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The Stories Behind the Prayers

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

July 14, 2013

Psalm 25:1-10; Colossians 1:1-14

E. P. J. Garrott, A. L. Aulick, Allen Hill Autry… do those names mean anything to you? They were the first pastors of this congregation, beginning in 1913 and continuing until 1918. You will find their pictures hanging on the west wall outside this sanctuary, along with all the others who are included in that “rogue’s gallery.” Dr. Garrott was the first pastor of this church, beginning in 1913, shortly after the congregation was formed. He remained in this pulpit less than two years when he was followed by Dr. Aulick who served only one year, and by Dr. Autry who stayed about the same length of time. Three pastors in five years…

What does that say to you, that this church, in its infancy, ran through this many pastoral leaders in such a short period of time?

Well, as you might imagine, I have a theory. But before I share it with you, allow me to tell you that I have some experience with this dynamic. On the first Sunday in November, 1976, I assumed the pulpit of the Bellevue Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, my first opportunity to serve a church full-time as its pastor. I became the church’s third pastor on the very day the congregation celebrated its… are you ready for this?… its fourth anniversary. Third pastor, fourth anniversary. Shades of Pulaski Heights Baptist during the second decade of the twentieth century!

So, you see, I have experienced what it means for a young church to struggle in finding the kind of leadership it needs to take it into the future, and provide the kind of stability that is required for a congregation to be successful in its efforts in sharing the gospel. What that means is, Pulaski Heights Baptist is not alone in this sort of thing.

Why do you think young churches struggle when it comes to their pastoral leadership? Specifically, why do you think this church fell into the pattern that was repeated in Nashville, Tennessee some sixty years later?

My first thought was that since this was a young, fledgling church perhaps the first pastors were bi-vocational; that is, they held other forms of employment and basically preached on Sundays and did the work of the church when their other employment allowed. After all, they all had “Dr.” in front of their names, which would imply they had been in the work of ministry for quite some time. Generally, established ministers don’t take on brand-new churches. Perhaps they were employed through the state convention or such and the brand-new congregation up in the Heights served as their “project,” so to speak.

Doing bi-vocational work is difficult, and makes for short relationships. I was once told that there is no such thing as “part-time” ministry, and I can definitely see how that is true. So I can understand how that might have happened, that these first three pastors, holding down other jobs, found it difficult to keep up such a rigorous schedule. That is why it came to be that after a brief try at it they decided to move on. Can you see that as a possibility?

But Edwina Mann, our esteemed church historian, tells me the records of the church somewhat belie that possibility… that, indeed, they were full-time in their employment by this church. If that is true, it returns us to the original question. What does it mean that Drs. Garrot, Aulick, and Autry (it sounds like a legal firm, doesn’t it?) didn’t stick around very long to see this church grow and prosper?

Let’s do a bit more theorizing…

A church is a living, breathing organism just like any person. In its infancy, there are going to be issues of instability when, while attempting to walk, it will find itself falling down. Mistakes are going to be made, and the church has to find its legs. That was true of the congregation I served in Nashville. When I went there, I found it to be a small, struggling, rather immature group. They had been dealing with some theological issues that gave them a certain reputation in the community. In fact, that is where I learned that a reputation is easy to gain and quite difficult to lose. But then again, what was I but a struggling, immature, young pastor? We had our moments, as you can imagine, as we sputtered along together to find what it meant to be the presence of Christ.

Could the same be just as true of the young Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in west Little Rock in the early decades of the twentieth century?

And could it have been just as true of the church in Colossae?

Though the epistle to the Colossian church is attributed to Paul, there is a real possibility that Paul had never been there. It’s for certain he did not start the church. So what is going on here, and why did Paul feel the need to write them this letter? Well, guess what… as he pens this letter to them, Paul is in prison. Surprise! No, it should not surprise you at all, if you know anything about the apostle. It seems that Paul spent more time in prison than he did as a free man.

But he is not alone. Timothy is with him, as is Mark. Mark is the one who had deserted Paul on their first missionary journey. That led to some resentment between the two, and Paul wouldn’t let him accompany them the second time around. But they eventually reconciled all that. Jesus, who went by the name of Justus (and you can imagine why he wouldn’t want to be known as Jesus, not in the early church anyway) was there, as were Luke and Demas. Aristarchus may have been the only Jesus follower with Paul who was also a prisoner. The others mentioned may have been in town, wherever Paul was imprisoned, and were tending to his needs while he was incarcerated.

There was one other person in the near vicinity who is mentioned by Paul, and that is the name I would like for you to remember. His name is Epaphras. He is not the most well-known person in scripture, to be sure, but he is key to the Colossian story. Epaphras, E-p-a-p-h-r-a-s. Epaphras. The reason you need to hang your hat on his name is that he might have been the very person who started the church at Colossae. And he may very well be the reason Paul felt compelled to write this young, struggling church a letter.

Why? Because when he visited Paul in prison, he brought with him stories of what has been happening in the fledgling church back home, stories that led to Paul’s prayers for this young congregation.

They’re referred to these days as “back stories.” It is a literary device, the telling of stories surrounding events that have already occurred and then are used to explain what is happening at the current time. Paul is in prison, and while there, Epaphras arrives to see him. He begins telling Paul about the young church, the struggles and the successes, the people who fill the pews and the manner in which the gospel is being lived out and witnessed to in the city of Colossae. “He (Epaphras) is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf,” Paul says to the church, “and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” Epaphras has come to Paul, telling him the back stories that serve as the framework for Paul’s prayers.

Stories of faith and courage are essential to the life of any church. While I can’t say I have enjoyed the funerals we have had in the years since I first came to be the pastor of this congregation, I can say with all sincerity that the stories we have told of those who once sat where you’re sitting have been inspirational to those of us who have been around to hear them. This church has literally been built by those who are central to these stories.

And sometimes the back stories of this church come from unexpected places and people.

Just this week I received a letter from the commonwealth of Virginia, written by a retired college professor who grew up in this church. He told me of how this church helped shape him as a person, and guided him in a life of faith… how, because of Training Union don’t you know, he learned to speak in front of others without fear. But it is his back story that is so fascinating.

His father, a deacon in this church, owned a local business but lost it in the Great Depression. That was not the worst of it. They also lost their home and were literally put on the street. Dr. L. M. Sipes, who preceded Harold Hicks, was the church’s pastor at the time, and had recently informed the church that he wanted to live in his own home rather than use the parsonage on North Cedar Street. It was a rather novel idea in the 1930s, but it meant the church-owned home was unoccupied. This church allowed the deacon and his family to move into the parsonage until such time as they could get back on their feet. Eventually, through a government plan, they were able to secure a loan that allowed them to move back into the home they had earlier been forced to vacate.

Can you imagine – can you just imagine – how many back stories, much like this one, could be told from the first one-hundred years of this church’s existence?

But you don’t have to be that old to have stories to tell. I can just see Epaphras visiting Paul in prison and saying to him, “Paul, let me tell you about James and what he did when one of the families in our church fell into difficulty. And there was Matthew who shared his faith with the family who lost a child. They were so taken with his honest sincerity and faith that they were all baptized! And Mary sews the fine linen. She sells it at the market and gives all the proceeds to the widow’s fund. It also gives her the opportunity to tell others of what the Risen Christ has meant to her in her life. I tell you, Paul, despite our struggles this church is alive and well and active in sharing the good news of our Lord!”

For hours Epaphras goes on and on telling his friend and pastoral mentor Paul what has been transpiring in that little, struggling church at Colossae. It leads Paul to write them a letter saying that Epaphras “has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”

“For this reason,” Paul goes on to say, “since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” That’s what a young church needs, isn’t it? “Wisdom and understanding.” In the second decade of the twentieth century, when the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church was being led by the likes of Garrott, Aulick and Autry, that is indeed what it needed most… wisdom and understanding.

But it’s not just the young churches that require such a thing. Come to think of it, congregations that are celebrating their Centennial could use a little of that too. So maybe what we should do is just keep telling our stories, and in the telling of them find out what we need to be praying for. I think it would hold us in good stead as we begin our second century. Don’t you agree?

Lord, may our stories find us faithfully sharing your story with each other and those we meet. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.