Summary: The church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa. At the same time, it is dying here. How can we change the trend? Sermon for Pentecost 2, Proper 6, Series B.

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Pr. 6) June 18,2006 “Series B”

Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the redeeming grace we have received through your Son’s death and resurrection. By the power of your Holy Spirit, strengthen our faith, move us to deeper joy and appreciation for your gift of salvation, and empower us for witness. Use us, O God, to plant the seeds of your kingdom, that Christ’s church might continue to grow and flourish in our land. This we ask, in Jesus’ holy name. Amen.

At our Synod Assembly, Dutch, Rosanne and I were confronted with a rather stark contrast in reports about the future of Christ’s church.

First, let me share with you the good news. We were privileged to have the Rt. Rev. Benson Bagonza, Bishop of the Karagwe Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, our sister synod in Africa, as our guest and keynote speaker. Bishop Bagonza shared with us the tremendous growth that is taking place in the Lutheran church in his synod. Every year, several new congregations are chartered, and nearly two thousand persons are baptized, many as adults.

And this growth in the church is happening, in spite of many obstacles! Persons infected with AIDS and the HIV virus in Karagwe is staggering. In fact, Bishop Bagonza reported that close to 80 percent of the people infected by the HIV virus don’t even know that they are infected, which has caused him to mandate that they cannot celebrate a marriage without insisting on a blood test. Malaria is also reaching epidemic stages.

In addition, Karagwe is an impoverished region of Tanzania. There are few paved roads. Educational opportunities, especially for women, are bleak. Buildings must be built by manual labor, including the moving of materials, because they have no machines to it. Many of the children suffer from malnutrition, to the point where those affected with Malaria, often die because their bodies do not have the strength to cope with the medications needed to cure them.

And yet the church is growing! It is growing at such a rate that one pastor has to serve eight congregations, some of them having over four thousand members. This requires that lay persons be trained to preach and conduct worship, while the pastor travels between the various congregations by bicycle or, if he or she has been ordained for over five years, they may be afforded a motor bike, simply to conduct baptisms, confirmations, funerals and weddings.

It is an amazing story that Bishop Bagonza shared with us about the growth of Christ’s church in his synod. But his story wasn’t just about the number of persons joining the church that impressed me. The Lutheran Church in Karagwe was also confronting and actively engaged in uplifting the social fabric of their society. As an example, through the aid of our synod, they have constructed a school for girls, which will soon be opened to improve the educational standards of women.

Now for the contrast. Our own Bishop had quite a different story to share with us at the Assembly. In fact, you know that adage, “What goes around, comes around.” I’m sure you know how I have often used conversations with Josie, Pastor Blair or other friends as sermon illustrations. Well, imagine my surprise, that when we were at the festive worship service of ordination Friday evening, our bishop used me as one of his sermon illustrations.

I had gone to talk with him several weeks ago, to seek his advice about securing the future of our congregation in light of the fact that our membership is below that which can realistically afford a full time pastor. During our meeting, he shared some rather bleak statistics. According to projections, in six to ten years, due to the rising costs of health care and other factors, out of the ninety-eight congregations in our synod, only fourteen will be able to support a full-time pastor.

A week or so later, I called the bishop to share with him that our meeting left me feeling rather depressed. And guess what? Our meeting and my phone call made it into his sermon as an illustration. More than being surprised, since I had no clue that our conversation would be one of the focal points of his sermon, I was also challenged by what he had to say. I was challenged, as should each and every one of us, to keep faith, to hope, to pray, and to work to do what we can to uplift the grace of God in our community.

Since I was not able to be at the Assembly Saturday morning, Rosanne reported to me that our bishop frankly discussed the situation facing our synod. Rosanne told me that it left her in tears – tears shed for the many congregations, many that have been in existence for over a hundred years, that our bishop has, or will be called upon to close, because they no longer have enough worshiping on Sunday mornings to even sustain or maintain their property.

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