Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-12:2
Today we celebrate the official birthday of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto. In truth, that official date, June 18, 1893, is a little suspect. Records indicate that the first gathering of Baptists in this area was in the village of Mayfield, which pre-dates the city of Palo Alto. A group of 7 or 8 began a church in Mayfield, which was centered around what is now the intersection of California and El Camino, in the spring of 1891. Ironically our church had its earliest roots in the very neighborhood in which we are now located, before it was part of Palo Alto.
At that time there were no churches in Mayfield but there were 13 saloons. This intrepid group of Baptists bought one of those saloons, which was sitting vacant and refurbished it as a church, complete with new paint, carpet, an organ and a lovely coal-fired chandelier. However, with the growth of Stanford University, several of the original group left Mayfield and the church for the new town of Palo Alto, where they worked on the construction of the new university. The church sold its carpet and organ and closed its doors.
The first religious services in Palo Alto were held in September of 1892, outdoors, in a grove of live oaks at the corner of University and Emerson. The minister was a Baptist who came up from Mountain View to conduct services. At that time, Baptists in Palo Alto did not receive denominational support for founding a church that others did, but they were enthusiastically part of ecumenically shared ministry. They met either outdoors or in a town hall which had an organ. They were instrumental in founding the first Sunday School in town, which met in a downtown real estate office.
The First Baptist Church of Palo Alto was finally founded in June of 1893, in the chapel car, Emmanuel, which stopped regularly in the new town, as the Southern Pacific Railroad made runs from San Francisco to Aromas in northern Monterey County. That first church had 9 members and was officially known as Emmanuel Baptist Church. Unfortunately, they were only able to sustain their church life for about a year and a half before abandoning the project. However, they continued to meet in the homes of members for prayer and study. In 1897, with denominational support the church was re-started as the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto and has continued to this day.
We’ll share some more of the history of the congregation when we move to the Fellowship Hall after lunch. Marilyn Hunwick, with some help from Lynn and myself, assembled a display of materials from our archives, which we hope you will find as interesting as we do. What I would like for us to celebrate in this service of worship is the dedicated, persistent efforts of this small group of faithful Baptists to formalize their witness in an important, growing community in the Bay Area. When the church built its first building in 1900, there were about 1000 people living in Palo Alto and Stanford was barely fifteen years old. These people had a vision of what might happen in this area and they committed themselves to being a part of an exciting, new town that held great promise for the future. These folk had faith that God was doing something in their midst and they chose to live that faith as a congregation. 120 years later FBCPA is their legacy and we are their heirs.
But we are not just their heirs in terms of property and resources, rich as those are. We are also their heirs in faith. The writer of Hebrews encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” I often feel, when I enter a sanctuary like ours, the presence of that cloud of witnesses. Maybe it’s memory, but maybe it’s something more. Maybe those faithful folk who went before us still visit on occasion or linger long to guide. Maybe I’m too taken with Dickens and the kind of spirits that come to old Ebeneezer Scrooge, leading him from his miserable greed into the joyful light of a new day. Anyway, however you might think of or experience that cloud of witnesses, there are surely people who have helped to shape your life in the faith, who still draw you into a practice of faithfulness.
Who is in your cloud of witnesses? I know some of you have been a part of this congregation for 50 or 60 years, half the life of the congregation. Some of you were born here, like our moderator, Carolyn, who was entered on the cradle roll at 4 days old; or Thelma Tuttle, whose father helped to build our Fellowship Hall. For some of us our candidates for the cloud of witness are still with us. Others of us have faith heroes from other times and places. In this month’s Spire I wrote about some of mine from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Let’s take a minute. Each of you has a slip of paper on which to write a name or two. After you have written the names of your faith heroes, your cloud witnesses, we’ll collect them, share a few and offer a brief prayer of Thanksgiving.
We’ve come this far by faith. Again, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Commentators Edgar McKnight and Christopher Church write, “Biblical faith is both gift and action.” It is something we hold and something we do. It is grace that shapes and informs the way we actually live our lives. The commentators continue, “…by faith the heroes and heroines of the past translated the promised hope into reality by which they lived their lives. It was something substantial” (Edgar V. McKNight and Christopher Church, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Hebrews-James, pp. 259, 261).
In this congregation, a living faith is something we inherit, from the cloud of witnesses and from the life and ministry of Jesus, the Christ, “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The challenge for us as we celebrate our past is, at the same time, to allow our faith to shape our present practice of ministry and draw us into God’s new thing, the promise of a future that will move us ever closer to the reign of God in our lives and in our world. We’ve come this far by faith. This is true. As we honor the faithful who have led us this far, we offer our undying gratitude. But we also remember that theirs is a living legacy. Everything with which they have blessed us is so that we might “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We’ve come this far by faith and we keep on keeping on by the same faith and we look to God’s future wrapped in the very same faith, holding fast to the promise of all that is yet to be. Amen.