A Special Sermon for the 50th Birthday of the Grays River United Methodist Church Building
This is that time of year when families gather to celebrate. We are told that Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day at airports. People often come home on Thanksgiving to be with loved ones and focus on what is truly important: our love for one another and family.
This is equally true here today at Grays River United Methodist Church. Most significantly, we are here for Sunday worship just as people faithfully from the community have been doing for more than 100 years as Kaylee and Makijah sang a moment ago: Coming down to the river to pray! And we also come together today, during this Thanksgiving Week, to celebrate the 50th Birthday of this building, this sanctuary, built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, the master carpenter.
We come together today to tell our family stories. And in a little while I will ask you all to share some of those stories from the last 50 years.
I’d like to tell a few stories as well. Marilyn Gudmundsen tells me I am the 48th pastor to serve Grays River United Methodist Church dating back to the late 1800s. I just finished my first year and from the very moment I arrived, everyone made me feel like family. That’s how it is here. And this spirit of family has a biblical foundation does it not?
Our Scripture reading today from Ephesians underscores this. Paul writes: we are “…members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.“
Truly, our foundation is in scripture, in our family’s history as Christians as children of God!
Now Christ enlisted a lot of disciples in building this church. And it’s important to note that before this church was built in the 1960s, the original church was first built in the late 1800s right on the river. Frequent flooding prompted the congregation to move the church across the street from where Duffy’s is now. In fact, the house across the street from Duffy’s was the old parsonage.
Some of you here today remember the old church. The bell outside this church in the little white structure is from the original church and we ring it every Sunday morning calling folks to worship. Think of it, that bell has been ringing in this valley, calling people to worship for 124 years!
When I first arrived here, I found a book in the church office about Brother Mack the pastor who was instrumental in building the very first church. I would be remiss if I did not mention the courageous Brother Mack who was first a circuit preacher, traveling by foot, boat and horse throughout the Pacific Northwest bringing worship to the wilderness.
When I drive along Highway 4 in my warm Honda on my way to Grays River, I often think about Brother Mack and his challenges as a country preacher. It was tough back then. He was chased up a tree by wolves one freezing winter night. Another time, his beard and mustache froze and he had to cut through the ice so he could breathe. His toughest experience, and there were many, was the night he finally had his own place up here. Up until then, he would sleep with local families, often sharing a bed or bed of hay in a barn. But he saved his money and he’d rented a cabin and made himself a nice meal. This was a big deal for Brother Mack because he was often hungry without food and cash.
On this particular night he woke up later in the evening dreadfully ill. He was so sick he wrote his will as he was convinced he was near death. In the morning, a check of the well outside discovered a dead skunk in the water. Brother Mack did indeed narrowly avert death that night at the hands of a dead skunk and thankfully went on to build the church with the helping hands of community members.
Many years later, with the church that Mack built, feeling its age, the congregation determined it was time to build a new church: this one we are in today. Two acres were donated by the Axmaker family. Cecile Axmaker Smith and her husband Rod live next door and Rod blesses us by mowing the grounds. I suppose I should apologize to Rod that we added to his list this summer when we began work on our outdoor healing garden out back. We thank Rod for his work clearing and grading the site and yes, there will be more lawn to mow come spring! But thanks to Rod we will have an outdoor worship space as well.
Building this church also saw the pastor actively engaged. Pastor John Freeman dug the well here himself. He worked an ax and chainsaw along with a host of others to cut wood on the property so it could be sold down in front of the creamery building as a fundraiser. These and other fundraisers were conducted by Bob Larson, Harry Larson, Cecil Axmaker, Sid Larson, Raymond Badger, Dewitt Barr, Jim Lindros, Ed Sorenson, Ernie Wendelin, John and Johnny King, Leonard King, Grant Olson, Pastor Freeman and many others.
Our own Bob Larson took his tractor and leveled the ground. Work on the sanctuary began in 1961. The social hall was added later. Construction was a family affair. The women of the church bravely climbed high ladders to varni****he wood in the sanctuary. They also ran a thrift store down where the Grays River Café is today. Funds raised equipped the social hall with many items that are still here today. Finally, after much work by many carpenters and cooks, painters and extraordinary fundraisers, the church was dedicated Thanksgiving 1962. And here we are 50 years later celebrating this tremendous family effort that symbolizes a commitment to God by his family for more than 100 years in this valley.
Now there are so many family stories to tell that I can’t possibly tell them all. And this is why a number of us, under the direction of church historian Marilyn Gudmundsen, are working on a written history of the church. Former Grays River Pastor John Indermark has worked with Marilyn on the publication along with the help of many of you here today. We promise to have it completed well before the 100th anniversary!
But we wanted to share some of the church’s story today and I want to especially thank Marilyn and John for their efforts to put church history to paper as a lasting memorial and memory. I also want to recognize all the pastors who have served here and note several who are in the area: Pastor John Indermark and Pastor Barbara Bate as well as the wife of the late Pastor Ken Hammer. Caroline Hammer often comes to church functions and remains, as do all of you, members of our church family.
All of this talk of family does prompt us to take a moment and think about what it means to be family. Does it mean that we always agree and get along? Does it mean that we all have the same ideas about doing things? Absolutely not. God has made each of us unique and different. He is the master craftsman after all.
God’s family members are different and we build different things and different lives. We have many churches, for example. And while we may differ on some things, we are joined at the heart, God’s heart. Our cornerstone is Jesus Christ and we are all resting on the strong foundation of our Lord and all the apostles and saints who precede us and hold us up so that we will never, never fall.
These are not structures that are of cold stone or hard wood. They are structures that have life, that represent the love of God and embody the Holy Spirit. Our churches say a lot about who we are as family joined in a series of faith journeys beginning with Genesis, traveling through the stories of the Old Testament, and on into the New Testament and the new covenant of Jesus Christ who continues to teach us what’s important: To Love God, To Love One Another and to keep God’s commandments. In him, we may have eternal life. In him, we are free to live as God calls us to: in love and service.
Our family journey continues today here in Grays River. God’s builders, and that is all of us, are not finished. He has much for us to do. It’s why we are building the healing garden and outdoor worship space. It is why the church bell rings each Sunday just as it has for 124 years beckoning God’s people to come down to the river to pray.
Last night, I was talking to my Dad on the phone. Mom and Dad live in Northern California and my Dad was born in Seattle. Our family story includes annual summer camp outs on Hood Canal with all my Dad’s Norwegian relatives. I was telling Dad about the wedding we celebrated at our church yesterday. He asked me what it felt like to marry two people. I said it was awesome and worshipful! That it was a humbling moment, a gift from God. At that point, my Mom got on the phone and we talked for a while. But before it was time to say goodbye, Dad, who generally is a man of few words, wanted to talk to me again. He said that my words had really struck something in him. He said that’s what church should feel like…worshipful, awesome, humbling, a gift. My Dad’s words struck something in me, too.
And so my friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ, as we celebrate the 50th Birthday of this building, let us rededicate ourselves to why we built it. Let us be worshipful of our awesome God. Let us always be humbled by his gift of love for each and every one of us. Let us remember that it is he who is our cornerstone and in whom all of us are joined together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Glory be to God! Amen.