation and wonder: What will God do here next? How can I help to bring God’s vision to life?

Over the years, the Town was segmented off into places like Owego and Lisle and Endwell, so now Union stands at about 36 square miles. It was this continuing re-drawing of boundaries that precipitated our name change. When, in 1821, there were suddenly two First Presbyterian Churches in what was now known as Endicott, our congregation chose to maintain its identity in connection to the town in which our forbears first gathered in that log church, and became Union Presbyterian Church.

Union is just 36 square miles, but it is now home to some 50,000 souls. Some of them are finding their way here to worship, to praise God and to give thanks. Some of them are finding their way to our new Food Pantry, both to supplement incomes that aren’t quite enough to feed their families, and to volunteer to help us in our new ministry. Throughout Lent we hope to welcome more of them to our Wednesday dinners. Throughout this year, we hope to welcome still more to celebrate with us.

And through it all, we remember, with hearts so very full, the God whose bounty is so great, whose heart is so steadfast, and whose love is without end.

Thanks be to God. Amen.