My daughter Sophia from time to time will pick out a large book at our house and start calling it her bible. “Daddy can you read my bible” “Have you seen my bible?” and on and on. It first was actually a bible, given that Heidi and I are both pastors it’s not unusual for there to be a couple of bibles laying around. She also has a couple of children’s bibles that have played this role, it has also been Shell Silverstein’s “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and most recently it is the First Presbyterian Church Nebraska City cookbook.
I was looking through that book when my wife and I realized this church has a pattern, a thread that has woven it’s way through the entire history of First Presbyterian Church since Henry Giltner arrived in 1855. There is an ebb and flow in this congregation that I think can help us understand where we are right now and where we are going in the future.
The thread is a thread of major change a couple of times a century.
Our first building was built in 1857, for 45 years we faithful worshipped and learned there, then we built a new building in 1902. From 1902 until 1962, 60 years, we lived and grew in our second building, then in 1962 we built and moved into our new building, the building that 50 years we’ve call home still, the building where many of you were married in, where you raised your kids, and now your kids are raising their own kids.
Now breathe, I’m not about to suggest we need a new building, but what I am suggesting is that God is calling us to our next big change that will hopefully will set our course for the next half century.
What if we re-purposed our building to provide a high quality but affordable daycare and preschool for working parents? What if we opened our doors to the middle school across the street as an evacuation location or partnered with them to educate the children providing them a safe place to ask questions? What if we had a contemplative place opened all the time that could be used for prayer, meditation, and spiritual development? What if we ripped up all the pews and turned faced them towards one another? What if we partnered with the city to create a recreational area for students? A place where they could strengthen their whole selves, a place where they could learn and grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually the questions are endless and these aren’t my ideas they are ideas I have heard from you, in meetings, on you idea board, in conversations with you, as well as members of the surrounding community.
Now I know these are pretty wild ideas, they are fairly unbelievable honestly, and certainly we won’t do all of them, we might not do any of them, they may be too big for us, they may be too hard, they may be too impossible…but I don’t think so.
I believe we are in a moment, a unique position, where like Abram, we can have an honest conversation with God and hopefully move forward in faith.
In our scripture lesson today we kind of enter in the middle of the story. We’re in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah, even before they get their new names. We get to listen to a conversation between Abram and God. It’s the type of conversation that you would only have with someone you had a close and trusted relationship with.
At this point in the story Abram has already packed up his things and moved to Canaan, then Egypt, been separated with his nephew, Lot, reunited with Lot, sold his wife into slavery…twice, and been blessed by the high priest Melchizedek, A LOT has happened since Abram and Sarai began their journey in the faith and trust that they would have a son and their descendents would number more than the stars. Yet, Sarai is not yet pregnant. So it seems understandable that Abram has some questions.
God’s words to Abram, “”Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.” Don’t seem to cut it. I picture Abram rolling his eyes, much like you would with your friend says trust me over and over again and they haven’t lied, but what they told you hasn’t quite worked out the way you planned.
God reassures Abram, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have.” Abram presses, “”LORD God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”
It’s a great question.
It’s a question we ask, we probably should ask, and if we don’t at least think about we seem impetuous or rash or silly. I mean really, we are going through this transformation process. You all set out in the fall of 2010 and have talked and listened and prayed and I know been promised that there would be more members and more energy and more spirit. So far we are two years plus in, from what I can tell there is more energy, there is more spirit, there is ideas, but I’m willing to bet that isn’t what you were expecting. I’ll tell you this, in the fall of 2010 I sure wasn’t expecting to be living and serving in Nebraska, but I’m glad God had a plan and here we are.
You are probably getting tired of me talking about this but we really want your big hairy audacious goals or dreams for this church, what crazy idea has God spoken to you. I’m sure when Abram, was in his eighties at this point, got laughed at when he told people that he was following God who promised that he would have more descendents than stars.
God recommits to God’s covenant with Abram, they follow the ritual of the time of splitting a sacrificial animal, except God asks Abram to split all of the animals to prove how dedicated to this God was. A covenant was cut, literally, a contract was signed, by two parties, Abram and God and much like any contract you have ever signed there are commitments made by both parties. God promises to give Abram descendents and Abram promises to trust God and continue to follow God’s leading. Abram was not a passive participant in this covenant and we aren’t passive participants in this process of transformation that God is leading us on and has been leading us on since Rev. Giltner in 1855. I imagine he could have never imagined where we are now, I wonder if 50 or 100 or 150 years from now will those reading the history of First Presbyterian Church or the history of Nebraska City be able to look back on our journey and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
God has cut a convenant with us, God’s faithfulness has shown itself through the last 150 years, God’s faithfulness has shown itself through the stories that I have heard from you, the stories of heartache, the stories of triumph, the stories that are still being told. As our story of faith unfolds, I’m am certain that it will be different than we anticipated but when we look back we will be able to say, “Wow, what a ride, who would have ever guessed that First Presbyterian Church of Nebraska City could of started that…”
How did they know it would work?
The truth is we don’t, we try and fall down, we step out in faith, we get lost, we find our way back, we find our way forward, we fail, we triumph, but through it all we have faith that the God that sent Abram out of Haran and gave Abram his son, Isaac, who began our ancestry, is the same God that is sending us out to not only be transformed as a congregation but to transform the world around us.
Let us not be passive, let us hold up our end of the covenant with God, let us continue to dream and trust, knowing that God is, has been, and will be with us all along the way.