Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A year after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1992, the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Latvia Karlis Gailitis invited Janna and me to establish an English speaking church in the capital city of Riga. In a letter he suggested that we might use the former Anglican Church of St. Saviour’s. The 150 year-old church had been closed down during World War II, and like other churches structures that had been converted into granaries, gymnasiums and concert halls, the Anglican Church had been reappointed, as the popular Anglican discotheque. When we finally arrived in Latvia in September of that year and were given an opportunity to see the church, we were quite dismayed. The pews, altar, pulpit and organ had all been removed. The walls had been painted brown and dark purple, and disco lights lined the windows. The church’s towering red brick spire was in such precarious disrepair that scaffolding surrounded the front of the church to protect visitors from the crumbling bricks and tumbling mortar. It was difficult to understand the Archbishop’s vision that worship services could ever be held in this place.
But two months later on Reformation Sunday, Janna and I celebrated the first regular English worship service in the capital city of Riga in over 50 years. 150 people were present for the service including the Archbishops of the Lutheran Church of Latvia and Sweden. The real challenge, I knew, however, would be the following Sunday. When the spectacle of the first Sunday was over, would there be anyone there? If 10 people were in church the following Sunday, I told Janna, we would have a chance. Fortunately, 11 people showed up for the second service. A year and a half later, in March 1994, the ELCA chose to recognize our volunteer missionary service in Latvia and to ordain me to lead the congregation that Janna and I had re-established.
This morning I would like to share with you a few of my experiences as a pioneer, missionary pastor in Riga, and how that congregation formed me into the pastor that I am today. You see, congregations do have a role in forming pastors – even those who have been serving for 25 years. Three things I discovered in Latvia would be essential to my life as a pastor. Good worship centered on the Sacraments. Fellowship with the congregation. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ richly proclaimed.
Let me begin with worship centered around the sacraments. When I was a student at Luther Seminary, we were taught the fundamentals of liturgy and preaching, but there were no classes being offered on how to establish a church in the former Soviet Union, nor was there any Augsburg Fortress Published House in Latvia where you could buy ecclesiastical supplies. We knew even before we left Minneapolis, that we had to carry the most essential things with us. Our home congregation at Mt. Olive provided us with a 35 pound, reading Bible, and Augsburg Fortress donated 50 green hymnals. Yes, we carried 200 pounds of hymnals in our suitcases, and when we arrived in the Port of Riga after sailing across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm, we were greeted by baffled Latvians who wondered how truly naïve we must be carrying all these things.
A week or so before the first worship service, Janna and I realized that there was not even a cross to be found in the church. Finally I located a simple wooden cross that pastors used for funeral processions at the cemetery and then placed in the earth as a grave marker. So for our first worship service, I wired that cross to a tall pole which was carried into the church and placed onto a movie screen tripod, front and center behind the altar, which was nothing more than table cloth draped wooden table.
Everything else was borrowed. The communion chalice was a 100 year-old piece of silver from a Roman Catholic parish, the paten for the bread was from a Russian Orthodox church, and the flagon for pouring the wine was a piece of Orrefors crystal we had picked up Sweden on our way. As a side note, our original baptismal font was a pyrex, chafing dish. It was never used for hot dish again. Regardless of how it looked, it was the church.
Of course, there were a number of embarrassing Sunday morning services involving the sacraments as well. After a month, I knew that one bottle of wine could last for two Sundays. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always read the labels. One Sunday the congregation was a little giddy when I served them champagne instead of table red. It didn’t matter. Standing in a half circle around the altar as I walked between the dozen or so worshippers was a special moment every Sunday. Since we didn’t have hot water in the church, I often heated the baptismal water in a coffee pot just before the service. I must have stepped away too long because when I poured the water into the baptismal bowl for the baptism, it was still steaming. Since I didn’t want to boil the pour child, I decided it was best to slow down the pace of the prayer, and add a few extra petitions. Again, it didn’t matter. We were a community being nurtured in the promise of baptism and being fed at the Lord’s Table.
Fellowship together was important for our congregation. The coffee hour was often lasted longer than the worship service, and sometimes, was better attended. Men and women from many nations gathered with us in Riga. One woman travelled by train four hours to worship there. I attributed this to good preaching, but secretly, I rather suspect that they came to the church because it was the only place in the capital city serving percolated coffee. I was surprised, however, to discover that Latvians would worship in an English speaking church. They could have worshiped in any number of churches. I once asked Mirdza, an older, Latvian woman why she worshiped there. She answered quietly, “Because it’s democratic.” I was curious what she meant by democratic. “The American ambassador’s wife served me coffee this morning. This would never have happened in the Soviet Union.” Mirdza had glimpsed the essential truth of the Christian faith- when we live by faith whether rich or poor, sinner or saint, we all stand as equals beneath the cross.
When I look back on the sermons I preached 25 years ago, I recognize that they were written for a congregation in a particular time and place. They were written for a people who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for those for whom it was a vague, distant memory. It was during my time in Latvia, that I began to hold regular weekly Bible studies focusing on the upcoming sermon text. The Latvian and Russian members of our congregation suggested that we read the Sunday morning lessons ahead of time since it would be the first time for them to hear and read them in English. The gift of 30 Bibles from our home church was a great blessing.
Surprising to me, it wasn’t just the Latvian and Russians who were coming to hear the preaching of the love of God in Christ Jesus. There were many worshipers from all around the world who had fallen away from the faith, and had come to themselves and found a new home in that church. A middle-aged English woman once confessed to me, “I wish my mother had lived long enough to see me return to the church.” I told her simply, “She’s watching you now and smiling.” There in Riga, I discovered myself to be the shepherd of lost sheep.
For the past 25 years, those three things have continued to guide and color my pastoral ministry. Good worship centered on the Sacraments, Fellowship with members in the congregation, and a gospel of a loving Christ seeking the lost.
So believe or not, but my trademark felt board only became a part of my pastoral ministry 15 years ago. The baptismal song we use regularly was performed at our sons’ baptism and has travelled with me for 20 years. As for the music of Buxtehude? Well, I discovered a score on the shelf in our own music library. That tradition is brand new. So what else am I learning from you? We may all have to wait another 25 years to find out. Amen.
May the peace of God which passess all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.