Pastor Heidi Neumark
Trinity Lutheran Church, W. 100th St. Manhattan
I had the honor, along with about 2 million others, to be in Washington for President Obama’s inauguration…on Tuesday morning, walking through the streets of Washington toward the mall with so many others, under the light of the moon…people of every shade, from every part of the nation, under the light of the stars, stepping with a steady beat towards a new day. it was a we day. Not a me day or an us-and-them day, but a we day. And the moment our new president spoke, he echoed that truth: My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us… It was a we speech from that start until this ending:
Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Christianity is a we religion. It’s not about me and my God. It’s not about us and them. Its about WE. Who we are. What we are called to do.
Our first reading this morning is from the book of Jonah. When God told Jonah to go to the great sinful city of Nineveh with God’s message, Jonah said: “I can’t do that, I can’t face those nasty Ninnies. I can’t and I won’t!”
Then Jonah, you may remember, ended up in the belly of a whale. “Jonah” said God, “maybe you can’t do it and you won’t do it, but Jonah WE can and we will” and when the whale vomited Jonah out on dry land, Jonah went straight to the great city of Nineva. “Turn to God” he said. And the whole city, great and small, responded: “Yes we can! Yes we will!” And they did.
The first disciples Jesus called might have responded just like Jonah when Jesus called them to leave their fishing nets and follow him to become fishers of people. “We can’t do that Jesus. In this economy? Leave our jobs. Are you crazy?” But the amazing thing is that those first disciples didn’t say “No we can’t. No we won’t!” Instead, when Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow, they looked up from their nets and said, “Yes we can! Yes we will!” and they did.
Now I’d like us to consider some other disciples, the founders of this congregation. It was 120 years ago actually, in 1889, when a local landlord asked an out of work pastor to start a new church in this neighborhood. This out of work pastor was in a bar at the time and perhaps had too much to drink to make a careful decision, but when the landlord asked him, he raised his glass of German beer and said, “Let’s do it! Yes we can!”
It didn’t last long since as the history says, the pastor was “filled with the wrong spirits.” Trinity’s first members went to the synod and asked for a new pastor, Pastor Carl Tappert, who wrote: My first impressions of my new charge were discouraging, to say the least. For my installation and first church service were conducted in a store. Of a congregation there was little to be seen. The first congregational meeting was a rather stormy affair; it lasted until midnight. We could forgive Pastor Tappert if he had hightailed it out of there, but he and the congregation decided to stick it out. “Yes we can!” they decided. And they did.
Unfortunately, they soon lost the little storefront where they were meeting at 106th and Manhattan Ave. but found a new one on Amsterdam between 100 and 101st. It was across the street from a firehouse which in those days meant horses to pull the fire trucks. The storefront was undesirable for local merchants because of all the flies attracted by the horses across the street. But the flies didn’t stop the members of Trinity. Flies or no flies, they moved in to their new space., saying-- YES WE CAN!
After a few years, Pastor Tappert left and Pastor Brenneke was called from a church in Brooklyn. Only 5 adults and 7 children attended his first service.
He might have said, “you know, this doesn’t look very promising.” But
Instead, he looked at the little group of Trinity folk and said--YES WE CAN! When Pr. Brenneke was installed, the service was in German, but a second service was held later that week in English with a guest preacher who said: “A large field to do good work is before this new congregation and we feel confident that they will make rapid process and become a mighty power for good in this city.” And the people said-- YES WE CAN!
Before long, the congregation wanted to move into a better space, perhaps with less flies. They decided to raise money to buy a plot of land and build a church. Others made fun of them. The historical record states that, members (and pastors) of old and rich congregations down-town spoke quite indignantly about our foolhardiness. But the members and Trinity ignored them and went ahead anyway saying.. “you say we can’t, but we say--YES WE CAN!”
They began a building fund only 3 months after Pr Brenneke’s installation and the first building was built on this spot and dedicated in 1890. Trinity continued to grow until it outgrew that first building and so they decided to
buy a second plot and build a new church with a parsonage next door.
They weren’t rich. They couldn’t afford pricy Tiffany windows but they would work and sacrifice build a beautiful space anyway, this very space dedicated on Jan 24, 1909 because the people believed it possible: YES WE CAN!
Pastor Brenneke served Trinity for 60 years and then Pastor Saunders was called in 1944. Five years later, Robert Moses, “the Power Broker,” told Trinity that the church would have be to torn down to make way for his plans for the area. Moses was considered by many to have been the most powerful person in New York state government from the 1930s to the 1950s. He changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and transformed neighborhoods forever, including this one. No one said “no” to Robert Moses. But wait, there was this church that stood up to Robert Moses and when Moses said …”Don’t you know who I am? You can’t stop me!” The people of Trinity stood up and said, YES WE CAN! And we did! 32 acres came tumbling down, everything on this side of Amsterdam, but not this church.
In the late 60’s, the neighborhood was beset with growing problems-- an increase in poverty, drugs, gangs and before long AIDS. Pastor John Backe was sent to close the church. But Trinity didn’t see the struggles of this community as a reason to close its doors, on the contrary Trinity’s doors opened to welcome other people and groups in the city who wanted to make a positive difference, to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Together Trinity members and friends and neighbors stood up to injustice and said YES WE CAN!
After Pastor Backe came Pastor Foster, whose ministry brought new life and energy and attracted new people. But over time, Trinity became burdened by divisions and pain. It would have been easy to say, “we’ve had enough. We hurt. We can’t go on.” But we are here today because a strong faithful group of people said: “We can recover. We can heal. We can go on. YES WE CAN!”
And while addressing internal pain, Trinity remained a WE church, beginning a pattern of special offerings for others in need and ESL classes to serve the families of children come to CLC. When it was time to call a new pastor, it became clear that the parsonage was falling apart and not fit for anyone to live there. How could a small group raise the money and muster the energy to fix it? But that small group stood together and said one more time, YES WE CAN! And Trinity raised money to fix the parsonage. And every Sunday after church, people stayed to strip wood and polish and paint to get the parsonage ready saying YES WE CAN! And because they did, we are here together this morning.
A few years ago, we became aware of the growing needs of homeless GLBT youth in our city. But what could we do? We didn’t have enough money or time or it seemed enough anything. But it turned out we did have enough spirit. A YES WE CAN spirit. A We spirit that has drawn many others to join in and make the groundbreaking ministry of Trinity Place possible.
Like our founders 120 years ago and all the disciples at Trinity over the past 100 years, we face challenges. At times we may wonder how we are going to keep on keeping on. Well, you won’t and I won’t but WE is another story. We is the story of God’s word across all history, the story of Jonah and the first disciples, the story of Trinity’s founders and members throughout the years. We is what the gospel is all about…. God with us in good times and bad times, in sweet times and bitter times, God with us in every time. God whispering in our ears and shouting across the ages--
YES WE CAN.
President Obama’s closing inaugural words could not be more apt for us this morning as well: Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Can we do it? YES WE CAN!!!!!
Sermon on the 100th Anniversary of Trinity’s Building