June 25, 2017

Writing the Story

“‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages—and kings—and why the sea is boiling hot—and whether pigs have wings.’”  When I was in 8th grade, those were words I looked forward to hearing.  I heard them about once a month.  They were recited by my algebra teacher, Mr. Brock.  Mr. Brock was one of those rare teachers who made learning math—algebra no less—about the most fun thing I could have ever imagined doing.  I still remember the lesson about how to work with positive and negative integers.  It was all about the Battle of Integer Hill.

Besides all of the fun we had learning actual math, Mr. Brock did a variety of other things to keep us engaged.  One was to weekly read us a series of mystery stories he wrote featuring the fearless detectives Shack and Toilet.  He also did a weekly license plate challenge wherein he gave us a license plate with a disguised phrase we had to figure out.  Another was to change up his seating chart once a month.  It was smart classroom management turned into a game for the students.  And we always knew it was time to change up the seating chart, because when we all got seated and the bell had rung, the first thing Mr. Brock would do was walk to the front of the class and say, “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said…”  Most of the students finished the poem stanza with him, and then we gathered our things and prepared to move.

Well, this morning you can rest easy because I’m not going to make you gather your things and change seats.  There’s no sense burning any bridges on my way out the door!  But, more than being a Pavlovian signal that it was time to change seats, those words became for me a banner for a season of transition.  Well, this morning marks the official beginning of a season of transition for Central Baptist Church.  This morning it is time to say goodbye.  And yet, this is not an end.  It is merely the turning of the page of another chapter into a new part of the story of Central Baptist Church.  This story is one God has been writing for nearly 150 years and this story itself is part of the much larger story that God has been writing since the beginning of time.  This morning I want to tell you these stories in hopes that by the time we leave here in a little while you will be more convinced than ever that God is writing a great story here at Central and that it is a story you very much want to be a part of for a long, long time.

The big story begins with these familiar words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That sweeping declaration gives way to a beautiful narrative through whose meter is described the speaking into being of the entirety of the cosmos.  One by one God calls into being every thing that we see and don’t.  All of this finally culminates into creation’s crowning glory: Beings made in His own image.  Nothing else in all of the world would rival the splendor of people, because of all the world, God made us alone in His likeness and to be in a relationship of love with Him.  He created us and then gave us a beautiful home in which to live out our days—days designed to last on into eternity with Him.

But these days were not to last.  The first man and woman had their hearts drawn away from God by the twisted lies whispered into their minds by the serpent.  They broke covenant with God their creator, and took charge of their own lives.  Because of our position as stewards of creation, though, this brokenness did not stay with us.  It spread from these two hearts to cover the whole world.  All of their descendants since that time have had this disease of sin in them from the moment of their creation onward.  Worst of all, breaking covenant with God pulled us out of a relationship with Him.  No longer would we be able to enjoy the splendor of His presence as fully and freely as we had known them.

Yet this was only the beginning of the story.  It is not the beginning God wanted to have happen, but He nonetheless knew it would.  As a result, He had already planned for it.  When our ancestors ate the fruit and stole their lives from the one to whom they rightly belonged, God set in motion plans that would take several hundreds of years to work out to completion.  He began building a nation from which would come a genealogical line that would eventually produce a child whose birth had been foretold for centuries.  This child would grow to be a man who would show us how we were always intended to live after this had long since been forgotten.  But the journey from the garden’s edge to the empty tomb was long and winding.  There was much story to be written in between.

For Central, our story started somewhat differently.  Ours begins like this: In the beginning—that is, 1873—Richard Williamson, James Gunn (not the director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), and Martha Puryear received a deed from Benjamin and Mary Ford for a two-acre plot of land in Church Road.

The roots of this body run even deeper than that, though.  All the way back in 1829, William Hyde of Petersburg moved to Dinwiddie County, across the street from where Wipponock Farm is today.  He was the only Baptist in the area and so he decided to organize a prayer meeting and Bible study in his home.  At the initial meeting four men accepted the Gospel and were baptized.  Within three years the Bible study organized itself into a church called Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.  About 40 years later, the members of Mount Pleasant decided to join forces with another Baptist Church—Central Baptist Church—because the former had a strong community and a pastor, but no building; while the latter had a building (located at the corner of 611 and 645), but a tiny community and no pastor—so that by their combined efforts they might have a more effective impact on their community.  They adopted Central’s name for combined church because they furnished the building.  They moved to the present location in 1873 when the Fords gave them land.  By 1875 they were able to call their first pastor, a man named DR. T. W. Sydnor.  By 1937 this building had been dedicated, was occupied, and being used as a launching point for impacting the Church Road community with the Gospel.

The launching point God chose to use for His own plans was a man named Abram.  Abram, in a pattern that William Hyde would later follow, left his home and everything familiar to him behind in order to move to a new place that God would show him.  He went on the basis of a simple, but grand, promise: I am going to use you to bless the whole world.  It was a long time before Abram—soon Abraham—would see that promise begin to take shape, but 25 years later, when he was 100 years old, he held his newborn son in his arms.  The child was named Isaac, laughter, because of the joy he brought to his parents, but also because of the sheer unbelievable nature of his birth.  Isaac gave way to Jacob who had twelve sons and wrestled with God earning him the name Israel.  Israel’s son moved to Egypt, were enslaved by Pharaoh, and under these harsh conditions began to increase in number rapidly.  Yet God was up to a great work and while He prized faithfulness above all else, He was not limited by the character of the people through whom He chose to accomplish His plans.  He worked His good plans to completion sometimes because of the people He chose, and sometimes in spite of them.  Still, the plans rolled on ever forward because He had something bigger than any one person in mind: Satisfying the demands of both His justice and His love by paying the price for our sins Himself and reopening the doorway to a relationship with Him.

He worked these plans out through good people facing bad circumstances—like Joseph and Moses and Daniel.  He also worked them out through people no one would ever imagine could be used by God like a womanizer named Samson, a prostitute named Rahab, and a poor Moabite widow named Ruth.  Through Moses God gave the nation He had patiently allowed to grow from the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a clear picture of what living in the bounds of a relationship with Him looked like.  This became known as the Law and would shape the hearts of the nation for thousands of years to come.

Still, because of the lasting effects of that original sin, the people of Israel, as they became known, did not live well within those boundaries.  A vicious persecutor of the church-turned passionate Jesus follower, named Paul would later write that the Law was weakened and corrupted by sin such that it became a tool of oppression rather than freedom, showing us all the places where we had failed, and keeping us locked firmly out of a relationship with God.  This resulted in some growing pains—a lot of growing pains.  The nation variously turned away from God and faced the consequences only to later turn back and reap the rewards.  Along the way God raised up leaders for the people.  Some of them served long and well like David and Josiah, while others led the people away from God with a speed that had to have left them breathless.  In those dark days God sent men called prophets to warn the people they were getting far off track and needed to turn around before the consequences of their choices came to bear.  They didn’t listen and eventually were conquered by larger, more powerful nations, whom God used to humble them and break their hearts so they were ready to receive the next thing He would give them.  Yet this period of chastening would not last forever.  They would eventually be freed to return to their homeland where they would set out yet again on the path of following God.

Central’s path of growth from 1873 onward was one of challenges and setbacks, but also of faithfulness and growth.  As the community slowly grew they dealt with issues like fires, rebuilding in the aftermath, whether or not to let dogs roam free in the sanctuary during the service, whether or not to build stalls for the horses people drove to church, and making sure the church was well stocked with oil for the lamps that lit the sanctuary.  Over one seven-month period in 1910 the pastor’s salary was $145.84.  The current parsonage was built and occupied by 1952—a project that became necessary when Central was large enough that it no longer needed to share resources with Cutback, Sharon Baptist Churches, remaining aligned only with Smyrna Baptist.  In 1955 the now-middle part of our building including the nursery, offices, and basement were added.  Smyrna and Central formally parted ways in 1962 when Rev. Cecil Gholston was called to lead the church.  About ten years later, with the church’s centennial approaching, Rev. Kenneth Huneycutt of Oakboro, NC was called to serve as the pastor—a call that is finally now coming full circle.  The story since has been one of the church being the church.  People have come and gone, ministries have been started and been allowed to end, and the church has become a staple in this community.

For God’s people Israel, the path following Him after their return from exile was a tumultuous one.  The world was changing and they weren’t always prepared to change with it.  Powerful leaders came and went and so did empires with them.  Had they been a far-off kingdom in some remote part of the world this wouldn’t have been of much consequence.  But they weren’t.  The land they called their home sat right at perhaps the single most important intentional crossroads there was or even perhaps has ever been.  And so the people were passed around from ruler to ruler, some reasonably fair, but many who were harsh and cruel and tried to break their spirit and stamp out their peculiar way of life.  Yet the people of Israel were incorrigible in their commitment to what they understood to be the path of righteousness.  They were so committed because they had purpose: They were to be preparing for the coming of God’s Messiah, the one who was supposed to set everything in the world right again.  The waiting wasn’t always easy, but the mission gave them life and enabled them to continue on the path regardless of the difficulties they faced for it.

The irony here is that they didn’t understand what He was going to be like to the point that they not only missed Him when He was here, but in fact had Him put to death for daring to claim a title they were certain belonged to someone else.  Yet Jesus came all the same.  He came, demonstrated how to live the real life God had always wanted us to live, made certain a small group of followers were well-equipped to share His message, and then, after settling the issue of sin with His sacrificial death, and life with His death-defeating resurrection, returned home to be with His Father.  His remaining followers started a whole movement geared at advancing His message and the life He invited people to live that eventually became known as the Church.  The Church was the renewed people of Israel, but instead of being driven by the mission of waiting for the Messiah to come, they were now driven by a new mission: telling the world that He was already here.

It is this mission that has been the lifeblood of every faithful church ever since.  But here’s the thing: It looks different in every individual church.  Just like all the parts of the human body work together to accomplish the singular purpose of keeping the body alive and healthy, yet none of them work in the same way, so also the various parts of the body of Christ—churches—are all working toward the same end, yet no two of them are designed specifically to do that in quite the same way.

Here’s the other thing, though: While it is easy to identify with the big mission of the church, drilling down on exactly how an individual church is designed to do that takes a lot more effort and intentionality.  For much of this church’s history, a lot of very faithful people were pursuing the big mission of the church without necessarily having a clear picture of how exactly we had been designed to do it.  Several years ago, though, the right group of leaders came together at the right time and clarified just how exactly we had been so designed.  What these folks came to understand is that we have been designed by God for this present season to share the Good News about Jesus by creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  We’re a church and so that much means we are all about sharing the Gospel with the world around us—and if we’re not actively sharing the Gospel with the world around us and engaging in the lives of our unchurched neighbors we can’t very honestly claim that title—but the way we’ve been designed to do that is to create this incredible community where people can really belong, learn the deep truths of the faith, and be unleashed to serve the world around them.

And, just like across history when the church gets its primary mission right the world is transformed, starting with the church and spiraling out from there; when an individual church starts really firing on its specific mission to do that, its own community and world can be transformed.  Well, look around.  We are in the midst of a transformation here at Central.  It has been unfolding slowly for a number of years but has been really picking up for the last two or three years in particular.  The evidence of this is everywhere we look.  Think about just the last two Sundays alone.  We’ve got grads being sent out to impact their world, we just came off what was our most successful VBS ever, and we baptized 10 folks last week.  I’ll say it yet again: God is doing a great work here at Central Baptist Church.  He is writing an incredible story.  You are part of a grand story.  But it’s a story that’s not yet finished.  You’ve got to keep telling it.  You are part of a grand story; keep telling it.

Keep telling it because, again, God’s not finished writing it.  How do I know that?  Well for one, the church isn’t closing its doors.  We’re in the process of slowly blowing them off!  For another, we haven’t yet seen everyone connect here who is going to connect here.  There are still many people just in our community who don’t have a relationship with Jesus and who will yet come to have one because of the work He is doing through this body of believers.  Let me give you one more reason: God Himself has promised that the work He begins in us won’t stop until it is completed.  Paul tells us as much at the beginning of his letter to the church in Philippi.  Check this out: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it like this: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus returns.”

That’s powerful stuff.  That’s important stuff.  For me to say that God is doing a great work here at Central Baptist Church isn’t just some mostly meaningless platitude designed to leave you feeling encouraged as I head out the door.  It isn’t even just an accurate description of our current state of affairs.  It is a deep and powerful theological truth describing not simply what God is doing, but, if we remain on track with Him, what He fully intends to continue doing until the day of His return.  In other words, it doesn’t ever have to not be like this around here all the time.  You are part of a grand story; keep telling it.

As we celebrated last week, lives are being transformed because of what is going on at Central Baptist Church.  What that means is that this church is working like it was designed by God to work.  Well, once He has a part of His body up and running at full capacity, what do you think are the odds that He will let it settle back into the rut of the way things have otherwise always been done?  Given what Paul says here, I’d say the odds are zero.  In fact, I’d say the odds are just the opposite of that.  He wants to expand its capacity in the same way that an athlete works constantly to not simply get in peak shape, but to keep increasing the limits of what his peak shape means.

As long as this body of believers stays on track with what God is doing—in other words, as long as you keep creating a place in Dinwiddie County (I’d say North Central Dinwiddie County, but we’re not limited to that anymore because God has continued expanding what He’s doing here and how wide the impact of that work is) where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ; as long as you continue being present and active out in the community, ministering to the needs of our neighbors; as long as you continue building fruitful partnerships with local community groups be they clubs or schools or other charitable organizations; as long as you keep using the gifts (people) God has given you to their fullest capacity—He’s going to make sure you can not only continue doing it, but doing it at an ever-higher level such that someday the kind of people who study how churches can be effective in their missions will be coming here to learn from you so they can go back, write books and articles, and tell other church how to do it better.  And just in case some of you are wondering: This doesn’t have anything to do with being a big church.  It has everything to do with being an effective church.  It has everything to do with being fully the church God designed you to be.  It has everything to do with being part of an incredible story that will be life for all those who take part in it.  It is a story you will want to tell over and over again not only because of the power it possesses, but because you just keep adding new and exciting chapters.  I mean, think about Celebrate Sunday next January and all of the stories you are going to have to celebrate together from just the first six months of this year!  You are part of a grand story; keep telling it.

Keep telling it, but know this as you do: 1. It’s going to take everybody playing the part God designed them to play (and sometimes parts God didn’t design them to play, but they need playing all the same) in order to make it happen.  2. Because God is the author, if you don’t stay active in prayer as a church, you aren’t going to know what He’s writing and how to stay on track with it.  3. What worked yesterday may very well not work tomorrow, so while you must rightly honor the past, you must not let it control what you do in the future.  4. Because your story is being written to bless other people who don’t yet know Jesus—just like Abram’s was—your personal preferences cannot be the most important consideration when deciding the next steps to take.  And 5. God is far more interested in your success—by which I mean your fruitful faithfulness—than you are, so as long as you let Him do the writing, your story will be a great one indeed.  You are part of a grand story here at Central Baptist Church.  Keep telling it, because I can’t wait to hear about what the next chapter holds.

Well, as we draw near the end and with what we have just been talking about in mind, I want to come to the table of the Lord’s Supper with you one last time.  If I remember correctly—and I think I do—we celebrated the Lord’s Supper together on my very first Sunday with you as your pastor.  It is only fitting that we do the same thing on my last.  More than that, though, in the bread and the juice set before us, we are reminded of the great story God has been writing all throughout human history.  It is a grand story that climaxed when God the Son allowed Himself to face death for our sins so that we didn’t have to.  He allowed His body to be broken in our place—which we remember in the bread—and His blood to be spilled to inaugurate a new covenant of life with the Father—which we remember in the juice—which is open for all those who are willing to follow Him to join.  Our unfolding story here at Central is a chapter in that great story.  It is a chapter that is getting better each day.  It will continue to grow and expand and become ever more epic as we commit ourselves to taking part in God’s big story.  And so as we come to the table together this morning, let us rejoice in the story God is writing, not only here, but in all of His world.  Let us rejoice and give thanks and commit ourselves once again to being a part of it.  If you are indeed a part of this story, then eat and drink with us.  If you’re not, what are you waiting for?  This is a story worth being a part of.  I hope that you’ve heard enough this morning to convince you of that.  But for now, hold off until you are so that you can really enjoy the telling when that day comes.  I’m going to pray again, and as I do, deacons, come on forward so that we can serve this together one last time.

In the end, then, there is only this: Thank you.  Thank you for nine years ago taking a huge risk on a young pastor, fresh out of seminary, and his very pregnant wife, neither of whom knew the first thing about leading a church.  Thank you for taking us into your hearts and your homes.  Thank you for sharing your lives with us and letting us share ours with you.  Thank you for loving our children and teaching them to love the church.  Thank you for being willing to grow and stretch and change with us.  Thank you for being patient as we have failed, giving us the space and the grace to get back up again and keep journeying with you.  Thank you for being willing to pursue the call of God wherever it has led and celebrating with us as it has led to some very exciting places.  Thank you for being willing—even if begrudgingly—to send us out in pursuit of God’s call on our lives.  Our lives have been irrevocably changed because of you.  We will never be the same again and we wouldn’t want to even if we could.  We literally could not imagine a better place to begin pursuing God’s call to lead His church.  And, though we are deeply saddened that we could not be here even longer to grow with you, we are confident in God’s work and the great future He has in store for Central Baptist Church.  Our hope is to go as ambassadors for what God has done here so that another group of believers—in this case a group of believers who are already connected to this body through almost 50 years of history—will be able to experience something similar.  Our prayers are with you even as we covet yours being with us.  Thank you, we love you, and we look forward to being with you again here when the Lord allows.  We hope too that you will keep in touch in spite of the distance, and if you are ever in the Charlotte area, please call so we can connect.