It may seem that they have very little in common: an ELCA Youth Gathering of more than 33,000 participants ("'When God shows up, lives will change'") and Hope Lutheran Church in rural Rhodes, Mich. Having the privilege of preaching to both in July, I am delighted to share with you their many similarities.
In both communities the grace of God abounds and a clear Lutheran witness to the gospel is being made. At the center of both the gathering and Hope is the cross of Christ through which God makes us one. And, yes, in both lives are being changed by the Spirit's power.
The word is out in that rural Michigan community that the people of Hope welcome you as you are, not as you think you should be. They believe what Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor, told Youth Gathering participants opening night: God is not in the sin accounting business.
Sitting together in worship at Hope were three generations of lifelong Lutheran family members with those who long ago left a church in the midst of personal turmoil. They had heard the law but not the gospel. But the everyday evangelists at Hope invited them to come and experience the reconciling love of God in Christ.
On the day those at the Youth Gathering focused on discipleship, participants began with worship led by their synod bishops. As we entered the worship space, it was divided by a wall of boxes. We could not see worshipers on the other side of the wall. During worship, those boxes were taken down and formed into the shape of a cross. The walls that divided us had been torn down to become the table of reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus Christ is the host welcoming all to the table.
The same cross, the same meal, the same Jesus, the same faith are at the center of life and witness for the people of Hope. After worship, Reed Schroer, pastor of Hope, walked through the cemetery right outside the church doors. He told stories of the faithful who had passed on the faith from generation to generation.
It is the power and promise of Christ's resurrection that holds us as a community of faith. Just as Good Friday's aching loss, Holy Saturday's forsaken absence and Easter Sunday's promise of resurrection to new life in Christ has held the people of New Orleans through generations of struggle from slavery and poverty to Katrina's devastation.
Like the people of Hope, Youth Gathering participants gave witness that Christ frees us for lives of service. Every day, 11,000 participants went into the community to learn, to serve and to accompany the people of New Orleans as they continue rebuilding lives, communities and congregations. On the back of their orange T-shirts was a quote from Martin Luther: "Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing."
The people of Hope are witness to such a living faith. They realized they needed more space, so with 200 volunteers who are not members of the congregation they built a new worship space. "Why stop with us?" they asked. So they built a new fire station for the community. Now a school has been purchased for a preschool. They gather money and when they have enough, they buy a truckload of food for all those in the community who need groceries.
That same joy in serving and giving was evident among our youth. The 100 Wells Challenge goal of $250,000 was surpassed — young people gave more than $400,000 for water projects.
The means of communicating may differ for Hope members and gathering participants. Sunday morning we had breakfast in the Rhodes Café. It clearly is a community gathering place where issues are discussed, personal stories shared and laughter fills the air. For those who were in New Orleans, text messages and tweets keep them connected and sharing faith. One tweet read: "I will see Jesus in everything I do from now on."
Hope members and Youth Gathering participants are signs of the Spirit moving throughout this church in the ministry of congregations, the witness of the baptized and our working together to proclaim Christ, serve our neighbor, and work for justice and peace. Thanks be to God!
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers