Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Prosperity of a People: Celebrating 225 years of Ministry in Hartford New York

Around New York, many of our American Baptist congregations share a denominational affiliation with another Baptist denomination (particularly the National Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention) or another mainline Protestant denomination (United Methodist, Presbyterian Church/USA, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), etc.).  Federated churches, union churches, and churches who "share" together (aka "yoke" in older language) a pastor or other key staff or congregational resources help our churches strengthen their ministry through creative partnerships. 

Among these churches is the Hartford Yoked Parish (ABC and UCC) in Hartford, NY, which just marked its 225th year of ministry when the former Hartford Baptist Church was founded in 1789.   A great summary of the church's ministry and its historic church facility and grounds can be read via:

Celebrating these continuous years of ministry and their latter day partnership with the UCC congregation, the Hartford church members celebrated with an outdoor BBQ and picnic and then a service of celebration.  I was honored to speak on the ABCNYS Region's behalf with the evening message:

[PSALM 92 was read just beforehand.  To read this Psalm, click on this link:]

To the saints of the Hartford Yoked Parish, whose witness continues as with your forbearers, gathering faithfully to offer praise and thanksgiving to God, made known to us in Christ Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I bring you greetings on behalf of the 294 churches of the American Baptist Churches of New York State and our Executive Minister, the Rev. Dr. Jim Kelsey.

On this splendid evening of food, fellowship and worship, we gather to celebrate the two hundred twenty-five years of ministry.  It is a grand occasion to celebrate the bounty of years, yet we realize that we only came to this night of celebration due to the steadfast determination of a parish to keep worshipping week after week, year after year, decade after decade.  To make it to the 225th year of ministry, this congregation has gathered for many Sundays, literally 11,700 mornings when the Sabbath was kept, hymns and prayers were offered, babies presented, persons confessing the faith and entering into the waters of baptism.  Over eleven thousand Sundays, sermons were preached (and sometimes undoubtedly repeated by pastors or slept through by congregants) and the worship of God in the midst of this community created a place where the Good News could be heard faithfully in word and deed alike.

The reading of the 92nd Psalm is quite intentional on a church’s anniversary celebration.  Of the 150 Psalms, this one is specifically noted as a psalm befitting the Sabbath itself.  In this Psalm, we learn of the core belief of ancient Israel:  God is at the center of all, and those who follow God shall know the rich and full life that the righteous humbly seek while the wicked chase after the life that is thought be good yet fades away.   In the midst of the Psalms, which are a veritable kaleidoscope of praise and lament, this particular Psalm is given for the Sabbath, where Israel takes its rest from the fields of toil and life’s worry and gathers before God in reverent praise.  Sabbath is at the heart of biblical worship, even if we struggle to make Sabbath the heart of what *we* worship. 

Long-faithful congregations like the Hartford Yoked Parish become like the mighty cedar or the palm tree (even if they would find the imagery of Mediterranean ancient Palestine a bit strange in the Adirondacks).  Congregations can enjoy the sweetness of many years of faithfulness, a counter balance or grace note to the realities that congregations also have histories where conflict, discord and ebb and flow also factor into the telling of a church’s history, if it is a truthful telling.

To a congregation where so many years have been given faithfully to the worship of God, certain sweetness accompanies these words of praise that only the deeply faithful can appreciate.  The longer one abides in God, the less attractive or distracting the rest of the world becomes.  The Psalmist calls us to praise in the brightness of day and the lonely hours of nighttime, our hearts and minds given over to the assurance, no matter the world’s direst times or life’s lowest moments, the God who brought a people out of Egyptian captivity, whose authority is strangely unlike any ruler this world has known, shall be steadfast in love, mercy, redemption and grace. 
Therefore, those who call upon the Lord in all times and seasons of life find great strength in those things the world might find trivial or weak.  To be a person of prayer makes little sense to those always driving hard at a deadline.  To offer a humble act of compassion might not be understood in a world where barreling ahead with little regard for others is thought to raise your profile.

What happens when you step out of the rapid pace of culture and economics and globalization and spend time in a wooden pew, listening to the words of long-dead prophets and a peasant rabbi from first century Palestine whose teachings spend most of their time dismantling the world’s frantic self-
serving priorities?

Eleven thousand, seven hundred Sundays may seem a drop of the bucket, given the millennia of human history, the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms, let alone the gale force winds of change and progress known to every generation.  What difference does a Sabbath make in the midst of the days that race by?  What happens when you choose to be a people who keep the Sabbath and therefore find your rest, despite the urge to push ahead?

Eleven hundred, seven hundred Sundays.  Might have missed a few due to snow fall.  Some sermons might have been repeated (or even slept through).  Yet the Sabbath has been kept and kept holy by a Sabbath people.  May we give thanks for a faithful witness, two hundred twenty five years and counting, and may we keep the Sabbath yet again tomorrow, with renewed understanding that indeed, we gather before the   Lord, to whom we shall sing praise by the morning’s light and the night’s shadows.  AMEN.

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