A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Easter 5, April 28, 2002, dedicated to Peyton Olivia Storey on her baptismal day, to the fourteen men who preceded me as Senior Ministers of First Church and always to the glory of God!
Romans 8:26-39; John 14:1-14
I thank you for your support of our former senior ministers these past three Sundays. Your support reflects a love which I feel as well. I was delighted and moved to see how many of you came to worship, how many of you stayed following worship to speak with them and how graciously and lovingly you received each man. I also very much enjoyed leading worship with Chal, Dale, and Bob. I respect and admire each man and give thanks to God for the gifts God has given them and the ways in which each has offered these gifts to God's glory. I also enjoyed three Sundays sitting with my wife and Luke listening to their sermons. Now, for the final installment of our Senior Minister preaching series.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth & the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength & our salvation. Amen.
"What then are we to say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?" With these words, Paul implores Christians in Rome, through a series of questions and answers, to lift up our God of creation, to lift up Christ of the cross, and focus on this truth of the Gospel - the Spirit of God is alive in believers and in the church. Along with Christians through the ages, we are touched by these words and believe them to be trustworthy and true.
Nevertheless, there are times in our lives, when these and other rhetorical words from Paul feel like sand slipping through our fingers, rather than a rock firmly held. We feel God's power slipping through our fingers. We feel, quite simply, more like God's rejects than God's elect. On our difficult days, what are promises of God seem to become pointless projections.
But, the promises of God have a power beyond our feelings, beyond our down days, and beyond our imaginations - For God is the active one in our lives. When we feel dead to God or uncertain of Him, God is for us, nonetheless. When we are tempted by sin and yield to temptation, God IS For Us as a constant presence and power. And the God that IS, IS always FOR us - taking the initiative, standing by our side,, unequivocal in our vacillations, undivided in our divisions, unyielding in the face of our yielding, incorruptible in the face of our corruptibility; immortal in the face of our mere mortality. This is our God and our God is always FOR US!
And in the face of all this hardship and hurt that we often create, knowingly or unknowingly, or experience from the creation of others, we need to remember that the essence of God the IS-NESS of God IS Love! In Love God has created us. So then, that which God opposes is lovelessness. In the hymn, "My Song is Love Unknown," the words of God's love for the loveless ring out, "My Song is Love unknown, my savior's love to me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be, O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die? My Lord should take frail flesh, and die?" In the cross of Christ, the love of God for humanity and especially for God's church, point ceaselessly toward LOVE.
In this the fourth sermon in our Senior Minister Preaching Series, I am left to answer "what then do we say to ALL this?" The answer - God's love is for us! Truly, what more can be said? These past three Sundays have been quite an experience for me. I have been given a glimpse, a mere taste, of the spiritual food which you have been served for most of the past 40 years. My thoughts have been coming together, and at times unraveling during these days. I have told a number of you, this has been a sermon in search of a text.
While my distinguished predecessors have been offering the Word of God these past weeks in this pulpit, I have been listening - to them and to you, and I have been actively engaged in prayer. From listening to you and to God, I have just a few observations. The First observation is about Mortar in the Stone and the second about a legacy of Love and Justice.
We had experienced mortar in the stone of ministry here at First Church through the past 40 years. The past 40 years have spanned the ministries of Chal Coe, Dale Rosenberger, and Bob Tschannen-Moran. But during those 40 years, you have spent five years in interim time. Since Chal's retirement in 1983, five of our 19 years have been spent with interim senior ministers. Did you know that in that time, nine men, not three have occupied the office of Senior Minister? Thanks be to God for the interim ministries of Harper Welch, "Bogie" Dunn, Bill Mathews, Carleton Weber, John Gantt, and Don Yaekle - men who served, like mortar in the stone during the time between calls issued to our senior ministers
With no judgment intended toward any of my predecessors, to have nine men serve in 19 years creates a sense of disunity and upheaval in any community of faith in which relationships between pastor and people cannot deepen and flourish. It creates systems of communication which often lack clarity. It is also hard to know and to trust who is "in-charge." And I know personally, that it takes time to work with and trust the new pastor. It is only now - after 28 months - that I am beginning to deepen and broaden our relationships in the sphere of faith, hope and love.
Beyond the human mortar, the true mortar that has sustained us is the Holy Spirit. As Paul says, when sighs are too deep for human words, God moves in. And the movement of God in the go-between times is God's Holy Spirit!
My second observation is this: There is a legacy of Love and Justice at First Church. The First Congregational Church has been blessed with fifteen Senior Ministers and many fine associates and lay leaders in 150 years. In our bulletin this morning, I have placed the names of the other men who have served as Senior Minister (although the title has changed through the years). I also encourage you to see their pictures on the wall of the office. They are remarkable men who have offered their very best to God in service to Christ's church. I feel compelled today to share something of their 150-year legacy of love and justice which has guided this congregation. Their preaching, pastoring, prophesying, ministering to the sick and needy, and most significantly - their leading our worship of God, week in and out; year in and out, through 150 seasons of life and love has left a remarkable legacy - one which has touched lives in this great city and across the reach of the Christian world.
To pause and consider them, to give God thanks for them, is the least we can do. So although this second observation may seem extensive, it is consequential as well. Please allow me to step back in time . . .
With the growing resistance to slavery in Ohio in the 1840's, seeds of resistance were planted in Columbus by Congregationalists from Oberlin to the north and Marietta to the south. Congregational churches sprung up throughout Ohio centered in a fervent and clear mission - end the evil of slavery. In 1852, leading only 42 adults into faithful fellowship, The Rev. William Horace Marble became our founding pastor. He labored from the January through September, 1852 helping a band of Christian abolitionists become the people of God known as Third Presbyterian Church. On the corner of 3rd Street and Lynn Alley, they established the first church constructed on a foundation of love and justice.
Mr. Marble served well for four years and before moving onto churches in Wisconsin (where he became a chaplain to a Wisconsin infantry unit during the Civil War) and from there to other posts out west. Under Mr. Marble, the church flourished spiritually and financially, doubling in size the first year. When he departed in January 1856, the church had grown from 42 to 200 members. By 1856 they were known as First Congregational Church of Columbus.
Rev. John McClary Steele followed and served only five months, which seemed strange at first glance. But, his is a sad and tragic story. First Church had decided to build a new structure facing capital square. With resolve to raise funds from our sister congregational churches of New York City, Mr. Steele went east in February 1857. There he contracted smallpox and died, April 5th. Although pained by his loss, the congregation pushed on, raising enough money to construct their new church by December of 1857. In the following year they called Rev. H.B. Elliott who served only 20 months and apparently, struggled with the membership throughout his brief tenure.
In February 1861, Rev. Edward Goodwin was called to serve. His was a popular and successful ministry. He was a strong, outspoken abolitionist and led the congregation ably doubling the membership during his tenure. After seven years he left for First Congregational Church, Chicago where he remained until his retirement. Rev. George Phillips guided our congregation from May, 1868 until September, 1871. During this short ministry the church grew well and began building a new wing which was completed in 1872.
The pastorates that followed from 1872-1918 set the course of First Church for generations to come. The Rev. Dr. R. G. Hutchins was called by some the greatest preacher our congregation has known. He served ten years during which 384 members joined. He was known as a powerful and eloquent speaker and an energetic worker for the Lord. He was the first of our "social gospel" preachers. Washington Gladden was the second.
Dr. Washington Gladden served First Church from 1882-1914, becoming Pastor Emeritus at that point, and stayed a member of the church until his death, July 2, 1918. Born in Pottsgrove, PA., and growing up in Owego, New York, Dr. Gladden came to First Church from North Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts at the age of 46 years old. A friend of Presidents (mention the letter from President Woodrow Wilson to to Alice Gladden sent the day after Dr. Gladden's death) civic leaders and common people, Dr. Gladden led our congregation through some glorious years. He authored more than 40 books and pamphlets, along with thousands of sermons.
If I could lift up one quality of his legacy of love and justice, it is this: for Gladden "the personal and the social were in symbiotic relationship. One could not separate one's own salvation from that of the world." (As quoted from Jacob Dorn's book).
On Sunday mornings, Dr. Gladden would preach devotional sermons on prayer, the Bible, evangelical faith, and mission. In the evening, he would preach on collective bargaining, fair housing, racial issues, local and national elections, pure milk, coal worker and street car worker strikes, and war and peace. He defended Jews and Roman Catholics against prejudicial and vituperative attacks from all sorts of Protestant circles. Books have been written about this man and his ministry. Truly one of the most remarkable preachers of American Christianity, we have been blessed by his ministry here.
Dr. Carl Patton came to First Church in 1911 as Dr. Gladden's associate and then stepped in the senior position in 1914. He served well until 1917. Dr. Irving Maurer then came for six years as well. Both men were excellent preachers and leaders, also carrying the mantle of the social gospel, but both were shadowed by Gladden's long pastorate and powerful presence. Each went on to great callings - Mr. Patton at First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, and Dr. Maurer as President of Beloit College (where our own Paul Herreid's father served on the staff and where he remembers Dr. Maurer from his childhood as a kind and compassionate man).
The ministries of Drs. McIlyar Lichliter and Boynton Merrill followed from 1924-1959. It was during Dr. Lichliter's time that this magnificent Neo-Gothic church was built in 1930-1931. Its architecture was intended to cut across centuries of Christian faith and lift up the timelessness and universality of Dr. Gladden's appeal - in whose name this structure is dedicated. It is remembered of Dr. Lichliter that, although he honored antiquity through this architecture, he was a modernist and quite liberal theologically. He filled this church each week with powerful and meaningful sermons. (Reference, the 140th Anniversary History, 1992).
When Dr. Merrill came in the spring of 1943, he brought his love of aesthetics and poetry to our pulpit. Many have told me, most recently Helen Wilson, Dr. Merrill had one sermon, "Love." Those of you who grew up under his leadership remember his love of children and youth. He loved drama and music and under his leadership our soaring ministry of music was initiated. Dr. Merrill was the editor for the worship materials printed in the back of the Pilgrim Hymnal. During WWII, he wrote prayers that were used throughout the Armed Services for our troops abroad. The following words come from his book, From Whence Cometh My Help, published in 1939. Here he writes about not taking the good things, the "great givens" of life for granted, an action which spills over into the church:
Are we not accustomed to take the Church, along with these other things, for granted? How long is it since you lifted her and the real reason for her being up into the forefront of thought? How long is it since you reminded yourself of what the Christian Church really stands for and seeks to do in the world? Well, what does she stand for? What is it that she is seeking to do? The answers are legion. I would mention but one of her great areas of endeavor and service: the one I believe to be her supreme area.
The Christian Church is here to foster and further the worship of Almighty God. She believes that God is "the Lord of all being, throned from afar": she believes also that "the love of God is broader than the measure of (the human) mind," and that (God's) will is our peace." Believing these things, she believes in worship. When men (and women) worship God they are but sending the ships of their love and hope and courage out, well nigh empty, perhaps, in the faith that they will come back laden down with the inner verities whereby (people) live. Worship is the commerce between my soul and my maker's soul. (Boynton Merrill, From Whence Come My Help, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, NY, 1939, pp. 57-58).
Following Dr. Merrill have been Dr. Coe, and Rev. Rosenberger and Tschannan-Moran, whom we have celebrated this month.
Today, I see two major themes in our life together: the unique blending of the social gospel and the aesthetic of beauty; the social witness of love and justice and the gothic grandeur of our Cathedral of Grace. We mustn't take either of these legacies of love for granted. You and I are richly blessed by God. Our Loving God calls us to personal gratitude and graciousness, as well as to places of need and greed; we are called to embrace beauty and our sisters and brothers crying to us from the byways and highways of this world. Our God of Love in every imaginable and unimaginable way calls us to hold in tension these twofold callings - "enter to worship, depart to serve." They are carved in stone above our Broad Street doors, but they absolutely must be carved upon our hearts and minds as well.
What then do we say to all this? Certainly, we say, "God is for us! No One Can Stand against us!" Called to love and called to justice; to worship and to witness; to coming in and going forth, Our God of Love, beckons us to live fully in these words, "If I," says the Lord, "am with you, who can be against you?" May the Risen Christ be praised and glorified; heard and followed now and forevermore. This is our legacy!
As Paul has written in the close of Romans 8: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!" Amen.
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