Last week I took my own boys to Bible Camp. I have always liked to use the time they are at camp as my own time to catch up on reading and writing and I did the same this year. However, because of Owen’s tonsillectomy and the upcoming trip to Norway and other commitments, we couldn’t find a week that worked for us to go to Camp Emmaus like usual, so finally – I began looking at other camps. After comparing schedules and costs, we decided to go to Red Willow Bible Camp near Binford, North Dakota.
I had been there before, helping with retreats in college and it was nice to go back. I spent time reading and writing but then when the nice day outside would start calling too loudly to me, I would leave to go explore – many times just the trails around the camp, but also the area. Many of you know I like to take pictures of country churches and there were no shortage of them. On the plains of North Dakota you can see the steeples rising up for miles away and I would head in that direction to see what there was to see. I found many abandoned churches – the doors secured shut with plywood and heavy nails; their bells plucked from their towers and now resting in the cemetery with a commemorative display of the history of that church’s rise and demise.
I found plenty of thriving country churches as well – and most of them with unlocked doors so I could go inside and peruse the confirmation pictures, check out their bulletin boards, their sanctuaries – see what their was to see. One late afternoon I came across a small church at the intersection of two gravel roads. This church still has worship each Sunday, but no indoor bathrooms, rather – an outhouse behind the church. I always think it is interesting to see what churches have decided is a necessity and what isn’t over the decades. They had a sound system, an elevator, gorgeous stained glass – but somewhere along the way they had drawn the line at an indoor bathroom. There has to be a story there. Anyway, this church was very cool – if you take a tiny stairway going up at the back of the sanctuary, you come to the cutest room in the world up in the bell tower – it has huge windows on all sides so you can look out over the prairie in all directions. Gorgeous!
And one afternoon when Owen was exploring with me we went to Norway Lutheran Church, a unique, lovely sandstone brick church built in 1903, perched on a remote hill in McHenry county. It was thunderstorming when we got there but a man was there who had been mowing the cemetery before the storm started and he was waiting to see if the rain would stop. He had keys to the church and let us in – His name was Ivan and he was a grandson of one of the charter members and told us stories – including that there was a famous Norwegian buried there, Sondre Norheim, who had invented a certain kind of ski strap and is considered the Father of Telemark Skiing. But that wasn’t the end! Then, he invited us to see the basement – which could only be accessed through a storm cellar door – but sure enough, once you got down there, there was a small kitchen and a seating area, and the requisite stand for the confirmation pictures. The church had stopped having regular services twenty years ago because the once thriving congregation had shrunk to six members. Ivan said that when he was growing up the church had been full every Sunday, but as families shrunk, and people moved away, and the location of the church remained remote, within a few short decades there was no choice but to close.
Not long ago, a friend asked me why in the world I like to visit these little churches and particularly abandoned churches and cemeteries. To her it seemed like such a morbid hobby. However, I like to imagine all the life that was once in those places. The best way I can explain it, going out of my way to find those places feels like I am paying tribute to what once happened there. Those lives, those hymns they sang, those times they gathered for fellowship or to study scripture or to support each other in grief – all of that mattered. Those people Ivan pointed out to me on the picture board as he told stories of friends and neighbors, fellow Christians who had lived and died in the faith, cared for each other and the world in the good and the bad – they mattered. And even if ministry in that place seems to have ended, it really didn’t because the ripples of what was taught there, the goodness shared through the people there, it continues through the generations through the descendants of those congregants wherever they go. The Word of God continues. It mattered and it matters still.
In fact, much of this Christian faith is based on trusting that things that seem small or maybe things we can’t even see at all – matter. Take the gospel for today as a good example – Jesus says even giving just a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty shows the One to whom we belong. It’s not flashy. It’s not going to get us on television or one million hits on Youtube – and yet, the smallest, simplest acts of helping and welcoming others are what matter the most in God’s Kingdom.
Welcoming others is a holy task. We don’t invite people here or get to know people out there just because it is a nice thing to do or because we want them to be nice to us in return or even because we want to plump up our membership rolls, we do it because we take to heart what Jesus said here, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” How we treat others is how we treat Jesus himself.
What would happen if we began to treat each and every encounter as if it were with Jesus himself? What would happen if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of grace, every interaction as an opportunity to embody Christ’s love for the neighbor?
Not long ago, a friend was talking about an interaction she had with the person who bagged groceries at our local grocery store. They had been talking off and on for a year, and finally my friend, out of the blue, invited the woman at the grocery store to come to her church. The woman responded by giving her a hug!
We may rarely receive such a positive response when we take the risk of reaching out, yet we may be surprised at how ready some are to receive our humble invitations and efforts. We need to remember Jesus’ promise: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.”
But this welcoming goes much farther than pleasantries exchanged at the grocery store. Jesus brought healing and taught justice every place he went and he calls us to do the same.
This is why we do what we can each day – because each of our small acts matter – whether it is collecting funds to help a local family going through unspeakable loss, or when we collect groceries for the food shelf so that no one will have to worry about getting food on their tables. This is why put together the personal care kits for Lutheran World Relief and spend time picking up garbage on the side of the road to care for this earth God gave us. It matters.
And this is why Christians care about everyone having access to healthcare and yes, even helping to provide it for those who can’t afford it on their own. It matters. It is a holy thing to care for each other because when we do, we show what we think of Jesus and what Jesus has asked of us. We’re showing that we recognize that we are more than just human beings, skin and bones and breath – we are each children of the same heavenly father.
It matters. Caring for each other, caring for strangers in whatever small and great ways God puts in front of us. It matters. When we do these things, we do great things.
Both when we give help – and when we receive help. This is important to remember as well. There is holiness to be found not just when we are able to offer help to others but when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and receive it. In many ways, this is the harder thing – to admit when we need help and then let others minister to us. Indeed, vulnerability is a key part of the Christian faith.
Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary writes, “Somewhere along the line, we lost our view of the fact that God becoming human was as much of a commitment to vulnerability as God’s death. We have a vulnerable God. Relationships, by definition, are vulnerable. By instigating a relationship with us, God decided and determined that vulnerability is at the heart of faith.”
There was a couple I knew who had three children and the oldest had just graduated from high school. People told them many things to expect as they began to see their children leave home – they were prepared to slowly see their nest empty out and head toward a new season of their lives. What they weren’t prepared for was to find out they were pregnant with twins. Everything turned upside down for them as they realized the next years were going to be much different than anticipated. They felt bad that they didn’t feel immediately elated about two new members coming into their family – instead they felt many conflicting emotions as they got used to this news and figured out how they were going to afford these new babies and how they would care for them and the needs of their older children.
The ladies of my church at the time wanted to throw a baby shower for this family. The family had been attending our church very sporadically for a while and even though they needed everything for these new babies, they hesitated at the offer of a shower because they hadn’t been around much at our church in the last year. But I explained to them that we longed to be supportive to them during this unexpected time. This congregation made up of many, many elderly folks positively ached to go shopping for baby things and welcome these new babies. It was going to be an easy and a happy thing for us to do that. “Please, please let us,” I said. And the couple let themselves be vulnerable and let us help them and while that family went home with truckloads of great stuff for their soon to be born babies, I hope they understand that it was even moreso a blessing for all of us to throw that baby shower. We were a congregation that experienced more funerals than anything else at that time and so everyone was giddy to think about bottles and diapers for a bit.
Sometimes we are able to help, sometimes we need help – and there is holiness and joy to be found in both. Wherever you are at this week – trust God will work through you in your strength, and in your vulnerability. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.