Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Going Back To Where It All Began

Last Sunday, my wife and children and I went back to the church where I began my pastoral ministry - St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Massillon, Ohio. The church has been celebrating its 150 years of ministry over the past year, inviting back pastors and interns who have served there. I was the 11th of 12 guest preachers on the docket for the year, serving as the warm-up act for the bishop of their synod who is preaching next month. So many memories and emotions flooded through me as I prepared for the trip there, and so many more during our time there on Sunday.

It was great to go back to the place I was called to serve so many years ago. I was called to St. Paul's right out of seminary in June of 1990 as their Associate Pastor, focusing much of my time and energy on youth ministry. What a blessing it was to see some of those kids that were in my confirmation classes and youth group at worship this past weekend. Many of them have kids of their own that they are now raising in the Christian faith.

I started off my sermon by telling them in preparation for coming back to preach, I looked through some of my old sermons that I preached some 20 years ago, and I told them I had only one thing I wanted to say to them - I am sorry! Some of those sermons were not very good! But grace abounds, and over time, I guess it isn't the bad ones that are remembered. Or maybe they were just being nice and not mentioning those.

The memories came flooding in. I remembered baptisms, funerals and weddings, Christmas programs and youth events. I remembered Easter egg hunts and making hardtack candy in the basement kitchen. I remembered youth group meetings and Sunday school classes, confirmation classes and camp retreats, youth gatherings and Bible studies. So many memories from just five and a half years of ministry there.

 What struck me so vividly this past weekend is the influence we have on people that can and will last for years to come. I realized first of all the influence those years had on my ministry. It was at this congregation that I was given an opportunity to serve and try new things, and preach some sermons that were less than stellar, but also some that people still remembered 20 years later (in a positive way!). It was at this congregation my wife and children were nurtured and grew. It was at this congregation that I came to a clearer understanding of what it means to be a pastor. This congregation has had a great influence on me.

I also came to see the influence our ministry can have on others. LET ME STATE HERE CLEARLY - it is not all about ME! As a pastor, I am called to be the vessel by which the Word of God is proclaimed and the Sacraments administered. This is most certainly true. My call is to point to Jesus Christ, and to proclaim Christ crucified and risen. That being said, I was deeply moved by the words of thanks and appreciation from the parents and kids I served. Through social media, especially Facebook, I have been able to keep in touch with some of the members of the church, especially the youth (former youth, I should say), and I am so thankful to see how many of these continue on in their faith journey.

For me, this weekend affirmed how vitally important it is to give our children the encouragement and tools for growing in the faith. At the baptismal font, we make promises to raise our children to grow in faith and in relationship with God and others. What a daunting responsibility. What a great opportunity. We are to be the ones who nurture and teach and encourage our children (God's children) in their walk with Jesus Christ.

St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, who were arguing over which leader they should follow. This was causing divisions in the church. The people took up sides - some claimed to be followers of Paul and some followers of Apollos, who was a leader from Alexandria that was also a leader of the church in Paul's day. So Paul shared these words with the church:
...When one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:4-11)

We have been given good news, and good news MUST be shared. Don't think your words or actions are in vain. We plant. We water. God WILL provide the growth. Thank God for the opportunity to work in His vineyard!

Some pictures from our trip back to Massillon.




What a Pulpit - I love preaching up there!



Son Andrew, Wife Lisa, Son-In-Law Brad, Daughter Bethany and Me


Ben is one of the "kids" I confirmed some 20 years ago!



Peace,
Pastor Charlie







Monday, September 15, 2014

In The Band

We needed another guitar player for this Sunday's service. There is a guitar in the corner of my office that has been gathering dust for the past few months. I can play guitar - not with the skill and expertise of many of our Praise Band members, to say the least. But I can play some chords and keep the rhythm for the most part. I was planning to be at the services anyway - why not? 

So I dusted off the guitar and tuned it up. I printed out the music and started practicing. I realized it had been a while - the fingers didn't move as easily as they had years ago, and the calluses on my fingers had long since softened. But I kept at it, and on Sunday, I got to play in the band. I admit, I missed a few chords, got lost more than once, and the chords I played were not always right, but as I often say, "Grace Abounds!" No, it was not a stellar event, and no one rushed the stage or asked for my autograph afterwards (not like that was going to happen anyway!). But it was good to be a part of the band. Together we made music as an offering to God, and led the congregation in worship. 

We all have gifts we can offer - everyone of us. These are gifts from God. We give thanks to God for what God has done for us by using these gifts to share the message of God's great love and forgiveness with others. The American writer - Henry David Thoreau, spoke about the responsibility that comes with our having received talents and abilities from God. He retold today's parable to get at this point:

Once there was a king who had three sons, each with a special talent. The first had a talent for growing fruit. The second for raising sheep. And the third for playing the violin. Once, the king had to go overseas on important business. Before departing he called his three sons together and told them he was depending on them to keep the people contented in his absence. Now for a while things went well. But then came the winter, a bitter and cruel winter it was. There was an acute shortage of firewood. Thus the first son was faced with a very difficult decision. Should he allow the people to cut down some of his beloved fruit trees for firewood? When he saw the people shivering with cold, he finally allowed them to do so.

The second son was also faced with a difficult decision. Food became very scarce. Should he allow the people to kill some of his beloved sheep for food? When he saw the children crying for hunger, his heart went out to them and he allowed them to kill some of the sheep.. Thus the people had firewood for their fires, and food for their tables.

Nevertheless the harsh winter continued to oppress them. Their spirits began to sag, and there was no one to cheer them up. They turned to the fiddler, but he refused to play for them. In the end things got so bad that in desperation many of them emigrated.

Then one day the king arrived back home. He was terribly sad to find that many of his people had left his kingdom. He called in his three sons to give an account of what had gone wrong. The first said, "Father, I hope you won't be mad at me, but the winter was very cold and so I allowed the people to cut down some of the fruit trees for firewood." And the second son said, "Father, I hope you won't be mad with me because when food got scarce I allowed the people to kill some of my sheep." On hearing this, far from being angry, the father embraced his two sons, and told them that he was proud of them. Then the third son came forward carrying his fiddle with him.

"Father", he said, "I refused to play because you weren't here to enjoy the music." "Well then", said the king, "play me a tune now because my heart is full of sorrow." The son raised the violin and bow, but found that his fingers had gone stiff from lack of exercise. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get them to move. Then the father said, "You could have cheered up the people with your music, but you refused. If the kingdom is half-empty, the fault is yours. But now you can no longer play. That will be your punishment." (Henry David Thoreau)

I shared this story in a sermon at my previous church. I know at least one person was listening to me. She stopped on the way out of church and said to me, "I used to play the violin when I was in college, but I haven't played since. The story you shared in your sermon was like God speaking to me, that I need to get out my violin and play for church. Do you think I can play with the praise band?" Yes, yes you can! And she did. And she still does. And what a blessing that was and is to the congregation, and to God! Because she broke out the violin again, this inspired her daughter to take up the violin as well.

I have had other people hear the invitation to use their gifts for the church to give thanks and praise to God. The junior high girl who asked if she could dance in church. While it had never been done before in that church, we made the arrangements and it happened. And what a beautiful dance it was. Then there was the third grader in another church I served who had been taking guitar lessons, and when he heard me mention using your gifts for the church (another person listening to the sermon!), he asked his Mom and Dad if he could play in our praise band. We had to make arrangements for rehearsals with him so it wasn't past his bed time, but we made it work. He was better than most of us, and played a few solo parts in our songs. The local newspaper even ran an article on him!

I share these stories with you to encourage you to consider what you can give back to God in praise and thanksgiving. We do this in response to what God has first given us - ourselves, our time and our possessions - all signs of God's gracious love. What about you? Want to join the band, or the choir, or handbells, or the puppets or the drama team or the sound tech team or...? (I could go on and on.) We would love to have you be a part of the team As one theologian put it, find what brings you the greatest joy, and seek to use it to address the world's greatest need. I believe as a church, we are called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the message the world needs to hear. May we work together, using our gifts to share the message.

Peace,

Pastor Charlie

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tears

I was moved to tears twice this past week. I am not one who cries often, but there are things that move me to tears, and it happens when I least expect it and sometimes it catches me off-guard. While there was plenty of reason for tears watching football games on Saturday, that was not the cause of my unexpected eye moisture. There were other events, including Pastor Jay Shailer's ordination (a wonderful, moving service) and time with family and friends, and a great kick-off to our youth events for the year, but these didn't move me to tears. No. Instead it was a song and a child.

Last Wednesday, my wife and I traveled down to Cincinnati with friends to see The Piano Guys in concert. I have mentioned this group in previous blogs. The group consists of a piano player and a cellist who play both classic and contemporary music, often blending the two together with precision and beauty. As a former cellist (I played from 4th grade through high school, and a little in college) I have always loved cello music. I have been a fan of cellists from Pablo Casals and Yo Yo Ma to the cellist in the 70's band Electric Light Orchestra. It was a couple years ago someone sent me a video of Piano Guys and I was hooked.

The concert was just the two guys on stage with a grand piano and three cellos which were used at different times for differing sounds. The cellist also had foot pedals that provided different sounds from his instruments, and a foot drum to boot. The different cellos were a traditional cello, a carbon cello, and an electric cello that looked like a piece of black metal bent to look like the outside border of a cello. The group has made dozens of videos, and incorporated several of them into the show as well.

I had a flashback during the concert. I remembered learning to play the cello, with pieces of tape on the neck of the cello to teach me where my fingers were supposed to be. That was the first step. Later as I advanced to more difficult music, it was time to learn different positions along the fingerboard to play higher notes and different sounds. This is a talent I never felt I mastered. I would try to get close, then try to listen to see if I needed to adjust my fingering to make the note sound better. A good vibrato would help as well - wiggle around the note til you find it!

What amazed me more than anything else was the precision and clarity of the music, especially from the cellist. His ability to play that instrument, moving along the fingerboard with ease and confidence gave me the pleasure of hearing beautiful sounds I have never heard before. And when they played the song "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables in honor of all who serve in the military and their families, the tears came. Here is a video of the Piano Guys. I can assure you, the beauty of the song on this video was just as lovely in person as it is here.



There are many things that show us the handiwork of God. Music is one of them, is it not? Thank you God for music!

The second occasion for the tears to flow was at the baptismal font to celebrate and welcome Ella Christine into the Body of Christ - the family of God. I was doing fine until I took Ella into my arms to share God's peace with her, and introduce her to the congregation. In my arms I was holding a blessing of God, whose life was given as a gift from God. And at the font, the promises of God were given to her. What a blessing it is to be the one who shares this message and is the one who administers the sacrament.

There are many things that show us the handiwork of God. The beauty and joy of new life is one of them, is it not? Thank you God for life.

I learned from my Dad that tears are not something of which we should be ashamed. It is a part of who God made us to be. Than you God for tears.

Peace,

Pastor Charlie

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Let's Call It Worship

My first introduction into the Lutheran church was in college. Up to that time, I had been an active member of a Congregational church with my family back home in Royal Oak, Michigan. When I went away to Central Michigan University, there were no Congregational churches near campus. So my high school friend invited me to go to church with him. Chip was a life-long Lutheran, and had received a letter from the pastor at the Lutheran chapel on campus inviting him to worship. The first Sunday, even before classes started, we attended the 11 a.m. service (talk about catering to college students!). What caught my attention that first day in this new denomination was the liturgy and flow of the service. The pastor knew there had to be many like me in the pews not familiar with the service and flow, so he took time to explain a different part of the service each week. Being a person who likes structure, I was sold!

After a few weeks of attending this church, Chip and I were invited to a hayride and party with the New Song Folk Group. This was a student-led group that led worship once a month or so at the chapel, as well as travel to churches around the state of Michigan about once a month to lead worship. We decided to give it a try. We were soon heavily involved in the group, and to this day, we have several friends from that group. In fact, it was in this group that I met my wife! But that is another story for another blog.

In this folk group, we used a couple of different liturgies, including the Chicago Folk Service and others that were created by members of the group. I remember one of the settings used song tunes from Peter, Paul and Mary. We had guitars and piano and an occasional flute or violin. We also would, from time to time, lead a "Clown Service." That is ALSO another story for another blog. Yes, back in 1981, we were "cutting edge" to say the least! Yet the thing that drew me into the Lutheran church was still there - the flow and the structure.

I remember back in my previous church when we started the conversation of adding an alternative service to our two traditional offerings. I invited any and all who wished to be a part of the conversation to come to a jam session and bring their music and instruments. Several showed up, including a teenage member of the church and his two friends with their electric guitars and drums and speakers - when they played, the stained glass windows shook! On the other side of the circle was June, the retired organist with her auto-harp. My comment? Can we find something in between? Over time, we did.

We find ourselves in the church still seeking and trying different ways of offering worship. Technology, worship slides and projection, more instruments and recorded tracks continue to come along and evolve. In some churches, it is quite a production, with fog machines, bright lights and special effects. For other churches, it may be a couple of guitars and a singer. We also are blessed with a rich history of music and hymnody, liturgy and song in the Lutheran church. We are blessed to be able to offer a variety of worship styles.

So what do we call it? Do we call the hymns and organ service "Traditional Worship" and the guitar, pianos and drum service "Contemporary Worship?" What happens when the songs we sing in the contemporary service are older than some of the hymns we sing in the traditional worship? Should it be called "formal" and "casual?" Does that mean there is a dress code for one and not the other? How about calling the guitar, piano, drum service a Praise service? Well, that is all well and good, but we are told in Ecclesiastes that there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. So do we cancel the praise worship on those days of mourning?

Here's my thought: let's just call it worship. Maybe we can designate it by the time of the service, or the instruments used, or the location it is being held (outdoor worship this summer was not a good title, was it? So many rain days.) No matter the title, it is still worship. In the newsletter article for this week, I share my vision for the Praise/Contemporary/Casual worship service at Epiphany. What I believe is important is the distinct flow and structure to worship, no matter the style or the place.

Worship is about coming into the presence of God, with the people of God. We gather, confessing our sins, and are assured of God's forgiveness. We hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and the sermon and in the words of the music we sing. We sing together as the people of God as an offering to God (I remember the story of a parishioner telling the pastor that he didn't care for one of the hymns for that Sunday. The pastor said, "That's alright. We weren't singing it for you!"). We confess together as the body of Christ gathered in one place our faith in the words of the Creed. We offer our prayers to God, and listen for God's will to be spoken to us. In response to God's great gifts for us, we offer these gifts back to God for God's service. And then we receive the greatest gift of all - the gift of God himself in the meal - given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Fed and nourished, we are sent out to face the week to come, ready to serve as we have been so equipped. That is what worship is all about. And what we strive to do is to offer God our very best.

So let's call it worship. One service may draw you in more than another, and that is okay. What a blessing it is that we can offer a variety, so that more people may be drawn to be a part of the community. May we give to God our worship and praise. May our worship be a sweet, sweet sound unto His ear!

Peace,
Pastor Charlie

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Creatures of Habit

So how did your day begin? I would venture a guess to say it was probably pretty similar to how yesterday began, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day...  We are creatures of habit. After waking up and taking care of business, so to speak, it's time to let the dog out of her crate, walk with her to the back door so she can do HER business. Then she comes inside and stretches - it looks like she is bowing down to worship the dish where her food will soon be. I put half of her breakfast into the bowl and place it on the floor. While she eats that, I get my orange juice and granola bar. Then I give the dog the second half of her food. And so it goes. Really, it doesn't get any more exciting as the morning goes on, so I will stop the illustration here.

We are creatures of habit. We often park in the same space at work, have a routine of what to do when we enter the office, have a set time and place for breaks and meals. We listen to the same programs, read the same articles, blogs or newspapers, watch the same shows. We get into a routine and we like to follow it. I know there are many parents who are excited to have their kids back in school for MANY reasons, but often mentioned (and I remember it was true in our house as well when the kids were younger) is that it will be good to get back into a routine.

Of course, this happens in church, too. You all have assigned seats, and you know it. Now I know there are some radicals out there who like to sit in different places each week, but isn't that a routine as well? I will tell you I appreciate that you have your assigned seats, because the better I get to know you, the easier it is to take attendance! When I preach a sermon five times on a weekend, I have it down pretty well, so I can take time to look at you, while you are looking at me, or reading the bulletin, or checking for cracks in the eyelids. In fact, I can tell when someone comes into church before a service and I see that someone else is already in their spot - I linger to see what they are going to do. Hopefully we are gracious and welcoming. And as a side note, if that ever happens, there are some GREAT seats up front available - you can see what's going on, and you will be guaranteed to be first in line for communion!

I remember from my high school psychology class that habits are important for us to form for they help us in function each day without the necessity of thinking about every detail and decision. Since we have a habit or routine, those decisions are already made for us. We can focus on the other details, and find comfort in the routine.

As we gear up for another season of football, we will be following routines and habits as fans cheering on our teams. There may be routines you follow on game day - pulling out your Buckeye gear for the day, preparing to watch the game in your favorite seat with your favorite food. For many of us there is a routine. And if you were to attend a game, you would find that there are routines you are encouraged to follow. When to stand, when to take off your hat, when to spell O-H-I-O with your arms, and the liturgy of the fans. You know it - when you hear, "O-H" please respond "I-O."  In Massillon, Ohio where I first served at St. Paul Lutheran, the High School Massillon Tigers are a big thing. And when you hear "T-I-G" the correct response is "E-R-S." There is a routine. We expect it, and we appreciate it. And when someone new arrives, we encourage them to follow along.

And so it is with the church. We have a set pattern, a flow, a routine. At Epiphany Lutheran Church, it is the simple pattern of Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending. This pattern is the same no matter which service you attend. We gather in the name of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We confess our sins, and we celebrate our reconciliation with God and others. We hear the Word of God in scripture and song and sermon. We offer thanks to God in response to this good news, and receive God's offering to us in the meal - the body and blood of Jesus in, with and under the bread and wine. We sing praises to God and are sent out serve the Lord. I believe this habit and routine is important, for it allows us to focus on the message. In our familiar seat, with a familiar flow, our hearts and minds can focus on God.

Instead of kicking the habit, embrace it. There is peace and comfort in the routine. What are some habits you might consider adding to your routine to let God speak to you each day?

Peace,

Pastor Charlie

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lessons from the Back of the Canoe

Last week, my wife and I took a day off together and went canoeing on the Little Miami River. Our wedding anniversary was earlier in the month, but didn't have time to spend together that day, so we made plans for this day trip and celebrated a couple weeks late. It was a beautiful day, and even though the river is a bit low, and we had a couple of times we did get stuck and needed to get out and portage a bit, we had a great time together. We enjoy canoeing together, and plan to go again in the future.

Traveling down the river, I thought that it might be a good exercise for couples to get into a canoe and head down a river as part of their pre-marriage counseling. What a great opportunity to see how well you are going to work together, how well you listen to each other, and how well you deal with the rocks and rapids along the way. (I also thought a good pre-marriage exercise would be to have the couple wall-paper a room together. If the two come out still talking to each other, then we proceed with the wedding!)

Here are some lessons I have learned from the back of the canoe that apply to married life. I imagine you may have more - I would love for you to share them with me.

  • We are both in the same boat. Genesis and the Gospels are where we find the words that, in marriage, two become one. While we are still individuals who make up this new union, we are together in the same boat.
  • Paddling is encouraged! It is one thing to get in the boat. It is another to do the work of paddling. Using your paddle provides an opportunity to move forward, and to guide the boat along the river and away from obstacles.
  • Same boat, but different roles. Depending on where you sit in the canoe, your role is different. The front of the boat is the person who should be on the lookout for obstacles and which direction might be best to head for smooth sailing. The person in the back of the canoe is the one who steers. This one has the ability to turn the canoe and hopefully head it in the right direction
  • These two roles should not be attempted from the opposite location! If you have ever been in a canoe with a director in the back, or the person in front attempting to steer, it is not pretty.
  • Listening is strongly encouraged. The person in front needs to listen to the person in back if he or she needs the front person to paddle on one side, or stop paddling on the other side. The person in back needs to hear about dangers and obstacles along the way. 
  • Trust is vitally important. Trusting your partner to do their role is the only way you will make it on the river.
  • You can change positions in the boat! It might be good to head to shore to do this, but the roles are interchangeable. It might be that one is better at one role than another, but that doesn't mean it always has to be that way.
  • Sometimes you still run into the rocks. No matter the warnings, the paddling, the use of that paddle as a rudder, the work and effort put into it, sometimes you still hit rocks or a branch. And sometimes you don't see the rocks until you hit them. How you respond to those times might be more telling than all others!
  • You might tip. It happens. We get wet, and we end up in the water. But the boat is still there, and you can get back in. That's forgiveness. Repentance is learning from that event, and working to make sure it doesn't happen again. (Now on the Little Miami River, we didn't tip over. It would have taken a lot of effort for that to happen. But on other rivers, we have found ourselves in the water.)
  • Calm waters and white water are a part of the journey. There is time for calm and peace, and there are always going to be rough places along the way. Instead of avoiding them, it is best to work through them together.
  • It is all a journey. And what a wonderful journey it is. And how wonderful it is to spend the journey together. 
30 years in the boat together, and I give thanks to God for my co-captain and paddling partner. I am thankful for the journey.

Some pictures from our canoeing trip last year.










Peace,
Pastor Charlie






Monday, August 11, 2014

Alive and Well

A friend of mine posted an article by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on Facebook last week. Below, I have copied that post for this week's blog. I echo her call to stop talking about the dying church. Our focus is to be on the Savior who is alive and well! That is what we are called to proclaim. That is what it means to be the church.

Here is the post:

"Stop Saying the Church is Dying (a sermon for the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly)" by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

A week ago I was fortunate enough to be standing near a cliff in Cappadocia, Turkey taking in the view of hundreds of caves carved from volcanic rock in an alien looking valley. My friend Sara asked what I was thinking about. When I confessed that I was worrying about preaching at my Synod’s assembly next week, Sara didn’t hesitate to remind me sarcastically,  “Oh, you mean that little text on how Jesus tells us not to worry?”

So, yeah, nothing like worrying about preaching a sermon on how Jesus says we should not worry to make ya feel like a schmuck.

As today got closer and closer I would tell myself  “don’t worry, just come up with a plan”. I’d read the text, call my preacher friends, pray, repeat. And I am here to say that I did not, by worrying, add a single sentence to my sermon. Not one.

But I did become curious about what worry really is. And I began to realize that, on some level, worry is nothing more than fear.  Fear that either I will not get something I want or fear that something I have will be taken away.  And both of those fears seem to be centered on finitude. The fact that nothing lasts forever.  That everything comes to an end. And Jesus says who by worrying can escape this reality? But also, worry is kind of all about scarcity…. because I don’t know about you, but I have never once worried that I would have more money than I need next month.  I have never once worried that I might be happy and healthy and live a long life.

And we come by this fear honestly in a society in which a perceived state of scarcity is what drives the free market economy.  But I think Jesus points here to a bigger reality than that.  A reality he calls the kingdom of God. A reality he always seems to describe as being like things around us that are common, and small and insignificant and unimpressive.

Which is as good a time as any to talk about the Lutheran church. It’s no news to anyone here that there is a lot of hand-wringing these days about the longevity of the Lutheran church.  And yeah – to be sure, we used to be bigger, more significant and more impressive.  Sure, we used to own more property, have more members, bring in more cash and leverage more power than we do today. It’s hard to argue with numbers. But the thing is, buildings,  numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but brothers and sisters, they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom.. I mean, were this denomination of ours a company, then for sure, investors would be scurrying for cover. But, people of God, maybe now is the time for us to take a hard look at the ways in which the church has tended to judge our success on a set of values that perhaps we had no business buying into in the first place.  Namely our society’s free-market corporate American values of what success looks like.

If that is the case, then I repeat – we came by it honestly. Swept up as we were into having banked so much cultural currency in America.  But those days have gone.  They’ve gone.

And so, what are we left with if we are no longer the Lutheran church of 1964?

We in the year of our Lord 2014 have moved our bishop’s office from a fancy office space surrounded by PR firms and media companies in the seat of Denver’s power grid and into a slightly run-down church building in an unimpressive part of town. To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” but to others it is a sign that the church is living. Perhaps our definition of success can shift more toward what is foolishness to the world and yet life to those in Christ. Buildings and budgets and social currency will fall away. But what stands is the kingdom of God. Which Jesus tells us is the Father’s good pleasure to give to us.

Society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.  That’s our main job and while we are free as the church, to participate in any number of other activities in the world that seem bigger and more impressive let’s remember:  We are those who have been, and continue to be, entrusted with nothing less than the Gospel.  And what I’m about to say is a shamelessly prideful (and being shamelessly prideful is, I have been told, “not Lutheran”) but in a world where people are constantly being fed spoonfuls of nonsense and told it is Jesus …we have a better Gospel.

So given what we’ve been entrusted with, we cannot be distracted any longer by a corporate American Empire version of success.

So let me be the first to say, if in your congregation, regardless of size, prestige or property, if the Word is preached and the Eucharist shared and water poured and forgiveness of sins received, then congratulations, your congregation is a success. So when the numbers crunchers and church consultants say the church is dying…may I suggest that we only say this when we forget what the definition of church is.

And when we forgot whose the church is.

Because as the prophet Isaiah said, the Word will do that for which God purposes it and people, regardless of what happens to institutions, and trends and property and budgets…even when the president of the United States stops inviting us to the White House Prayer breakfast – Even if there is never any such things as a White House Prayer breakfast and old church building are more often condos than centers for worship, God will be praised.  God will continue to send for the Word which God has always sent forth.  So let us step back from the worry of how the church is dying, because long after we have gone, the WORD will remain.  Long after the ELCA is gone, even when my beloved House for All Sinners and Saints is gone, the church will not be dead because people will continue to gather in the name of the Triune God, hold up bread, say it is Jesus and that it is for the forgiveness of sins. Just as we will do here tonight so will it forever be done until the time in which we gather around the throne of the Lamb.

But let’s remember this, people of the Rock Mountain Synod, that the Gospel is not just entrusted to you for you to proclaim, it is, to be sure, also intended for you to hear. So since we Christians are a forgetful people – and need to be reminded of that for which the church was even created in the first place – so…

People of God, do not worry because we have this Word-

That there is a God who created us and all that is, this same God spoke through prophets and poets, claimed a people to be God’s own and freed them from the shackles of slavery. This same God led those people through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey, and told them to always welcome the stranger and protect the foreigner so that they could remember where they came from and what God had done for them. Then in the fullness of time, and to draw ALL people to himself, God came and broke our hearts like only a baby could do and made God’s home in the womb of a fierce young woman as though God was saying, from now on this is how I want to be known. And as Jesus, God the Son kissed lepers and befriended prostitutes and baffled authority. Jesus ate with all the wrong people and on the night before he died, he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom. He held up bread and told us to do the same thing and he promised us so much: that he would be with us, that forgiveness is real, that we are God’s, that people matter and that death is done for and that after a tough resurrection, grilled fish makes an awesome breakfast.

Which is to say, God chose to enter the finitude we fear– enter into the uncertainty and danger of mortal human existence in order to point to something bigger.  Bigger than what is fleeting and finite.  In the incarnation God has given us nothing less than a small measure of eternity through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ.  And made us an Easter people – not people who vapidly pretend that everything’s ok – but people who live in the Christ reality of death and resurrection. People who live in the reality of a God who brings live things out of dead things.

I say this as someone who a week ago was hiking in those desolate valleys of Cappadocia, a land that for 1,000 years was populated with Christians and now is not. That is to say, we are not the first group of Christians to worry about the decline of Christianity.

Sara and I would climb up into caves and look around at ceilings filled with Byzantine Christian iconography. A thousand years of Christianity and now only ruins left. Yes, the big, impressive, successful Byzantine Empire fell, and yet the church of Jesus Christ did not die, if it had, how could 2 middle aged women stand in old cave church 600 years later and sing Christos Aneste? Christ is risen. A song that no matter what, will continue to be sung, because worry not, the tomb is empty, and God will be praised. Amen.

Peace,
Pastor Charlie