As noted on this site previously I entered the ordained ministry of the Reformed Church in America earlier this year. This means that I can also can serve the sacraments and minister the Word in several other mainline churches, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This brought me today to leading the worship through preaching and Eucharist in the local ELCA congregation near my home in Carol Stream. The whole experience was almost surreal in one sense. As I was preparing in the make-shift vestry, by putting on the various colorful vestments for the day, I was thinking about how odd this all would have seemed to me as a young Baptist more than forty years ago. (I was first ordained, as a Southern Baptist minister, in August of 1970.)
Several things stood out to me today. First, the people are not used to sermons of much length. I probably exceeded what they are comfortable with by preaching between 20-25 minutes. At the same time they listened very well and many people expressed profound gratitude for hearing the Word of God preached so warmly and clearly. Second, in every church there clearly are people who love Jesus, the gospel of grace and the Word of God. This was no less true today than it is in more conservative churches. In fact some today were more expressive of their joy than in places where they take for granted a certain kind of preaching. Third, the people received the bread of Christ’s body from my hands at the front of the church with such reverence and awe, at least in most cases. This was not a perfunctory action, contrary to many evangelical stereotypes. For most of the people, as I looked into their eyes this morning and served them with joy, this was the high point of the liturgy. Fourth, the church in general, and this church in particular, is in pain. Healing is such an important ministry. I hope I ministered healing and hope. I think that I did, at least as best I understand this kind of ministry.
I am reading a great book right now, of which I will say more in the days to come, written by the pastor of Martin Luther Church in Riga, Latvia. I thought of this today because of my appreciation for things that are Lutheran. The writer, Juris Rubenis, is the best-selling author in Latvia and was a leader of the people in the pre-Communist days of the 1980s when Latvia was still a part of the old Soviet Union. His book, Finding God in a Tangled Work: Thoughts and Parables (Paraclete, 2007) is an amazing collection of pithy and powerful sayings and parables. He speaks of what I am thinking this evening after a time of ministry among my Lutheran brothers and sisters:
"I will have nothing else to say about myself," God said.
This really is the message of Advent and at the very heart of the gospel that I preached today from Matthew 11:2-11 in the liturgical setting into which I was invited to come as Christ’s servant.