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Sunday, June 2, 2019
Scripture: Acts 9:36-43 & Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Every church I have served has an origin story. The church on St. Simons Island in Georgia began because a pastor from the mainland saw the need for a Presbyterian church on the island. He was called the “bicycling pastor” because he rode his bicycle to the houses that were scattered throughout the island to discuss with them the prospect of organizing a new church. By 1946, St. Simons Presbyterian Church was officially organized with forty-six founding members meeting in community spaces until they built a sanctuary eight years later.
The lore around the founding of Kirk in the Hills, my second church, was far greater. Back when Bloomfield Hills was the countryside filled with orchards, a Detroit businessman named Colonel Edwin George had a country home – a mansion, really – in what was then the hinterlands of Detroit. Among his many ventures, he invented the gas-powered lawn mower, but he made the majority of his wealth from buying real estate. On his property in Bloomfield Hills, Colonel George determined that there should be a venerable Presbyterian church and that part of his legacy would be using his country estate for this church. After decades of work, there now sits the largest Presbyterian church in our state, located on 40-acres with a lake to its north. It’s a mighty structure – awe-inspiring really. Colonel George died before it was finished, but he was buried in the narthex of the church, so I guess he’s attended every worship service that church has ever held.
Still, as fun as the story of the bicycling pastor is and as strange as some of the Colonel George lore is, I think First Presbyterian Grand Haven has the most impressive origin story of all. It’s a part of the very fabric of this town, and there are plenty of people in our area who know about our start who have never set foot in First Pres. A couple of months ago I was at a gathering of local pastors, and one of the pastors from Watermark Church gave a devotion that cited Zechariah 4, the passage that the Rev. William Ferry preached on for the first sermon of our church. We know the passage well – “do not despise the day of small things” – even though I would guess we’d fumble to even find Zechariah in our Bibles. I was blown away to hear another local pastor wax on about William Ferry, about how God works in small things, and about how God worked through this one man to use a church to shape an entire community. I was proud to be sitting in that room as another pastor in a long line of them, all building upon Ferry’s legacy. We’ve been here for 183 years, and the town has only been here for 185 years.
Over the past couple of weeks we have been preaching through our church’s Core Values, as recently adopted by our Session. First, we are Christ-centered. Next, we are better together. And this week our third Core Value is this: We are at the heart of the community. This, quite frankly, is a bold claim, especially in this era where churches no longer are the hub of most communities. Yet, I believe this is still true of us, and I believe that there is something we should aspire to in this. Grand Haven and the Tri-Cities are in our church’s very DNA. We have a calling and a responsibility to make sure that we remain a vital part of making our community a welcoming place.
There are several facets to what we mean by being “at the heart of the community.” What does it mean to be “at the heart”? Well, there’s the historical facet of this. Quite literally the man who founded our town also founded our church. In fact, upon his arrival, he began preaching at Rix Robinson’s house almost immediately. Within months, Ferry had formed a Presbyterian Society in his home, and this turned into what is now First Presbyterian Church. From its inception, our church has been part of the fabric of this area. For almost 15 years, we were the only church in town, even. So, our history speaks to our being at the heart of the community, but so does our geography.
The church’s first meeting place was in the Ferry’s partially finished home on the southeast corner of Washington and Harbor, what is now the Kirby Grill. The first church building was on the 200 block of Washington, and it was both a school and a church. Eventually, the church moved to the patch of land where it remains to this day. Of course, church buildings are expensive to build and costly to maintain, but there’s a reason they are worth our efforts. Listen to the words from the dedication of this very building in which we sit today:
“This, then, with God’s help, has been the Great Endeavor:
Those words are decades old but they ring true to what we’re about today still. As property values skyrocket in Grand Haven, this plot of land could be turned into a valuable asset. Being landlocked the way we are is a challenge. We don’t have enough parking. As much as this facility is a blessing to our ministry, there are changes we could make to enhance the ministry, but I’m just not sure if we have the footprint to make some of those changes. Yet, we believe God has called us to be at the heart of the community, and so here we will stay, welcoming all who would come.
But there’s a third way we are at the heart of the community, and I think this one is even more important than the history or physical location of the church. We are a church that has strived to be instrumental to the betterment of the Tri-Cities and beyond. Several community agencies have sprung forth from this congregation, sometimes using our buildings as part of their launching. Our members have helped transform this community. Our church has been a part of the building of the YMCA. Tri-Cities Ministries has provided countless hours of counseling to our community in part because of this church. The Center for Women in Transition found a home here, helping women leave abusive partners. We have used our location to be in a mission to Central School, right next door. There we assist with the food pantry, with mentoring, and in any way we can to better the lives of those students. Our members have been involved all over the community and region in supporting education, the arts, and missions. Today hundreds of people enter this building every week to entrust their children to our Joyful Noise Christian Childcare ministry. Our church building remains a community hub, hosting civic groups, drug court, AA, and so much more. I’ve been trying to find a quiet place at the church for prayer lately, and I can’t because there is always so much going on in our building!
We have business owners in our church who provide good jobs to the community. We have teachers and nurses and school volunteers who strengthen us. We have people who build, who paint, and who coach. I am so proud that we take seriously our calling to share God’s love through our community engagement, working inside and outside of these walls to bring light and life. But I also believe that this is an area where we can use some renewed energy. This is an area where our members who have been at this for decades can encourage our younger generations and our newer members to engage more deeply with our community. I pray that we are always a significant force for good as long as there is a Grand Haven, Michigan.
So, this has been way too much about us and not at all about God’s Word, so let me tie things up with our readings from today. Acts 9 is the story of a community in grief over the death of Tabitha. She had been at the heart of the community, a woman devoted to good works and acts of charity. The story is about how the community runs to Peter to see if there is anything he can do for Tabitha. Miraculously, God brings her back to life, restoring some hope in the community and showing how the resurrection power of Jesus offers hope and life to those seeking him. Tabitha did small things well. I picture her almost like a Mother Teresa whose small deeds really wouldn’t have drawn attention, except she did them so persistently that she gained renown. What if First Pres was like Tabitha? What if we went away, would our community grieve? Would they miss us and the value we added to this community? I think the answer to this is a resounding yes, and the same power that brought Tabitha back to life is the power that gives us life to do what God has called us to do today – to be at the heart of the community.
Hebrews 11 begins, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” William Ferry did not know what would come of his efforts here, but he had faith that it was worth the shot. 183 years later we are still here. The cultural currents are shifting against us. Our society no longer operates with the church as a given in peoples’ lives. Fewer and fewer people are recognizing that the God-shaped hole in their lives gets filled in Christ-centered community. Opening our doors on a Sunday or throughout the week is no strategy for church growth. The odds are now stacking against our enterprise, but I have the conviction of things not seen. I believe that we have what it takes to be essential to the fabric of our community. This is no guarantee, however. I am on the Committee on Ministry for our presbytery, and since I’ve been here, we’ve closed two churches. Most recently, First Presbyterian of Albion held its final worship service. That church started the same year ours did. That church once had a membership of over 600 people. That church was vibrant in mission and witness, including being a stop for the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for Civil Rights work. That church was at the heart of its community, but now it’s not.
So, let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s not assume just because we have a good history that this enterprise is going to continue forever. We are at the heart of the community, and we have work to do to remain there. It’s part of who we are, and it’s part of who God is calling us to be.
Churches all have stories – from bicycling pastors to lawn mower inventors. Ours is a great story that continues to have bearing upon our identity today. We are at the heart of the community, and, Lord willing, that’s exactly where we’ll be for decades to come.