January 10, 2016
I love to imagine what it was like in 1853 when George Whitworth on behalf of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions made his way to the Pacific Northwest to spread the gospel. As our history reminds us he made it to Portland and tucked his family away there before coming up to Olympia, where in March 4, 1854 he conducted the first Presbyterian worship service north of the Columbia River. His family joined him in May and by November 12, 1854 seven people organized the First Presbyterian Church. In the 1870’s the Congregationalists took a leap of faith and purchased a church building, with Mrs. Hannah Steele and Mrs. O. B. Manning working to organize the Congregational Church. The Church was chartered in 1873. By June of 1914, the Congregationalists needed a new church building. The Presbyterians were without a Pastor, so conversations began between the two churches about the possibility of federating and the congregations joined forces in December of 1916. The church had 325 members, 100 of whom were Congregationalists. We are all part of a church that was incredibly visionary.
We did read the lectionary readings for the day. I think they fit perfectly. Our reading from Acts illustrates the incredible frenetic energy of the early church. Churches are always more alive in the midst of persecution. The disciples had organized, jobs had been assigned. Steven, after preaching the good news of Christ was stoned to death. A young Pharisee named Saul began persecuting Christians in earnest. So, Phillip goes to Samaria to keep preaching the good news. You remember Samaria right? Those are the people that we don’t like, at least the people that the Jews don’t like according to the story line of the gospels. They didn’t practice the correct religious observance so to be with them, certainly to TOUCH them would make a person unclean. Phillip preaches anyway and they all convert and become baptized, men and women, even Simon the Magician! Phillip was so amazed (the text tells us) by the signs and great miracles that took place.
However, when the apostles heard about this, they had to go from Jerusalem to Samaria and pray over the people and lay hands on them. They go, they lay hands on the people and pray, and the Holy Spirit is activated. There are several ways to look at this. One is that it is amazingly cool that the leaders of the church come to Samaria of all places, and touch people that they have previously deemed to be unclean. That is fantastic and the Spirit moves! Another way to look at this is that the powers from the Presbytery or the Conference have to go to this unknown territory and legitimate what Phillip has done in preaching the word. I think this tension has always been part of the church. We have those of us who are evangelists who are willing to go into unknown territory and bring the good news to those who are in need, or even despised. We also have those who keep us organized, so that as we move forward, we bring everyone along.
The United Churches of Olympia was born of both. In our history we have always had those pastors, elders, deacons and members who have pushed or tugged us into territory where folks have had a spiritual or physical need, or folks have even been despised. We have also had pastors, elders, deacons and members who have made the whole thing work, so that we have a place to be, finances to support what we want to do, and a vision that helps us to move together. We stand in an amazing river of incredible dreamers and doers and more will stand behind us.
As we honor and celebrate these 100 years of federation and as we embrace our future together, I want to end with these words of Pope Francis:
“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security, I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” He continues:
“More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.'”
One hundred years ago, two congregations joined forces so that they may better serve this community. It was unusual, it was creative, it moved ministry forward. We must continue to be as courageous as our forbearers, we must continue to do ministry in new and unusual ways so that we may continue the ministry of Jesus who spent his time with the least and the lost.