Richwood Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
140th Anniversary—July 1, 2012
A congregation is a sturdy sign of the amazing faithfulness of God.
A congregation is a tangible token of the fact that God’s mercies are never old, never stale, never outdated. Unlike the last loaf of bread you purchased, there is no “expiration date” on God’s mercies. They are as new as now, as fresh as this morning’s dew….and a congregation, this congregation is evidence of that fact.
A congregation marks a place and a people among whom all the promises of God become real, are available, and transform everyday lives.
I know that I’m probably just naming things you already realize, that you feel, deep in your bones….but have you thought about this stuff lately? A church anniversary is a good time to do that!
Have you marveled at what an amazing thing a congregation is? Have you pondered how miraculous it is that congregations exist and persist over time?
Surely it would not have to be that way. For any number of reasons this congregation or any congregation could have closed up shop years ago. Believe me--as I travel out from Moorhead to congregations across our synod, I regularly pass by all sorts of boarded-up country church buildings.
Why has that not happened to you? Why is your congregation still alive, still vital? What in God’s name are you doing here, my dear friends?
That’s a lively question nowadays in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. All of our congregations are being invited to take a step back and pause to perceive what God is up to in our midst….and then to figure out how we might align our energies around serving God’s mission of blessing and redeeming the whole creation through Jesus Christ.
So, I ask you, my dear friends: what in God’s name are you doing here? Why has God allowed Richwood Lutheran Church to exist and persist for fourteen decades? And where is God taking you for the rest of your life as a congregation?
Fortunately, we don’t have to answer such big questions in a vacuum. We needn’t manufacture our responses out of whole cloth. As we simply pay attention, as we pause long enough to notice, we hear God prompting us and leading us to where we need to go.
Martha Grace Reese is a Christian writer and speaker who’s been lifting up the idea of “three great listenings” for today’s church—
· listening to God speak promise and purpose through the Scriptures;
· listening to the hurts and hopes of our neighbors; and
· listening to one another as we discover the gifts the Holy Spirit has given to us, here and now.
1. So what do we hear when we listen to God this Sunday morning, in the scripture readings we have before us?
In our first lesson, I think I hear—at the heart of the Book of Lamentations—a tried and tested testimony to the fact that God’s always got our backs, even when we have some doubts about that. God never lets us down—really!
I think I hear—in our second lesson from II Corinthians—that God meets us in the generous kindness of others, persons who’d give their last penny to help hungry folks they’ve maybe never met.
I think I hear—in our gospel lesson from Mark—that God is in the business of stopping bleeding, raising the dead, and (in so doing) restoring people to the human community.
I think I hear—in all these scripture readings—the grace notes, the foundational chords, the fascinating harmonies that have been sung by this congregation for 140 years: God is faithful, God meets us in generous others, God heals, God raises the dead, God restores us to the community of Jesus Christ.
2. What about that second “great listening,” though? How are we hearing the hurts and hopes of the people who live around us? This congregation has been doing that for as long as it has existed, because if that were not the case, you’d have had no reason to be here. What have you heard from your neighbors, for the last 140 years, that has inspired you to live and serve as God’s people?
This morning’s scripture readings, once again, offer us some clues:
I bet you’ve listened to people on the edge of despair, at their wit’s end, wondering where to turn. We hear such voices, in the background of our first lesson from Lamentations—the exiles of Jerusalem, wondering why God allowed their enemies, the Babylonians, to lay siege to their city.
I’ll wager that you’ve listened deeply to persons who’ve suffered catastrophic losses—losses from which they could not recover without some help from neighbors like you. We hear such voices in the background of our reading from II Corinthians—because, you see, it was a widespread famine that led first century Christians to take up a monetary offering to feed the famished saints in Jerusalem.
I know that you’ve walked with persons stalked by illness, haunted by death. We hear such voices in the background of our gospel from Mark—where we encounter a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for twelve years and a man whose 12-year-old daughter has just died.
How have you and your forebears heard these voices, down through 140 years of your congregation’s life? How has this parish responded, time and again, to the hurts and hopes of your neighbors? Can you see how these, too, have given you purpose and meaning as a congregation—a sign of God’s amazing faithfulness?
3. And finally, there is that third great listening: your attentiveness to one another’s gifts, lavished upon you by the Holy Spirit, so that you might have all you need to do God’s work.
What gifts has the Holy Spirit rained down upon you since 1872?
How about the gift of hospitality in community? When I was researching Richwood’s history, I came across this little tabloid memento from your 100th anniversary—and I quickly noticed that half of the pictures featured FOOD being served! Feeding one another comes naturally for those of us who live close to the land, in farm country.
What about your love for music that enhances your worship of God? Though small in numbers your church has consistently called forth the musical gifts of your members and kept a choir or other musical groups going after many congregations of your size may have given up on that.
How about the gift of teaching the faith to the next generation? From the early days of Richwood’s parochial school that taught lessons in Norwegian for six weeks a year…down to the last synod youth gathering that kids from this parish attended, you have been about the formation of followers of Jesus Christ.
And I know this is true because I’ve known some of Jesus’ disciples from Richwood long before I first visited this parish.
The first of these disciples was Jean Fingalson whom I first met 35 years ago, as a student at Luther Seminary. We were co-workers and friends, at the seminary, in the SW MN Synod, and finally at Our Savior’s of Moorhead where I was Jean’s pastor. I always knew that Jean’s primary identity, though, was that of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Then there was the amazing Marge Leegard—extraordinary teacher, winsome preacher, thoughtful leader in our ELCA. We became friends when she served as chaplain for many years at the annual retreat for ELCA bishops and synod staffs in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Marge was one of Richwood Lutheran’s gifts to the entire church!
And then during my first year as bishop, I met Jade Gandrud, a youth representative on our synod assembly planning committee….whose imagination shaped the theme and program of the first synod assembly over which I presided in 2008.
And I’m just sure that Richwood has produced a whole bunch of other disciples of Jesus Christ, who have served in other ways, too numerous to name. A parish that can produce a Jean or a Marge or a Jade….certainly has some more gifts floating around, to be shared in God’s church and God’s world.
So, what in God’s name are you doing? Dear friends in Christ of Richwood Lutheran Church, if you ever wonder how to answer that question, engage in the three great listenings:
• listen to God speak promise and purpose through the Scriptures;
• listen to the hurts and hopes of your neighbors; and
• listen to one another to discover the wealth of gifts the Holy Spirit is giving you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.