Fourth Sunday after the Pentecost
June 17, 2018
To Our Family in Faith at First Trinity: God’s Peace and Love to You, Always.
If there is any memory about First Trinity that I have turned to time and again, it is the memory of my first visit here at First Trinity as a seminarian, when asked to “supply preach” for a friend who had become unable to show up.
The congregation was small, like the one I was raised in, and at which I received much support and love as a young person. The liturgy was familiar. The music was pretty amazing. It felt like home. But more importantly, I saw something in the people of this place that very seldom had I seen before. Church, often expressed in reality more by its clear divisions than through the unity for which Jesus prayed, found a quite different expression here. First Trinity, it was clear, was unique—a fact in which we as a community have come to take healthy pride.
The image burned in my mind from that day took place after worship. Here, a young hippy sat on the steps to the community center. And he shared a cigarette with a woman who, at the time, was homeless. A simple gesture. A tiny act of sharing across lines of race, ethnicity, gender and age (and even fashion!), lines which so often in the world are used to conquer and divide. Here, in that moment, and in so many moments like them here at First Trinity everyday, dividing lines were transformed into an act of sharing. Of community. Of neighborly love. There is no longer Greek or Jew, male or female…(Galatians 3:28). In that moment, in that image, I heard the Spirit say, This is my Body. This act, this place, is holy communion.
This remains the First Trinity that I know and love.
A couple of years later, out of seminary, awaiting call, and living just down Wallace Street, with great nervousness I came to a First Trinity Voter’s Meeting—an experience in and of itself! Nervously, I made a proclamation. I feel called to be your part-time pastor. I wonder if you also feel the call. You did! We told the bishop. He said no. But you called me anyway. Because you felt what I felt in my gut. This was the right match, said the Holy Spirit. And we could hear it. The Spirit at First Trinity is very strong. Bishop Miller came to preside at the ordination—April 4, 2009. It was a blast. And a beautiful beginning.
Over the years we have grown in spirit and in number. Ups and downs, of course. We have talked about building a sanctuary and a home, a safe place and a place for all people to belong—especially those who do not feel safe or at home in other churches, other places, or even at home. On our better days, we have achieved this. As a community. In our interactions with one another. Even if sometimes only for a moment or a minute at a time.
Officially and institutionally, we became a Reconciling In Christ congregation as a result. We drafted our Affirmation of Welcome, affirming that call to include everyone in God’s Body, and acknowledging that, to truly offer sanctuary and home, to live out God’s call here at First Trinity, we had to overcome the collective history of exclusion and judgment that hang as a shadow over the institutional Church as a whole.
Simultaneously, we began to turn outward, asking: What does it mean to make the world or even our neighborhood a safer place and a place where more people feel welcomed and at home? We formed allies across the city and we fought for a number of important causes. With neighbors, we gave birth to Bridgeport Alliance. We closed the coal-fired power plants that gave many of us asthma and respiratory disease, as our community members were being sacrificed so that someone else could profit. We won a bus on 31st Street so people could go to school and avoid violence and get from God’s Closet to Benton House and eat healthy food. Everyone should be able to eat. This struggle continues. We played an important role in raising the Cook County minimum wage. We brought the Gospel to the streets through our creative and theatrical participation in Moral Mondays Illinois. We became a sanctuary and a home for organizations doing good in our communities. We do this, to the best of our ability, to this day.
As we have grown in the work of God’s Closet and Community Meals, we have found it important to say again and again, “This is not something we do to them.” Rather, we do community. Not charity. And we do community together. Not as alienated others. We’re all in this together. Because, again, this is holy communion. This is community. We do this for all of us. For our family, for the body of God here at First Trinity. We do this because the world needs this, and so we need to create this special piece of the world—despite the world, for the sake of the world. We do this because God leads us. And when we do this, the Spirit always shows up. Sacred moments are all around.
Wanting to pass the love of God in Christ and the work of the Spirit to the next generations, you dreamt up the possibility of having youth programs once again at First Trinity. As a result, this summer, we will have a handful of our amazing and awesome youth confirmed by the bishop after a two year confirmation curriculum has been completed. While the old kids were learning, a number of our younger youth have also been learning and making meaning of the Bible stories they hear week after week in Godly Play. For two years now! Two years! This all takes place in the rooms we built and paid for, as an act of faith, to offer a safe space for our youth to learn and to grow in the faith. This has been a beautiful and life giving transformation, both of space and of activity, and indicative of our community’s willingness to move in faith and to respond to God’s call to something new.
Recently we have come to put God’s mission here into words in a new way: First Trinity is a faith community called to grow in the Spirit, love as Christ loves us, and participate in God’s liberating work of justice and peace. So we are, and so, by grace, we go on, standing upon the sure and certain hope that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less. God loves you. Period. And there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). I believe those are the first words, here, that I ever preached.
We currently have a strong council with strong, creative, and love-filled leaders. And amazing community members. And we are dedicated more than ever to this work of sanctuary and home, of worship, faith, growth, love, justice and peace. We can look with joy and anticipation to the future life of our congregation, guided by our Call to Mission, to participate in the work of the Spirit.
With the near completion of Trinity House B&B and an increase of dedicated giving, as well as a newfound comfort and excitement about raising funds and asking for financial support, we are moving toward much better financial stability and sustainability, thanks also to our partner churches, donors, friends and families, the Metro-Chicago Synod, and the ELCA. Thanks be to God!
And so it is with a heavy heart, and also with a strong confidence in the life and mission of God at First Trinity, and the amazing people here through whom the Spirit works miracles of loving-through-dividing-lines on a daily basis, that I must confess to you that that same Spirit that spoke to me on my first visit to First Trinity is now calling me to bring my time at this beloved, beloved, beloved, amazing and life changing church community to a close.
After over nine years of being an ordained pastor with you (and two or three volunteering, supply preaching, and teaching bible studies at First Trinity before that), it is now time for me to shift my focus onto finishing my Ph.D. work at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. As of mid-August I am being granted by the bishop’s office an educational leave from my call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. This leave will allow me to prepare for Field Exams and then to write my dissertation. When, by God’s grace, I have finished my Ph.D., Daisy and I will both be listening for the Spirit’s call to the next journey for us, and for me as a pastor. Certainly it will continue to be the work of sanctuary and home, growth in the Spirit, and works of faith, love, liberation, justice, and peace—be it in congregational community life or in the life of a classroom, working with pastors-yet-to-be.
I have a deep love for all of you. I can’t say that enough. Without First Trinity and all of you, my life and my spirit would be stunted in so many ways. I will undoubtedly feel your absence for a long, long, long time. I’ve already begun to grieve. I’ll miss you. A ton. Yet, whenever I think of you, I’ll give thanks to God for the holy moments and sacred work we have shared, the work of the Spirit which continues day in and day out at First Trinity.
My last Sunday presiding as your pastor will be August 12, 2018. That’s about two months from right now. In the meanwhile, we will be confirming some of our youth, traveling to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, sending kids to Lutherdale Bible Camp, traveling to Wild Goose Festival to talk about God’s work through First Trinity, and enjoying yet another rendition of Jesus and Justice Day Camp here on the grounds of First Trinity. I hope you’ll join us for some rousing campfire singalong songs at the close of each night!
I plan to be around all week, Tuesday through Friday, for that week of Jesus and Justice Camp (my last week), packing here and there, and hoping you’ll drop in and say some farewells. As our beloved Connee used to always say, “We never say goodbye.” We say farewell. I think she was right. Even if farewell still hurts.
In the meanwhile, this coming Sunday, June 24, I will stay after worship until about 1:30PM to answer any questions you may have of me before we leave the following week for the Youth Gathering. And of course I’ll be in the office this Tuesday, June 19, as well. If you’d like to stop by, please do. Lectio Divinia begins our day at 9AM until about 10:15. You are welcome to join us in prayer and meditation then. After our staff meeting, I’ll then be free from around 1-5PM, before God’s Closet.
On a practical note for you all, know that our current Vicar, Samantha Nichols, for whom I have deep respect and full confidence, is available and willing to serve in a part-time role here at First Trinity as she finishes her final year of pastoral studies. Samantha has a heart for God’s mission here, and a passion for the content and work of our shared faith. And she gets what the Spirit here is all about. I believe that a somewhat seamless transition in pastoral roles could help the ministries not to lose momentum in the way that a leadership gap might. I also believe that consistency and continuity in preaching each week from someone involved in the mission of the church will serve to deepen the mission and work here in a way that hiring supply preachers cannot. I also think Vicar Samantha is really good preacher, as well as a well-loved leader in our community. As you pray, and in your discernment, I encourage you to consider her as a resource in the coming months. This of, of course, will be up to you as a congregation to decide and negotiate. But it is my pastoral advice to a community I love and care for very much.
Further, the synod staff (a.k.a. the Bishop’s Office), and Rev. Hector, our Director of Evangelical Mission, will be able to help and guide you all in your search for your next called pastor, whoever you come to discern that it will be. There is a whole process for this. You’ll form a Call Committee. It’s a blast. And it can be an amazing and galvanizing process for a congregation. I trust that the Spirit will guide you in all of this, as she always has, and that you will discern what is best for the people here and soon-to-be-here, and for God’s important, important, indispensable mission here at First Trinity. I have left the council with a little more information, which they can relay to you. Our president, Erika Hobbs, has already been in contact with Bishop Miller and Rev. Hector. The bishop’s office is poised to move immediately, and will provide you with more detailed information about the next steps in the process. They will be connecting again with Erika and the council this week. The council will then communicate with all of you.
Again, I give thanks for all of you, and I extend to you so much love. These next weeks will certainly include pain and sadness—for me, certainly, and I imagine also for many of you. Sad though these moments may be, however, certainly they also will be opportunities for the Spirit to continue to create in this place something beautiful, something full of grace, and something shot through with holy and liberative love. They will be opportunities in which God will continue to take place here through all of you in ever new and always surprising and beautiful ways.
With all my love and all my gratitude, and with a heavy heart at a pending farewell,
And in Christ—Love Enfleshed each day in you,
Rev. Tom Gaulke, Pastor, First Lutheran Church of the Trinity