Here in Reading, the Lutheran Churches function as a cluster called “The Reading Lutheran Parish” which was first described to me as being about the fact we each have our own individual congregations but that we collaborate in some areas and the pastors and leaders gather for Bible study and support. Within the last year or so, we as the leaders began to see a possible vision of more deeply collaborating in a specific project that would be a Reading Lutheran Parish project, as opposed to being one congregation’s effort that others supported. One of the questions we’ve been asked is how we as leaders will build “capacity,” in other words, how will we deepen the commitment to a collaboration beyond just the intentions of the leaders- how will the people of our congregations get invested and become active in what we are dreaming. We have dabbled at a RLP wide picnic, and at pulpit exchanges or having a couple people from each congregation go to another for worship and then gather to talk about it.
While these things have scratched at the surface, the depth that we hope will be achieved will take more building. In my part of the city, the congregation where I serve, Holy Spirit, is located about a mile from the next, Hope. We are not far from each other, although our two neighborhoods have some differences, and we are far enough to be located near two different elementary schools in our city’s school district.
We each draw folks from our geographic neighborhoods as well as people who drive in to the city to come to the “home church.” We each have folks who could more easily worship at the other. We both provide resources to kids and families in need in ways that dovetail each other well. We each have large old structures that take a lot of us in time and resources to maintain and heat and insure.
And because we are distinct enough, we stay that way- cordial and supportive, but distinct.
Until the other day when Hope Lutheran experienced a problem with their building that meant they would not be able to worship there on Sunday. Which when I shared it with my leaders, immediately one of leaders who lives here in the city, said instinctively-“Invite them to come here!” And we did.
Yesterday, in addition to our regular folks, and a couple visitors invited by others, we doubled in size for worship. Because the Hope folks, carpooling with the church van and personal cars, or biking over, joined us.
Not a couple folks participating in a well orchestrated “exchange”- a congregation joined ours. We sang together in ways we don’t usually, and we prayed together, and we walked together through sharing bulletins to ensure everyone had one. And we showed grace when the grape juice ran out, and the juice box backup was almost impossible to open. We paused to let an older worshipper be communed in his seat even though it interrupted the “flow” of communion traffic. We blessed each other- actually literally- making the sign of the cross on our neighbor’s foreheads and proclaiming them a blessed child of God. And we shared the peace in a way that if replicated would end conflicts everywhere.
And after communion, the bread crumbs looked like confetti on the ground. We had indeed, however cautiously at first, celebrated Christ in our midst together. And people were smiling in contentment- and it was good. It was that mystical combination of realizing this is sacred and it is a celebration. I felt like we were a part of a moment that demanded, “take your sandals off, it’s holy ground.”
And I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. And arguably “capacity” was built, because God accomplished it. God did not make Hope Lutheran’s building problem, but I do believe God’s Spirit interceded and answered the prayer of people who were saddened at the notion that the only option they might have had was to put a note on the door and just been “closed.”
So I wonder, where might God lead? What we experienced was incarnational community- Christ centered, Spirit led community. Because in a crisis moment, all that could be done was to get beyond ourselves. No worrying about if there is the right display at the coffee table, and who sat where. No worrying about whether we will like the hymns today, or if the pastor leads worship the right way. No worrying about whether we know in advance who is coming. Or whether when we say we have transportation to church, anyone will use it. We all got beyond ourselves. And got to experience what God might be trying to get us to see but where so often we are too busy being “Us” to see it. And it was a blessing.
What if we kept intentionally mingling? Back and forth between our two neighborhoods and in our ministries which are compatible in many ways.
Will we allow ourselves to move from being a place where one group “let” another join, to a place where the words we speak and pray and sing each week, come to life?
Interestingly enough, at Holy Spirit, I have been preaching on the Book of Ruth, and I cannot help but hear Ruth’s words to Naomi in a new light. We know nothing about their relationship as mother in law and daughter in law before the men all died. It may have been cordial, and supportive, but probably distinct. Not unlike our churches. But when the crisis moment arises there were two choices- close the door on it all, or figure out what to do together. And so it is for us, perhaps. We can bemoan the high costs of caring for our churches, and keeping leaders. We can feel like strangers in a strange land and long for another day, or place. We can.
Or we can live into what Ruth speaks to Naomi: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).
There is bitterness of Naomi in her losses, but that’s not the whole of the story. Not even when after Ruth has been traveling with her and she still stands and wails that she is no longer able to be called “pleasant” only “bitter.” Ruth still stands with her. Each step of the way, could lead to a "yes" or "no." Ruth's ability to journey shows great faith.
Ruth’s loyalty and love for holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.
We live in an area whose population is not shrinking, and whose people long to be filled- not only with food, but with the good news that life doesn’t have to be empty. There is much to be done for the sake of the gospel.
Knowing just a glimpse of the feast, can we make that journey together?