Scripture: Ephesians 1: 11-19
This morning I invite you to travel back in time with me 69 years. It is 1947, just two years after the conclusion of World War II. Fresh from the horror and strain of the war years; experiencing a vast, nationwide resurgence as servicemen and women return from abroad; and amid all sorts of social dislocation in America; and with matriculation soaring at the University of Texas at Austin, the editor of the Caller, the church newsletter of University Christian Church in Austin TX sits down to write a major article, a retrospective, entitled “Texas Bible Chair Has Given Bible Instruction For 42 Years.” The editor? None other than our own Fred Webster who graduated from this earthly plane to heaven just over 5 years ago now. Fred was a student at U. T. in 1947, and already active in the life of this 1 yr. old congregation.
Fred wrote, “The idea of the [Texas Bible] Chair was conceived by Mrs. M.M. Blanks of Lockhart [great-grandmother of our own Bill Hilgers] as a means for university students of all denominations to be trained in the teaching of the Bible. It was Mrs. Blanks’, too, whose generosity largely made the chair possible, giving around $30,000 for the buildings.”
Fred’s article then went along to speak of the powerful leadership of the Texas Bible Chair by Dr. Frank Jewett who had retired the previous summer. Jewett had spent 41 “tremendously valuable years in shaping the religious education program at the university.” During those years, the Texas Bible Chair had witnessed the growth of the university from some 800 students in the year 1905 to the expected 18,000 students in the 1947-48 school year. Each year the Texas Bible Chair had offered scholarly, non-doctrinal classes open to all University students – for University credit, if they so registered – on subjects such as “The Life and Teachings of Jesus.”
Jump forward 55 years to 2002. It was then 14 years ago, our current Caller newsletter editor, Sue Williams wrote her own retrospective of the closely connected histories of the Texas Bible Chair and University Christian Church. Sue had just had the rare experience few of us are blessed with, the chance to spend a goodly number of hours going through the UCC archives that Nancy Bessent and the History Council so assiduously maintain just off our Fellowship Hall. Sue was stirred to write an inspiring multipart serialized presentation that captures some of the drama and excitement that accompanied the launch of UCC and the then 56 years of life shared here.
In her article Sue picked up where Fred Webster left off: “Dr. Jewett retired after 41 years, and Dr. Paul Wassenich became director [of the Bible Chair] in 1946. Dr. Wassenich and his wife, Ruth, shared their [Texas Bible Chair] residence with students and created an exciting atmosphere for study and fellowship. They were the kind of people who would (and did) use their honeymoon to take sixty children to Colorado for a 3-month summer camp. …Students would gather at the Wassenich residence for evenings of fun, supper, and round-table discussions.”
“In September, a group composed of some UT librarians, local religious and civic leaders, and UT students suggested that a campus church was needed to reach and serve UT’s Disciples of Christ students numbering about 750.”
It was bold idea that required and obtained equally bold commitments. Disciples Student Fellowship and student members worked side by side with adult members of the young congregation. During the first year of the drive to finance the building of this fine Sanctuary, these stalwarts pledged $750,000 in today’s dollars. It was astounding.
Everyone was engaged, Bill Hilgers would later reflect on those early days saying, “Everybody got into it; everybody was really an enthusiastic participant. There were no outsiders or no bystanders.”
From the very beginning this church was clearly going to become more than a local endeavor because it had more than a local mission. Sue Williams wrote “Hyde Park Christian Church gave UCC its first hymnals as a gift. It was also supportive of its members who chose to start attending UCC. Many other members came from Central Christian Church. Virtually every week, several new members joined the church.”
The State Convention of Christian Churches, what would become our Southwest Region, came to UCC’s support by adopting the “$10 Plan” encouraging other Texas churches whose members had left to attend UT a $10 contribution to UCC to help provide for their student’s spiritual nurture.
All this at the beginning of this new church. Would that we had more time to celebrate all the education, all the Christian nurture, all the learning, all the inspiration, all the Outreach Ministry in this community all the way to the far reaches of this God’s world, all the devotion and all the faithful work of the saints empowered by and guided by God’s spirit stretching over the following 70 years. You will have the opportunity to take in some more of this Good News story when you see the displays and pictorial presentation in the Fellowship Hall’s reception after our worship this morning.
Let us recall what we have heard from our Ephesians Scripture this morning:
“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance….
That God…” may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation ….so that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you”
“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” and that inheritance is this particular place, these particular people, and this particular mission. This inheritance is a trust passed to us from these forbearers and it for those who will follow after us.
Let us not forget the mission to which we were called. 110 years after Mrs. Blanks and others set us all on the road to a spearhead a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) witness right at the doorstep of the University of Texas, there are more students with more needs, than ever. What will they discover here at UT?
That secularization has the last word?
That there is no place for faith at the University of Texas?
Or that the most common form of Christianity, a narrow and doctrinal form, to which most all those students have been exposed, is the only live option for them?
No, sister and brother, NO! There is another way, a way that honors thoughtful faith, devoted service, and a deepening spirituality. This way does not insist that it has all the truth or the only truth, and it doesn’t allow you to check your brain at the door. Here you do not absorb another’s theology. Here you do your own creative faith building. You make it yours. And by doing so, you make it real! My hunch is that if we can get the word out next door that the folks in here have a relevant, thoughtful faith, they’ll come. And it is, I suggest, both our mandate and our mission to do so!
I think that today’s UT students, hungry for integrity and intimacy, can smell out what is missing in much of shallow Christianity that so frequently surrounds them today. We need to offer an alternative vision.
Look around at the other university churches surrounding the University of Texas, and then at churches surrounding other large public University campuses around the country. Look there for some blueprint, some model for how it is that in the 21st century a congregation can reach help reach the University with a relevant to and engaging word. Look around the nation and you won’t find the blazing successes of the 1940’s. There is no such blueprint. It will not be nearly so easy as it was at one time in the past to involve others. What we find is that the Society and the University have changed so much; we in the churches haven’t yet figured out yet how to respond.
Does that mean we give up?
No! Again, I say, no! When Mrs. Blanks hungered for an opportunity to bring careful study of the Bible to the University of Texas, she didn’t stop simply because it was not an easy road ahead? Even though no one in Texas, anywhere in Texas, had done what she intended to do here, she forged ahead.
It’s not a time for hiding from the difficult task of relating to this university and its students. We stand clearly in the line of those whose mission, whose call, is to reach out to them. It will take some creativity. It may take a few more failures. It’s definitely going to take courage. It’s going to take energy, and some wholehearted commitment from whoever here this morning is the 21st century incarnation of Mrs. M. M. Blanks, of Lawrence Bash, of Ruth Wassenich, or Windy Savage.
This is our calling. This is Our Story. This is who we are, University Christian Church. May God continue to bless us on this amazing journey. Amen.