And Many More

June 4, 2017

    Series: June 2017

    Category: Faith

    Passage: Acts 2:1-21

    Speaker: Rob McClellan

    Tags: pentecost, westminster anniversary

    Scott Black Johnston, the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City, once did a sermon series on the various elements of worship while serving a large congregation in Atlanta.  He recounted that it started easily enough, with plenty to say about the Call to Worship, what it means to gather as a community to worship, for people to set time and space a part and allow themselves to be called into a holy disposition, to praise, to find healing or forgiveness, to seek wisdom, and to deepen a relationship.  He could preach on the prayer of confession, and what minister couldn’t talk about the importance of Scripture readings?  I suspect he even did a sermon about the prelude, and how people prepare for worship.

     Then came the week that the next piece in the order of worship was the announcements.  How on earth was he going to preach about those, that time in the service when the nuts and bolts of church life are discussed?  Announcements are the bane of the existence of many pastors, who would prefer the service retain a certain reverential tone throughout, many members too for that matter.  Yet there are just some things they need to be said while you’ve still got everyone’s attention before we all run back to our busy lives.

     Rather than back down from the challenge and skip over this portion, staying true to his word, Johnston started flipping through old bulletins from decades past at Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta to see what he could find in old announcements.  What he found shocked him, albeit in slow motion.  Amid the announcements of potlucks and programs, he started encountering moving reminders of deep mission partners at home and around the world, a taste of what was going on in the community and the world.  He saw notices in the 60s about the Civil Rights movement, and how the people of this Atlanta church stood with Jesus for the cause of justice for all God’s children, while critics no doubt told the church not to get engaged in politics.  In the end, sermons, prayers, and even hymns probably look dated, but the announcements, while anchored in time provide one of the most lasting testaments of what the church is supposed to be about for it shows what the church did, not just what it talked about and sang about.  

    Today is Pentecost, the name meaning the 50th day after Easter, what is commonly celebrated as the birth of the church, when those faithfully followers, still hanging on after Jesus’ crucifixion, had a profound spiritual experience while gathered in prayer.  The Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire upon their head.  They could understand one another even across linguistic boundaries.  They had visions and dreamed dreams, and the church was born.  This year, as you may know, is the 500th birthday of the Protestant church, a movement, now set of movements, that was born out of Martin Luther’s attempt to set right a church that he believed had gone adrift.  And, it is the 60th anniversary of Westminster, literally this week.  It’s a big year.

     I don’t have the announcements from all our years, but I have been going through old Session minutes, from the meetings of the elders.  It’s a treasure trove, ordinary and yet priceless. 
    • On April 26th, “Rev Youngquist reported that the Bibles for the Sunday School had been purchased and they have been loaned to the children, so they may learn the required memory work entitling them to be eligible to keep the Bibles.” 
    • The first communion Sunday was scheduled for June 5, 1957, almost 60 years to the day from when we will break bread at this table today.
    • PG&E agreed to install a line at no cost so the church sign could be illuminated.
    • The church wrestled with what its name should be, “Church of the Galilean” leading the first straw poll with a whopping total of 6 votes.
    • The Elders met in homes, later the church manse before it was sold.
    • By the way, the meetings of the elders, as I surveyed over many years, routinely went past 10 and often 11:00 at night.
    • There was a recommendation and approval for the purchase of a “Wollensak” tape recorder complete with a foot control and ear phones for the secretary.
    • There were many baptisms of children as this new community of faith built itself.  Yes, the children seemed to be much of what was on their mind in those days.

    Quickly realizing reading all the minutes from the last 60 years might take me the next 20, I was forced to skip around, and so I started to look at significant dates.  On one entry I found recorded that the meeting began in the following fashion, “The devotional period was based on the report of President Johnson’s National Advisory Committee on Civil Disobedience (the Kerner Report).”  The Kerner report spoke to the way state and federal governments had failed non-whites with poor education and other policies, how black frustration had grown out of a lack of economic opportunity, and how the media basked in a “white perspective.”  That devotion opened the Session meeting on April 3, 1968, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.  Still think minutes are boring?

     I looked to Dec. 1975, okay an important date to me, since it was the month of my birth.  I was curious to know what was going on in the church at the time, who the elders were.  A couple now have places around the church named after them, Findlay and Frost.  Another, Karen Arnett is still with us and probably should have something at this church named after her.

     The month after my birth, a guest moderator of the Session, read a letter to the elders from the pastor, Bill Perdue who was away upon the occasion of his mother’s death, “expressing loneliness in separation and joy in the risen Christ, and support of the love and prayers of the congregation of Westminster.”  Later, it was recorded when Rev. Perdue retired that, according to his wishes, it ought never be said, this is how it was done in Rev. Perdue’s time.

     Fast forward to 1981, the congregation voted unanimously, 78-0, to approve the call of The Rev. Douglas Huneke to serve as pastor.  “Mr. Huneke returned to the meeting [of the congregation] to a standing ovation and the singing of the hymn, ‘For All the Saints.’”

     You can lose yourself in the moving moments of these minutes, but I don’t want us to get lost in the official record of the church.  For it’s also what isn’t in the minutes, but made possible by the work that went behind them, that perhaps tells some of the most important stories of the church.  At the beginning, there was so much talk of baptizing, of establishing a Sunday School, and today during the 10:00 service, I have barely any time to preach because we are commissioning a mission trip, and performing a baccalaureate for our graduating high school seniors – would our forbearers have had it any other way?  This record of our engagement in civic and public matters barely does justice to the ways in which faithful people from this congregation have strived to make sure our faith was not just something we practiced in the privacy of our own homes. 

     Then, there are all these people, dare I say most, certainly many, who pass through these doors, who slip in and out on Sundays, whose lives are full with stories and burdens we never know, people who have great influence where they are, or who are simply struggling to make it through the world without being under the influence (or both), and for them this church, through your faithfulness, has been needed nourishment, invaluable solidarity even if they never got much involved, a source of moral and spiritual grounding so they could remember what was most real as they faced situations of vastly different value systems, or perhaps a sprig of hope when their life seemed to be withering away. 

     You’ll see for the next several months this banner of our church’s history across the back wall, including some of the markers in this congregation’s history.  It focuses on official history, includes a lot about staff, but I wonder what you would include, what people have had a particular impact on you, what memories you would memorialize? 

    It’s these stories, these unwritten ones, for which we exist.  Those first church members…of the first church, sitting around that day when the Spirit came, they couldn’t have imagined what they would give birth to, which is precisely why they took it so seriously, prayed so earnestly, and gave of themselves, trusting that God would birth something beyond even their wildest dreams.  Through them, God gave birth to you, to us, and now it is our turn to, as the quote on the cover of your bulletin says, be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to follow Jesus into a new way of being human in a new creation.  May we, in our 61st year, pray, dream, and build a church through which God can give birth to something else beyond our wildest dreams.  Happy Birthday, church, and many more.  Amen.