Rev Tom Long, preaching professor Candler School of Theology tells about a forest ranger in Wales who described the most common question that visitors to his park ask the forest rangers. Many people, he said, come to the park to hike one of the beautiful trails that wander through the forest, trails designed to display the magnificent trees and plants, to let the hikers encounter the wildlife in the forest, and to take hikers to the hilltops for breathtaking views of the countryside. But the most frequent question that visitors ask the forest rangers is not "Where does this trail go?" or "How long does it take to hike it?" or "Do we need bug spray on the trail" but instead "Can you tell me where the trail starts?" It makes sense. No matter how lovely or breathtaking a trail may be, if you don't know where the trail starts, you can't hike it.
The same question has guided the focus of these sermons over the last several weeks in which we are looking to better answer the question of our beginning as St. Andrew’s Presbyterian so long ago and how those beginnings continue to impact us to this day. Where did we begin? How have those beginnings led us to where we here now and How do we get where we are going? How might we begin to answer to any of these questions?
Paul wrote to Christians at a time when the church was enduring struggle and persecution. It was not smart to be Christian. Christians were suspect. They were reviled, ridiculed and dismissed. You could lose your job if you were a Christian. You could be thrown into prison, your home confiscated, you could be exiled or even executed. It was not smart to be a Christian. But Paul’s letters to the churches of Corinth and to Ephesus were written to encourage Christians living and serving in difficult places. There was disunity over how the church should be organized and who should be in charge. Jewish Christians were OK with Gentiles being members of the church BUT felt the Gentiles should become Jewish first (ie., be circumcised and practice purification rites before they could be Christian and enter the church. The foundation of our church and our faith that we build is not based on the concept, “Be like me, Do as I do, but rather on who Christ is and what Christ has done. Whether you are Jew or Gentile, Irishman or Scottsman, Indigenous or immigrant, Christ came to break apart the walls of hostility that have divided us. “Christ is our cornerstone.” What does that mean? Simply, He is the one who holds us together and He has given to us the example of how we are to live.
And remember, Jesus was maligned, vilified and condemned. And yet the stone which the builders threw aside and crucified has become the most important and gives meaning and purpose to life. Paul told them, “We are God’s servants, working together; God’s building.” We continue to build the foundation because together we are the strong stones built on a solid foundation. From 800 to 500 B.C., Babylon was one of the greatest cities in the world. Under the kings of Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty it was a city of lofty towers, gardens, walls, streets, houses and temples. But within the next hundred years virtually all traces of that immense and grand city vanished, swept away not only by the invading armies of the Medes and Persians but also by the sands of time. Babylon was built mainly from mud brick and not stone, so the city was literally blown away. Consider the temples, Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt. Although damaged and plundered, they still stand after some 5,000 years. Why? They were constructed of stone.
The cornerstone of the first St. Andrews was laid on August 20, 1868 (4 years after the Church of Scotland had begun their missionary efforts here.) There at the site on Gordon and Courtney Streets, Rev. Sommerville deposited the coins and the scroll of the church into the foundation stone and it was lowered into place. Three taps were made upon the stone and the blessing given, “May the Almighty Architect of the Universe look down upon our present undertaking and crown this edifice with success.” He offered the fervent hope that nothing would ever occur that would mar their Christian fellowship. 9 months later, the dedication of the new building was held. But the next 22 years would be marked with tears and fears as 3 ministers in those 22 years would come and go, financial struggles would prevail, and a disputed price of the organ would enrage the members, yet still membership grew to the point that after only 22 years, the 82’ X 52’ was too small for the growing congregation. They had to build a new building, and so this structure dedicated 129 years ago celebrated when the cornerstone was laid and these words were spoken by Rev. Macleod, “Our architect has pronounced this cornerstone well and truly laid, and we hope to see erected upon it, for the worship of Almighty God, an edifice credible to Presbyterianism and to this city. The Great Architect of the universe has declared well and truly laid in Zion, the Chief Cornerstone upon which it is hoped, those worshipping in this earthly temple we are about to raise, will erect a spiritual temple which shall endure when these bricks have crumbled back to their native dust.”
When this structure was dedicated in January 1890, Rev. MacDonald from Toronto preached this passage stressing Jesus as the cornerstone. He spoke of providing a foundation that would never crumble, and the members who are the living stones here to build up God’s church and cemented together with love. Do you think those words remain our mission still? Are we still building St. Andrew’s? Paul explained in the first scripture to the Corinthians, “I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. That someone is us and it is critical that we continue to build.
A week ago today, we worshipped at the Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio to celebrate the baptism of our grandson, Malachi Paxton Yochum. During the service Malachi sat in our daughter’s and his mother’s lap on the 2nd pew. He watched. He listened to the music. And then it was time for the baptism. Brad, Margaret and Malachi went forward to meet Pastor’s Bill and Mary. The children were also down front as the baptism was a unique part of the children’s sermon.
The questions of promise and dedication were read to and answered by Malachi’s mom and dad. And then the questions of covenant were asked of the congregation. Then the children were included as the children’s time was included as a part of the baptism. “Will you be a friend of Malachi? If he is lost, will you help him find a Sunday School class or his parents? If he falls down, will you get him help or help him up? Will you play with him and help him learn the stories about Jesus and will you help him know how much God loves him?” And then Malachi who had been looking around quizzingly for the entire service, smiling in his mom’s arms was handed to Pastor Bill for the baptism. The screams and the tears started immediately. You could barely hear Pastor Bill as he spoke the words, “Malachi Paxton Yochum, child of the covenant, baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen.” Then Pastor Bill handed the newly baptized Malachi back to his mother, and immediately, as if you had flipped a switch, Malachi stopped crying. Suddenly he was safe again in the arms of his parent.
Honestly Malachi is not alone in being afraid because indeed life is scary in a world of strangers. Even the words of promise and hope spoken in and by the church may often seem foreign and frightening. And while this baptism was over 3K kilometers from here, the reality is the same here as it is there. We need one another to combat all that frightens us, even some of the things that happen and are said in this place often seem confusing and perplexing. From our earthly perspective, despair can seem so pervasive as to be unstoppable. And watching the evening news would seem to support that idea. But from a heavenly perspective evil rages on earth not because it is so powerful, but because it is so vulnerable. But our hope is in Christ and, hopefully you believe that, together we constitute God’s best hope for the world.
Rachel Held Evans, a progressive Christian author who died unexpectedly only 3 months ago of an infection at the age of 37, wrote the best-selling books Inspired, Searching for Sunday and The Year of Biblical Womanhood among others. In an interview about baptism she said, “Baptism is the act of naming someone a Child of God. You don’t become a Child of God at baptism, rather being baptized is simply an acknowledgment of one’s belovedness. Baptism is a renunciation of all the competing voices that try to tell you who you are. The world wants to pen names upon you like “Screw up, Faker, Addict” but in baptism, you are named Beloved and you are told “That’s enough.” In Baptism you are declared to be a Beloved Child of God and to denounce anything that says that we are otherwise.”
155 years ago a sizeable gathering of Scotsmen deeply involved in mining and agricultural had settled on Vancouver Island. Far from home and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, they desired a church in which to baptize their own children and growing families and a Sabbath School was established to teach the faith in this new place. From that first church building at Gordon and Courtney, the cornerstone was exhumed and remade into the baptismal font we once used and is on display in Kirk Hall, which uniquely tied the past to the present and to the future and serves as a continual reminder that our chief cornerstone, Jesus our Saviour ties us together as the Beloved Children of God. The font constitutes the front door of the church as it is the chief way that we are marked as God’s beloved. Practically nothing else in this entire building has a more important meaning or function than our baptism, since through it we are tied intimately to Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith and to our identity as God’s beloved. If this church ever ceases to exist, the organ and pews can be sold or used as a music hall. The folding chairs and the tables can serve the Masonic Home. The kitchen utensils, hymnals and even the signs can become items that attract the attention of the highest bidder at a Thrift Shop. Organ recitals can be done in a performance hall, support groups can meet at the library, weddings can be performed in a park and funerals at a funeral chapel. Baptism may only be conducted as instituted by God as an ordinance of the church. Each time we use it (which is not nearly enough) it must remind us of Paul’s words, “Christ Jesus himself is our cornerstone. Through him all that we do and say joins us together and grows us closer to the Lord and to one another. In the process we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Indeed, we are God’s beloved and we need one another to continue to be the family of faith known as St. Andrew’s. As we experienced life’s constant doses of discouragement, or those toxic thoughts that send us spiraling down, then perhaps we might learn from the Church Reformer, Martin Luther who learned to shout back at his own darkness the words, "I am Baptized". When Luther was holed up in a castle translating the Greek Bible into German so that for the very first-time regular folks could read the Bible for themselves, he struggled mightily with doubt and discouragement. And he was known to not only throw the occasional ink pots at whatever was tormenting him and causing him to doubt, but while doing so he could be heard throughout the castle grounds shouting "I am baptized. I am baptized". In essence he was reminding himself, and all who happened to hear, “I am God’s beloved.” And through our baptism, we are being reminded that so are we. The early framers of St. Andrew’s must have known that in order to tie the cornerstone to our own baptism. And now, we remember and we proclaim, Do you not know that we are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us? "Can you tell me where the trail starts?" No matter how lovely or breathtaking a trail may be, if we don't know where the trail starts, we can't hike it. Never fear. It begins right here. We are God’s beloved and we are baptized.
Thanks be to God. Amen.