Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Profitable To Zion: Upon the Dissolution of First Baptist Church of Schenectady

Photo collages remind of ministry moments
On December 31, 2018, the First Baptist Church of Schenectady, NY, will conclude its 196 years of ministry.  Due to the holiday season, the church opted to have the formal celebration of closure on December 23rd to allow more people to participate before the Christmas holiday had some leaving town to be with loved ones elsewhere.

I was asked to preach the sermon, and I noted an interesting turn of phrase (see below) from their most recent church history from the days when the church was founded in the 1820s. 

The service was indeed celebratory.  They gathered for a light lunch afterwards to continue the time of fellowship.  During the service, a number of persons voiced their gratitude for the congregation's ministry and for the love and care they received from one another and their pastor Carole Miller.

Churches are started.  Churches are closed.  This is the reality throughout Christian history, yet it still seems "new" or "unprecedented", as such times are rarely fathomed and mostly feared.  In their decision to close, the congregation realized they were closing this church, but they had other churches in the area to go and become part of.  For everything there is a season, even for the local church. 
At the time of First Baptist’s centennial celebration in 1922, Rudolph Keller wrote:
At a meeting held on the 9th of October, 1822, a paper was drawn up stating that it was the belief of the subscribers that a Baptist church would be profitable to Zion and expressing their desire for such an organization.  At a meeting held November the 8th it was voted that a council be called to organize a church.  The council met on November 21, 1822....The Council unanimously advised the brethren to organize the church, which was done, and it was recognized by the council as the “First Baptist Church,” Schenectady, N.Y.   (History of the First Baptist Church, 1822 – 1922, revised edition, 1972, p. 1)
As I read your church history book, I noticed an unique turn of phrase:  “profitable to Zion”.  Language changes over time, even within the lingo of Baptists talking about establishing a church.  I turned to the internet to see if this was a phrase used in the 1820s or even in the 1920s.  To my surprise, I could not readily find other instances of that phrase popping up in my searches.  
While the dissolution came at the end of 2018,
the church faithfully observed the Advent season
to "watch and wait" as they have all these decades!
The phrase “profitable to Zion” was indeed important to the writer of the church history.  Perhaps it came from the minutes of the organizing meeting back in late 1822.  Or perhaps Rudolph Keller looked at the church’s history and said this phrase in light of the century that had passed since that organizing meeting.   Perhaps that phrase captured something of the moment then as it did for him looking back gratefully at what had come before.

               We gather this day as part of the concluding chapter of the history of First Baptist, Schenectady.  We are here to celebrate 196 years have passed since that day in 1822.  Many of you have been part of the most recent decades, keeping the church going in the 20th and 21st centuries.  (I will take for granted no one here will claim to have firsthand knowledge of the 1922 centennial year.  If so, we will gladly take a moment to ask you for your secrets to aging well!)
 Today, it can be a time for tears and sadness.  The church is dissolving itself.  You made the decision earlier this year to conclude and begin your pathway to the end of 2018, which is also the ending year of this congregation.
Today, it can be a time of gratitude and thanksgiving.  Nothing and no one can last forever.  Yet, we can live with gratitude for what has happened in the passage of time.  Surely you also have seen how this church could be a benefit, or “profitable”, in your life.  When we think of the ministry of the church, the caring of members for one another, the faithful service of pastors who you have known here through this congregation, it is a time to take heart that God was indeed in the midst of all of these years, those you participated in and those that have come long before you.
Generation to generation, this church has served the needs of Schenectady and blessed your life and that of your loved ones.   Without this church, your life would have been much different.   With FBC Schenectady, you have been part of a church family that has taken on challenges and opportunities and weathered together the storms of change personally and congregationally.
Being profitable to Zion is indeed the work of a congregation over the years, decades and centuries.   Congregations are places to hear the Word, to pray and to sing hymns to God, and to be with others of similar belief to live out faith together.  While you can believe, religion is not a solitary practice in itself.  We are called to be with others on the long journey of life and seek the ways of faith in the here and now as we watch and pray for the “yet to come” part of our faith.  
We look, if we aren’t also leaning forward eagerly, toward the time when our faith’s promises will be honored in full.  We may call that “the End Times”.  We may call it “the Sweet Bye and Bye”.  Yet for the first Baptists to organize First Baptist, Schenectady in 1822 and the present day members of First Baptist, Schenectady, preparing to dissolve the church, it is a matter of yearning for Zion to be made known to us.
Zion:  it’s that phrase you may have read in Scripture or sung in the lyrics of a hymn.   Zion is another name for Jerusalem, but not a mere “nickname”.  Rather, Zion is that term of endearment for what Jerusalem could be:  the city shining on the hill, the place where the very nations of this world will gather.   The hymn often sang in worship recalls the euphoria of ancient pilgrims heading up the mountains to be in Jerusalem:
“We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion!
We’re marching upward to Zion
the beautiful city of God!”
While our lives are difficult, while doubt can loom large over us, this talk of “Zion” in the Scriptures returns us to this overwhelming sense that “in the End, God shall have the last word.”  So the Psalmist can turn us toward language that is poetic and imaginative of a “glad river” where all the disruptive and sad parts of our existence have their resolution and their rest in the midst of God’s abiding goodness.
When the Baptists of 1822 set out to be “profitable to Zion”, they looked forward in expectation and anticipation.  There was a great eagerness to be a Baptist witness in Schenectady.  Other Christians and other Baptists were in the area, yet they wanted to plant themselves here in this place where they had settled, found work, and got to know their neighbors.  They had families and passed down that faith. 
Yet the story of 1822 is also the story of every year thereafter.  Your church history records in brief the long passage of time, highlighting the change of ministers, the moments when the congregation had an opportunity or a challenge and how they rose to the occasion.  The church members struggled with questions of location.  Mergers were considered.  Buildings were constructed, and then later sold. 
In the midst of these years, you kept marching toward Zion.   You shared the faith, you baptized new believers.  You were at the side of the bedside of those who died.  You rejoiced in newborn babies and presented them to the Lord.  You had committee meetings, Vacation Bible School in all of its glitter-covered craft glory.  You worshipped in all the seasons of the year, and helped one another as you journeyed through your own seasons of life.
A few of the worshippers at the dissolution worship service
 For all the seasons, all the years, all the love of Zion, you worshipped together in various places around Schenectady, most recently here in this wonderful partnership with Stanford Heights UMC.   You’ve had challenges, some recorded in the “official history” and others that I imagine you’d love to tell me about out in the parking lot.  You’ve joined together with community partners like SICM and been faithful participants in the life of the Capital Area Baptist Association and the American Baptist Churches of New York State. 
It may be tempting to ask today if you were not profitable to Zion.  Church closures can seem so “final”.  I realize they are a closing chapter of one story, yet how you move forward from this day will help the story continue!   Each of you can join another area American Baptist congregation.  While you were and will always be the “first” Baptist church of Schenectady, our sister congregations of Emmanuel Friedens, Friendship Baptist, Mt Olivet Missionary Baptist and Tabernacle Baptist would gladly welcome you to join their membership.   While the time of harvest has come in full here for First Baptist, each of you can be the grain of those 196 years of faithful witness and plant the things you’ve learned here, the talents and gifts of the Spirit each of you have, and be a blessing to another of our American Baptist congregations in the area.  In fact, I know that they would be glad to have you, as I’ve heard from the pastors over the past few months saying that they stand ready to receive you, if you so choose to unite with their congregations.   Such faithful folks as you here at FBC Schenectady are part of the great bounty and abundance God has gifted your church with over the years!
               And your church’s legacy will continue in the gifts you plan to give to various organizations and American Baptist partners.  Indeed, the work of our American Baptist Region is the beneficiary of a long and faithful history of Northern Baptists all across upstate New York, giving of their resources through ongoing gifts.  Your generosity as the church concludes its worship life ensures the aims and purposes of First Baptist will continue long into the future through your giving.
  • Profitable to Zion: that’s what your forbearers wanted to be when they convened a council to decide if there should be a Baptist church in Schenectady. 
  • Profitable to Zion:  that’s what you are being here in 2018 as you close the church at year’s end.  In the legacy of your planned giving, in the legacy of each of you who go forward now to be with other congregations, in the continuing ministry of Pastor Carole following her vocation to serve God’s people as faithfully as she has here among you these past twenty years, indeed, you have honored those who have gone on before you.
          Indeed, First Baptist, Schenectady, has lived up to its aspirations from long ago:  Profitable to Zion, from generation to generation, sharing the Gospel in word and deed alike.   One hundred ninety-six years of blessing the cities of Schenectady and Niskayuna, and being faithful witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
             Profitable to Zion:  from beginning to end! 
Profitable to Zion:  from 1822 to 2018!
             Profitable to Zion:  from going from this place and people to another place and people!
Profitable to Zion:  from generation to generation to yet another generation, AMEN!
Rev Carole Miller gives the benediction.

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