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Built on Solid Rock

Sermon - 3/13/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ezra 3:10-13

Great morning, great day. The text I've chosen this Sunday -- I'm departing from the lectionary text -- reflecting on the significance of this cornerstone opening.

The story of the rebuilding of the Temple of the Lord, after its destruction and the exile into Babylonia. When they came back, they were able to rebuild it. The story is told in the book of Ezra, reading today from chapter 3, verses 10 through 13:

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.


I've always said that this is a fun place to do ministry. I mean, it's Eugene, after all. And Eugene is always an interesting town. We've got the Ducks, all of that fun this past year, the Willamette Valley, a wonderful place to live, the coast an hour away. We had a visitor from Indianapolis today, and he said "Man, this is such a great place, your weather is so mild". Coming out of Indianapolis where it was freezing cold. I guess it's all relative.

But there's so much to love about this place. And then there's this wonderful, historic church. It's not the oldest church in Eugene -- that belongs to First United Methodist, established in 1861. Our congregation, though, in our history, there are references to people who gathered for worship as early as 1861, but the congregation was not founded until 5 years later. And it's not even the oldest church building -- I believe that belongs to the old Maude Kerns Art Center, that was Fairmount Presbyterian Church, built in 1890. Also, when we started building this building, according to the survey that was done in 1910, the building that is now the New Life Apostolic Tabernacle in the Whiteaker neighborhood existed, but they bought that building in 1978 (so they don't count :). The pastor says he's not even sure the congregation they bought it from is the congregation that built it.

So, we are the only church in Eugene that has been worshiping in the same facility for 100 years. Is that something, or what?

We can't celebrate it quite yet, because the building wasn't dedicated until October (in 1911), but we're coming to that, we'll get there. And even if it's not the oldest church building, it's certainly the most significant architecturally.

I've used some of these images before, but our building gets featured in all kinds of ways. There's the cover of the brochure, published by the City of Eugene, for a walking tour of historic buildings:

I just found this newsletter that was published by the National Park Service, on plaster restoration in historic buildings, and they feature the inside of our sanctuary on the front of that publication:

There's of course the mural in the City Council chambers in Eugene that features our church very prominently:

And then, my personal favorite, when you fly out of San Francisco on United Airlines, our bell tower is the insignia for the flight to Eugene (isn't that cool):


So, we get featured in all these ways, we have architectural students from the University of Oregon come all the time, working on various projects. We have visitors that come from out of town and just want to stop by and look, weddings, concerts from the Oregon Mozart Players, Mystic River, public events like the reading of Martin Luther King's speech that he gave against the war in Vietnam on April 4th, 1967. There will be a dramatic re-reading of that speech by various members of our community, here, on April 4th, on the anniversary speech. The monthly interfaith services.

It's just an incredible amount of activity and ministry that happens in this church. Inside that walking tour brochure, it says that some of Eugene's historic buildings "Such as First Christian Church have always been maintained by their owners and have continuously been seen as historical assets to the community". This building is so much more than a historical asset. It's a community asset of the first order.

We have these old minutes in our archives, from our congregation and Board meetings, going back to 1904. It's a lot of fun reading through those minutes (well, most of it's pretty boring, typical of Board meetings :), but in the minutes from April 20th, 1911, the Board agreed to rent the new church for entertainment purposes, with the provision: "No objectionable program be permitted". The charge: $25 a night. So from the very beginning, this church has had deep involvement in the community for a variety of things.

Well, things got a whole lot more interesting this week, and it started with a phone call from Richard Gessert. Richard was an architectural student at the university in the early 1960s, and a member of this congregation, and the centennial committee asked him to design a log for the centennial. The original for that is located in our OTHER time-capsule. But Richard called us up and said "I know you have a time capsule that's going to be opened this year". And we said "We do?".

In the course of the conversation and some follow-up research, we found this article that describes the event:

This was published on March 13th, 1911, and it says: "With appropriate ceremonies, the cornerstone of the new Christian Church building, which is in the course of erection on Oak St. was laid Sunday afternoon. Exercises began at 3:00 o'clock, witnessed by several hundred people, the weather was ideal. . .". And then it goes on to describe the ceremony, led by Pastor McCallum, and then it says: "Then came the ceremony of placing the stone, and enclosing the iron box inside, which was performed by the honorable T.G. Hendricks, President of First National Bank". Hendricks was an elder of the church, and one of the historic figures of our community, for which Hendricks Park is named.  And the address was given by Prince Lucien Campbell, the President of the University of Oregon.

[Note:  you can read the full newspaper article from 1911 here -- scroll to bottom of page]

So it was a big, festive occasion. So we knew that we had something, we just didn't know exactly what. We had a big press event on Thursday, brought in a stone mason to free the stone, and they sat out there (all of them that are here again this morning), for 2 hours as we tried to get this stone out. But in good Geraldo Rivera fashion, we came up empty :). It wouldn't budge. And I take that as good sign that this church is built on a solid foundation.

And so our maintenance team, led by Kevin and David, worked all Friday morning, until we finally got all the mortar out, and we could free the stone. And so it was, 100 years minus a day from when it was placed there, that it was free again.

So I've been reflecting for the past several weeks about the significance of this. Scripture is filled with all kinds of references to the Temple in Jerusalem. But in this story, the laying of the foundation, we read this wonderful account of how those who remembered the old church wept for joy at the foundation being laid. That they were once again rebuilding the Temple that was so precious, so important, to their faith.

Now, I don't know if anyone wept 100 years ago, but it certainly was a very festive occasion. They likely gathered right where we're sitting, according to the article they were there with the "partial walls" around them. And with eyes to the future, on those who might discover this buried treasure a century later, they encased this time capsule -- a little tiny box in that cornerstone.

We have a list of contents, but we didn't know a lot about it until Friday when we dug it out. Because of some of the damage we did to the top of the box in getting it free, we could see the corner of the Bible, but we waited until just now to open it. It kind of felt like opening up the clay jars in the caves of Qumran, when they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, to find this treasure that's been buried for so long.

Well, I learned to do church history under one of the venerable saints of the church, Ronald E. Osborne. He had me write the centennial history of Pomona First Christian Church, and one thing that he drilled into my head is the importance of establishing the context that so many church histories seem to ignore.

I looked up above this newspaper article, and it's kind of like that painting of Raphael of the transfiguration that we talked about last Sunday -- where the turmoil of the world is down below, and the good news of Christ is up above. Only in the newspaper, it's reversed:

The turmoil of the world is up above. At the top of the paper on that day, we see the lead article is a dispute over taxes, and a Supreme Court decision that had been handed down. The next article is about a homeless man, possibly who had been murdered. The next article is about a revolution in a foreign country (in this case, Mexico), and the President has sent 20,000 American troops to Texas (the border), that's 1/4th of the standing U.S. Army, placed on the border because of the revolution going on, and getting ready in case of an invasion (which they eventually did), and then a humanitarian crisis that has resulted because of this.

I mean, does any of this sound familiar? This is all stuff we've heard before. This is the context in which this congregation built this church. And underneath that, then, the story of the congregation laying its cornerstone. And in it they place what they hold to be near & dear to their hearts. It's their way of saying to us: this is our foundation. This is the rock on which this church has been built.

Now, that we have the Bible at the top of that comes as no surprise. But what's somewhat surprising is that they didn't choose the King James version, but rather the Revised version (we'll confirm the exact version, it'll take some time to research and figure it out because the first pages are so deteriorated, we have no publication date).

But there's 2 possibilities: either it was the Revised Bible published in Britain in 1881, or its American equivalent (the American Standard version) published in 1901.

What is fascinating to consider is that this was the first successful English translation of scripture since the King James version, 300 years earlier. And that says to me that not only did the leaders of this church, a century ago, see the Bible as foundational to their faith and witness, but they understood the need to bring the gospel to the present age. That if they were going to address that turmoil and chaos of the world, they would have to do so in a way that spoke to modern minds and sensibilities.

I shouldn't be surprised by that at all, actually. The leadership of the church in 1911 was all male, no doubt. But get this -- these are the minutes of the Board, May 6th, 1909, this is what it says:

At this time, brother Sanderson [the founder and President of what is now Northwest Christian University] presented the names of the following divinity students with the proper recommendation for ordination:

Elijah V. Stivers [became a pastor of the church]
F. C. Stephens
Walter Callison
Christopher Hansan
W. A. Gressman
Mary Benton
NE. Beach
Karl Berg
David Narcross

In 1909, they ordained a woman into the Christian ministry in our previous building! I mean, does that tell you something about the progressive, forward-thinking of the congregation, or what? It's cool! [Applause from the congregation].

So, I'm not surprised that they used a modern translation.

The second item contained in this box was a letdown. What we knew is that we had a list of names and a little bit of history of the church, some of the names lost to history (the actual contractors that built this building). But the letter was supposed to have the names of the building committee, the names of the Board, etc. But when we opened it up, we discovered that the writing has all disappeared. The printing on the letterhead is there, and they already were using a drawing of the church on their letterhead when they laid the cornerstone, but the writing has disappeared. So whether or not we can recover that remains to be seen.

But, when we think about that, on the one hand it seems like vanity--you know, writing "Killroy was here" kind of thing. But I don't think that's what it is. I don't think it's vanity as much as it is a statement about the nature of the true church. Church is not brick and mortar and stone, but people -- men and women who have the faith. Who laid that stone, who had the faith to give us this wonderful gift.

So in this stone, we find the witness of those people who wanted history to record not that they had been here 100 years ago, but that they believed in the work of this congregation, and shared in the mission and ministry of its people.

And this is our foundation, not the stone. But a Bible and the people who put it there -- people bound together with that Bible, in their faith in God, as revealed to them, and to us, by Christ our Lord. This is our rock, on which we stand. Can I hear the people say "Hallelujah"?

For the Lord is good! Hallelujah! God's steadfast love endures forever! Hallelujah!



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