Before and After and Now
Date: October 22, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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In 1892, Ellis Island became the reception center for new immigrants to our country.
In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club.
In 1892, Homer Plessy refused to go to a segregated rail car, which led to a lawsuit from which we inherited the idea of “separate but equal.”
In 1892, the towns of Albina and East Portland became part of the city.
In 1892, the 104th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was held in Portland.
And in 1892, on October 26, 42 people signed on as charter members of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
So here we are, 125 years later, gathering on a Sunday as this congregation has done for over 6,000 Sundays to worship the God who called this community into being and who calls us to love and serve.
It may be fun to imagine, in an “It’s an Wonderful Life” kind of way, what impact Westminster has had on the lives of people in Portland and world for the last century and a quarter. We can only imagine, because we can’t really know. Once in a while someone will give a testimony about how the church changed their life; once in a while we start a program or a mission that has a long reach.
A few years ago, a man named Bill started worshiping with us on the recommendation of another Presbyterian pastor. In his 60s, he had a very successful career, a good marriage, a nice home, and a good income. When he came to us, he was broke. His wife was living in California and all their belongings were in a storage unit. Occasionally we would help him with the monthly fee for the storage unit, and week after week he came to worship. He loved the music. You welcomed him.
He got back on his feet, and on his last Sunday with us, before he moved to California to be with his wife, he asked to speak in worship. He thanked the congregation, saying something along the lines of “you didn’t know this, but you saved my life.” What you did not know was that in his 60s, he became addicted to heroin. Through the efforts of many, through the grace of God, and through your gracious welcome of him, you saved his life.
Bill’s story is only one of thousands about people who have walked through our doors and over the weeks or years or decades, found healing or wholeness or community. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Over thirty years ago, Westminster partnered with other community organizations to form Project Linkage. Three decades later, because of that work, not only are we able to assist some of our older members in getting to worship on Sundays, but now over 1,000 older adults and people with disabilities throughout the city are able to have transportation. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
In looking back at Westminster’s history, I was encouraged by this story, and I’m quoting from the booklet created for Westminster’s 75th anniversary. “In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a power in Oregon. Every manner of racial and religious prejudice was wrapped protectively in the Flag. In 1922 a statewide initiative placed upon that ballot a measure which would require that every child attend the public schools. It was aimed at the Catholic parochial schools and at schools maintained by the Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventists, all of which were portrayed as being un-American.
“[The pastor at the time was Dr. Pence, and his] sense of justice and decency were outraged. More politic clergymen, if they were unwilling to dirty themselves by supporting the bill, simply avoided the issue. Edward Pence stood foursquare against it, and a majority of the congregation supported him. Courageously, for in that day when silent Klansmen in tailored bedsheets were wont to file ominously into the churches of the city, hear the sermon, reward those pastors who pleased them with a bag of silver, and admonish those who did not with threats.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
The church is the place where we live out the beatitudes, I think. Every Sunday we pastors sit up front here and we watch you all come in. I love that. I love when the younger kids come sit on the front row in their scratchy dressy clothes or with a beloved stuffed animal. I love watching our saints come in with walkers and watching their friends help them out. Last week one couple came dancing in. I love watching you greet your old friends and the first-time worshiper.
We watch those who are mourning come in, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We watch the merciful come in, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. We see the persecuted coming in, and those who are lied about. The beatitudes come to life here, these timeless words of Jesus. God has been good to us.
But it’s not just here that the beatitudes come to life. Jesus has called us in and sent us out, and for a century and a quarter this community has gone to hospitals and capitals, to marches and schools, to meetings and hiking trails. Westminster is showing up where it matters, because God has given us the grace to do just that.
Of course, we have not always gotten it right. There have been periods in our history when we have not treated each other well. It’s a time-consuming but intriguing thing to go back and read old session minutes, to read about so-and-so being reprimanded for some kind of unacceptable behavior.
There have been tensions between the congregation and the staff, between the congregation and pastors, and those times are hard. Sometimes people don’t come back after a church fight. But sometimes they do, a testament to the power of grace and forgiveness.
We don’t always get it right. The first people of color who came here did not always feel welcomed. Our first interracial couple was not met with unanimously open arms. But God is never done with us, and so with love and humility, through lots of conversations and meetings, and no small amount of prayer, we get better.
It was interesting to me, as I looked at what was happening in the nation and the city in 1892, and as I looked at our own history, that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
In the 1965 annual report, Pastor Robert Bonthius wrote this. “… this church is in transition. It is not like most of the other Presbyterian churches, and really we should never try to compare ourselves with them. We are in the midst of a residentially changing neighborhood, a commercially changing one, an economically changing one, a racially changing one. Not only this. We are also a church which has been uniquely concerned about liturgical reform, about interfaith dialogue, about the ecumenical movement, about the immediate neighborhood, about race relations, about the civil rights movement, about the changing city, about new forms of Christian Education. All these things are part of Westminster.”
Certainly we are in a time when we are figuring out, in theological terms, what it means to welcome the stranger whose religion or nationality is foreign to us. Certainly we still live with issues around racism. Certainly we live in a changing Portland, and in a changing neighborhood.
And that points us to the direction in which we will head in the future. The huge issues that face our nation – issues around justice for those who live in the margins, issues of poverty, issues about our home on earth and how we care for it, issues about how we live together – those are issues we will not resolve unless the church is involved, I think.
Because we are people of faith. We are people who believe that humanity is not the be-all, end-all but that God is the be-all, end-all. We have faith that we are loved, no matter how much others revile us or challenge us. We have faith that there is enough good out here to combat the bad. We have faith that we are not alone. We have faith that our job is not to sit at home and while away the hours, but to do so many small things done in such great love that eventually we change the world.
I love Westminster. I don’t always love this building, but I love Westminster, and by that, I mean I love not only Westminster’s people, but Westminster’s past and Westminster’s present. I love that we are actively engaged in our community. I love that we are welcoming. I love that people come here and somehow find healing for their wounds.
I love who we have been and who we are. I love the hope about who we will be.
God has been so good to us.
So may we say, as they did at the annual meeting of the congregation in 1917, “The closing address by our Moderator, Dr. Pence, was inspiring to us all, and the entire occasion made us all feel justly proud to be a part of Westminster Church.”