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A Church With Purpose


A couple of weeks ago, our local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had a feature article with this title: “Revived for New Congregations: Decommissioned houses of worship in the St. Louis area are transformed into community centers, art venues and libraries.”


The accompanying photos are striking: a young man skateboarding inside a former sanctuary, visible behind him are tall narrow windows with clear glass that probably once held stained glass, and in the photo you can see that he’s doing a skateboarding trick on some kind of rail…and from the angle of the photo, it’s hard to tell, but it might be a rail that once was used for serving communion.


Additional photos show ornate carved-wood altar pieces that have been repurposed for displaying longneck bottles of beer and glassware for cocktails. A chancel area—this space at the front of the sanctuary that’s raised up a little bit—repurposed as a performance stage (okay, maybe that’s not so much of a stretch). A roofless, windowless stone structure used as an event space. And here’s the one that shocked one of my pastor colleagues: a photo of a carved-wood confessional that is now being used as a bathroom stall, and visible in the photo is a urinal right next to it.[1]


This city is filled with historic buildings, with a population that has risen and fallen, so what’s to be done with empty buildings, including buildings that have been used as holy spaces for worship, with some recognizably religious symbols still present? The pragmatic part of our Lutheran faith would tell us, well, it’s better to be good stewards of what exists. But the part of our faith that fears God, our faith that is grounded in respect and reverence—this is what we call our piety—well, it might be challenged a bit.


And then we also wonder as we look around our own worship space, could the same thing happen here? Could this congregation, with its history stretching back over more than 100 years, eventually, at some point, have no future? How does it feel to imagine skateboarders rolling through the sanctuary?


And before you get defensive and say “Such a thing will never happen here!” let me just reread part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”[2]


Or as Micah put it so succinctly: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”[3]


Where does it say that, in order to be faithful to God, you must pray inside a building? Take note of the Gospel lesson: Jesus preaches a sermon, but I’m curious why people immediately thought it was a sermon because where was he? On a mountain. Not in a church—of course, because—holy anachronism, Batman—churches did not yet exist while Jesus was living.


But was he in a synagogue? Or even leading worship somewhere? Not all of Jesus’s speeches are sermons, are they? Sometimes he was teaching, and we just call that his teaching, but this particular speech becomes a sermon—why?


All he’s saying, at least in this beginning part of the Sermon on the Mount, is about who is blessed, and it’s weird because this is not the group of people who sound especially blessed—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and unassuming people, those who are desperate for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted! What? Is God going to flip everything and give them riches as a result of their faithfulness, as the prosperity gospel will perpetually suggest? Nope, Jesus doesn’t say that. Just rejoice in your persecutions, same as the prophets!


Now if you are strong or powerful or rich or influential, the reign of God probably will not look attractive to you. But if you notice all those groups of people Jesus calls “blessed,” someday, if it hasn’t happened already, you yourself are going to fit into one of those groups, even if you are powerful or rich or influential. Someday, the poor in spirit will be you. Someday, the one who mourns will be you. The one who has experienced some kind of injustice that leaves them hungering and thirsting for righteousness, someday that will be you.


And then what? Are you irreversibly broken, never to be redeemed? Of course not. Jesus calls you blessed. If you are willing to embrace this foolishness—our friend Paul calls it like it is, foolishness—you will learn what it means to be saved, to be set free, to be liberated into new life. That is what God is up to in the world, and you’re invited to be part of it. Jesus calls us to come and see, watch what happens and bear witness—that means tell other people what you have seen and heard.


That’s the whole thing. That’s the mission of God. It’s huge! Worldwide. Way bigger than us, sitting here in St. Louis, Missouri. The will of God will be done whether this congregation is here or not. The question is: how will we be part of God’s mission? Are we willing to trust God more than our intellect or our pride or our own ideas of what is sensible? Are we willing to take risks? Are we willing to learn from failures? Are we willing to let go of some things, reevaluate what isn’t working well, and redirect resources to make space for what God is making new? Are we willing to talk to one another, to ask big questions, to explore what are the needs in our community? Are we willing to devote our personal time, energy, resources, finances?


It’s a lot to ask. That’s why we can’t do this alone. Christian faith is lived in community—it’s super messy and inconvenient, but that’s the way it is. Our baptism makes us one in Jesus Christ.


Yesterday I attended a church council retreat along with some of Gethsemane’s council leaders and over 100 other leaders from 19 different ELCA congregations in our geographic area, which is the Eastern Missouri Conference of the Central States Synod—so not only are individual believers working together in congregations, not even congregations are left alone, we’re organized into a conference to work together, and there are five conferences that make up this synod, of which there are 65 synods in the ELCA. We have a lot of networks that help us utilize resources and wisdom—we’re not alone!


And what was the riveting topic yesterday that brought so many leaders together? We talked about governance! And constitutions! But most of all, how all of these things are in service to God by way of our purpose. Purpose! If we’re not serving God, then what are we doing here?! If we’re not clear about our purpose, then we don’t need to exist.


Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”


Irrelevant social club! Imagine! What’s our purpose? Our purpose is why we exist, it doesn’t change, and it’s a little bit aspirational, meaning we’re never going to entirely fulfill our purpose.


In every ELCA congregation’s constitution—we have one too!—we have the same statement of purpose, and we’re Lutheran, so of course it is wordy but here it is:

“The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.”[4]


So what’s our Lutheran response: another question. What does this mean? And this is the ongoing question to sit with, faithfully. How will we put into words, here and now, what we believe God is doing among us in this particular place, with these particular people, using these particular gifts? This is God’s work.


I love y’all, and I think y’all love each other too, but I think we all know we’re not just here to hang out with each other. We’re here to see God at work in the world right now, in a world broken by war, gun violence, white supremacy, substance misuse. And because justice never shows up by some accident, we’re here to learn and pray and act, so we’re here to witness miracles. We’re here to learn to see God in the face of our neighbor. We’re here to worship and praise and sing and give thanks to God for the goodness and grace that has been poured out in our lives. We’re here to encourage each other, to persist in faithfulness even when it is so hard. We’re here to connect with the love of God which sustains us.


Let us pray. Almighty God, pour out your blessing upon your people this day, in this holy place and in your holy time. As we meet today to discern and affirm the business of this congregation, keep all of us mindful of your great power and align our will with yours, in Jesus’ name.


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl


[1] https://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/repurposed-st-louis-churches-synagogues-find-new-ways-to-feed-the-soul/article_bfd59468-616f-513d-90b6-f06b600be122.html [2] 1 Corinthians 1:27, 29 [3] Micah 6:8 [4] Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chapter 4, Section C4.01.



 


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