What We Owe The Past, What We Owe The Future75th Anniversary Sermon
For my remarks this morning I would like to take one verse of scripture as my beginning point: Romans 13:7. “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
In this passage Paul is speaking about submission to human authority. This verse is usually mentioned in discussions about civil disobedience and going to war, whether a Christian should pay taxes and so on. But I call your attention to the larger principle of verse 7. Christians are to “give everyone what you owe him” —whether it be taxes or revenue or respect or honor.
This is the 75th anniversary of Calvary Memorial Church. I can think of no better text for this morning than the text in Romans 13:7. “If honor is due, then give honor.”
Someone said to me just the other day, “Pastor, thank you for all you’ve done to make this 75th anniversary celebration possible.” I replied, “I didn’t do anything but just show up last August.” The real thanks goes back generations—back to the very beginning of the church. And I would add that everything we’ve done, all the work that has gone into this celebration, has not been work at all. It has been a labor of love. It has been a joy from the beginning until the end and it has been pleasure untold to study and trace the fingerprints of God in the history of this church across 75 years and across the generations spanning the twentieth century.
We stand this morning at the crossroads of history. We’re looking back to see the past. We’re looking ahead to see the future. Between the past and the future we’re gathered at the crossroads trying to obey what the scripture says: “Give everyone what you owe him:…if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
I would like to speak to you this morning on the subject, “What We Owe the Past and What We Owe the Future.”
What We Owe The Past
First, we owe to the past an appreciation of those who accomplished so much before us.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard many stories of the beginning of this church. In the early days of 1915 a small group of men and women from five different local congregations felt an urging in their hearts and a moving of God’s Spirit to establish a church in the Oak Park area that would be free of denominational control and would major on three things: 1. The preaching of the word of God, 2. The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, 3. A strong commitment to world missions. The Bible, the gospel and the missionary mandate were the three things which brought this church into being.
I’m sure you’ve also heard the story of how a small group of people gathered for a home Bible study beginning in late January and the early part of February of that year. As they began to pray, God gave them a vision of a church which would be built around those three things. The other day I was rummaging around in our archives when I found a weather-beaten brown notebook. It is labeled “Articles of Faith, Original Makeup.” When you open it, you find the handwritten notes from the first meetings in 1915 which brought this church into being.
There’s a wonderful story connected with the founding of this church that I’m sure most of you don’t know. After that small group had met for a month or so, they started talking about how much it would cost to start a new church. The notes from the 4th meeting say that they decided to purchase 100 chairs and 60 song books. Then they decided to pay from $30-$35 rent for the store which they had chosen for their first meeting place at Home Avenue and Harrison Street. The money was either to be donated at once or to be advanced by the group. Here is the next sentence: “It was decided that $100 would be necessary to start on.”
Can you imagine that? They decided they were going to buy chairs and songbooks and that turned out to be our first church budget. They could afford $30-$35 for rent for that first building and they decided if they could come up with $100, they could get the church started. These days $100 doesn’t seem like very much, but back then it was real money. They didn’t know if they had it or not.
The fifth meeting of the church was held March 15, 1915, at the Bretall home. Mr. Robert Rensch acted as chairman. He read the minutes of the meeting and then Mr. Bretall stated that the store building at Home and Harrison—the one they could rent for $30-$35 a month—"could not be secured for less than $45-$50 a month and for this reason it was out of the question.” He further stated that “a store building could be secured at the corner of Madison Street and Clinton Avenue in Oak Park for $20 per month. This change in the situation was looked upon as an act of God’s providence and it was decided that this building be investigated and secured if deemed favorable.”
That’s an amazing way to start a church. They’re trying to start a church on $100, and they’re not sure they can even raise that much. They have a rental budget of $35-$45, but when they find a building for $45, they suddenly realize they can’t pay it so they turn it down. Later on, when they find another building for $20, they are sure it is a sign of God’s providence on their behalf.
Now, that’s still not the good part. The good part is this. They said they wanted to start the church with $100. I heard that as soon as I came to Calvary. As I read through this book, I found a yellowed page written in beautiful copperplate script from the first part of this century. It is entitled “Donations to cover the starting expenses”. Here’s the money they had on hand:
James Graham $5.
Walter Bretall $10.
J. W. McCarroll $12.
S. J. McCarroll $12
D. Nixon $2.
Charles Porter $4.
Peaslee and Porter $2.70
Down below on the same page is the expense side of the ledger:
Song Books $12
60 Chairs $35
Express Chairs $3
Brushes, etc $2
This is fairly easy to figure out. This church started out with $53.70 in the bank and bills totaling $74. We were in debt from the day this church started. We couldn’t make our first budget. We’ve been missing that $21 for 75 years and we are still looking for it today.
That’s how this church started. Our budget after 75 years is $800,000. That’s seems like an astronomical sum, but it was harder for them to raise the $100 than it will be for us to raise the $800,000. That’s the faith, the sacrifice, the vision that started this church 75 years ago. What we owe to the past is to give honor where honor is due and to have a deep appreciation for those folks in the past who accomplished so much with so little.
2. We also owe to the past fidelity to the heritage we have been given.
I’m thinking especially of fidelity to the faith which has been handed down to us. Have you ever studied your Bible to see what the New Testament says about faith? If you look in the New Testament you will find that the word faith is used in at least two ways. First, there is faith that is subjective belief or confidence in God. It’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). Second, the term “the faith” refers to that revealed body of Christian truth. It is what Paul means when he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (II Timothy 4:7) It’s what Jude means when he says, “Earnestly contend for the faith.” (Jude 3) It’s what Paul meant when he said in I Timothy 4:1 “For we know that in latter times some shall depart from the faith.” These verses tell that there is a corpus of Christian truth—a body of revealed, biblical, Christian doctrine. There are doctrines which have been handed down across the centuries to us. They are sacred and must be kept in sacred trust.
That means that not only do we owe to the past appreciation for the sacrifice of those who founded this church, but we also owe to the past fidelity to the heritage which has been handed down to us. We are morally obligated to respect that great body of Christian teaching which has been given to us—to guard it and to believe it and to refuse to compromise it. We owe it to the people who started this church to declare today that we believe the same things they believed.
Our First Statement Of Faith
That leads me to mention something else I found in the archives. I opened up a filing cabinet and saw an old beat up metal container. It looked like it might have come from the cornerstone of the original church. I opened it up and and found a brochure entitled “Doctrinal Belief of Madison Street Church of Oak Park, Illinois”. As soon as I saw that, I realized this document goes back at least 60 years. Underneath it it says, “Undenominational”, a phrase that was only used for about 4 years. That means the brochure must be at least 72 years old.
These are the words of the very first section:
We believe that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” by which we understand the whole of the book called the Bible; nor do we take the statement in the sense in which it is sometimes foolishly said that works of human genius are inspired, but in the sense that the Holy Ghost gave the very words of the sacred writings to holy men of old.
Right there in the Doctrinal Statement it says, “in which it is sometimes foolishly said.” Whoever wrote this knew exactly what they believed and they knew exactly what they didn’t believe.
Let me read another tremendous statement from this early document:
We believe that owing to this universal depravity and death in sin, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless born again; and that degree of reformation however great, no attainment of morality however high, no culture, however attractive, no humanitarian and philanthropic schemes however useful, no baptism or other ordinance however administered, can help the sinner to take even one step toward heaven; but a new nature imparted from above, a new life imparted by the Holy Ghost through the Word is absolutely essential to salvation.
That’s a real statement of faith. Those old timers knew what they believed.
Let me give you just one more:
We believe that our redemption has been accomplished solely by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made to be sin, and made a curse for us, dying in our room and stead; and that no repentance, no feeling, no faith, no good resolutions, no sincere efforts, no submis-sion to the rules and regulations of any church, or of all the churches that have existed from the days of the Apostles, can add in the very least to the value of that precious blood, to the merit of that finished work wrought for us by Him who united in His person true and proper divinity with perfect and sinless humanity.
Do you want to know what made this church great? Back there in the beginning they knew exactly what they believed. This church was built on the bedrock of the old time teaching of the word of God.
“The Gospel Always”
While I was digging around, I found a note from the Sunday, February 26, 1921 issue of the Oak Leaves. It contains a picture of Rev. Lee Ames just before they broke ground on the Madison Street property. There is also a big picture of our second Pastor, the Rev. J. C. O’Hair. On the back of the clipping there is a listing of the various churches in Oak Park and the services they offer. If you read it, you discover what the other churches were preaching about in 1921. In the corner of the page you find a little notice that simply says “Madison Street Church, Madison and Clinton, J. C. O’Hair and L. W. Ames, Associated Ministers, Men’s Prayer Circle, Bible School, Morning Service, Evening Service, Young People.” That particular week their subject was “The Certainty of Christ’s Coming.” There is a note that says Pastor Ames was preaching at the Wednesday night service on I Timothy 4. Then it said “We welcome all to our services. The gospel always.” That’s what it says in the paper—"the gospel always”.
This church has a wonderful heritage of great biblical teaching and we owe it to the past not only to appreciate what they did and their mighty labors for God, but we owe it to them to take that doctrinal heritage and to continue to hold it high. It is a sacred trust that has been given us.
What happens if we neglect that trust? Churches that neglect their doctrinal heritage soon lose their fire, their fervor, their direction, their purpose, their focus and they shrivel away into irrelevance and liberalism and compromise.
Someone may say, “Pastor, you’re making way too much of this.” No I’m not. I’m making way too little of it. I could preach for another hour and not have covered the subject of the heritage that’s been given to us.
The Democracy Of The Dead
Many of you have heard of G. K. Chesterton, the great English apologist. This is what he said about tradition:
Tradition may be defined as the extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those men who happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; Tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. (The Quotable Chesterton, p.351)
Tradition is the democracy of the dead. All of the founders of the church are dead and in heaven with the Lord. But we’ve decided to give them a vote. We’re not counting them out just because they are dead. Walter Bretall, we’re giving you a vote this morning. Charles Porter, we’re giving you a vote this morning. Pa Grosser, we’re giving you a vote this morning. Miss Mintrup, we’re giving you a vote this morning. Pastor Louis Talbot, we’re giving you a vote this morning. You’re in heaven but we’re holding on to the sacred tradition handed down to us and we’re giving our forefathers and our ancestors a vote. We’re not forgetting the heritage that has been given us.
That’s what it means. Tradition is the living faith of those long dead. We still believe today what they believed way back in the beginning.
So, what we owe the past is two things. First, we owe them our deepest appreciation for their magnificent accomplishments for God. And second, we owe it to them to be faithful to the heritage which has been passed down across the generations.
What We Owe The Future
At the beginning of this message I said that we stand at a crossroads this morning—a crossroads between the past and the future. Our debt is not just to the past; our debt is also to the future. What do we who gather for this anniversary owe to future generations? I’m going to suggest to you that we owe to the future three specific things.
1. We owe to the future to repeat the mighty works of God.
We owe to the future to repeat and to recount and to retell the mighty works of God. On the day when I was installed as your pastor I read Psalm 44:1-3 as my text:
We have heard with our ears, O God; Our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish. It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory. It was your right hand, your arm and the light of your face, for you loved them.
Here we have a clear biblical warrant for recounting the great events of the past. It is a very biblical thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. We ought to do it for the benefit of our own generation. We ought to do it so that we can hear those stories. Some of us have been in this church for years and years and have never heard the stories from the past. We also ought to do it for the benefit of the generations yet to come.
The Danger Of Forgetting The Past
Do you remember what happened in the Old Testament after the death of Joshua? By a series of great military victories, he led the people of God into the Promised Land. As long as he was alive, the nation served the Lord. But things changed after he was gone.
We pick up the story in Judges 2:6-7. “After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him, who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.” They served God as long as Joshua was alive and as long as the elders who were with Joshua were alive because those elders could recount the great works of God.
But now read verse 8-11. “Joshua, son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the land of his inheritance … And after that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord or what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.”
We’re living in a day in which the younger generation has no sense of history. We’re living in a generation which has no sense of the heritage that has been passed down to us. I’m not just speaking of this church. I’m talking about the generation of which I’m a part. Sometimes we look at history and think we’re the first ones on the face of the earth ever to do anything good. There is no sense of what came before us. But these two clear examples from the Old Testament show what happens when the people of God forget their heritage. They end up in bondage, slavery, decline and idolatry. Don’t say for one moment it could not happen to Calvary Memorial Church. We have the biblical testimony that it could.
So, we ought to recount the great works of God to our children and to our children’s children and on to the third and the fourth and the fifth generations. We ought to keep telling these stories over and over and over again.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve made such a big deal of this anniversary. One of my great concerns is for the young generation here at Calvary. I’ll say that openly. I’m concerned about my own generation—those people who are in their late twenties through their early forties, who have come to Calvary in the last few years and haven’t seen and haven’t understood and don’t have a feel for what God has done. I fear for the future of this church unless the younger generation takes hold of the heritage the way the older generation has.
That’s why our 75th Anniversary is more than a celebration. It has everything to do with the future of this church. Will we have the faith that our founders had? Will we have the vision they had? Will we be willing to sacrifice as they did? If the answer is yes, then this church has a wonderful future. If the answer is no, then I’m not sure what kind of church we’re going to have 25 years from now. That’s why we must repeat the great works of God. We owe it to the future.
2. We owe to the future to keep the best of the past while changing to meet the needs of the future.
Sometimes people hear me talking about history and they misunderstand what my point really is. I do not see the past as a straitjacket. Far from it. I see the past as a guide. It’s not a straitjacket keeping us from something; it’s a guide showing us where we can go. Our history tells us who we are and where we came from. It tells us what’s in our family tree. It tells us what kind of people we ought to be.
The truth of the matter is this church has changed a lot over the past 75 years. The people who founded this church would be amazed to see that we are here now because the people who founded this church knew this building as the First Presbyterian Church. They would be dumbfounded that Calvary Memorial Church would be here where the First Presbyterian Church used to be.
Sometimes you do have to change, don’t you? Sometimes you have to change the long-held traditions of the past. Sometimes you have to change the things that you’ve been doing for a long time just to meet the needs of the present.
Last night I listened as Merrill Dunlop talked about the evangelistic campaigns that inaugurated our first church building in 1921. Merrill Dunlop was just a teenager back then, but he played the piano, a man named J.C. Conant preached and Homer Hammontree (an associate of Billy Sunday) led the singing. Merrill said, “We had a two week meeting. We called it a campaign. We didn’t use the word crusade back then.” Crusades came in with Billy Graham just after World War II.
It’s very interesting to read the history of the church. There were a lot of campaigns and crusades and revival meetings in the first 50-60 years of the church. We haven’t had one here in a long time. And we probably won’t have one here in a long time. That’s because in 1990 local church crusades and campaigns are really a relic from the past. Were we to call a week-long evangelistic meeting, it wouldn’t have a great impact on Oak Park because that’s a method from another generation.
That’s what I’m talking about. Sometimes you keep the best of the past while changing to meet the needs of the present. Someone may misunderstand what I am saying and may wonder if we even do evangelism nowadays. The answer is, we do evangelism all the time; we just don’t do it the same way it’s always been done.
A couple of weeks ago something amazing happened here at the church. I think it’s never happened before. We happened to have three outreach events in a 24 hour period. We had a teenage outreach and they had 70 teenagers on Friday night. We had a Women’s Ministry outreach on Saturday morning with 240 women in attendance. Then 186 people attended the Crossroads service on Saturday night. That’s a grand total of 496 people attending three outreach events in a 24 hour period. That’s wonderful because it proves the evangelistic fire is still burning here.
Let me say it again. Crusades and campaigns and week long revival meetings don’t work any more, but we haven’t stopped preaching the gospel. We’ve taken the same gospel and we’ve changed the method to meet the needs of today.
Several weeks ago I commented that I don’t know what our founders would think if they came into a Crossroads service on Saturday night. What would happen if Brother McCarroll and Pastor J. C. O’Hair somehow stumbled into our sanctuary while the band was playing? If we marched those stalwart men down here and they heard that rock music and the band, they wouldn’t even know what planet they were on. The music would shock them, but when the message was given they would recognize the gospel being preached as the same gospel they preached 75 years ago.
All we’ve done is take the same gospel message and attempt to find a way to make it relevant to our own generation. That’s all you can do in any given generation—Take the gospel message and find a way to make it relevant to the people in your own culture. What we’re doing in this generation the next generation won’t do and what they’re doing the next one won’t do. It doesn’t matter as long as the message of the gospel remains the same.
We owe it to the future to keep the best of the past while changing to meet the needs of the present.
3. We owe to the future to be as bold in the future as our forefathers were in the past.
They started a church with $100 but- didn’t have the money. But they started a church anyway. Fifty years ago—Sunday, April 1, 1940—during the morning service, Pastor Fardon preached at the twenty fifth anniversary service. His message was entitled “Pressing Upward and Onward” from Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting those things which are behind but pressing forward toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Pastor Fardon wrote a poem for that special day. I thought you would enjoy reading part of it.
We praise thee, O our gracious Father,
For this our Anniversary day;
For the greatness of Thy mercy
Bestowed upon us all the way.
For five and twenty years of service,
Rendered unto Christ our Lord;
We give Thee thanks, our loving Father,
Forever be Thy name adored.
Make this people strong to serve Thee,
Keep us true to thy dear Son;
May the days that lie before us,
Witness sin defeated, victories won.
May this, Thy church, press ever forward,
In the name of Christ her Lord;
Upward, Onward, with Thy blessed gospel
In the homeland and abroad.
We owe it to the future not to stop here. We owe it to the future to press forward with as much vigor and determination as they did in the past. We owe it to the future to be as bold in the future as they were in the past.
These are no days for timidity. These are no days for fearful cowards. These are no days to go slow; these are days to go all out for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Be Bold! It’s In Our Genes
This church has a wonderful history of boldness. When this church was only a year or two old, they started a branch work down in Berwyn that later became a full-fledged church. By 1919 they had branch Sunday Schools all over this area—many of which would later become churches. In the 1930s Pastor Fardon wanted to reach the community of Oak Park, so he started a Men’s Bible Study. It soon outgrew the facilities at Madison and Wisconsin and had to be moved to the Y.M.C.A. By 1940 a hundred men from the community came to his Bible study.
In 1959 when Pastor Gray had been here less than a year, he led the church to take the daring step of changing its name from “Madison Street Bible Church” to “Calvary Memorial Church. They did it because of certain connotations relating to the name “Madison Street,” and because they wanted to reach the community for Jesus Christ. They made the change and it worked. The church grew and we’re the beneficiaries of it.
The “Prove Me” Campaign
Then in 1977 the buildings burned and it looked as if the whole world had caved in. The church began to pray and in the sovereignty of God, the First Presbyterian Church was vacating this facility to merge with the First Congregational Church (forming the First United Church). In a strange turn of events (our founders would call it the providence of God), we moved into this building the very Sunday after the Presbyterians left.
Then we did something crazy. We bought the place. We took a second mortgage and many people thought we probably weren’t going to be able to pay it off. But 1984 came and with it the great “Prove Me” campaign. Many of you remember how exciting those last few days were. We lacked $400,000 and then $300,000 and in the last week we lacked $200,000. Where did that money come from? I still can’t figure it out. In truth, it wasn’t one man or one group of men who did it, but it was hundreds of people giving a little here and a little there. On Thursday before the final Sunday we had reached the goal of $500,000. The second mortgage was paid off. It was the greatest financial miracle in the history of the church.
The bottom line is this: Calvary Memorial Church has a tradition of bold outreach for Jesus Christ. We don’t face the future with fear. We don’t need to, because in the past, the people who have gone before us have shown us the way. They have said, “Reach out for Jesus Christ. Put your faith on the line and God will come through for you.”
Last August I was watching the Hall of Fame game on TV. Before the game, they inducted Terry Bradshaw into the Hall of Fame. Terry Bradshaw was the great quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers during their Super Bowl years. He gave a little talk without notes, and if you saw it, you remember it was very emotional. It was Terry Bradshaw, the country boy from Louisiana, talking.
“This is a great moment for me. A lot of people thought I would never make it in the NFL. I barely got into college. I flunked my ACT’s. I barely got in. When I graduated from college they said, ‘This kid’s never going to play pro ball.’ But the Steelers took a chance on me. The first year we went 1-14. It looked like I didn’t have any career at all. Then they began to draft Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and Franco Harris and Rocky Blier and all those guys. We had Mike Webster up front and that steel curtain defense and all the pieces fell in place and we began to win.
(This is painful to me because I was a Dallas Cowboy’s fan back in the 1970s and I hate to use an illustration like this.)
Then Terry Bradshaw told the story of how he liked to play. “You know, I was so close to my players and so close to my fans. There was an emotional bond between us. You are nothing and nothing in this world matters if people don’t love you and if you don’t love people. If you have love in your life, the rest of it doesn’t really matter.”
Do you remember what play Terry Bradshaw called whenever the Steelers intercepted a pass? On the very first play after an interception he’d call the signals, drop back 10 yards and send Lynn Swann down the one side and John Stallworth down the other side No short passes here. He would throw the ball about 60 yards down the field. Every time they got the ball they would simply throw it down the field. At his induction to the Hall of Fame, Terry Bradshaw said, “I played aggressively. Why play any other way? We were always throwing the ball long. Anybody can throw it short.”
What a lesson that is for us as we contemplate the future. We owe to the future to throw the ball long. Way down the field for Jesus Christ. Throw it long. We owe to the future to throw the ball long because that’s what the people who came before did. That means no small plans. No small dreams. No small ideas.
If you’ve got some little idea worked out about how you can replace the toilet paper holders in the bathrooms, I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to hear about it. I only want to hear about big things and big dreams and big ideas and big goals. We owe it to the future to throw the ball long. Anybody can throw it short.
As we face the future, as we look into the 1990s and on to the year 2000, we owe it to the past, we owe it to the present, we owe it to the future to be bold, to be aggressive and to reach out and to take our entire region for Jesus Christ.
I say it again. Throw the long ball. Anybody can throw it short.
The Book Of God’s Praise
One final word and I am done. Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation shall commend your works to another. They will tell of your mighty acts.” One generation to another. How many generations have there been in the church so far? Maybe four or five depending on how you count them. Each generation contributes a chapter and the chapters together make up a book of God’s praise, a book of the mighty works of God.
We are busy this morning writing our chapter in the book of God’s praise; commending from one generation to another what our God has done. That’s our number one responsibility this morning—to take what we’ve been given and to pass it on to the next generation.
Passing The Baton
The Christian life is not a marathon; it’s a relay race. Somebody hands the baton to you. You run as fast as you can and then you hand it off to the next generation. We’ve been given the mighty baton, the heritage of God’s faithfulness. Now let’s run as fast as we can and hand if off to the next generation. Let’s do it so that someday when we get to heaven the past will say to us, “You kept the faith,” and the future will say, “You passed it on to us.”
Heavenly Father,we thank you for what you’ve done. We are awestruck and amazed at the stories we hear of how you have worked in the past. You are the same God, we have the same Bible, the same Jesus, the same gospel.
Do in our day what you did in the days of our fathers, that we might see your mighty hand at work. Help us to be bold that we might reach out with the gospel to this entire region and in turn reach the world and so take what you have given to us and run as fast as we can and pass it on to the next generation. And so shall one generation commend to another your great faithfulness. Amen.