We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)
Reading the above passage, I began to reflect upon our life together at Messiah Lutheran. Seeking assistance for a mission, Paul was encouraging the larger, more affluent congregation in Corinth to look toward the example of the struggling Christian community in Macedonia. I began to see a parallel. How has our little church faced with so many historic and current problems been used to encourage others?
Once a person mentioned to me in passing that it seemed our community is made of a “disproportionate number of people in need” and perhaps we would always remain small. This indeed might be true (only God knows the plans in store for us), yet I embrace that description. After all, Jesus came for the “least of these”: the hungry, the naked, the homeless and marginalized, even prisoners. Therefore at Messiah, we have intentionally forged strong relationships with those having intellectual, physical and mental disabilities. We have actively sought to support members of our community with food, clothing, and housing. Hospitality and authentic welcome are recognized marks of our ministry regardless of social, economic, political or other differences. Some of our members and neighbors have been helped to lift themselves out of domestic abuse, addiction, and even jail. We are truly trying to live as Christ’s disciples in mission, no longer Gentile or Jew, male or female, but all one in Christ. If two or three gather in his name, Christ is there, so our size doesn’t really matter either. Our congregation is exactly the kind of beloved community spoken about in scripture!
Despite our needs (or perhaps because of them), we have come together to rebuild and strengthen this congregation’s ministry, not perfectly but as best we can, and this has made a difference worth celebrating. Although we are still small and at times people might leave, worship attendance has increased over 35% since 2006. Giving has gone up about 10% per year no matter the ebb and flow of our national economy. We still struggle financially (sometimes wondering how we will pay our bills), but we have closed a $35,000 deficit while supporting others – fully funding our tithe to the greater church, ranking several years in the top 20 for donations to the Virginia Synod’s United Lutheran Appeal, starting new ministries in support of Lutheran Family Services, serving as a covenant congregation with Hanover Habitat, reinvigorating the shared, ecumenical food, clothing and benevolence ministry which is MCEF, and much, much more. Our outreach has dramatically increased and a number of long-time members have suggested our community is more spiritually oriented than ever before.
Thanks to the grace of God working through our lives together, we have all contributed to our “success.” A Thrivent loan officer remarked, “We have seen congregations ten times your size not do as much.” It is often why when I am at area events that people remark, “I hear things are going great at Messiah,” or “Your that church that is so active in the community.” In our welcoming of All Souls Episcopal to share our worship space, I have had three different Evangelical pastors comment at the great and unusual witness to Christian love being made manifest here. When we attended the Virginia Synod Assembly, other congregations have asked for appointments to discuss why and how things are “going so well” at Messiah for two years running. We are further affirmed as a community by the reality that 46% of our membership comes from outside of Mechanicsville. These people are willing to make drives of 30 minutes to an hour because they recognize that this community is indeed “different.”
Are we challenged as an institution in property and programs? Do we dine with people who are marginalized, hurting, sinful and alone? Do we struggle as individuals? You bet! We are real people with real problems, but we are a saved people all the more. Thanks be to Christ, we are the church! We seek to live as disciples more than as “members”; striving to concretely love God and neighbor. We are invited to walk on in a living hope of what is promised us in Christ’s victory, not based upon what we get or experience here and now.
In the end, we are ultimately a family of faith not defined by geography, finances, numbers or programs, and especially not our aging building. Instead, love, abundant joy and generosity – a response to what God has already offered us – describes us well. We are being recognized locally and beyond because as Jesus has promised, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
As we continue to celebrate our 45 years in ministry, I want to say that I am always proud and grateful to serve you as well as alongside you in mission. If you are a visitor or have been away, I invite you to come join our celebration; not an event but our shared life in Christ Jesus.
To see pictures from our God’s Work – Our Hands Day, click here.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.