The Place of Strength and Gladness

By Clarence Reidenbach, Ph.D., D.D.
Centennial Sermon | December 11, 1960

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Transcribed sermon as preached by Pastor Reidenbach

The Place of
Strength and Gladness

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The Place of Strength and Gladness
I Chronicles 16:27 “. . . strength and gladness are in his place.”

There is good reason why this verse of Scripture is an appropriate text for this anniversary celebration. It is the verse that is engraved as the motto text on the corner stone of the church building. It was written in a time of religious celebration; the ark was being brought to the sacred place in Jerusalem. It expresses a spirit that has been characteristic of this church. The religion of this people has been practical and helpful. Piety has been thought of in terms of what it can do. Religion is a producer, and it produces strength and gladness.

Anyone wants strength. A boy likes to show his muscle to his dad, and he is mighty proud when his arm is bigger and harder than his father’s. As he grows older, he wants to increase not only in stature but also in wisdom and in social and spiritual height.

We learn to appreciate spiritual strength for our cares, troubles, and duties. Here is a woman who knows the strain of toil and the fret of care in the homely daily round. Perhaps some husband, wife or child has given disappointment. Some boy or girl is worried about school grades or a place in social life. Someone has realized that an incurable disease has stolen upon him or that his health is not going to be again what it has been. Death comes into the family or the circle of friendship. Years ago, I received a letter from a friend, and this is what it said: “I have experienced a real bereavement in the loss of my beautiful, charming, brilliant young sister. I have thought of many of the things you told us in your Easter sermons and other sermons about this theme of immortality. I am convinced that the preparation of the mind through years of thinking it all out before you have to feel the actual sting of death and give the Invisible that which has been far dearer to you than yourself, is exceedingly worth while. I pity those indeed who have to meet its impact with no such preparation. And even more do I thank those of our ministers who prepare us for the deep, hard experiences of life with their messages, and will not let us run onto them unprepared. I thought it might make you happy to know that in the time of need, when the winds and the storms came, the house that you had helped to build stood.” Businessmen have the thousand and one worries of management. Many of us have to wrestle with the powers of wickedness. If we have no unusually great temptations, we still have all the little and big problems in our dispositions. And beyond all this, we want that surplus of spiritual strength and energy that is needed for the abundant life of service.

Where does a man get this kind of strength? He gets it from his inner resources. A living soul is what makes a man a man, and that is where he gets the strength of manhood. The soul is fashioned unto strength. Let us make a covenant of courage with our souls.

Religion makes strength. The Puritan fathers were as rugged as the coast to which they came. I have observed a good many people in tribulation, and I have been encouraged by the way in which the truly religious people have taken it. Any earnest man would be able to say, “I am a debtor to my religion. It has put more into me than I have put into it.”

Strong faith makes strong men. Perfect faith, like perfect love, casts out fear. Many a man after a trial of trouble can say what the psalmist said, “I had fainted, unless I had believed.” Coleridge, who made so great a place in literature, devoted the latter part of his life to writing about religion. He called the Bible a book of power. It is a rugged book.

Jesus is the strong Son of God. We can thank Paul for having said it for us that “I can do all things through him who strengthened me.” God is a Power. When God enters a life, he brings his strength. Let us put on the armor of God. We shall not fail while God and the soul stand sure.

This church has had strength. It has had strength for growth. Those original seventeen members asked for no financial help; they supported their minister and their church activities, and made a gift for missions in their very first year. They knew how to give, and their descendants have not forgotten that art.

There has been moral strength here. The fathers had standards, and expected to observe them. The early church manuals made provision for discipline. It goes to show that the observance of the moral laws was taken in a serious way.

The church has had a surplus of energy that has enabled it to do work reaching beyond itself. Its history contains the record of the founding of a line of other Congregational and community churches. When the Pacific School of Religion was founded, this church shared generously in the establishment of the first professorship and in the purchase of the grounds. Few churches have had the opportunity to do more for the fellowship to which they belong than this church has had. ‘

The church and the community grew together. In 1860, Oakland had just about as many people as our present membership. From a little acorn a mighty Oakland has grown. At the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, Dr. R. E. Cole stated that one of the chief reasons that they wanted a church was to help make a better community. They opposed unrighteousness. They founded or took a strong part in founding and maintaining a noble line of benevolent organizations, such as the Ladie's Relief Society, Fabiola Hospital, Chabot Home, the West Oakland Home, the King’s Daughters’ Home, the Young Men's Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Associated Charities, and others. An unusual opportunity for helpfulness came with the San Francisco fire. This has indeed been a fellowship of those who cared. Good men and good women have worshipped here, and have gone out to be parts of the roots, trunk, and branches of the businesses, homes, and total structure of this community. There has been strength in this place.

Anyone wants gladness too. Who would refuse a strong spirit and a merry heart? Jesus wants us to have gladness. He came forth that we might have life, and be saved from sin, death, and wretchedness. He would never have given his life to make men unhappy. God wants gladness. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of heaven, not a kingdom of hell where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Religion deals with sadness as well as with weakness. All those who are sad have something to find in it.

There are things that threaten gladness, and they are not primarily the things that the world first thinks of, loss of money and all that. On the night of the last supper, Jesus gave thanks when he did not have what so many of us think we must have in order to be thankful.

The loss of faith makes men sad. Paul wrote of faith, hope, and love. Faith stands before hope, and is a foundation for it. The most hopeless men that I have ever heard of—some of them have written books-——have been men who could not believe in a world in which God is supreme. The writer of Ecclesiastes was depressed because he did not believe that life could mean very much. The man who goes into the land of unfaith might testify, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Sin threatens gladness. We might just as well use the short and pointed word; we still have some sin in the world. Sorrow does not threaten gladness as much as sin does. The strength of death is sin. The liturgies speak of miserable sinners. If a man is going to be a sinner, he is in truth going to be a miserable sinner.

The lack of great interests makes drab lives. Ruskin said that noble seriousness was required for great literature. It is also required for great living. The greatest tragedy would be for life to be all comedy. Selfishness makes little and crabbed men. When a man lives for himself alone, he has not much to live for. One has to have something real and earnest to live for in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

We get gladness from the same sources as those from which we get strength. It is not in the abundance of things that we possess. Nor is it merely in pleasure and sports; they are not enough. The happiest people that I have known have been people who had treasures of the kind that moths and rust and thieves could not touch.

Gladness does not grow on trees. It grows in living hearts. If there were no living creatures, there would be no happiness in the world. The jesters of the old kings could not make them laugh, if there was no laughter in their hearts. The worst kind of depression is to have the spirit depressed.

George Eliot once raised the question, “Can a true Christian consistently smile?” The Jews celebrated their religion with festivals, glad days, just as we are doing now. The book of Ecclesiastes is a very small part of the Bible. Paul laid it on his church people that it was their duty to rejoice. The early Christians were crusaders of the abounding heart. Saint Francis believed that we should “take care not to appear long—faced, gloomy, or over-pious; but that we should be joyous about our faith in God.” The manual of this church published in 1866 had a list of questions by which the church member was to examine himself. One of them was, “Do I enjoy religion?” and obviously the right answer was, “Yes.”

There is in existence what claims to be an actual description of Jesus. Some of it sounds plausible, but Christians know that it is an imposture because it says that Christ never smiled. The life of Jesus began and ended on the note of joy. “Joy to the world.” “My joy I leave with you.” According to Mark, when Jesus went to raise the daughter of Jairus, and found those who made a tumult of weeping and wailing, he put them all forth. In other words, he got rid of the mourners. He wanted people to enter into the joy of their Lord.

When God made the world, he looked at it, saw that it was good, and enjoyed it. There ought to be a legend of a master singer who sang songs of such splendor that men wondered at them and asked for their source. The answer might be, “I can sing the songs you love to hear because God has sung to me.” God speaks to us, but he also sings. Those who learn to trust in God learn to-capture a song, and it ends in a hallelujah chorus.

The good life is a glad life. It is said that the good die young, and how true it is. The good do die young, for they are always young; they flourish in immortal youth. Gladness is not in high living, and it is certainly not in low living; it is in living on the level, living where one walks with Jesus.

This church has had gladness. There are memories of glad hours of fellowship. There have been friendly organizations for young people, middle-aged people, and older people. And there have been joys to which it is hard to apply arithmetic or the narrative method. It is written of one man in our history that his feet so had the habit that they simply took him to the church and that he went along with them. There have been those who enjoyed moving sermons just as much as others have enjoyed moving pictures. Men and women have gathered in the house of God to find their souls, to be established in faith, to discover Christ, to wait upon God, and to go forth to lives of joyful service. There has been gladness in this place.

We rejoice in what we stand for, and now we add to our rejoicing by the celebration of one hundred years of useful and happy life. The birthday of the church was two days ago. It all began on December 9, 1860. Our church was one of the infants that survived and grew up. A centennial is rather special. In a way, a church is like a man. The twenty-fifth birthday is full of energy and hope, the fiftieth is an evidence of maturity. The seventy-fifth is a time of satisfaction in the length of years. I had a hand in our seventy-fifth. But a century of existence is really something special. I remember how much my grandfather had been thrilled over having gone back to Philadelphia for the centennial celebration of our nation’s independence. Our church is celebrating its centennial.

One can notice how some businesses take pride in advertising the fact that they have been in business for a long time. “Established in such and such a year.” People have confidence in the institution or virtue that lasts. One of the best things that Paul had to say about love was that it lasts. Consistency and durability are impressive. In order to go on and on, anything has to do good work and serve a purpose.

In the past, others have labored, and we have entered into their labors. The story of the past is told in the centennial history book, and there is no need to retell it here. I do like to recall, however, that we are the latest in a long line of living people who have been the members of this church. Up to now, there have been 8,796 of them. As I stand here, I see a great cloud of witnesses, quite a few of whom I used to see bodily in those pews.

But right now we are the active members of the church. The present and, to a certain extent, the future, depend on us. In our time, we are making traditions. We are pioneers to those who will come after us. In years to come, I am convinced; our descendants will be able to celebrate the good old days of 1960. This is a viable church. In recent years, we have added to our building, for religious education. We rejoice every week in our magnificent Sanctuary organ, and in our Chapel organ, both generously given to us. In the last twenty-five-year span, we have received from donors what we needed in stained-glass windows to add to the ones that we had already enjoyed. We have received many other memorial gifts, as well as bequests to our Endowment Fund, and other gifts to beautify the church or add to its usefulness. We have been receiving regularly one hundred or more new members every year. That would be about 2800 in the last twenty-five years. It is impressive to note how many Sundays there are on which families bring their little ones here to be dedicated in baptism. Folks bring their children and young people here to our Church School and young peoples’ societies, knowing that the training they receive will be of the best. The Women’s League is, as always, a focal point of strength, and we have a flourishing Men’s Club, as well as a Couples’ Club. We are proud of our young married women's group, and our group of business and professional women. Year after year, we have given ten percent or more of our income for benevolences. Many folks know that they can come here for counseling on their personal and family problems, and they have done so. We have, at both our morning services, solid and steady worshipping congregations of people from all parts of Oakland and beyond. A church like this is like a heart pumping good blood out into the body of the community. I read recently that beavers are animals that grow as long as they live. We are alive, and we shall keep on growing because we are alive.

The church is here, and it has been here a long time. But why is it here at all? Some people put it here. Where did they get it? Some people of an earlier generation gave it to them. Where did that earlier generation get it? We know where these questions lead. They lead all the way back to Jesus Christ himself. We are here because of what Jesus did almost two thousand years ago. One hundred years is a long time, but it becomes short when we think of all the centuries that the spirit of the living Christ has been working in the world. It fills me with awe to think that the Christian life that touched mine was touched by an earlier life, and that one by an earlier, and so on, until it gets all the way back to one of those lives in the Bible touched by Jesus, and so to Jesus himself. There is a centuries-long life-line, life unto life, life unto life, that reaches all the way from the Master himself to us. That is why there is a Christian church here. Dr. Mooar’s first sermon in the First Congregational Church, of Oakland, California, was on Christ. We owe our spiritual lives, our strength and gladness, and our sacred loyalties to Jesus Christ, the one foundation of the living church.

A century closes; the church continues. We celebrate the past. What traditions and heritage we have! We rejoice in this day; it has its own intrinsic value. We also salute the future. We people here today, you and I, are the ones who have the honor of carrying this church, as the Hebrews carried the ark of God, into its second century. 0ur- faces and feet are not put on backwards; they point towards the front; it is actually easier to walk forward than backward. We have to live in the future, and we should live in it worthily. We must enter into both our heritage and our opportunity, and we can do it. We have our problems, as any church has in a changing city of today, but we have our joys and successes too. As in Corinth in Paul’s time, the Lord still has much people in this city. We have our resources of spirit and faith. We have the same God as our fathers had. We have the very Lord who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Apostle Paul would surely pardon us for changing his words a bit and saying that “not forgetting the things which are behind, we stretch forward to the things which are before, and press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."