Guest Sermon by
Rev. Robert D. Shofner, Jr.
St. John's UCC Boonville
1860-2010-Celebrating 150 Years
Supper was late that night because they had stayed in the fields until it was dark to finish getting in the grain. When at last they sat down to eat, Father first said a prayer of thanks to God for the good harvest. They were all hungry and tired after their long day's work, but even after they had eaten, they lingered well past the children's bedtime, all of them together enjoying the comfortable feeling of a job well done.
The little one's eyes drifted shut at last, and even the ten year old twins, Amos and Asaph, were trying to keep from yawning. Father stood up briskly; "Off to bed! All of you, at once!" he cried. "You need your sleep. Tomorrow we are going to take a little trip."
Immediately, all three children were wide awake! "Where? Where?" chorused the twins. And little Rachel begged, "Can I go, too?" Father smiled. He picked up Rachel and carried her to bed. "Yes, little one," he answered, "we are all going." "Where? Tell us where," the boys yammered. And their father replied, "We are going to Gilgal. There is something there I want you children to see." "What is there to see in Gilgal?" Amos asked. Father looked mysterious. "In Gilgal," he told them, "there is a pile of rocks." The children stared at him. "What's so great about a pile of rcoks? We've got plenty of those in our own fields." But Father wouldn't say any more. "You will see," he answered in that maddening way of a parent, "when we get there." And with that the children had to be content.
The next morning Mother packed a simple lunch. The boys walked proudly at their father's side, but the little one raced around them in excited circles until at last Father picked her up and set her on his shoulder. Long before they actually arrived, they could hear a rushing noise in the distance. "What's that?" Amos asked. And Father answered, "It's the river." The river? There were streams near their own fields which they used for water, but none of them made a noise like that!
And then, unexpectedly, Father announced, "We are here!" The boys looked around, disappointed. It was exactly as their father had said. Just a dumb old pile of rocks! But they were near enough to the river now to see the green ribbon of the valley, and the spray which the water flung into the air from the rapids, and the sound of its passing was a roar in their ears. "I still don't see why we came all this way to look at a pile of dumb old rocks," Asaph complained. "But that river ... now, that's worth looking at!"
"That is exactly why we came, "Father admonished. "These rocks came from the bottom of that river." The boys stared in disbelief. "But how?" Asaph asked. And Amos tried to explain, "Maybe in the dry season a strong swimmer could dive to the bottom?" "It was not the dry season," their father began. "It was just about this time of the year. Sit down, and I will tell you all about it." And they all sat down, and Mother spread out the bread and cheese and fruit she had packed. Father asked the blessing and then, as they ate, he told them the story.
"It all happened before I was born. When I was about your age," he smiled at the twins, "my father brought me here on just such a day as this, and that is how I know the story."
"Our people were all camped on the other side, and this noisy, dangerous water was between them and the land God had promised to give to them. But, you'll someday learn, it is often when things seem desperate that our God displays His power most wonderfully! Anyway, Joshua was the new leader, for Moses, as you have been told before, had died on the other side of the river. Joshua called the priests. And he said to them, 'Take the ark of God, and go before the people, and step into the river.' The priests lifted up God's holy ark to their shoulders. They looked at the wild, rushing waters, and then they stepped into it!"
"Wow! That took some nerve," the boys exclaimed.
Father shook his head. "Not nerve, my sons. It took faith in God! For the ark is the place where God lives among His people. And so it was not really the priests who were leading the people. It was God Himself! The priests stepped into the water. And at that very instant the water stopped rushing past the camp. It piled up in a high wall above them! A dry path lay open ahead!"
The children listened with wide-opened eyes. "Even the water obeys God," Asaph whispered.
"Yes," Father replied. "He is the God of all the earth!" He continued with the story. "The priests went to the middle of the river bed. They stood there holding the . And all that great crowd of people hurried across to the other side!
"Then Joshua chose 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes. 'Go down to the river bed,' he told them, 'and each of you pick a large rock and carry it back here.' And so one man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel carried a rock up from the river's bottom. And that night Joshua set them up here at Gilgal."
The children turned to stare with new found wonder and respect at the pile of stones.
"Yes, my children, those are the very same rocks," Father told them. "And then, after everyone had crossed safely, at last the priests carrying the Ark crossed too. And as soon as the Ark of God was lifted up to this shore, the river returned to its bed and rushed down as before, just as you here it today!"
"Someday," Father went on, "you will have children of your own. And when your children are old enough to understand, you must bring them here, just as I have brought you, and as my father brought me! And then you must show them these rocks, and tell them about the power and loving care of our God, so that they, too, can learn to trust in the promises of God!"
Quite a story. But let me tell you another one.
“And on they came.” German immigrants of various Protestant faiths settled in the Mississippi valleys in the early 19th century. Like the Hebrews before them, they came in search of a land, a land that promised prosperity, and freedom from fear and tyranny. A church-minded people, they soon organized places of worship to honor their God. But it was not easy. Many obstacles stood in their way, like the mighty rushing waters of the stood in the way of the Hebrews so long ago. The words of our history offer this praise: “Just when the waves of misfortune seem to overwhelm them, over the crest they would come, frantically fighting seemingly insurmountable odds for that which they loved, their church.” On November 4, 1860, this congregation, The German Evangelical St. John’s Church, was born.
Throughout the past century and a half, the people strove to keep the church an active setting for ministry and service. They also paused to celebrate their past and to look to the future, just as we are doing today. By the 25th anniversary, the people were gathered in a solid, brick sanctuary on this site. The 50th anniversary was celebrated with the dedication of a new pipe organ. The 75th was noted for many improvements to the property. The 80th marked the adoption of a new name – St. John’s ; which was changed in the 1950’s to reflect the birth of a new denomination, the . The 90th was celebrated by the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. John’s of the future, built on the same cornerstone of the original sanctuary.
By the 100th anniversary, a new parsonage was completed and dedicated. The 110th anniversary was marked by the completion of the new Christian Education building.
All these improvements to the property served one purpose, to house the many and varied ministries of St. John’s. Throughout the centuries the people of God have been active and busy serving the needs of this community and the world beyond. In the words of our 125th anniversary celebration:
“Let the memory of past achievements urge us to greater accomplishments in the future. Our church was built on solid ground … through hardships, through war, through sorrow and suffering, our church has stood firm. Its light has been a guiding influence that has gone into hundreds of homes, into offices, schools and shops, wherever its members have tried to follow Christ’s way of life.”
And now we celebrate our 150th anniversary. Our history has been added to, reflecting the costs and joys of faithful discipleship. In the words of that additional narrative: “Weddings and funerals, celebration and renewal, the life of St. John’s continues into the new decade. As we approach our 200th anniversary, our congregation looks forward to new challenges as we negotiate the ups and downs of life in a Christian community. Our faith sustains us – as the t-shirt that many of our members wear during St. John’s activities says, ‘It’s a faith thing.’”
So today we gather to celebrate. Why? Lest we forget. Forget what? All the hard work our foreparents invested in this church? No. Lest we forget that it is by God’s grace and provision we are even here today.
Returning to our first narrative from the , the nation was commanded to set stones as a memorial. There were three specific reasons for doing so.
First, the generation that was entering the land to conquer it needed a memorial, because the road ahead would be hard and there would be times when they would become discouraged. When they returned to the place of the stones, they would be reminded of the power and faithfulness of God.
Second, the generations to come would need the memorial, since children easily forget the faith and instruction of their parents.
Third, the people of the world needed the memorial as a testimony to the existence and nature of the one true God.
We gather here today for the same task. This sanctuary stands as a memorial for those who have gone before, for us today, and for our children’s children tomorrow. Those hardy immigrants who came to this faced a rough and difficult road. Yet they trusted in the provision and promise of a faithful God, and as a result, “truly they did not bury the talent which the Lord had given them; rather they ‘builded better than they knew.’” And that which they built served to remind them of the faithfulness of the true God.
For us gathered today, this sanctuary stands as a memorial that we may tell our ’s mighty acts in our past history so that our children might not forget and might remain faithful to our God.
For the people of our community and the world beyond, this sanctuary stands as a testimony to God’s power and blessing, for it is from these walls that the people of His church reach out to help and nurture and sustain those in need, that our good works done in the name of Jesus Christ will shine among persons, that they will give thanks and glory to our God.
At the meeting place called Gilgal, the Hebrews consecrated themselves through reenacting the covenant signs of circumcision and the . It was utter folly, in the eyes of the world, for them to incapacitate themselves while surrounded by enemies, but the wisdom of God is not like human wisdom, and it was far more important that the hearts of the people be right with God.
And so it is with us today. God wants our hearts to be right with Him, and with one another. Now it is time for our own re-consecration. In our celebration, we are called upon to reaffirm the covenant we have with our God and with each another. We are invited to the sacrament of the Lord’s Table in remembrance of all that God, through Christ, has graciously done for us.
At Gilgal the people were to remember God’s covenant, promises, and past acts of deliverance, in order that they might live as God’s people in the days that lay ahead.
Today we learn the same lesson. As we reflect upon our church’s past, as we take in the beauty of this holy space, we want to learn that what we do is important. But what we are is more important still. And we are God’s people, doing God’s work. “With God’s help we can light candles of kindness and goodwill. We can dream great dreams and work toward the fulfillment of our dreams. With the light of our church and of God’s love to guide us, we can look to the future with hope and confidence.” It is indeed, above all else, “a faith thing.”
Let us pray.
Gracious and faithful God, we thank You that You have called out men and women to be Your people in this community. We thank You for the past faith and efforts of those who have gone before us, and we thank You for this time to remember, for it is indeed a goodly heritage we enjoy.
Speak to our hearts and minds, and may Your guide us to rededicate our lives this day, giving honor to our past, trusting in Your provision for the future, and bringing all glory to You, O Lord and God.
And the people said, “Amen.”