Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Pastor Erik--May 2007

Miracles and Ministries Among Us

Transformational ministry, by definition, involves change. But that is not all that this new way of seeking to live out God’s call means for us. Another part, a big part, is recognizing the things that God is already doing among us. God is active in the lives of the people who gather to become Bethlehem Lutheran Church. God is active in the ministries we share, in the conversations we have, in the neighborhood in which our church building stands. And yet, for a whole range of reasons, we aren’t always aware of what God is doing, or aware that what we see as nothing special might just be God at work. Because of this, for the next several months (maybe longer) I’m going to be highlighting some of the ways in which I see God active, already, in our congregation. I hope this helps you to see what God is doing, how God is transforming us, and that you will begin to share the ways in which you see God working as well.

A year ago when I was interviewing at Bethlehem, I was informed, on several occasions, that this is a congregation that likes to eat. Part of my interview was a stellar potluck, and it was promised that if I took the call, there would be many more where this came from. As a lover of potlucks (and food in general) I joked that this was the deciding factor in accepting the call to Bethlehem. In the year since, you have not let me down on your promise, the potlucks have been incredible and it’s clear that this is a congregation that loves to gather for friendship and fellowship around food. But have you ever thought of your gift of putting on magnificent potlucks as ministry? What about evangelism? What on earth could tuna noodle casserole have to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Fun is not the only motivation for potluck dinners at Bethlehem. In fact, some of the best meals that we have shared together have been for funerals. When one of our members—or anyone even remotely connected to our community—dies, a team of volunteers springs into action. With the shortest of notice, phone calls are made, suddenly tables are set up, salads, casseroles, and deserts appear in our fellowship hall. In an incredible act of hospitality, Bethlehem Lutheran Church welcomes and feeds not only our own people, but all who come. In the darkness of grief following the loss of a loved one, our fellowship hall becomes a beacon of light, a place of warmth and welcome, where we gather to eat with one another—friends and strangers—and to comfort each other in a way that goes beyond mere words.

When I’ve asked some of those who participate in this ministry why they do it, the answer is some form of “That’s just what we do here.” Funeral meals have become just part of the fabric of our community, part of our DNA. It’s normal, ordinary, nothing to make too much of a fuss over. But I believe that the real reason that our congregation responds in this way lies much deeper than “it’s just what we do” and has everything to do with responding to the call of Jesus Christ. And, far from ordinary, this ministry is one of the ways that God is active among us.

This was brought to my attention particularly during a funeral held this last week. It was reported to me that one of the people attending made a comment along the lines of “I didn’t know churches did this sort of thing,” obviously struck by the strangeness of our kindness and hospitality in a “fend for yourself” world. We live in a world where more and more people have no idea what goes on behind the doors of our churches. And yet, from time to time, for a funeral, wedding, holiday or some other non threatening event held in a building marked “Church” they might find themselves here. What do they experience? At Bethlehem, through this simple ministry of food, people experienced a bit of the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes the stranger, comforts the grieving, feeds the hungry, forms people into community, brings hope in the face of death.

Though we may not be conscious of it, I believe that this is something we do because of what God has done for us in Jesus. When we respond to God’s grace in such a way, we are sharing the Good News, proclaiming through our hospitality the abundant hospitality of God who welcomes everyone, who forgives everyone, who loves everyone. This is ministry, and when we engage in this ministry with those who are outside of our community, it is evangelism too. The transformation part comes when we recognize that this sort of hospitality is not normal, it’s not expected, but rather is something the Holy Spirit is doing among us. When we begin to recognize this, and celebrate God’s work through us, and someone asks “Why do you folks do this?” we can respond “Because of Jesus Christ,” opening a conversation about how God has worked in our lives, and how we feel called to respond. Ministry and evangelism are not just about preaching and door-knocking, but are about engaging in the work that God is calling us to, proclaiming in word and deed the Good News of Jesus, and helping others to be a part of it too. As we cook and share a meal, we enact, if only for a few hours, that great, abundant, free Grace of Jesus Christ for all in a way that others can experience it. This is God’s work!

Pastor Erik