David A. Davis
June 12, 2022
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The date on the deed is 1798. It is a deed to the pew numbered 16. Pew number 16 was one of the pews in the first sanctuary built on this site in what was legally referred to then, as the Congregation of Princeton in the Counties of Somerset and Middlesex. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1762. Though worship began on this site in 1764, worship in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church most likely began in 1766. Pew number 16 was one of 57. Twenty-three of them were squares that followed the outline of the wall all around. There were three aisles running in one direction, two in another. The pulpit stood on the side of the room and in 1792 John Witherspoon had a canopy built over it and draped it in dark colored festoons.
Pew 16 was purchased by “David Johnson and Peter Updike and their wives and issue forever”. Peter Updike was an ordained elder in the congregation of First Presbyterian Church. The reproduction of the deed hangs on the wall in my office. It was given to me by Bill Harris, then the archivist at Princeton Seminary, when I became pastor of Nassau Church. A note included on the deed states that Peter Updike was the great-great-great-great grandfather of John Updike, the novelist, poet, short story writer, and literary critic. John Updike’s grandfather was the Rev. Hartley T. Updike, Princeton Class of 1883, Princeton Seminary class of 1886. (John Updike went to a college in Cambridge MA) The cost of pew number 16, the Updike/Johnson pew, was seven pounds, ten shillings.
John Updike died in January of 2009. Obituaries, essays, and articles about him were published everywhere. An essay honoring him in The New York Magazine was titled “Remembering the Permanent Present Tense of John Updike”. The author alluded to the many intended meanings of the phrase “permanent present tense”. Updike was known to have the discipline of writing two to three pages every day. His content across multiple genres provided constant observations of the day to day. He was also known for always writing in the present tense. Among literary critics and teachers of creative writing at the highest levels, writing in the present tense can be quite the cause of disagreement and conversation.
I once listened to a repeat broadcast of a Terry Gross interview with John Updike on NPR. He talked about his decision long ago to write in the present. As someone who sort of makes a living with words, I was struck by what he said and have remember it. He described it as a challenge and rather time consuming, but an essential part of the creative process; getting in the right frame of mind to write in the present tense. He said maybe the toughest part of writing is learning to write in and stick to the present tense. Over and over again he had to work himself into the present tense. “There is so much less baggage” Updike said, “when you write in the present tense.” John Updike on the importance of the present tense.
In the fifth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul makes a turn to the present tense; it’s not just a creative turn. It’s a theological turn. The first part of Romans is a rather complex argument and exposition about the work of Christ and justification by faith and the righteousness of God and the example of Abraham in the Old Testament and the relationship of law and faith. Paul’s whole discussion is centered on, focused around, built upon the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Right at the beginning of the fifth chapter that we read last Sunday, with a strategic “therefore” that maybe should be printed in capital letters, Paul turns his attention toward those of us who “believe in the One who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” “Therefore, since we are justified by faith” Paul writes as he steps toward the present tense. God’s love poured in. The Holy Spirit given. Suffering. Endurance. Character. Hope. The peace of God. The grace in which we stand. Our hope of sharing the glory of God. All of it in the present, in the here and now. Here in the text read this morning, Paul continues in the present tense: “God proves God’s love for us…We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God proves. We boast.
Paul and his remarkable turn to the present tense. Yes, it is more than a creative turn. It is a theological one. It is not about parsing verb tense. It is about trying to grasp the saving grace of Christ, the once and for all-ness of his death and resurrection and the ever present-ness of our weakness and sinfulness. While we were still weak. While we were still sinners. While you and I are yet sinners, God proves God’s love for us. God proves; We boast. The Apostle Paul on how God’s plan of salvation putting a pin on the map of the history of God’s people at the hill of Calvary while at the same time hitting the reset button on grace, forgiveness, and new life in Christ every day.
It’s like watching sunrise over the ocean more times than you can count and knowing the one you watch today is the most beautiful you have ever seen. Like looking into the face of your life-long love and seeing that face just as it was the day you first met. Several weeks ago in worship Trevor Thornton played Clair De Lune by Debussy. I used to listen to my father play part of that piece by ear when I was young. When I started taking piano lessons in junior high school, it was one of the first pieces I learned. Of course I learned it in a easy book with really big notes (and not very many of them). It is my favorite piano piece to play and to hear. And that Sunday a few weeks ago, as I told Trevor, it was the most stunning Clair De Lune I had heard. It was a beauty I was beholding as if for the very first time. Life long and yet incredible in the present tense.
A long time ago a pastor friend gave me some advice I still follow. I keep thank you notes and letters and some printed emails of encouragement and affirmation that I receive in a stack on top of the table right behind my desk in my office. Sometimes the collection goes two or three years there in a growing pile before I file them some other way. Letters and notes of criticism or complaint get filed away in a desk drawer whether or not a response is warranted so I don’t have to read them over and over again. I pretty much look at the positive pile every day. One year the pile included this note I received by email:
Hi Pastor Dave
I just wanted to take a quick second to thank you for helping me establish a foundation for my faith all these years.
Though my walk with God has been turbulent at times, God surprises me every day in new and enlightening ways.
I still have the stone the church gave out after a service, probably when I was 8 or 9, and I usually carry it everywhere I go.
I came across it doing laundry today and I thought you might like to know.
God surprises me every day in new and enlightening ways. A journey of faith and the present tense.
God proves. We boast. We boast in God. Early this week, Cathy and I stopped for lunch in the town a few miles from our cabin in PA. The town has the one and only stoplight in all of Sullivan County, PA. As we stepped out of the car, there was a street preacher on the corner at that light shouting into a microphone with a speaker strapped to the top of car that was pretty much covered with bumper stickers of scripture. As he was railing about Jesus and people, the town, and the country going to hell, he called out to people directly. An unfortunate listener on the sidewalk who couldn’t walk fast enough. A guy in a pickup truck just waiting for the light to change. Let’s just say the preacher wasn’t very nice. I don’t think that is what it means to boast in God.
We boast in God. Exult in God. Glory in God. Boasting in God is not about the one who brags the most, talks about Jesus all the time, or quotes scripture the most. Its not about being an evangelist or even telling someone about all that God has done for you. Boasting in God is the experiencing that love God has for you; a love in Jesus Christ that stretches from the cross and the empty tomb and fills your heart afresh each day. Boasting in God is being stopped in your tracks or getting a lump in your throat or having your breath taken away by the grace and forgiveness of God you have known as long as you can remember that touches you again as if for the very first time. Boasting in God is God giving you a strength you didn’t think you had, a peace you never thought you would find, a comfort that once seemed impossible, a purpose that makes a difference. Boasting in God. It comes in those moments when you know yourself to be living faith in the present tense. In the present tense with bold print.
Mark Edwards, our director of Youth Ministry here at Nassau Church just published a book titled Christ is Time: the gospel according to Karl Barth and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Near the end of the book, Mark gives what I think is a powerful description of boasting in God (thought he doesn’t use those words). Mark would want me to quote Barth but I am going to quote Mark. “When Christ is encountered, when one’s life is given over to Him as Lord, when one repents of trying to be the Ubermensch at the center of history, when one sets aside one’s own master plan and simply follows the Rabbi down uncharted roads, then one begins to understand that this life, our lives, her life, and indeed my today is gift of the crucified and resurrected Lord of Time who is Jesus of Nazareth…In face of this wondrous tapestry, metaphysical deliberations fall away and worship, gratitude, and awe can be the only proper response.” That’s Mark Edwards on boasting in God.
The present tense of faith. God proves God’s love for us. You and I, we get to boast in God.