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"Deep Roots in Alpena, in Jesus' Name"

A Sermon based upon Matthew 28:16-20

Before we look at Jesus’ Great Commission --his last words to his followers before he departed into heaven --in recognition of (and honor toward )the many 50-year-plus members present this morning, I’d like to speak first about our own congregation of faithful followers right here in Alpena.

We have present with us 20 men and women who have been members of this congregation for the past 50 years –or more! They are noted with the boutonnieres and floral wrist corsages. That’s 20 out of the 31 long-time members on our roster. We are so proud of you all! Faithful, true, and steady.

Let’s think back 50 years ago, or a little bit more for some of you… In the 1950’s & 60’s, there was a post-war Baby Boom going on and new families were coming to Alpena for employment in the 1950’s.

Under the guidance of Jesse and Anna Besser’s "Building Committee" (which included Carl Henry, Fred Trelfa, Jay Bingham, and Rev. Barksdale), ground was broken on April 12, 1951, for a new masonry and concrete block church building–this very one!–to stand on the same site as the two previous church buildings: one of wood, and one of brick. The concrete cornerstone that greets you at the church’s main entrance doors was laid on Nov. 8, 1953, and this brand new beautiful sanctuary was finally dedicated on April 17, 1955. We just passed it’s 63rd Anniversary. (Thank you, Jesse & Ana Besser!) (Who was in the old brick church?)

Back in those days, in addition to a booming "Bird’s Nest" Sunday School and a substantial number of teenagers in our Pilgrim Fellowship youth group--which included Edith Rosenthaler Gerber, a Confirmation classmate of Dave Zeller (whose 50th year is this year!) --our church’s Women’s Fellowship 50 years ago consisted of about 100 women divided into 10 different Circles (!) who met for study and for fellowship. When they met several times a year for a meal all together, they averaged 61 women in attendance.(Wow!)

You may also recall that the 1950’s & early-60’s were the heyday of mainline Protestant church-going everywhere in America. (!) Our kind of church used to be called (in railroad terminology) the "main-line" of American Christianity, while Evangelicals & Pentecostals were considered "side-lines".

As you know, those roles have been reversed over the past decades. Classic church sanctuaries like ours are less attractive to today’s young families than movie-theater-type auditoriums, with projected lyrics on screens & a praise band leading the singing instead of a church organs& robed choir.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, people who moved to Alpena (like those moving into any new area) wanted to find a church in order to become more actively integrated into the community and to raise their family with Christian values. "Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end!"

But, let’s face it: the desire to find a church is not high on today’s social agenda. Alpena cannot rely for its growth upon new families moving into town anymore! At best, the demographics show adult children (or even grandchildren)of Alpena’s original homebuyers, coming back as "early retirees" as they inherit the houses they grew up in. Even so, even then, we cannot expect these new residents to automatically be looking for a "downtown" mainline church like ours.

On a Sunday when we recognize church members who have been here for fifty-years & more, it’s nice to see some new folks, too. Bill & Wendy Lewis, for example, and Christin Sobeck & Jason Barbeau’s family (Xander, Ayla, & Ty) have been very faithful in attendance for over two years! Annie & Tim Schultz & their kids, Craig & Lori Waak when they are up from Utica, Gary & Sandy Jarmuzewski have been here faithfully & frequently this year. Kathy & Craig Froggett, Connie Werth, Mary Ann Colby, Lora Greene, Donna Bautel, Loretta Reynolds, are all frequent visitors --newer people.

Our roots are deep, here at First Congregational --as those two-dozen long-time members present attest --but new branches are necessary if we hope to bear new fruit, today & into the future.

The Michigan Historical Marker out on our front lawn points out that we used to be the only game in town ! Alpena’s First Church.

But it wasn’t long before the Episcopalians built Trinity Church across the street, and the Irish Catholics built St. Bernard’s up the street. As the population grew in those lumbering days, Methodists and Lutherans each spun off churches of their own. Did you know that the First Baptist Church used to be located right behind ours, where the city parking lot is now? And the little brick church that is "soon" going to be Pjetri’s Fine Food Restaurant, was first built for the Presbyterians when they got themselves organized. (It was later sold to the Salvation Army.) First Congregational served somewhat like a "seed-bed" for other denominations to grow until they were strong enough to start separate congregations.

Back in those days (and for the next Century, well into the 1980’s), people were "church-going" not only because they were Christian but also because it was their social hub.

Churches were considered a place to raise a healthy family, and to "do" stuff. In those days, churches showed movies, held square dances and talent shows, brought in speakers, put on chicken dinners for the community, as well as held worship services and Bible Studies.

Those of you who have been members here for 50 years and more will remember how significant the relationships were among church members… almost like an extended family of surrogate aunts & uncles, grandparents, good friends and neighbors. It was an intergenerational experience, with "elders" and "youngsters" sitting together in the pews, and sometimes extending for two or three generations! Our active church members helped make us who we are!(Thank you!)

Things have changed, haven’t they? Oh, yes, some people still "shop" for a church that they can call "home" –and (as I said a moment ago) we are so very fortunate when they give us a try! It makes us old-timers feel good to see new, young families, visiting us on Sunday mornings. We like to welcome "newcomers" to town and want to get to know them.

That’s why we are hosting Fellowship Dinners 6-to-8 on occasional Monday nights. The next getting-to-know-you meal is scheduled for June 18 –one week from tomorrow! Sign up!

We mean it when we say at the start of every worship service: "Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!" And we gladly put out the "Extravagant Welcome" welcome mat.

But those days of people coming to church as a regular habit, are fading fast! The time may have come when we will have to actually (actively) TELL people that we are here… and tell ’em what kind of church we are.

Even though we have been here for 156 years, people don’t necessarily know (anymore) what "Congregational" means. (!) Most folks who don’t go to church are not particularly looking for a church… they’re not looking for ours, nor anybody else’s!

We might have to go to them, like Jesus suggested in his Great Commission: "Go ye, therefore, into the world and make disciples of every nation..."

Historically, the Congregational Church has been sending out missionaries for 200 years. Our Global Mission Board is, in fact, the oldest chartered mission on this continent. (!)The U.C.C. (United Church of Christ) continues the work of the American Mission Board which first brought Christianity to Hawaii & Samoa in the 1820’s, and to the Philippines… It may interest you to know that we (UCC) are the ones who sent the first Protestant missionaries into Catholic Mexico… long before the Pentecostal churches or Baptists & Mormons began their outreach to Latin America… and some missionaries sent from our Pacific School of Religion were martyred in Mexico.

In every generation --from the Pilgrims who founded New England, and the German farmers who settled the Midwest, to the pioneers who started churches all across the plains states as America moved West (including on Indian Reservations)--our mainline Congregational tradition has taken steps to insure that we do our part to fulfill Jesus’ mandate: "Go... make disciples of all nations. Baptizing them...and teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you." In every village or town, we built a church Meeting House and usually started a public school.(Congregationalists valued education.)

But those glory days of church growth (in the 18th, 19th, & early 20thCenturies) are ancient history to most folks today!

We passed the zenith of our membership numbers 28 years ago (in 1990) when we had 429 people on our roster. Today we are down to less than half that many (150 at last count) with the loss of Jacquie Granum two weeks ago, and both Phyllis Manitz and Joyce McLain a month before that.

Jesus had these final words to say to them before he ascended into heaven: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

This passage is called the "Great Commission" because Jesus is giving final instructions to his core group of followers as to the task they should be about (in his name): (1) "Go..."he said to them," and (2) make disciples of all nations. (3)Baptizing them and (4) teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."

And, since Jesus knew that he was no longer going to be present with them (in the flesh) as he had been up until that time, in order that they not lose heart, nor feel abandoned, he said: "And (5) remember, I am with you always, to the end ofthe age."

Well, there we have it, friends, our marching orders as a church: (1) Go, (2) make disciples, (3) baptize them into the fellowship,and (4) teach them to do everything that Jesus has commanded us to do. As we do these four things, we are to remember (5) that Jesus is with us and within us always.

For those of us who have more than half-a-Century of faithful discipleship under our belts already, it’s that final phrase that gives us the most comfort: "lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

It is because we have felt that call (that commission) from Jesus for so many years, it’s become "second-nature" to us. (!) If you’re like me, we can’t imagine what it would be like to live without God’s loving presence in our lives. We feel secure, knowing Jesus’ promise is true: "lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

May I "testify" for a minute here? It’s because I believe that Jesus’ life is the very best example of how God would have people live if they were fully in tune with God’s Will being done on earth as it is in heaven, that I choose to follow him. Jesus points us in the right direction, and he raises the right issues that have the power to change the world for the better! For me--and for those who call themselves "Christian" (which means "Christ-like") --Jesus sets course, points the way, clarifies the issues, and leads us forward as the clearest & fullest example of divinity in humanity ever given.

It is because I believe that Jesus was right when he said: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," that I am willing to: " Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations." Jesus only has the power to "command" me --or you, or anyone else --because we willingly accept his authority, and we freely follow. No coercion, no manipulation nor threat, can make someone into a disciple of Jesus Christ. It must be willingly decided out of love. Not out of fear–love!

If our task, then (as Jesus followers in Alpena), is to "make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; [and] teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded, "we ought to be able to look at our programs and priorities as a Church (and as individual disciples) to see whether or not we’re fulfilling our task.

That’s what I have in mind for coming weeks. Be sure to come back. Thank you. (Congratulate, Shelby Sexton.) Amen.

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