by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
5 March 2023
Last April, during a work trip to Boston, I scheduled a visit to the Congregational Archives, which are in a grand historic building on Beacon Street, just past Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House. Deb Kirwan, Susan Fortina, and former First Central member and now resident of Maine, Ken Friedman-Fitch and I were welcomed into the beautiful reading room of the library and archive, with giant windows that overlook the cemetery where Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others are buried.
The helpful archivist had brought out for us a number of documents and books that I had requested to look at, and showed off some of the highlights of the historic collection. He also said that the archives maintains a file on each of the churches across the nation, so he had ours to show us. Inside were lots of pamphlets and orders of worship and postcards and such from throughout our history, most of which I’d seen already in our own archives.
But there was one document which I hadn’t seen before—the program for the 1922 dedication of this building. It’s a twelve page booklet with pictures, histories, and lists—some of which we’ve included for your enjoyment in an insert in today’s bulletin. The dedication program also contains the orders of worship for the services held 101 years ago to commemorate the completion of this building.
And, that’s right, I said “services” with an s. The program began on Thursday, March 2 at six o’clock with a big fellowship dinner in the room we now call Memorial Hall. The Pastor, Rev. Dr. Frank Smith, presided. Unfortunately, the menu was not printed. There were toasts and responses to the toasts from representatives of the state conference and other Congregational churches in Nebraska.
At 8 p.m., after the dinner, they moved into this sanctuary, which they called the “auditorium.” Where they held a “Service of Worship and Inspiration” with the Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Kansas City preaching. One of the hymns sung that evening was “Faith of Our Fathers,” which we will be singing shortly. Another was “Day is Dying in the West.” Here are the first two verses:
Day is dying in the west;
Heav'n is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
Lord of life, beneath the dome
Of the universe, Thy home,
Gather us who seek Thy face
To the fold of Thy embrace,
For Thou art nigh.
They gathered again the next night, Friday, March 3, at 8 p.m. for a Service of Music. They opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and heard choirs, soloists, quartets, and organ. The music was by Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and others. The postlude was “March for a Church Festival.”
On Saturday, they rested. Apparently. No programs in the booklet.
Sunday morning, March 5, began with an 11 o’clock Service of Dedication. They opened with the hymn “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand,” which is about the church being gathered into paradise triumphantly at the end of history, but I’m guessing the second verse felt appropriate to the moment in which they were singing:
What rush of alleluias
Fills all the earth and sky!
What ringing of a thousand harps
Bespeaks the triumph nigh!
O day, for which creation
And all its tribes were made!
O joy, for all its former woes,
A thousand-fold repaid!
Mr. E. H. Benner, the Chair of the building committee, then gave the keys to Dr. J. P. Lord, the Chair of Trustees, and the church read the litany of dedication, which we will reprise later in this service. These memorial stained glass windows were dedicated, and Dr. Ozora S. Davis, the President of Chicago Theological Seminary delivered a sermon. The congregation sang “O God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which is about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. The final verse a stirring evocation on that day in 1922, I’m sure:
And here thy name, O God of love
Their children’s children shall adore,
Till these eternal hills remove,
And spring adorns the earth no more.
But, they weren’t finished. At 3:30 p.m. they returned for a “Service of Fraternal Greetings” with messages brought by local ministers and bishops of other churches and denominations.
Then, at 8 p.m. they held the final “Service of Praise and Meditation” with Dr. Davis of the seminary preaching again, this time a sermon entitled “The Christian Church in the Modern City.” The congregation sang “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.”
A lot comes through in the program and the orders of worship. Their pride, delight, and satisfaction in what they had accomplished. They even express a triumphalism that sees their work as part of a great, centuries-old legacy, that will lead on into the future as part of God’s great work. There is a sense of we did this—with our hard work and money. They viewed it as a spiritual accomplishment. And one that would be of benefit not just to them, but to the wider community, to the entire state, region, and nation, and even in benefit to ministry around the world. As you can see in the excerpts we’ve included, they highlighted the congregation’s support of Anna Lane, missionary pastor in Beijing, China.
If we are wise, we should also examine all of this with a critical interpretative lens as well. This was a settler congregation building on land once inhabited by the Omaha people. The triumphalism of the hymns can be a little off-putting, such as the third verse of “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand” which was about the Pilgrims.
Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God
Came with those exiles o’er the waves
As if such things did not already exist on this continent among the indigenous people who lived here.
We are the heirs of this building, this legacy, this history. We are the recipients of a great gift. The heirs of their generosity.
Theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw reminds us that the church is part of a “complex, intergenerational web” of giving. There is no way, of course, to reciprocate the gifts, instead the concern for us becomes how do we “use their gifts well and pass them on to others.”
This Lenten season our worship series is focused on words of wisdom and the six “rhythms of life lived in God’s presence” that Pauw identifies. Giving is one of those.
Giving is central to who God is in our tradition, as this Psalm 145 reminds us. God’s hands are always open, trying to satisfy the desires of every living thing. God’s giving is so extravagant, that it can be overwhelming. Of course, God’s greatest gift is Jesus himself. The story of Christmas is the story of the greatest gift—God’s child born in human flesh to live our life and die our death and rise again so that we too might fulfill the image of God inside each of us.
Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “There is an indispensable generosity to creaturely life. We respond to God’s manifold gifts to us by becoming mediators of God’s gifts to others.” The best way for us to respond to God’s graciousness and generosity is to become generous ourselves. The best way for us to receive the gifts of our ancestors, including this building, is to use the gift well, to share it, and to pass it along to others.
The goals of our Christian living are to sustain life, to help all people and all creation to flourish. To create a community of sharing and service that benefits and cares for one another. To bear witness to alternative and better ways of being human. She writes, “In its giving, [the church] leans into [a] vision of universal communion in which all creation rejoices in God’s boundless generosity.” The church “aims to be a community whose life gives life to others.”
At its best, that’s what I see in the dedication of this building 101 years ago and the legacy that it left in this community—of care, service, and prophetic witness. They had a vision for what this great gift could do not just for them but for the world. Our task is to forge our own vision for the second century of this gift. To share this building to the service of humanity and the renewal of creation so that God’s mission in our time is accomplished. And to pass this gift along to those who come after us, so that they can use it in the ways God calls them in their time, even if that means changing the things we have done or that we cherish.
How do we use it, share it, give it in a way that fulfills God’s purpose and mission?
I recently read a book that said churches should be guided in these sorts of decisions by three over-arching values—how we create a common life together, how we repair the damages done in the past that are part of our legacy, and how we use our resources to set people free.
Here is a place where we baptize babies, educate children, grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically, celebrate marriages, care for one another in illness and loss, join in fellowship and worship, and grieve our dead. And we want to do these holy things in a space that is beautiful, accessible, hospitable, fun, and sacred.
Here is a place where the prophetic word is spoken, where we listen to the still-speaking God and work for justice and peace. Here we create a community where all are welcome and included. Where we work to break down stigma and try to right past wrongs. We opened this space for the Omaha people when they first started teaching language classes in order to preserve their culture. Father back we hosted the first integrated head start in the city. We host baby showers for refugees.
And from this place we work to set people free. We feed the hungry and clothe the needy and visit prisoners and build houses for the homeless and forgive medical debt.
But, we can do more. Be more, in the second century in this place. For this is also a place where we can imagine more ways in which our resources and our gifts could be used to fulfill God’s mission to set people free, right what is wrong, and create a common life together. To craft a vision for what this great gift could do not just for us but for the world. Let’s be inspired by our history not just to honor a legacy, but to live into the future with vision and mission.
So, like those a century and one years ago, let God’s generosity flow through us, shining with glory. We too can give, serve, and share. So that this gift is one we pass on into its second century.