19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
I was walking in Memphis early last week, walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale as it were. Carrie and our two oldest kids were with us, walking the street in awe of the lights and saxophonist wailing the blues and a young man doing a flip over five tourists standing in the middle of Beale Street. When we were walking back to our car, parked several blocks away, a man approached us extending a hand first to me saying, “My name is Sylvester and I’m not gonna mug you.” I didn’t think he was but I’m guess I’m glad he cleared that up ahead of time. Sylvester was an army vet. “I’m a Ranger,” he said. “I jumped out of planes.” he says to my son as both of their eyes got big. He’s helping the homeless of Memphis these days. Sylvester had a lot of good advice for my kids – listening to their parents was one of my favorites. He asked Dane if we had taken him to the National Civil Rights Museum there in town. We had. And it was powerful. After fist bumping each member of the family knowing we cared enough to visit the museum, he hugged me and said to my kids, “I’m glad. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many made it possible for your dad and me to stand here, arm in arm as brothers today.” Just as quickly as he appeared, Sylvester departed.
The museum is an experience indeed. One of the most moving images for me was standing on the bus with Rosa Parks sitting in a seat she was told to relinquish. December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake’s order to relinquish her seat in the ‘colored section’ to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled. It’s hard to even say the words. Her arrest for civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, an important passage forward in the movement for civil rights. What really captured my spirit when I turned in that direction was to see my daughter sitting behind Ms. Parks. I had this immediate imagery flash in my soul of timelessness, of unity, of the power of one woman’s act leading the way for my own daughter, a young woman now, on the same bus moving forward a spirit of equality… of hope, peace, and love.
This same imagery carried me home and into this beautiful occasion of our 60th anniversary as the Body of Christ outpost known as Harvard Avenue Christian Church. Just three and a half years after Rosa Parks made her stand by staying seated, The Tulsa Area Mission Board of Christian Churches helped secure a young, Harvard University and Phillips Theological Seminary trained minister named Robert Travis Peake and his wife, Harriet, to launch this very congregation on the far southern outskirts of the city of Tulsa. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the country. The last musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein “The Sound of Music” opened on Broadway even as the year held ‘The Day the Music Died’ as Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. Fidel Castro came to power. Mattel released the Barbie Doll. Simon Cowell was born. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Alaska became the 49th State, Hawaii the 50th. The first known human with HIV dies in Congo. Life and all its joy and turmoil were coming and going much as it does today.
And on this little property in South Tulsa, the HACC bus was being boarded with the courageous vision that the city could find healing and hope and people could find meaning in becoming authentic disciples of Jesus the Christ. 108 signed the Charter – Nancy Wells and Jim Cobbs among those still active today. We’re honored to have David and Nancy Peake in the house today as well – who along with brother, Stephen, were the first PKs of HACC (that’s ‘preacher’s kids’ for those scoring at home). While we celebrate our origin today fittingly on Pentecost Sunday – the day recognized as the birth of the church and the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the Jesus movement – our first service was held on Palm Sunday in 1959. You can see in the bulletin a number of carryovers from that first service that we are celebrating in today’s service. Among those are the title of this sermon, entitled, Christ’s Church. What I would give to have a copy of Dr. Peake’s sermon that morning. I’m sure it had all the thrill of first things… new starts… the possibilities are endless. I’m sure he highlighted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey – an act that ushered in the sacrificial commitment of Jesus and also those first followers to be the Church, the very presence of God in the world. I’m sure his was a message of all this church could be as a mission outpost in Tulsa. But as Henry Ford was known to say, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” They would need people on the bus who were willing to bring forward their gifts – their time and talents and skills and passions to get the wheels of this bus going round and round.
This has always been true. The early church bus needed the same kind of riders too… and these churches were popping up all over the place. The letter to the Hebrews was one such letter designed to spur each other on toward the growing good of the movement. The writer put forth the first goal which was simple but not always easy: stay in the presence of Christ. When you’re living your life or building a church, the many daily tasks required to move around this world or move an agenda forward often get bumped to the top of the list. We can neglect simply being in the presence of God as task number one. It is a given that we all live in two worlds – this world of space and time and the world of eternal things – the question has long been – can we live in the intersection of the two? Worship grounds us in this way and worship at this church has long nourished many a soul. 546 people presented themselves before this community to profess faith in Jesus and be baptized in 60 years. Would you raise your hand if you are one of those? I love standing with folks in the middle of Peake Commons where the old baptistery used to be. There’s a look that comes over their faces as they say, “I was baptized in this very spot so many years ago.”
Bob Peake set an early tone for an intellectual and straight forward message in worship. To be clear and certain you got the point, he finished each sermon with “In summation and conclusion…” before letting you know what you should hold on to moving into the week. In fact, on his last Sunday after thirty years of ministry, the congregation had t-shirts made to commemorate the day, everyone wearing one that said in big letters across the front: “In summation and conclusion.” I am grateful for the preaching foundation he set, followed by Rev. Don Lanier and others who carried deep value in not neglecting to meet for worship, hear the Word of God, and imagine a new world together. The Table, always open to all, grounded us too. As told by Mary Maddox and Nancy Wells, “One Sunday morning, without fanfare or drama, two new Elders were at the communion table… two women, Shirley Stark and Joyce McNickle. Nothing was announced in advance. Joyce and Shirley simply appeared as though it was totally natural and normal and performed their duties admirably well. We can thank Bob Peake for his encouragement and help initiating this fine, most inclusive, ahead-of-its-time and leading-the-way tradition.” I’m grateful for their sharing. Legend also shares that these were the first two women elders in the city of Tulsa. I’m so glad they were on the HACC bus. People of all kinds have come to and presided over this Table ever since.
Music filled this bus marvelously through the years as well. It was the encouragement of Elizabeth Palmieri of a young man in the Children’s Choir to sing a solo that launched the voice that fills these rafters still… one Todd Maxwell. His first solo, Away in a Manger, rocked the house. You raised him well, friends. So many voices have lent themselves to God through our choirs and bands and handbells. Think of the music that has filled this bus through the years! Bill Gilpin spanned four decades at least in the choir. I can still hear his voice in my heart singing, “Ain’t but one train on this track, runs to heaven and right back.” He’s up there with Harry Smithline and Paul Noble and Judy Burnham just cracking up the angel choir, don’t you think?
The Gilpins got on the bus in those early years along with the likes of the Southard and Wheeler families. Jo Ann Gilpin surely had her CDL to drive this bus as she was a force. Entering the early pre-fab building on this property in those first years, she was unsettled by all of the broken crayons there for the kids to use. Who can color Jesus sheets with broken crayons? Really. That was quickly resolved. Jo Ann became a lead in children and youth education and a huge proponent of Vacation Bible School. In fact, the VBS just completed at HACC this week was sponsored with memorial gifts made in Jo Ann’s honor. Jo Ann’s legacy not only spans the earth but extends to Mars and beyond. I’m so glad they all got on this bus. Jo Ann and others put education on the forefront – which is part of what led those like Bill Queen, Susan Payne, and Darlene Martinez to find their way to seminary.
And our wealth and long run of Bible teachers like Dan Strong and Oliver Howard illuminated the Scriptures with heart, intelligence, depth and the reverent care unmatched by any I know. HACC has kept people hungry for the faith. And Daryl Southard? He got this idea of not neglecting to worship together as the Hebrew writer names for us. Daryl was always giving me a new book to read – “Here’s how the brain works… Enjoy.” “Here’s a book about the history of Oklahoma. Enjoy.” “Here’s a book about the trends of church growth. Enjoy.” He told me early on with some concern about the need for the church to grow significantly or risk downward decline: “Research says if we can make it to 400 in worship,” he’d say, “ we’ll have strength enough to press forward the mission with strength.” God has provided that growth and I know Daryl who’s in the resurrection now, is smiling that grin you can picture even now – in between fixing a few things up there I’m sure.
It is why we keep getting together week after week as that early church letter suggests. You cannot be a Christian in isolation as hard as we may try. It’s not the way the Body of Christ is designed to flow. The Body needs all its parts so it can work. There are always some who don’t want to talk about their faith (“It’s personal. I can go it alone.”), but when we authentically get on board with Jesus, it naturally shows. Someone said it well: “the discipleship kills the secrecy or the secrecy kills the discipleship.” The early church had much on the line to gather – at that time, they risked their physical safety. For us, the greatest risk may be reaching a state of apathy. Showing up again and again… even in those moments when it’s more of a struggle to show… encourages others on the bus to stay at it too. Pentecost, if anything, says, “Don’t miss it… you never know how the Spirit will move that day.” How can we spur one another on to love and good deeds if we don’t show up?
I get an email about once every other week or so from another HACC bus rider – our beloved Mary Noble. It’s amazing, I know. Mary joined the resurrection more than a year ago now but these emails keep coming and do you know what they say? One simple message; three simple words: “Don’t miss it.” It’s generally followed by a link that I’ve never opened. People say to me, “It’s SPAM you know.” And maybe so. But I prefer to think it’s from Mary. I hear Mary’s voice. I see Mary’s deep brown eyes peering into my soul saying with that wise and philosophical Tulsa twang, “Don’t miss it, Mark.” That’s the key today, in my opinion. God’s calling forward to us: “Don’t miss it, HACC.”
You boarded this bus today – some of you have for years – and I’m so grateful my kids have the likes of you sitting in front of them. They love this church. It is all they have known but they love it. And do you know how hard it is for Preachers’ Kids to love the church? I think this love comes because the people on this bus truly encourage each other. The Hebrew writer says it plainly, clearly, and emphatically – “encourage one another… and all the more as that day is approaching.” We live in a time where discouragement seems to be the general tone of the day. It’s me against you… us against them… red against blue… and sometimes red against orange in these parts. We don’t get it all right here all the time. And we’re up front and honest about that. In fact, that is one of the most encouraging parts of this bus ride we’ve shared for sixty years. We’re not the perfect church. But this I know… we are among the very few places I’ve ever experienced that can hold together our differences in loving understanding. When some are apt to discourage, harm, hurt, curse, shun, or otherwise – we encourage each other all the more. I think the world could use a little all-the-more these days, don’t you? That’s why our bus door remains open to all who will board yet. And when they do, I know you’ll not say, “Seat taken.” You’ll scoot over, scoot back, stand up – give the seat of honor to the oppressed or the least of these – you’ll make room because the saints of this church did so for you. That cloud of witnesses hold stories that drive us forward still.
We’ve sat behind James McFarland who carried a torch for Outreach and serving our community in extraordinary ways. My very first day on the job we got a call at the office that James was in the hospital. We were in the midst of our first ever staff meeting and the eyes around the table got big. “Oh no… James.” This was big news I could tell. I just knew James McFarland was going to be a giant of a man. As I got into the ER and pulled back that curtain expecting to see Saint James – larger than life – all I could see where these tiny feet at the end of a hospital bed. James simply says, “Welcome to Tulsa!” Tiny feet. Huge shoes to fill. From Harriet Peake’s passion to James and onward, you’re filling shoes of service by hosting homeless families in this place, making room for children during a school lock-out even as you marched to the capitol with our teachers. You’ve embraced a remote village in Nicaragua and embraced a single child in our own city who just needed someone to know their name and read with them.
I’ve named many today… these saints of the Harvard Avenue bus… and there are countless more. We’ve sat behind the likes of Alma Elliott, Phil Ryan, Greg Entwistle, Gladys O’Connor and Kieth Phillips. Carrie Shirley and Russ Vanderslice and Don Farrior. Barbara Peters, Chester Cadieux, Lloyd Christensen, and Gearl McLaughlin. Dorcas Merriman, Craig Crockett, Jim Rosenlieb and Sally Sitler. Charles Gilmore, Gene Mauk, Jerry Dodson, Julie Gilles and Barbara Simmons. Joyce Johnson, Lou Ann Jensen, Joe Wells, Ted and Helen Michie. We’ve sat behind Polly Bennett who could pray, “Dear Jesus,” better than any I’ve ever known. You can name the saints who rode this bus through the years too. In fact, I want you to – because I can’t name them all. Would you choose a name or two or three… a saint of this movement of faith who rode this bus with us along the way and when I count to three, I just want you to say that name or two or three out loud. Ready? One, two, three…
And so is the blessing of sixty years. The names added to the name above all names, Jesus the Christ – the Rock of this church… the Way of our past, present and future… the hope for all who will join us yet. Thank you, Harvard Avenue Christian Church, for sharing this ride. In summation and conclusion… “Don’t miss it!” Bring your all. Your presence matters in this church… in Christ’s church. For there’s a young woman on the bus today… an eager boy… a new-to-the-faith seeker… a doubting mid-lifer… a twice burned recovering Christian… a seasoned saint reflecting on the meaning of their lives… someone is sitting behind you on this bus wondering why this matters to you… what your faith is prompting you to do now.
Where will this bus go in the next decade? Let’s follow the lead of that eager Spirit that has led us this far. That’s what Pentecost is all about. Happy Birthday church. May the wheels on the bus keep going round and round and round and round. Amen!