This sermon was the second half of a sermon for Pentecost Sunday at a Heritage Service celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Lansing, Iowa. It followed a reflection of about the "giants" of the bible and the "giants" of the congregation's history who were channels of divine power. At the start of the service, worshipers were instructed to divide by gender and sit on separate sides of the sanctuary (with men on the pulpit side) to experience how the earliest members would have worshiped.
We are so grateful to Pastor Don Berg for being a part of our service today and reflecting with us on how God has worked through the “giants” of our congregation over the years. And on this, the anniversary of our church, celebrated on Pentecost, the anniversary of the coming of the Holy Spirit to launch the entire Christian church, it is fitting to look back at the events of the past—to muse, to marvel and to learn. We are enormously blessed by the work of our member and historian, Barbara Scottston, who uncovered such a rich history for us.
It is important that we grab hold of what we’ve learned to help us as we go forward. And so my portion of the sermon will focus on the future. In order to do so, we need to get you out of this historical, gender-segregated seating and back to modern seating, yes? Okay, then. When I say “go” you’ll get up and return to your original pew. On your way, you are going to stop and shake the hand of at least one person you do not yet know. Introduce yourself and tell how you’re connected to this congregation. Don’t talk too long, though, because I’ve got a great message to preach. Ready? Go! (everyone moved back to their original pew).
Ah, that looks more normal doesn’t it? Men and women sitting side by side in the pews, reflecting equality because God’s word isn’t just for men any more. It’s for women, too. And not only can women hear God’s word from any pew they wish, they can now proclaim it!
Do you realize that for more than two thirds of this congregation’s history, women were not allowed to be ordained as pastors? In April of 1970, the Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain women at their Fifth Biennial Convention, as did the American Lutheran Church at their convention that year. I’m going to reveal my age, but I have to tell you that decision by the LCA, was made a month before I was born. So I like to think that I embody the new era of female clergy. But even though the Lutherans that formed the ELCA have allowed women to be ministers for my entire life, I’m only the second woman minister this church has ever had. And I’m happy to say that the first pioneer, Pastor Debra Samuelson, is here with us today. We also have Pastor Diane Koshmeder and Pastor Terrie Rae Anderson, participating in our service today. Not only that, the Reverend April Ulring Larson is with us, too, and she was the very first woman in the entire ELCA to be elected as a synodical bishop. Oh, and our presiding bishop, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, as you might have guessed by her name, is also a woman. She has this to say about it: "I give thanks for all women in ministry. We are doing what Mary, the mother of our Lord, and Mary Magdalene did before us – proclaiming the gospel.” So let’s have a round of applause for women everywhere proclaiming the gospel!
That’s a big deal. A big, big deal. A gigantic change. Old Reverend Hjort (our church's first pastor) and the founding members of this congregation would have surely gasped in disbelief and rolled their eyes about in their heads if you’d have told them their church would have a sesquicentennial celebration in 2017 in which men and women would be allowed to sit together in the pews for a full half of that service and that a woman would be preaching. Yes, change happens. Even to Norwegians.
But you see that’s the problem of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit’s something else. We like to think the Holy Spirit—or the Holy Ghost as we used to call it—as a nice little thing. We often use a dove or a candle to symbolize it but the ancient Celtic church used a wild goose to symbolize the Spirit. Seriously? A goose? When I was a kid my neighbor had free ranging geese and I thought they were cute so I stopped my bike to pet one and you know what happened? It bit me! Took a chunk out of my arm. Geese are hard core. So a wild goose is a crazy symbol for the Holy Spirit. Crazy. But the Celtic church specifically chose this animal because they understood the untamable and dangerous nature of the Holy Spirit. It is powerful. Unexpected. Uncontrollable. Beware, my friends: it shows up and bites you!
Today is Pentecost Sunday—the day when Christians around the world celebrate this passionate, powerful, fiery Spirit that came upon the early disciples. It blew through them like a mighty wind and gave them new languages with which to proclaim the gospel. You see that? It immediately changed their agenda. They were planning on telling the good news but probably not to everybody. Then the wild goose of a Spirit comes honking in and bites them and *poof* they are the boldest proclaimers in the universe. Ordinary people became extraordinary and changed the world. It was outrageous! That’s why the cynics looked on and thought the disciples thought must have been drunk off their butts.
Those pioneers from Norway, well, they just thought there oughta be a church here in Lansing so they drew up the paper work in 1867 with nothing but a handful of faithful immigrants and a pastor with a five-point parish commuting to worship by horse and buggy. There’s no excuse for such behavior. It had to be the wild goose Spirit whispering in their ears (well, probably chomping on their ears) telling them they could do what could not be done, telling them to risk it all and trust God that their little church was going to last.
And that, I believe, is the most important legacy they’ve given to us: faith. Martin Luther wrote that faith is “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that believers would stake their lives on it a thousand times.”
That’s what the Holy Spirit allows us to do: to trust fall into the arms of God’s grace. It doesn’t make sense to anybody else. It might make us look drunk. But it enables us to give up controlling things ourselves, to allow the undomesticated Holy Spirit to fly where it may, even if that means lots of changes ahead.
In addition to being a pastor, I teach laughter seminars to get people laughing with abandon, tapping into the joy and freedom Christ gives us. So people give me a lot of jokes and bulletin bloopers. This one’s my favorite: “We pray for those who are sick of this church.” You know, after 150 years, you’d think we’d all be a little sick of this church. But when the Holy Spirit is allowed to reign supreme and take us where we didn’t plan to go, urging us:
• to live among God’s faithful people
• to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
• to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
• to serve all people—all people—following the example of Jesus
• to strive for justice and peace in all the earth
And to carry all this out in ever outreaching ways: like having Holy Hilarity services were we laugh at death, and inviting donkeys to lead the Palm Sunday processional (even if they sometimes poop in the church) and worshiping on a boat and baptizing people in the Mississippi River if that’s where they want to be baptized and holding special services just to bless animals, and producing albums of worship music and who knows what's next?!
If we give the Holy Spirit freedom to do this and more—well, then we’ll never be sick of this church. Living the life of faith will be way too much of an adventure.
I don’t mean to say that it is not a challenge. This is an incredibly difficult time to be the church. Worshiping communities are shrinking across the country. It’s a constant effort to be seen as relevant. We have real struggles. But so did our ancestors in the faith. And yet they persisted and trusted that they had a mission to accomplish and with God, it was possible.
As we go forward, let us do so with their tenacious spirit. I pray that we will have a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. And I pray that the wildness of the Holy Spirit will flap in here and take over our lives and our church and lead us forth with fiery passion, fearlessness and with great joy! Amen.
© 2017 Laura Gentry