November 5, 2023

November 5, 2023

10th Anniversary Celebration

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time


Rev. Dr. Bruce Taylor

Rev. Dr. Tom Willadsen

Joshua 3: 7-17; Thessalonians 2: 9-13; Matthew 23: 1-12


Salvation, as far as the Bible is concerned, is not an abstraction.  And in the Old Testament, at least, salvation is never purely spiritual.  Salvation, in ancient Jewish understanding, was always salvation from something dangerous, threatening, and specific.  And, conversely, salvation was therefore always salvation to something desirable, good, and precise.  Read the psalms, read the historical books, read the prophetical books, and you come away with the clear appreciation that this business of salvation is a very tangible, even concrete, thing, dependent upon God, but realized within history and within the three dimensions of a particular place and the additional dimension of a definite time.  No blissful sweet bye-and-bye, no amorphous wish, no indistinct feeling, but an identifiable event, salvation could be hoped for because it was God’s promise, it could be detected in headline and statistic. 

The greatest instance of the tangible nature of salvation in the Old Testament was the foundation for all the other hopes of God’s people:  their rescue from slavery in Egypt, worked by God through the words and deeds of Moses and his successor, Joshua.  First through the parted waters of the Red Sea, with Moses leading the people on dry ground from their harsh labor for Pharaoh to freedom sustained by God’s providential hand in the Sinai, then through the halted waters of the River Jordan, with Joshua leading the people on dry ground out from forty years’ sojourn in the desert to a place of their own where they could plant their fields and construct their towns and raise their families and worship their God.  How they must have yearned to see and touch the fulfillment of God’s promise! 

They were no more patient nor impatient than people are today to gain freedom from oppression and injustice, we can imagine.  And they were no more tolerant nor intolerant of vague “somedays”.  Salvation had to do with trustfully putting one foot in front of the other toward a horizon of blessing that we label “the Promised Land”, with emphasis equally on the “Promised” part and on the “Land” part—faith in God’s faithfulness to bring about what God has pledged, and confidence that it involves something that can be touched and inhabited and turned to fruitful purpose.  And all the other hopes for and experiences of salvation in scripture—whether from illness or famine or war, for instance—involve freedom from a tangible condition, to a concrete experience of God’s blessing.  And, I think, that includes even salvation from the condition of sin and estrangement, which always has tangible, physical manifestations in real circumstances of relationships, to an embrace of the person of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ—not an abstraction, not a thought, not an idea, not a lesson, not even a principle, but incarnate flesh and blood, born in a specific place on the map at a specific time in history, put to death at a specific place on the map at a specific time in history, resurrected from the tomb at a specific place on the map at a specific time in history, appearing to his disciples at specific places and at specific times, whose goodness and sufficiency and eternal presence with us we will attest tangibly in our very hands later in this service of worship when we gather for bread and wine at his own table, crafted from real wood by Gary Olson, a dear departed member of this congregation.

Many commentators have noticed that, as the Bible tells the story of Israel’s development as God’s people, it was not until they crossed over the Jordan into the promised land, the land that God had first given to Abraham and his tribe, that the people became and are spoken of as a “nation” in the sense that we speak of nations today—sovereign, so far as earthly affairs are concerned, with a sense of joined identity and joint destiny.  “While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground,” says the book of Joshua, “the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.”  And when, as Joshua says, “the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan”, the Lord gave directions to Joshua about building a memorial that would stand as testimony forever to that event—a very tangible sign of God’s very tangible salvation, at a specific place, at a specific time, with eternal significance in the history of redeeming all of creation to God’s promised purpose.

In the greater scheme of things, the itinerant history of this congregation may seem not so significant as the journey of Israel up from Egypt through threatening waters into the wilderness of Sinai and through threatening waters again into the land of Canaan.  But the story of God’s people long ago does provide an important perspective for what God has been doing here in Spanish Springs these now twenty-five years since a few people, seeking to be faithful to God, first gathered in the multi-purpose room of Bud Beasley Elementary School that final Sunday of November, 1998, the first Sunday of Advent, for the Spanish Springs Presbyterian New Church Development’s inaugural service for the Lord’s Day.  From the very beginning, we made it clear that a church is not a building, not any sort of temple built by hands with floor and walls and roof overhead, not identifiable with any one earthly address, nothing made of bricks and mortar, but a people formed in the image of Jesus Christ.  The church, as scripture insists, is Christ’s body present and functioning in the world, to the degree even that all the world knows of Jesus is what it hears in the words, what it sees in the deeds, what it receives in the generosity, and what it intuits in the obedience, of Christ’s disciples.  As love is not merely a feeling or an assertion, but something made genuine and visible in action, so the salvation to which the church gives witness is manifest in what can be touched and seen. 

The promised land was not to be an end in itself—though, throughout history ever since, some have mistakenly considered it to be so.  The promise to Abraham was that his seed would be a blessing to all nations, not a private enclave or an exclusive possession.  And the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples as they were about to set out to baptize was to make disciples of all nations.  The blessing of a land of their own had come full circle for God’s faithful; the gift of a land of their own was but a pebble in a pond, the starting point from which ripples of blessing were to radiate in every direction until no shore was left uncaressed by the life-giving, life-refreshing, life-cleansing, life-sustaining billows of grace that flow from the font.  Just so, we know that there is nothing about a church building that is especially sacred; all of creation is God’s doing, every bit of real estate is something that can only be held in trust for God who has provided it for the good of all, to be husbanded carefully and conserved wisely and made available equitably to every creature, human and non-human.  Every place where God’s blessing is acknowledged and God’s will is honored is holy, this place no more so than the cafeteria of Bud Beasley Elementary School or a couple of storefronts at Aspen Glen Shopping Center where people gathered on Sundays and some other days through the year to worship God and on those and other days of the week to learn together and feast together and plan together for ministry and mission, or the members’ homes in which we gathered for fellowship or the picnic spots where we shared food and laughter or even the side of the road where we picked up litter in a modest but meaningful token of our commitment to treating God’s good earth with the respect that God’s handiwork deserves.

But the Bible gives clear testimony, too, that God’s people need a place where God’s ubiquitous presence is nevertheless specially acknowledged in faithful worship at appointed times, where memory of God’s grace is strong through occasions of baptism, of confirmation, of ordination, of marriage, of confidently committing our dearly departed to God’s eternal care.  God does not despise nor disparage the creatureliness that experiences God’s salvation in the realms of time and space, and that prompts us to honor God with material gifts and adornments that flow from hearts full to bursting with love for the one who first loved us.  So, as long as we are watchful that they do not themselves become objects of worship or that their construction and maintenance never become a substitute for the ministry of healing and teaching and generosity and forgiveness toward the others Christ has entrusted to our care, or a distraction from them, it is not only appropriate, but is in fact necessary, that we, as God’s people never fully at home until we are at home with God, have a place where that pebble is constantly being dropped that puts into motion never-ceasing ripples of God’s grace.

There are among us some pioneers who began the journey of Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church a generation ago.  The environment was uncongenial to the commission that had been set before us through the voice of the Presbytery of Nevada, but with confidence that it was indeed God who willed it and would provide the means and point the way to a destiny of God’s own choosing, and as others joined the journey through the wilderness, bearing with difficulties and growing through experiences of trial and error but finding blessings even in disappointments, you have through faith come closer and closer to the inheritance God has for Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, the destiny Christ sees for his disciples who comprise this community he loves and trusts.  Shortly after I arrived here, I met with the pastor of another mainline congregation, not very old, who, through its first decade or so of existence, had met in half a dozen different locations before erecting its own building.  Finally finding an earthly home rather on the edge of Reno, it is now a thriving faith community.  Ten years ago, fifteen years after we first met together at Bud Beasley Elementary School (not bad in comparison with that other congregation), you crossed the Jordan, so to speak, into a land whose location and appearance was uncharted by any of us back in the Bud Beasley days, but well known to God, as a place where disciples would meet to drop the pebble in the pond, and from which they would set out to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ, demonstrating a kingdom that has no earthly address but which is glimpsed every time you gather to worship and disperse to perform the tangible ministry of feeding, healing, forgiving; confronting when you must, comforting when you can, confessing always the Lordship of the one crucified and risen and living still.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addressed a congregation that had certainly experienced trials and uncertainties, but which, having been chosen by God, had endured and become an important agent of God’s grace.  “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” he wrote, “for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy and inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia”—places well beyond their own city.  “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead.”  Not an exact parallel to Spanish Springs in every respect, but ancient testimony how the everlasting truth of God in Jesus Christ stubbornly and courageously and confidently surges forth in words and deeds of faithfulness from every place where God is honored and Christ is obeyed and the Holy Spirit is welcomed to transform and redeem, to endow blessing and work salvation.  And so, assured the organizing pastor of the church at Thessalonica to the members of that congregation in words from our epistle passage this morning, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”  The proof was in their love for one another and their love for all their neighbors, near and far.  They were growing into discipleship, humble and servant-minded, practicing what Christ taught and demonstrated and embodied, and discovering what salvation means.

Ten years ago, you were entrusted with this place, this tangible space in which to worship, to learn, to plan for ministry to one another and to the world beyond.  It was an exciting time, one for which many had waited long and labored hard.  For those who have become part of Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church in the years since, it is something of a given—you didn’t know the school cafeteria with the sticky floor, the squeezed storefront between a tanning salon and veterinary clinic, the more commodious and suitable space alongside the video store, nor the considerable difficulties encountered in navigating the turbulent obstacles associated with each of those.  God has enabled Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church to write a number of impressive chapters of congregational life and witness in its short history, and it was God who enabled Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church to cross over into this place you have been able, finally, to call your own, though ever conscious that it is not so much a home as a house, for no Christian is ever fully at home in the world, since we do not own it and we do not covet it.  But having engaged to take possession of and be responsible for this “house of the church”, you have assumed the joyful but solemn obligation to be good stewards of it for the sake of the very tangible instances of salvation that have occurred and will continue to occur here and flow from here.  I encourage you to honor that obligation fully, and enthusiastically, with constant prayers that this place is and will remain a genuine testimony to God’s kingdom and locus of God’s grace, a font whence God’s blessings flow, and freely, and generously, and abundantly, so that one day all creation will know the salvation of our God and of his Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.