Saturday, June 9, 2018

“FBC History: Faith” - June 10, 2018

Text: Psalm 85:8-13, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

It has been an interesting week. Last Sunday, for those of you who were not with us, we were out at the Hoggatt School, with 25 mph winds. A tent flew away, with one small injury. I discovered mid-sermon that half of it had apparently blown away in the frenzy. And a good portion of the communion bread went blowing in the wind. You should always be in church because you never know what might happen. 

And then a lot has happened since Sunday. On Tuesday we welcomed the newest member of our First Baptist family, Fern Maureen Grauman. Now, let me tell you something about Fern. She may be less than a week old, but she already holds an all-time First Baptist Church record. We have been here 150 years, and Fern hold the all-time record attendance record. She is 1 for 1. Perfect attendance. Every Sunday of her entire life, she has been in worship at this church. Nobody even comes close to her record – it will never be surpassed. 

OK, so Fern arrived on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Manatts poured the asphalt for our renewed parking lot. Did you notice the lot this morning? It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. OK, that’s a bit much, but it really does look great. 

Late Wednesday afternoon, they had almost finished pouring asphalt when the rain came. And then the hail. A bolt of lightning struck a tree in our yard, literally blowing roots out of the ground, with an open trench left behind. Numerous electronic devices were fried, including, interestingly, the garage door opener. The internet was knocked out. Maybe worst of all, our tree won’t make it. And our pets were terrified. 

The point is: you just never know what is going to happen. Life is full of changes, not all of them good, and it takes a certain amount of faith to face the future, even on a good day. 

This month we are thinking about our history as a church as we look ahead to our 150th anniversary celebration at the end of the month. We have seen more than a few changes over these 150 years – some planned, some welcomed, some wonderful, and some thrust upon us whether we like it or not. 

Last week we considered the theme of “Roots” as we remembered and celebrated that frontier congregation, the Squaw Creek Church, that persevered amid the hardships of the Civil War and eventually became the First Baptist Church of Ames. This morning we will be thinking together on the theme of “Faith,” remembering those who built this congregation and eventually made the move to Lynn Avenue. 

Last week we mentioned Captain Kendrick Brown. He was the key layperson and driving force behind the beginning of our church. The son of a Baptist minister and who fought in the Civil War, he was the grandfather of Farwell Brown. 

Immediately after the war, Capt. Brown and his new bride, Lydia, moved to the frontier of Ames. Not exactly Abraham and Sarah setting out to a land that God would show them, but not that far from it, either. When they arrived Ames Station had a population of around 40. “The town had not a tree or a foot of sidewalk, and in rainy times the Main Street was nearly impassable.” The Browns ran the first grocery store in town. Capt. Brown was the first person in Ames to have a telephone and he twice ran for governor as candidate of the Prohibition Party. 

Brown helped gather folks to begin the church. For its first two years, the new church had no settled pastor. The half-time pastor in Boone would occasionally preach here, and Henry Barden was an interim for several months. If there were no preacher available they would hold a service and Capt. Brown, the church clerk, would read one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. But in 1870, Rev. Samuel Mitchell accepted the call as the first pastor of the church. 

Like Ira Rees of the Squaw Creek Church, Mitchell had come to Iowa from Indiana. When he came to Ames, he turned down an appointment with the Northern Baptist Home Mission Society to serve as a Railroad Missionary.

(Some of you have been to Green Lake and seen the chapel car on the grounds there. The Northern Baptists had a number of “chapel cars,” railroad cars that served as mission churches in frontier areas and moved from city to city.) 

When Rev. Mitchell told J.F. Childs, president of the convention that instead of becoming a railroad missionary, he was going to serve as pastor of the church at Ames, Rev. Childs replied, “Well enough, an important field - but how are you going to live?” 

The people who started this church were not sure what they were getting themselves into. But with things that prove to be really worthwhile, that is often the way it works. When you have a child, you don’t have any idea of what it is going to involve, no idea what the future will hold. It takes faith. 

The writer of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Which sounds a little bit odd – how can you be sure about things you have not seen? How is faith different from just wishful thinking? Well, faith is not the same thing as optimism. Faith is a deep belief that God’s power and presence and love will be with us, whatever comes to pass. And that belief, that hope, is so strong that it is more like an assurance. 

How can we have such a belief, such a conviction, such an assurance? We can have faith in God because God is faithful toward us. This conviction is stated over and over again in scripture, especially in the Hebrew scriptures. Our reading from Psalm 85 says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and the Lord will give what is good.” 

Faith involves a certain amount of unsettledness, a certain amount of “to be continued” and “to be determined.” If we already knew everything, had everything figured out, had no questions and no uncertainty whatsoever, then we wouldn’t need faith. But because we live in an uncertain world, because we do not know everything, because life can take wild turns at a moment’s notice, faith is required. It is essential. 

And there is a difference between faith and mere belief. Faith is not a neutral matter – it demands something of us. Believing that LeBron is a great player, for example, doesn’t really change my life. But true faith involves commitment and leads to action – it changes the way we live. 

I look at some of the folks who built this church over the years, and their faith led them to take action. It made a huge difference in their lives. 

Lydia Brown died in 1885. In 1886, Kendrick Brown married Margaret Mitchell, daughter of Rev. Samuel and Mary Mitchell, so Rev. Mitchell became Capt. Brown’s father-in-law. These families in a sense became one big connected family and their faith was passed on to succeeding generations. 

After he had served as pastor here, Rev. Mitchell went to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, and worked with Chief Charles Journeycake, chief of the Delaware Indians and a Baptist preacher and missionary. Minnie Mitchell Lucas, the granddaughter of Rev. Mitchell and the niece of Kendrick and Margaret Mitchell Brown, went to teach at what was then called Bacone Indian College, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the same place where we sent a mission team to work this year, 129 years later. 

Capt. Brown’s children included Daisy Brown, who went as a missionary to China in 1912, to the Women’s Bible Training School in Fouchow. She was the first person from our church to go as a missionary overseas, the first of a great number who went from the teens into the 1930’s and 40’s. 

After graduating from Oberlin College in 1917, Lydia Brown went as a missionary to Nanking, China to organize and lead the music department at Ginling College. She was the daughter of Kendrick Brown and his second wife, Margaret Mitchell Brown. In China, Lydia she met another missionary named J.B. Hipps. They were married at our church when home on furlough and returned to China, where Lydia died three years later in 1924, with a 2 year old son. She was buried in China, and there is a memorial stone in the Ames cemetery. When her son Robert grew up, he inherited the desk that had belonged to Rev. Mitchell, and Robert’s wife Donna Westlic Hipps donated that desk to our church last year. 

Students from First Baptist went as missionaries to India, to Burma, to Assam, to Albania, to South Africa, to numerous places in the United States. Many others became pastors. Out of a desire to use their gifts in serving God, others became doctors and nurses and teachers and social workers and more. Their faith led them to action. 

I think especially of the faith of the church in making ministry to students a priority. Starting in 1920 with Rev. Davidson, the pastor had a dual calling as pastor and minister to students. The church chose to invest its energy and resources in work with college students – a group that as it turns out, doesn’t have a lot of money to contribute, and doesn’t stay in the community very long. But the church ministered to students anyway, out of faith that investment in the lives of young people is valuable and important and makes a great difference – even if the difference is often ultimately seen in other places. 

By the late 30’s and into the 40’s, student made up a big percentage of the church, with a bus running every Sunday morning from the Roger Williams House to the church downtown. When it came time to build a new church building, the church moved to Campustown. And it was not easy. Pastor Ron Wells and others, in fact some of you here, went around the state raising money from churches and alumni. The church wandered in the wilderness for awhile, worshiping at the Memorial Union while the building was being built. There was enough money to build the church but not enough for all of the furnishings, or for the parsonage so Dr. Wells and his family lived on the second floor of the church. David Wells said that it was kind of an adventure, but the bad part was that he had to clean up his bedroom so they could use it for a Sunday School class on Sunday morning. 

There are those times we are called to set out in new directions, knowing it won’t necessarily be easy, knowing there will be obstacles, unsure of what is exactly will happen – but we move forward out of a conviction, out of faith, that God is leading us and that God has a future awaiting ahead. And I’m not talking about history now; I am talking about us. 

I have been discovering all kinds of historical materials and artifacts. A while back, I saw a shallow box that said Groundbreaking Service Records. What kind of records could there have been related to a groundbreaking service? I looked in the box, and I found records, as in actual records, 78 rpm vinyl records recorded by WOI Recording Service. 

Larry Schrag kindly transferred the records to CDs. I doubt they have been listened to in nearly 70 years, and don’t know when they might be listened to again, so I want to share a brief portion of the Groundbreaking Service for this church building held in 1949. It speaks to the faith of those who moved out here to Campustown, and perhaps as inspiration to us as we seek to move forward in faith today. 

The recording is a little scratchy, as you might expect. Dr. Wells introduces Dr. Walter Halbert, secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention who offers the prayer.


Now, as then, we are building in faith, unsure of what tomorrow brings but sure that God is with us each step of the way. Amen.

Friday, June 1, 2018

“Frontier Faith” - June 3, 2018

Worship at the Hoggatt School 
Text: Hebrews 12:1-2

In the year 1860, railroads barely made it into Iowa.  You could get as far as Iowa City, or a little past Dubuque fuarther north, but that was it.  The Transcontinental Railroad would not be completed for another 9 years.  In 1860, it took 6 months to travel from New York to California.  It was a different world.

That year, the Secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention stated that you could go north from the capitol in Des Moines to the Minnesota border and west from the capitol to the Missouri River, and there were only two Baptist ministers in that quarter of the state.  And one of them was infirm and couldn’t get out very much.
This was the edge of the frontier.  Settlers were coming, driven by land, freedom, and hope of a new start.  In 1860, a small group of folks living in this area joined together to form the Squaw Creek Church.  This was an open country church with a Nevada address – there was no town here.  That first year, the church reported eight members and no minister.

What we know about the church is found in reports from the Upper Des Moines Baptist Association and from a history of Iowa Baptists written in 1886, amazingly enough, by Rev. Samuel Mitchell, who was the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ames, serving from 1870-75.

This association was formed in 1860 with 6 churches.  North Union was the oldest, founded in 1851.  It was a few miles south of Moingona, which is about 5 miles SW of Boone.  When the North Union church was started, it was said to be the farthest northwest Baptist church on the continent.  The other churches were: Carson Point, about 2 miles north of Pilot Mound.  Ridgeport, maybe 6 miles north of Boone.   Ridgeport was never much more than a wide spot in the road but that church, the Mineral Ridge church, stayed open until about 10 years ago.  There was another church with a Ridgeport address called Swede Bend, a church of Swedish immigrants.

There was a church in Webster City, and then there was Squaw Creek.  Only one of the six churches was located in anything like a town.  Travel was hard, towns were few and far between, and churches were often started with near neighbors out in the country.

The Squaw Creek Church presumably met in members’ homes, because there were no public buildings to meet in.  The Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm was established by the legislature in 1858, but the first building, the Farm House, had not gone up yet.  The first students wouldn’t arrive until 1869.

In the beginning, Squaw Creek was an entirely lay-led congregation but before long they called Ira Rees as pastor.  In 1855, Rev. Rees had moved to Iowa from Indiana and settled in Story County.  He organized a church at Iowa Center, just north of present-day Maxwell.  In 1858 Rev. Rees was appointed a missionary by the Iowa Baptist Convention to organize churches in Boone and Story counties, and that year he organized a church at Boonsboro, which is now incorporated into the city of Boone (although Boone was then called Montana.)

Rev. Rees’ salary with the Convention was $300 a year, half of which was to be raised in the field.  In other words, they gave him $150 and said we hope you can come up with another $150 in the churches that aren’t there yet that you are going to start.

After the Hoggatt School was built, the Squaw Creek church began meeting there in 1862.  It was located near what is now the intersection of Lincoln Way and Riverside.  The first members of what became First Baptist worshipped in this very building.

That year, the associational annual meeting was held at North Union.  The pastor there was the first pastor in this part of the state, Rev. William Sparks, or Father Sparks as he was called.  Originally from North Carolina, he was deeply opposed to slavery and chose to move to the North.  The meeting was held in Father Sparks’ barn.

In his annual report, Ira Rees said, “It is evidently a year of dearth and walking by faith not by sight.  Only two persons added by baptism and only ten added in all.”  He was speaking of all ten churches in the association, not just Squaw Creek.  The Civil War took away men and kept new settlers from arriving.  A nearby pastor wrote, “The churches are suffering a depletion as a consequence of the Civil War but exhibit an almost united devotion to the Government in its struggle to subdue the rebellion.”

Despite the struggle, Rev. Rees wrote, “We occupy a very important field.  The whole of the northern valley of the Des Moines River seems in the Providence of God.  We are now laying the foundation on which future generations are to build.”

Notable things happened in the next year.  The church had three baptisms and the membership was now up to 19.  While it had a Nevada address before, Rev. Rees signed his report with the address “College Farm.”  There were apparently things happening at the new state model farm and college.   And most notably, sometime in the latter part of 1863, Ira Rees left the area to move west.

Samuel Mitchell later wrote, “Mention should be made of the departure of Rev Ira H. Rees for a field farther west.  The experience of this brother is a sad one to contemplate.  He had settled on the land on which the south half of the town of Ames now stands.  Undergoing here hardships, poverty and sickness almost to the verge of despair he finally sold out in the hardest times just before the railroad came to relieve the depression and went west to try the realities of another frontier settlement.”

Rev. Rees left the area just before the railroad came, just before more settlers came, just before the town of Ames was founded.  In 1864 the Cedar Rapids and Missouri railroad came through the area, and there was a railroad stop called Ames Station, named for a Massachusetts congressman, that became the city of Ames.  The new town built a school and the Hoggatt School, attended mainly by the children of two families, was no longer needed.  The Hoggatt School became part of a residence in Ames before being rediscovered many years later.  It was restored and moved here in 1981.

As for Rev. Rees:  Rev. Mitchell later wrote,

For a number of years Brother Rees continued a heroic and self-sacrificing struggle on this frontier and then removed farther west, doubtless to repeat the struggle.  A correspondent of the (Baptist) Standard in 1886 visited this same dear brother in southern Kansas and found him desirous of disposing of sundry lands he possessed in order to devote himself again to the activity of the ministry.  
I do not know if Rev. Rees went back to pastoring, but he died three years later in 1889 in Grenola, in southeast Kansas, three weeks shy of his 65th birthday.

Well, that answers what became of the Hoggatt School and what became of Rev. Ira Rees.  But what became of the Squaw Creek Church?

Already a struggling church, the loss of its pastor made things even more difficult, and the church stopped meeting by sometime in 1865 or 1866.

But that was not the end of the story.  In 1868, Rev. J.F. Childs of Oskaloosa, Secretary of the Iowa Baptist Convention, came to Ames with the goal of reestablishing a church here.  One of the new residents in Ames was Capt. Kendrick Brown, son of a Baptist minister in New York.  Capt. Brown had served in the war, being wounded several times.  After the war he married Lydia Gates and they moved to the brand-new town of Ames, Iowa where they ran the first grocery store.  Kendrick and Lydia Brown were the grandparents of Farwell Brown, whom many of us knew and who died at the age of 100 a few years ago.

Rev. Childs and Capt. Brown traveled the countryside around Ames, looking for Baptist families.  They found five.   An announcement was made soon after that the Baptists would hold a prayer meeting at 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon in the back of Frank Hays’ harness shop.  The prayer meetings continued and on July 11, 1868, eight individuals signed the roll as charter members of the First Baptist Church.  By the end of the year, the church had 23 members.  Among the members were people who had been a part of the Squaw Creek Church.  So, we are what became of the Squaw Creek Church.

Interestingly, just like Squaw Creek, the new church was led by laypeople at the beginning, with various supply preachers.  It did not have a pastor for its first two years.

Now, I would love to go on and on talking about history, but the bigger question is: what does this have to do with us, who are carrying on this tradition started 158 years ago?

First, our church began as a frontier church.  Life then could not have been more different.  There were no computers, no phones, no TV, no cars, no indoor plumbing.  And the Republicans were the radical liberals.  It was a different time.

Yet I want to suggest that as different as things are today, different in ways people back then could not have dreamed of, some things are actually fairly similar.

In 1861, the churches in that association had from 10 to 40 members.  Do you want to know how many churches today have 10 to 40 members?  A lot.  A couple of years ago I heard that the median attendance for United Methodist Churches in Iowa was 35.  Marshall Peters said that our number would be similar.  There are all kinds of small, struggling, rural churches.  Small as we are, ours is one of the stronger churches in our region.  In some ways, we are back to the days of the frontier.  It is a frontier because things are changing quickly.

The fastest growing religious group is the “nones,” meaning those with no religious affiliation.  A large number of folks describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” which often means that they are interested in matters of the spirit but not particularly interested in the church.  This is a time when things feel up for grabs.  Folks are doing church in new ways – some with house churches, some with dinner churches that meet in smaller groups where worship includes a meal – again, groups of maybe 10 to 40 people, just like on the frontier.

It is a time of improvising and making things up as we go along, because we keep facing new challenges and new situations.  But that’s OK – that’s the way we started out, and ministry on the frontier is part of our church’s DNA.

It also strikes me that lay people started the church.  And not just Squaw Creek Church; it was lay people like Captain Brown who re-started the church as First Baptist.  They did not have a pastor to depend on, but that was OK.  Everyone had gifts to share and shared them.

The church is not defined by the building – we have met in homes, in a school house, in a harness shop, in a room in a commercial building downtown, in the Memorial Union, in the Roger Williams House, and in 3 church buildings in two locations.  And the church is not defined by the pastor or staff members, as charming and talented as they may be.  Not the buildings, not the formal leadership, but we are the church – all of us.  Remembering Squaw Creek may help us to remember that.

I also noticed something in the reports of those early churches.  One of the sister churches was Swede Bend – a church of immigrants, worshiping in another language.  All these years later, we are still having national conversations about immigrants and language and diversity but the fact is, from the very beginning, we have embraced whoever would join us in worshiping the God of all people and all creation.  We were multicultural from day one.  It is also true that when there aren’t many folks around, when there is a population density of 7 people/square mile, as there was in Story County in 1860, you have to be able to get along and work with everybody.  You can’t afford to worry about folks being different.  Maybe we could learn something there.

And I think of Ira Rees, packing up and heading west just before fortunes changed.  Like Rees, we have known “years of dearth and walking by faith and not by sight.”  Sometimes hope can seem elusive.  Sometimes we can have a hard time seeing that help is just around the corner.  Part of our calling is to be people of hope, to reminder each other of the great hope we have in Christ, and to support each other through the difficult times.

Adde read for us this morning our scripture from Hebrews.  The writer speaks of a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and are now sitting in the bleachers, cheering us on as we run our race.  That cloud of witnesses includes Rev. Rees and Kendrick and Lydia Brown and Father Sparks and all of those hardy frontier souls who met in the Hoggatt School and worshiped as the Squaw Creek Baptist Church.  In faith and in hope and in gratitude, we carry on that tradition.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

“The Church and the Spirit” - May 20, 2017

Text: Acts 2:1-21

As you probably know, we have been waiting for literally months to have our parking lot repaired.  We have learned a lot about city regulations and requirements along the way.  Well actually, we haven’t learned that much except that it is all pretty murky.  But we did learn late this past week that contrary to what we had been told before, we will not need to plant about 150 shrubs and grasses as part of parking lot striping plan, that our existing landscaping meets the new city standards, and the plan will be approved - hopefully this week.

Thinking about repaving our parking lot reminded me of my favorite church parking lot repair story.  I mean, we all have a favorite church parking lot repair story, right?

You may be familiar with Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Ever Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.  Besides being an author, Fulghum is a minister.  In one of his books he told about one of his parishioners, a man named Dave Dugan.

While he had a degree in civil engineering, Dugan was a successful business owner and liked to be known as a simple, hard-working guy.  Dugan played defensive tackle in college and he was a heavy equipment operator.  He lived the way he played football - straight ahead, right up the middle, nothing fancy.

Dave Dugan met Fulghum and was intrigued by this guy who wasn’t your typical pastor, so he went to his church one Sunday.  He kept coming back and became an active member.  Behind his tough exterior, he was a kind and generous man and was eager to use his resources to help the church.  If there was trash to haul, he brought a 4-¬ton dump truck.  He believed there were very few problems in life that could not be overcome with heavy equipment and a go-get-em attitude.

Fulghum visited Dave Dugan at his work site.  He sat in the office trailer, drinking a cup of coffee, and was shocked when Dugan opened his briefcase. There were bundles of $100 bills and a .38 revolver.  Dugan said not to worry, many of his projects were far from town and he hired lots of temporary labor and made his payroll in cash.  He was bonded to carry $500,000 and licensed to carry the gun.

Since he was out of town for long stretches at a time, Dugan turned down an invitation to serve on the church board, but he came to the meetings anyway when he was in town.  But he was surprised by the board meetings.  He thought it would be an honor, but the meetings were taken up with issues like leaking roofs and where could they buy paper towels wholesale.

One night they spent hours talking about potholes in the driveway.  Patching had not helped and the drive needed to be repaved, which would be a big expense.  On the other side of the church, by the Sunday School, the cars drove too fast, and speed bumps were needed, which would be another expense.  The board had examined this problem from every possible angle, and there was still no end in sight.  Finally, Dugan, who wasn’t actually a board member, spoke up.  “Leave the potholes on the entrance side and dig potholes on the exit side.  Spray a little tar in them and call them speedholes.”  He would do it with a shovel and a couple cans of tar in a couple of hours.  For free.

The board chewed on that for an hour.  What would the neighbors think? Could they be sued?  On and on it went.

And so finally, in exasperation, Dugan stood up, set his briefcase on the table, and asked forcefully, “What’s this church worth - the whole blankety-blank thing, buildings, land, everything?”  The startled church treasurer said, “Oh, maybe $400,000.”

“Great,” said Dugan, “I’m gonna buy it.  He opened his briefcase, set aside the pistol and began throwing bundles of $100 bills on the table until he reached the amount.

There was stunned silence.  “Gimme the deed, and it’s done,” said Dugan.  “What are you gonna do with it?” someone asked.  “I’m gonna get my crew in here and we’ll level the whole thing and haul it to the dump before sundown.  And I’ll use the land for the cemetery you guys are headed towards in these meetings of the living dead.”

He went on to chew out the board for not spending their time on important things, and how he came to this church for religion and what he got was worthless construction workers he wouldn’t hire for a day and if they were ever serious about doing the things a church ought to be doing in the world to bygod let him know.

Have you ever felt like Dave Dugan?  There is no doubt that the church can be a frustrating institution.  Ralph Beatty, who was a regional minister and denominational leader, said that there were days he’d give the church a million dollars and there were days he wouldn’t give it a dime.

Most of us can relate to that.  And we shouldn’t be surprised.  The church is made of people--flawed, imperfect, very human people.  Imperfect people make up an imperfect church.

But that being the case, what makes the church any different from any other institution or organization? What makes the church any different from Rotary or the PTA or the Historical Society?

What is different is that while the church is a human institution made of imperfect people, the church is more than that.  We speak of the church as the Body of Christ.  And the church is brought into being by the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that makes the church more than just another human institution.

Today is Pentecost, and we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The coming of the Spirit was dramatic and powerful.  Luke says it was like a mighty rushing wind.  It was like descending tongues of fire.  The Spirit turned timid and uncertain disciples into bold and fearless witnesses.  

I have mentioned before that when I was in high school, I worked at a place called Burger Farm (home of the Big Silo!).  Across the alley behind Burger Farm was a little Pentecostal church.  They had meetings all the time, especially in the summer.  I would take out the trash or empty bread racks or milk crates or something at night and hear their service.  They didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were always open, but it really wouldn’t have mattered; I would have heard them anyway.

The place just rocked.  Tambourines, guitars, drums, loud singing, clapping, and not just that, but all kinds of hollering and carrying on emanated from the little concrete block building.  It’s not that I was used to an especially formal worship service, but this somehow seemed to cross the line.   Often, folks from that church would stop at Burger Farm after their Sunday night services.  Many of them ordered chicken gizzards, which in my mind just confirmed everything I suspected about this church.

For a long time, I let those kinds of churches define what the Holy Spirit was all about – as though the Holy Spirit belonged to little Pentecostal churches that met in concrete block buildings.  We can be afraid of talking about the Holy Spirit too much.  But the Spirit is not the property of any one group.  In fact, it is when we start to think that we have a handle on God and how God works that we can get in real trouble.

Those times when we are frustrated by the church, those times when the church looks like just another human institution, that is when we need a fresh outpouring of God’s spirit.  As we read this account from Acts chapter 2, we are reminded of the incredible power of God made available through the Spirit – a power that we need today.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for people to do things they could not do on their own.  Disciples speak in languages they have not learned.  And not only that, they have the boldness to speak publicly.  (From reading the gospels, we gather that boldness had not been their strong suit.) 

In Romans, the Spirit gives believers power to pray when they cannot pray on their own.  Jesus said, “The Spirit will guide you in all truth,” revealing to us more than we might discern on our own. 

When was the last time you attempted something you knew to be utterly beyond your reach?  When was the last time that we as a church attempted something that we all knew good and well was beyond us?  When was the last time we really depended upon the Spirit of God and through God’s spirit were able to do what we could not do on our own?

In the end, success in the church, however that is defined, does not depend on the brilliance of the leaders or adherence to the latest “best practices” or following ingenious strategies or finding our market niche.  Rather, it depends on God.  It depends on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Look at the people we meet in scripture.  So many are inconsequential or marginalized or powerless or just plain failures.  They are too old or too young, they are foreigners and outsiders, they are women who are ignored and Samaritans who are avoided and lepers who are unclean and troubled people with a past and tax collectors who are despised and fisherman who are without social standing.  But God uses them all, not because of their intelligence or strength or power, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of understanding.  The work of the Holy Spirit brought people together.  Those who were separated by language were able to understand one another.

My brother-in-law Brett, who is married to my youngest sister Amy, is a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene.  Brett is on sabbatical right now.  Part of his goal for spiritual renewal is to experience different cultural settings.  And so he just got home this weekend after spending a couple of weeks in Europe.

First he went to Taizé, in France.  Taizé is an ecumenical Christian community where a few thousand people, mostly young people, visit every week during the summer to experience their unique worship style and community.  We sing some Taizé music here from time to time.

Then Brett spent a week in Rome.  He did a lot of walking, checked out a lot of religious and cultural sites.  On Wednesday he was visiting a church and realized that a mass was about to begin.  Even though he didn’t understand the language, he decided to stay for the service.  He was impressed with the number of people there – people talk like Christianity is dying in Europe, but this church was pretty well packed.

So Brett stood through this service, even though he didn’t really know what was being said.  And then – they carried a casket down the aisle.  He realized that he had crashed a funeral!

Sometimes it really does help to know the language.  It is important to actually understand what is being said. 

Modern travel and communications have made the world much smaller.  And people from all over the world come here to Ames to study.  But even if we are able to speak the same language, that does not guarantee understanding.

One of the big news stories of this past week had to do, amazingly, with listening to a recording.  You have probably heard it.  One group of people hears the word that is spoken and it is clearly “Laurel.”  Others just as clearly hear “Yanny.”  How can this be possible? 

It’s not just that recording.  It can feel sometimes like people hear the same thing but come away with entirely different meanings.

There is a long list of nationalities present on the Day of Pentecost.  They did not all understand each other; they probably didn’t even all like each other.  There were stereotypes and prejudices and bigotry then, as now.  But the Spirit brought them together.  Everyone heard the gospel, everyone understood in their own language, and these diverse people were made one in the Church.

Face it: we may all be English speakers, but we do not speak the same language.  Engineers and artists speak different languages.  Senior citizens and youth speak different langauges.  Parents and children speak different languages.  Faculty and students, Democrats and Republicans, those who are wealthy and those who are barely getting by speak different languages.  Men and women speak different languages.  Not to mention all of the various ethnic and racial and social groups we may be a part of.  It’s a wonder that we communicate at all.

The Spirit opens our hearts so that we may listen and understand one another, and so that we may become one people.  We sometimes think of the miracle of Pentecost as speaking in various languages.  But the real miracle here is hearing.  The miracle is understanding.

The coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost marked the beginning of the Church.  The Church exists through the power of the Spirit.  And that is as true today as it was at Pentecost.  The Spirit brings life and energy and power and hope and understanding.  The Spirit knits us together as a family.  And the Spirit brings reconciliation with one another and with God.

When the church depends on our own human efforts, the results are not always pretty.  But when the church lives in the power of the Spirit – then, there is no telling what might happen.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“I Thank God Every Time I Remember You” - May 6, 2018

Text: Philippians 1:1-18a

I have been spending time lately reading other people’s mail.  Don’t worry; I am not a hacker.  Far from it; I have a hard enough time logging onto my own online accounts, much less somebody else’s.

No, I haven’t been hacking and I haven’t been snooping.  I have been doing some historical research, specifically about our church.  With our 150th anniversary coming up, I have been looking back into historical records.  I have not just been reading histories that were written before but trying to look at primary source materials - annual reports and business meeting minutes and photographs and old church bulletins.  Did you know that we have kept a bulletin for every Sunday since 1947?  Except that back in the 40’s, they really shut things down for the summer – they apparently did not even print a worship bulletin in the summer months.

I also saw a church directory from 1916.  It had advertising.  The local Buick dealer had an ad saying that the new Buicks were here, ranging from $650 to $950 dollars. 

Such things are helpful and can give you a feel for the times, but you often have to read between the lines a little.  Minutes of business meetings generally just stick to the facts – what action was taken, this person transferred their church membership, and so forth.  Financial reports can tell a story, but it’s just numbers that you see on the page.  Some of the annual reports give more details and context for what is going on – but not always.

But if you can find a letter, a personal letter, you often get a more nuanced and detailed view of what is really going on.  You get emotions and convictions and hopes and dreams.  In the last few weeks I have reading about our church in the years after World War I and basically up to just after the end of World War II.  Statistical information was helpful, but as far as getting a real feel for things, reading letters helped in a way that numbers on a page could not.  It is hard to capture things like love and compassion and disappointment and hope on a spreadsheet. 

In our New Testament, we have a variety of information about some of the earliest Christian churches – in places like Corinth and Thessalonica and Ephesus and Philippi and Rome.  I am thankful that the information we have does not come in the form of annual statistical reports or financial statements.  Instead, we have a number of letters, many of which were written by the Apostle Paul.  They were written to actual people, to actual churches, in specific contexts.  There is a certain amount of reading between the lines that we have to do – I mean, it has been 2000 years, after all, and because both Paul and the church he was writing knew the situation, everything is not necessarily spelled out.  But despite that, we can read these letters and get a real feel for what Paul and what the church were going through.

Now, letter writing has become a lost art.  Has anybody written a personal letter recently?  Maybe a note with a Christmas card, maybe a thank you note, but we don’t send letters like we once did.  For one thing, we can make phone calls.  When I was a kid, you limited the number of long distance calls and you didn’t talk very long, because it was expensive.  Some of you can remember not even having a phone.  But today, we can not only call anybody anywhere, anytime, but we can text and email and send facebook messages, or Instagram or Snapchat. 

Which makes me wonder: if Paul were around today, how would he communicate with these churches?  With a blog post?  Would he skype with them?  Or have a YouTube channel?  Or maybe just use Twitter? 

All of this raises the question of the purpose of Paul’s letters.  Of course, there is a different focus given the different contexts and issues that various churches faced, but in general, Paul was communicating with churches he knew well, often churches he had established or at least had visited and worked with.  He was writing people with whom he had relationships.  He was building the bonds of fellowship and encouraging and teaching the churches.  He also wrote to answer questions and respond to conflict and problems in the churches.  In the First Century, if you couldn’t be there, a letter was the next best thing. 

Sending a letter allowed for the congregation to hear Paul’s words as it was read in a worship service of gathered believers.  It might even be read by a messenger that Paul sent the letter with.  This means of communicating also allowed the letter to be re-read and to be passed on to others, even to other churches.  And eventually, down through the centuries, to us.

In these opening verses of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we learn a lot about why he is writing.  But what really grabs our attention is the joy and thankfulness that is just exuding from his letter.  “I thank my God every time I think of you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel…”

There are some people that when we think of them, it just brings a smile to our face.  There are some people that when we think of them, we instantly feel gratitude and thankfulness.  We do not always share this.  We have a certain level of Midwestern reserve.  We want to be nice, of course, but we don’t want to go overboard.  Actually, a letter sometimes allows us to express things that might be a little harder in person.  Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I think of you.”  Wow.  It is nice to be on the receiving end of something like that.  Paul is expressing gratitude, but he is also modeling gratitude. 

Diana Butler Bass has written a book that came out this spring titled Grateful.  She notes that gratitude is always social.  We are thankful for something or to someone and often, with others.  Even if we are alone, we might be thankful for the sunset or grateful for an old friend that we have remembered – or grateful to God.  Gratitude makes us aware of connections and helps to build connections.

Well, here’s the thing: Paul is in prison.  We’re not 100% sure where he is.  He was imprisoned at least 3 times.  This could have been in Ephesus early in his ministry, or Caesarea, or in Rome, late in his ministry.  We’re not 100% certain on where he is writing from.  But Paul is familiar with prison.  As far as the Empire was concerned, Paul was a repeat offender.  But when you think of prison, don’t think of our modern American-style prisons.

When it was time to eat, you did not head down to the prison cafeteria.  There was no prison cafeteria.  If you wanted to eat, if you wanted to live, you were going to need some help.  You were going to need some friends.  People on the outside had to provide your food.  If you wanted to survive, you needed help.

There were other believers who were there for Paul.  The church in Philippi had sent a gift for Paul.  This was not simply a “thinking of you gift;” this was a way of keeping him alive.  But it wasn’t just the money or whatever material things that they had sent – it was the love, the relationship, the connection behind it that meant so much to Paul.  Paul says, “I give thanks for your sharing in the gospel.”  It really was a team effort.  Paul could only get by with a little help from his friends.

Now the thing about gratitude, the kind of amazing thing about it, is that it can become such a part of who you are that is isn’t really dependent on the circumstances that you find yourself in.

I have seen this time and again.  A person is in the hospital, facing a difficult diagnosis.  And they are thankful for the great care they are receiving.  They are thankful for the good food.  They are thankful for their doctor.  They are grateful that we have a good hospital here and that they didn’t have to travel far to get care.  They appreciate friends who come to see them.  They have this amazing joy and thankfulness, even when they aren’t really feeling very well and the outlook for their health is uncertain.

What does Paul say later on in Philippians, in chapter 4?  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”  Paul has come to a point where he embodies thankfulness.  Whether this is his first go-round in prison or it is later in his ministry, he has suffered enough and been through enough that he has learned the key to living in a difficult time.  And in fact, he writes later in the letter to the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”  The secret is gratitude.

And so as he begins this letter, he alludes to his present situation – to his incarceration.  He says, “I want you to know that being in jail has actually been a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel – with the guards and everybody else here, and it has made an impression.  And not only that, when others see me enduring my imprisonment  - and not just enduring it but taking it as a great opportunity and living joyfully and faithfully through it – it has made them bolder in their witness for Christ.

This is not simply taking lemons and making lemonade.  It is being grateful and finding reasons for giving thanks in every situation.  Paul really could see the plus side of being in prison. 

Now, while there is this joyful tone throughout the letter, Paul does acknowledge and deal with problems in the church.  There was some division in the church that he addresses in later chapters.  But here at the outset, he speaks of those who proclaim Christ out of false motives.  Not false teachers, but leaders who seem to be in it for themselves.  They were apparently down Paul because he had been arrested and were taking the opportunity to try and fill a leadership vacuum.  Their motivation was selfish ambition.  And Paul says, “So what?  Whether there are ulterior motives or not, Christ is being proclaimed, and that’s a good thing, so I can give thanks.”

Giving thanks is always social, it is always relational, as we have said, and it can also be very communal.  This weekend, families came together to celebrate at graduation as students received their degrees.  They celebrated years of growth and education and a significant achievement.  It was a time of joy and gratitude for a wider community.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs had a magical season.  And even a Cardinal fan like me could appreciate breaking 108 years of futility, 108 years of losing, and winning the World Series.  The final game was played in Cleveland, but outside of Wrigley Field, people were dancing and hugging and singing and celebrating.  Fireworks lit up the sky both in the city and in the suburbs and car horns were heard late into the night.  Speaking for many, one young fan said, “It was the greatest night of my life.”

Two days later, the team joined the fans in the streets with a huge parade and celebration, with as many as 5 million people lining the streets.  One local television station reported that it was the 7th largest gathering in human history.  The Chicago Tribune was a little more restrained, saying that the numbers may have been exaggerated a bit by runaway enthusiasm.

What was interesting is that over time, the emotions that people felt really did not subside.  But they did change.  The euphoria and mass ecstasy gave way to a deep gratitude.  The Washington Post reported:

The Cubs’ players and staff have grown accustomed to a strange phenomenon.  Everywhere they go people come up to them with stories – of a late father, a grandfather, a mother, a grandmother, a brother or sister who was the biggest Cubs’ fan of them all.  The World Series would have meant so much to them.  Almost uniformly, the interactions end with two words: thank you.
Cubs manager Joe Madden said that for the most part, they don’t want an autograph or picture.  They just want to shake your hand and say thank you.  (story shared by Diana Butler Bass in Grateful, p. 115.)

The secret, says Paul, is to be thankful, to be grateful, whether you have just won or whether you are in the middle of a 108 year losing streak.  Whether you are on top of the world, or whether you are in a prison cell.  Paul is not just mouthing the words.  Writing from prison, his joy and gratitude mean something.  And gratitude shared in the community can really change things.

Paul writes, “I thank God every time I remember you.”  There are those people that when we think of them, it brings a smile to our face.  This week, I want to give you a little homework assignment.  A mission, if you choose to accept it.  It is simply this: to express our gratitude more freely.  This week, as you interact with people, express gratitude.  And in your own way, in your own words, reach out to somebody this week and say, “I thank God every time I think of you.”  Try it and see what happens.

And I guess I should try this myself, so let me say this.  I was talking with someone this week that I had not talked to in several years.  They said, “Wow, you’ve been at the church in Ames a long time.”  I said well, I think it’s a good fit and Ames is a great place and the church is filled with good people and it really is a great church.  I was bragging about you, but for some reason it is harder to say those kinds of things directly.  So let me just say thank you to everyone here, thank you for all that you do, thank you for your caring spirit and for offering grace and for taking your calling seriously but not taking yourselves too seriously.  Thank you for putting up with my attempted humor and for making this a church where I can be myself.  I am thankful to God for every one of you.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally for me to speak like that.  My default mode is that Midwestern reserve, but Paul has set a good model for us, and I am working on it.  Amen.