Friday, June 23, 2017

Installing a New Pastor: Planting Seeds in Earnest

Installing Rev. Perdue
FBC Cooperstown, NY
Special occasion preaching is part of the call to ministry.  We preach at life transitions most frequently (weddings and funerals) as well as for civic holidays (woe to the preacher who skirts a Mother's Day sermon too many years in a row!).  Also, we preach for occasions rare yet wonderful:  when a person is ordained to ministry or going into a new ministry call.  
It was my pleasure earlier in June 2017 to offer remarks at the installation of the Rev Joseph Perdue, recently called as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cooperstown, NY.  Brevity is a virtue (and I am chief of sinners), so I decided to use a shorter scripture text that I think works well at the outset of a hopefully long and fruitful season of ministry for Joe and the congregation.
Hear now the Good News in brief---two verses to be exact!
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mark 4:26-27)
Two verses, and yet so much to unfurl and explore!  On one hand, we have the image of the Kingdom, the very crowning glory of Jesus’ vision of God made known in the world and yet it is like seed, to be tossed around willy-nilly. Jesus gives an image messy and unpredictable, far removed from the “cut and dried” understandings about following Jesus we often presume.
Worse, contrary to our churchly habits and sensibilities, Jesus presents us with the image of a farmer who goes out, plants the seed liberally, and then saunters off until the end time.
At this point, I hear from Kansas my old farmer father’s voice calling out:  “Son, what sort of fool does that?”
Admittedly, I have never met a non-anxious farmer, including my father. For farmers, something is always worrying you at the back of your mind: grain prices falling and rising (well, mostly falling), pests and pesticides, drought, deer turning your crop into a buffet, freak storms, too much rain, too little rain, flooding, hail, the bills coming in and not enough money to cover everything this month, and the list goes on.
Every farmer goes through this, having that moment when you laugh at yourself. That foolish dream you had, thinking yet again you could plant a crop and turn a profit. Sigh!
For the church “with ears to hear”, we have an unsettling thought.  The Church that Jesus seeks to sow in the world does not fit into plans we alone devise, let alone for us to micromanage!
The gospel will be planted where you least expect it, and trying to guess how it will flourish and yield a goodly harvest is at best guesswork and at worst presumptuous on our part.
Where the Kingdom of God grows, there shall be a harvest and we have to learn how to live within the mysterious ways of God.
But can we really handle mystery?  Further, can we be in that mystery as a Church and live to tell about it?
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
In the splendid Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, William is a young man seeking money, not literary awards. He writes plays for the theatres with their raucous crowds. Theatre was very much a rough and tumble experience in Elizabethan England. There is a new play needed, and the theatre manager insists that writer’s block is not an excuse. He demands a script readied for the production of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”, a comedy about love and a bit with a dog doing tricks.
The film follows several characters as they rush around, trying to stage a play not quite written with a financial backer and his thugs threatening them with pain if there is no profit.  A young woman disguises herself as a man so she can tread the boards.  At the epicenter of this chaos is a young playwright named Will who seems too flaky to be the great Shakespeare.  Will this end in disaster?  Surely it will!  
Throughout the film, people ask the theatre manager Philip Henslowe what the play is about and more importantly when the play will be ready. Henslowe bluffs to buy Shakespeare and the company more time. When his financial backer storms in, ready to have his men beat him up, Henslowe begs for more time, claiming the theatre business is one whose “natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster”.
The financial backer asks, “So what do we do?” Henslowe replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” the backer is incredulous.
Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
If we let them be, the parables confound and unsettle us, defying a quick or complete interpretation alike. In these seed parables, we get a cautionary tale about thinking we know the ways of God and how we should be God’s people. We build our houses of worship, our traditions, our creeds, and still we have sacred texts that challenge and remind us of a faith more comfortable with welcoming children gladly, considering the lilies of the field, and scattering seed and letting things be.  Or as Jesus said,
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
I suppose the Markan parable would ask to keep things loose and try not to tame the Spirit’s movement. We certainly need to talk with one other. We need to pray and listen for God in the midst of our ministry and missional work. We need to work with purpose and hope, but at the same time, we are in God’s hands, not our own. The future holds much possibility. So much Kingdom/Reign work is yet to come. God scatters seed abundantly. The harvest shall be abundant. Rather than pondering the future or undercutting its potential by our reticence to embrace it, we enter into the mystery that is God at work in the world.
            So, here we are, in the midst of a mystery.  A long-time pastor retires.  A period of search and call happens.  A new pastor was called, arrived and has been serving here for a few months now.  What form will this new season of ministry take?  What will be different about it?  What will come up as the newest experience of an old challenge?   Will we grow, will we flourish, will we have so-so crop yields, will the future be anything like the past (a chronic question in every church), and can we handle a future that looks nothing like the past (a scary question for every church)?   What happens next?   What does the future hold?
            Hear the Good News:
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Baptist History: William Sawyer (1821-1909)

What does an old Bible, likely given as a “presentation” Bible to a young person, tell us about the 19th century in the Capital District of New York?

Earlier this week, I received an inquiry through the local ABCNYS Association about a family wishing to donate a Bible to an area American Baptist congregation. They were going through an elder parent’s household and found a number of Bibles. One Bible was clearly a family heirloom, given the name inscribed. Another Bible they found indeed had an inscription, but the family could not identify any connection to the family or any idea why the Bible had come into their loved one’s possession at one time in the past.

The Bible in question has a handwritten inscription to a person for their attendance of the Sunday School of the Robin Street Baptist Church in Albany, NY. The date given is 1886.

Living in Albany myself, I knew already that there is no American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) congregation by that name any longer. Through some Google searching, I discovered the beginnings of a bread crumb trail about the Robin Street church, which indeed has closed. One thing I discovered via Google Books was a lead on the formation of the Robin Street church.

In a two volume book on the history of Albany, NY, I discovered Robin Street Baptist was part of the efforts of church planting supported enthusiastically by businessman and abolitionist William Sawyer (1821-1909). In this Albany retrospective, we read:

In religious preferences, Mr. [William] Sawyer is a decided Baptist. In 1840 he united with the Pearl Street (now Emmanuel Baptist Church) while Elder Jacob Knapp was assisting Rev Dr B.T. Welch. In 1871, he removed his church relations to the Calvary Church. His interest in the Sabbath School and mission work of the Baptist Church has been great and constant for many years.
To it he has given much time and toil and money July 29, 1866, the Kenwood Chapel which was started in 1864 was duly dedicated, Rev. Dr. Magoon preaching the sermon. This he gave to the Albany Baptist Missionary Union as a chapel for church purposes forever. On the day of its dedication the cars of the Albany Railway made the first trip to Kenwood. The Sunday School here numbers about 100.
The Robin Street Baptist Chapel was established by Mr. Sawyer in the German Baptist Church on Washington Avenue, November 4, 1866, and removed to the Robin Street Baptist Chapel into a building formerly used as a cabinet factory which he had purchased and remodeled for that purpose April 7 1872 as an Independent Sunday School. To its interests he has ever given his most watchful care. The school now numbers about 300. The Madison Avenue Chapel was purchased by him for Sunday School purposes in the spring of 1867. The school was started August 4, 1867, and placed in charge of the First Baptist Church. It has about 150 members.
Mr. Sawyer was one of the earliest and most active workers for the establishment of the Home for Aged Men, in soliciting subscriptions, organizing, and in selecting its location. He was a member of the first Board of Trustees. He has often addressed audiences of young and old in exhortation and textual discourse. His knowledge of the Scriptures, his zealous spirit, his nervous and rather eccentric manner, have made these addresses effective.

Likely some additional research as time allows will help me connect more of the dots about how this Bible came to be presented to a young person attending the Sunday School on Robin Street. Such efforts remind us that congregations come and go, ministry efforts in a community may ebb and flow, but the furthering of the Gospel is always in the hands of one generation passing the faith onwards to the next.

Returning to the Bible's inscription, I realized that the book was presented by William Sawyer himself! 

We may not have a great statue or likely any real institutional memory about William Sawyer and his work among the churches in the area. Nonetheless, a presentation Bible mixed in with other odds and ends of a household yields a testament to sharing faith and spreading the Baptist witness in Albany, New York.  The mission work of a Baptist layman comes back to life once more, offering inspiration for those who might think about being this generation's William Sawyer, sharing the faith with a new generation!

RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

To find out something regarding Robin Street Baptist, I referenced Google Books and found out about William Sawyer.


To discover Mr. Sawyer’s date of death, I played a hunch about cemeteries in the area and discovered his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery where many luminaries of Albany’s past are interred. (For example, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur is buried there.)

LINK:  (I input William Sawyer's name and searched for a compatible date, knowing his birth date from the above source and seeing minor mentions of his name that he was still alive in the late 19th century.  Sawyer lived into his eighties!)