Precious in God's SightThis sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg, Ontario  by Rev. Barry Van Dusen on the occasion of our 185th Anniversary Service, Sunday, May 6th, 2018. We give thanks to Barry for coming and sharing with us on this special occasion. 

Text: Exodus 2: 1-10 and Luke 15: 10

You are Precious in God’s Sight!

After Joy Randall contacted me in November and asked if I would be today’s anniversary speaker and I had answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”, I went to my copy of the history of our church published in 1967, as a Centennial Year project. And as I paged through it I came across the following sentence, “On July 6th, 1834, the Church was opened for worship.” According to our church’s history we opened our doors for worship 184 years ago and yet today we’re celebrating our 185th Anniversary, which would have to mean that our church actually began one year earlier, in 1833 and not 1834. Why this apparent discrepancy which I had never noticed before?

Well, continuing my reading of the church’s history I found the answer to my question. The following is dated Wednesday, May 8th, 1833. “At a meeting of sundry inhabitants, [meaning various inhabitants] of this place and vicinity, members and friends of the Kirk of Scotland [The Church of Scotland] held pursuant to notice at the house of Mr. George Gillespie, with Mr. Andrew Jeffrey in the chair [meaning he moderated the meeting] and Mr. Thomas Scott, secretary [meaning that he took the minutes]. Resolved, that four persons be appointed as Trustees of said Church whose duty it shall be to take up subscriptions [raise the money] for the support of a Minister and superintend [oversee] the pecuniary [meaning financial] affairs of the Church.”

In other words on the 8th of May, in the year of our Lord 1833, which is 185 years ago this Tuesday, a group of early inhabitants of Cobourg had a vision calling them to build this faith community. Accordingly, every year on our church’s anniversary what we celebrate is not the opening of a building but rather the birth of the very vision that led to our church’s founding. And frankly the vision is far more important than the building. After all this is the third building we’ve worshipped in over our 185 years. It’s the vision that’s most critical for a church for as it says in the Bible at Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg, began 185 years ago with a vision! And our church will continue long into the unforeseen future as long as the people who gather to worship here continue to share in and live out that vision.

And if all this leaves you wondering where we worshipped in the fourteen months between May of 1833 and July of 1834, our forbearers worshipped in a cabinet and chair maker’s shop here in town, which is quite appropriate, given that Jesus and his father Joseph were both carpenters by trade.

Having established why we’re celebrating our 185th Anniversary though the church actually opened 184 years ago let’s now turn our attention to our first church service held on July 6th, 1834. Again, according to our church’s history, “The preacher for the day was Rev. James Ketchum of Belleville. His text for the occasion was Exodus II:2-3. This passage tells of the infant Moses being placed by his mother in “an ark of bulrushes coated with slime and pitch.”” And then after having provided us with this historical fact our church’s history makes a somewhat unexpected editorial comment. It steps outside its straightforward factual account to scratch its head, so to speak, as it wonders aloud, “How the Biblical incident of an infant being hidden in a fragile basket was compared with a young congregation beginning life in a stone church is not known.” Nevertheless, it continues with the following words of assurance, “Undoubtedly, however, the minister’s skill in homiletics [a fancy word for preaching] was equal to the task.”

Although no copies of Rev. Ketchum’s sermon from 1834 exist, I think I understand why he chose to preach that Sunday on Exodus 2:2-3, which we read this morning. If you’re not familiar with this passage let me give a brief synopsis.

At the time when Moses was born the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt, and they were so numerous the Pharaoh thought that they might take over his country. So he ordered all Jewish boys killed at birth so that they couldn’t grow up and fight against him. In order to save Moses from certain death his mother hid him in a small basket boat made of bulrushes and waterproofed with tar and pitch which she set afloat in the reeds at the edge of the Nile River. Shortly after, when the Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe she found the infant, Moses, and took him back to live with her and raised him as if he were her son.

Now, three aspects of this Bible story would likely have resonated with the people gathered for our church’s first worship service in 1834. And these three aspects are water, a boat, and, of course, Moses. And they still speak an important message to us 184 years later. But in order to explain why they do I need to take you back to Cobourg in the early 1830s, to the time of our church’s founding.

Though we may not give it too much thought Cobourg exists because of Lake Ontario. In fact, if you look out the main doors of St. Andrew’s down Bagot Street you’ll see the lake! The first settlers came to our shores by boat. And over time Cobourg became the most important town on the 165 miles of shoreline between Kingston and Toronto.

In the late 1820s ships with cargo and passengers had to anchor offshore because Cobourg’s harbour was basically non-existent. Passengers and freight could only be transported to shore after first being transferred to smaller boats, a dangerous, expensive and time-consuming process, as you can imagine. In order to eliminate this problem in 1829 the Cobourg Harbour Company was established by a group of Cobourg businessmen. By 1830, three years before the founding of St. Andrew’s, they’d built a pier at the bottom of Division Street, stretching 500 feet out into Lake Ontario. In other words Cobourg intentionally reached out into the lake in order to attract people and goods to its shores. In the church we call that outreach!

Because of our outreach through our new harbour in the period between 1832 and 1840, a period of just eight years, Cobourg’s population increased by 2½ times, from 1,350 inhabitants to 3,300. During this period of amazing growth settlers came to Cobourg by boat as there was no rail line or serviceable year-round road to or from Cobourg. The lake was everything. In fact it was our town’s lifeblood.

But Cobourg at the time didn’t just attract settlers to its shores, it also attracted prosperous businessmen. One was James Calcutt who arrived in Cobourg in 1832 and built a successful brewery close to the then still pristine waters of Lake Ontario, in fact on the site of the Legion’s old parking lot which is now being developed and is slated to house the Legion on the ground floor with residential condominiums above.

By the 1830s Cobourg had become a regional centre of note due primarily to its fine harbour. In fact a Methodist church committee charged with finding a suitable location for its new education academy choose Cobourg because of its easy access by water. And that academy was Victoria College now Victoria Retirement Living. The cornerstone for Victoria College was laid on June 7th, 1832, and it opened for studies on June 18th, 1836. Victoria College, the second oldest university in Ontario was built concurrent with the establishment of our church. For Cobourg the 1830s, the period when our church began, was a time of growth and prosperity and with massive immigration Cobourg rapidly developed into a thriving centre of administration, education and commerce with a population by mid-century of nearly 5,000, all because of its favourable location on Lake Ontario. No wonder then that in 1842 the great British novelist Charles Dickens, who stopped briefly in Cobourg while travelling between Toronto and Kingston by boat, and called Cobourg a “Cheerful, thriving little town.”

When Rev. Ketchum spoke in his sermon about Moses being placed in the Nile River in a small basket boat the people gathered that Sunday would have understood the serious implication of his words on a very personal level because they all would have arrived here by boat and their future, as was Moses’, was dependent upon favourable winds and calm waters. A sudden storm on the Nile River would have upset Moses’ small craft and he would have drowned. So too the peril faced by all the people of Cobourg in the 1830s. Thus they always would have been praying that smooth sailing and travelling mercies would bless the ships they or family members were on, or which carried the cargo they’d already bought and paid for.

Now, today, you and I don’t give too much thought to the perils of being a passenger on a lake or ocean going vessel, but at one time not too long ago we did. My mother who started attending here in the 1920s told me that when she was a young girl our church would pray for a church member travelling by ship, usually back to Great Britain. And then at the close of the service the congregation would sing a powerful old hymn traditionally associated with seafarers, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
who biddest the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep,
Oh hear us, when we cry to Thee,
for those in peril on the sea!”

In his sermon on Sunday, July the 6th, 1834, as he preached not far Lake Ontario’s shoreline Rev. James Ketchum most likely compared our church at that time to a boat being launched with the same collective concern and hope that Moses’ mother had when she placed Moses’ tiny ark into the waters of the Nile River. And how appropriate this metaphor still is, for the church of Jesus Christ is often likened to a ship. In fact, though you may not know it you are sitting in what is known as the “nave” of the church, a word that comes to us from the Latin word for “ship”. The “nave,” the place where worshippers sit, was meant to portray the reality that the church is like a ship protecting those inside from the waves and buffeting winds of the world outside. And historically, the image of a ship is actually an ancient Christian symbol for the church, with part of the imagery coming from the ark that saved Noah’s family during the flood and from Jesus protecting Peter’s boat and the disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee. And this ship that is the church is tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, persecution, disdain and materialism until it finally reaches safe harbor, heaven, with its precious cargo of human souls. And to extend this metaphor even further look up from where you are sitting in the nave of our church and notice in the beams and the roof above the inverted keel of a ship.

I think it’s reasonable for us to assume that our forbearers would have understood in that first worship service in July of 1834 that their ship, their church, which God had called them to build was being launched into the oft-times turbulent sea that is this world. But with Jesus at the helm they of course trusted that they would reach their destination, heaven.

I have touched on two of the three critical elements I think Rev. Ketchum would have covered in his sermon on Moses in his basket boat in the bulrushes. First that the church is like a boat, and second that at the opening service in July of 1834 it was being sent out, launched as it were, into unchartered waters.

Now let’s look at the third and final subject, Moses himself. Moses is one of the most significant persons in the Old Testament. Among his many accomplishments, as an adult he freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and parted the waters of the Red Sea. As an adult Moses led his people through the desert for forty years. As an adult God worked through Moses to provide food and water for the people in their time of wandering. As an adult Moses was called by God to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments, the moral foundation of western civilization. And as an adult Moses succeeded in leading God’s people to the Promised Land. As an adult Moses was wise and faithful, holy and obedient and so patient with God’s grumbling and faithless people. But here in our passage from Exodus he’s a three month old baby and thus so fragile and vulnerable especially in a small woven boat floating untethered in the mighty Nile River. And our church in July of 1834 was in its infancy as well and fragile and vulnerable, too. Moses in his boat made of bulrushes and our church in July of 1834 were both still in their infancy and the great things that they would each accomplish were still to come.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul in Second Corinthians 4:7, in a little basket boat made of bulrushes floating in the Nile River was a “treasure in an earthen vessel,” Moses. So too our church in the year 1834, an earthen vessel filled with a treasure, God’s people. And so too our church today, an earthen vessel filled with a treasure, you, God’s people!

But, do you feel like a treasure and do you feel treasured? Well, you should, for as I say in today’s sermon title, “You Are Precious In God’s Sight!” Isn’t this the overall message Jesus came to proclaim to us and isn’t this the specific message contained in the two parables we read this morning from Luke’s Gospel? The shepherd searching for his lost sheep and the woman scanning the dirt floor for her lost coin are meant to represent God. And we represent that which is lost. Here the focus is on the one lost sheep not the ninety-nine still safely in the fold, and on the one lost coin, not the nine others still safe in the woman’s purse. The one matters, in fact the finding of the one lost sheep or the one lost coin is worthy of a party! So through these two parables Jesus is telling us that each one of us matters immensely to God. Moses in his time and our church’s founders in their time and we, now, in our time, are all treasures in earthen vessels and precious in God’s sight.

I hope that when my voyage through this world is finished and I’ve passed safely to the other side I will have the chance to meet and walk and talk with Rev. James Ketchum, who preached at our first worship service in July of 1834. And I will be interested to hear if I was right in believing that what he preached at our first worship service on that Sunday so very long ago was the message that our church was being launched into the unchartered and often storm-tossed sea that is the world. And that this church, this ship, is filled with a treasure far greater than gold, God’s people. And that though the winds and waves may assail us, Jesus is at the helm and he will see us safely through the storm until each one of us reaches our final destination.

The future of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg, and for that matter of all of God’s churches, consists of sailing into the unchartered water that is the future. We can’t know whether we’ll sail into calm waters or storm tossed seas but we do know – of this we are certain – Jesus is at the helm and he will always watch over us and keep us safe.

At the close of this service we will join our hearts and voices together and sing an old familiar hymn, “Amazing Grace”, which they just might have sung at that first worship service in 1834. “Amazing Grace” was written in 1748 by John Newton, a slave trading atheist, as a violent storm battered his ship off the coast of Ireland so severely that he cried out to God for help in a moment that marked his spiritual conversion.

“Through many dangers toils and snares
I have already come,
’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.”

Think on these words, “’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home”, as you reflect this anniversary Sunday on our church’s past and consider its future. God’s grace first blessed our church 185 years ago when the vision came to a small group of God’s people to build this church. And down through generation upon generation God’s grace has continued to bless us here at St. Andrew’s!

And this same grace which has brought us safe thus far will, one day, lead each of us home to the Holy City of God, as it has Joseph and Helen Randall, Fred and Edna Brooks, Ted and Bessie Mason, Pieter Nowee, Paul and Marian Currelly, Dick and Eleanor Turpin, David and Esther Patterson, Marg Johns and Bryan Baxter, to name but a few of the saints of our church who have finished their passage through this world and are now safe in the Holy City with God.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.