Psalm 124
Marshall: Armstrong UMC
September 27, 2015
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
         Psalm 124 fits with the purpose of your 170th Anniversary.  En route to the temple, Israel is rejoicing and praising God.  Some theologians believe they are returning from Babylon.  God’s people may be remembering the capture and destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar and his soldiers.  By force, survivors are taken in chains to Babylon.  They live, work and raise their children as slaves.  Seventy years later, Cyrus captures Babylon.  Once Cyrus discovers that Israel is captive, he frees and sends them home.  Full of joy, laughter and thanksgiving, the former captives begin marching to Zion with a powerful truth of a gospel song on their lips.  “If it had not been for the Lord on our side, tell where I would be? Where would I be?”  As a church, you are celebrating God’s deliverance as well.  “Through many dangers, toils and snares, the church has already come, its grace that has led you safe thus far, and grace will lead you home.”  Blessed be the Lord!!!       
                                             Sunday School Class
Sunday School is rooted in the experience of the Babylonian exiles mentioned in Psalm 124.  When the captured Jews were relocated in Babylon, annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem were no longer possible.  So the people of God found other ways to maintain their religious and cultural identity.  Synagogues were built.  Prayer, singing and Bible Study took place.  After Cyrus liberated the Jews in Babylon, house and Jewish synagogues sprang up everywhere.  If persons never journeyed to Jerusalem, synagogues provided a house of worship for the community.  
Peter’s sermon about Jesus at Pentecost stirred another religious movement, namely Christianity.  Three thousand folk joined the church of Jesus Christ.  To meet their spiritual needs, worship with prayer, singing, Bible Study and preaching took place.  Love feasts, the Lords Supper,   fellowship and pot luck dinners filled daily agendas.  To repeat, the body of Christ sprang forth from the movement of the Holy Spirit.      
      Lydia, a businesswoman, provided a good example.  Paul met her in Philippi down by the riverside.  Apparently, Lydia and other women gathered for prayer and worship.  One Saturday, Paul preached and issued the call to discipleship.  Lydia responded.  That day, Lydia and her entire household were baptized.  Even more providential, Lydia started a house church that served others including Paul.      
       Given Jewish and Christian history just recounted, it is now possible to see the miracle of creation in the following sentence recorded in your church history.  Armstrong began as a small Sunday School class that met in a home.  It’s likely that your Sunday school class engaged in the same activities as Lydia and her group of women, as members of the Acts 2 community, as Paul’s seminars on Jesus and the Bible, as did the Babylonian exiles who sat down by the river Chebar and wept when they remembered Zion.  The body of Christ was born and continues to replicate itself to this day.  
    In the past twenty-five years or so, Disciple Bible Study has swept across the United Methodist Church.  It is a 34 week disciplined study of the Old and New Testaments with 10-15 people.  Countless participants have called it transformational.  I listened to a DVD where people gave their thoughts regarding Disciple Bible Study.  For example:  A.) “I have always called myself a Christian not a disciple.  Now I’m more than a Sunday disciple, I’m an everyday disciple.”   B.)  I took Disciple Bible Study to get to know the Bible better, to understand some of its mysteries.  C.) Now, I listen to the views of others and share mine. All of us are learning together.  D.)  Now, I’ve drawn closer to Christ.  I find myself asking the question. What does God want me to do?  E.)  Other times, studying and pondering scripture brings ideas of renewal and reformation for my church.  Often, this idea of reformation has two prongs: building up the spiritual nature of the church folk man and remodeling our facility, adding an addition or building a new church.   Small Groups or Sunday school classes that produce such fruit bring to mind this praise.  Blessed be the Lord.  In short, prayer and Bible Study have the capacity to transform us from one state to another.  As the Lord’s Prayer petitions, “deliver us form evil.”  Why?  So that the “kingdom may come on earth as in heaven.”
                                              Without God’s Help  
       When a church has been around 170 years, it’s witnessed a lot of things.  A version of Psalm 124 was lived out during the baby years of your existence. Just as Nebuchadnezzar removed the people of God from Jerusalem and sent them to Babylon, so were our Indian brothers and sisters removed from this territory and sent out West.  Many fell on the Trail of Tears.  Others made it.  As a people, they have survived.  I believe this church found a way to be in prayer for them or offer the hungry a crust of bread even when they could do nothing else.  At Annual Conference, we celebrated their presence among us and a God that watched over and preserved them as a people till this very hour.  About their sojourn as Native Americans, they rejoice in the word in Psalm 124, ‘If it had not been for the Lord on their side, where would they be.” 
         Reflecting on your 170 years of life, someone wrote these touching words.  “God has been amazing over the course of the history of this church.”  To get at some of the ways God may have delivered you down through the years, I’ve identified a few historical events that have impacted your life and your ministry.  Whatever happened, you are still here.  Armstrong witnessed all kinds of wars over the years;   The Black Hawk Indian Wars, the Civil War, World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean, Vietnam etc.  Had it not been for the presence of churches in Marshall, Illinois this town would have had more tough times than it had.  Those who strive to love God and love neighbor can hold things together when it seems nothing else can.    
         When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War began, your residents enlisted in the Union Army and some folk went AWOL.  Uncle Sam was not pleased and made a beeline for Marshall.  Marshall became a battleground over the Civil War.  Military arrests, court cases, families and the town divided over what to do and think.  Some body called for the intervention of a higher power through prayer but mostly for the example of one who had lived through this kind of conflict and emerged victorious, Jesus the Christ.  By God’s grace, the church helped numerous residents to model the way of Christ versus the way of the world.  Whether by prayer or supplication, fear or faith; residents of Marshall, Illinois “beat their swords into to ploughshares and their spears into pruning and studied war no more.”  Thus, the town avoided a mini civil war, untold injury and death.  “Blessed be the Lord.”   
     The Great Depression, fueled by the Stock Market crash in 1929, hung over America at least ten years, from 1929 to 1939. Encasing this country and Illinois in a web of poverty, unemployment, depression, bankruptcies, etc, tough times reigned.  During those times, the church and its Lord provided even more comfort and solace while it long term human needs accompanying the Great Depression.  You fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, visited the sick and the imprisoned, welcomed the stranger and the poor, the homeless, the naked and whomever God sent your way.  Not only that, the church helped families deal with folk who lost great fortunes, jobs, respect, deal with suicide and depression etc.  Someone might say, “Why is the Bishop saying all these complimentary things about us?  He doesn’t know us.”  To some degree, that is true.  But what follows is true as well.  No institution stays around for 170 years if it has not found a way to serve others instead of themselves.  Its longevity is dependent upon new generations joining as others move on.  Yet, it is still true, without God’s help, this church could not have come this far by faith.                
                                                  NEW FACILITY
     Last week, I preached the 150th Anniversary for First UMC in Normal, Illinois.  Two statements made about First UMC bear repeating here.  First, Armstrong UMC was born “to serve not to be served.”  Church is never about us exclusively; its God and neighbor.  And who is my neighbor.  The Good Samaritan Story has that answer.  Second, of late this church has operated under the acronym SBAP Space became a problem.”  Over the years, they’ve had a number of building projects.  All of them were required, demanded by folks coming through their doors.  Through worship, their program life, needs of the community and a vision of “Serving Christ: Community and Campus”, they were making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 
     So, what’s the point?  How shall I interpret these words of your pastor?
“…where the original church was located is the parking lot.                                                                           The new location of the church has added on a multifunctional space for dinner’s and plays.  They have expended the sanctuary most recently in the last decade.  Armstrong has been more than a I point charge for its entire existence until 2011.  On Easter, we celebrated one baptism and 5 new members.  In 3 weeks, we will have a Confirmation class of 7 with two baptisms…”
Are you starting to have space problems?  Is it so because of an influx of new people believing that Armstrong can address the spiritual needs of the family individually and collectively?  I pray it is so.  Or, do you see growth happening in 12 to 15 months?  First UMC added spice to their program life via Wonderful Wednesday’s.  On Wednesday evening, the entire family is invited.  Named 4 F’s for Families, Fellowship, Food and Fun, children are the focus.  This semester, their curriculum has to do with hearing, learning and studying Old Testament stories.  A powerful picture on their website under Children’s Ministries is compelling.  It looks like a woman is standing holding the Bible with two hands.  Because the midsection of her body is in the picture, her face is not seen.  Visible, in three words is a poignant message, “Education starts here.”                                 
     Armstrong, what would you say about your 170 year existence?  Some would celebrate your longevity.  Many churches have come and gone since we began.  “We are still here,” they’d say.  Others would praise the pioneers and their families.  Without their vision and putting lives on the line, a home Sunday school class would not have turned into a church now 170 years young.  Still others would marvel over events in American or Illinois history that could have meant the end of this congregation but didn’t.  Members of this church saw skirmishes over slavery, the Indian Wars, Lincoln’s assassination, the Civil War, the Great Depression of 1929, the tornado of 1942, the tumultuous sixties and the lean economic times of today.  Through good stewardship, management of resources and folks committed to Armstrong, you’ve added to the facility. 
     Others would lift up the praiseworthy sentiment of Psalm 124.  “If it had not been for the Lord on our side, where would we be?  He kept my enemies away; he let the sun shine through a cloudy day.  He rocked me in the cradle of his arms, when he knew I had been battered by the storm.”   If it had not been for the Lord on our side, where would you be?  God has made a way out of no way.  “Blessed Be the name of the Lord!!!”  “Blessed be the Lord!!!” Last but certainly not least,  Happy Birthday to you!  May you have many more!  And may God bless you.