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.

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