GiftsEden On The Bay

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Both and in the Rubble - November 15, 2015

All week long, I thought I was seeing and hearing pretty clearly what the Holy Spirit was moving in these apocalyptic texts.

First we have Daniel's vision of the resurrection of the dead. Then the psalmist sings to us of a determined trust in our one true God in a world that constantly tempts and badgers us to worship so many other gods. We have our final excerpt from the letter to the Hebrews in which we hear of the endless and unfruitful human attempts to atone for our sins. And we also have our last reading from the gospel of Mark for the church year. We end the church year, as we do traditionally, on an apocalyptic note. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (vs 8)

All these texts were in the back of my mind as I went to the first call theological education event this past week. Synods in our region organize this event for pastors in their first three years of call with congregations throughout the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. It's a chance for us newbies to unplug for a couple of days and talk about how it's going in these new roles as ordained ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The theme this past week was change or revitalization in the church.

We were asked to spend some time considering what that change or revitalization might look like in light of conversations we are having or hearing in the congregations and communities to which we've all been called to serve.

For me, I thought about it in light of discussions that began at the beginning of the summer when I interviewed. Discussions about being church in a world where church doesn't seem to matter as much as it used to. Where is everybody? Why aren't they here? I hear these words of lament regularly. It isn't an issue faced by us at Eden on the Bay alone. All mainline traditions are feeling the pinch of this reality. Even the non-denominational mega churches that rose up in the 90s report being in “decline.” We all wonder with each other, what can we do to change that … to make it more like it was in 20 years ago, a generation ago. Why don't people seem to be moved and called by our communities of faith and, in particular for us Christians, by the Good News revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?

Another part of this conversation centers on how can we attract more people, more young families, how we make sure our youth are being cared for by the church. We want to be a place where our youth feel drawn and valued and affirmed as children of God and followers of Jesus. What can we do to spread the Good News and be examples of how life-giving and good it is to be part of a faith community like this?

Now I don't know about you, but for me, there's some tension between these two parts of this conversation. On one hand there is a desire to be restored back to what used to be – when the churches were full and we didn't have to think to much about how that would happen, because it just did. In many ways we long for that mind set again.

But somewhere inside of us we must know that going backward in time is not possible and so we wonder also about what we have on the other hand – a desire to explore new ideas about how we as church serve these people who are not coming to worship or WELCA or bible study or confirmation.

I think our gospel reading does speak into that tension. We can only imagine the awe that the huge stone structures of Jerusalem must have caused for the disciples. They were much more accustomed to the modest and rural setting of their fishing villages. And now here they were in the midst of this enormous temple, the place of the holy of holies. Perhaps it was like what it is for us to see New York City or the Hoover Dam for the first time, or to contemplate the construction of the great pyramids in Egypt or Stonehenge. We humans can build and create magnificent and monumental things, there is no doubt. And, truth be told, we get caught up in that ability of ours to create that which awes us.

But Jesus snaps our attention back to what is truly monumental and eternal when he rather abruptly answers the disciples' awe over the temple and the city that has built up around it. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” (vs 2) he says.

In other words, these buildings and human constructs, as grand and glorious as they may be, cannot last eternally. And that is truth. That temple and religious institution that was so important to the people of Jesus' time was different than the temple system that had been there in previous times, and it would be different again, many times over in the generations to come.

That is the way it is for Christians too. The early Christian church, the world in which it existed, the way it served the people of God, was vastly different from the church our namesake Martin Luther was part of and how it served the world around it. And in the generations since then, the Christian church has risen in many forms only to crumble a little or a lot and rise again in ways that seek to serve God's people.

It is as if we need regular reminders over time that God and God's action in the world cannot be boxed into worship structures. Eventually God  will find a crack in the wall to worry until those walls come tumbling down and we let God out again. God is not meant to be kept securely just in our places of worship or recognized only in the faces of those we worship with every week.

And that is where we find ourselves today, I think. While we grieve the loss of a church identity that has been very meaningful to many of us and helped make us the people of God we are today, we are also called to be church to the many, many people out there who have not heard the Good News, who have not broken bread and sipped wine in a community of Christ. We live in that tension of where our grief over what is passing away meets our call to seek new life … to meet these others where they are, invite them into the story of this man named Jesus and what it tells us about how God loves us … a life that revolves around a trust in God's abundant graciousness and love. I don't believe this is a case of one or the other – the old way of being church vs. where we are called to be as church in this time and place. I think it's more a case of one of our favored Lutheran ways of thinking … I think it's “both, and.”

God seemed so clearly to be speaking to us at Eden on the Bay in the city of Munising at the opening of deer season in 2015 through these ageless texts this week. As Eden, we continue to gather here in worship together and around this table and this font and we seek new and creative ways to be church to the people out there who are not coming through those doors for whatever reason. We do both those things AND we keep our senses tuned to other ways in which God calls us to be God's people in this world.

And then the news from Paris broke Friday night. And it's not just Paris. These sinful acts in Paris took place on the the heel of terrorists attacks that we didn't hear very much about in the days before. In Beirut 44 people were killed and 200 wounded on Thursday in another bombing. The next day another 18 people were killed and 40 wounded by terrorists in Baghdad who attacked a funeral. Millions of refugees have been fleeing these terrorists in the past months. And during their time in the wilderness in search of a safe place to rest their heads at night and raise their children they have too often being accused of being terrorists themselves simply because of the color of their skin, the places they were born or the way in which they worship God.

We have a lot to pray for this day, my friends. When the news of the latest attacks by the extremists broke Friday night, I thought it might put my whole sermon in a tailspin. But in reality, what this news may do is simply impress upon us the importance of continuing to struggle through what it means to be church in this world. On most days we think of this quite locally – what does it mean for the faith community of Eden on the Bay to be church in this place on the planet.

But some days it so plainly ripples out much wider than that, doesn't it?

While our readings today may remind us that creations of human hands and hearts and heads do not last forever, it also reminds us that God's ways do last forever in all the ways we can see and, perhaps more importantly, in all the ways we cannot see.

While the way we may understand church in our world is shifting and changing, it doesn't change our ultimate truth … that as people of God of the Christian variety, Jesus goes ahead of us. He will meet us every time we come here to the table and font. He will also meet us outside these doors and among our immediate neighbors. And he will meet us in our prayers and actiond for peace and justice and “thy kingdom come” throughout all of creation.

Hear this again from the letter to the Hebrews: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ... by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” – That's us.

We go forward in this confidence that we are freed from our sins in Jesus, and we carry this ultimate truth with us through the rubble of the fallen temples and terrorist attacks and even the rubble of our changing church identities.

I'd like to end today by sharing with you a prayer of Walter Brueggemann that I shared with the first call pastors and others who were gathered in Wisconsin this past week. I chose it with the theme of the event – change or revitalization in the church – in mind. But it occurs to me since then that this is really our constant theme as church, as people of God and followers of Jesus. It's called “Not the God We Would have Chosen.”

Let us pray:
We would as soon you were stable and reliable.
We would as soon you were predictable
and always the same toward us.
We would like to take the hammer of doctrine
and the nails of piety
and nail your feet to the floor
and have you stay in one place.
And then we find you moving,
always surprising us,
always coming at us from new directions.
Always planting us
and uprooting us
and tearing all things down
and making all things new.
You are not the God we would have chosen
had we done the choosing,
but we are your people
and you have chosen us in freedom.
We pray for the great gift of freedom
that we may be free toward you
as you are in your world.
Give us that gift of freedom
that we may move in new places
in obedience and in gratitude.
Thank you for Jesus
who embodied your freedom for all of us.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

*Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2003) 87

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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