“One generation shall praise Your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4).
The story must be told.
It is the solemn duty of every generation to tell the next generation what God has done for them. One generation (the older) must tell the next generation (the younger) the mighty works that God has done. They must tell the story and they must tell it well. If they keep it to themselves, they rob the future of the treasures of the past.
God has only one plan for the preservation of his people from one generation to another. He has ordained that the story of his mighty works be passed from generation to generation, and thus shall the truth be preserved on the earth. Those who know the truth and those who have experienced the truth and those who have seen the truth at work in the world, they are to speak it and tell it and teach it and preach it and write it and by all other means, make sure that the message of what God has done does not die with them, but passes on to those who come later.
No Plan B
This is more than a general thesis; it is God’s plan for Calvary Memorial Church. It is God’s desire that a tradition of praise be passed along from the older folks to the youngest children. We must take this seriously if we want to see godly generations established in our midst. God has no Plan B if we fail in this enterprise. And no excuses will suffice if our children and grandchildren do not know the great things that God has done in our midst. There is, then, a great sense in which the people of God constantly live at the crossroads of history. We are “between” the past and the future. The older generation, the folks who have lived long enough in many cases to remember the Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the upheaval of the ’60s, the Vietnam War, and the intervening decades, they have seen God at work in so many ways. They must tell what they know before they forget it. While they are still with us, we must hear what they have to say. And the young folks must hear it and think about it so that in the midst of rushing into the future, they do not forget who they are and where they come from.
What does this suggest about the kind of church we should be in the 21st century? It means that we must be:
Rooted in the Past, and
Geared to the Future.
God is Not Boring!
But our text suggests something more than this. Note that the first phrase tells us that one generation will “praise” the works of God to another. The Hebrew word is very expressive. It means to shout in triumph. It’s a loud, vocal, public praise, full of enthusiasm and joy. This means that the history we speak about is not the dry, dusty history we read about in those schoolbooks we tried to forget a long time ago. I would even contend that it is dangerous to recount the works of God in a boring fashion. The God of the universe is not boring! And anyone who makes him boring has committed a grievous sin. When we speak about what God has done, there ought to be note of joy in our voice and a smile on our lips. If we can recount the miracles we have seen as if we were reading the recipe for tuna casserole, then something is badly wrong with us. And the great danger is, our children will get the idea that God doesn’t matter.
The idea of the text is that across the ages, one generation calls out to another: “God is good,” and the next generation replies, “All the time.” There is to be an antiphonal shout of praise from heaven to earth and back again as the people of God declare the great works of God in their midst.
One generation praises God to another generation.
So a grandfather speaks to a father.
So a father speaks to a son.
So a son speaks to a grandson.
So a grandson speaks to a great-grandson.
The old man says, “God is faithful.” The son says, “Yes he is.” The grandson says, “Yes he is.” The great-grandson says, “Yes he is.” The great-great-grandson (who is just a child) says, “Amen!” So all the generations unite to declare the goodness of the Lord. This must happen because it is God’s plan and God’s desire. Our God is greatly honored when the generations speak together to declare what the Lord has done for them.
This is Groundbreaking Sunday at Calvary Memorial Church. Today we are celebrating the beginning of the largest (in terms of dollars spent) building program in the history of our church. But this is not the first time we have come to a moment like this. 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 that 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 fourth meeting say that they decided to purchase 100 chairs and 60 songbooks. 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.”
Rent: $20 Per Month
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 found another building for $20, they were sure it was 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. As I read through the earliest records of our church, 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 $5.00
Walter Bretall $10.00
J. W. McCarroll $12.00
S. J. McCarroll $12.00
D. Nixon $2.00
Charles Porter $4.00
Peaslee and Porter $2.70
Down below on the same page is the expense side of the ledger:
Song Books $12.00
60 Chairs $35.00
Express Chairs $3.00
Brushes, etc $2.00
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 88 years and we are still looking for it today.
That’s how this church started. Our budget after 88 years is $1.7 million. 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 $1.7 million. That’s the faith, the sacrifice, the vision that started this church 88 years ago. We have an obligation to remember those dear folks and how they sacrificed to start this congregation. We are here today—over 1400 of us—because they had the vision to start a new church in Oak Park.
Keeping the Faith
And we have an obligation to be faithful to the same truth they believed. 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. 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.
“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. 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.
If They Could See Us Now
We’ve changed a lot in the last 88 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.
I don’t know what our founders would think if they came to one of our contemporary worship services. What would happen if Louis Talbot and the other early leaders somehow stumbled into our sanctuary while the band was playing? If we marched those stalwart men down here and they heard that loud music and saw the band playing, 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 88 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.
Back in 1921 our church built and dedicated its first building on the corner of Madison Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Oak Park. Merrill Dunlop (who died last year) played the piano for the dedication services. They included a cornerstone that lasted until our buildings burned down in the summer of 1977. After the fire, we eventually moved to our current location on Lake Street. The burned-out buildings were razed and the cornerstone somehow was overlooked. Somehow it ended up as part of the driveway of a house next to our old location. For years people drove right over the old cornerstone without knowing it. About five years ago I heard about it and we sent a team over to rescue the cornerstone (with the permission of the owner of the property). Since then, the old cornerstone has been propped up against a concrete pillar outside our west wing. This morning the cornerstone is on display for the first time in 26 years. We are planning to incorporate the cornerstone as part of the renovation project we are beginning today. For years to come, when we look at that old cornerstone, it will remind of our great heritage and will challenge us to stay faithful to truth that was handed down to us.
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.
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.