A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.

August 18, 2013

Psalm 105:1-17; Philippians 1:3-6, 9-11

Yesterday Joani and I celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary. And when Randall Lolley, a former pastor of this church, called last week to congratulate me on my retirement, I reminded him that he tied a pretty good knot when he conducted our wedding on August 17, 1974!

Of course, not every day of our marriage has been as grand as our wedding day. Sixth months into our marriage neither Joani nor I were sure we’d make it, and we probably wouldn’t have without the help of a local pastor. But by God’s grace we survived those early struggles and went on to earn three post-graduate degrees between us, give birth to three children, teach in a variety of schools, and serve four churches.

Over the years we have had our ups and our downs, and seen each other at our best and our worst. It’s been quite a ride, and I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it.

When you think about it, every single person has a personal story. So does every marriage and every family. And so does every church.

These days as I draw my ministry at FBC to a close, we are thinking about stories. Last Sunday I told my story of personal transformation, focusing especially on what God has been doing in my life over the last six years. Today, I want to talk about our story as a congregation because we have quite a story to tell.

Do we ever!

I’m not reflecting on our church story today because I’m feeling sentimental. Or because I want to either brag or complain. The fact is, the very bible we honor and follow encourages us to routinely remember our stories, and rejoice over the great things God has done among us. That’s why no less than ten of the one hundred and fifty psalms of the Old Testament are devoted to recounting the history of Israel.

One of those ten historical psalms is Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is a breathtaking rendition of the signs and wonders—like the parting of the Red Sea—that God performed in Israel’s history. Why is it important for Israelites to remember their story? Because their collective memory will spur them to praise God with hearts overflowing in gratitude.

Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

Make known his deeds among the peoples.

Sing to him, sing praises to him;

tell of all his wonderful works.

But that’s not all. As the Israelites retell God’s wonderful acts, they will be reminded that their progress is primarily a product of the power of Almighty God. As they move forward, the Israelites will seek the Lord and his strength; seek(ing) his presence continually…(and remembering) the wonderful works he has done….

What makes Psalm 105 even more fascinating is that it was apparently written during the exile of Israel when her future looked very bleak. The author of Psalm 105 wasn’t just interested in taking a nostalgic walk down memory lane. He looked back to the past to assure Israel she still had a future, that her story was far from over, that God and his chosen people had still more chapters to write together.

Frankly, at this juncture of our history and the history of the American church, we would do well to revisit Psalm 105. As so many observers have noted, the American church finds itself undergoing cataclysmic upheaval and change, resulting in widespread decline and despair in many congregations. For every Protestant church that is thriving, four are fighting a death spiral that threatens to take them down and out over the next ten to twenty years.

Over the last few months I have been very proud of our church as we have taken a long and courageous look at ourselves. We have honestly acknowledged our strengths and weaknesses, have humbly asked God to lead us forward into his appointed future, and have begun to faithfully act upon his will.

But more about our discernment process in a moment. Just now, I want to remind us of the great things God has done here. Over the 142 years of our existence, these are just a few of the “wonderful works” God has done in and through FBC:

ï‚· Planted a number of sister Baptist churches in our community, including the first African-American Baptist church;

ï‚· Through the Blackwell and other scholarship funds, we’ve helped scores of people receive theological education who serve in churches and Christian ministries all over our country;

ï‚· With the help of other downtown churches, we founded Crisis Control and other non-profit ministries that have provided food, shelter, low-cost homes, and assistance to thousands of our fellow citizens, and more recently provided a temporary overflow homeless shelter when it was desperately needed;

ï‚· Founded a children’s center over 40 years ago that was one of the first to be racially integrated, and is one of only two “five-star” centers in Forsyth County;

ï‚· Provided leadership and office space in 1995 that helped launch CBF of North Carolina, which is now among the strongest moderate state Baptist organizations in the country;

ï‚· Been a vanguard of innovation by merging with another church in 1935; constructing a gymnasium and youth lounge in the early 1960s when that was unheard of; starting one of the first contemporary worship services in this area in 1996; and partnering with a local church of another denomination (First Presbyterian Church) to build a non-denominational church and other related ministries in the Dominican Republic;

ï‚· Purchased the nearby Employment Security Commission property, and converted it into a launching pad for ministry called the Winston-Salem Center for Education and the Arts, that is already the home for theWinston-Salem Street School, and will soon be home to other related non-profits and ministries.

Friends, do you understand how uniquely blessed this church has been over the last 14 decades? Like any marriage or family, we have had difficult moments when we were not at our best. But we have so much that is good to remember, so much to celebrate! And so much we can learn from our past that will help us as we move into our future.

For example, we learn that we can depend upon God. That, of course, is the Apostle Paul’s point as he pens Philippians 1:6 from a prison cell.

Talk about bleak! Paul, the founder of the fragile Philippian congregation, was sitting in jail, trying to encourage a group of baby Christians to hang in there despite fierce persecution from enemies of the church. The Philippian congregation had no glorious heritage to fall back on, no facilities to work out of, no leaders with any experience, and apparently no future to count on. And yet, Paul is more than willing to bet the farm on the future of his Philippian friends.

“I am confident of this,” Paul writes, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In what or who does Paul place his confidence? Not in his own leadership—he’s in jail, after all. Not in the ingenuity or ability of the Philippians. No, Paul is brimming over with confidence because of his steadfast conviction that the God who started the Philippian church would not abandon them…unless they abandoned him.

Based on Israel’s performance in the Old Testament, we have to allow for the fact that abandoning God is always a possibility. In fact, Psalm 106 recounts the sorry story of how the Israelites rebelled against, and eventually forgot about the very God who brought them into existence. And their abandonment of God cost Israel dearly.

First Baptist Church, as I step down as your pastor, I am very high on your future. Not just because of your glorious past. Or the quality of your leadership. Or the beauty of this facility. See, I am confident that the one who began a good work in you 142 years ago will continue to do wonderful works in this place—provided you love him, grow in him, trust him, and follow him.

If you don’t do those things…well I assume we don’t want to go there, either mentally or materially!

As we look into our future, what else might Paul and our own history say to us?

Be joyful! More than any other letter of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the Philippians bubbles over with joy. Not an artificially contrived joy, but a heartfelt joy that comes from knowing Christ and belonging to Christ’s body.

It’s no surprise to me that one trait of churches that are growing numerically is a palpable sense of joy, especially in their worship. Over 20 years I have observed that the moment many people walk into this august space they mysteriously forget how to laugh, or even smile. Of course, being dignified before the Lord Almighty is absolutely appropriate. But dignity that frowns upon smiling, laughing, clapping, or even holding up your hands is false dignity, pure and simple.

“Rejoice in the Lord, always,” says Paul. “Again, I will say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)

Be prayerful. “(We are) constantly praying…for all of you,” Paul writes to the Philippians. Why would Paul pray around the clock for his friends? Because prayer catalyzes the Spirit of God like nothing else.

The finest pastor this church has ever had, in my humble opinion, is Henry Brown, who served here 40 years, almost twice the length of my tenure. It’s no coincidence to me that our church’s decision to call Henry Brown emerged from an all-night prayer vigil among our members.

That vigil happened in 1877, 136 years ago. Are you willing to pray like that again, FBC? Would you put aside your plans and gather here at the church or in homes to pray for this church, pray for the pastor search process, pray for the on-going mission of the church?

Paul calls us to pray like our future depends upon it…because it does.

As I review Paul’s letter and our own history, here’s another word for us— remain riveted on our mission like a laser beam, but at the same time remain open and innovative on how to accomplish that mission.

Notice that before expressing confidence in their future, Paul commends the Philippians for their sharing of the gospel from the first day until now. Young in the faith as they are, the Philippians never waver from their mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and building the kingdom of God in Philippi.

First Baptist, nothing, and I mean nothing should distract or deter us from our mission to share the good news of Christ, the wonderful news that the kingdom has come to this community. If that mission is ever forgotten in the hustle and bustle of doing church, God help us!

At the same time, we need to be as innovative and entrepreneurial tomorrow as we were yesterday in accomplishing this mission. Once upon a time we merged with another church. Would we be open to doing that again, or even sharing our facilities with another congregation that had none? Once upon a time we helped black folks start a church of their own. And we’ve partnered with an African-American church along the way. But do we care enough about diversity to put together a plan to diversify our church and our staff? After all, since white people are already a shrinking minority in Forsyth County, do you think it’s practical (much less biblical) to only keep seeking other white people?

And finally, be resolved to discern and do the will of God. Paul prays that the Philippians will be wise enough to see they are not smart enough to do church on their own. Rather, he prays that they might have the full insight—“discernment”—to determine what is best. If you discern and do God’s will, says Paul, you will, you will produce a harvest of righteousness.

FBC, you’ve done so well when it comes to discerning and doing the will of God these past eighteen months. Whatever you do, don’t stop now. Because you are on the pathway to a future with God that is brighter than you know.

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