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A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

August 25, 2013

– A Centennial Sermon –

Genesis 17:1-7; Romans 4:13-21

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him…”

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him…”

Have you ever wondered just how that conversation came about? If we know the story at all, we tend to read it at face value and accept the scripture simply as it is.

But that’s not any fun, is it?

Let’s consider it as if we were bystanders – had actually been there – witnesses to this encounter between God and man. That would lead to some questions, don’t you think?

“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him…”

I mean, did the Lord appear to Abraham in a sort of vapor, coming out of nowhere? Did Abraham, or Abram as he was known at the time, round the corner on his way to the local market and there God was, beckoning with his finger to come and have a talk?

And how did the Lord speak? Did he sound like Cecil B. DeMille? Was God’s voice all bass and no treble? Did God whisper or did God shout? Did God’s presence cause the hair on the back of Abraham’s neck to stand up? Did the skies thunder and the clouds roll, or was it more like the rustling of the leaves on the nearby oak trees?

Have you ever wondered about things like that?

It helps, I think, to get a mental image of such things, but my guess is that if each of us was to share what those thoughts are, there would be as many different ways of telling the story as there are people here today to tell them. After all, when we see the stories of the Bible depicted on the screen or on television isn’t it true that we often say, “I don’t think I would have portrayed it quite like that.”

Well, regardless of how this conversation came about, we are aware that it changed… everything. In fact, I think we could easily say we wouldn’t be sitting here today if the Lord had not gotten Abraham into a discussion that fateful day so long ago. You see, the Lord made a promise to the old man Abraham, and we’re here, you and I, because of that promise.

I wonder how the first conversations went that led to the beginning of this church a century ago. We have it on authority that the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church began because of four women… four women who were convicted that the gospel needed to be preached the Baptist way – whatever that is! – in this fast-growing suburb of west Little Rock, an area that was being serviced by rail cars and that still fairly-newfangled mode of transportation referred to as the automobile.

Our church history is fairly unique in that the Baptist tradition usually is that an established church launches a new work. Churches start other churches; not the denomination with which the churches are affiliated, nor individuals who feel inspired to do so. In almost every case, churches start churches. That’s just the way it’s always been. Like I said… it’s our tradition.

Calvary Baptist over on Cantrell, the one in the heart of the Heights, the one with the brand-new worship sanctuary? It was started by our church in 1932 as the George L. Hale Memorial Mission. Dr. Hale was pastor of this congregation a short time until his untimely death, caused by a heart attack while he was fishing. Five years later the mission became a full-fledged church of its own, known first as the West Calvary Baptist Church and then just Calvary.

That’s the way Baptist churches usually get started.

But not the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. I guess it could be said that our church has always been a bit different from the norm, and this is simply another example of that. We started with a conversation and a promise. It may not have carried the eternal weight of the encounter between the Lord and Abraham, but still, it made quite an impact on this community known as Hillcrest, not to mention the city of Little Rock. Just exactly what that conversation might have been we do not know, any more than we are aware of how it occurred between Abraham and God. But we know this: a promise was made.

The best conversations involve a promise, don’t you agree?

I can just see Mrs. C. L. Durrett one beautiful spring day as she walks up Midland Street toward Prospect Avenue on her way to the ice house. She spies Mrs. C. B. Maxwell, her neighbor from up the street. “Good morning, Mrs. Maxwell.” And just as she is about to continue her little trek, she turns and says to her neighbor, “Mrs. Maxwell, you’re Baptist, aren’t you?”

“Why yes, yes I am.”

“You attend where?”

 “My husband and I are members at Second Baptist. And you?”

“We go to Immanuel.”

“That’s nice. Well, good morning to you. It’s always good to see you. Have a nice day”

“Uh, Mrs. Maxwell…”

“Yes.”

 “I’ve been giving some thought to something. Actually, I’ve committed it to a great deal of prayer.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“Well, you know how rutted the streets can be around here – our neighborhood being so new and all – especially after the kind of rain we had last night… and frankly, the rail cars don’t always run on schedule… and my goodness, when you can catch one they just throw you about as they rumble along the lines… and it takes awhile for us to get all the way over to Immanuel… I would imagine it takes even longer for you and your husband to get down to Second…”

“Mrs. Durrett, are you suggesting something?”

“Well, yes, yes I am. Don’t you think it’s about time we have a Baptist church here in the Heights? I mean, the Methodists started one last year. They’re meeting over on Woodlawn. The Congregationalists are established on Prospect Avenue. Would you be interested, if I invited a couple other ladies – Mrs. Westbrook on Colonial Court and Mrs. McKenzie, who lives on Oak Street, come to mind – to join me for a time of prayer and Bible study? We could talk about it then.”

“You know, it’s very interesting that you should mention this to me. Mr. Maxwell and I were talking about the very same thing just the other night. Let’s do that. Let’s do just that.”

I don’t know if it happened like that. Probably not, since this conversation is obviously the product of my simple imagination. But who knows exactly how it might have started? And who knows just how it occurred between God and Abraham thousands of years ago? This is the way it’s recorded…

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you…” There is no mention of a rainbow in the sky (that occurred, of course, in the account of Noah and the flood), or a voice emerging from a burning bush (Moses pretty much has a corner on that one, doesn’t he?), or a whirlwind rumbling over the plain (you’ll find that in the story of Job). As far as we know, it may have been just a whisper in Abraham’s ear; indeed, just a rustle of the leaves in the nearby oak tree. But when a whisper has a promise in it, it speaks more loudly and more eternally than the mightiest shout.

We can’t be sure exactly how the original meeting was set up, but we are aware that four women of this community gathered together to pray and read scripture, to sing the contemporary gospel song, “I Love to Tell the Story,” and by their simple actions to launch a new church.

The scriptures have another word for “promise.” Did you notice from our reading earlier? The Bible calls it covenant. It’s hard – at least it is for me – to think of the word covenant without having the picture in my mind of two trustworthy people offering a firm handshake when they have come to an agreement. Or maybe even a hug. Any gesture that says, “I believe in you. I affirm what we have promised to each other this day. May our promise never, under any circumstances or for any reason, be broken.”

The interesting thing about the story of Abraham is that the covenant was between God and Abraham. Yet, it’s rather hard for that promise to be fulfilled without the cooperation of a certain third person named Sarah. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about how it must have been between Abraham and his wife Sarah in that time after God had made his promise – and not for the first time either – when the promise of a son had not yet been fulfilled.

“It is a hard thing,” she says, “to believe in a promise – to live by it, day after day, to see it in the night sky and hear it in your name and see it again in your lover’s eyes. It is a hard thing, to believe in a promise with no power to make it come true. Everything is in the future tense – the land, the son, the blessing. Everything will happen, by and by, but in the meantime what is there to live on now?

And yet. What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?”1

The promise itself is as meaningful and rich, as deep and as true, as the fulfillment of it, if for no other reason than this one comes, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, from the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Abraham hoped against hope, Paul says, and he became “the father of all of us.”

We – you and I, this church, this community, this city – can we say we have arrived, that we have reached our final destination? Of course not. We live each day in the midst of a divine promise. How we share that promise with those who come after us makes and forms the true essence of our faith and gives us the purpose for our living now.

God’s promise has no expiration date.2 But now, for this period of time when you and I live and move and have our being, the fulfillment of that promise is in our hands. The late John Claypool speaks of “the awesome challenge of handling responsibly the promises of God.”3 We are here this morning because of that awesome responsibility. It is not enough for us simply to celebrate what has been. We must be in the business of committing ourselves to what is yet to be.

It would be most difficult to preach a sermon with this title without invoking the words of the poet Robert Frost. If you are familiar with them, you know what I mean.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

He is speaking of the obligation we have when a promise has been made. If we do nothing else on this momentous day, may we commit ourselves – each one of us – to the journey that yet awaits us… that day-by-day and step-by-step, we will keep the promise God has made to us, and we to him. It is the only way to travel.

Lord, walk with us in the journey… grateful for what has been made, excited by and committed to what is yet to be… find us faithful as we live in the midst of your divine grace. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 40.

            2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 53).

                3John Claypool, The Hopeful Heart (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003). p. 39.

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