It had been forty years of waiting, forty years of wandering in the wilderness, forty years of looking longingly toward the Promised Land. Finally, after forty years, Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River to the land of Canaan. Joshua, sensing the momentous nature of the occasion, organized a special service of commemoration as they reached the other side. He instructed the people to select from among them twelve men, one from each tribe, to be their representatives. Each of these twelve was to pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, and carry that stone into the Promised Land. Like the crossing of their ancestors from captivity in Egypt, the waters of the Jordan were miraculously held back as the people crossed over. The twelve men picked up their twelve stones, and when they had reached the camp they stacked the stones into some kind of an altar, a place of worship, that would be a memorial forever for what the Lord had done. In future generations, when their children and their children’s children would ask them “what do these stones mean,” they would tell the story. The stones would remind them how the Lord had rescued them from bondage in Egypt, and how the Lord had led them safely through the wilderness, and finally how the Lord had delivered them into the Promised Land.
We have not been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, but at times it seemed that long, and at times we wondered if we would ever see the Promised Land. Thirty-four months ago our church building was destroyed by a devastating fire. Some of you were here that Saturday, January 8, 2000, when the building burned. You stood with me in the parking lot and watched in shock and horror and disbelief and grief as the firefighters fought to contain the blaze. After the fire was put out, a fire department spokesman estimated that the building had suffered $350,000 in damage. Oh that his estimate had been accurate. In reality it was more than twice that much and the building was destroyed. Some of the walls were left standing, some of the contents were saved, but for all intents and the purposes the building was a total loss. When it came time to rebuild, about all that could be reused were the concrete slab, and the exterior brick walls along the backside of the east wing and the sanctuary, and the baptistery. Virtually everything else had to be replaced or rebuilt. Some of the bricks from the original building are still cemented in place in this new structure. Some of you helped to clean the bricks that were recovered from the rubble, and those bricks were added to the sanctuary walls to accommodate a higher roofline. So everything was not lost, but most of the building was. Except for the original concrete slab, and a few exterior brick walls, and the baptistery, this is a new building, incorporating the old, but mostly new.
The Sunday after the fire we worshipped in the Pointer Ridge Fire Hall. We gathered first on the parking lot in front of our burned building to pray; then we went over to the Fire Hall to continue our worship there. The media were here in full force. I got to be on television more than enough for the rest of my life. For a few weeks after the fire, just about everywhere I went someone recognized me as the pastor whose church had burned. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame, thank you very much. We deeply appreciate all the publicity we received, and the hundreds and hundreds of expressions of sympathy. By and large the media were extremely sympathetic, and we appreciate their support.
While the church was still burning, I started to try to find a place for us to meet on Sunday (the next day). I had Linda on her cell phone calling United Parish and Temple Solel up the street to see if there was any chance we could meet in either of their buildings. United Parish would have been happy for us to use their building on Sunday afternoon, but Sunday morning was not available. Temple Solel was using their building on Sunday morning as well. Then one of the firefighters said we could use the Fire Hall. It was the first of many gracious offers of hospitality. The week after the fire we started looking for a place to continue to meet. We checked out schools and hotels and community centers and empty storefronts and just about any other place we could think of. Nothing looked promising. Then I got a handwritten note in the mail from Bowie Alliance. It was like dozens of other notes of sympathy that were pouring in, except this note made an offer I could hardly believe. I had to read it twice; then I asked Linda to read it, to make sure I correctly understood what they were offering. They were inviting us to use their building on Sunday mornings, and they would even alter their schedule to accommodate us. It was like a gift from heaven…no, it was a gift from heaven.
Now, thirty-four months later, we are finally back home. What have we learned during our wilderness wandering, and what do we discern to be our calling as a church as we occupy the place that God has provided for us? Let me share a few observations. First, we have learned that God is faithful. On the day of the fire a verse of scripture was planted in my mind, and it became the theme verse for all our time of displacement, Romans 8:28: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” At the time it was hard to see what good God would bring out of that tragedy. But now looking back we can see many evidences of how God has been at work to bring good out of bad. This beautiful new structure is one evidence of God’s hand at work. All of you here are another evidence of God at work. As time goes on we will see other signs that God has been at work through all of this. Yes, the first thing we have learned, maybe the most important thing we have learned, is that God is faithful.
A second lesson we have learned is that people can be incredibly generous. When our building burned, we had about $3000 in our Building Fund. Immediately donations began to pour in. The first donation from a church came from Rev. Charles Galbreath whose church, Bowie New Life Assembly, was meeting in the Pointer Ridge Elementary School at the time. They didn’t have a building of their own, but they sent a donation to our building fund as an expression of support. We received donations from former members of our church, from friends and family of church members, and from people in the community who had no connection to our church, but wanted to help. In the program for the Dedication Service we’re going to print a listing of all the donors to our Building Fund, and you will be amazed to see the number of individuals and churches and businesses and community organizations who contributed to our Building Fund. Three benefit concerts were organized for the Building Fund—Cresthill Baptist Church had a praise band concert in their sanctuary; Trinity Community Church organized a Church Aid Concert at the amphitheatre at Allen Pond and recruited six other churches to join them; and the Tackett sisters, Ginny and Beth, along with our own Les Owen, presented a Christmas concert at the Latter Day Saints church on Route 3. Temple Solel’s 7th grade class organized a spaghetti dinner; Edna’s Jamison’s granddaughter organized a basket bingo fundraiser in honor of her grandmother to benefit our Building Fund. A Jewish resident at Collington donated a host of paintings she had done for auction and sale. And there are many other stories of generosity.
I haven’t yet mentioned your generosity. You gave sacrificial over-and-above gifts to the Building Fund. You supported yard sales and estate sales and bake sales and Ebay auctions and craft fairs and bazaars and a golf tournament and many other fundraising projects. You bought keys for a new piano. You donated to showers for the kitchen and the nursery. You gave and gave and gave, and then you gave some more. But it wasn’t just the money that got us here. It was the prayers and the encouragement and the support for some many generous, compassionate people.
A third lesson that we have learned is that God has a purpose and a mission for our church. Shortly after the fire, Ron Knode asked the startling question, “Why should Village Baptist Church continue to exist?” Why go through all the trouble of rebuilding? Why not cut our losses and grab whatever insurance money we could and disband? Why endure almost three years of displacement and discouragement and frustration? The answer is very simple: we are convinced that God has a purpose and a mission for this church. We are convinced that God wants us here, in this building, on this property, in this community, because Village Baptist Church has something to offer in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God has given our church a mission and a purpose because God can use a church like ours. We aren’t the biggest church around; we aren’t the richest; we aren’t the most talented; we aren’t the most sophisticated; we aren’t a lot of things, but God can use us nonetheless. Here is some of what we are that God can use. We are a church that is centered around Jesus Christ. We are unapologetic about that. We proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins, raised for our salvation, and coming again for our ultimate redemption. Next Sunday we’re going to have a service of believer’s baptism in both services. I wanted to have baptism this Sunday, but there wasn’t enough time to get everything ready. But next Sunday, our first full Sunday back in our new building, we’re going to celebrate the baptism of believers, because we are a church centered around Jesus Christ.
We are also an inclusive church. We reserve the right to accept everybody. That doesn’t mean that we approve of every lifestyle or that we have no moral standards, but it does mean that we don’t judge people; we leave judgments up to God. If you come in sincerity to worship God with us, then you are welcome here. You don’t have to be a Baptist in your upbringing; you don’t have to come from any particular religious background; you don’t have to fit into some narrow, preconceived mold. You don’t have to measure up to some standard of righteousness. You are welcome here, flawed as you are, because all of us are flawed, and yet God loves us anyway. We are all sinners saved only by God’s grace.
We are also a serving church. We are active in worldwide missions and in community ministries. We have partnered with missionaries to reach out to the Gypsy peoples around the world. In less than a month two of the original missionaries to the Gypsies, T and Kathie Thomas are coming to be with us, to help strengthen our understanding and our partnership with the Gypsy work. We also have a growing relationship with Christian brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe, Africa. On the local front we support various ministries, such as Martha’s Table, Habitat for Humanity, the Community Food Pantry, and many more. Our building will be in use seven days a week to serve this community. We host an Alcoholics Anonymous group, two Chemically Dependent Anonymous groups, four Girl Scout and Brownie groups, a mental health counselor, Rose Schrott, and most recently the Mitchellville Community School of the Arts. This is a serving church, and we are continually looking for more opportunities to serve others in Christ’s name.
This is also a learning church. We read and study the Bible often. We have an active Sunday School program with Bible study classes for all age groups. We have other Bible study groups. We encourage each other to approach the Bible with open minds and open hearts. We believe the Bible is for everyone, and everyone can benefit from reading and studying the Bible, individually and in groups. I am not the sole interpreter of God’s Word for this church. We are all called to interpret God’s Word, and more importantly to live according to God’s Word. Learning is an essential part of our individual lives, and of our life together as a church.
This is also a church characterized by fellowship and friendships and love. We see ourselves as an extended church family. Everyone is important; everyone is valued. We have a deacon family ministry plan that tries to link every active participant in our church with a deacon. One of the biggest improvements in our new building is a Fellowship Hall and kitchen. The kitchen is not quite ready yet, but we want to start having dinners and other social events as soon as possible so we can strengthen our fellowship with one another, and reach out to newcomers who come to see this new place.
The fire destroyed a building, but it did not destroy our church. The essential qualities remain. The day after the fire a reporter interviewed Maury Sweetin outside the Fire Hall. We played a portion of that interview earlier. Maury said that it was “just another step in the journey.” I’ll never forget that…another step in the journey. Then Maury went on to predict that our church would survive the fire and go on to even more meaningful ministry and service in the future. That is what lies before us, now that we are finally back in our building…more meaningful ministry and service.
When Joshua instructed the people of Israel to collect twelve stones as a memorial, he wanted some tangible way to remind the people of their past, and also to call them into the future. Shortly after the fire Jo Reiter snuck up to the ruins one day and dug a brick out of the rubble to take home as a remembrance. Jo later confessed to me that she stole a brick, and I told her that’s okay, she could have it. That brick served as a reminder of what had been, but also as a sign of hope for what is to come. Seizing Jo’s idea, I gathered some bricks from the old building, or pieces of brick, and stacked them on the old Communion Table at the back of this sanctuary. There are thirty-four of them back on the table, one for each month of our displacement. Those old bricks from the original building that were left over are both reminders of what was, and signs of hope for what will be. This morning, I invite anyone who wants one to take a brick from the old building. Take it home; put it on the mantle over your fireplace or put it in your garden; or find some other place to keep it. If you take all the old bricks off the old Communion Table, there are more brick pieces in boxes in my office. Let the old bricks be a reminder to you of this church, and what this church stands for, and what God calls this church to be. Then, when you children or your children’s children ask you, “what does this brick mean,” you can tell them the story. It’s a story that’s not over—not by a long shot. Today is a great day, but it’s not the end. It’s just another step in the journey. We’re home, but we’re not really home yet, if you know what I mean. The journey continues. “I am bound for the Promised Land, I am bound for the Promised Land. Oh, who will come and go with me, I am bound for the Promised Land.”
Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
November 10, 2002
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