A gift to St Luke

Some Sundays have delightful surprises.  Last Sunday morning, Karen Buesing showed up carrying a big cardboard box.  When she saw me, she

“To Pastor Bernt Hillesland and Saint Luke Church, May 22nd-27th, 2012
I made a Baptismal font bowl with a heart that has the welcoming colors for all the people in our church and with the Saint Luke church cross surrounded by the welcoming heart of the church, and with Jesus halo around the edge of the bowl. And with blue around the side of the bowl to show where the water line is up on the inside of the bowl. And for everyone in the church. And thank you for having Anna and me in the past years when my sister and I were baptized in 2010 and 2011. From, Karen Buesing.”

unpacked a ceramic bowl she’d made by hand as a gift for St Luke.  But not just any bowl.  This is a bowl to hold water and be used in worship.  I’d mentioned the idea in passing to her awhile back, knowing of her interest in ceramics.   We need the consistent presence of water when we come into worship, so we can remember that we have been forgiven, joined to God in Christ, made members of his family (see Karen’s lovely words on welcome, to the left)- in other words, to remember that we’ve been baptized.   Our baptismal font fits best at the front and so isn’t accessible when you come into the sanctuary – moreover, it can’t hold water for a long time without damage to the metal.  Karen and her sister Anna heard my concerns, and thoughtfully shared this gift with us.

So will this bowl hold Holy Water?  No – just good, clean tap water – the H2O we gulp down and bathe in.   When we’re baptized, ordinary water is all God’s promise asks for.  As our Catechism puts it, “without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit’ …” I read recently (in thinking about worship space) that covers for baptismal fonts were invented in the middle ages, as a way of preventing the theft of holy water for use by witches in their sorcery.  We need no such restriction here.  Water is God’s free gift. 

So what’s the water in the bowl for?  When you enter the sanctuary for worship or depart for life in the world, you can dip your finger in the water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead, remembering that you were “sealed with the Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

There’s no magic here, it’s just a tactile experience.  Lutherans know that faith needs the senses – water to bathe in, bread and wine to eat, the sounds of words spoken or sung, the presence of one another.  Christ himself isn’t just a character in a story or invisible presence – but God in flesh.  He comes not to take us from the world, but to redeem us within it.  He’s at home here and we’re his guests.

The sanctuary is not just a place set apart, but a place where we are faced with the everyday stuff of life, and God’s love behind and within it.

Sundays this Summer

Sundays really matter. That’s one conviction we’ve articulated in this year’s work of envisioning the future at St Luke. What’s behind this conviction? First, we know how busy people are, “stretched” into every corner of LA. Many people can’t make midweek church activities. Obviously, members as well as visitors interested in St Luke are more likely to come for worship than anything else.
Second, and most importantly, Sundays matter because of what we do and celebrate together, “the feast of victory for our God:” we hear the scriptures proclaimed, celebrate baptism, pray for loved ones, make music, collect for the hungry, share the peace and the Lord’s supper, have fellowship, Sunday School. In these activities – as we say in our mission statement – we “welcome all to share the joy of faith in Jesus Christ,” and find ways to “extend God’s love and compassion.”

This Summer, there are two ways we hope to enrich our Sundays:

First, for thirteen weeks – from June 10th to September 2nd – instead of the usual two worship services, there will be one Sunday service at 9:30am. Going from two services to one may sound like “cutting back,” and indeed, we want musicians, altar guild and others to have a little less to do. But I look forward to the experience. Both our 8:30 and our 10:45 services have been evolving – not to fit any pre-determined category (“contemporary” or “traditional”) but organically – as we seek to lift up the gifts of children and adults, guitarists or flautists. Now, as in the Christmas concert, pageants, Holy Week services – we “join forces.” Our hope is that both 8:30 and 10:45 services to be richer in music and practice when we go back to two services in the fall. For more about the planned format of the 9:30 service, see below …

There’s a second way we are growing into making Sundays matter. A small group has come together to lead us into some discussions on our worship space. Why? A number of issues and worship changes: the choir no longer using the loft, the need to think about the future of the organ – which is no longer in good shape – and where a possible new organ would be placed, maintenance issues with the linoleum; accessibility to chancel / altar area, etc… Rather than take these issues one by one, we decided it would be best for us to look at the big picture. While we’re at it, we can carry forward some of our learning from adult forums these past several years, on renewing worship and sacred art. What does our space communicate? How does God promise to meet us there? What are the powerful experiences that we’ve had in the sanctuary that we want to build on?
There will be two phases two “phases” to begin this work. First, thee will be a time of learning and looking at the situation. Sybil Buff, Janis Hatlestad, Lynn Gertenbach and myself will seek to solicit your insights in discussion at Sunday forums and consult with musicians, children, visitors, former members, altar guild, property folks. Only after we have spent some time thinking will we begin coming up with proposals.
We have created a page where you can follow along and join in on the conversation: stlukeworshipspace.wordpress.com. One easy way to access this site is by going to our website, click “online newsletter,” then “worship space” in the upper right hand corner.

Summer worship will be at 9:30am, June 10th through September 2nd

8:45am rehearsal for the musicians
9:30-10:30 worship
10:30 coffee hour in the fellowship hall
10:45 some rehearsals for next week’s music
10:45 forums on worship space most Sundays (see front page article)

What’s it going to be like? The order of service will be familiar to all. We’re choosing some music that will be familiar to 8:30 and to 10:45 participants, and introducing some new music. The style, you could say, is “Summer.” The approach isn’t so much to include “a little this and a little that” so much as appealing music of diverse style that really fits together.
Expect a learnable weekly pattern of music that’s South African, Scandinavian, American Gospel, and Celtic, – with multiple instruments – along with special music and hymns that connect to the scripture readings: stories of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark – about his healing, calming the sea, sending out his disciples –and about prophets like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos and Elisha; the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus as the “bread of life.”

How can I help? One goal is to involve many musicians. If you haven’t tried music before, or been able commit to a music group during the year, this is a great way to try it out! You can commit even to just one Sunday – help to lead singing, play an instrument. We’ll be having special rehearsals to introduce to the music the first two Wednesday evenings in June. On the Sundays when you’re “on” you just show up a little early to rehearse, and if possible, also after worship the week before.

Neighborhood block party held at St Luke

We were blessed to be able to use our parking lot to host a block party, organized – very competently – by our local “Costanso” neighborhood watch group.  Since they began to meet at St Luke, this group has grown and become one of the best in the city.

Various businesses were set up with activities for kids, free snacks and information. Dog contest judging being held on the left.

Neighbors catching up; neighborhood watch, St Luke and other tables set up behind.

The party was held Saturday, May 5th, from 4-6pm.  I’m not so good with numbers, but would estimate that there were over 100 people there at any one time, with lots of people coming and going.  A number of activities and information centers were set up:  Officer Sean Dinse and some friendly cadets gave tours of a “real police car” (my own 1 1/2 year old Paul appreciated it greatly) as well as bringing coloring books and a little discipline to the big bounceroo (my kids were pleased that a real police officer told them to not hang on to the netting!).   Home Depot folks were here with a tile painting activity while other businesses provided cuban baked goods, ice cream, and free hot dogs.  There was a raffle with prizes donated by various businesses (two tickets to “under the sea” won by my kids), and there was  live music provided by one of our neighbors – who set up an elaborate array of instruments and electronica, showing his talent and versatility.

There was a dog judging contest – we have quite an assortment of canines in our community, all shapes and sizes, and when they find themselves together in a parking lot, they seem to get along pretty well.  A number of St Luke members came to help out –  one of our members helped organize the event.  Besides providing information about ourselves and free jelly beans with Sunday School invites, St Luke folk helped by providing baskets for food pantry donations.  As we have found in the concert fundraiser series we have hosted, our neighbors are very willing to pitch in.  We took in quite a haul, and had to empty them inside the sanctuary several times.  Some asked for a way to donate cash.  Something to remember for next year …

My favorite part of the day was getting to meet people.  There were lots of lovely kids and parents around.  My kids recognized a couple of acquaintances from Serrania.  One family lives just across the street from the church – in apartments I’d barely noticed.  I got introduced to some friends of friends.  One woman, a dancer, had just returned from living in Australia that week and was readjusting to California.  One man shared passionately his thoughts on Spinoza, Einstein, and religious belief in a pluralistic world.

I am a relatively new resident of the San Fernando Valley, and really, to suburbia.  The basic challenge, it seems to me, is that while people may live here, their jobs and their lives are all somewhere else: “downtown.”  It’s not great for community.  When you don’t get home until 7:30pm, you don’t have much energy to lean over the fence and chat with your neighbor while he mows the lawn.  This block party helped me to see that people do want to feel connected, like an actual “neighborhood” and not just a number of “dwellings.”  For that, let’s be thankful and try to be helpful!  One aspect of our vision for this congregation is welcome: which doesn’t just mean seeing our neighbors as potential members but as friends, allies, people we are here to serve.  This was a rewarding way to do just that.

“I am the vine, you are the branches”

A Sermon … May 6th, 2012. Texts: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

When we pray, it can be hard to focus. All the concerns of the day come to mind: when am I going to get to the store? I should call so and so. And always, that one thought: is this prayer the best use of my time? I’ve got stuff to get done. What should I do? “Be with God? Or be productive?”

Jesus says, “to be with me, IS to be productive. Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Martin Luther – the Reformer – was a seriously stressed out man, what with threats on his life and the collapse of Christendom all around him. And he said that on days when he was especially busy, he wouldn’t “drop prayer time,” he would add an extra hour. I guess it’s about humility – “how important is my work, in the scheme of things?” And it’s about trust – that God’s infinitely more capable of taking care of our business, than we are.

So, maybe instead of going to Trader Joe’s, I’ll use the time to read over a psalm. But can I expect God to run my errand for me? We need milk – will it appear, miraculously, in the fridge? Maybe not. Maybe we go without milk until tomorrow, but my kids’ have a more calm Dad.

Again, bigger picture, here – maybe what I think is important, isn’t what God thinks is important: God’s kingdom come, God’s will done. What we human beings can accomplish is impressive: golden gate bridges, symphonies, nuclear weapons. But what God can accomplish? God can make grapes! God is a horticulturalist, says Jesus – and he’s not the first to say so. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel used the same analogy: God “planted” his priestly people, Israel, like a vine in the midst of the nations. I think Dark grape (pogórze bukowskie)it’s a lovely image for God:

Vines mean grapes – and grapes mean wine – and whatever our relationship may be to alcohol now – in the ancient world, wine meant “joy” and “good times.”

So, rethink the basic questions: What’s the Bible about? A God who plants a vine – Israel and its Christ – and tends the grapes, sees it grow through hard times, to give the world can have a happy feast. And what’s Easter all about? The bursting of life through the soil. The Resurrection: it’s not just what happened to one man back then. Or even what happens to us, someday. Easter is present-tense. He is now my vine. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age,” to quote a poem way out of context. He is my life – he gives life to others, through me. Who am I? What are we all about? Not what I make of myself. I am what God makes of me. A branch of the vine. I am God’s way of bringing other people joy.

Jesus says “apart from me, you can do nothing.” That hits hard. Nothing? What about all the stuff on my resume? “Graduated at the top of my class.” “Doubled profits at my previous company, in just three years.” All that distinguishes me from the rest of the pile of resumes? That shows what I can accomplish? What if we put on our resume’: “Rooted in Christ,” maybe up at the top. Probably not a good idea. But Jesus says, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” God can use our strengths and our weaknesses and even our normalcy. This Gospel passage really lifts up the value of all people. We need the vine – but how can a vine produce grapes without branches? We are his presence and joy in the world!

Churches know what it means, when Jesus says “can do nothing.” We can’t be the “ethnic enclave” we once were before. We can’t be the “social club” we were to previous generations. So, we wonder, what now? Jesus says “abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.” Your life is as close as I am. So, how do we do that, what does “abide” mean?

Basically, “stay connected,” right? It’s pretty obvious – a branch has to stay connected to the vine if there are to be grapes. We have nothing to give anyone, except what he gives to us. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus uses the same word- “abide” – when he says “I am the bread of life. Those who eat of my flesh and drink of my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” This table is our life – it’s where we become what he needs us to be.

Jesus also says “if you continue with my word,” and that word – continue – is really the same word, abide – “if you abide with my word, you are truly my followers, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So – when we hear Jesus’ words – his love for us – he is with us, and we are with him. That was the Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday, when we remember why we are Lutherans.

And it fits with Martin Luther’s practice of meditation. Luther would study and translate the Bible with great insight, maybe use the Bible in arguments against opponents. But he also taught people to “meditate on it.” This just means saying the words – out loud – maybe repeating them, not just trying to “figure them out” but waiting for the meaning to “show up,” for the Holy Spirit to speak. And maybe that won’t happen in a clear way today. Think of how long it took for Christians to see clearly in the Bible that slavery is wrong – centuries. It may take awhile for the grapes to show up.

Mostly, I think, that word “abide” just means “stay with, hang out.” Over and over in the story, we hear that Jesus went and “stayed, abided, with the Samaritans for two days.” Or the first followers – when they still weren’t sure about Jesus – how they went and “stayed” in his house for awhile. What happened there? What did they talk about? What did they do? Who knows. What matters, is that they were together.

When you’re a kid and your Dad says “we’re going to visit Uncle Harold,” you ask, “but what is there to do?” Does he have games to play? Videos to watch?” And Dad says “we’re just going to visit.” Which maybe means “hang out on an old red couch and listen to grownup chitchat” or maybe “eat coldcuts and sweet pickles.” But later, looking back, you appreciate the memories of your Uncle’s house, what it looked like and smelled like, that you got to know him, in some way.
Jesus says, here, “abide in my love,” his love for us, ours for one another. Be together with the rest of the vine. The author of 1st John says, “God IS Love. And those who abide in love, abide in God.” Apart from me, you can do nothing.

Whatever it is we end up doing with our life – the best we can be is probably what we are to our uncles. Or think of what grandkids mean to their grandparents – even when they’re “bored,” curled up on the old couch and wondering “what is there to do?” they’re still a delight to those who love them. The most we have to offer to each other and the world is who we are – branches, breaking forth in clusters of sweet grapes. Fine wine. Joy. Good times.”

“Abide in me – as I abide in you.” Even if our minds are somewhere else. We’re bored. Or thinking about the errands we have to take care of. Wondering how we will ever get through the day. He already abides with us, delights in us, hears our concerns.

Remember the 1st chapter of John’s Gospel? “In the beginning was the Word – through him all things were made – and without him, not one thing came into being.” If we are anything, we are his, and his life is ours. Thanks be to God!