October 3, 2021
19th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
When I noticed that this was the gospel lesson assigned for today, my first inclination was choose a different reading; something that would fit the occasion. I checked with Donna Anderson, the lead for our archives team, and asked for a copy of the bulletin from when Gloria Dei left it’s building on Hague and Victoria and made an afternoon procession to this new church in Highland Park. I figured they probably chose some beautiful text about a strong foundation or living stones, or even the rock upon which to build the church. We would use that text.
The gospel text was Jesus Calming the Storm, which really didn’t seem to fit the occasion. Then I realized that those readings were the assigned lectionary readings for that Sunday. Gloria Dei has always followed the lectionary. Our tradition, apparently, is to take what has been given and work with it.
So I left the gospel text as it is for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, a text in which we get a glimpse of life that is difficult, painful, unwelcoming. Religious people who use the brokenness of human life to parse the rules, more to trap an opponent than to care for another in suffering. A world that assigned children little value, often used as property or left abandoned to fend for themselves.
We also get a glimpse of a Jesus who enters the fray, who takes up these most difficult issues, not necessarily to lay down a new rule that can be used to trap people or layer them with guilt or limit what may be necessary choices. It would be wrong to take these verses this morning and create a literal rule that would trap people. What Jesus is wanting us to consider is how God is involved in this moment; and then he imples, “Because God is there, no matter what, we cannot throw one another away.” That applies to people who need to go through a process of divorce as much as it does to the unwanted child–or anyone who has no rights or power or possibility. What Jesus does is to bind himself to the life of the child, and likely to those who struggle in relationships, and to everyone one of us who may have a reason to think that we’ve broken the rules one too many times or haven’t been good and faithful members of God’s family.
What God has joined together is Jesus and you; Jesus and us. No one gets thrown away. Every story ends with a blessing, whether you did your marriage right or not; whether you deserved to be pulled into the lap of Jesus or not. Because Christ is risen, love is the final word for every single one of us. Love is the final word.
In the end, that’s the reason we’re going to leave this room for a time. We want to make sure that everyone can be welcome; that everyone who wants to step into the chancel to sing or speak God’s love for the world will have full access; we want the room itself to create a sense of connection and community that could not be imagined when it was built, when clergy were literally higher than the rest; the sacred things were far off behind railings. When sanctuary meant a place apart from real life, not a place of welcome, safety, and justice that changes real life.
We are called to be a people who make grace accessible, who gather around a table as the ones the late Elizabeth Bettenhausen described as companions and conspirators. The Latin roots of the word Companion mean together with bread; and conspire means to breathe together—a metaphor that’s a little complicated right now with COVID. We are a people who share bread, and then conspire—dream and craft plans– with the Holy Spirit. We might also say that we’re a people who take a breath, and then sing. Part of this project, a new organ, is because justice, compassion, generosity, and love require beauty if they are to serve the gospel. They require music. And for us, an instrument that can breathe with us, that can conspire to create harmony.
Sometimes we have to let go of some things in order for the new to come into being. I suspect the people who designed and built this sanctuary did so because their old space could no longer serve the fullness of its vision. It required a procession into something new. I suspect, too, that the procession carried some grief. Death and resurrection always go together. We do say goodbye to some things and to patterns that have been so familiar. Without them, we wouldn’t be at this moment.
When the congregation was conspiring about what images that would shape its life, they imagined a Jesus surrounded by children. Maybe they read Mark 10. I can’t help but think that this painting is one of the reasons that children and youth ministry are so central to our mission at Gloria Dei. When we incarnate the reign of God in art and metaphor, we create that reality among us. It wasn’t an accident that the faces of the children were members of the congregation. Not some ideal children, but the ones who screamed during their baptisms, or argued with their parents about going to church, the ones who might grow up and wander away, the ones who smiled for the painter but carried hidden wounds or insecurities or disabilities that couldn’t be seen on the outside.
The problem was that those very sentiments, the desire to place children at the center, to see the reign of God for them, real kids with real struggles around Jesus, became the reason the painting couldn’t work anymore as a central image. We’ve dreamed of a community of people around Jesus with all colors of hair and skin. We’ve even come to see Jesus, not as just a reflection of European piety, but as the one joined together with all races and cultures and classes. Since 1950, the world has changed. I wonder what Martin Luther King thought when he stood in this pulpit. We must process fully into the world after George Floyd. What God has joined together, let no one separate.
It is the deep commitment of this church to make sure no one is cast aside, that all be able to hear and to experience deep in the place of pain a word of blessing, a word of welcome, a word of grace. So sometimes we let ourselves learn some new things, not letting the past be the literal template for the future, but we change and adapt and move forward.
One of the hymns that I want sung at my funeral isn’t in the ELW. It’s in most African American hymnals, however. “Once to Every Man and Nation” was written by James Russell Lowell in 1845 as the nation struggled with slavery. The first great line is “Once to Every Man and Nation Comes the Moment to Decide.” It’s the third verse that has always captured me:
By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.
It’s probably true that the decisions we’re making today, just right for our moment, supported so generously by many, may one day be too small for God’s work, and Gloria Dei will be called again to process into a new future, carrying the gospel, offering its gifts, re-voicing its song, conspiring new ways to share bread together.
We will take what we are given, and we will work with it.
But next time, let’s look at the assigned readings before we pick the Sunday.