I grew up in a VERY liturgical ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) church. That is to say, each week the hymns, scripture, and message would change, but the other elements were always the same. ALWAYS.
Some people might find that boring, but I found it (and continue to find it) comforting. In fact, even after all this time and all this study, these are words that continue to find me. Always just in time. Always right right on time. ALWAYS.
Just the other day, I found myself singing the Gospel Acclamation we used to sing before the reading of the gospel each Sunday when I was growing up: Alleluia. Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia. The acclamation, based on John 6:60-69, comes from Peter's response to Jesus when, after a series of difficult and confusing teachings, a number of Jesus followers left the Jesus Movement. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, "Do you also wish to go away?" Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
These words found me on a day when I found myself in difficult circumstances--down, tired, defeated, confused--and was wishing for a different life under different circumstances with a different career and different commitments. I was wishing for Sunday brunches instead of Sunday fellowship coffee and snacks. I was wishing to not have to wrestle with words and teachings that were written thousands of years ago. I was wishing to do life and faith in isolation--away from all of the other humans trying to do faith and life together.
I wonder if any of you have similar days? Days when you wonder what on earth you're doing on Sundays while thinking of all of the ways you could be spending that time. Days when you wish for some other life or something other than the flawed, beautiful, difficult, challenging, and rewarding parts of community and your decision to do life together. I wonder if you ever think about leaving Church behind? I think if we get really honest, there are times when we all do.
The problem in doing so for me is that Peter's words always find me. ALWAYS. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." The truth is that it is here where I have heard those words of eternal life spoken in me like nowhere else. Here is where I have wrestled with ancient words and inconvenient truths. Here is where the Spirit of the Living God keeps showing up for me--in this community--in other ordinary people just trying to make it through. Here is where God takes on flesh for me--in tales of loads of laundry, in communal laments about the current political climate, in prayer requests that break our hearts, in joys that nearly set our feet to dancing, in funeral lunches served and shared, in one deep, communal breath at the start of every service. Here--in this place, with the community gathered--is where I see God. ALWAYS. Where else would I go?
One last thing: I know very well that there are good and faithful reasons to leave a church--abuse and damning theology are among the top reasons. I have left churches for those reasons in the past myself. I also know that community can be difficult. Jesus' teachings can be difficult. Questions of faith and the journey of a lifetime can be difficult. And because it's difficult, we NEED each other. If for no other reason, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, "than to save us from self-righteousness." Beloved community saves us. Beloved community holds us. Beloved community challenges us. ALWAYS.
Learning to be held by Beloved community with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.