Raise Mine Ebenezer: Reflections with a Grateful Heart

Trinity Baptist: A church that cherishes freedom in Christ and religious liberty

Sermon preached at Trinity Baptist Church, during Christival season, October 9, 2011, by Reverend Mike Robertson.

It is Columbus Day weekend and a time to remember a bit of history even if inaccurate.  Someone once said that if we do not learn from history then we are doomed to repeat it.  The Jewish religion is based on remembering and reflecting on what God has done in their history.  When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River they took stones from the river and built a monument – an EBENEZER – to always remember how God helped them.  We sing a song that has a line “Here I raise mine Ebenezer – hither by THY help I’m come.”  We are commanded “to remember” and so we shall…

Let me share some of the things I remember and reflect on in my spiritual pilgrimage:

My college church experience was a major change in my theology and view of church.  There I learned the ministry of the laity, that all are called to serve.  I also learned that Christianity is a relationship, not a set of beliefs.  It is not a way of doing certain things, but a certain way of doing everything.

It was my first EBENEZER.

It was also a time of change for Prescott: Integration; MLK assassination; Gender issues, Pastoral leadership, Peace Fellowship, Social issues, etc.  Looking back I can see God at work in my life and also in my church – but our vision is only “20/20” in hindsight, we don’t see the future quite so clearly.  So we have to put up our piles of stones to help us remember and to have faith and hope for the future – however uncertain.

My life continued to change with graduation, marriage, first job, volunteer work, teaching SS.  I traveled to San Diego, CA, to do campus ministry.   There, I learned how to be a minister and how to relate to students – of all kinds, how to relate to other campus ministers of varying (and no) faiths.

But especially, I learned how to take the claims and comforts of Christianity to the campus – to take worship on campus as we commemorated student deaths at Kent State, prayed for the Berigan Brothers, remembered a student who immolated himself in the name of peace in Vietnam, and finally helped churches relate to students and not see the University as that “God-forsaken campus”!

And so came my “second” Ebenezer – that God might be calling and could use me as a minister to students.

Therefore – off to seminary to “sharpen the axe” – SBTS 1971-73, and I found myself back in the academic “briar patch” – I LOVED it!  I could have been a professional student except for wife and 9-month old daughter who weren’t quite as thrilled.

In seminary I learned to think critically, to analyze competing and conflicting arguments, how to study, research, exegete the scripture texts (rather than “eisogete”), how to examine biblical passages in context and discern the modern meaning and application.

3rd Ebenezer – that since ALL are ministers I might serve as a “Lay-Minister” in a ministry setting with ministerial training

And so I accepted a position as Campus Minister (or BSU Director) at Murray State U. in KY where I served for 3 years.  My main calling was to help students discover and exercise their gifts and take the gospel to the campus.  I helped students integrate their faith with what their minds were being exposed.  We encouraged campus involvement including student government and had a student elected SGA president!

However – in the BLOOD RIVER BAPTIST ASSOCIATION there were churches which saw ministry to students differently.  It was at this time that I learned how to relate to ultra-conservative churches and ministers.  In the “hot seat” or “hot bed” of Landmarkism it was difficult, especially since women were not even allowed behind the pulpit.  My BSU president was female!

In 1975, tragedy struck my family as my 23-year old brother was killed in an auto accident.  My 4th Ebenezer was that God gives comfort, peace, healing and the capacity to move ahead with the support of family and friends and that family includes more than blood kin.

1976 saw a struggle in location for my ministry as the Home Mission Board of the SBC offered a position that met my ministry objectives – but I was having great success where I was.  So, I expanded my ministry to all ages as I worked with volunteers, chaplains, personnel, and specialized ministries.  I later resigned and took early retirement rather than sign a creedal document.  I also served this local church (Trinity Baptist Church) as associate pastor and accepted the call to be ordained.

Family events during this time included losing my 16-year old son to accidental death, my daughter’s marriage and birth of first grandchild.  After retirement. family matters continued to be volatile – My wife had cancer followed by five years of chemo treatment.  I lost my uncle and aunt who had been “second parent.”  I lost a brother-in-law; and, finally, I lost my wife to cancer.

I did get remarried and gained new grandsons as well as new “adopted” or “second family,” including a precocious 3-year old grand-daughter that we help raise.

“Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I am come” – We can’t do it without God!

Many Ebenezers along the way prepare us for what the future brings.  I learned a new appreciation for Romans 8 – that God is FOR US, so it doesn’t matter who or what is against us.  It is not God-caused but God-cared.  God is on our side and works in all things for good.  We must reject the Brother Lawrence idea (still popular even today) that God sends things to “teach us” and “reach us”.

Late Trinity church member, Judy Norman, once asked me why God wasn’t blessing our church?  I told her then and I still believe that the fact we are still here despite all our troubles and trials IS a sign that God is blessing us!

So what about TRINITY and her own Ebenezers?  There have been many!  Landmarks, events and monuments along the way serve as signals and encouragement for others on the road.  Several ebenezers include:

  • Being Creative in worship and ministry.
  • Allowing women to serve as leaders, deacons and even ministers.
  • Not continuing to hurt people who have experienced divorce by not allowing them to participate in positions of leadership (even pastoral).
  • Not restricting our membership to those of a certain color, creed, income, or anything else that divides rather than brings people together!
  • Being missional in creative and prophetic ways

But we can’t just “rest on our laurels,” we must look to what the future will be!

First, we recognize that our identity is in Who (and Whose) we are and not in what we do or have done.  I recently preached about “Being and Becoming the People of God”.  God provides “Divine road service” when we get off track.  Triple-A service includes acceptance, affirmation and attitude adjustment which all result in proper action.

We accept ourselves, God as God, and others no matter how different (even if they cannot accept us).  We affirm our gifts as we build up each other and the church (example of roof shingles fusing together to form a single body); we affirm and accept our calling and mission.

We take on the “mind of Christ” as we seek to be servants.  The story of the angels at creation reveals that even in doing “good things for God” we are tempted to own, control, go it alone rather than help or heal.  Jewish concept – Tekun Olam – is to “heal” the world just as we repaired the broken toilet or lawn mower.

These result in new actions where we should not not be weary in well-doing, but keep on keepin’ on.  We are fruitful, we are faithful, we are consistent, we are ourselves and not what someone else dictates or expects.  We maintain our identity; but with flexibility and adaptability in our methodology, we cherish our history as we remember it and celebrate it and create new history.

Finally we TRUST GOD to still be there as in the past.

So we continue to share God’s love and message; we provide ministry to those who hurt and have needs.

We recognize that Jesus’ message at his first public sermon has NOT changed – He quoted Isaiah in preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and acceptance of the Lord.

“Good news” – for all, not just the poor.  True meaning of “evangel” – good messenger or messenger of good news; one beggar to another.  Once, my great nephew saw a man in restaurant that looked unhappy and told his mother “someone needs to go tell that man that God loves him!”

Have things changed since Jesus’ time?  NO!  Our message has not changed, and our call to ministry has not changed.  We have seen God at work in the past – and we remember and are grateful.

We can look to the future with hope and trust, even if we are called to die!  We resist the idea that our time may have passed because we don’t want to give the “Filthy  B—–” (Sean Connery expression) anything to gloat about.  But we must be willing if that is the witness we are called to give.

For we are called to be FAITHFUL, not SUCCESSFUL!

And so we shall; so we shall!

Let us pray.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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