How To Build a House


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

January 26, 2020

Texts: 2  Samuel 7:1–17,  Mark 1:14–20

       It was a Christmas but I don’t remember how old I was. Santa had given me a set of Lincoln Logs. Back then it wasn’t the cheap plastic imitation. It was the real thing. Wood pieces and green wooden slats for making the roof. If you didn’t do it just right, the whole roof would collapse. And since I had little people figures in the town I created, I really didn’t think they would like that experience.

        The Lincoln logs came in a big round Quaker Oats type box. They were all different sizes so you could build different types of houses. I really loved them so much that when my boys were little almost 50 years ago I got them Lincoln logs as well. At that time they were also the old wooden version. Because I’m such a sentimental pack rat, they are up in my attic in an old crate. 

        By the time my boys came along a company called Skaneateles made a wooden train set so the boys could create a town around the log buildings. At that time were was also a company that made little wooden houses as well as a church. How can you have a community without a church? 

       That is, of course, exactly what our early settlers here in New Jersey thought. How can you have a community without a church? So wherever they settled, they built a church.

Erecting a church building, however, does not always lead to a feeling of community. The early Baptists who erected the first building on this site in 1688 and called a pastor, the Rev. Thomas Ashton who served the church well into the eigh-teenth century. We have almost no evidence about the first twenty-four years of the church because as a result of internal contentiousness, the church records were destroyed in 1712 and the congregation decided to start all over again in the hopes that there would be a stronger sense of community.

       Much like building a house for the Lord in Zion which also became a battle between various forces, building the house that was the Middletown Baptist Church was not easy. In ancient Israel it was a struggle for political power and, as the text will tell us, disobedience, that delayed the construc-tion of the temple.

        In Middletown, rather than delaying the physical construction, the disputes were within the walls of the building already constructed. Those disputes were mainly doctrinal although various people, according to the records we do have, were chastised for not going to church or for their behavior.

        Middletown at that time was small enough so everyone knew everyone else’s business. Leadership is important for helping to hold a community together and after another twenty years of bickering, the Middletown Baptist Church had the good fortune to call the Rev. Abel Morgan who shep-herded the church through the Revolution. He died in 1785. His remains lie in our churchyard.

        It’s important to consider our history as a congregation and as a community in this day and time. The church went through other periods of disagreement and contention, mainly over the issue of slavery. During the Revolution slaves were enticed by the British to support their cause by a promise of freedom but some slaves did not believe that promise and fought on the side of independence.

         Although the New Jersey legislature forbade the importation of slaves in 1788, slavery was not abolished in New Jersey until 1804 and even then it was a gradual process. In 1846 the Legislature abolished this evil although it seems some were kept in servitude until as late as 1863.

The Middletown congregation had other issues to face. As the population grew, this church spawned churches in other communities, about fourteen in all. With the growth of small factories along the shore, notably in Belford and Red Bank, the Baptist Church preachers Rev. Thomas Roberts (1825–1837) and the Rev. David Stout (1837–1875) took on the issue of “demon rum.” 

        Roberts oversaw the construction of our current building following the disastrous fire of 1828 and Stout led the congre-gation through the Civil War. The congregation moved beyond its understanding of the church as a building and worked in the community for its betterment. Although it may have taken longer to get from place to place, the physical community was more cohesive in those times than now. We didn’t have Routes 35 or 36 or the Parkway tearing up the landscape.

         This church still maintains the basic precepts of the early Baptists which, it should be said, did lead to arguments over doctrine and practice. Soul liberty, a fundamental doctrine, if you will, of Baptist thinking, means that each person has the liberty to choose what conscience, also called soul, dictates is right and that there is no intermediary between a person and God. 

         It goes with freedom of conscience which means we don't necessarily all believe in the same way. You and I may look at a particular piece of Scripture in wildly different ways––but we can also discuss our differences in belief and practice in a reasonable and loving way recognizing that as is so eloquently put in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, “for now we see through a glass dimly.” In other words, no one has a corner on the truth or even needs to agree on the nature of truth.

          How is it that any group builds a community, a church, with all the differences of interpretation, beliefs, preferred practices, even tastes in music? The building of a church community is, first, through our relationship with God, and, secondly, through our relationships with each other, the respect we give the other person even when we do not agree with that person’s beliefs or practices. 

        We are not caught up in the doctrinal disputes that almost drove this church into extinction as in 1711 when the names of 43 persons were erased from the rolls because of different views on baptism or the efficacy of prayer, thank God.

         In Nathan’s time there were also arguments on forms of worship, the importance of this site or that one for the building of the house that the Lord wanted. There were also arguments about who would hold power and how it should be exercised. But the Lord tells Nathan to remind David where he came from. “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people, Israel.”

         And the Lord goes on reminding David that the Lord had caused his enemies to fall before him and promising him a dynasty. David promises to build a house, a place to be the center of worship for the people Israel. All this happens, of course, before David falls into the sin of having Uriah killed because he covets his wife. At that point Nathan’s prophetic role will change.

        Fortunately we do not live in such times. But our prophetic role as a church in this community derives from our understanding of the role of the prophet. It is to hold society up to the mirror of what it aspires to be and to point out the gaps of aspiration and reality. It is also to offer a vision of how to live out our aspirations in our modern day society. In that way we build a church as a voice for God’s call to justice and righteousness, God’s call to mercy and love. 

        If you take those old Lincoln logs and don’t use them properly, the building you construct will be askew; it may even collapse when you try to put on the roof. Building a church takes thoughtfulness and a sense of who we are as Christians.

        Building a church also involves innovation and possible new ways of worship and programming to reach a community beyond our four walls––well, eight or twelve if you include Fellowship Hall and the administrative wing. It means being open to people who need our space for projects and pro-grams that serve the community. 

        Not quite like Lincoln logs but maybe more like them than we first thought.

        Let us pray: Holy God, we come to you this morning as we face the future of not just our church community but the importance of your righteousness and mercy for the world. Infuse us with your Spirit as you infused the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.