On Saturday I spent the evening with Pastor Paul Sinnott from the New England Synod at what was once St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Bridgeport, CT. The church closed a few years ago as its members aged, died or moved away. The congregation never reconnected with a changing neighborhood. The building was sold to Hope and Faith Apostolic Ministry, a charismatic group with roots in Jamaica, which had been worshiping at Grace Lutheran Church in Stratford, CT. Paul and I were invited to officially hand over the keys as part of the Grand Opening Rededication Worship Service with food to follow. We had a good time. They treated us exceptionally well. We left after four hours, and it felt like the party was still just getting started. Their apostle said with a contagious smile, “It is good for us to rededicate a building like this…we don’t have a lot of buildings like this.”
The music was loud. The singing and dancing were exhausting. I was toast. But it was the church. It is good to be the church. God is still on the move, and we are part of it.
Paul gave kind remarks about the next chapter beginning. I handed the keys to their pastor. I said to the gathered congregation, “Lutherans don’t usually dance, but we smile hard. Today we are smiling hard for you.” People received that message well and were thankful that Paul and I were there. By the time I got home I was really tired. Was it because of the dancing or the smiling? I wasn’t sure, but I as out of my comfort zone I was in that style of worship, I knew it was the church. It was good to be the church. God is still on the move, and I was a part of it.
Sunday was a full day as well. It was our second week of worshiping with our Methodist friends who are joining us for the summer while their building is being renovated. I am not sure what I enjoy most: working with another pastor as a partner, having the spirit of unity in the room as we gathered for word and sacrament, blending two distinct traditions and growing into a new relationship, or spending as much time as all of us did enjoying one another’s company and getting to know each other better over snacks on our plaza on a beautiful Sunday morning. Are things different or out of place? Sure. But it was the church. It was good to be the church. God is still on the move, and we are a part of it.
Sunday afternoon I spent with some of our young people and their parents, packaging food at the New Canaan High School. A local group called Pura Vida hosted the event bringing in the organization called Feed My Starving Children to run it. What I love about this event is that many of the churches in town participate alongside other local charities and businesses. This is what partnership can look like – everyone realizes we can accomplish more together. According to the information shared at the event in our allotted time slot, we packaged enough meals to feed one hundred twenty three people for a whole year! Will it end hunger? No. But one afternoon, working together made a difference. This is the church. It is good to be the church. God is still on the move, and we are part of it.
Sunday evening I spent with colleagues as a friend of mine, Joshua Rinas was installed as pastor at First Lutheran Church in Southington, CT. This was familiar…the people of God gathered for liturgy, hymns, preaching and communion. A congregation and their new pastor were joined not just by a call process brought to an end in this celebration, but by conversations and shared dreams about mission and working in the neighborhood as the body of Christ active in the world. Pastor Paul Sinnott and I joked about the stark differences between Saturday and Sunday evenings, but the sincerity between dancing charismatics and smiling Lutherans cannot be distinguished. This is the church. It is good to be the church. God is still on the move, and we are part of it.
After a morning in the office on Monday, I came back after lunch and had a brief meeting at the Historical Society. I pulled out my Synod Assembly report to browse for a few minutes. When our Synod congregations and leaders get to together God is active there too (our 183 congregations meet for Synod Assembly June 5-7). I stopped at what Bishop Jim Hazelwood wrote in his report:
“Which is more important to us? Preserving our legacy or impacting our community?…
…If your church is internally focused, candidly, ‘you’re toast.’ It’s all over. Why? Because people are leaving internally focused churches. They are tired of silly debates about whether or not the color of the napkins should match for coffee hour. They don’t want to fight about whether or not the prelude should come before or after the announcements, whether or not the pastor’s children make too much noise. They are leaving silly budget fights. There is no future for churches like that. I’m sorry, but it’s true. The club model of church life if over…
…We’ve got a hurting world all around us: domestic violence, poverty, war, lonely people, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, housing crisis. We need to join God in the neighborhood, find others who are working on solving these problems and get with it.
Our mission and worship are connected, or they need to be. The table of God’s grace is connected to the table in your home, the table at the school cafeteria and the table at your local fire station.”
These words were sweet music to my ears. As tired as I am after the weekend, I think my feet are starting to move to the beat a little bit more after reading these words. My Lutheran smile is starting to gain width again. “Jim Bishop” (as my kids fondly call him) reminds us that to be the church is to join the God who is still on the move…OUT THERE: in our community, in our neighborhood, among God’s people. “Where is God?” we might ask. We can find God where Jesus always is: eating with the sinners, welcoming the unwanted, connecting with those we overlook, healing the broken and comforting the brokenhearted.
Where are you? Where are we? Where is Jesus?
He is sitting at the table and asking, “Don’t you see who still isn’t here?…Go and meet them.” We aren’t toast, but made new by the fresh Bread of Life.
This is the church. It is good to be the church. God still is on the move, and we are invited to be a part of it.
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (Psalm 30:10-12)