Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sermon: "130 Years by the Grace of God", Isaiah 43:11-13, 18-21/Matthew 28:16-20 (October 27, 2019)

(A sermon preached on the occasion of Reformation Sunday and the 130th anniversary of Presbyterians establishing a presence in Caldwell, ID)


130 years of Presbyterians in Caldwell. That’s an awfully long time. That’s almost four times as long as I’ve been alive. Now, that also means that there’ve been 130 years’ worth of Presbyterian sermons in Caldwell, so I’ll do my best not to add too much time to the clock today. Besides, I’m inclined to let the stories speak for themselves.

For example, did you know that the Presbyterian church building wouldn't have been built 130 years ago if it hadn't been for a handful of determined women? Having seen other denominations establishing themselves in the city, nine determined Presbyterian women decided to raise funds to construct a new church building back in 1885. Nine! Through their hard work, they managed to fund and construct a church building in four years. What’s more, one of these women, Carrie Strahorn, almost single-handedly convinced William Judson Boone to move west and serve as their pastor, even though he wasn’t initially inclined to take the position (appropriately, his wife Annie also helped with the persuasion). Thanks to these faithful women, a Presbyterian presence was firmly and officially established in Caldwell.

It’s tempting to look at the impressive efforts of these pioneer women and think that we’re here because of THEM. That their tenacity and determination is solely responsible for the building and history that we're celebrating today. And certainly, we shouldn’t discount the hard work that these women did to pave the way for us and our ministry here in Caldwell. For that matter, we also shouldn’t forget the hard work of discernment and reorganization that all the Caldwell Presbyterians have done in our more recent history that have kept us standing in our respective communities. But in the midst of all this human effort, in the midst of all of our conviction and perseverance, we mustn’t forget the one factor that we have to thank more than any other for this community’s ongoing existence and flourishing: God’s grace.

All the resolve in the world could do nothing to establish the Church, in Caldwell or anywhere, without God. All the work in the world could do nothing to sustain it without God. Psalm 127 insists, “Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the builders’ work is pointless. Unless it is the Lord who protects the city, the guard on duty is pointless.”[1] We are here, we are surviving, we are thriving, thanks entirely to God’s grace. As individuals, we're an important part of the Church Universal for sure, but we’re not the most important part by a long shot—God is. And this humility is essential if we hope to keep being Christ’s body in Caldwell for another 130 years.

Scripture works hard to help keep us appropriately humble. It continuously directs our attention back to God’s sovereignty and plans and encourages us to get on board with them. The prophet Isaiah declares that there is no savior besides the Lord, including us, and that we ourselves are witnesses to that reality. But this passage isn’t just a power trip for God; Isaiah is reminding us so that we might be better equipped to recognize God’s powerful movement in the world for what it is. GOD is the creator and miracle-worker, not us. If we want to be the means through which great things happen in the world, then we need to acknowledge God’s critical role in making it possible.

130 years is longer than any human being has been alive, and all of us will be long gone by the time this community has seen another 130 years. If we rely on ourselves to ensure its survival, we’re bound to fail. Our mortality, our priorities, and our sin all but assures it. But with God as the builder of the house and with God as the protector of the city, amazing things WILL happen. Clear paths will appear in the middle of the wilderness. Water will spring up in the desert. “Look!” cries God, “I’m doing a new thing; don’t you recognize it? I have new, wonderful things in store for you, Caldwell, if only you have eyes to recognize it.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don't have ANY role to play. On the contrary; God has called human beings to be God’s people throughout history because, empowered by God's grace, there IS work for us to do. This work is impossible without God, but it’s the work of our hands, nonetheless. Jesus makes our charge plain in Matthew 28, what tradition has come to call “The Great Commission”: “Go and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” That’s it. That’s our job.

To be sure, it’s not a SIMPLE job. The baptizing is pretty straightforward, and the Bible gives us a hand with the teaching part. But ultimately, all of this is for the purpose of making disciples…and that’s anything BUT an easy job. We’re supposed to help ALL NATIONS to follow Jesus. I don’t know if you’re keeping track, but that adds up to THE ENTIRE WORLD. If you weren’t sold on the idea that this isn’t possible without God’s grace, you MUST be by now. This is a big job. And it’s not just a matter of handing everyone a Bible and telling them to check all the boxes in it. There IS no checklist for discipleship, at least not one that will ever be completed. We know that Jesus’ checklist consists of abstract but important tasks like “loving your enemy”, “including the outsider”, “seeking justice for all”, “meeting the needs of the least of these”. And as long as there’s sin in the world, these tasks will never be done.

But that’s exactly why we need the Church. The Church helps keep us on track and holds us accountable. The Church reminds us that we need God in order to change the world. The Church reminds us that we’re not at the center of the universe. Today is not only the 130th anniversary of Presbyterians in Caldwell, but it’s also Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation 502 years ago. The Reformation was a movement of accountability for the Church. We Presbyterians have a saying that reminds us of this guiding principle: “The reformed Church must always be reforming.” In other words, this means that no matter how much good work we do in building God’s Kingdom, we have a responsibility to continuously correct ourselves and bring our focus back where it belongs—on God’s grace. Not on growth, not on outreach, not on programming, but on sharing the Good News and making disciples of all nations. All that other stuff is secondary: it always has been, and always will be.

So as we look towards the next 130 years, let’s put exactly two things on OUR discipleship checklist: helping others come to know God’s love, and remembering to center ourselves over and over and over again on the only thing that matters—God’s Grace. I doubt that we’ll ever be able to check either of the boxes, but if we keep working on it, I know that we’ll have at LEAST another 130 years’ worth of something good to offer this city. Through God’s grace, may it be so. Amen.


[1] Psalm 127:1, CEB.

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