Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Welcome back! We’ve been looking forward to this day since October 3 of last year, when we moved out of this sanctuary and the work on our Rise, O Church sanctuary renewal project began. Actually, we’ve been waiting a lot longer than that. We first began discussing the possibility of a chancel renovation in 2018. That was when we began thinking carefully together about the limitations of our 1950s sanctuary for worship in the 21st century and began dreaming about how this space could serve us better. Of course, that entire conversation was prompted by a much lengthier discussion about our failing organ. It was over 30 years ago that we began to learn that the organ was having some problems. Over the years, parts of the organ became inoperable and our organists learned how to play around the pipes we could no longer use. Our aging organ required increasingly frequent and not inexpensive service calls from the local organ repair company to fix “ciphers”—notes that would stick—and other various problems. Finally, with this project, we are getting a new organ. It’s our musicians who have waited the longest for this day. And, truth be told, they are still waiting. As we return to our sanctuary today you can see and hear that the organ is not yet here.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate what has been done, most of which you can see with your own eyes. New floors free from asbestos; the brown tiles and red carpet aisles are no more. Pews have been replaced by moveable, comfortable chairs, and positioned today in such a way that we get to see more of one another in worship than just the backs of people’s heads. The chapel has truly become an extension of the sanctuary while also allowing us the flexibility to hold smaller services in that more intimate space. The chancel has been extended into the nave, blurring the lines between worship leaders at the front of the room and the rest of the congregation. If the old sanctuary communicated a more medieval, hierarchical understanding of worship with the holiest things at the very front of the church, far removed from the sinners who gathered in the nave, this space intends to communicate that we are a community of sinners and saints gathered around a welcome table and nourished by word and sacrament. The new liturgical furnishings—this pulpit, the table, and the font—were designed and built just for this space, using marble that once graced the original high altar. (On your way in, you probably noticed set into the narthex floor the marble snake upon which the presiding minister would stand when presiding at communion at the high altar.) We also worship now in a more accessible space, with a ramp leading up to the chancel that finally makes it possible for people with mobility challenges to read lessons, serve at the table, and sing in the choir. So many wonderful new things.
And still, much remains to be done. The temporary black curtain behind me conceals an unfinished, cinder-block wall where, eventually, by Christmas, the new organ will be installed. We continue to wait for a new processional cross, a new paschal candle stand, and miscellaneous side furniture. In a bizarre incident at the chair factory, a water pipe burst that was part of the fire suppression system and several dozen of the chairs we were expecting were destroyed. We’ve done the best we can with the chairs we received, but if you’re wondering why we’ve got folding chairs in the chapel, why some of the chairs don’t match, and why so many of the chairs you’re sitting on in the nave don’t have any hymnal racks, it’s because we’re still waiting for the rest of our order to arrive. Then there are all the minor details: pieces of trim that need a second coat of paint, radiator covers, new doors, backordered electronics, and a long list of other smaller things. And of course, your pastors and musicians and livestream technicians and all the worship volunteers are still figuring out how everything is going to work in this new space, and we ask for your grace as we stumble along.
As we’ve scrambled to get this space ready for today and realized we would worship this morning with some things still unfinished, I’ve been reminding myself that the church is always unfinished, always imperfect, never fully ready but nevertheless called into action.
That is actually a pretty good reflection for Pentecost, this day in the liturgical calendar that we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the church. Each year on Pentecost we read this story from Acts 2. Acts, you may remember, is considered by biblical scholars to be part two of Luke’s Gospel, so Acts is the book of the Bible that tells the story of what happened just after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As the book of Acts begins, Jesus bids his disciples a final farewell and he is lifted into heaven. That’s the story we heard last week on Ascension Sunday. This week we turn to the second chapter of Acts and find the disciples gathered together in a room. You get the sense they don’t really know what they’re supposed to do now that Jesus has left them once and for all. We just read that they’re all together in one place, apparently just waiting. All of a sudden they are filled with the Holy Spirit and given the ability to speak in many languages. Peter understands that with these newfound abilities, the disciples are being called to go out and proclaim good news to all the world. They are not exactly ready; they don’t really know what they’re doing. But they are nevertheless called into action. From the very beginning, the church has been imperfect, but somehow the Holy Spirit makes it work.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book Pastrix about new member classes at the church she served at that time, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She says she would always ask people, “What drew you to this place?” Some would say they loved the singing, the community, the fact that they could be themselves, that they laughed a lot and everyone felt welcome. Then she would say, “I love hearing all that, but there is something very important you need to know: This community will disappoint you. It’s a matter of when, not if. We’ll let you down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt your feelings.” Then she would invite them, on this side of that inevitable disappointment, to decide if they’d stick around after it happens. She would tell them, “If you choose to leave when we don’t meet your expectations, you won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure. And that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.” An imperfect church is all the Holy Spirit has ever had to work with, and somehow still good news is proclaimed, babies are splashed with water, and people are fed. And in fact, as Nadia Bolz-Weber explains, sometimes it’s by bearing with the church’s imperfection and the inevitable disappointment we experience in community that it becomes possible for us to experience God’s goodness and grace.
Martin Luther once wrote that this life “is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being, but becoming, not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being cleansed.” The church, like each one of us, is a work in progress, always imperfect but growing toward perfection, not yet at the destination but on the way.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, on this day when we celebrate our return to this newly remodeled sanctuary, to have a big black curtain hanging up in the front, some unpainted trim and unfinished doorways, folding chairs in the chapel, and, no doubt, a few hiccups on the livestream, to remind us that the church is always unfinished, in progress but never complete—and that, even so, the Holy Spirit is at work, using this space and each one of us to proclaim good news and nourish hungry souls. Not yet what we will be but growing toward it—and somehow, nevertheless, good enough to be used for God’s purposes in the world. Thanks be to God.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho, 2013).
Martin Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. George W. Forell and Helmut T. Lehman (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1958).