February 5, 2023

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Bishop Patricia Lull

Matthew 5:13-20

Grace and peace to you in the mercy of the Living God. AMEN.

            “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13) Last Sunday was such a high point in the life of this congregation with the dedication of this renovated sanctuary and the new pipe organ to accompany your songs of praise. Then, a few days later came the news of the sudden departure of a beloved pastor. It is as though you have lost your sense of taste – taste for being a place of beauty and welcome and service.

            Some years ago, I used to travel to San Lucas Toliman in Guatemala with students from Luther Seminary. Some of you have gone there, too, and all of you recognize the connection through the hand-woven baptismal garments made by friends there for the newly baptized here in this community of faith. San Lucas is a remarkable place that inspires renewed vision about what it means to be God’s people in the world today.

            On one of those trips, thieves broke into the small hotel where we were staying and stole from our group while we were away for the day. In the grand scheme of things, what was taken – cell phones and electronic gadgets and gifts we planned to take back home – didn’t amount to all that much. But those thieves shattered our sense of wellbeing; our trust that we were in a place of idyllic safety, as we enjoyed a brief and palatable experience of being a part of the beloved community. We were broken-hearted by our sense of loss.

            We gathered in the common room to talk and after we had sorted out our feelings, I asked one of the students to get his guitar so we could sing. We had alerted Pastor Greg Schaffer, head of the mission, about the burglary and I so hoped he would come and reassure us. But he did not come that evening. When we had sung our way through the rawness of our feelings, we prayed and headed off to our rooms to sleep.

            Next morning, I went early to the parish hall to drink coffee with the employees of the mission and to prepare for the day ahead. Father Greg set his coffee cup next to mine and sat down. Though I said nothing, I looked at him, wondering where he had been when we were waiting for him to come to us. He told me that he had walked down the road to our hotel the night before. Then he said, “When I heard you singing, I knew you would be alright and I decided not to disturb you” Gloria Dei, you will sing again.

            Then, Sunday came and our group went off to worship with the local community. We gathered in a sanctuary with simple wooden benches. People filled all the space, crowded into the aisles, and spilled over into the doorways and out onto the front steps.

            If you have ever traveled with me, you know not to rely on me as a translator. I know a few phrases in Spanish, but I am as likely to get the meaning wrong as to get it right. But that morning the context clues needed no interpretation.

            Though it was January and the season of Epiphany, at the start of the mass Father Greg asked all of us to remain standing. The families that worked for the mission, the school children, the elders and the very poorest neighbors, who depended on the parish kitchen for their meals, the visitors from up north. We stood and bowed our heads as Father Greg confessed before God our communal failures as the people of God.

            Looking down at the top of my shoes, for a moment I thought maybe it was about the burglary at our hotel – our loss, the insult to our experience – but I learned from those near me, whose Spanish was stronger than mine, that it was about so many things that had gone awry in the community. Violence in the city; gangs of youth running wild; gossip among rival groups in the parish; neglect of those who were little and least; arrogance and boasting and all sorts of human pride and greed.

When one individual is called to accountability for their actions, it is tempting to focus only on that person, forgetting that all of us fall short of the glory of God. The coming days will be a time of reflection at Gloria Dei; a time to grieve and learn; a time to pay attention to each other within this community of faith. You are blessed to have such a strong staff led by Pastor Bradley and Pastor Lois and to have an incredibly capable Church Council. Pray for them. Support them. Walk with them.

You also have a mission – a purpose from God. Your call to worship, to welcome, and to serve is not just a branding label. Your commitment to opening your lives and opening this church facility to your neighbors will continue to cost you — and transform you — far beyond the completion of a successful campaign.

God is forever calling us Christians into the deep places of suffering and alienation in our world. Last Sunday you rallied to that call from a place of strength and success, and probably tremendous relief that a lot of hard work had come to an end. This Sunday you are called every bit as much, though today God’s call comes to you as you reel under the weight of sadness and shock and loss.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13) How, O Lord? How will our spirits be raised? How will this congregation rally to affirm what they believe and trust about your mercy, your justice, and your love for the whole, wide world?

In Christ Jesus, we learn to pay attention to God’s wisdom not as some kind of abstract philosophy, but we learn through the cross that God’s version of success isn’t the same as that proclaimed by the headlines of the day where times of set-back and loss and embarrassment get read as marks of defeat. As Lutherans with a profound love for scripture — and all the testimony there about God’s ways not being human ways — we discover, as an esteemed theologian has put it, “that even moments of defeat and abandonment can be powerful occasions for finding the presence of the true and living God.”[1]

In the hymn Rise, O Church, Like Christ Arisen (ELW 548) – a hymn so beloved in this congregation – the second stanza reads: “Rise, transformed, and choose to follow after Christ, though wounded, whole; broken, shared, our lives are hallowed …”

By the incredible grace of God, you will sing on, dear people of God. Sing on. Thanks be to God. AMEN.

[1] Timothy F. Lull, On Being Lutheran, Augsburg Fortress, 2006, page 108.