Well, it’s time for me to get out the lunch pail, roll up my sleeves and hit the streets of the city to get to work. In my first couple of weeks on the job, I was pleased to have urban congregations with which I could share in their joy in the ministry. Those that may have overcome great challenges and that wished to share their ideas invited me to visit. Indeed, I look forward to these visits and to developing a network to work together in God’s mission in the city. But I also received requests for assistance from congregations in the midst of struggles. While at the multiethnic symposium in St. Louis, I got word that a teacher from one of our urban schools had committed suicide. And it hit home, literally. This was a teacher at the congregation in Toledo, Ohio, where I was baptized, as were all of my children, and where my wife was brought into the LCMS. This was the third suicide in as many months, one being a mother who was very active at the school. So, too, in the months prior, the administrative pastor was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and the associate pastor had to leave the congregation abruptly. I was just amazed at the spiritual warfare that was taking place.
And while this may seem like an extreme situation in this period of the life of this church, to me what they are facing epitomizes the difficulties that many of our urban and inner-city churches are facing. Growing up in Toledo, and even as an adult in the corporate world, things were different. Toledo was the glass capital of the world, and while I was leading a business systems division for a consulting company, many of my clients were Fortune 100 companies in the automotive, steel, oil and pharmaceutical industries. But now, once a boomtown of manufacturing, Toledo finds itself in the Rust Belt in a new era. And so, too, this congregation, rich in heritage and tradition, would soon find itself surrounded by a community that was in decline — both congregation and community like fighters in the ring.
One blow after another for church and community, catch a breath only to have the wind knocked out again. It would be easy to consider throwing in the towel. And yet it harkens me to the hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying,” which was written by a pastor in the midst of an unfathomable plague, wave after wave of deaths and funerals. And yet his mind was taken to the watchman who stands guard atop the city gates in Jerusalem. The guard’s whole vocation is to announce that the enemy is approaching and that war is at the gate, time after time, wave after wave. But not this morning. This morning, he alone has the privilege on the Last Day to announce the coming of the Kingdom. Christ the King has come. And this King has laid down His life for His citizens. He suffered and died for the least in His Kingdom and yet is risen again to give them eternal life. He has vanquished the enemies of sin, death and the devil, who will approach His gates no more. So that when He returns, the dog days are over, the Kingdom is completely restored and even the dead will be raised. God promises us His comfort and to wipe away the final tear for the baptized believer.
That’s why we won’t throw in the towel, but instead we will find refuge in our stronghold through the gifts of God’s Word and Sacraments that strengthen us and bind up our wounds. And we will take to the streets to fight the conquered foe and to announce the victory, because not even the very gates of hell will prevail against us. And out of death and decay will come new life and beauty again through Christ’s resurrection, both now and on the Last Day. We will focus our eyes on that vision of the King’s arrival when all will be restored. We will not lose hope because our current suffering cannot compare to our future glory. If God is for us, who can be against us? Not even death can separate us from His love. So to the devil, who prowls like a lion to devour our communities and our urban congregations, let me just say, you go on with your bad self, Satan. There is a prizefighter who has won His prize. He’s coming to collect, and you’ll be left on the mat. Assaults from the devil, poverty, crime, despair … brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to lace up the gloves and take back our cities.