"From the Pulpit" - reflections on the weekly texts, from Pastor Greg at Living Lord Lutheran Church in Vero Beach, FL
Jesus said to the twelve:]40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
The Gifts of the Small Church
This is the gospel for this Sunday (above), from the 10th Chapter of Matthew's gospel. Six mentions of "welcome" by Jesus, in just three verses. This is at the end of the commissioning and sending of his disciples. He knows these guys are going out into a hostile world - a world where hospitality and welcoming come easy to some, but to this new little band of Jesus believers, it'll be tough. Deadly even.
I was thinking about welcoming this week, and last, and the small congregation, as I reflected on my reunion with a long time colleague and friend in ministry from my first congregation in the Southeastern PA Synod. We ran into one another at our Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago in Orlando. Dave Wallace and I attended, representing our congregation. My friend and her husband had both served congregations near mine in the Quakertown, PA area, and had moved to south Florida in the past few years. Her husband wasn't at the Assembly - he had been dealing with some health issues, and had taken a leave from active ministry.
My friend said they had settled in the Ft. Myers Beach area, and she had been called to serve a congregation there. Immediately, in my mind, I went to Hurricanes Ian and Nicole from last year. I couldn't help but ask her how she had dealt with two disastrous hurricanes, and what things looked like in their aftermath. I said I couldn't imagine what it must be like serving in the aftermath of such total devastation.
Her response was just breathtaking. I figured she might describe how her building had been impacted, or how they're slowly beginning to get back to normal. But she said, and I'll never forget it..."The first thing I did was to contact my people." "My people", she said - a true shepherd of her flock, I thought. The building didn't matter. The property didn't matter. What mattered to her was her people. Were they safe? Were they alive even? How were they doing in the aftermath? "And", she said, "we eventually accounted for everybody. Everybody was safe...and alive, thanks be to God." Wow. What a shepherd, I thought.
She went on to say that her church was pretty much destroyed, along with three other congregations in the area. She said that they were going to begin the process of combining into one congregation, with one building. Coming together as the church, regardless of denomination. She said they'd figure out the denomination thing out later. They just wanted to get back to worshiping Jesus, and gathering around Word and Sacrament, not worrying about a building in the short term.
The downside of this, however, was the toll she said all of it had taken on her, and on her husband. It was just too much for her to continue to manage, despite the rallying of her congregation. And I completely understood. She'll be retiring in the fall, and she wasn't sure she was ready or willing to take on another congregation any time soon. They both are around retirement age. So we prayed together, giving thanks for our respective ministries, and for health and strength going forward.
Unless you've been in the shoes of someone in ordained ministry, it's hard to appreciate the loads...the burdens that we carry, even on the best of days. I'm not saying that we're special, or that our work is any harder than any other profession. By no means. But I am saying that unlike some other professions, it's nearly impossible to leave the work of the church behind as we lock the door on the way out at the end of the day. How is this person feeling after surgery? What am I going to do about this person, who's struggling with depression and loneliness? How are we going to deal with a financial crisis in our congregation, when so many people depend on the church for spiritual and social needs? Did I say the right thing to this person, who asked me to pray for them? Was I attentive enough when someone asked me to help them out? How well did my message resonate with the congregation last week? And so much more. Never mind, how are we going to survive without a building, as my friend is dealing with.
The gifts of the small church come into play here. Knowing one another. Caring for one another. Welcoming one another despite any differences we might have, because we know how we ourselves are welcomed at the table each Sunday around Holy Communion. We know the burdens we all share, and somehow, those burdens are lightened, even if only briefly, as we share a meal and fellowship on Sunday mornings. I'm sure larger churches have figured out how to deal with this stuff - disasters, crises, fractures in the lives of their people. Maybe by dividing up the work. I don't know. But I'll take small. I'll take intimate. I'll take knowing what's going on in our lives and the lives of others in the congregation, even though it may be annoying sometimes, not having privacy, and others knowing more than you'd like about your "business".
So, as you're able, maybe you could add Sherry and Tim to your own prayer list this week and beyond. Tim and Sherry are the clergy friends I'm talking about above. I've added them to mine. I've asked Sherry to come and lead worship and preach one Sunday in the fall or beyond, after she's had a chance to decompress from her current call. I think she has a great story to tell, and I think you would be grateful to hear it. We'll pray on it, and work on it.