United Though Feeble: The Story of the Franklin United Church
Psalm 90

Martha Towle, in her book “The History of Franklin,” tells us that the Congregational Church of Franklin organized on October 9, 1817 with 14 charter members. Deacon John Webster’s family of six made up almost half of the congregation. Back in those early days, the church did not have an installed pastor, but instead relied on pastors from neighboring towns and itinerate preachers passing through.

Between the years of 1817 and 1820, on every fourth Sunday, the church was blessed to hear the venerable gospel preaching of Rev. Benjamin Wooster from the Congregational Church of Fairfield, Vermont. His labors were most abundant and to an uncommon degree successful. During the 29 years of his active ministry in Franklin county, from 1804 to 1833, he preached at least 4100 sermons and assisted in more church councils than any other man in the state. The Franklin church paid Rev. Wooster the whopping sum of six dollars a Sunday for guest preaching.

All of this took place in the little village schoolhouse because a proper meeting house was not erected until 1827. The Congregationalists joined in with the Baptists, Methodists, and Unitarian-Universalists in an unlikely union of ecumenical enthusiasm and constructed the current building that you see through the northside windows. The meeting house was dedicated in 1828 and Rev. Wooster came back to preach the inaugural sermon. The four denominations had equal right and responsibility for the building, until the Baptists and UU’s disbanded. The Congregationalists and Methodists shared it until 1856 when the Congregational Society bought the shares of the other pew owners and came to have sole ownership of the building.

It wasn’t until 1845 that the Congregational Church of Franklin called its first full-time pastor. The Rev. Lyndon S. French was installed and offered an annual salary of $350 to be paid as follows:

One-fourth to be paid in cash and the other three-fourths in good merchantable grain. Provided that should we fail at any further time to raise for your salary the above sum…you shall be at liberty to go abroad for the purpose of obtaining the amount, in time proportionate the deficiency which may arise.

Now before any of you get any bright ideas or start complaining about the salary of your current pastoral staff, by the time you make all the adjustments for inflation and multiply it by the present price of grain and add in the amount that I could be making from a side job at five hours a week, according to my calculations, I should be drawing a salary somewhere in the vicinity of $217,000, which is a rather ironic number considering it is the year 2017. (OK, I’ll admit that math may be a little rough. But if you promise not to check that math, I’ll promise not to ask for a raise!)

Anyway, Rev. French served the church for nearly sixteen years and continued to reside in Franklin until his death in 1879. As far as I can tell from the church records, Rev. French’s “nearly sixteen years” is the longest tenured pastorate in the church’s 200-year history. In just two more years, I will supplant him for this honor!

It was Rev. French who gave me the idea for this morning’s sermon text and title. Way back in 1845, Rev. French described the Congregational Church of Franklin as “united though feeble.” That was an accurate and honest appraisal! The church never had a membership larger than 50 during its first 80 years. We know that the church reached 82 members in 1914 before dropping down to 77 members when it celebrated its centennial on October 9, 1917. In the mid-1880’s, the church almost decided to disband; but hearing that a new Congregational family was coming to town they decided to wait a little bit longer. Frank and Florence Hopkins and their four daughters moved to town and helped revive the church.

During the early 1900’s the church relied on student pastors and visiting ministers, and when it didn’t have one of these, layman Charles W. Gates usually read a sermon. For some of that time, the church had the privilege of hearing the sermons of Dr. Donald Sage McKay of the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. His secretary, Miss Addie Stowe, who was a member of this church, obtained permission from her famous employer to do an extra carbon copy of each sermon for the little church in Franklin; and it was read, here, as Dr. McKay was preaching it in New York.

Then in 1921, after a little more than a hundred years, the Congregational Church of Franklin decided to federate with the Methodist Church next door. For the next 65 years the Franklin Federated Church rotated between Congregational and Methodist pastors every three years. But on May 25, 1986, under the leadership of Rev. Rick Eschenburg, the two federated churches voted to form The Franklin United Church, with dual membership in boththe Congregational and Methodist conferences, thus allowing a pastor to stay longer than three years.

You have already heard some wonderful reflections from the past four pastors, and I must add that I am so thankful to have served as your pastor over the past 14 years. Even in my brief tenure, I have watched the church change in many ways, and yet in other ways, it hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years. I smile every time I think about Rev. French’s remark “united though feeble.” Yes, we are still united! We are still feeble! But we are also still faithful!

            So, on this day when the Franklin United Church celebrates 200 years of gospel ministry in this community, I have chosen Psalm 90 for my sermon text. Psalm 90 is the oldest Psalm in the Psalter and it is the only one written by Moses. I suspect that he wrote it toward the end of his life after he led the “united though feeble” people of Israel through forty years of wandering through the wilderness. It is the perfect Psalm for such an occasion as this because it addresses the topic of time. It has a past, present, and future flow to it. It contrasts the eternality of God with the brevity of human life and then offers a prayer for God’s mercy and blessing into the future.

 

The Eternality of God (1-2, 4)

The Psalm begins with the beautiful reflection: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place through all generations. Moses was the one who wrote the first five books of the Bible. He was familiar with the stories of God creating and sustaining the earth. He knew how sin entered the world and brought death and destruction. He also knew how God chose Abraham to be the father of many nations and use his offspring to bring redemption to the world. Moses personally experienced God as his dwelling place throughout his generation.

Verses 2 and 4 focus on God’s eternality. He always was and always will be. Nothing came before God; not even the age-old mountains. He existed outside of time before he created time! He is from everlasting to everlasting—that is why a thousand years seem like a day to him.

As we reflect on the Franklin United Church existing for the past 200 years, we must realize that even this is just a tiny blip on God’s timescale. And yet, our church can agree with Moses that God has been our dwelling place through all generations. We read this is the church’s history and we continue to experience it today.

            Think about this for a moment! How has God been your dwelling place throughout your life? Some of us are older than others and we have more occasions to count how God has blessed us. Unlike my wife, I am still in my thirties. I haven’t lived that long (and I probably won’t after that remark), but even I, in my youth, can’t begin to count how many times God has provided for my needs, delivered me from danger, and redeemed me from my dumb decisions and dreadful sins. How has God proven his faithfulness to you over the years?

 

The Brevity of Life (3, 5-11)

After Moses establishes the eternality of God, he contrasts it with the brevity of human life. In verse 3, he offers a sobering reminder that all people will one day return to the dust from whence we came. Verses 5-6 remind us that our lives are swept away quickly as in a flood. They are like the desert grass that springs out of the morning dew but is scorched by the afternoon sun and is completely withered away by evening.

The brevity of life and the certainty of death are caused by sin. Because of Adam’s sin, we are all subject to God’s anger and the curse of death. This is why we have so many hardships in life. This is why “we bring our years to an end with a sigh” as it says in verse 9. And look at verse 10—most people only live into their seventies or eighties, and many of these years are filled with toil and trouble. Human life on earth isn’t very long, is it? And Moses warns us that because of our own sins, even our secret sins that we try to hide, we are objects of God’s wrath.

These verses are awfully sobering, aren’t they? We live in an age when people think they are invincible. With all of our scientific and medical advances, we tend to think that age and disease will never catch us. It is astounding to me that so many people are surprised when they are diagnosed with cancer or a loved one dies—what did we think was going to happen? Moses helps us reckon with the certainty of death and the brevity of life!

            He also helps us reckon with the reality of God’s wrath. People don’t like to think or talk about God’s wrath today. Instead, people like to focus on God’s love and peace. But what many people don’t realize is that God’s wrath and love are intricately linked together. His love would actually be cheapened if he wasn’t a God of wrath. You see, his wrath is rooted in his justice. If God did not punish sin and evil, he would not be just. And if he was not just, he would not and could not be God. But here is where the miracle of the gospel comes in: Yes, God has to punish us for our sin and evil to maintain his justice. But he loved us so much that he sent his only Son Jesus to earth to die on the cross and pay the punishment for our sins! You see, God’s justice and mercy, his wrath and love kiss at the cross!

            Friends, this is the gospel that the Franklin United Church has proclaimed for the past 200 years! It is the gospel that it still proclaims today! We are all going to die someday! Have you received the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins? We don’t have forever to make this decision!

 

A Prayer for God’s Mercy and Blessing (12-17)

This is precisely why Moses begins the final section of this hymn with the memorable petition: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (12) God is eternal but human life is short: Therefore, we must make the most of the time God has given us while we are on earth!

From there Moses presents a series of pleas on behalf of God’s people. In light of the brevity of life, he prays for God to: “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love…make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us…let your work be shown to your servants…let the favor of the Lord be upon us…and establish the work of our hands.”

            Yes, on this day when we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Franklin United Church, this is my prayer for our church as we march into the future! But it is also my prayer for each one of us as individuals, as a community, and as a nation! May the Lord satisfy us with his steadfast love! And may he establish the work of our hands!

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