Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

From Generation to Generation

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  1 Chronicles 29:1-19; Psalm 78:1-7


Psalm 78 looks towards the past.  It remembers ancestors who were instructed to teach the ways of God to their children.  It also looks forward to a generation yet unborn which will receive the faith passed on from ancient times.  Every generation has the opportunities of psalm 78, to be the hinge that honors the past and blesses the future.  Most of the time, I think we do well to live fully in the present.  Sometimes, people try to focus on what they think of as an easier time in the past, and that is not usually good.   Sometimes, people are so caught up in a future theyíre working toward that they fail to appreciate the goodness and beauty and significance of today and thatís not good.  I usually try my best to focus on the now.  But sometimes, it is important to take the position of the psalmist, to remember the past and to anticipate the future.  This is one of those times.


About 200 years ago, 10 people got together and started a church.  At the beginning, it was something of a struggle.  In its first 16 years of life, it had five different pastors.  But then, a new pastor came whose gifts matched the need of the time.   He was an eloquent preacher.  Under his leadership, the church gained a new visibility in the city and a reputation for excellence.  They added new members every year, until 7 years after his arrival, there were 357 members. 


And then the congregation had a meeting.  Did I mention this was a Baptist church?  It was.  So, they had a meeting to discuss what God was expecting of them. They unanimously agreed that God wanted them to plant another Baptist church in their city.  They were not supposed to simply enjoy their wonderful church and pastor, but to take action.  They agreed that everyone would pray about it and come back for another meeting in a month.  Before that next meeting, all those who felt Godís calling to be part of the new church were to give their names to the church clerk. 


When they came back for the second meeting, they discovered that not a single name had been submitted.  Everyone agreed that a new church plant was the churchís mission. But no one was willing to make the personal sacrifice, to give up the comfort and familiarity of their current church, in order to do the work of planting a new church. 


Eventually, they came up with a new plan: a majority of the church members would stay at its current location with its debt-free building and its strong reputation in the community, but some members of the church along with its current dynamic visionary pastor would leave to form a new church.  It took about a year to secure a property and build the new church building.  Then the church clerk again collected the names of those who felt called by God to plant the new church.  This time, there were 123 names.  Some in leadership were alarmed that so many were leaving.  Almost 38% of the first church and the pastor went to plant the second church. [1]


The first church in that story was The First Baptist Church of Albany.  The new church, which it planted when it was just 24 years old, was Pearl Street Baptist Church, which later changed its name to Emmanuel Baptist Church. The Rev. Bartholomew Welch was the first pastor of Pearl Street Baptist Church and he served there for the next 14 years. 


In 1834, everyone in this room was part of several generations yet to be born.  And yet we are here, in this place, partly because of those faithful ancestors.  Consider the courage of that congregation Ė after just seven years with a pastor they admired and appreciated, in the midst of a growth spurt that followed 16 years of discouragement, they agreed to send their pastor on with more than a third of the congregation.  It was a risk.  It was a sacrifice.  It was something they did because they believed God wanted them to. 


The courage of the congregation of First Baptist was rewarded.    They called another pastor and, at the next annual meeting of the Association, they reported that they had received 132 new members which exactly replaced the number lost to death and to the planting of the new church.  First Baptist Church of Albany continued to thrive for 140 more years, closing out its visible ministry in 1974.  It is now our privilege to have in our midst, one of the last remaining members of our mother church, Elaine Spoor. 


The stories of First Baptist and Pearl Street are old, but truly ancient is the story of the first temple in Jerusalem. King David reached a point in his life when he wanted to build a house for God.  By that time, David was living in a fancy palace and it seemed wrong to him that the holy presence still resided in a tent.  He wanted to provide a magnificent dwelling for God, but God said No.  The Bible offers a few reasons for this.  One of the reasons is that God has always dwelt with the people, not inside a permanent structure, but on the move with them. 

God will not be contained in human institutions or limited by human plans.  Thus, we understand that churches are not buildings, but congregations, not bricks and mortar, but human beings on mission together with God.  The psalmist speaks of stories of Godís glorious deeds in the past, told by our ancestors, which we tell to remember ourselves and relay to the next generation.  That is God on the move.  That is the invisible, essential faith at the heart of church.  But sometimes we forget that, because the building is easier to see, easier to identify.

God must understand that we humans need buildings, we need sacred places.  Because even as God rejects Davidís offer of a temple, God says that one day, Davidís son will build it.


David was the king.  He was used to getting his way.  But he stepped back from his vision, his dream of leaving that legacy.   I expect that was difficult for him, but he did it.  Then, near the end of his reign, he formally turned over the building of the temple to his son Solomon.

From our current vantage point, we see that King David blessed the future, we see that First Baptist blessed the future.  And so, we might ask, what is required of us, if we are also to bless the future? 

Let us suggest three things.  First, it requires profound trust in God.  David had to trust that God would be with Solomon as God had been with the people of Israel and with David.  The congregation of First Baptist had to trust that they were understanding God accurately.  They had to trust that it was right for them to give up the first pastor who had stuck with them as well as several key lay leaders.  They had to trust that God would provide a new pastor and new lay leaders, which God did. 

Secondly, blessing the future requires a trust in other people.  In 1 Chronicles 28, David prays for Solomon, that he will honor one over-arching life purpose, which is the service of God.  First Baptist sent money and people to form the Pearl Street Church.  They had to trust that those who went to Pearl Street and those who stayed at First Baptist would continue to be part of whatever God called them to.  We have to listen to each other, to trust each other, because for many of us, that is how we hear God most clearly.


Blessing the future also means especially listening to the next generation, understanding that what they need may not be what we need. Blessing the future means trusting that they will work out their own relationship with God. 

Trusting God, trusting each other, and finally, if we are going to bless the future, we will have to take tangible actions in the present. King David blessed the future by offering his own resources for a temple he would never see.  He encouraged others to give as well and they did.  The reading from 1 Chronicles describes freewill offerings, made from the heart, and there is a sense that not just the gift, but also the givers are consecrated to Godís service.  In its first thirty years, Pearl Street also acted to bless the future for others.  It provided members and financial support to start 6 churches and 6 missions. One of them, founded in 1860 as Washington Avenue Baptist Church later changed its name to Calvary Baptist Church.  In 1926, the Calvary Baptist building burned and about 100 members united with Emmanuel Baptist. 


We not know how the past and present will intersect with the future.  When I was still the generation yet unborn, my father went to seminary.  He was a hospital administrator.  He was going to serve a Baptist hospital in Ghana, West Africa, and one of the requirements was that he attend seminary for a year.  I remember, in particular, stories about his Old Testament professor.  He attended a young seminary in Kansas City.  It was only about 5 years old, but being a Baptist institution, there was already controversy.  In his one year at that fledgling seminary, he took the last course taught by his Old Testament professor, because by the end of the semester, that professor had been fired.    That is how I knew the name of Ralph Elliott from a young age. 


Dr. Elliott left that seminary and went to one in Rochester, New York and from there, came to serve as pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church.  Some in this room remember him as the pastor who was here when you first came to Emmanuel.  Was there a direct connection between the fact that my father knew Dr. Elliott before I was born and my becoming pastor here?  No. But probably because of that one year of seminary, of which Dr. Elliott was an important part, my father was supportive of women in ministry during my childhood, when most of his peers were not.  And that certainly does have something to do with my being your pastor today. 


We do not know the ways that we bless the future, but we trust that with Godís help, we do.  In recent decades, this church has sent two of its own out as ordained ministers.  Maybe there have been others, but I am aware of Heidi Fuller and Jonathan Malone.  Their gifts are well known and celebrated, even as we mourn the Heidiís death at such a young age.  Nurturing them within our community of faith is one way we have already blessed the future.  And I would not limit that sense of blessing to professional church leaders.  From this congregation have gone teachers and scientists and health care providers and inventors and builders and lawyers and judges and many others. They carry with them the stories of God, experiences with God and Godís people, which they received within this congregation. 


Do we, the present congregation of Emmanuel Baptist Church, have the same courage and willingness to follow God that our founders did?  I believe we do. 

Our past is a clue to our future.  God will continue to lay opportunities open before us.  And we will continue to act in tangible ways, putting ourselves and our resources at Godís disposal as we trust the One who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come and our eternal home.  Amen.




[1] Historical information in this sermon gleaned from Emmanuel Baptist Church Albany Centennial 1834-1934 and Bi-centennial History of Albany: History of the County of Albany, NY from 1609-1886, Vol. 2, by George Rogers Howell