The people of St Luke are entering into a new time of transition. My wife, the Rev. Katherine Marshall and I are taking a new call to serve as co-pastors of First Lutheran Church of Palo Alto, to begin in late June. So this will be my last time writing as the pastor of St Luke! What to say? Make some suggestions for your future? Apologies? Just now I was preparing for my sermon Sunday and read what Paul says to the Christians in Ephesus: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the holy ones, so I don’t cease giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” I like that. I’ve lived with your faith and your love, and I have been blessed!
So, now, a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the people and ministry of St Luke.
I thank God that I got to meet you! You flew me down from Washington State to meet with your call committee: Judy Platts, Lisa Curtis, David Schilder, Mindy Melnik, Mary Ann Hausner, Brian Jessen. With the help of your interim pastor, Rev. Elizabeth Steele, you had been getting through a time of congregational conflict. There was new energy at St Luke. The call committee said that you wanted to see “redevelopment” as a congregation, and not just because you wanted to survive as a congregation. You sensed a purpose for survival: God needed your gifts for mission.
You called me to be your pastor, and we had some further conversations. Church consultant Dr. Jim Pence facilitated your work in crafting a mission statement: “We are a Christian community extending God’s love and compassion, welcoming all to share the joy of faith in Jesus Christ.” I don’t know how long this statement will be helpful. But I do give thanks for that experience of diverse people spending all day together in one room, listening, arguing, laughing their way into an experience of deep clarity and unity. You were “sharing the joy of faith in Jesus Christ!” I give thanks for the profound ways you have lived into the mission you identified.
Aftewards, we kept talking and praying and sharing. Now what? Some conversations went on for hours, and we didn’t seem to get anywhere. Sometimes there was sudden inspiration for new ministries of faith, compassion and welcome. When the recession hit, creative energy surged and you provided free resume, legal and other counselling. You became a leading supporter of our local food pantry through joyful concerts, whether bluegrass or celtic. There was a new ministry of free lunch to the homeless in Van Nuys, bible studies and lectures on art history.
We tried things that didn’t always work as we hoped but still opened new doors. We took out the front pews so people at the 10:45 service could sit facing each other in chairs. It didn’t catch on so well. But we were finding a new sense of community. We shared personal thanksgivings at the communion table. Later on, in a different way, we found new community in a combined worship experience. I give thanks for the ways you welcome one another with your gifts, needs, ideas and life stories.
One important conversation led us to write a statement of welcome: “Our welcome and Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” extends to neighbors of diverse racial or ethnic background, physical and emotional needs, sexual orientation, and gender identity. We affirm with the Apostle Paul that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.”(Galatians 3:28) Christ has made us one.” You expressed “being made one” by voting almost unanimously (one vote away) to live by this statement, becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. It’s not just about good intentions. I have seen you extend and receive forgiveness, patience in love, joy in the lovely people who come your way – whether that be a person who is gay, a Korean Christian, someone who is differently-abled or a Persian young adult.
“I never cease giving thanks for you,” says Paul. Of course, the Christians in Ephesus did have their issues! Maybe I paint a rosy picture of life at St Luke. There have been struggles all along the way, and there will be more ahead. But I like how, for Paul, the gift of God for us to recognize isn’t just the faith or love that gets us through. The people are themselves God’s gifts.
An important experience for me, early on, was just growing to really like you as you were and are. (Yes – like: as – I believe – my favorite openly gay Catholic theologian, James Alison, has said, the word “love” as its used today sometimes means a begrudging “wish you well, but please keep your distance.”) Maybe if I was less happy with who you already were, I would have insisted that you make more dramatic changes quickly? But it seemed like our experiences of mutual respect and shared joy bore fruit that has been wonderful to savor. I think of powerful moments in worship: standing outside on Palm Sunday with the brass playing, or at the Easter Vigil with everyone singing “this little light of mine” to welcome some newly baptized person – moments when I said to myself: “This is just great!” I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” – from Ephesians 1