A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
November 3, 2013.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Today is All Saint’s Sunday on the Christian calendar. It is a day for remembering and giving thanks for all the saintly people both living and dead whom God has placed in our lives and in the history of University Baptist Church. In light of this, it is appropriate that the Revised Common Lectionary assigned this passage from the book of 2 Thessalonians. This book was a letter sent to the church that was planted by Paul, Silas, and Timothy during the middle of Paul’s second missionary journey as recorded in Acts 17. This church was birthed in a hostile setting, but it persevered and flourished even in the face of open resistance. This letter was written in part to encourage that church to keep the faith and to persevere in the midst of trials and difficulties.
For my message today, I would like for you to imagine with me Paul, Silas and Timothy writing a letter to University Baptist Church based on today’s passage. On this All Saint’s Sunday, perhaps this is what they might have to say to us this morning.
To the church of University Baptist Charlottesville in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.
We are writing this letter to you like the way parents would write a letter to their grown child. And my, how this church has grown! We remember how you were born in the midst of controversy at your mother Church, Charlottesville Baptist Church, now known as First Baptist. At the turn of the century, that church’s pastor, Dr. Henry Tribble, decided to resign. In addition to serving as pastor at Charlottesville Baptist, Dr. Tribble also directed a Baptist girls’ school, which is today known as Saint Anne’s-Belfield School! Dr. Tribble felt that two full-time jobs was at least half-a-job too many, so after prayer and discernment with church leadership, he resigned as pastor.
Yet a group of eighty people decided to leave Charlottesville Baptist Church with him, and on October 4, 1900, these folks met at the Levy Opera House to organize a new Baptist church. This congregation decided to call Dr. Tribble as their part-time pastor and to support his continuing work of leading the girls’ school. Thus, your church was birthed by members of Charlottesville Baptist who clearly felt that education was an important ministry. They were willing to support Dr. Tribble’s efforts both in leading this new church and in directing the school.
By the end of 1900, the new church was established with about 125 members. It baptized two new Christians, and even ordained one of its young members for ministry. Seven months later, the congregation held a meeting to finalize plans for a new building located on High Street. And from that point on, your congregation was then known as High Street Baptist Church. Oh, how we thanked God for this church and rejoiced in its growing faith. As the church’s faith in Christ increased and as members’ love for each other through Christ increased, God was pleased to grow High Street Baptist both numerically and spiritually. And like earthly parents, we can’t help but be thankful to God when we see our child grow in faith and in love. By the time Dr. Tribble resigned as pastor nine years later, High Street Baptist was a thriving church of 400 members. It makes our hearts beat proudly for this church, as you celebrated the good times but also as you persevered through the challenging times.
Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
We know that we really shouldn’t boast about our children, but surely people will forgive parents when we show other people pictures of their children growing up. “Look, there you are riding your first bike! Look at how happy you were at your elementary school graduation! Can you see just how beautiful you looked at your senior high prom!” The happy memories bubble to the surface, but we all know that life is also full of challenges and trials. People get seriously sick, they get into accidents, people break up and divorce, loved ones die, natural disasters strike. Like it or not, times of persecution and trials do come and they deeply shape who we are. But it is what we do in response to those trials that will shape us into the people we will become.
Challenging times did come for your church. One was a big decision in 1929, the question of whether to stay in the building on High Street, or to make the risky move to Main Street, where you are located today. One the one hand, it seemed wise to stay put rather than to undertake the trouble – not to mention the expense – of a move. Yet, on the other hand, your spiritual ancestors saw an opportunity to minister to students at the University of Virginia. In the end, this challenging decision was nearly unanimous – your spiritual forebears faced the challenge of a weighty decision with courage and the conviction of God’s calling, showing the kind of church they would become.
And yet, even acting in faith does not mean being spared of challenges. Another set of challenges immediately presented themselves to this newly relocated congregation: How would they pay the bills? Especially once the Great Depression hit, this became a greater and greater concern, until finally the bank foreclosed on your building in December 1937. Those were dark times. Those were heavy persecutions and trials this church had to endure. Yet we will still boast of the perseverance and faith of your grandparents in the church!
For after a year of foreclosure, in 1939 the members of this church sacrificially raised $20,000 in just eighty days to pay the first installment to buy back the church building. Led by Dr. Cecil Cook, the congregation fully paid off the mortgage in January of 1947, a huge sum raised in increments of dimes, quarters, and an occasional $2 gift. In the words of Dr. Cook, these donations came from members “whose generosity has led them to deny themselves, and who have given, and given again, and are planning to give as long as gifts are needed.” This is a portrait of a people who faced trials, and yet persevered. This is a story of beleaguered people who were not moved to fear, but to faith.
With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.
You are the beneficiaries of the faith and the sacrificial gifts of the saints who came before you. They excelled in their gifts that built up this church. How I wish Dr. Cook and those faithful members are still here to see your building and ministry now! Over the last seventy years, you’ve been good stewards of their sacrifice, faithful to maintain the building, faithful to open your doors for ministry, and faithful to continue in generous giving.
With this in mind, we – Paul, Timothy, and Titus – constantly pray for you, that God may count you worthy of this calling – the calling to minister with and among the students and members of the UVA community, the calling to meet and serve our neighbors here in the neighborhood of this church and the calling to share the love of Christ in our neighborhoods back home.
We pray that by God’s power every good purpose of yours will be fulfilled, the good purposes of learning more about the love of Christ, learning more about ourselves and how God is shaping us and growing us. May you bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and may your every deed be prompted by faith.
Give thanks to Christ for calling a people to minister to the university. Give thanks to Christ for the saints of this congregation who responded positively and sacrificially. Give thanks to Christ for the calling you still. We pray that you will be worthy of God’s calling so that name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.