Sunday, July 9, 2017

“Where Have We Been; Where Are We Going?”

Matthew 1: 1-17
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Zion Baptist  Church, 11:00 am.
5h Sunday After Pentecost, July 9th, 2017,    Homecoming Service

When James Rowles (R-O-W-L-E-S, pronounced rolls) was in the seminary, he was invited to preach at a small rural church.  However, the man who was to introduce him to the congregation had trouble pronouncing his name.  So, the guest pastor offered this verbal clue: Remember rolls, like hot buttered rolls.”   It worked. When it came time for the introduction, the man announced, “Today, as our guest speaker, we are pleased to have with us the Reverend James Biscuits.”  (From Reader’s Digest,

Today is “Homecoming”.  You don’t have a guest preacher named “rolls” or “biscuits.’ You’ve got me; but we are all anticipating our fellowship meal together.  But it is not just the food we think about, it’s also our wonderful fellowship as the local body of Jesus Christ.  This celebration of a church anniversary reminds us that we are people living in the midst of a long story, ongoing for 191 years and beyond.   And since this story of faith and fellowship is ongoing, we are very much like Janus of Roman mythology.   He was the mythical god of beginnings and endings, gates and doorways, of passages and of time.   You will still see him as a decoration on some elaborate gates and doorways.  The month of January was named after him because he is the story of someone who constantly and simultaneously looked forward and backward at the same time.   He could look both ways at once.

Today, as we reflect over 191 years of this congregation’s life and history, we also need to have the courage and hope it takes to look back, look around and look toward the future, and that is not easy, especially with the challenges of our times and our constantly increasingly ‘churchless’ society.  

But before we address the challenge before us, I want to read a text that marks a similar turning point in the history and story of the Bible: the opening seventeen verses of Matthew 1:1-17.   This text may seem like a strange text for a sermon: seventeen verses of names — who was the father of whom for forty-two generations.  It’s a passage that’s never included in a lectionary, seldom read in a worship service, and omitted or drastically abridged in children’s bibles.  It surely seems like mere background information that we should skip over.  But in Matthew’s understanding of the gospel, and in the logic of the assembling of the New Testament books (placing Matthew’s gospel first), this genealogy is the proper beginning for the story of Jesus and has an important message for us today.  

So, first of all, Jesus’ family history is so important in the Bible for the same reason your own family stories important to the story of this church.   In the story of God, the people whom God loves always matters most.  Churches are not mainly about religion or theology either, but churches are about people.   The word ‘church’ itself is a testimony to this, because the word does not mean sanctuary where God lives, but the word literally means an ‘assembly’ of people.  People are the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit.  This church is made of a special, unique, ‘called’ or ‘peculiar’ people, some who among your families, but also others on the outside, who should be important to us too. 

What we need to see in Jesus’ genealogy is that it serves two distinct purposes :  First, it tells its readers just who Jesus was---that is the people he came from.  The original readers of this gospel were Jewish people.  Matthew believed they could best understand Jesus if they knew how He fit into their own common story. “You know who Abraham was,” he is saying, and “you know Isaac and Jacob and David and Solomon.  Now, with this genealogy that includes them, he is saying “let me introduce you to Jesus, the Christ, who is their descendant.”

So, when Matthew wrote this genealogy, he was, first of all, looking backward.   By looking back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and to David especially, Matthew was trying to establish Jesus’ credentials as one among them, who is born to be their awaited Messiah---the Christ.   Now, that’s a big statement, a really big one.   It would be a hard one, even an impossible one for most people to accept.  But it would have never, ever gotten off the ground, had Matthew not connected Jesus with the story of his own people.  Jesus is not Jesus, unless he was one of them.

Also, before we think about how we should live for Jesus today and in the future, we must first ask, what does it mean ‘to be one of us.’   In other words, what has it meant and what does it mean to be a part of the church?  We all know that the history of rural churches like Zion, often gravitate around certain families.    We are called, by experts, a ‘family chapel’ with several families being essential to this church’s history and hope.   We could speak of these families one by one, but this might seem to belittle the others who have become part of our congregation.  What I want to say, most of all, is that   Jesus couldn’t be Jesus in without his family and his heritage, and this church can’t be who it is, without the families who have made you who you are. 

Since I grew up elsewhere, I can tell you from my own church experience, how the families who made up my home church, were very important to shaping its history.   I recall when I was writing the history of that church, reading in the old minutes of how the church finally came to end the old practice of publically exposing, humiliating, and ‘churching’ members many, many years ago.  People today have difficulty understanding such strict social behavior in the past, just like we can’t understand how the Catholic once excommunicated people, or put once put people on trial and executed them for heresy.  What people don’t understand about ‘then’ was how much more serious life was then, because almost all matters were matters of life and death.  In early American history, churches barely survived the elements and rawness of life, so any threat to the covenant community was deemed a serious threat to the community’s identity the survival of its faith.  So, in Baptist history, when people were publically exposed, it was not in hope of simply humiliating them, or destroying them, but it was in hope of saving them and the church too. 

Of course, today it seems like a ‘strange’ way to save somebody, by throwing them out for bad behavior or for an addiction.   We know much more about addictions today.  A lot has changed, and not just in the church.  I recall Wes Palms telling about how he ran behind the DDT fog machine (I did too), with his Surgeon father, holding a cigarette and cheering him on.   His father, although a doctor, was a smoker and doctor back in the 50’s and 60’s, when almost no one understood the dangers of cigarettes.   We should never judge people in the past, including people in the biblical story, without also understanding the context of that day.  In the same way, because churches are made of people, who have been saved through many blunders and mistakes, we must not discredit these who are part of our past.   No, it should make us appreciate them more, and also, to appreciate the families who stayed together to do God’s work, even while they were still learning and maturing in the process. 

In regard to my home church’s practice of church discipline, fortunately my home church ceased this harsh practice when it came to realize that it was doing more harm than good.   Once, when a member was publically exposed for insobriety, and did not repent, he was band from membership.   His family, who loved him, in spite of his flaws and failures, decided to leave the congregation too.   It didn’t take too many times for this to happen, that the congregation, as a family, had to find a better way to deal with its humanity.  Without having good families, being a family that loves, cares and grows like families should, we could not be the church.   We would have stopped being church long ago, if we had not learned just to be made up of families, but to become a family---the family of God.

I’m sure you could find similar stories of family in our church histories.   What is wonderful about learning your history, warts and all, is when you also see through struggle and challenge, you also find both growth and maturity.   Looking in this way, including when we look back into the story of the Bible, we can see a people of God who did not just have an existence, but were also a people on a journey.   And isn’t this what all our stories should be about:  not a final destination, but a continuing journey?

Also, by this genealogical list Matthew also comments that these are the ‘generations of Jesus Christ’ (1:17), the people of the past create the possibility of the story of faith going on right now.  Can you see how important this is, not just to look back, but also to look around?   When Matthew challenged Israel to ‘look around’  he hoped that  would they see, not only their people, whose story gave us the hope of the Messiah, but that they would also see the story of the people who needed the Messiah today.

We also, should not only look back to see where we’ve been, or who we’ve been, but we also see who we really are---a people who still need Jesus.  If you take time to look closely at this genealogy and these generations, you will notice that we know only a few of them.  Most of them were not great heroes and all of them were sinners, flawed people who needed God just like we do.  These were a people, who like Abraham, were on a journey but they arrived because they were ‘looking for a city whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrew 11:10; 13:14).   And just as they were a people on a journey to a ‘city’ they could not build for themselves, they were a people who had made many mistakes, had some great failures, and were not always faithful to God.  But the point Matthew is making now, is that by sending Jesus, God is still faithful to them.  

What do we see when we look around?   Do we see perfect people?  No, of course not.  Do we see people who are always faithful to God?  No, not that either.   When we look around, then and now, we see a people who need Jesus, just as much now as ever.    This is also important for us to see so that we don’t glorify the past, but that we live in the present, and remain focused on the God who still saves, still redeems, and who remains faithful to us---all of us.  For even when we fail him, God never fails us.

When I look at my own Tomlin generation, I see both the good and the bad, the fabulous and the flawed.   Not long ago, while recovering from surgery, I studied the Tomlin family, and I learned some interesting fact, which my family, either didn’t know or had forgotten, perhaps on purpose.   I learned that my first ancestor in American, lived in Virginia, but moved to Maryland and his son became a leader in an Anglican congregation at Rock Creek Church.   But after he committed adultery, he lost much of his wealth and in 1783, his two of his sons moved to North Carolina and became Methodists.  I also looked back and saw how they own slaves and their grandsons fought in the civil war.  After being captured, both of them were taken to a Federal prison in Morganton where one of them died, but the other escaped and came back home.  My family descended from the one who barely escaped. 

I could also mention how one ancestor had a child, but was never married.   My family never told me stuff like this; they kept it all secret, as many families did.   About that time, perhaps because of this, they stopped being Presbyterian and became Baptist.   Also, her son, my young grandfather, died prematurely of complications from surgery. My grandmother successfully raised 7 kids all alone, the oldest being 16, even though Social Services advised her to put them all up for adoption.  Grandma was a reverent, quiet, but was also a very hard-working lady, with strong ‘will’ and ‘determination’ that was passed down to her children, and children’s children. 

So, when I look back I see a very human family, mostly good, but also flawed, being blessed, but also needing a blessing.   I can imagine you see some similar things when you look back or even when you around now.   But when I look, I don’t look to judge, but I see them honestly, not through rose-colored glasses, but I look and say with Matthew:  ‘these are the generations….’; people who are mostly good, but also very human and people who still, need Jesus, just as much as Matthew’s people did.

Henry Ford once said that ‘all history is bunk’’, meaning nonsense, or counterfeit.  There is some truth to this, because no telling of a story ever tells the whole story.   What we can also say is that whether we are telling our human story, telling the story of the church, or thinking specifically about the story of this church, we remember and face the real story, not to glamorize the good or dramatize the bad, but we remember so that we find the hope, life, and redemption that we need for our lives right now.   For again, just as much as they needed Jesus when they established this church 191 years ago,  we should also realize how much we, who make up this church still need Jesus today. 

Just as Matthew’s people needed a messiah to ‘save them from their sins’ (1:21), so do we, still today and we will also tomorrow.   Knowing God in the past, having a history with God, does not guarantee a future.   This is Matthew’s people needed Jesus---to give them a future.   For only a living God, a God of hope who is alive in us, and goes with us because we are on a journey with him, can promise us a future.   

When Jesus ministered among his people, he made it plain to His disciples to that should do more than ‘remember’ what He had done.  He also said: “Go and be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8)!  “Go and work in the vineyard  (Matt. 21:28)!  Go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19)!” Jesus never let His disciples dwell on what had already been done. Their purpose and hope for the future to be found in where they were going, and who they were becoming, not in who they were or where they had been: “The one who believes…will do greater works than these” (John 14: 12).

So, where are we going?   In this changing, challenging world, what is our purpose and what kind of future do we need to work toward together?   Several months ago, when I preached the Associational Message, here in this Sanctuary,  I told of going to a very informative seminar recently, led by a national youth leader from Fuller Seminary in California.   He told us that, in this future, a future that always belongs to the young, and never to us,  he said that a church that wanted to survive and thrive, in spite of the changing and challenging landscape of doing church today,  needed to be a church that learned to ‘grow younger’.   Interestingly, his explanation of what it means to grow younger did not necessarily mean what we might think it could mean.   Sure, young people like a different kind of music, and dress in a different way, and will worship in different ways, but the one place the life of the church of the past, present, and future came come together, is in how ‘warm’, relational, inviting, caring, and understanding we are now.   He summed it up this way:  ‘the new cool for the church is warm’.  If you can do ‘warm’, even in this increasingly cold, impersonal, too often unhelpful and uncaring world, you will be a church with a future, rescuing those who still need God’s salvation.  

What can we do to become a warmer congregation?  How can warm-up our ‘warm’?   Perhaps the best answer is the best part of the story we already know.  One of the most important theological books of the last twenty-five years is a book called Theology of Hope, by the now 90 year old plus, German professor, Jurgen Moltmann.   He barely survived WWII, living in Hamburg as the bombs fell all around him.  That was when he learned about the God who is hope:  “From first to last,” wrote Moltmann, “Christianity is … hope, forward looking and forward moving.” The promise that the future is ultimately in God’s hands is “the (warm) glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”  It is our faith in the end of time that directs our journey through all time. (Theology of Hope. New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 16.)

If we want to have hope, we must share hope, speak hope, and be hope to the hapless and to the hopeless.  The Church of Jesus Christ is the first-fruits, the beginning of the  coming Kingdom of God, when God’s saving presence brings eternal spring into this cold, hopeless, and hurting world.  It is our purpose to remember God’s faithfulness, kindness, and mercy through our history up to now, and with this remembering, to be moved and help move our world toward the hopeful goal God has given us.

So during this anniversary celebration, like Matthew, we not only see Jesus, but we see Jesus as part of a long, great, continuing story of faith.  ….We look to our history — the history of God’s people, of the Christian Church, of this congregation — remembering who we are and where we have been. And at the same time we look to the future, remembering what we have been put here to do and where we are going. Our history is always leading us somewhere; our glory as God’s children is always yet to come.  Amen.

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