While we are going to truly celebrate the accomplishment of paying off our building indebtedness at Homecoming in September when all pledges have come in and the note has actually been paid off, it is appropriate for us to pause today for an anticipatory note of celebration and reflection on the significance of meeting this challenge.

In the year 2000, after several rocky years, the future trajectory of this church was far from clear.  It could have been up, but it could just as easily have been down.  But the folks who were members here at the time became convinced it was time to take bold action to turn things back around and seize the day.  It was “Time to Build,” and talented folks went to work developing plans to solve our facility needs for this generation, and developing plans to raise money to carry it out.  The result was the remarkable building program you have heard about in recent weeks.  Before the building was done I occasionally heard someone say, “Why do we need an elevator, nobody will use that?”  Or “Why does a church need a full sized gym?”  Or “The kitchen we have is perfectly adequate.”

But since the building was completed I don’t remember ever hearing anyone say they don’t understand why some part of it was done.  The gym is used constantly, by people and groups of all ages.  The elevator has made it possible for people to continue participating in all aspects of the church when they previously would not have been able to because of accessibility issues.  There are no classes or choirs or programs that take place that someone with a disability cannot get to.  Everyone who works in the kitchen appreciates how roomy it is and how well equipped it is.  We have all enjoyed the much improved performance of the pipe organ and the expanded parking and the covered driveway and walkway, and so many other things.  It truly was a good move, and the number of new families who have joined since the project was completed bear testimony to that.

And now, 13 years after borrowing money to accomplish the task, we complete what was begun with excitement and sustained by patient giving to whittle away the debt.  This spring several families agreed to give far more than their share to a debt elimination campaign in order to give the needed momentum to succeed.  I had hoped that some of our newer members would feel led to “invest” and have a sense of ownership in the facilities here, and more than $50,000 has already been given by people who were not here when the first campaign was conducted.  I’ve heard no grumbling, just joy at the opportunity to participate and accomplish this.

So the logical question is, “What is next for Central Presbyterian Church?”  And the answer is: “I don’t know.”  Before 2000 I would have told you that you were crazy if you told me a $2.4 million building program was what was next for Central, but it was.  What I do know is that there will be something next, and then something after that, and after that.

The most dangerous thing, I think, is to ever get to the point where you believe you can rest on your laurels.  Jesus told a parable about a farmer whose crops came in so abundantly that he had no place to store them all.  So he built new barns, and he stored it all up, and he sat back and patted himself on the back and said, “Now it is time to relax, for I have ample goods laid up for many years.  I shall eat, drink, and be merry.”  His life ended that night.

The Apostle Paul exhorted the Galatians, “Let us not grow weary in doing good…”  The Old Testament speaks of the Israelites moving from Egypt toward the Promised Land “by stages.”  And Hebrews, in talking about the great heroes of the faith, says they all had opportunities to turn around and go back home but they persevered and took the necessary risks to follow where they believed God was leading them.  That is what it means to be up to the next challenge.

Caleb is one of the best illustrations of this in the Bible.  Just a little over a year after the Exodus, after Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, God told Moses to send spies into the Promised Land to scout it out before they went in to take it.  Twelve spies were sent, one representing each tribe.

When they came back their report started out sounding good.  It is indeed a good land, flowing with milk and honey, and we have brought samples of its produce.  But then, as Richard Boyce points out, the report takes a sinister turn with the word, “Yet.”  The faintheartedness so familiar to all of us begins to creep in and undermine the plan.  “Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large.”

Boyce writes, “The entire forward momentum of the story is suddenly placed in jeopardy… the whole expedition now begins to unravel.  The spies lift their heart from the fruit of this land toward the people of this land and suddenly a future filled with promise becomes overwhelmed with threat.  The people of this land grow and grow until they are the size of the prehistoric Nephilim, while the Israelites have been reduced to grasshoppers.  The land of milk and honey becomes a land that devours its inhabitants… Having reduced the entire enterprise to a purely human level, their report becomes highly ‘unfavorable’, and we’re back to our old tricks: lifting up our voices in lamentation, dreaming of the good old days in Egypt, and proposing a counterexpidition to the south!” (WBC, Leviticus and Numbers, p. 159)

Sometimes the longer you have to think about doing something the more reasons come to mind why you shouldn’t do it, or why you won’t be successful, and it gets harder and harder to get going.  You know well how one or two negative voices can totally change a conversation and influence a decision.

In this case the majority of the spies have become filled with self-doubt.  They have forgotten that the Lord who brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and wonders has promised to bring them into the Promised Land with a mighty hand and wonders.  They have remembered that they are a bunch of ex-slaves with no experience fighting battles and conquering lands.  I can understand that.

Two of the spies brought a minority report, and Caleb was the main spokesman.  He said, “Let us go up at once and occupy the land, for we are well able to overcome it.”  He reminded them not to let their fear of the people lead to rebellion against the Lord.  But the whole congregation threatened to stone Caleb and Joshua.  They were ready to elect a new captain to lead them back to Egypt.

As a result of this episode God was angry enough that he decreed that none of the current generation other than Caleb and Joshua would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  This is the reason they wandered in the wilderness on the eastern side of the Jordan for 40 more years before entering the land.

So 45 years later, when the people have crossed into the Promised Land and it is time to decide who is going to live where, Caleb goes to see his old colleague Joshua, who is now in charge.  He reminded him of God’s promise to him that he and his descendants would possess the land which he spied out, which was occupied by the people who made the hearts of the other spies quail.  He said, “I am 85 years old, as strong today as I was then.  So give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke; it may be that the Lord will be with me and I shall drive them out.”  Joshua blessed Caleb and gave him Hebron for an inheritance.

He had waited for 45 years for this day.  His faith in the God who promised had not wavered.  At 85, he was not ready for the rocking chair or the retirement home, he was up for the next big challenge, which was taking over the rugged hill country of Judah.

That is the kind of spirit that is needed for following God.  It has led people not just to pay off the loan but to plan, prepare for and fund a youth mission trip to Brazil for the first time; to fully fund our annual Mission Drive; to host family promise regularly, feed through Saturday Servants; to provide nurture for children, youth, and adults in a variety of ways; to hire a full time director of music; to expand the style and substance of our musical presentations; to reach out with caring and sharing in the name of Christ.

We are singing some great hymns today which capture this pilgrim spirit.  “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.  I am weak, but thou art mighty.  Hold me with thy powerful hand.”  “Deep in the shadows of the past, far out from settled lands, some nomads traveled with their God across the desert sands.  The dawning hope of humankind by them was sensed and shown: a promise calling them ahead, a future yet unknown.”  “I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry.  All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.  I, who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.  Who will bear my light to them?  Whom shall I send?  Here I am, Lord.  Is it I, Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go, Lord, if you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart.”

What will be the next big challenge God sets before us?  Who knows?  Wednesday night the fire alarm went off here at the church and I was called to meet the fire department here.  While I was on the way, I wondered if that was going to be our next big challenge.  How ironic that would have been.  It was a false alarm, but you never know.  We walk by faith and not by sight into the future.  Guide us, great Jehovah.  I will go, Lord, if you lead me.  Here I am, send me.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


David J. Bailey

June 1, 2014

Central Presbyterian Church

Anderson, SC