If Church Had Commencement
By Pr. Erika Uthe
‘Tis the season. My fridge is plastered with graduation open house invitations as our young people celebrate their accomplishments, look to the future, and revel in the glory of having successfully navigated what is becoming an increasingly difficult journey through school. While the nature of these celebrations is something that ought to be discussed at some point, I think that there is something to celebrations. Something significant is happening. Something familiar and routine is ending and the future is wide open, unknown, and spread out before them.
As I talk about commencement for graduates, I can’t help but draw parallels with the church today. For a long time, I think, the church has known that this graduation was coming. We know that something significant is happening in our culture, in our churches, in our world. (There’s an entire unit at churchwide called Research and Evaluation that has been tracking the trends in society that point to decline.) We have seen that something familiar and routine is ending. We know that the future is wide open, unknown, and spread out before us.
At our recent synod assembly we were invited by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton into a conversation titled Called Forward Together in Christ with all of our brothers and sisters across the ELCA. As we thought together about our hopes for the future of the ELCA, and as I have been privileged to read the responses, I wondered what would happen if we began to see our current phase as a graduation. So, if the church had commencement, I think this is something we might hear:
Dear church, brothers and sisters in Christ,
We have finally made it. Years of hard work and effort have led us to this point. I remember those good old days, you know, when it was easy to find people to fill committees, when people wanted what we offered and gladly came and gave us their time, talents, and money. Life was so simple. And as much as it would be nice to go back to that, we can’t remain stuck there, for the world is waiting.
Waiting and watching to see what we will become. To see how we will use our gifts to make a difference in the world. To see how we will put to use all that we have learned. Not forgetting where we came from, or those who nurtured us along the way, but knowing that those places and people were just the beginning.
The world is waiting – for something different. Something life giving. And we, church, have just what the world needs. For we do not go out into the future alone, but equipped with every gift needed for the job. We are equipped with the good news of Jesus Christ, the news that affirms and confirms the humanity of all. The news that speaks rest to the weary and binds up the brokenhearted. The news that no matter what is happening, all will be well.
We are equipped with the gift of community, the community made up of individuals, equally and uniquely gifted in and of themselves. The mechanic, the teacher, the parent. Yes, we all look different, our families may be configured differently than we are accustomed to, we may eat different foods and speak different languages, but those will only serve to further the work we will do together.
The work won’t be easy. We will face obstacles and challenges never before seen. Some will be external, some internal. But when we have those days (and we will) where we want to give up, or when we just want to go back to those easy, early days, we remember what we have been called to do.
We remember that we have been called to be God’s presence in the world. Bearing grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love to all we meet, calling all to join us in the light and life of God. We remember that even the obstacles of death and hell weren’t enough to stop those who have gone before, and that we will overcome.
So church, as we prepare to leave this place, we go with good courage. Knowing there is a world that needs us. That is yearning for us to do what we have been created and called to do. And we do not go alone. We have each other. We have God. We have Spirit.
Pastor Erika Uthe is the newest member of the Office of the Bishop, serving the Southeastern Iowa Synod on behalf of the whole ELCA as the Director for Evangelical Mission. She enjoys getting to meet with congregations to help develop mission and vision strategies for renewal, working with stewardship, racial justice and multi-cultural ministries, and dreaming what God has in store next for the synod. Pastor Erika served most recently at St. John Lutheran in Ely, Iowa where she currently resides with her husband Russ, and daughters Francesca and Charlotte.