A NOTE OF THANKS

Give your time and effort to the public reading of the Scriptures and to preaching and teaching. Practice these things and devote yourself to them, in order that your progress may be seen by all.  Watch yourself and watch your teaching. Keep on doing these things, because if you do, you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1 Timothy 4:13, 15-17 [Good News Translation]

The apostle Paul routinely began his letters with a greeting which included the words: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.”

I, too, want to begin this post with a similar salutation.  I thank God through Jesus Christ for you, the 60,000-plus people of God who make up the congregations of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA. The main reason for my thankfulness today is that many of our congregations allowed our pastors and rostered lay leaders to take a couple days off for rest and renewal.

Nearly 100 clergy, associates in ministry, and spouses traveled to Geneva-on-the-Lake for the annual Professional Leaders Retreat, which is held each year in the last week of January.

It’s a chance for clergy to get away from the daily demands of parish ministry, reconnect with other colleagues and engage with presenters who are invited to talk about a particular topic pertaining to ministry.

This year’s speaker was the Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty, senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport,

The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty
The Rev. Dr. Peter W. Marty

Iowa. He is a writer, speaker, and preacher. You may have noticed his monthly columns in The Lutheran Magazine. The theme for his presentations was, “What does a sermon do today?”

But rather than confine his remarks to preaching, Dr. Marty touched on all aspects of pastoral ministry. Using examples from his own personal life and from the myriad of books and articles he has either read or written, Marty encouraged and challenged all of us to become better at our vocation. He spoke for three 90-minute sessions, and entertained questions at each one.

And whereas other presenters would have most likely hidden in their room during breaks, Marty took the time to talk to individuals in the course of the social hours and mealtimes. He seemed genuinely interested in wanting to know who people were and what was on their minds. He even preached at the closing worship service. It was, for all of us in attendance, time exceedingly well spent.

The Rev. Karl Biermann (center) was installed as Assistant to the Bishop.
The Rev. Karl Biermann (center) was installed as Assistant to the Bishop.

So again, thank you, people of God! Thank you for your investment in the well-being of your pastor.  If you notice this Sunday that your pastor’s sermon sounds different; if you hear a freshness in his or her voice that you hadn’t previously noticed; if you detect an enthusiasm never felt in the past; chances are he or she was at the Professional Leaders Retreat.

We are blessed in this synod with many wonderful pastors. And by giving them the time and the opportunity to learn and improve, you and your congregations will reap great rewards. If your pastor didn’t attend this year’s retreat, encourage him or her to attend in 2016. (Take note of how Paul encouraged Timothy in the scripture passage quoted above.) It would be a wonderful gift to pastors and to their ministry. The benefits to the people in your parish will be immeasurable. But more importantly, God will be glorified!

A POSTSCRIPT ON BETHLEHEM

I declare this congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, to be closed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[Service of Leave Taking; Evangelical Lutheran Worship-
Occasional Services for the Assembly]

I recited the above words for the first time in public on Sunday, December 28, 2014, at the end of the service of Holy Closure, the final worship service at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Youngstown, Ohio.

Although I had rehearsed the rite several times in the days before the service, it was the first time I had proclaimed them before a live assembly of the faithful who gathered to grieve the closing of this 202-year-old church. As I looked out at the mournful faces, my jaw quivered, my voice trembled, and my eyes filled with tears. I never imagined it would be so difficult.

Holy Communion at Bethlehem, Youngstown.
Holy Communion at Bethlehem, Youngstown.

But it was, and is, like presiding over a funeral of a dearly loved parishioner. I had never met the overwhelming majority of these people before that Sunday, and yet here I was, lamenting their loss. I had had some contact with them electronically in preparation for the day, but it wasn’t until that last Sunday in December that I heard them share their stories and recall the treasured memories they had of this church building. One person after another echoed the same or similar reminiscence: “I was baptized in this church.” “I was confirmed here.” “I was married in this church.” If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times.

The parish records are handed to the bishop.
The parish records are handed to the bishop.

Our Director for Evangelical Mission, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, had done most of the necessary planning for the closure, including meeting with the congregation’s leaders to discuss the future of the congregation. As I stated in my homily, which you can read in my previous post, the conversations were necessary and regretfully, long overdue.

It was a day unlike any other in my brief four months in office. I was closing a congregation for the first time. I am struck by the reality that it won’t be my last.

Even though I was on another continent when I began writing this post, a half-world away and nearly two weeks removed, my heart was still back in Youngstown, mourning with the people whose congregation is no more. My mind swirled each night for the first few nights, wondering what the future holds for many of the congregations in our synod, and asking myself what God is trying to teach us through this time of decline. How do we become better at doing ministry? How do we discover new ways to make the Gospel meaningful to those who no longer find it relevant? How do we make Christ known to those who have not yet heard the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness?

These are the questions we will struggle with in the coming year.

I came across a quote from noted Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, which states: “In our contemporary circumstances of ministry, I suggest that despair is the defining pathology that robs the church of missional energy and of stewardship generosity.”1

I find myself lapsing into that despairing mode more often than I care to admit. And I’ve discovered that when I raise the issue of declining congregations in any public forum, the mood of the conversation turns somber. In one of my reflections for our synod newsletter, I mentioned the statistic that 139 of our congregations are in decline. A pastor who visited my office mentioned to me that one of his parishioners latched on to that statistic and, in effect, blamed that pastor as if somehow the entire decline of the synod was his fault!

I had quite a bit of time to gain some perspective during my study tour in Europe. Even though Germany, where I visited, is the birthplace of Lutheranism, nearly 80% of the people there are unchurched. Although on nearly every corner there is a symbol to Christianity and/or Lutheranism – churches, statues, monuments – people, for the most part, look upon them as just symbols and nothing more.

Part of that has to do with the fact that for over half a century, the country was under two oppressive dictatorships. There were the Hitler years from 1933 to 1945, and the Soviet domination that governed the eastern half of Germany from 1945 until 1989.

But what does it mean to be church in a country – or, to be honest, in a world – that doesn’t care about church?

I want to explore this question over the next few posts. I think it is relevant to all of us as pastors and lay people to analyze what is happening in our synod, in our country, and in the world. I would love to engage any of the readers to this blog in the conversation. I am not an academician so I promise not to make this some scholarly treatise. But I would be interested in some good, honest reflection.

And I also must stress that while I may be sad at the moment, my faith is ever anchored in a God of abundance; a God who is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful in return; a God who will welcome us with open arms, though we reject that welcome. We may be fighting an uphill battle, but my hope is that God’s divine wisdom and mercy will endure forever. I am comforted in particular today by two verses of Scripture, one from the prophet Isaiah and the other, a brief snippet from Psalms.

Isaiah writes:

Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

[Isaiah 41:10]

And from the words of the psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” [Psalm 30:5b]

May this day be for you a day filled with the joy of God’s love, grace, mercy and peace.


1  Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home, Preaching among Exiles, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 7

 

Now You Are Dismissing Your Servant in Peace

Sermon Preached at the Final Worship of

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Youngstown, Ohio

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people.”

[Luke 29-30

We give thanks to God along with you, this morning, for the mission and ministry that has taken place here at Bethlehem Lutheran Church for the past 202 years.

For more than two centuries, you have gathered to proclaim Christ crucified and risen. From the time of the war of 1812, led by The Rev. Henry Huet (Hewit), your first pastor, and in a log church that was built in 1816, you gathered to worship, alternating Sundays with the Presbyterians, on land deeded by Michael Simon.

Courtesy WYTV-33
Courtesy WYTV-33

I read an article in the Youngstown Vindicator from a couple of years back that highlighted the history of Bethlehem and I marveled at what all has taken place here on Midlothian Boulevard. There was a flurry of activity that went on with organizations including building committee, Altar Guild, Sunday school, Lutheran Church Women, Ladies Aid Society, a Boy Scout Troop, Luther League, a Christian Fellowship group, and several more. You made the transition from a rural congregation to an urban congregation.

We come together with so many good and treasured memories, but with a strong sense of grief at saying farewell to this hallowed place. As with all earthly things, whether people or institutions, they eventually come to an end and pass away.

It is somewhat unbelievable for me that just two years ago, on Reformation Sunday, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton celebrated your 200th anniversary with you. And today, the first Sunday after Christmas, just 26 months later, I am here to lead you in the final worship that will take place here at this location.

In my brief time as Bishop, this is a first for me, as you might imagine. In my efforts to find just the right words to say to you this morning, I am indebted to the Rev. Emily Heath, a pastor and writer from Exeter, New Hampshire, from whom I borrowed liberally (and literally) as she said pretty similar things to a congregation she had to close a couple years ago.

She writes, “We’ve come today because we are saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ. We are sad. And it is not something we ever wanted to do. And yet, in the end, we felt like this was the most faithful choice we could have made. Which makes today particularly bittersweet.”

If I could only say only one thing to you, the members of Bethlehem, this morning, it would be this: “you did nothing wrong”.

And if I could say a second thing it would be this: “God is not done with you.”

Individual congregations like individuals — Moses, Joshua, you and me — are not immortal. A congregation like an individual is born, grows, may get sick, can recover, will age and will eventually die. The churches of the First Century in the Book of Acts are no longer existing, but their legacy lives on in the churches today.

“What is God calling this congregation to do?”

That is the core question of ministry.

The Rev. Terrance Jacob
The Rev. Terrance Jacob

Over the last several months, you and our Director for Evangelical Mission, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, have engaged in some pretty hard conversations around that question. Those conversations that had been a long time coming. They were not easy. They were emotional. And it was something none of us wanted to talk about. And yet we did. And about six weeks ago – November 16, to be exact – you sat in this sanctuary and took a unanimous vote that it was time to close the doors.

When a congregation closes, there’s a tendency to beat ourselves up about it. We ask ourselves what, if anything, could we have done better? The answer is, nothing. You may have tried some things to extend the life of the congregation, but in the final analysis, it would have come to an end anyway. I frankly believe that you were commissioned by the Spirit of God to carry out an extraordinary mission of witness and service, “for the time being,” but not forever. The closure of a congregation does not signify failure.

But one thing we do not doubt is that the Word of God that has been alive and active in this place continues.

As I have thought about my homily for you for this day the words that I focused on were the words of Simeon, the man whom we meet in our Gospel reading today.

Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and he says,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people.”

When Simeon holds the baby in his arms, he is ready to face death, and he sings praise to God for having fulfilled a promise – that of allowing him to see the Messiah.

Simeon had been waiting all his life for this moment. You see, Israel was a tiny country, caught forever between superpowers at war.  At the time of Jesus, Israel had been dominated for centuries by the Assyrians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans.  They were weary of the endless rounds of war, destruction, exile, and return.  The people were oppressed.  They lived with the constant fear of violence, of offending the mighty power of Rome. But Simeon had not forgotten. He was keeping vigil for the promise of an end to oppression. 

Throughout his life Simeon had struggled, doubted, searched, prayed, pleaded and begged for some sign of God’s presence, a sign that God really did care, that behind all of the senseless suffering and pain and confusion in the world there was a larger purpose. And on this day he is guided by the Spirit to be present at the temple. This baby was God’s salvation.  And so Simeon could be at peace.

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people.”

This text is about hope.  Simeon had hope when he was keeping vigil, and when he saw the baby Jesus he still had to have hope, because obviously a baby wasn’t doing anything about the power of Rome, at least not yet. 

The earliest founders of this church, back in the early 1800’s, had that hope. They were German Lutherans who came to a new frontier, and they built a church that reflected the needs of the community at that time, filled with the same hope that little baby gave Simeon. They were people of faith. People for whom the will of God was the center of their lives. And they, and the generations that came after them, kept the doors of this church open to respond to the faith needs of this community.

And in the midst of this community which has its share of troubles, this church has continued to make a bold witness. And though it will not be here physically in the future, consider the church that has been here for the needs of the community; that has sent seven members from its congregation into the vocation of ministry. Our organist this morning, Thomas Pavlechko, came back to play today because this was where he received his faith formation which ultimately led him to Texas as a composer and artist in residence at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin.

There are all those words of the Lord that have been spoken – all the baptismal water splashed, the hymns sung, the marriage vows exchanged, the faithful departed commended to God, the prayers offered, the wind and bread shared, the candles lit and extinguished.

And there are also all those inaudible, unspoken sermons that have gone on in the hearts of the people – in the hearts of many of you here today – who have sought out this place as a place to get and to keep their bearings on life’s journey.

You carry those sermons – that peace of God with you – even when you no longer worship in this place. This church will always be remembered, loved, and it will always be in your hearts.

Consider one more thing. Look at the final words of Simeon to Mary.

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

[Luke 2:34b-35]

You have done nothing wrong. You have to have death in order to have a resurrection. This dying and rising has already happened in a deeply real way to each of us who were baptized. In fact the core meaning of baptism is to die with Christ to our egos, die to the old ways of thinking about ourselves and God and others, and rising to new life and a new creation in Christ.

You have done everything possible to honor the legacy of those who came before you. You’ve done it by loving your neighbor. You’ve done it by serving the needs of this community. You’ve done it by trusting that God never forgets God’s children. And that God sometimes calls us to a new home in order to make us great. And God wants us to be great.

As we leave here today, may you renew your commitment to live out God’s will in your lives by serving and neighbor in whatever community of faith you join.

God has promised us salvation. So that with Simeon, in all boldness, we can say “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

a Christmas message

When I was a parish pastor, oh so many days ago, I thought it important that our Christmas Eve bulletin include a message from our synod bishop. It was a way that people could hear spiritually uplifting and inspiring words from someone other than their pastor. It was also my way of letting my parishioners know of the connection between them and other people of God in the synod and the wider church.

This year, I am the one who writes those words for parishioners. I confess I found it quite a challenge. How do you write something that resonates with people’s lives; something meaningful that doesn’t sound like sappy platitudes about Christmas and actually has some significance?

I include those words as part of this post. I will leave it up to you, the reader, to evaluate its effect on you.

For those who may wish to use it in other ways, like publishing it in your bulletin, I am attaching a PDF copy in both regular (5-1/2”x8-1/2”) and large (7”x8-1/2”) bulletin size for your use. Click HERE for the regular and HERE for the large.

May your Christmas be blessed and your New Year be filled with joy, peace, hope, and love!

The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

[Isaiah 9:2]

clip_image002[4]Christmas falls around a time that we in the northern hemisphere experience long periods of darkness. The longest night comes just four days before we celebrate the birth of our Savior. So it is wonderful to connect this wonderful event with the lengthening of the days.

We are also living in a time of spiritual darkness. You need not do more than turn on the evening news to see how polarized we are as a nation and as a world.

But at Christmas we declare that God in Jesus, the light of the world, has come among us. Jesus comes at Christmas not just to shine a light into our hearts but to transform the living conditions of the world. And the world cannot remain the same. 

It’s always good to see the number of people who do good deeds at this time of the year such as giving out food baskets and toys to children, serving hot meals to the homeless and needy.  There are actions that declare the Good News of Christmas.

Christmas is a time for confronting the reality of the Bad News, and declaring that peace, justice and righteousness have come into the world in Jesus Christ and will not be denied, because this is the birth of the King of the Universe!

May God’s light shine on you this Christmas, and may God’s Spirit inspire you to become that light for others. May peace reign in your hearts this Christmas and always!

 

The Rev. Abraham D. Allende

Bishop – Northeastern Ohio Synod, ELCA

 

RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

[Psalm 85:7-13]

 

I had intended this Advent season to reflect on the assigned Old Testament prophetic readings. The prophet Isaiah takes center stage during Advent. He speaks words of hope as we await the Savior’s coming. In this week’s reading, the text opens with the words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” [Isaiah 40:1]

But I am especially fascinated by the hopefulness found in the imagery of the psalm reading for this week, Psalm 85, a portion of which is found at the beginning of this post. In particular, I am drawn to verse nine: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

It is a desire that we yearn for amid the tension that this nation has experienced in these past few weeks. Imagine what would be if righteousness and peace were to kiss. We pray, we struggle, we long to dispel those social, political, racial, and economic differences that divide us as a society.

And in the midst of this all, we cannot, we must not forget that we are children of God, created and formed in God’s image. God loves each and every one of us, despite our human flaws. God’s love lives within us, and we are called to be a reflection of that love toward others. It’s that simple, yet that complex.

I close with the following video in which the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, speaks to the issue of racial justice. The video runs less than three minutes.  Listen and reflect. May God’s peace be with you in this Advent season.

Learn more about what the ELCA has to say about criminal justice and race, ethnicity and culture at: http://bit.ly/ELCAStatements.

 

 

FERGUSON – FIGURE OF FRUSTRATION

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

[Isaiah 64:1-2] 

Ferguson logoIf I were to take everything that I’ve read about Ferguson, Missouri, since last summer and stack it in a pile, I imagine the paper would fill a large size room. If I were to add what I haven’t read, we could fill a house. This doesn’t include the hours and hours of news coverage that have been dedicated on the electronic media to the events of just the past 36 hours, since the grand jury decision was announced late Monday night.

Let me preface what I am about to say by confessing that, like all of you, I wasn’t on the scene the day Michael Brown was killed. I did not see what happened. All I know are the tragic results. That is really all anyone knows – that a life was ended by a hail of bullets.

But lack of first-hand knowledge has done little to stop anyone from speaking out. Everyone has a right to speak freely. However, I hold fast to a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” That valuable aphorism has helped me rein in my emotions at controversial times.

Yes, I am reluctant to wade into what has become a cesspool of public opinion surrounding this unpleasant incident. I’m not one who reacts in knee-jerk fashion to such a highly charged, explosive atmosphere as has been created by the killing of Michael Brown. Yet, for as much as I deliberate, as much as I consider all aspects of the issue, even though the cynic in me feels I can add nothing more to the din of the discourse, I can’t stay silent. This is an emotionally visceral moment.

I realize the dangerous ground on which I tread. As a person in a position of church leadership, I am bound by the office I hold to care for God’s people, lead by example of holy living, and give faithful witness. But I am also called to be prophetic. To paraphrase the words Jesus once said, “If I were to keep silent, even the stones would cry out.”

So if you wish to stop reading at this point, I understand. If you have already determined that you think you already know how I feel you need not continue. Thank you for reading this far. I’m writing the rest of this post for my sinful, human self.

It distresses me that Michael Brown is dead, just as any person’s death distresses me. I am distressed because this one death is symptomatic of a deeper, more onerous problem in this country and this society – that of making judgments based on the color of one’s skin. Call it what you will, racism, bigotry, prejudice; it is an illness, a cancer that has metastasized at the very core of our social fabric. I see little hope, no solution, no antidote to the poison that exists in, with, and through us.

It distresses me when I read the comments from those who will never understand, those who condemn the protestors without bothering to consider their frustration. “Why do THEY destroy property?” “Why can’t THEY react peacefully?” “If only THEY would obey the law, respect authority, and on, and on, and on….”

Well, I am THEY. I can tell you that racial profiling does happen. The potential for another Ferguson exists right here in Northeastern Ohio, as a New York Times article from last September points out.

I can tell you that there are people who perceive themselves as superior the moment they look at me. I can tell you that oftentimes, people make stupid comments thinking they mean well, but condescending nonetheless. I’m not just speaking about law enforcement, but the general public as well. I have experienced all of this. Fortunately for you, I am one of the THEY that prefers peaceful reconciliation and doesn’t resort to violence, but oh, sometimes I am so tempted.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that in the photo on my driver’s license I wear my clerical collar. It is a conversation changer. The transformation in attitude once I display my I.D. is astounding, in some cases, almost apologetic.

It distresses me that, unfortunately, I sense that a week from now we will have forgotten Ferguson and will have moved on to the next crisis. Ferguson will be filed in the archives along with Ebola, immigration reform, and gun violence. Bring on Black Friday.

Thankfully, there are also those who, though they will admittedly never understand, are willing to stand alongside the victims of oppression. In every major city, there was a protest on Tuesday after the decision. I thank God for those folks who were and are willing to risk and demonstrate.

And, oh, yes! By the way, a new liturgical season is upon us. It’s Advent. How appropriate that the season of waiting comes at the very time when the people cry out for justice. How fitting that we wait for Christ’s coming at the very time that people are in despair. How meaningful that the God of grace and mercy waits with us who long for hope. I pray for peace and love in this Advent season. Pray for the people of Ferguson.

And I close this long, rambling rant with a prayer by one of my colleagues, Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, who has the gift of articulating his supplications far better than I am able to at this point.

Holy Spirit, use this moment in our life together to transform us. Teach us what it means that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, Republican nor Democrat, police nor citizen, white nor black. Knit us together in a unity that will endure tear gas and broken glass, shattered hearts and belligerent righteousness, frail legal systems and self-protective fear. Make us peacemakers, form us as children of God, humble us and raise us up to something new, a new community, beloved and loving, walking the way of the cross, giving ourselves to your promise of new life, resurrected life, abundant life, on the other side of every death-dealing day. Along that way, make us aware of your constant companionship and empowering presence. Good Lord, deliver us. Set us free to be what you have made and called us to be. Use me, even me, today, tomorrow, and the day after the next, to make a difference, to be an ambassador of your reconciling love, to live and offer new life, a new way, pioneered by Jesus, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Make it so. Now. Today. With morning’s light. Amen

 

HONORING A MEMORY

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

[1 Thessalonians 4:13]

I have tried to avoid making these blog posts a summary of my week’s activities or a reprise of homilies I’ve preached. But yet it seems that, as much as I would like not to do that, I do it anyway. It’s my version of Paul’s words from Romans 7:16, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  

Therefore, allow this preamble to serve as an apology for what I am about to do – tell you about my week’s activities and repost a segment of a homily I preached this past week.

On Saturday, November 8, I received word that one of our pastors had died of a massive heart attack. The Rev. Arthur E. Cubbon had served St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Stow, Ohio, since 2008. His obituary can be found by clicking HERE.

Pastor Arthur E. Cubbon
Pastor Arthur E. Cubbon

I must confess that as bishop, I expected to do pastor’s funerals. But I believed those would be the funerals of retired pastors, those who had faithfully served in our parishes and lived well into their golden years, not one of an active, robust 60-year old. This one came out of the blue. Shock doesn’t begin to describe the emotional impact of such a calamity.

When tragedy strikes, I tend to be one of those people who asks very few questions. I simply begin doing what my vocation calls me to do. I checked in with his widow, the Rev. Leah Schafer, to make sure she was being cared for. I called the deceased pastor’s congregation council president to find out how I could help. It so happened that I had no scheduled parish visit for Sunday morning, so I asked if they would want me to be present for their worship services.

You may find it strange that I would ask permission to be with people in grief. But, as I’ve been counseled, bishops should not take it for granted that we have blanket permission to impose ourselves into the middle of a congregation’s affairs. Yes, this situation was an exception because of its catastrophic circumstances. But I asked anyway, and my request was enthusiastically accepted.

So in essence I preached two funeral sermons – one on Sunday to comfort the congregation in its mourning, and the other on Tuesday as we celebrated the life of this faithful servant. To say that both were difficult is a classic understatement.

I have been with many grieving families over the course of my time in ministry, but never with an entire congregation. This was a first. I prayed for the right words. Based on the reactions of parishioners, my prayers were answered.

St. Stephen Confirmation 2014
Confirmation Class 2014
-Courtesy of St. Stephen Lutheran Church

But my most challenging moment came as I distributed communion and looked into many a tear-stained face. I had to summon all the self-control in my being to keep myself from crying right alongside them.

Tuesday was no easier. What buoyed me on that day, however, was the presence of nearly four dozen clergy, many of whom vested and processed into the sanctuary ahead of the casket that contained the corpse of their now-absent colleague. They were not just Lutheran, but clergy of several other denominations with which Art had collaborated in mission and ministry during his time at St. Stephen’s.  It was an overwhelming demonstration of solidarity and fraternity of the vocation we share, and a powerful witness to the faith which we proclaim. It was the comfort and support I needed at this particular time.

As we approach the end of the calendar year the lectionary readings for our liturgies tend to focus on the end times. Several of them lend themselves to funerals. As I read the texts for Sunday, the 9th, I concentrated on the epistle from 1 Thessalonians and the opening verse: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [1 Thess. 4:13]

And I preached to the congregation:

We do grieve this morning. It is a natural reaction when one loses someone dear to them. We grieve because of all that Pastor Cubbon meant to us – to this church, each individual member as well as the corporate community; to this synod, and to the community of Stow. And we linger in that grief, but we don’t wallow in it. We don’t grieve as those who have no hope. You see, death for the Christian is entirely different from that of the unbeliever because we share in Christ’s victory over death.

My homily also included the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading from Matthew: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matt. 25:13]

Those words took on a whole different meaning for us last Sunday morning.

There are many people who were far more qualified to preach the funeral homily on Tuesday morning. Those who knew Art far better than I did. Those who had more stories to tell than I did. But in God’s sense of order, the responsibility fell to me. I can only hope that throughout the four days, from the time of his death to the day of his funeral, I did justice to Art Cubbon’s memory. And far more importantly, I pray that God was glorified.

 

 

Reflections, thoughts, ideas on ministry and the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA

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