I’m in Palm Desert, CA. this week with my colleagues, at the Professional Leaders’ Conference of the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We’ve been coming out to the desert for over two decades each fall for a time of worship, learning, and fellowship. I wanted to share some reflections on what we have shared this week through the lens of worship.
Our plenary speakers this year are the Rev. Susan Briehl, renowned ELCA theologian and liturgical specialist, and the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA (the synod to our north). Our theme is “Congregations at the Crossroad” and we have been talking about what that means, in all facets of congregational life.
So many times our congregations find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to worship. The question might seem to be a big one – concerning what lessons to read, perhaps – or it might seem to be a relatively small one, such as what variety of wine to use for communion. The ELCA introduced a new hymnal in 2006, and that was a major crossroads for everyone.
Susan Briehl pointed out to us that Jesus’ first public words in the gospel of John are “what are you looking for?” They are repeated in the garden after the resurrection, to Mary Magdalene. These words put everyone who encounters them at a crossroads, forcing the questions “what is missing for you? What is at the heart of your need? What do you need for life abundant?”
In his answer, Jesus invites – “come and see” – and this becomes a leitmotif throughout John’s gospel. “Come and see” is uttered by Philip to Nathaniel, and by the woman at the well. (We also hear it from Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death, albeit in a different way: Jesus, you need to come and see what it’s like to deal with this pain.)
This “crossroads by invitation” is really where we should find ourselves every Sunday – asking and hearing the question “what are you looking for?” as well as hearing and proclaiming “come and see.”
Bishop Erwin – a noted Luther scholar – talked about aspects of a community that just about anyone would be eager to “come and see”:
- Christianity that one need not be ashamed of – intellectual respectability, social responsibility, aesthetic value, community
- Idea of participating in something bigger than ourselves, better than our everyday lives
- A critical tradition –a profound and often overlooked legacy
- Unapologetically church
- A sacramental faith, a “real presence” – different from everything else
What do we seek? Over and over, those of us in leadership hear that people are seeking some kind of connection and community, though they are at the same time apprehensive of community. We seek connections that are profound yet meaningful, freely offered and non-coercive. We are looking for Jesus as experienced in the believing and beloved community.
What would that believing and beloved community look like? Bishop Erwin suggested it would include a sense of the sacred and sacramental, it would be a forgiving place where we wrestle together with complex things, where we would be organized for growth in mission to the community and in humility, and finally, it would be a home – a place where we belong.
What are you looking for?
Come and see.