Lesson: Jeremiah 31:1-6, 31-34 Gospel: John 14:16-20
Grace and Peace to you my brothers and sisters in Christ, Are your feet tired? We’ve been walking through history, witnessing how the Church moved throughout the centuries, at the foot of the cross. Today, in the 125th birthday of Zion Lutheran Church, we rest in this church. It’s time for us to look around. Consider that 125 years ago, there was no Zion Lutheran Church. Let’s look back to a midsummer day in 1883. A group of Swedish immigrants are meeting in the basement of the Swedish Methodist Church. One man stands up, C.F. Anderson, and voices the concerns that have brought them together. The Swedish population in Rockford is growing. The resources of the Swedish Lutheran Church in town, First Lutheran, are being strained by the influx of Swedish Lutherans. It is time to begin a new congregation. 146 charter members formed the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Zion Church of Rockford. Who were these people? They were immigrants, who had traveled across an ocean, leaving family, friends, and familiar churches. They’ve come with hope in their hearts, hope for a new life, a good life, for themselves and their families. They’ve also come with faith. They are like the people to whom the prophet Jeremiah spoke. The Hebrew people of Jeremiah’s time have been in exile, away from their homeland. Now they are heading home. They are hoping that the country they left in a time of war will again become a place of peace and prosperity. God has words of hope for both the exiled Hebrews and the immigrant Swedes. “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (31:3). God is present in the Diaspora. God is present among the exiled and immigrant. Present with words of rebirth. “Again I will build you, again you shall take your tambourines, again you shall plant” (31:4, 5). For immigrants and exiles, I can imagine there is fear a hairsbreadth away from the hope of new life. These aren’t days of cell phones and internet. The wisdom of the generations, of the culture, are only found among the community. And so the Swedish immigrants stuck together, among people whose language they could understand, whose worship was familiar, with whom they could experience God. But immigrants and exiles face struggles as they begin to give birth to the next generations. They live in places with language, customs, culture different than their homeland. Their children don’t know the homeland of their parents. The Hebrews and the Swedes dealt with this problem of acculturation differently. Some of our writings show that the Hebrews became very concerned with keeping worship practices that separated them from the new cultures in which they lived. They sought to bind themselves together tightly, rejecting the influence of outsiders. Other Hebrew writings show willingness to allow others into their group, allow outsiders to experience God. The Swedes were open to acknowledge their changing culture and the need for their neighbors to experience God in worship. By the early 1900s, services were conducted in both Swedish and English. From those first 146 charter members, the people of God gathered at Zion did grow. In 1956, Zion was reported as having the largest Sunday School in the Augustana Lutheran Church in America (pg39). Zion has not forgotten its immigrant roots. A new wave of immigrants, this time from Laos rather than Sweden, arrived in Rockford. In the early 1980s, Zion decided to sponsor a Lay-otian family. The neighborhood that was once a Swedish enclave changed over the years as people moved to various parts of Rockford and those of other ethnic descent also moved to Rockford. Land was purchased on the growing edge of Rockford, on Spring Creek, when there was fear the railroad would disrupt the present building. When the neighborhood was in the midst of change, when there were difficult issues of poverty and crime before Zion’s doorstep, this was an option for an out. The people of God gathered at Zion could have escaped. Instead, they chose to trust that God was calling them to a mission in the place where they were. In 1986 the decision to sell the land was made, the easy escape path rejected. The people of Zion chose to live as the people of God, with God’s love and law on their hearts. They chose to live into the hope that one day all people would know the Lord, from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:34). They chose to recognize that God was calling them to be the hands, feet, and mouth of Christ.
The needs of the community were addressed. A sense grew that those being served are also members of the people of God who could join in the family at Zion. By the 1960s, a thrift store was opened. A food pantry provided for basic needs. In 1982, The Zion Development Corporation was established. Today, a short walk around the neighborhood gives evidence of the work of Zion in this neighborhood. A visit to Zion throughout the days of the week show the varieties of gifts and the diversity of people gathered here for worship, ministry, and mission. Last Sunday, we gathered for conversation and learning in Spanish. This noon, we’ve had Bible study and lunch with various adults in the community. Tonight, we’ll be numbering up to 300 people around Zion and Patriot’s Gateway, giving kids a safe place to have fun, to hear the gospel, to be fed, and to experience a loving community. And next Sunday we’ll join again as the diverse people of God, gathered at Zion, to welcome new members into our family. How Zion continues to live at the foot of the cross is up to us gathered here today. As Jesus promised his disciples, “…the Father will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever… I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.” (John 14:16, 18). One symbol we see repeated around Zion is that of the dove. By this symbol we remember that God has not left us alone, but has sent the Spirit to guide, strengthen and empower us. We’ve heard a bit of Zion’s story and the stories of the people of God throughout the centuries in these past weeks. The story has not ended. God continues to come to us, in the Word, in the Sacraments, in this community, and those we meet who are outside our community.
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