150th Anniversary Sermon
Sermon preached by Rev. Matthew Schuster, STS, October 23, A.D. 2011 on the occasion of the congregation's 150th Anniversary.
If we take even a brief look at the 150 years which have passed since the founding of Zion (Shaffer's), it might seem that the only thing which has remained constant is change. There has been vast change in nearly every aspect of our nation's life since 1861. For example, you may recall reading about a little skirmish that began a mere three months before the church was established; by the time the Civil War was resolved four years later, the country looked very different, and indeed was substantially different, than it had been prior to the conflict. Some of the changes which were brought about by the war continue to be felt in America today, in terms of race relations and economics, to name only two. But Shaffer's has seen it all and has remained to this day.
Then there's the community in which this house of worship sits. Once upon a time the road which passes so close to the front doors was a major trade route between York and Baltimore; but no longer. Generations of children learned about the world in the two-room schoolhouse (a rarity) across the way; but those days have long passed. And the land itself has changed, even since the time I spent here as your teaching parish student, with less green and more houses, seemingly every year. The makeup of the population has changed, too, with more and more of the old Dutchy people passing on and their land and places being taken up by people with little or no connection to the old families who settled here amidst God's abundant blessings, worked God's good earth, and reaped a generous harvest from the Lord's good and gracious hand. So many of the great saints of this congregation have fallen asleep in Christ in just the seven years since I first came here as a student. But not all change is bad or sad, thankfully, and over the years I have rejoiced as I have read in the newsletter that many new individuals and families have come and have joined this loving Christian community. Yet their presence, welcome as it is, still reminds us of the seeming permanence of change.
Then there are the transformations which have come about through technology. Technology has changed so much that it has made our lives unrecognizable to those who have gone before us. Pastor Tom and I frequently communicate by e-mail, which, when you think about it, was not even thought of just twenty years ago. The improvements in communication technologies have in some ways been very beneficial to our society, but like any other changes they can cut both ways: we now have a multitude of new devices and toys and so-called information to distract us from the worship of God and the observance of His commandments. It's all very overwhelming, and often the changes brought by technology are so rapid and far-reaching that they can lead us to view them negatively. Although...one technological change has turned out to be most welcome indeed: thatıs the change to indoor plumbing, which took place here just over 60 years ago. Even the church building has changed. Of course, as Pr. Tom mentioned during his children's sermon, this is not the original building that was constructed in 1861. But this 1882 building itself has changed as well (beyond the addition of the bathrooms). The basement was dug out and finished, and the beautiful narthex was added, and these improvements have contributed greatly to the congregationıs life of worship and fellowship.
And of course, the biggest change here at Shaffer's is the one that's most recent and is perhaps the least visible. I'm talking about the change in ecclesiastical association, as the congregation has wisely and rightly divorced itself from the unfaithful and aberrant ELCA and joined with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in preparation for eventually becoming part of a Lutheran body within the Anglican Communion. Yes indeed, when we consider all of these things together, change seems to be the predominant factor in the long and faithful history of Zion (Shaffer's). But for all of the change that this building and this congregation have witnesse--and for all of the change which they in turn have fostere--nothing truly significant has ever changed here at all since 1861. What am I talking about? Well, we can see this in the Scripture readings which we listened to this morning.
As he prays during the dedication of God's Temple, Solomon marvels at the idea that four walls could possibly contain God: "[W]ill God indeed dwell on the earth?" he wonders. "Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!" Yet this very church has contained God since the day on which the first service was held. This of course has not been the doing of the people who built this place or those who have spent their lives worshiping here, but has been by the grace of God who chose, and who still chooses, to dwell among His people whenever they gather around His Word and Sacraments. God has been here, unchanging and faithful, among His faithful people. But while in his prayer Solomon remembered the history of God's relationship with His people, and particularly with the house of David, his prayer did not only focus on God's past deeds: he asked also that God would grant a present and a future blessing: "[L]isten in heaven your dwelling place," he prayed, "and when you hear, forgive." What has this church been for one and a half centuries if not a place where God listens to the prayers of His repentant people and grants forgiveness and reconciliation through Jesus Christ? And to your enduring credit, my sisters and brothers, you have consistently lived out the forgiveness which God grants you here, and by doing so you have made a genuine and powerful witness to the love of God.
Building a community of effective witnesses to Jesus Christ is what St. Peter is after in our reading from his first Letter. We heard that Peter wrote, "[Y]ou are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." This is another way of saying that the Holy Spirit knew what He was doing when He caused this congregation to be planted here so long ago. You have been called and set aside to be different, to be 'royal' and 'holy' in order that you may witness to what God has done for you in Christ Jesus. But if we were to read just a bit further in St. Peter's first Letter, into the third chapter, we would find out what it looks like to be a 'chosen race' and 'holy nation.' In that third chapter the apostle tells his readers, "[H]ave unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind."
In my second year at seminary I was required to do a project for my class in church history. The assignment was to choose an object in the church that had been around for many years and learn as much as possible about its history, with a particular focus on the role that the object had played in the life of the congregation. I chose to research the history of a small, square, wooden device that was used in preparing the cubes of bread which the Reformed congregation used for their celebration of Holy Communion. During the course of my research into this artifact, I was please--but not at all surprise--to learn that almost from the very inception of the church, the Reformed and Lutheran congregations shared a great deal of unity in terms of Christian education. Everybody from both congregations came to Sunday school every week. But perhaps even more so, the congregations shared unity in worship. As it turns out, both the Reformed and the Lutheran congregations prepared for Communion in exactly the same way, by using that little wooden device to cut the bread which they would share! Not only this: the members of each congregation received Communion in an identical fashion, too. From the beginning Shaffer's has been characterized by the unity of mind and filled with the brotherly love of which St. Peter writes. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the very name which the congregation chose once the Reformed and the Lutherans merged in 1981: Zion (Shaffer's) United Lutheran Church! And here again, your love, which you act out in so many ministries, is a powerful witness to the love which God shows for us in our Lord Jesus.
That's really what it's all about: the love of God which is revealed in Christ crucified for the sake of sinners like us. That message doesnıt change, although the ways in which the message is proclaimed do change over time, as do the ones whom God sends to proclaim it. A church as old as this one will of course have quite a few pastors over the course of its life, and Shafferıs is no exception. Many pastors have served this parish since the original building was first put up. For these last twenty-two years Shaffer's has been faithfully shepherded by Pr. Shelley. He is quite simply one of the finest and most dedicated servants there is, and I hope that you can appreciate the gift which the Lord has given to you in him. But while Pr. Tom is currently your leader, and even though he stands in a long line of predecessors, throughout the congregation's 150-year life in Christ there has really only been one pastor, one shepherd. That shepherd is the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. As He tells the Jews who are arguing with Him in this morning's reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John, "The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." Our crucified and risen Lord Jesus has shepherded this flock for 150 years now. He has shepherded the saints of the congregation into the eternal life which only He can give. And He will shepherd this church through any change that may come its way in the future, because He is constant, and He is faithful. This congregation has not only persevered, but flourished, for so long because it has listene--really listene--for the voice of the Good Shepherd...and it has not only listened to His voice, but also obeyed what that voice says. Jesus tells us, "The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me." My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, take some time today to rejoice in the fact that the works which you, the people of Zion (Shaffer's), as well as the works of your forerunners in faith, do bear witness to Jesus and His saving work on your behalf.
What sort of changes will the next 150 years see here at Zion (Shaffer's)? The congregation will continue to be transformed as older members move on to the Church triumphant and new ones take their places here in the Church on earth. The community which you have been sent to serve will continue to change, that's for sure, and so your outreach to the community will need to change as well. God's world will also change, maybe in even more dramatic ways than it already has changed over the course of the congregationıs existence. Even the liturgy, the center of the parish's life, will slowly, slowly come to look a bit different as the Holy Spirit moves His Church in some new directions.
But of all the congregations in this corner of God's kingdom, you know how to handle change, right? You handle change through constancy.
Keep listening to the voice of our one and only Good Shepherd as He speaks to you through the weekly Scripture readings, through Pr. Tom's sermons, and through the Sacraments. Keep coming here to this place, the place where God has promised to be, and receive the forgiveness of your sins which He offers only through faith in Christ Jesus. And for the next 150 yearswhich begin today, by the waystrive to maintain the 'unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, tender heart[s], and [...} humble mind[s]" that make Zion (Shaffer's) such a wonderful place to worshi--and which make such a powerful and loving witness here in das Siebenthaal...and beyond.