A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on October 16, 2011.
175th Anniversary of the founding of Farmville Baptist
1 Samuel 7:7-13
Today, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of Farmville Baptist Church. What a wonderful occasion to have all of you here—church members, former ministers and staff, representatives from our Baptist associations and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, friends and neighbors. What an honor it is to have you here with us to commemorate this significant event in the life of Farmville Baptist. In Old Testament days, the Israelites commemorated significant events in their lives by erecting memorial stones as a way to give thanks to the glory of God. Jacob set up a stone and called it “house of God” after he had a vision of a ladder to heaven and realized that God was with him even as he ran for his life. Joshua commanded that twelve memorial stones be set up at the Jordan River, marking the significant event of the Israelites finally crossing over to the Promised Land. In our Old Testament lesson today, the prophet Samuel erected a memorial stone after the Israelites defeated the Philistines in a significant battle. Samuel named the stone “Ebenezer” which literally means “the stone of help.” This stone was huge; it was erected like a monument raised upright standing twenty to thirty feet tall. It could be seen for miles and from that time on through succeeding generations, every time the Israelites saw it, it would remind them of how God has helped them thus far.
Earlier this morning, we sang the hymn, “Come Thou Found of Every Blessing” in which the second verse says: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come.” And so this morning, like the ancient Israelites, we come raising our Ebenezer acknowledging and celebrating the ways in which God has helped us thus far in the victories we’ve achieved and the significant events we’ve experienced in our one hundred and seventy-five years of existence as a church. We come thanking God for the three individuals who founded Farmville Baptist Church: Rev. Elijah Roach, Rev. Daniel Witt, pastor of our mother church Sharon Baptist, and Rev. William Moore, our founding pastor from 1836 to 1840. We come acknowledging the twenty-three pioneers who were the charter members of this church, and we note that two of them, Samuel and Phil White, were African-American. We come remembering former pastor James Nelson who appeared before the governor and legislature of Virginia in 1884 to lobby successfully for the establishment of the Female Normal School, which would later become Longwood College and University. We come to show gratitude to Rev. Willis Wayts, who pastored Farmville Baptist from 1912 to 1915, when this present building was erected. Rev. Wayts wrote letters to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie on twenty five consecutive Monday mornings asking for his help in purchasing an organ. The twenty-fifth letter brought a reply, in which Carnegie agreed to give an Estey Pipe Organ to the church provided that the church raise $980, which was fifty-percent of the price. This amount was soon raised, and the dedication of the new church building – along with the organ — took place on November 1, 1914.
As we look around this beautiful sanctuary, we realize we are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of preceding generations. In some ways, this building is their Ebenezer stone to us, as they erected, brick by brick, stone by stone, organ pipe by organ pipe, this house of God. But as those saints who raised this Ebenezer would quickly remind us, today is not about them nor about this building. Memorial stones were never meant to draw attention to themselves. They were raised to point beyond themselves, to the presence and the help of our loving and faithful God.
The Ebenezer stone that Samuel raised was not meant to show succeeding generations just how powerful the Israelites were in defeating their enemies. In fact, when you look up the word “Ebenezer” in the Bible, you’ll see that it shows up two other times earlier in 1 Samuel. And in both, Ebenezer was the place where the Israelites suffered brutal, agonizing defeats at the hands of the Philistines. I find it instructive that after this victory, Samuel would name the memorial stone “Ebenezer,” not only as a way to commemorate a decisive victory, but also as a way to remember two devastating losses. I believe Samuel was saying that God’s help was not only present in their victory, but also in their defeats. God did not abandon God’s people. There was no triumphalism in raising the Ebenezer stone that day; there was only a joyful acknowledgement of the faithfulness and mercy and the power of God.
The same can be said today. We come today, not to pat ourselves on the back to say how great we are. We come today to praise God and to proclaim how great God is. God’s faithfulness is ever sure and his mercy is everlasting in the midst of both our victories and our losses. If these walls could talk, they might tell us not only of the heyday of pews filled past capacity, but they might also remind us of darker days, times when the church struggled over issues such as race or power. These situations and eras led to the exclusion of some and the departure of others. These walls might talk to us about times of questioning and loss, whether we were contemplating events that were hard to understand, or whether we were mourning the passing of some of the many saints this church has raised and equipped. Every church is marked by both victory and challenge. The Bible itself tells the story of how God’s people, and even the leaders of God’s people, are flawed even as they strain for faithfulness.
So, like the Israelites of long ago, we do not raise an Ebenezer simply to celebrate our triumphs! Instead, we raise our Ebenezer to joyfully acknowledge the abiding help of God, the saving grace of Christ, and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. We no longer erect giant stones to commemorate God’s faithfulness. Instead, according to 1 Peter 2:4-5, God himself has raised a “living stone” for us in Jesus Christ, who was “rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him.” Therefore, continues Peter, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
And so today, we give thanks for living stones like former pastor Les Giles, who, during his time here, assisted the Foreign Mission Board with evangelistic crusades in India and started a daily devotional program made available to people dialing in by telephone. We give thanks for the holy priesthood of women in this church, including Peggy Cave, Emma Lee Patteson and Rose Ingram, who were elected as our first female deacons during the pastorate of Steve Teague. We give thanks to former associate pastor Charles Miller, who made a lasting impact upon the youth of our church. We give thanks for the spiritual sacrifices of those who led the church on numerous mission trips and spearheaded the last major church building renovation under the pastorate of Bill Wilson. We give thanks to those living stones who, under the leadership of Dave Ramsey, participated in a “unity walk” among the churches in town in response to a rash of church burnings in 1995. We give thanks to former pastor Jason Thrower, who started a Mothers for Preschoolers Program and supported Susan Joyce’s calling into the pastoral ministry. And aside from our previous pastors, we give overflowing thanks for the holy priesthood who have cooked meals to share with the sick or the grieving; who have welcomed college students into their families; who have brought hope to the Piedmont Regional Jail; who have filled grocery bags for the hungry; who have stooped to pick up highway trash; who have prayed and written prayer cards; who have traveled to offer assistance after natural disasters; who have given faithfully to support the church and our missions partners; who have dedicated years, even decades, to teaching Sunday School or singing in the choir or serving in ways that we might never fully know.
I can go on and on, for you see, when I look out at this congregation, I see living stones being transformed into a holy priesthood, and I say, “Here we raise our Ebenezer. Hither by Thy help we’ve come.”
Thanks be to God for the first 175 years in the history of Farmville Baptist! May God be our help as God leads us into our future! Amen.
 Clerk of Appomattox Association and pastor of Midway Church in Charlotte County.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.