150th Anniversary Celebration Sermon
February 10, 2019
This year will mark my 34th year in ministry. I feel kinda old when I consider this. And this is especially true when 150 of my best friends helped me celebrate my 60th birthday last Sunday. But I digress…
In considering my 34 years of ministry I harken back to the memories of all the wonderful churches I’ve served. By my count I have had the honor of serving 10 churches over the course of those 34 years. Among them there have been small, struggling rural churches, and vibrant, suburban churches like our beloved church, the Walnut Creek United Methodist Church. And in each of those churches, I have been so profoundly touched by the countless faithful followers of Jesus who called those churches their spiritual home. In another sense, some of those churches touched me in another way: by the living, breathing history that some of these places possessed. One such place was the last church I served in New York: the Sauquoit Valley United Methodist Church.
The Sauquoit Valley church literally reeked of history. It was the first Methodist Episcopal Church established west of the Hudson River in 1788. In its present sanctuary there was a sacred chair named the Francis Asbury chair of which no one was supposed to sit in…. ever. Francis Asbury is one of the patron saints of our church, for he was one of the founders of Methodism in America. I remember several times when no one was around that I would go into the sanctuary and, breaching the “no sit” rule, sitting in Asbury’s chair trying to summon his spirit and energy for the Gospel.
As I walked around that church there were other things with as much significance as the Asbury chair. I remember our church bell having been rung as the clarion call to worship in that community for over 200 years, and seeing all the children’s names, who rung that bell over the years, signed on to the beam next to the bell rope. Literally this church reeked of history that reminded me each day of the legacy the Sauquoit church was built upon. And in the same light, that is why we are here today… to celebrate our life and legacy that our church mothers and fathers have left us over the years!
In our sanctuary today you will notice two banners. The theme of these banners are: from cocoon to bursting forth; from our humble beginnings towards the future. One of the things you will be receiving today after church is a copy of our history. For those of us that had the opportunity to revise our history for this our 150th anniversary, reading it over and over and over again, we realized we have a very rich history that started from very humble beginnings.
In 1868 the Rev. Richard Kernick, pastor of the Lafayette and Livermore Charge, stopped at what was then known as “The Corners” to arrange for services in this little community, to be later known as Walnut Creek. By 1869 – February 12, 1869 to be exact – this small group of people officially organized themselves into a church that was to be known as The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Walnut Creek. And it was from this genesis that we are who we are today: a community united in God’s love, actively sharing that love with all! But as we worship here this day, I hope you realize that the path that has led us to this place has been one paved with both blessing and sorrow, hope and desperation.
It is written that in our early history as a church, we grew initially and then declined over the next few decades until finally we found ourselves about ready to close our doors. But our church had one person with the conviction that no matter what, we needed to keep our doors open and our church witnessing for the sake of the Gospel. And so, on this day we remember one of the venerated saints of our church, Sarah “Grandma” Wilson. Sarah Wilson was born on October 25, 1867, in Iowa. She joined the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Walnut Creek on May 4, 1913. When the District Superintendent suggested that our church be closed because of declining attendance, Grandma Wilson replied that she would be the church and insisted that the church remain open. It is written that there were many times when the only two people in worship were the preacher and Grandma Wilson. The minister even told Sarah that she might as well give up and join the Presbyterian Church. She responded by saying, “I pay my tithes and you are going to preach.” Later, “Grandma” went out and recruited more people to our church so that within a year membership had increased to 16. I thank God for the witness of Sarah Wilson.
There have been many others, both pastors and lay persons, who have made our church what it is today. The list is extensive. We remember the foresight of those that decided our church was growing and we needed expanded facilities. In 1950 through the leadership of the Rev. Phillip Solbjor and the committed laity of our church, we sold our property in downtown Walnut Creek and bought a 3-acre parcel out in what was then known as the country on a street called Sunnyvale Avenue. By 1953 we were worshipping in our chapel with the place we are sitting in now, our sanctuary being completed in 1955. And by 1966 we added the education building on to our complex. One would have to conclude that this was the part of our history when we truly started to thrive as a church in our community.
Our Gospel reading this morning comes to us from the Gospel of St. Luke and is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a man is traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, a desolate, unforgiving place even today. Along this road the man is robbed and assaulted, left on the side of the road to die. As this parable goes on, we see a priest coming by the man that we assume would have helped him, but he hurries on not wanting to be bothered. Then we are told a Levite passed by. This man, who was held in high esteem because of his position in the Temple, passed by as well, looking the other way. And then we see a Samaritan, a person who was considered less than, a guy from the other side of the tracks, come by and do everything possible to bring this man back to life.
As I consider our history, I do believe throughout the years that we have been driven by a bunch of Good Samaritans. Over the years we have seen people from ordinary walks of life do extraordinary things for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps it is safe to assume that countless people acting in faith, being about justice and mercy in our world, is deeply seated in our church’s DNA.
One such justice ministry had its beginning in 1986 when, under the leadership of Marianna Mihills, our congregation began the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. In becoming a Reconciling Congregation, we were committing ourselves to be an open congregation to all people regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender. Our congregation undertook an intensive process of study and meetings in order to understand more fully what this charge meant in the life and ministry of our church. Starting in 1986 there were a series of classes held to further enhance people’s understanding of what it meant to be an open and reconciling church. For eight years the church offered information about this subject in its adult classes.
By March 1994 our Administrative Board voted unanimously that it was time for a church-wide ballot on becoming a reconciling congregation. An affirmation was written by our Church and Society work area which read in part:
We affirm the teachings of Jesus that call us to move beyond judgment to love, and renew our commitment to one another and to this church to be faithful witnesses of the gospel. As builders of the bridges of connectedness, we invite all to join with us in our gatherings.
On June 5, 1994, the Church Conference voted 79 percent in favor of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. We have never looked back. And to this day we continue in faithful witness of striving to be a truly open church to all!
This idea of building bridges of connectedness has taken us way beyond the boundaries of this church and this community. Perhaps this connectedness was never more profound than in the outreach this church did in Bosnia back in the 1990’s. And the one person above all others that embodied this outreach with such a fervent passion was our friend and saint of this church Lyle Morris. I knew Lyle back then in my work as a member of our conference staff. I remember Lyle as someone who did not take “no” for an answer, and instead seemed to look at possibilities of situations standing before him.
In 1997 this church took a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia to volunteer at the Sarajevo Youth House. Seeing that there was a need for a new Youth House, Lyle undertook a massive effort, overseeing fund-raising, land acquisition, design and construction of the facility. It no doubt came to fruition because Lyle saw what could be and acted accordingly with undying energy and enthusiasm.
The result was a brand-new facility designed and funded to be self-sustaining. Carol Morris, Lyle’s wife, described Lyle’s optimism this way, “There was a phrase Lyle loved to quote: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing, because he could only do a little’”. Words I believe not only reflect optimism and hope, but the core of what the Gospel means in our lives.
You know I’ve mentioned a few people that have stood out in our congregation that performed great works in the name of Christ. I would be remiss however if I did not mention countless others who have made this church what it is today. We have been a place in which we have taken an active interest in the lives of our young people. There have been perhaps thousands of young people that have come through our doors and exited as well-rounded persons of faith. Some of you are here today. Through the efforts of those who taught you and guided you in Sunday School and youth group, and through missional activities like the Sierra Service Project, we have informed and molded the lives of young people to be faithful disciples in the world.
I think of all the fine work that our United Methodist Women have done throughout the years. I sometimes quip that our UMW is the life-blood of our church. I don’t think I’m too far off in that assumption. I think of those who have been behind the scenes administering our church and making sure we have adequate up-to-date facilities out of which to do ministry. Imagine where we would be if it hadn’t been for those people that had the vision to establish our church at its present location.I praise God for those present here and past, who have ably handled and administered our finances. And to literally the thousands of people who have supported our church with their tithes and offerings, I give thanks.
One last thing I give thanks for is our hospitality and fellowship we share together. I love the fact that we gather together in so many different ways and that we can have fun and laugh together. To quote one of our most recent pastors, the Rev. Paul Dirdak, “The part that has stayed with me in every assignment since is the value of a whole group’s side-splitting sense of humor. Leading and laughing help each other along. WCUMC taught me that lesson every day. And for years after, I ran a disaster agency – in wars – if laughter was to carry its load, I had better set that standard. And I did.”
Finally, I want to leave you with these concluding words I wrote for our history: The world has changed much throughout the last 150 years. Consider this: when our church came into being the common mode of transportation was by foot or horse. Now we worry whether we have enough parking spaces for our cars. Back in 1869 one common form of communication was letter writing. These days we communicate through such medium as email and cell phones. The world has truly changed in the last 150 years, but what hasn’t changed is the message we give to others. For the Good News as experienced in Jesus Christ is as true 150 years ago as it is today. And so we move forward, prompted by the Gospel, united in God’s love, actively sharing that love with all. Amen and Amen.