Sermon

Matthew 7:24-29

Rejoice in the Past,

Build for the Future

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

I don’t have to tell you, today is a milestone in the life of our church. It marks the day we break ground for the new Activities Center. Sanctuary renovation, expansion of the parking lot and enlarging of the restrooms down the hallway will begin around the first of next year.

It’s the first major construction and renovation to be done in this church in forty years. It sets the stage for what we hope will be a new era of growth, vitality and outreach taking us well into the 21st Century. It represents the spirit of our Capital Stewardship Campaign: “Rejoice in the Past, Build for the Future.”

To put it into context, this congregation was started on November 21, 1867 by a group of twenty-four men and women. They met for worship in an old warehouse owned by Guy Bryan.

The Reverend John Russell Hutchinson was their preacher. He rode the train up from Houston twice a month.

On April 10, 1871, they bought a lot at the corner of 29th and Tabor Streets and broke ground on their first church building, doing most of the work themselves. The small frame building was completed by the end of the year and housed the church for thirty-five years.

In 1905, the trustees began construction on a new and much larger brick building on the opposite end of the block facing Washington Street. It was finished in 1906, but it wasn’t dedicated until 1914, when the debt was paid in full. We worshiped there for the next fifty-two years.

Then in 1951, the Cavitt family donated this 8-acre tract of land on which we’re located today. The first phase of construction – the fellowship hall and educational wing – was started in 1957 at a cost of $362,500. At the time, the congregation was only able to come up with about two-thirds of the money. They financed the rest. They moved from downtown in 1958 and retired the debt in 1962. In 1963, an every-member canvass was launched to solicit gifts and pledges for the present sanctuary, which was completed in 1966. We’ve been here ever since.

Well, it took a lot of hard work and sacrificial giving to build that little clapboard chapel at the corner of 29th and Tabor. It took a leap of faith to borrow the money and build the majestic brick church with its magnificent stain-glass windows on the corner of 29th and Washington. And it took even greater courage and vision to walk away from it and build this impressive complex on what was then farmland on the edge of town.

Looking back, we see ourselves today continuing that strong heritage of faith. Looking ahead, we see ourselves laying a strong foundation for our children and their children. And so, in a word, that’s what we’re about today – rejoicing in the past and building for the future.

We’ll be processing to the south lawn in just a few minutes, but, before we go, I want to say a word about the importance of this foundation upon which the church is built.

On the one hand, you could say there’s no question about it. Samuel Wesley said it best: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” Yet, as you look around, there are a lot of churches today that are being built on other foundations.

One is the foundation of pop culture. I’ll be the first to say I enjoy some of the new music coming out of contemporary worship today, and I think, properly used, visual aids such as PowerPoint can enhance congregational singing and the effectiveness of preaching.

Having said that, I see a lot of churches going overboard, spending tons of money on sound equipment and lighting effects. Their focus is on theater, not worship. Their services are scripted and rehearsed. They amount to large-scale productions that rival Hollywood. Now, you tell me: How does this reflect the image of Jesus Christ?

Well, you have to admit, it’s what sells. Personally, I believe it’s a fad. And I think, one day – hopefully in our lifetimes – the pendulum will swing back, and there’ll be a new appreciation for the importance of liturgy and the sacraments and the time-honored symbols of our faith such as the font and table and cross.

I’m proud to say that, in designing the Open Door service, our worship team was able to come up with a contemporary format that’s lively and refreshing without comprising the integrity of the Reformed faith. The music is different, to be sure, but it’s worshipful. The setting is informal, but it’s reverent. And the order of worship sticks to the basics of Confession, Proclamation and Response. There’s nothing flaky about that.

But that’s not the way it is, across the board. A lot of churches today are being built on a foundation of pop culture. Others are building on the personality of the preacher. Believe me when I say this, I have nothing against Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston.  Everything I’ve heard about him is complimentary.

The problem I have is placing too much stock in any one individual. I could say the same

thing about Billy Graham or Robert Shuler or Rick Warren. At what point does the personality of the preacher overshadow the proclamation of the Word? Do people flock to Billy Graham crusades to follow Jesus or to hear Billy Graham?

You see what I mean. It makes me uncomfortable when folks in town refer to a church by the preacher – like in Dallas years ago, when people would say, “Oh, you go to Dr. Criswell’s church,” meaning First Baptist, or “That’s Tom Shipp’s church isn’t it?” meaning Lovers Lane United Methodist.

One of the greatest preachers in the United States at one time was Peter Marshall. People would listen to him on the radio. They’d hang on his every word, yet most couldn’t tell you what church he served.

It’s a slippery slope. As a pastor, you want to do your best to represent the church well in the community. Yet, you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself. After all, the goal of ministry is not to be rich and famous, but to lead others to Jesus Christ.

Recently I served as a liaison to a Pastor Nominating Committee of a large church in Houston. Their pastor of almost twenty years was retiring, and they were hoping to find another who would serve just as well in the years to come. Sure enough, after reviewing all the applications and reading all the personal information forms, they chose a new minister and, without a lot of fanfare, the former pastor stepped aside, allowing for a smooth and orderly transition of leadership. The congregation never missed a beat.

But that’s not always the case. A lot of churches today are built on the personality of the preacher. Still others are built on a proud legacy of faith.

I once served as associate pastor in one of these historic churches. They devoted a space about the size of our parlor to house their archives and artifacts. They called it The Heritage Room and kept it under lock and key. You had to get special permission to go in, and, when you did, you had to be accompanied by a docent. It was like stepping back in time – to see all the pictures of historic figures who had graced that congregation and to feel the hustle and bustle of a once vibrant church in the heart of a busy and prosperous downtown area.

Never mind the fact that the center of commerce had long since moved out to the mall.

These were the good ole days when this particular congregation was the dominant force in the community.

But let’s not be too quick to judge. It’s not easy being the third or fourth generation of pioneer families. You’ve got a lot to be thankful for … and a lot to live up to. Besides, doesn’t the Bible teach us to honor our mothers and fathers?

The trick is to honor them without worshiping them; to celebrate their accomplishments without letting them become icons defining who we are today. That’s why we chose the slogan, “Rejoice in the Past, Build for the Future.” We wanted to strike a balance between honoring those upon whose broad shoulders we stand while reaching up to Christ, whose strong hand leads us into the future.

A lot of churches today are built on a proud legacy of faith. Their best days are behind them. The one true church is built on Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is ever on the move leading us into new experiences of faith, hope and love.

I think it’s fitting that Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount with a little word picture; that, having touched upon just about every important aspect of the new covenant of God’s kingdom, he said,

“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them,
I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock.
The rain came down, the floods came,
and the winds blew, and beat on that house;
and it didn’t fall,
for it was founded on the rock.”
(Matthew 7:24-25)

As we break ground for the new Activities Center and mark the first day of a new era of growth and vitality and outreach, let’s do so by affirming once more the foundation upon which this church is built. The words come from Edward Mote’s great old hymn. They’re printed in your bulletin. Would you sing with me?

“My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. (Chorus)

When he shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in him be found;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
faultless to stand before the throne. (Chorus)

Chorus
On Christ the solid rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.”
(Cokesbury Hymnal, p. 138)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2005, Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.