During the past 2 months I have had the joy and privilege of participating in the anniversary celebrations at four difference Central Texas Conference Churches. Alvarado UMC celebrated its 150th anniversary; Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC had their 125th anniversary; First UMC, Temple celebrated the 100th anniversary of its magnificent historic sanctuary (the first sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they rebuilt completing the new/current sanctuary in 1914). I will have the joy of sharing in the 100th anniversary celebration of Saginaw UMC.
As I have done my research for each of the five churches listed above, I have been deeply struck by the discipleship (committed, disciplined following of Christ) and sacrifice that each anniversary represents. Consider the times these various churches launched out as a new church. In every case they went ahead and started the church or built the sanctuary in the face of internal trials going on in America that would make a reasonable person pause.
Alvarado UMC began in the midst of a raging Civil War. Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC both began in the midst of great national debate and division. In 1889 President Grover Cleveland was succeeded by President Benjamin Harrison in a contentious election that would be reversed four years later. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) War between America and Germany over an incident in Samoa was barely averted. Racism in all its virulent evil stalked the land. 125 years ago a religious crimes code was passed by Congress “to deny Indians their 1st amendment right: freedom of religion. It was designed to drive away the Indian religious ceremonies and only allow those made and created by white men.”
In Temple, the great First Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they went ahead and rebuilt in the face of really tough times. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the peace President, an international misunderstanding with Mexico (then undergoing a revolution) erupted into armed conflict and the occupation of Veracruz. In the initial fighting “19 Americans were killed; 72 wounded. Mexican losses were around between 150 and 170 soldiers killed, between 195 and 250 wounded, and an unknown number of civilians killed.” Meanwhile back at home labor unrest was rampant. The Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners killing 24 people in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre.
This tumult paled in comparison with the start of World War I in August and the closure of the New York Stock Exchange because of the war. While the stock market reopened about 3 ½ months later, eventually World War I resulted in over 37 million military and civilian deaths. Comparatively the United States got off light because of when we entered the war and it was fought on foreign soil. With respect and honor to those who so nobly sacrificed, 117,465 deaths are recorded as silent witness to how bleak the times were. You would have thought that the good people of Alvarado, Morgan Mills, Temple, Cranfills Gap, and Saginaw could have picked better safer more congenial times to begin a church.
You would have thought they would have better economic sense than to sail forward into the headwinds of a closed stock market, or contentious national election, or a Civil War. But no, they moved forward in discipleship as committed, disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. In their discipleship they were full of joy. It is easy to be a fan of Jesus; to sit in the stadium and cheer when things are good. It is a whole other thing to live in a deep-seated joy that is committed, disciplined, loyal even – no especially – when times are tough.
This brings me to the second cardinal, biblically-grounded, insight I found in my research. They got to the joy of their anniversaries through sacrifice. Consider the biblical and theological truth that Jesus doesn’t need advice. He is the one giving advice. The Master does not covet fans. He seek followers, friends, who will go beyond being advisors to being sacrificial followers. Reflect on the teaching of Jesus as reflected in John’s gospel. “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends” (John 1511-15a). This is the example the people of these churches set a hundred plus years ago.
Our ancestors thought it was worth the price to sacrifice so that these churches could come into being. I like to remind every congregation that there was a time in their life when this congregation was a new church. This is part and parcel of the biblical reason new church development is so critical. It is not about whether we will have faith. It is about whether our children and grandchildren will have faith. It is a pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Anniversary joy comes in deep sacrificial discipleship! It knows sadness and grief. It lives in times of tumult whether it be 1864, 1889, 1914 or 2014. It ascends the hill of personal prejudice and plants the flag of Christ atop the peaks of violence and rancor. Joy comes in the committed disciplined living as a disciple precisely because it is sacrificial. It is built on our relationship with the Lord and not on our personal preferences. I thank God and those five churches for the joy of sharing with them!