Today marks 15 years since our church moved into its present facility.
Last year, when we celebrated the retirement of the debt on our facility, we showed video clips of the congregation entering the building and celebrating the first worship service. Some of you remember that day very well, and watching those video clips no doubt brought back many memories; memories of the work, excitement, and anxiety involved in the relocation of a church. It was most likely a reminder as well of the changing nature of a congregation, as some of the people in those clips are no longer with us. Those of us who are newer to the congregation watched with an entirely different perspective. We are the inheritors of the work and sacrifice of the many people who made this building a reality, but we were not here at the time and we are unfamiliar with what it took to get the church to this point.
As I have been talking about connecting points in recent weeks, today I want to take the opportunity to speak about connecting the past, present, and future of our church.
I am grateful to be part of this congregation. As the most recent in a long line of ministers I often think about our present point in history and of our future. What lies ahead for us? What challenges must we overcome in order to move into a future of health, growth, and ministry opportunities? What will our congregation and its ministry look like in another ten, twenty, thirty, and more years?
I think it is safe to say that when twenty people came together as the charter members of our church, back in 1830, they could scarcely imagine what that church would be like 186 years later. At that time, Shelbyville was on the edge of the American frontier, a small town carved out of a countryside that required its residents to be tough and resourceful. I wonder what they would think about the present incarnation of our community, and our church. Certainly, to walk into such a modern, spacious building would be overwhelming to them. The technology now used in our worship would, no doubt, be astounding to them. What would they say? What would they think about our worship? What would they think about the sermon and the music? It would, undoubtedly, be a far cry from their first gathering all those years ago.
But not all would be different. While the world has undergone staggering changes in the past 186 years, much of church life remains the same. While buildings and musical styles change over time, the church continues with the same charge given by Jesus that we now refer to as the Great Commission – go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). We continue to minister to our community, and, through our connection with other Disciples churches, are able to minister to people all over the world. And, even with all of our modern modes of communication, provide much-needed fellowship and connectivity with other people.
This is, undoubtedly, a very interesting point in history, full of both opportunity and challenge for churches.
Our Scripture text comes from the book of Joshua, the first nine verses, which is part of a larger event that brought together the past, present, and future of the people of God as they prepared to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.
Joshua 1:1-9 –
1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide:
2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.
3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.
4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.
8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
When speaking about the past, present, and future, it makes for a nice, three-point outline, and here is the first point –
1. Visit the past, but don’t live there.
It is easy to either diminish the importance of the past or to be bound by the past. Some people wipe the past away as being irrelevant to the present, while others are so bound to the past that they can neither appreciate the present nor think about the future with any meaning. We must understand, however, that we are products of the past, and what happens in the past shapes who we are as individuals, and certainly as a people. To write off the past as meaningless, therefore, is both unwise and impossible (try changing a family tradition at a holiday and you’ll see just how much we are tied to the past).
Personally, I like nostalgia. A lot of the music I listen to reminds me of events in the past and of particular stages of life, so that music continues to hold great meaning for me. Anyone of a certain age will have a longing for the past, as we often see it as a simpler, more carefree time, even if it wasn’t.
Scripture often hearkens back to the past to bring lessons to the present, and that was certainly true of this point in the history of God’s people. The past was a reminder of what brought them to this very significant moment, standing on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land. At that moment they could reflect upon the past, upon their captivity in Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, the spiritual commitments they made as a people, of the hard work it took to pull together as a people and of how God took all those things and brought them together in a special and powerful way to fashion them into a people.
Similarly, we cannot forget the work, the faith, the vision, and the commitment of those who have brought us through 186 years as a congregation.
We can, and should, visit the past. We should recall the work and the faith of our predecessors. We should remember the spiritual commitments and lessons of the past. We can, and should, remember these things, but we cannot remain in the past to the point that we do not move fully into the present or future.
2. This was our future; now it is our present.
I imagine there was a tremendous sense of excitement that first day of worship in this building. I wasn’t here, but I did follow the progress of the building. I drove by very often and enjoyed watching the progress. I was excited about it, and I had no idea I would one day be standing in this spot. I was so interested in what was happening here that I stopped by one day with a few friends and walked through the building, several years after the church moved in.
Would you be interested in hearing an interesting story? I often say that I’m not a Calvinist, but perhaps I should reconsider, after considering this story. One day, as I was driving into Shelbyville to visit at the hospital, I was passing by the driveway of this church when my phone rang. It was Eddie Kingsolver, calling as a representative of the search committee, asking if I would be interested in speaking to them about the possibility of becoming the minister at this church. After our meetings with the Search Committee and our discussions, one day I was leaving Shelbyville after visiting at the hospital. I was in the same spot, driving right past the driveway of the church, going in the opposite direction. It was Mike Coleman, chair of the search committee, telling me the committee wanted to recommend me to the church as their next minister. The manner in which I received those two phone calls has always fascinated me, and certainly helped to focus my sense of call to this congregation.
New brings a lot of excitement. A new car. A new home. A new job. But newness wears off, and the excitement wanes. When Moses led the people out of captivity in Egypt there was tremendous excitement. And then came the wilderness. Forty years of wilderness wandering. Not much excitement there. In fact, I doubt there was any excitement at all; mostly grumbling and complaining. At least we had food to eat in Egypt, they said. They looked back with a sense of fondness to Egypt – where they were slaves!
The trick with the present is this – the past can be over romanticized and the future can be unrealistic. We filter out all of the difficulties of the past, remembering only the good. And we can make the future, in our minds, into anything we want. But the present, it is not as good as the “good old day” and it’s not yet the glory days of the future we invent in our minds.
The present is always a time of decision, and there are many decisions, and chief among them is to make a decision to remain committed to the values that brought a people to a point in the present and will carry them into a blessed future. The warning God gave to the people is that no amount of past success provides a promise of future success. That only comes with commitment and hard work. Three times God says in this passage to be strong and courageous. Do you know how often I feel like giving up and quitting ministry? Probably more times than would make you feel comfortable. A few times I even went on job interviews and thought about changing vocations, and had opportunities to do so. And I know that many of you think of giving up and quitting as well. No good thing is easy, but we continue on, because it is the right thing to do.
3. We can’t see the future, but we must have a vision of it.
I know that sounds contradictory, but it is our challenge. This congregation exists because someone saw it as a possibility. 186 years ago twenty people gathered together to begin this congregation because someone had a vision for it. This building is here because of a vision that moved the church forward to this place and to this present. We cannot peer into the future and know what is going to happen, but we must look into the future with a sense of vision and what can be.
Last week I spoke about Through A Glass, Darkly. We are not called to be able to visualize all the details, certainly, but to be able to formulate a vision for the future. This building plays an important part in that vision, but it is not the entire vision. This is our launching pad, not our finishing station. Let me repeat that. This is our launching pad, not our finishing station. Our future is tied to this building, but it is far greater than a building, and I say that with great respect and affection for all the things that church buildings mean.
Our future is tied to young families, middle age families, and senior families; our future is tied to kids going to camp and experiencing the power of the Spirit in that setting; our future is the kids and volunteers who come to be a part of VBS; our future is in the work we participate with in the Serenity Center, God’s Kitchen, the Open Door of Hope, Operation Care; our future is in the work we do with the women at the Diersen Center and the New Life in Christ Christian Church; our hope is in the work and ministry of the Week of Compassion; and I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
You know what is really jarring in this passage? In verse two God simply says Moses my servant is dead. That’s kind of a harsh reality isn’t it? That is the shortest eulogy in all of Scripture. But one day I will be gone. Every minister is eventually gone. Every Sunday School teacher, every elder, every deacon, is eventually gone. I don’t mean to be discouraging; what I mean is to offer a clarion call to the future of this congregation that what we do in the present and the decisions we make now will reverberate for years to come.
In a small community where my mother-in-law used to live, I would often ride a bike around the neighborhoods when we visited. There was one particular spot that had a thicket of trees, and I often rode past that location. One day, I stopped for a few minutes to rest there in the shade of the trees, and when I did I spotted something I had never noticed before. There, buried in that thicket of trees, was an old, abandoned church building. I was very curious about that old church and of its history. At some point in time, a person or persons had a vision to start that church. A vision was presented for the building, and I imagine that when the congregation moved into that building there was a great sense of excitement. I’ve often wondered what happened to that congregation, what led to its decline and eventual closing. A vision for a congregation, years later, was now an abandoned building buried in a thicket of trees, almost unnoticeable from the streets surrounding it.
It is a blessing that our church has not only lasted, but continues to thrive after 186 years. There are many ministries in which we are involved, and tomorrow we begin Vacation Bible School, one of our most important outreach events. We are blessed by a beautiful, modern facility, we have volunteers who offer so much to enhance all that we do, and so much more. But let us recommit this day to our mission and ministry, because as successful as was our past, it is not a guarantee of the future.
May God lead us faithfully into that future!