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Well, it really is time now! Don’t miss the last word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church! But don’t worry about those good folks either…their stories are stored in the cloud.

Based on Matthew 25:31-46

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Last Sunday the pews were packed…word had leaked out about the big announcement at the Tuesday council meeting and everyone wanted to be there. They wanted to hear from Pastor Baldridge’s own mouth what had happened and what could be expected. There wasn’t a lot more for him to add but he did want them to know that they had been good and faithful servants and their ministry had not gone unnoticed. From his perspective real people had gotten a clearer sense of the gospel from their stories than from any sermons they’d heard. “Stories are like that,” he told the congregation. “They give life to the good news…and you were all a part of the telling.” He went on to tell them that every one of them had played a part…even those who had seemingly minor roles…even those who weren’t officially members of the congregation.

As they left worship last Sunday, people dawdled…they didn’t want to say good-by…and some were wondering just how the end would come for them. No one had a good answer…but many made a commitment to be back for the Thanksgiving worship service. So Thursday there was a great turn-out…Pastor Baldridge thought it was ironic since never before had so many people bothered to worship on  Thanksgiving, especially during the day. Even the Viking and Lions fans came….and everyone put off the preparations for dinner. In fact most of the people decided that it made more sense for them to go serve the hungry…and, organized by Lacey Zeiner, they spread out among all the homeless shelters in the East Valley after worship.

At the service, which lasted a long time, Pastor Baldridge left it all in the people’s hands. They picked the hymns and then one by one they walked to the front of the congregation to express their particular thanksgivings. So many wanted to speak they had to limit the time to just a minute or two…a good thing or Mel Falstaff would have spoken for an hour. It was a touching service…they all had so much to be thankful for…and much of their thanks was directed toward Pastor Baldridge, which thoroughly embarrassed him. But he deserved the recognition…even though everyone knew the congregation had never been about him…it truly was all about the good news of Jesus. He didn’t speak at all at the service…he knew he’d have a chance on Sunday. His would be the last word…expect, of course, for whatever the old bishop chose to say as he presided at the ritual for the closing of the congregation.

On Friday no one participated in the Black Friday buying frenzy…after all what would be the point? A surprising number just dropped by the church to see if they could help with anything. Jenny Craster was glad to have the extra hands…based on conversations with Pastor Baldridge she’d had another inspired moment and had come up with sanctuary decorations that fit the day perfectly.

Several people stopped in to talk to Pastor Baldridge in his office where he was trying to work on his sermon. They still had questions…and were hoping that this time he would have answers. Mostly they were curious about the ending…and the new life he’d said would be theirs. “Is it true,” they all wanted to know, “that we will live on forever?”

And amazingly, this time Pastor Baldridge did have an answer. It had come to him last week after his vision of the tangibilifier sitting under the acacia tree with the book of their stories on his lap. As he remembered that, it dawned on him that their tales had all been written down…and that perhaps the tangibilifier had been posting the stories on a blog. It was easy to check it out…he just searched for Crown and Cactus on the internet and in a few minutes he found hundreds of stories. And then  he remembered a text from a couple of weeks ago from First Thessalonians 4. Paul’s audience had been concerned about endings too and had sought some word of comfort and insight from him. In the fourth chapter he’d given them a rather curious description of the end. They’d been worried about believers who had already died…would they miss out when Christ came again? Paul assures them that when Christ returned, when the ending came, all the dead would be raised, and then everyone, both those raised and those still alive, would be lifted up to meet the returning Lord in the clouds and they would then be with him forever.

Pastor Baldridge had never paid that text much attention before…but this year as he was pondering his discovery something clicked with him. Paul said we all would meet the Lord in a cloud and be with him forever. And that was precisely what would happen to Crown and Cactus…the tangibilifier’s blogs were all going directly to the cloud…their stories were being stored in the cloud…and they would be there, with the Lord forever! They would be remembered forever….none of their stories would be forgotten!

It’s that good news that Pastor Baldridge will share with the congregation on this Sunday. But even more than that he wants them to know that because they have devoted themselves to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison; because their ministry has been to the least and the lost, they will be welcomed by the Lord in the cloud and will live  forever with him. As they did it to the least, they did it to him!

That’s what he had shared with Jenny Craster and that was the source of her inspiration. The white banners will be from Easter and they’ll be hanging everywhere. And then at the end of the service, right after the ritual of closing, she’s preparing a grand finale. She’s rented four dry ice fog machines and will putting them at the corners of the sanctuary. As soon as the old bishop pronounces the benediction the ushers will start the machines, and then as the cloud takes shape and envelops them all, Pastor Baldridge will speak his last words, “Come you blessed of my Father, enter the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” and then they will all go away into eternal life!

And that’s the last word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

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The folks at Crown and Cactus have enjoyed their life in myth…as far as they’re concerned they’d love to live forever. But Pastor Baldridge has met their maker and gotten the news that their ending is at end…and now the council knows all about it.

Based on Matthew 25:14-30

14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Even though the council had not met, Ralph Mogen had decided to be an armed presence near the front door of the sanctuary where he could see the parking lot and survey folks as they came toward the church. Of course no one saw that he was armed…he’s adept at concealment and is almost never without a weapon. He had told the ushers what he was doing and managed to provoke a pretty intense conversation among them that only ended when one went to find Pastor Baldridge. He was told to just let Ralph do his thing, that it would be all right, that the council would be discussing the matter on Tuesday evening.

The service had gone well. Janice had picked a couple of hymns related to oil and lamps, one rather slow and somber about the coming of the Bridegroom, the other upbeat and familiar, “Give Me Oil For My Lamp.” Naturally people sang out strongly on the latter…it was a camp song, short on theological depth, but fun nevertheless. Sometimes she wonders how composers choose the tunes for their lyrics…there are so many hymns with incredible words that are virtually unsingable.

Pastor Baldridge had prepared a thoughtful sermon about the shootings in Texas. Sadly this has become almost routine in these days…he has a whole file of sermons that he has delivered in the aftermath of mass shootings. He wonders if someday soon they will become so common as to barely attract notice…sometimes that happens. Violence has a way of numbing us…it’s a survival instinct…natural, but nothing to be proud of.

At the end of the service he made an announcement that caught a few people by surprise. There would be a special council meeting on Tuesday in the fellowship hall. It would be a time to reflect on their history and make an important decision about moving ahead as a congregation. Ralph Mogen looked knowingly at the other ushers…he knew what was coming. He’d be at that meeting and he would be ready to speak. Pastor Baldridge invited any who were interested to come and join the conversation.

There was a bit of a buzz after services about the announcement but by Tuesday most of the people had forgotten all about the meeting. They trusted that whatever it was, the council would take care of it. Only about a dozen regulars were there in addition to the council when Loren Meade opened the meeting at 7:00. Pastor Baldridge asked if he could make a statement to begin.

Pastor Baldridge had been thinking about this moment ever since he had awakened on the Myrtle Brier bench the previous Thursday about 11:30. His whole body was sore from sleeping in such an uncomfortable position but he remembered vividly what had happened while he slept. He had felt a presence sitting next to him on the bench and became conscious that Myrtle had come. He knew it was her…the smile and tender eyes were unmistakable. She looked at him for what seemed ages…he reached out to her. She whispered gently, “Don’t touch me,” and then she gave a nod and said, “It’s time!” And then she was gone.

Pastor Baldridge recounted this experience to the council and they listened courteously…perhaps he was going to retire. He was obviously exhausted. It was what he said next that shocked them.

Pastor Baldridge said, “When Myrtle left I sat pondering her words…and then I saw him.” He paused, “I saw our creator. He was sitting across the way under the acacia tree. He motioned for me to come to him.”

One of the council members interrupted and spoke incredulously, “You mean you saw God?”

“Oh no,” Pastor Baldridge said, “I saw our creator, our tangibilifier, the one who has made a myth of us. As I came close to him I saw that he had a book on his lap, a big one with many pages. I looked and it was the record of our existence…there were hundreds of stories…and he was reading through them. I waited and then he spoke, ‘I’ve been looking over the record of your ministry and I see you’ve become discouraged. I think it’s time for you to enter into my rest.’ I didn’t know what he meant so I asked. He said, ‘You’ve been a good and trustworthy servant for over 20 years. Not once have you complained about the words I’ve given you and you’ve faithfully proclaimed a gospel of grace. Enter into my joy!’ And then he disappeared. I looked around and no one was there…and then I heard a car door slam and that’s when I woke up. It was Helga. She wondered where I was and had come to find me.”

Loren said, “So all this was a dream then?”

Pastor Baldridge said, “You could say that…but there’s one more thing. I got a call from the former bishop of the synod, my friend, and he told me that our creator, who he knows very well had called him and said that Crown and Cactus was closing its doors. He intends to come next weekend, on Christ the King Sunday, and lead a ritual of closing for the congregation. In other words, it’s not a dream. Friends, our time has come! The myth is ending!”

The council sat in stunned silence…a couple began to weep. There were questions for Pastor Baldridge. Did they have to just acquiesce? Could they just protest and go on without their creator? Pastor Baldridge explained that there were limitations for those who have only a mythological existence. Even though they had been immortal, with the exception of Myrtle Brier, the ending when it came would take them all at once. Every one of them had only 10 more days to experience their peculiar life.

Mel Falstaff spoke up and said, “Well, I just want everyone to know that I have thoroughly enjoyed my mythological existence in this congregation. I guess I’ve always known there would be an ending…and now that it’s here, all I can do is say ‘thanks.’ It’s been a great run.”

Others chimed in saying pretty much the same thing. Then Pastor Baldridge spoke again, “One more thing that I forgot to mention. Before our tangibilifier left he gave me a message for you. I’m not the only one who will be getting a rest. He called all of you good and trustworthy servants too…all will live on in his joy…so I guess it’s really not an ending.”

Before the meeting broke up some of the sadness had dissipated. Ralph Mogen was disappointed when he couldn’t make his presentation but even he realized there isn’t much point in discussing security when their ending is at hand. Pastor Baldridge will inform the entire congregation this Sunday and then it’s just a matter of getting some last minute bucket list items done. They will be having a Thanksgiving service next Thursday morning at 10:00…they really do have a lot to be thankful for. Mel was right…it has been a good ride!

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are committed, the women are faithful, and the children are all growing in grace.

 

 

According to my records I’ve been preparing the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church for about 22 years now. For 17 of those years the stories were presented in oral form at the Saturday evening worship service at Desert Cross Lutheran Church. For the last 5 they’ve been the subject of this weekly blog post. That’s a lot of stories…and in one week they will end!

I started presenting the word in this fashion because I believe in the power of story…and I had long been fascinated by the Tales from Lake Woebegone on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and I used his model to set the stage for the stories that I told. While I don’t come close to his skill level, I did hope that the stories could be a vehicle for telling the Good News in a way that could bring out the essence of biblical texts.

Some of you may wonder why I’m stopping now…and I don’t really have a good answer. But I do know that it’s time for the congregation to close its doors. It’s kind of like when I decided to retire…I really didn’t need to…but it was time. I just couldn’t be the kind of pastor that I wanted to be any longer…and it wasn’t fair to the congregation for me to continue.

At any rate Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, will be the last day of worship at Crown and Cactus. Since I’m preaching at Desert Cross on that weekend I’ve decided to hold a brief ritual marking its closing just after the 5:00 p.m. worship service on Saturday night. We’ll start about 5:50 and if any of you want to come that would be fine. I’d like to talk about the congregation, its members, and what they’ve meant for me…and if you wish, you can say some things too. We’ll end with the Rite for the Closing of a Congregation.

Of course, this may not be the end of Crown and Cactus! I have in mind a Second Coming, only this time in book form. It would be a book of meditations, 52 in all, one for each Sunday of the church year. I’m intrigued by the possibilities and am beginning conversations with some folks to see if I can make it happen. Eventually I would hope for 3 books with the first coming out in the fall of 2018 just in time for Advent. Of course this is only a dream…a new adventure for me just so you won’t think I’m fading away too. I don’t know if there’s a market for such a thing…but I guess I’ll find out!

So, thank you for being followers on this blog! I’ve enjoyed and appreciated your comments from time to time…and I hope to see some of you on Saturday night!

How can we read the signs of the times? Horrible terrible things are happening…perhaps the end is near. Pastor Baldridge is getting exhausted in his search for wisdom…and his lamp is running out of oil.

Based on Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Services last Sunday went very well. For many All-Saint’s is a favorite time to worship…it’s a day of quiet remembrance and there’s even a bit of an uptick in attendance. It’s different from  the other annual festivals in that there are no cultural attachments…and this year with the earlier Halloween many of the distracting influences of witches and goblins had been forgotten. It stood by itself as a time for pure reflection…and folks liked it a lot.

But then came the horrible, heart-breaking word of the Texas shooting and all the tranquility and peace of the morning worship was forgotten. As the tale unfolded in the ensuing hours the enormity of the evil became almost unimaginable. People wondered what it had been like in that church…and many asked themselves the question, “What if something like that happened to our congregation?” A few people stopped by the church on Sunday evening for prayers…it just seemed like the thing to do. Pastor Baldridge was there and opened the sanctuary…they went inside, prayed, and talked.

Pastor Baldridge has been doing a lot of thinking during this last week about what happened. He’s heard the back and forth arguments about gun control and the absurdity of making access to deadly weapons so easy. Personally he doesn’t believe there will be any concerted effort to decrease the availability of automatic weapons. The arguments have gone beyond the rational and people’s opinions are fixed. Once that happens there can be no compromise…no reasonable solution is possible. Sadly that means incidents like this will continue to happen…even now he believes that there is some violent and depraved individual who is gathering ammunition and weapons for a new attack in which innocent lives will be taken. It could happen anywhere at any time…and there is no common will to stop it.

And then he’s been thinking about his own responsibility as pastor at Crown and Cactus. Even though he knows that the probability of an attack on any particular congregation is infinitesimal…is it right for him to say “no” to those who would like to add security for Sunday morning worship? In fact Ralph Mogen was in his office on Monday morning asking for permission to organize a subgroup of ushers who would take firearms training and then volunteer to be present and armed whenever it was their turn to usher. In Ralph’s estimation they should also be given permission to search purses and backpacks…”just like they do for football games,” he said. Pastor Baldridge said he would take it up with the church council and Ralph said he wanted to be at the meeting. He hoped they would talk about it this month.

There was time when Pastor Baldridge would have simply humored Ralph and done nothing…but now he wonders. Is this what this country has come to? He remembers the carefree days when people could come and go as they pleased, when all you had to do was go to the airport and get on a plane…there were no security protocols anywhere. How times have changed! He never dreamed that there would be a day when worshipers would have to be searched as they came to church…it was becoming like the early years of Christianity when followers of Jesus huddled behind locked doors. He’s wondering if the time is coming near when Christ will return. Perhaps the end is near!

By Thursday he’d gotten his head together enough to start working on Sunday’s sermon. The text is about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids and he’s wondering what it means to be wise or foolish in these times. Perhaps the scripture is saying that it would be wise to be prepared for the coming of a shooter to the congregation. Certainly there is an apt analogy. When nothing is happening, when no danger looms, it’s possible to become complacent and lazy, and think there is no need to prepare for the unthinkable. In light of the parable it would be foolish to wait without first making preparations.

That got him thinking about endings in general. The text was certainly about waiting for the return of Jesus…and being prepared when he comes. He’s wondering if the time is drawing near for him to leave Crown and Cactus…being a pastor has changed so much in these last years. The congregation is mature…not many new folks are coming…and children are growing up and moving away. There just isn’t the same spirit there was just a few years ago. Everyone is getting older…and now he has to think about posting armed guards. He wonders how they can maintain a welcoming atmosphere in that context. But what would he do if he left? There’s not much of a call for retired mythical pastors…at least not in the ELCA. He’d have to become a Presbyterian or maybe a chaplain on a cruise ship…something he thought Helga might like. But he’d really miss the people…they’re his family…almost his own creation.

And could Crown and Cactus get a new pastor? Would they even want a new pastor? But then again, everything comes to an end…it can’t be avoided. Nothing is forever. One day the bridegroom will return…we can’t go on thinking that won’t happen. It’s simply a matter of being prepared and practicing wisdom.

So many questions…so few answers. Thursday evening when everyone had gone he went out and sat on the Myrtle Brier bench…maybe she would come to him in the darkness and he could ask her what to do. Once he thought saw some movement but if wasn’t her…he sat waiting until he fell asleep. Poor man….he’s exhausted!

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

A lot of people at  Crown and Cactus will be remembering Myrtle Briar this All Saint’s Sunday. She’s been gone almost two years now but her influence lingers on. Mel Falstaff credits her with being a channel for Jesus….and he loves to talk about her gentleness.

Based on Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. The services last weekend were well attended and the Saturday event was particularly successful. The church council had given permission for beer to be served with the brats for the evening meal and most people really enjoyed themselves. After hearing Father Frank talk about Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and explain current Roman Catholic teachings on things like purgatory and indulgences most agreed that if Martin Luther were alive today he’d be perfectly content in the Roman Catholic church. Some did disagree…they thought his experience with married life would have made him very reluctant to go back to being single. Sunday morning worship had been colorful and inspiring…at least the music part was…Father Frank turned out to be kind of a boring preacher. Even Pastor Baldridge looked good when compared to him.

During these weeks the altar guild, under the skillful direction of Jennie Craster, has managed to pull off the transitions needed to move from green to red to white on succeeding weekends. Fortunately they have plenty of banners from prior years…though Jennie did add a bunch of extras for Reformation Sunday. There were all kinds of smaller banners and posters acknowledging that this 500th anniversary celebration was special. Oh, and for some reason this year people really got into the wearing red thing…when Father Frank got up to preach he commented about looking out over the red sea…it was the closest he came to a joke in his whole presentation. Anyhow by Tuesday all the white was hung for All Saint’s Sunday.

Pastor Baldridge likes All Saint’s and has taken time to put together some thoughts on remembering out mentors. He believes that the way to fruitful living is to find people to model our lives after. Those living examples of faith and works somehow make it easier to make decisions when tough times come. He’ll be mentioning a couple of his mentors in the sermon on Sunday…in fact on Tuesday he even called one of them, an older pastor from Washington, just to say thanks. They talked for a long time…his old friend is in a retirement home near Seattle…and Pastor Baldridge even mentioned some of the turmoil he’s going through. It was a helpful conversation.

Mel Falstaff had lunch on Wednesday with his lawyer friend, Ed Montenegro. Ed still hasn’t come back to worship after his one visit but he has been doing a lot of thinking about faith matters…he even reads the passages designated for each Sunday in the lectionary. He’s intrigued by the notion that most Lutheran pastors work out their sermons from the same texts each week. He was a little confused this week though. Mel had to explain that Crown and Cactus didn’t use the text for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, that instead they used the one assigned for All Saint’s Day. Ed was sharp enough to realize then that on the first Sunday in November the text is always the Beatitudes. “Wow,” he said to Mel, “you folks hear that text a lot. How can your pastor think up anything to say about it that you haven’t already heard?”

They talked a bit about the beatitudes….Ed was familiar with them…and he said something that Mel found intriguing. “I don’t pretend to be a Christian…I do believe in God…but there’s one thing that I don’t get. Why does Jesus say that the meek will inherit the earth? That just seems bizarre. Was he joking? Or being ironic? Why would I even want to be a Christian if it meant letting people walk all over me…’cause that’s what happens to the meek. They don’t inherit anything. They just have things taken away. Do Christians even believe that? The ones I read about in the newspaper don’t…they’re as bold and belligerent as they can be…some are almost arrogant…they’re the opposite of being meek.”

Mel said, “I’ve thought about that too…so I did a little research. It’s true that one of the meanings of meekness is to be submissive…but it’s not the only one. In fact a better translation might be gentle…followers of Jesus are called to be gentle with one another.”

Ed shrugged, “Seems the same to me: meek, gentle…it’s just an invitation to be pushed around.”

Mel said, “You may think so…but that’s not been my experience. Let me tell you about a person I’ll be thinking about this All Saint’s Sunday. Her name was Myrtle Briar and she was a member of Crown and Cactus…I’ve never met a more powerful woman…and she personified gentleness. She died almost two years ago and I still miss her influence…all of us do.”

Ed listened. He could tell by the tone of Mel’s voice that this woman was special and he waited to hear what Mel would say.

Mel continued, “She was older than a lot of us in the congregation…quite a bit older…and she had moved down here from North Dakota in the ’90’s. Her husband had died and she wanted to live near her son, who happened to be going through some tough times. She was already a member of the congregation when Lil and I showed up…in fact she was one of the reasons we joined. On our very first Sunday she greeted us with an amazing smile…her whole face lit up…and, I’m not kidding, I could actually feel the warmth. She insisted that we take home some of her chocolate chip cookies…she did that with all the new folks, and they were to die for.”

“That was our introduction and we saw her regularly as we got involved in the congregation. Her influence was amazing. She wasn’t on the council and she didn’t make speeches but nothing happened here that wasn’t colored by her particular view of grace and inclusivity. Jesus wasn’t a doctrine for her…he was like a personal friend…and I swear she channeled him wherever she went.”

Ed said, “And you say she was gentle…how could she be powerful and gentle at the same time?”

“I’m getting to that,” Mel said. “She didn’t argue or debate with anyone about anything. Mostly she just listened. And when you were finished talking to her she would smile and offer affirmation…she had an amazing way of making me feel she understood what I was saying. The gentleness was obvious. But then she would look me in the eye and say with incredible conviction what she believed to be true. Her strength was palpable. Always she would say things that simplified complicated issues. It was plain, honest speech…and it always made me think. I always came away from our conversations with a sense that I had heard a word directly from the mouth of God. I guess I’m saying the word “always” pretty often here…but that’s what it felt like.”

Ed smiled, “I see why you’ll be thinking of her this Sunday. She must have been a saint.”

“No doubt,” Mel replied, “but she never wanted anyone to think she was any different than they were. ‘Oh, we’re all saints,’ is what she’d say when people spoke highly of her. ‘We’re all saints because we’re all sinners and Christ makes us all righteous.’ I wish you could have met her.”

Ed smiled again, “I think I am meeting her, Mel. From what you’ve said I think a lot of your friend, Myrtle, has leaked into you…even the gentleness is there. If you are what Jesus meant by ‘meek,’ then I would agree that the meek are not pushovers. You’re a good person, Mel, and I love our conversations.”

Mel was pleased to hear Ed’s words. For him being compared to Myrtle Briar was about the nicest thing anyone could say to him.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

 

 

Pastor Baldridge is back in town without a lot to do and he’s been having lots of time to think…which isn’t necessarily a good thing. He had his conversation with his old friend, the retired bishop, and it didn’t help much…and how he’s in a real quandary.

Based on John 8:31-36

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. It’s been a huge relief for Pastor Baldridge not to have to deal with a stewardship program this fall. A year ago when the council virtually abandoned the old pledging system by burning commitments once they were received a number of people had questioned why the congregation even bothered to run the traditional fall campaign. And so the council just ditched the whole thing…and no one has said a word in complaint. Periodically there are sermons on giving and the council is regularly updated on the financial situation, and things seem to be going well. People still make commitments to the mission of the congregation but it’s all done electronically via the various social media platforms. There’s no October-November public appeal for funds. So Pastor Baldridge preached about other stuff last Sunday, namely his new “Third Wave” brain storm, and received the usual apathetic response from hearers. A couple asked how San Diego had been but no one commented on what he thought had been a wonderful insight.

Normally it would have been discouraging to him, but this week, not so much. He doesn’t even have to do anything this weekend. Father Brian, a friend of Pastor Phil’s from Sun Lakes, is doing something on Lutheran-Catholic dialogues from a Roman Catholic perspective on Saturday and also preaching on Sunday. Pastor Phil has been handling logistics and Jennie Craster is doing the Saturday event so everything is under control. Worship on Sunday will be celebratory and reflective with a central theme of “Continuing Reformation”…and the music will be great. Janice Porter is so proud of the way the choir has stepped up in practice…they’re actually doing about 4 pieces, three of them in Latin. Father Brian may be the only person there who knows what’s being sung, but Janice is okay with that. She hopes he’s impressed with the Lutheran chorale tradition.

So with no needed preparations Pastor Baldridge was able to get together with his friend, the old bishop, last Wednesday with nothing on his mind but his own concerns. They met out in east Mesa and his friend bought him lunch at the Superstition Springs Golf Club restaurant. The place they sat had a great view of the number nine green and they talked for a long time. The newly sown rye grass was shining in the sun…even though Pastor Baldridge doesn’t golf he has always appreciated the beauty of the over-seeding, though Helga thinks it’s unnatural and an incredible waste of money in the desert.

Pastor Baldridge told the newly retired bishop about his time away and his basic discontent. He even shared his ideas about a third way and wondered if there might be some truth in his observations. The bishop was a good listener…through the years he’d had hundreds of conversations with different pastors and he really didn’t hear anything new from Pastor Baldridge. The only difference was that all of their problems were real…he was amazed that since Pastor Baldridge served a mythical congregation he would be talking about the same things. When he said that, Pastor Baldridge of course felt discounted. He said, “I’m surprised to hear that from you. I thought I told you that only the people were mythical…the problems are real…and I think that the issues I’ve been dealing with are real too.”

The bishop of course apologized…at heart he’s a sensitive kind of guy…and got the conversation heading in a more productive direction. He asked if Pastor Baldridge could give him some examples of what was frustrating him, perhaps a case study could help him understand. Pastor Baldridge sat for a bit then, and finished his tuna melt sandwich before replying….after first using a toothpick to get the little pieces of tuna from between his teeth.

He said, “The gospel is a wonderful gift from God and I have loved proclaiming it in all its richness through these many years. The message of forgiveness, life, freedom, salvation, and hope has a universal appeal…at least I’ve always thought that it did. And people have responded to the good news…at least they used to. But now not so much…and I think the reason they don’t is because they don’t recognize that they have any needs. Last week in San Diego I met a young man while walking at the beach…at least he seemed young, he could have been forty…anyhow, he was a talkative sort and we had a long conversation. He was intrigued that I was a pastor, and curious about what I did. I talked to him about the gospel. He’d heard the stories of Jesus…I think he’d gone to Sunday School as a kid, but when I spoke of forgiveness he just looked at me with a blank look. He admitted to doing wrong things but he had no concept of what it was to be a sinner. In fact, as we continued to talk he told me that it seemed to him that I must mostly deal with needy people in my congregation….and since he wasn’t a needy person he really didn’t resonate with my message.”

Pastor Baldridge stopped to sip his Arnold Palmer and then continued, “What he said was really interesting. He does believe that there are needy people. In fact he said that he sees their posts on Facebook…and that his heart breaks to read their sorry statements of self pity and angst. As for himself, he said that his needs are normal…a job, friends, money, companions…but that he was responsible for satisfying his needs. He didn’t need divine help. He believed that he was perfectly free to do whatever he wanted and if he ever had a problem he could find someone to help him. He couldn’t remember having ever failed at anything he had set his mind too. So, is he right? Is the church only for the needy?”

The bishop said, “Well, what do you think? What’s been your experience?” He was that kind of listener!

Pastor Baldridge said, “No! The gospel isn’t just for those he was describing as needy. I know what he meant…I’ve seen those Facebook posts too. At Crown and Cactus there are a ton of people who are well balanced and successful. Externally they have every thing together and if you looked at their Facebook posts you could conclude they don’t have a care in the world….but that’s what most people do on social media. They only put up stuff that makes them look good…it’s a place for bragging about yourself and your family. But I don’t conclude from that they’re not needy. In fact the most successful and altogether people in my congregation regularly admit that they are needy. They know they are sinners and need forgiveness. They know they are captive to sin and need to be set free. To put it in theological terms, they know they are sinners and saints at the same time.”

The bishop thought for a minute…if he’d had a pipe he would have taken a deep inhale with a slow exhale…then he replied, “Well, Kevin, I do know what you’re talking about. And I don’t know that you will ever be successful in convincing folks like that man on the beach that they are needy. It’s not going to happen. It’s not the American way. In our culture the needy are those to be pitied…and no one wants to be in that position. As a result, deep needs go unmet…and people just go on fooling themselves. They have no interest in church and like being free to do whatever they want. And if indicators are correct, their numbers are increasing. Fewer and fewer people believe that the church has anything of value for them. They’re staying away in droves. I got tired of closing congregations…that’s one of the reasons I retired.”

“So what can be done?” Pastor Baldridge was getting frustrated.

Another long pause…then the bishop said, “Well, some pastors and congregations have found success in adapting the gospel. They do market studies of community needs and then offer classes and programs that meet those needs. It’s actually pretty simple. They focus on what people want…classes on marriage and human sexuality, youth activities and daycare centers, golf lessons, car repair classes, adult day care, financial planning….the list goes on and on. For worship they get professional singers and do a lot of upbeat singing. And they do get pretty good numbers. But there’s not much call for repentance or discipleship…no one sees much of a need for that. So you could do that at Crown and Cactus. Have you done any neighborhood surveys?”

Pastor Baldridge rolled his eyes, “No,” he said, “I don’t know that I’m even equipped to be a marketer…I was trained to be a pastor…and I’m old-fashioned enough to think there is a difference.”

The bishop shrugged, “Well maybe that’s your answer….maybe there’s no need for someone like you in the church anymore…unless you’re willing to change.”

And that’s about where it stands. Pastor Baldridge still hasn’t gotten any clarity…so he’s still in a stew. The bishop had mentioned closing congregations…maybe that was the answer! Or he could change…and find new ways of meeting people’s needs.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

Pastor Baldridge has returned from San Diego with insights that are defying his best efforts at expression. Now he’s trying to figure out what lies ahead for him and for Crown and Cactus. He’s discovered a third way…but it’s hard to put into words.

Based on Matthew 22:15-22

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Pastor Baldridge and Helga didn’t get back from San Diego until late Thursday and folks at the church had begun to think that he wasn’t ever coming back. Loren Meade, the president of the council, had gone so far as to contact Pastor Phil from Sun Lakes to see if he would be available to fill in again this coming Sunday. So Pastor Phil had called…and when no one answered the phone…had left a message, which spurred Pastor Baldridge into returning. They’d been staying in a condo near the beach that belonged to an old classmate and it was so nice…and with no definite check-out time they had stayed longer than they had anticipated.

In all they were in San Diego for eight days, long enough to develop a routine that they loved. In the morning they got up as they pleased, went for an early walk and found a place for breakfast. They’d sit and talk…a couple of days they went to Balboa Park…but most of the time they just hung out. In the afternoons they’d sit on the balcony of the condo and look out over the harbor…some days they went down to the beach. Pastor Baldridge was trying to get his head straightened out. He’d spent an hour or two in silence and then talk with Helga…her perspective was always healing and helpful.

Basically he’s having a tough time figuring out whether he wants to continue as pastor of Crown and Cactus any longer. It isn’t that he wants to go somewhere else…he loves the people there…but things have changed and he’s not sure he understands how to be a pastor any more. Times are divisive and the country is becoming polarized…and with it his own political perspective has shifted. It’s as though there are only two ways of looking at things and people are on one side or another. He wonders if congregations have simply become spiritual tools of political parties. He’s remembering how the religious leaders came to Jesus with a trick question, whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. They tried to get him to choose a side, thinking there were only two possibilities, with either being a bad choice. Jesus had surprised them and come up with a third way…a way that left them speechless. Pastor Baldridge is wondering if there isn’t a third way for him, a non-political stance that will draw people together and not divide, and yet at the same way allow them to daily encounter Christ in the world in a loving, caring way. So far he’s just made his head hurt…and he hasn’t come to any decision…except he knew he did have to come back. He owes it to the people of Crown and Cactus.

When he did get back on Thursday he stopped by the church late in the afternoon just to see what was going on for Sunday and let people know that he’d be there. The staff members who were around were glad to see him…and filled him in on plans. They are so capable that he thinks they could probably do just fine without him and everything was all set. They asked how the time away had been and he gave all the right answers: refreshing, invigorating, fun. But no one asked what he’d been thinking about and he didn’t know what he would have told them had they asked.

He is going to talk about the third way during the sermon on Sunday though. He’ll be asking people not to be trapped by the divisiveness being promoted in our culture, and reminding them that all things belong to God…and perhaps the truth is more grey than black or white. He still doesn’t know exactly what he’ll say yet…he’s found it exceedingly hard to find the words that convey his growing convictions adequately.

Next week he’s going to go see the bishop though. Not the new one…that bishop doesn’t even know about Crown and Cactus…he’ll go see the old one, the one who finally figured out that mythical congregations are no different than real ones. Pastor Baldridge remembers vividly the time the bishop caught on…they’d been having coffee near the synod office and he was trying to explain his existence. All of a sudden it was as though a light went on for the bishop. He had said, “Your congregation is mythical, right? But it also has a strong commitment to the truth of the gospel. Your people, the ones you describe to me, are having the same faith struggles as people in real congregations. The only difference is that they don’t age and they don’t die.”

Pastor Baldridge had said that this was true…and it had been at the time of their conversation. Since then however, Myrtle Brier had died…a total shock to everyone…and even he can’t quite figure out how that happened. But ever since that conversation he’d had a good rapport with the bishop and they had gotten together regularly. The bishop liked to hear what was going on at Crown and Cactus…he said it was helpful to him in dealing with some of his congregations. Often he said that he wished there were more real congregations like Crown and Cactus. Pastor Baldridge wonders what he will say now…he’s anxious to get his advice.

On Friday, Pastor Baldridge had gone to see Ralph Mogen. Ralph had walked out during the sermon two weeks ago, his face red and hard. He’d gotten so angry at what he’d heard. Ralph was actually pleased that Pastor Baldridge sought him out…it meant a lot to him and they had a good conversation about a lot of different things. Pastor Baldridge mostly listened…Ralph is a good man, but his life experiences have given him other perspectives on life and how it shall be lived. He didn’t choose to have the convictions that he has…they’ve simply come to him…and now they belong to him. After a time he listened to what Pastor Baldridge had to say and even acknowledged that there had been a reason for his sermonic rant…and that maybe walking out hadn’t been the best thing for him to do. They talked a bit about the polarization in our world and the devastating impact of trolling and mindless social media connections. When they were done talking Pastor Baldridge hugged Ralph…and as he was going home realized that he’d had an experience with the third way…and it felt good. And he felt just a little bit more prepared for Sunday.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.