January 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Dedication Sunday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
What would success look like?
This has been the open question since the replacement of the organ and renovation of the sanctuary moved from a problem that we talked about over coffee to the concrete task of actually pulling off the project. When we started the only sure thing was that we had a title for this process, Ecclesia Surge, “Rise, O Church” the tune that Music Director Tim Strand wrote for Susan Palo Cherwien’s powerful text.
Behind every step of the process were hundreds of emails, more meetings that even Jesus promised to attend, calls with nervous members, testing the levels of commitment, building consensus lots of prayer. I remember one meeting, off the record, with a few of the leaders who said, “We need a plan for success if we can’t meet our fundraising goals.” How would we break the news of a scale-back without breaking hearts.
We summarized our mission as Rise to Sing, Rise to Welcome, Rise to Serve. Music that would be so beautiful and inclusive that it would connect us to a vision of future that was in harmony, at peace, healed of its deepest ills and injustices, and connected to the gracious love of God. Somewhere in its history, Gloria Dei began to trust that beauty plays a role in doing social justice. Rise to Welcome. A space that truly made it possible for everyone to participate, accessible to those who find barriers everywhere, open to different styles of praise and speech, technology ready for a next generation to come and find community, even a renovation that could be analyzed each step for its impact on the earth. Rise to Serve. A room that can be given away to the neighborhood, a place that can be a location for civil public engagement, or neighborhood conversation about a better city, speeches and lectures, groups and activities able to use the biggest room in our building when needed. A sanctuary isn’t a place away from the world. It’s the place where we come to build a better one. And then there’s concerts and choirs and music festivals that could be possible.
Momentum grew, surprising generosity emerged, and just a few weeks before the final stage of the campaign, I filmed a short video that very quaintly said, “Due to the emergence of the coronavirus, the church has decided to close for two weeks as way of caring for our neighbors. Sunday worship will be online.”
In many ways, the pandemic has made us ask this question again. What is God calling us to do right now? At some point, someone said, “We can shelve this for another time, or we could trust that God still has a future for us?” The peddle cam became a hit. Our plan went from one camera to five, and we added a tech room to the design, and a vision for online community became part of the plan.
Gloria Dei rose to the occasion. God raised us to new life. Today we celebrate that the generosity of this congregation met a goal that initially we thought impossible. We celebrate that the project stayed in budget, as we worked with a fantastically gifted team of designers, architects, contractors, artisans who were willing to share our vision. We celebrate that once again a musical instrument can breathe with us as we offer our praise to God. And now, perhaps, we ask the same question as when we started, as we move forward, “How will we measure our success?” Maybe we should ask the question a different way, “Who will be blessed by it?”
The gospel text gives us the final answer. The success of how we worship in this space, or use this space, or share this space can be judged by what difference it makes for the poor and the hungry, because that is who God is concerned with. Will the work of the people in liturgy and song bring comfort to those whose worlds have fallen apart? Once again, a black mother cries out after her son is killed by police after a traffic stop. We say his name: Tyre Nichols. He should be alive today. We have to ask, friends, as Lutheran Christians shaped by whiteness, “Will what we do in the sanctuary confirm supremacy or break it down?”
Will it bless and give central place to those who are too tenderhearted and pure of heart to stand up for themselves, too unsure to trust that they are valued and treasured? Will we raise up their voices when they cannot? Will this place set into motion waves of mercy instead of more judgment and condemnation? Will it make us into peacemakers?
Of course, these are not easy questions, easier to frame boldly from a pulpit, more difficult take from sermon into practice. Yet, when this service is over, and we begin to live in this sanctuary, that’s our work. There will be hundreds of emails, more meetings than Jesus would attend, more people who will have to step forward, more conversations over coffee and strategic planning sessions, even practicing love, kindness, and generosity with one another when it’s hard or when some of us are complicated.
In the end, our success will not be measured in how well we completed the tasks set before us—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, as Micah beautifully summarized what God desires. Our success will be measured by an encounter with the one who is risen, who has gone ahead of us into our next chapter, into the future; this one who looks over the crowd that has gathered, sits down, and says, “Blessed are you.”
You, the ones who have gathered together, with all that you bring: your hunger for love, your tears for what has been lost, your thirst for a world that is good and kind, a deep yearning for life that has a center and a ground that feels safe, you who aren’t sure you’re loved by God. You are God’s very own, beloved.
This is the glory of God. The Gloria Dei. How do we measure success? Love. Love that comes first, love that is for all people, no matter what; love that cannot be lost; love that washes us into grace; love that speaks to us good words that heal and save; love that feeds us; love that cannot fail.
At the beginning and at the end, it is into that love that we rise each day. Rise, O Church.